Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Rational Stewardship: A Way Forward?

I wrote in my last essay on some of the philosophical problems at the foundation of the modern environmentalist movement. Specifically, that Nature is currently defined as something opposed to Man and his Civilization, and that this dualism is counterproductive to the goals of environmentalism and not an accurate way to describe the world around us. In this essay, I will offer an alternative, albeit incomplete and in development: Rational Stewardship.

Infinite Capitalism

The market economy is the most efficient social system the human world has ever witnessed. It allows resources to be allocated quickly with a minimum bureaucracy to maintain the money supply and curb abuses. The system, however, has a built-in problem that if left untreated, will lead to the system’s collapse.

Most people believe that for the market economy to remain healthy, it must grow. There are two ways for the economy to grow: to produce more, or to produce the same amount with greater efficiency. However, greater efficiency in one area usually ends up freeing capital and labor to go produce more somewhere else. In the end, a growing economy means more consumption.

This would all be fine and dandy if there were an infinite (or at least ever-growing) number of resources to be turned into consumable goods. The problem is that there isn’t. Oil, coal, natural gas, and the other hydrocarbon fuel sources take millions of years to produce, and are definitely a non-replaceable resource on the scale of time on which human Civilization operates.

Our renewable resources, our food, forests, fish stocks, and fresh water, are only renewable to an extent. A 2002 study by the U.S. National Academy for the Sciences estimated that world consumption exceeded Earth’s replenishment capacity of renewable resources around 1980.

One of the elements of the market economy that makes it so efficient is that many of society’s wants and wishes are reflected in it. Instead of a political leader guessing what people want and assigning resources to produce said item, the market provides products and sets the price based on supply and demand. Producers can then react accordingly to produce what society “wants.” Though this is horribly simplified telling, this remains the core appeal of the market economy and it is a tool that any would-be reformer ignores at her peril.

However, the only costs reflected in an items price are those directly relating to its production and distribution. Environmental costs, health hazards, wars fought to preserve access to resources – these represent untold costs that the market economy fails to incorporate into the cost of its products. In the case of a car and the gasoline it takes to run it, some hidden costs include environmental damage caused by mining, health problems associated with obesity, respiratory illness caused by smog, and dealing with natural disasters due to carbon-induced climate change. In the United States, non-drivers subsidize the costs to drivers by paying taxes for roads and other infrastructure that they rarely use and to pay police officers to patrol the roads.

The problem is not just for us as citizens. As businessmen, only a very short-sighted view allows for continuing our present course. History has shown that the most successful businesses are those that look to the long term, recognize lasting trends, and change accordingly.

Consider if a mining company knew that at their current rate of production, their mineral reserves will become depleted in 75 years. No new mines are likely to be found or become available. The company’s board of directors have many choices. One director proposes that the company invest current income in increased production, which will increase efficiency and income. When the minerals run out, the company can simply sell off its equipment and close up shop. This option, the director says, should result in a higher stock price (“Mr. Market can’t see more than 3 feet in front of him,” the director quips) and make them all substantially richer, enough to pay off the second vacation house and leave some money to their kids.

Another director, an older gentleman who helped found the company, disagrees with his younger colleague’s assessment. Why cash in now, he asks, when millions more could be made if we take a longer term view. I already have more money than I need, and my children have careers of their own. If we enact this plan, the stock that I hope to leave to my grandchildren won’t be worth as much, for surely in 10 or 20 years investors will see the impending collapse of our company on the horizon. Instead of investing in more mining capacity, we should diversify. We already have drilling and digging equipment, and employ several geologists have been looking particularly bored recently. Why don’t we research geothermal electricity? If there are adequate sources below our mines, we would have already done much of the work necessary to develop these resources.

This is the sort of choice we currently face. If we want our great Civilization to continue, we must honestly consider the long-term view in everything we do – even if it means less profit over the next hundred years.

Rational Stewardship

To become rational stewards, we must “be present in the brutality of truth.” (This is a phrase I have shamelessly co-opted from my friend Ben Colahan). “Truth” is a concept with which I have had a rocky relationship, as I have written about before. To be present in the brutality of truth means that we accept our understanding of the truth for all it is, not just what we like about it. It also means staying informed, being curious, and investigating the world to reveal more of its truths, whether they be good, bad, or just plain strange.

Not everyone need be an expert in everything – the division of labor is still a vital part of rational stewardship. But being present in the brutality of truth means learning to trust expert opinion while trying to maintain a healthy skepticism. Experts might not always be right, and they will almost never agree 100% on any given issue. But to ignore their opinion because it does not fit preconceived notions or wishful thinking is not rational, and it is certainly not being present in the brutality of truth.

Here is just one cogent example of NOT being present in the brutality of truth. According to the International Energy Agency, as well as the U.S. Department of Energy, world oil consumption stood at about 85 million barrels a day in 2006. Both agencies project that consumption will reach about 120 million barrels by 2030. With the recent spike in oil prices, it seems reasonable to assume that the demand for 120 million barrels a day will be a reality in 2030, if you assume that we can produce 120 million barrels a day.

