Thursday, 15 October 2009

Nature's Planetary Boundaries

A fantastic Nature page on Global Boundaries. The only missing item is the human society and global economics...

This Nature publication is a great overview of the boundaries that humanity should not cross, if it wants to ensure its survival. However, you can really not do this well, unless you deal with the nature of human society itself. You cannot treat the global society as being separate from the earth-systems. Albeit there certainly are plenty of special human phenomena that are so distant from the environmental issues that no linkage makes any sense (the financial crisis that we just have experienced is one of these), the relationship between the two is not unidirectional.

Economic inequality can create migration, for instance. Migration tends to create environmental pressures. These often manifest in chopping down forests, burning the wood, releasing the carbon from the peatsoil into the atmosphere, the collapse of local ecosystems. These in turn tend to worsen the economic conditions, especially in a development setting, generating more migration. -- In this example, where is the boundary? There is none, for the social and environmental dynamics are interconnected.

The need for a common approach is trivial. It seems, though, it is not happening fast enough.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Global Economics On Ecological Diversity

(Two notes on diversity.)

Note one. The we are making a mistake by focusing on carbon. Carbon is easy.

The claim that the carbon problem, or in general the problem of global warming, is easily solved might strike you as an odd statement if you are involved in the effort to curb the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Clearly, getting the global society to recognise the problem and act accordingly is very difficult. However it is difficult only because at the same time that we are trying to limit the total amount of greenhouse gases that are sent up into the air, the global society is also in the process of learning to think about global processes, and setting up institutions that could generate, implement, and enforce common, global action. Still, the problem of carbon, the phenomenon itself, is quite simple. At least in the short run, and that is where the focus is now.

Compared to that, there is another global problem, also of environmental nature, which is pressing, and harbours big dangers for us, humans. This one we could also do something about, but it is devilishly difficult to figure out what. In other words, not only getting our act together is problematic but also knowing what to do.

This problem is the threat to biodiversity.

What makes biodiversity so difficult a question has to do with two quite different reasons: the meaning of diversity is localised in specific ecosystems, and we know very little about it.

First, biodiversity, it seems from the outside at least, is really just a cover word, referring to there being a high level of variation in an ecological system. When you get down to the problem of actual ecological diversity in the Amazonas or in New Guinea or in the Congo, very different geographical conditions and evolutionary history would yield very different systems that have nothing to do with each other.

This is of course trivial, but my suspicion is that not only the species and the ecosystems in different parts of the world have nothing to do with each other, but also the problem of diversity is very different in its different particular manifestations. Models work in abstraction, but in practice you need to take the local reality into account. (This is not so different from the problem of economics, where we have some more or less well functioning models of an abstract economy, but anyone who tries to apply them to a new economy, plugging the data in, would not gain the first idea what that place was about. You really need to go there and dig yourself into the economy anthropologist-style to have any kind of meaningful insight.)

However, all these local ecosystems with their local manifestation of diversity make up the global ecological system, the Biosphere. A local collapse of ecosystems can devastate local human societies. So we suspect that a similar process on a global level may turn the Earth into an uninhabitable place, at least for humans. But we do not know. In other words, the local ecosystems may form a global ecosystem, but we know very little about how that global system works. Diversity probably has something to do with the stability of the Biosphere, but perhaps diversity is just a characteristic of a system, a measure, with a lot of different mechanisms behind it.

Second, we are so incredibly ignorant about the real diversity out there. This in itself would not necessarily pose an urgent problem, had our actions not resulted in a rapid destruction of this diversity. It seems that there is no other way to get ourselves together and stop those actions, than learning first about the variety of life, and also what it means. Yet while we are in the process of slowly convincing ourselves that preservation of wildlife, the halting of deforestation, or the protection of coral reefs are good ideas in general, we keep on doing the stuff that leads to the depletion of ecological systems in practice. It seems that the past 20 or so years of environmentalist activism has led to the more or less general acceptance that extinction is bad, yet we still focus on individual species and not on systemic effects, which we just do not know enough about.

