Why both progressives and conservatives are idiots

The great challenge for the 21st century are two monumental but related tasks.  The restoration of grasslands, forests, rivers and oceans and the creation of prosperous, secure and resilient human communities.  My great frustration is that for decades we have neglected these tasks for wild diversions around climate change.   Land continues to degrade, forests are lost and deserts proliferate – flora and fauna populations are crashing.  Even in the most pessimistic analysis climate is not a major factor in this biological decline.  There are no panaceas – as Elinor Ostrom often said – but the solution to extreme environmental degradation over much of the planet brings immense benefits to people.  Good responses in the 21st century are technically, socially and economically complex and interconnected – which tends to stretch the limits of the modern meme based attention span.  Not sure what we can do about that.

Capitalism is a solution – but a necessarily limited one.  Capitalism provides private goods within a social framework.  Products in immense profusion are produced and sold according to the dictates of supply and demand.  Only those goods for which there is sufficient demand at a suitable price – wine and cheese for instance – continue to be supplied.  Companies that can’t supply cheese at the right price go out of business.  Capitalism creates and distributes what people want with the greatest efficiency and at the lowest cost.  Capitalism will persist – it is culturally inevitable.  New products, fads, music, designer drugs, cat videos and dance moves will sweep the planet like Mexican waves in the zeitgeist.  Life in future will be cluttered with holographic TV’s, waterless washing machines, ultrasonic blenders, quantum computers, hover cars and artificially intelligent phones.  All this will use vastly more energy and materials this century as populations grow and wealth increases.

The social context is, ideally, robust democracies.  To quote from Hayek if I may – an enlightenment liberal has a commitment to ‘political principles which enable him to work with people whose moral values differ from his own for a political order in which both can obey their convictions.  It is the recognition of such principles that permits the coexistence of different sets of values that makes it possible to build a peaceful society with a minimum of force.’  The outcome is a social contract – the rule of law – that is compromise arrived at in the cut and thrust of politics.  This is where traditional environmentalism fits – as political actors.

Capitalism demands economic growth to minimise instability in a complex and dynamic system.  The mechanics of growth are mainstream economics.  Markets need fair, transparent and accessible laws – including on open and informed markets, labour laws, environmental protection, consumer protection and whatever else is arrived at in the political arena.  Optimal tax take is some 23% of GDP and government budgets are balanced.  Interest rates are best managed through the overnight cash market to restrain inflation to a 2% to 3% target. These nuts and bolts of market management keep economies on a stable – as far as is possible – growth trajectory.  There are limits to growth from increased capital and labour inputs – and many economies are far from those limits.  There are no limits to growth from ideas and innovation – grossly simplistic math of exponential growth notwithstanding.  The Solow model is recommended as a much more realistic alternative.

The idea that economic growth brings us up against planetary limits is wrong. The reverse is true. Poverty creates a downward spiral of land degradation, water runoff and soil loss, exploitation of forests and woodland and overexploitation of fauna. What is left behind are dustbowls all over the planet.  Reversing this is the key to economic progress in many places.  Scientific interventions that make people better off are increasing global agricultural productivity.  It is happening on both large and small holdings – and includes the potential for genetic engineering to play a part.  It includes also precision agriculture – reducing inputs for increased productivity and less environmental impact – and conservation farming.  It includes ordinary people and such things as “food forests”.  The latter do not just achieve exceptional productivity and diversify nutrition sources but conserve the genetic diversity of our food crops and animals.  Rebuilding the organic content – and thus productivity – of soils in cropping and grazing lands conserves soil and water, drought proofs communities, reduces downstream flooding and erosion, restores environments and biodiversity and enhances food security.  Reversing land degradation – 5 billion hectares globally – is the most effective way of reversing the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.   As the International Year of Soils comes to an end – it may be time to reflect on how little impact it has had for city based consumers and how to change that.

banner-westerndivSource:  Soils For Life

Agricultural productivity, increased downstream processing and access to markets build local economies and global wealth. Economic growth provides resources for solving problems – conserving and restoring ecosystems, better sanitation and safer water, better health and education, updating the diesel fleet and other productive assets to emit less black carbon, developing better and cheaper ways of producing electricity, replacing cooking fires with better ways of preparing food thus avoiding millions of deaths annually, etc.  Rangelands in arid and semi-arid regions are a key – because of the extent of land involved.  These lands are especially valuable in turning grass into protein and wildlife – and are especially vulnerable to a cycle of degradation.

