Friday, November 07, 2003

Why We Should Clean Up the Environment - 

I'm a bit late to this particular party (I occasionally have to do stuff to justify my scanty grad student stipend) but I couldn't resist taking a swing at Virgina Postrel's October 28th post Bioremediation and Political Time Scales. The sense of the post is that we shouldn't worry about issues of long term environmental quality because technology will likely take care of the problem before we ever get to the long term.

This argument is akin to those who contend (see early work by Bill Nordhaus on economic analysis of climate change-more on how Nordhaus' analysis has since deepened at a future date) that the best way to deal with the threat of climate change is to avoid the economic consequences of regulation. Which is to say, healthy economies will generate technological fixes to all climate induced ills. In both cases its assumed that the system we're thinking about regulating is linear: putting a small amount of pcb into drinking water causes a small adverse health effect, putting a little bit of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere will cause a small change in climate. The scientific understanding of toxicity (to either humans or animals) and of climate leaves much to be desired but what is clear is that both systems are nonlinear: sometimes little things have big effects.

Because we can put some toxins in ground water and it probably won't matter, because we can add a little more and it still probably won't matter but because eventually it will matter a lot and we don't know exactly when, it seems prudent to regulate now and not rely on technology to clean up later.

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