Game Theory, Rational Acting, Politics and Nature

Neoclassical economics perceives nature in terms of commodities: farm the land, trawl the sea, mine the crust; sell the stuff. Win. We’ve even calibrated economics to look at “winners” and ignore “losers”, so we are constantly selecting false stories of promise to continue selling the promise of economics. We often look at a hydroelectric dam in terms of the power generation and perhaps recreation services. Watch the winner! We don’t pay equal attention to every environmental loser, or any of them really. We don’t look at the river dynamics or geomorphology downstream, which affects agriculture and flood risk; we don’t consider the effects on fish stock and downstream fisheries; we don’t like to think on the flows of sediment, a resource downstream; we certainly never get as far as effluent being dammed up and releasing nitrous oxides, extraordinarily potent greenhouse gases, or the loss of the carbon sequestration value of downstream ecosystems.

Nature gives us a lot. In fact, everything. If you’re ever curious as to what nature gives us, imagine living on the moon. It becomes immediately clear that we have a vital dependence on nature. It provides air, water, food, tools and other immediately tangible services. It also provides some less tangible services, like recreation and a certain spiritual fulfilment as well as entwining itself fully with our cultural practices. Even political and social benefits are supported by natural services. And we get them all for free! We’ve had them since before money.

But, politics is in bed with economics. I’m not saying that certain political individuals are corrupted by certain economic practices; although that’s pretty true, that’s not the fundamental issue. The fundamental issue is that politics as a practice is in bed with neoclassical economics as a metric. (Neoclassical economics being the “if you can’t flog it, it’s worthless” approach, to simplify it.) The problem with neoclassical economics is that it is a selfish partner. It’s encouraging us to sell-out vast amounts of the things that, really, we want.

Think for a moment about what life is about. Just a moment: it’s too big a question to get a full answer in 5 seconds meditation, but some signposts will surely pop up to show you the kind of direction you’re looking in. Now think momentarily about whether money is the end-all of it: would you be content being rich without the opportunity to spend that money on personal and psychological needs? Would you trade in your health for wealth? Is money really an end-point, or is it a corrupted points-keeping tool?

The services that nature supply are not just our provisions (commodities). Nature also offers all the services that support those commodities, like soil, photosynthesis, water and nutrient cycling. We don’t need to set these processes up, all we need to do is not break them. Nature also provides many regulating services that we don’t sell, like climate regulation, flood regulation, water purification and many of our cultural needs. Nature is a system. And that system is integral to our security, vital and physiological health and social relationships.

And neoclassical economics is breaking it up.

Part of this is the fault of the human condition.1 We are very able to unthinkingly view an entity as not just distinct, but separate from its place in a system. I don’t mean that in a hippy-sense, I am thinking of a river being thought of as a supply of irrigation water without consideration for its role in other activities downstream: replenishing groundwater supplies, supplying sediment to the river banks and managing a natural flood defence, wetlands and other ecosystems it contributes to. Those ecosystems in turn may support economic uses of natural services, as well as supporting cultural and recreational uses. Human nature also means we tend to view gains on short term cycles, with little consideration or regard for the long term health of the systems that provided the commodity.

But it is not just the human condition. We can be made to think of ourselves and our activities as a part of a functioning system. It is politics, the system in which we govern ourselves or are governed, that isolates provision ecosystem services for economic uses as the metric by which we measure success. But, I take you back to the moments of meditation I asked you to do at the start of this post: is that really the way we fashion the success of our lives? Alternatively, do we actually value nature as a non-economic resource?

There are two lessons I feel we need to take away from looking at nature. One is that the services we receive from nature are a lot more than the economic metric we are asked to focus on. It provides us with commodities worth more than money and economic success: physiological and psychological health, security (from flooding and fire and salination), recreation and our cultural and spiritual needs.

The second lesson is that nature’s system has services that support itself: nutrient cycling, soil formation and primary production. We don’t consume these, but we are inextricably dependent on them. If we harness our needs in ways that destroy those supporting systems, then there will be no nature left to provide us with services.

History would suggest we need to consider one other thing in the way we manage nature. It is often the case that we can design an establishment or amenity that fits more than one purpose, and thus is complementary or analogous to the ecosystem functions we so desperately rely on. But we don’t. As a result there is nearly always a “loser”. And the “loser”/”winner” divide so often falls along class lines. Our conflict with nature is not only a moral consideration because of the effects we have on nature, but because the conflict nearly always exploits the vulnerable.

