The Long Thaw – Book Review

Some years ago we visited the Argentine Province of Salta, which borders Chile.  We took a tour from the capital, Salta, into the foothills of the Andes, guided by an agricultural economist. He commented that the principal industry was sheep farming that previously had supported the population at an acceptable level. As the population increased, the new generations turned to sheep farming, with the result that in time the slopes were over-grazed. Overgrazing led to erosion, further reducing the land that was suitable for farming. Yet the number of individuals dependent on sheep farming continued to increase.  The result was a decline in the standard of living to a subsistence level in which the inhabitants have been trapped for some years. The Government was unwilling to step in and regulate the use of land, as the sheep farmers were aboriginals, and this action would have created civil unrest. Our guide was of the opinion that the situation had progressed to the point of no return.

A recent book on Global Warming, “The Long Thaw” by David Archer, a Professor of Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago, reminded us of our Salta experience.

Professor Archer comments in his book:

“The free market has a blind spot, called the tragedy of the commons.  . . . the situation arises when many people share the benefits of a common resource.  The classical example is a common field for grazing livestock, but the chemistry of the atmosphere is another example of a shared commons.  Benefits can be extracted from the commons by individuals, either for feeding sheep or for dumping CO2, but the costs of using the commons are paid by everyone.  Economists call the degradation of the commons an external cost, because it is external to the budgets of the individual decision-makers.  The end result is that the common resource gets over-exploited, because it is in the interest of each individual to grab as much as he or she can.”

Archer goes on to make two observations about global warming caused by use of fossil fuel.

First, the costs and benefits of fossil fuel use are not shared fairly.

“At the present day, the benefits of the fossil fuel economy accrue mostly to the industrialized nations in the temperate latitudes . . . [while] the costs of climate change will be paid most dearly in the tropics . . . . “

Secondly,  individuals living today enjoy material benefits that flow from the production of CO2, but their grand children must deal with problems of climate change that this unchecked consumption of fossil fuels will leave.

“There is also a divide in time between the winners and the losers.  The benefits to using fossil fuels accrue now and into the coming century until the fuel runs out, while the costs will last millennia.  Most of the people impacted by global warming, numerically, are people in the future.  Earthlings a century from now do not even have an economic vote in how we conduct our affairs: their right to vote has been discounted to nothing by the economic interest rate.“

Professor Archer concludes:

“Ethics and fairness are a lot to ask of the political process, especially when most of the people affected by the decision, people of the distant future, do not have a voice in the decision.“

So how do we develop a conservation ethic on the scale necessary?  Or do we continue to grab as much as we can?

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