The problem with this projection is that there is no indication that such a production level is possible. Many experts are skeptical that we will be able to maintain current levels of production, let alone add to capacity. The problem is that there is no evidence that we can increase production. There are few wells under development, and almost no large oil fields have been found in the past 30 years. At the same time, oil production in mature wells, such as those in the United States, continue to decrease.

For these reasons, I do not consider our government’s estimate merely optimistic (one who is standing in the brutality of truth can and hopefully will remain optimistic), but negligently and wrong.

I consider the “rational” part of rational stewardship to be closely linked with this idea of bring present in the brutality of truth. Rationality has many aspects to it and I will not try and fix a firm definition to the word, if only because to be rationality is in part practicality. An important part of being practical is being adaptive. Being rational is not being fatalistic, but to try and enact some sort of control over the given situation. On the flip side, rational people should be reflective, and always recognize their limits of influence. The rational steward should have a firm moral foundation, though the frame built on top should have enough give so as not to crumble in an earthquake.

Stewardship means promoting sustainable life. Though humans will naturally place sustainable life for humans as a higher priority, I believe that what is best for a long-lasting Civilization is good for the rest of life on earth. This means clean water, large forests, and a stable and healthy atmosphere.

There are rules of the physical world that all rational stewards must keep in mind. The most important of these is that there is a constant, but limited supply of energy available on our planet. We cannot continue to use more than this amount indefinitely without crashing.

Some argue that some wonderful new technology will dig us out of the whole we’re in. One of the most popular of these fantasies in the last few years has been cellulose-based ethanol. While this technology is worth strongly pursuing, we should not expect it or rely upon it to save our car culture. To allow a possible future technology to drive our government and social policy is not rational, but speculative and akin to gambling. Some small technological advances can be relied upon, and it is possible some wonderful technology might save us, but for now the smartest thing to do is to proceed with the technology we have as we invest responsibly in future technological advancements. To do so otherwise is unnecessarily risky.

Humanity has basically three resources to deal with. The first is the physical elements on and in the Earth’s crust. Some, like iron, are limited in supply but may be recycled. Other, rarer elements such as helium are extremely limited in supply and cannot be easily recycled. In the long term, we will almost assuredly run out of these elements.

Another key supply is water. Like iron, we are unlikely to run out of water. However, fresh and clean water is a bit tougher to come by. Lakes and streams can only be filled as fast as the rain can fall, and underground reserves take hundreds of years to replenish once depleted.

The second basic resource is the energy provided by the Sun. In terms of human time, this source may be considered steady and unending. The Sun’s energy is captured by plants, which use it to fix atmospheric CO2 into the plant matter that we consume for food directly or indirectly through animals. A very small amount of the sun’s energy is also harnessed in the forms of wind, hydroelectric, and solar power.

The third resource we have is the energy contained in the bonds of weak nuclear force, currently provided to us by nuclear fission. Because fusion reactors require rare heavy metals such as uranium to operate, they cannot be considered unending like the Sun, though for now it doesn’t seem like we’ll run out in the near future. Though they are a real and possibly useful energy source, they are expensive and produce deadly waste that takes thousands of years to decompose. I believe that nuclear power should not be ignored, but nor should it be relied upon as an “easy” solution. Another theoretical source of energy is nuclear fusion, which also takes advantage of the huge amount of energy stored at the atomic level. The ITER Fusion Reactor, an international effort to create a model for a viable fusion reactor, is currently at the very beginning stages of construction and is not planning to enter operation until 2018, which is optimistic given the track record of large-scale, international science projects.

The word “sustainability,” like “green,” has become a buzzword in the past few years, a decentralized effort to brand the environmental movement. This branding is incredibly important for bringing rational stewardship into minds of consumers, voters, and policy makers. However, these words faces a constant threat of dilution from companies that adopt them to brand products that are assuredly not green or sustainable.

As a step toward solving this problem, I propose a definition of “sustainable” that can be used to evaluate whether or not the branding is appropriate. A sustainable product or service is one that consumes materials and energy at a rate equal or less than the replenishment rate for those materials and energy sources. That means, of course, that a sustainable Civilization will be free of hydrocarbon and nuclear sources of energy. This doesn’t mean that these energy sources should be discontinued immediately, but knowledge of their future status can help us determine how to make the best long-term investments we can.

I have tried to keep this definition simple so that it can be applicable to a variety of situations. The industrial mindset has achieved much for human Civilization, and still remains useful. Its mechanistic approach tacks us toward homogenization and one-size-fits-all approaches. Achieving Civilization sustainability, however, will require flexibility and regional solutions. Development and transportation plans that mold themselves to local geography, localized food sources, and building low-consumption buildings are just some examples.