1 – The human condition, in turn, is the result of short-term survival thinking and natural selection, so the argument can be made that this is all just ecology as normal. I’d call that ‘extreme ecocentricism’, where one ignores human interest to the point of denying humanity is in any way an exceptional point of nature. That means, in turn, that human civilisation is ‘ecology and normal’, and like a too-virulent virus, it will burn through its host in this natural disequilibrium. I’m not saying that’s philosophically or empirically wrong, it’s just not a perspective that lends itself well to human wellbeing or social reform.


19 thoughts on “Game Theory, Rational Acting, Politics and Nature”

  1. Very well said. You really got me thinking, especially about how economically we only think about gains and have only recently been forced to consider “externalities,” the name of which is a direct consequence of the exclusion of things within the system that had no apparent gain.

    1. It is strange to think of how successfully we have been conditined to ignore the externalities and negative consequences. There’s a view that the public either cannot or will not understand complex messages. I don’t know if that is true. But I do suspect that pretending it is true will continue to justify a very meaningless message from our decision makers, to the point that all things are justifiable!

  2. We are a bad parasite that knows it is a bad parasite. Does that make the human adventure a comedy, or a tragedy? The only real way this system can maintain itself is if we get off this rock in a meaningful and permanent way.

    1. Have you read David Deutsch’s Beginning of Infinity? I recommend it.
      To me, what is baffling is the fact this planet could support more people in a prolonged fashion. But, to do that, we would need to stop and rethink our approach to resource management. We could explore space. But first, we need to talk about creating a home in a meaningful way.

  3. The article talks about humans exploiting their environment without regard to the consequences, Isn’t this true about every form of life? I could not think of anything which does not do this., although we are more effective at it than most. The real point is that we base our exploitation, at least partially, on excess. I don’t imagine the lion telling the lioness “You only brought me one zebra? I wanted 10.” That is what humans tend to be educated about – if one is enough for now, 10 is better and 100 is better yet. Instead of using our “intelligence” to realize that if we use it or destroy it today, we might not have it tomorrow.

    1. There is an argument that human short-sightedness and highly efficient resource management is just normal ecological function. For that to be so, humanity must innovate or die out like a virus destroying its host population. However, like a virus, we could become less virulent.
      Less virulence is what Malthusian sustainability looks like. And that is in the way of progress.

      1. Resource management is not a normal function for any species. Shortsightedness is built into all life forms; one would think that one with intelligence could overcome this, but experience suggests this is an invalid hypothesis.

        Unfortunately, becoming less virulent is unattractive to many people, and forcing less virulence usually is not effectively or “fairly” implemented. As I understand it, in the latest (Paris) accord, China, one of the worst polluters, was given a free ride for several years.

        Of course, when we do “kill off our host”, our reduced virulence will be implemented in the most effective and “fair” method there is. And the most unpleasant..

      1. Naturally. He also doesn’t believe in man-caused climate change, and is open to the idea the earth is 5,000 years old. You have to wonder how someone so ignorant can be so egotistical. Actually, I think i just answered that question…

        1. “Man-caused” climate change? Not believing in that can hardly be considered ignorant. “Man-assisted” climate change is the intelligent hypothesis.

        2. Major difference. Are we doing things which make things worse? Most likely, but even if we stopped doing all of those things, or even if we could undo a lot of what we have done, change would still occur because that is the nature of climate.

        3. There is very little reason to believe there would be change now if it weren’t for human activity. (You’re welcome to present the scientific articles for the contrary.) There may be change in the future regardless of human activity, but I don’t see the good reason to believe natural climate change would be occurring now.
          However, I also don’t see the scientific articles defining anthropocentric climate change in terms that mean human activity is the sole driver. Man made climate change is the climate change made by man. Man assisted climate change is the exact same thing.

        4. Wasn’t there an Ice Age which became much more temperate before Man came along? You can’t have it both ways; either there has been no change until man came along (in sufficient numbers and technology) or change is continuous, although the rate can vary.

          If you want to separate climate change into that influenced by man and that which is natural, you can. The difficulty is determining which is which.

        5. I am fully aware of that. I’m not really sure where our disagreement lies. Humans are accelerating climate change. This is called anthropogenic climate change. If Ruddiman is to be believed, we’re reversing the natural climate change.

        6. I think the disagreement is terminology. “Man-made climate change” is difficult to apply accurately, since we can’t specify how much of the effects are caused by man and how much is natural. And particularly because the usual application of the term is that man is the total cause of climate change.

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