One of the preparatory materials that I sought to acquire before going to West Papua was a list of endangered species. I could not get one. After having talked to a relatively large number of naturalists who work on western New Guinea, I realised that such a list did not exist (if you have it, please let me know). Even more of a shock was to learn how rudimentary our understanding is about the ecosystems of that part of the world. Not only do we have enormous gaps in our list of species, and can only suspect that there are many more than we know about, but our current description of all but a few species is extremely basic: a name, and some brief description about how it looks. (This was truly a shock. I was nurtured on the ethological approach, in which you think you know the behaviour of a species if you have annotated notes for 2000 hours of observation. An expectation that was combined with my experience with the developing countries I covered, where there was always a history to read first, all those fantastic museums to go to, and if you ran out of other options, you could always just ask them. Well, this luxury is not there if you’re into biodiversity.)

We know that the current rate of extinction, directly linked to human action at a very high probability, is comparable to the previous five big extinction events in the history of life on Earth in magnitude. Alarmingly, it seems that this one is also much faster. The ecological models suggest that a global level extinction event will have catastrophic consequences for the environment in which human societies exist.

So there is my first rant. We, as a global society are targeting the easy problem, by putting almost all our energy into carbon and global warming. In two months, we might even have a major step towards sorting it out -- which is / would be great. However, we have taken our eyes off the ball. The rapid loss of biodiversity is a much harder problem to crack. Not cutting down forests is probably a first step. But almost certainly learning about it, that is going out there and mapping what is out there, would be the most important and urgent move on our side.

Note two. On the narrow-mindedness of naturalists when it comes to the human society and cultural diversity.

There was a very particular phenomenon that I observed as I chatted about West Papua and its development problem with biologists. While the quest for a sustainable development pattern was the focus of every social scientist, all the biologists without exception had a suspicious side look at me as I told them that I was a World Bank hired development economist on a West Papua infrastructure mission. One question always followed: why don’t you just let them be as they are? Why do you have to go there and change their lives? Wouldn’t they obviously be better off without the kind of development you bring, and without their resources being exploited by foreign companies?

The first part of the answer is that these tribes have already been opened up. They have already started a path to globalisation and global integration, a path that is almost certainly irreversible.

But this is not the point I am trying to make here. Instead, it was striking how homogeneous the biologists’ approach to the economic development problem was. I realised that these researchers were so entrenched in studying and protecting ecological diversity that they did not understand cultural diversity. It seems, that ecologists see all human action, at least since the arrival of agricultural technologies, and definitely since industrialisation, as devastating for the environment. The best way to protect the forests from being felled, the fish stocks from being over-harvested, the coral reefs from being disturbed, is to let the people who have been coexisting with these ecosystems in relative balance for millennia just go on in the way they have always lived.

This is fine as long as you’re not talking about human beings. Unfortunately, unlike other animals, people invent technology. If it works, they adopt it. Then they learn it from one another and the technology spreads. The ecologists’ view of how the global society should treat indigenous people is not very different to that of building a reservation. I sometimes point this out suggesting that their approach is nothing short of a human zoo. The indignant naturalist at this point usually refers to the fact that these ancient cultures managed to survive for a very long time and thus have proven to be well-equipped with adequate technology without Western intervention; and claims that at any rate these tribes do not want to open up.

I was very much part of this paradigm before I had went to Papua. My poor wife, friends and relations can attest that I was harassing anybody who was willing to listen about the moral problem of us going there in the first place. Exactly the same set of questions were bugging me: why are we there and who are we to interfere with the Papuans’ future anyway. My preliminary answer to this question was also the same: let the Papuans decide. (I felt that that there was a caveat to this answer, for you cannot expect indigenous New Guinea Highlanders to be able to judge without the kind of global experience that you might want to shelter them from. But, I had decided that the mission was too interesting for me to miss for some lousy moral concerns…)

It didn’t take long to realise that this entire argument is false. The New Guinea Highlanders did not choose to live in closed cultures, in closed societies, but rather were forced to do so by their environment. As any anthropologist will attest, indigenous life in the rainforest is extremely tough. Add to this a 600 km long mountain range, much of it rising above 4000 meters. You do not have shoes, you do not have metal, you do not have pottery, you do not have much control over your environment, and -- worst of all -- your little family and group is surrounded by others who will kill you or harm you if they can. You may be living in a long-term balance with the forests, but it definitely is not the way you would prefer to do it. Unless you are a weirdo. (For my first lesson in in this, see a previous note on the pilot of the Nduga)

The trouble is that in abstraction, the ecological and cultural diversity problems are not that different. In practice, however, they often go against each other. Thus, we have another diversity problem on our hands, and this, the cultural one, is probably even more difficult than that of ecological diversity.