The other reality in real world economics is public goods.  These are goods that markets can’t or won’t provide.  They include police and courts, armies, social welfare, flood protection, emergency relief, nature reserves, roads, railways, water supplies, diplomacy, foreign aid, etc.  These goods are generally provided by governments out of taxes.  As such all governments have an interest in fostering economic growth.

In natural resource management top down command structures are failing badly.  It is well known what the problems are. The causes of the declines in wildlife populations are land clearing, land salinisation, land degradation, habitat fragmentation, overgrazing, exotic weeds, feral animals, rivers that have been pushed past their points of equilibrium and changed fire regimes. The individual solutions are often fairly simple and only in aggregate do they become daunting. One of the problems is that the issues are reviewed at a distance. Looking at issues from a National or State perspective is too complex. Even if problems are identified broadly, it is difficult to establish local priorities. Looking at issues from a distance means that a focus on the immediate and fundamental causes of problems is lost. There are rafts of administration, reports, regulations, computer models, guidelines and plans but the only on ground restoration and conservation is done by volunteers and farmers. Volunteers are valiantly struggling but it is too little too late. Farmers tend to look at their own properties, understandably, and not at integrated landscape function.  It is a matter of multiple scales.  At mid to large scales – there are producer organisations, co-operatives, traditional indigenous land management, etc.

“Moving from on-farm technologies to those that operate at larger spatial scales implies a greater need for collective action to make the technology work. Integrated pest management (IPM), for example, must be coordinated across farms. Most natural resource management practices have both long time, and large spatial scales. Both property rights and collective action are therefore crucial for the management of forests, rangelands, fisheries, watersheds, or irrigation systems that serve more than a single farm. In some cases, the scale of the resource to be managed may go beyond what can be done by voluntary collective action by a community. Federations of user groups may sometimes be able to manage larger resources, but often the state or even international bodies become critically important partners. In these cases, co-management between the community and government, rather than government management alone, often leads to better outcomes.”  Resources, Rights and Cooperation: A Sourcebook on Property Rights and Collective Action for Sustainable Development

collective scales

Source:  CAPRi Sourcebook

Land ownership provides both security and an incentive to organise to improve collective outcomes.  Conservatives bristle at the mention of collectives – and progressives at straw man ideas of capitalism.  Let’s ignore both camps as they are all ultimately unreal in the strictest sense of the word.  The absurdity is that bottom up ecological and agricultural soil restoration is the best and most productive way to address carbon dioxide, land use change, forestry and agricultural emissions and black carbon emissions.  The major climate factors by far.  The creative destruction of capitalism is the only way to transform energy systems – but it is only a third of the solution for emissions of greenhouse gases and aerosols and land use change.

The bulk of the solution – for poverty and social progress as much as anything – is bottom up management of global commons.  Forests, fisheries, grasslands, water resources and oceans    It succeeds with a human ecology – vibrant, diverse, prosperous and autonomous cultures in landscapes – and a little knowledge and organisation.

collective action

Source:  CAPRi Sourcebook

Commitment and rust, conflict management, technical support, property rights, policy support, gender equality, effective communication – just as the sketch says – is the basis for ground up management of global ecosystems.   The methodology originates with Elinor Ostrom – something she characterised as moving beyond markets and states to polycentric governance.  Far from an academic exercise – it reflects real world successes in resource management that are happening under the radar of either the statist or market mindsets.  The objective is to understand and strengthen those processes – and to develop institutions and laws that integrate effective resource management into the human ecology.

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