For a long time environmentalists have reminded us how an ever-rising global population is a threat to the Earth and its environment. However, the measurement of population alone is fairly useless when considering how to build a sustainable Civilization. Following Professor of Geology Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse, the statistic policy makers should focus on is the population multiplied by consumption per person. This kind of analysis shows that, even if population growth could be magically halted, sustainability is threatened as populations with high consumption rates try to maintain their high standard of living while poorer populations play catch-up.

I hope that research is soon done on what levels of population and standard of living are possible with current technologies and sustainable supplies. While this kind of research will be politically fraught and will assuredly be open for debate, even ball park figures will be useful to estimate what economic activity is sustainable and what is not.

Sustainability should be a goal for every rational steward.

Science in Rational Stewardship

The scientific method is an essential tool for rational stewardship. Technology, without which we would have no hope of maintaining humanity’s current position, is tied to the hip with science. Scientific studies tell us how the planet’s biological and weather systems work, and help us make informed decisions about how best to be rational stewards.

In order to use science most effectively, we first need to understand the distinction between strategic and tactical decision making. Generally speaking, strategic decisions relate to how overall objectives are decided. Should maintain a large troop presence in Iraq? Would it be best to keep the ship maintenance division of our company, or sell it off and concentrate on constructing cranes? Do I want to have children? Strategic questions are the bigger, longer-term decisions that drive future actions. When answering strategic questions, it is important to consider what we value most, and what we consider to be morally correct.

Tactical decisions answer the question, “How do we accomplish X?” where X is the strategic decision that has been decided upon. This basic question will produce many more tactical questions, as well as more strategic questions. Lets say our strategic goal is to bring oil independence (defined as producing all oil requirements domestically) to the United States. “How do we become energy independent?” is the basic tactical question. Suppose we decide this can by accomplished in two ways: reducing demand and increasing domestic production. Some sub-strategic questions could then be posed: “Should we allow off-shore drilling? Drilling in Alaska’s nature reserves? Should we force people to drive less? Should the government increase its tax on gasoline?”

In order to achieve a strategic objective, the rational steward should ask many of these how questions and evaluate as many different angles are reasonable. Quality, scientifically gathered data should play an important role in considering these questions. Accurate information is of the utmost importance when trying to make educated and informed decisions.

However, there is one thing that science should not do. Science, that is the reports and collections of data collected by scientists and others, should not be used to pose the answer to a strategic question. Scientific data can be used as evidence to support one opinion, but the answer for a strategic question should be based in values and moral outlook. We should strive to keep the scientific data separate from our values and moral outlook.

This effort will never be pure, simple, or 100% successful for the simple reason that all scientific theories and collections of data are effected by pre-determined value systems. Quantum mechanics provides the clearest, physical proof of this phenomenon that reaches into every branch of the sciences. Quantum mechanics states that the position and velocity of an electron (or any particle for that matter) is most accurately stated as a probability, a range of possible positions. Depending on what method of observation we use, the electron’s position will be ‘fixed’ differently. There is no definite physical reality outside of our observations. In biological or medical studies, our definitions for specific concepts, the questions asked, and the methods used can all have a profound effect on the conclusions reached.

If scientific data is already laden with human value, then why try and keep it separate? When unconsciously mixed, it becomes harder to see the value-laden judgments and how they effect scientific research. Analysis leads to answers that do not necessarily reflect the state of the natural world, but reflect instead the state of the researcher’s mind. This is why I am suspicious of any answer to a strategic question that includes the reason, “Because science says so.”

Rational stewards need to be open and honest with themselves and others about where their values lie. Otherwise the best results will not be reached. That said, there are plenty of unscrupulous people who will misrepresent their true feelings and lie about yours. We should not sink to their level, but fight back with ever greater effort.


The Ishmaelists are losing. I do not believe their innate moral system exists or is actually innate in the world. The problem is that this line of thinking and defining the terms of the discourse still has tremendous sway within the environmentally-minded community, even among people who might also take issue with the Ishmaelite approach.

In the case of invasive species I mentioned last week, many are harmful not only to our environment but to human life. One source estimated that they cause $137 billion of damage to the U.S. economy every year, though that estimate seems a bit high to me. On the other hand, most crops in the world are invasive species, and I don’t think it would be very wise to be rid of them.

Why are environmentalists always trying to “save the planet?” This enforces the dualism between the “Natural” planet and humans. We are not independent of our planet, but reliant on it. We shouldn’t be trying to save the planet as it once was, but mold it to promote life in general, which will in turn promotes our own livelihood. We shouldn’t be saving the planet – we should be saving ourselves, and have the wisdom to recognize that to do so means preserving Earth as a place that is fertile to life.

In the end, we are a species competing for resources just like any other. Our greed, tenancies toward conflict – everything the Ismaelites hate – are short-term evolutionary competitive advantages. To maintain our position, however, we must evolve. I do not expect a revolution in the classical sense, but a swift repositioning of our greatest assets – our educational system, our creativity, our rule of law, our reason, our kindness, our love. Humanity must use its most important competitive advantages – cooperation, communication, and problem solving abilities – to bring rational stewardship to our most valuable resources – our land, water, and air.