It seems to me, that we, social scientists, are increasingly aware that there is an ecological lesson to be learned. At the same time, naturalists still seem to have 19th century ideas about human society.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Global Economics And Global Government

(Funny how an idea that looked so strange and impossible even a few years ago, is self evident now.)

A very odd thing is going on in the world. The rise of the global market led to unprecedented global flows of products and services, technology and capital, people and resources. International economics is giving way to global economics. It has become clear that there can be no national stability without taking into account global systemic risk. And there can be no - or at least little - national economic development without being integrated into the global economy. We are living, in other words, in a global socio-economic system with global stability risks, global environmental problems, and global resource constraints.

But we do not have a global government.

If we look back to the way we thought about the world even ten years ago, it is striking how much more global our problems have become. The economic crisis (arguably one of the two largest in the Western world ever, and probably the first truly global crisis) has highlighted the cost of not having a global financial regulatory framework. The panic and despair of policy-makers as they have tried to react to the meltdown has made us painfully aware of the necessity of a global economic policy framework.

At the same time - and independent of the crisis - economic inequality and the lack of a global cultural framework bring serious instability issues.

And if that was not enough, the world, or to be more precise the global society, is learning how to live with an ecological system that has run out of buffers. The climate is warming as a direct effect of human action, the Earth is going through its sixth major extinction period (and all signs show that this is also the fastest), fish stocks are almost certain to collapse in the foreseeable future as a consequence of overfishing, and our short-termist exploitation of resources is set to make a large part of the global population destitute in the coming decades.

To top it all, the threat of nuclear proliferation has returned, a situation which is certain to worsen thanks to easier access to technology and a renewed interest in nuclear power, both of which we otherwise see as positive developments.

Imagine that the above list of functions and problems was not about the global society and the global economy or the biosphere or the global climate, but were characteristics of just one country. It would be obvious that this country needed country-level rules to prevent financial meltdown. It would need institutions able to manage the economy and solutions that would ensure internal systemic stability, whilst preventing self-destructive, unnecessary weapons from spreading. We have known for quite some time now that there is no other solution to the tragedy of commons problem than a communally accepted and enforced set of rules. These are all government functions. Obviously.

The funny thing is, that the above reasoning is a technocratic argument and not a political one. There is no need for any other values than the value of human survival and common sense (in economics terms, a not very high discount rate of the future, and a minimum efficiency requirement when managing socio-economic systems). There are no other norms at play here. It should not matter whether you are socialist, conservative, or liberal, or any other flavour, as long as you agree on the value of human survival and common sense. And, apart from some fringe movements, these values are rarely questioned. The rest should be straightforward.

But it is not.

The global society is now learning to think hard about itself. Our record in creating knowledge about our global self is not bad at all. Global climate models were extremely rudimentary 20 years ago, and did not exist 40 years ago. Global economics was still international economics five years ago, and there were no global economic models whatsoever 30 years before that. Even a few decades back we did not understand the first thing about ecological systems or the role of human societies in them.

The trouble is that we are not learning fast enough. We understand short-term climate change well, but our understanding of the long-term climatic cycles is very limited. Thus we know that it is getting warmer but not compared to what. We have unprecedented quality and quantity of economic data collected in publicly available data sets, combined with computing capacity that we only dreamt about a few years back. Still our economic models can predict the behaviour of the global economy only a few months or perhaps a year ahead, at the best of times. Worst of all, although we increasingly understand the fragility of the ecological systems that we are part of, our understanding of the details and thus our ability to intervene is extremely limited.

We need some serious thinking about the global socio-economic and ecological system, and we need to get down to building those global institutions earlier than later.