October 15, 2017

David Suzuki’s (incomplete) economic understanding

Filed under: Cancon, Economics, Environment — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Several years ago in the Literary Review of Canada, Joseph Heath explained how he tried “being green” and in the process discovered that Canada’s secular environmental saint David Suzuki literally didn’t have a clue about economics:

David Suzuki’s most recent, The Legacy: An Elder’s Vision for Our Sustainable Future, is billed as an attempt by “one of the planet’s preeminent elders” to “sum up in one last lecture all that he has learned over his lifetime.” Suzuki is, of course, one of the most influential public intellectuals in this country. Like most Canadians of my generation, I grew up watching The Nature of Things, and so tend to think of Suzuki as a constant in the universe.

Suzuki was also an environmentalist long before it was cool to be an environmentalist. Perhaps because of this passionate commitment to the cause, it is startling to discover that Suzuki is oblivious to the logic of collective action. What’s worse, he does not even know what an externality is, and seems unwilling to learn. In The Legacy, he repeats the same incorrect definition that he has been using for years (he equates externalities with anything that is not part of, and hence external to, an economic model, and then claims, on that basis, that economists ignore them). Elsewhere, he even provides a detailed account of where the misunderstanding arose. It was apparently based upon something that the instructor said to him, on the first day of an economics class, which he evidently misinterpreted and never bothered to double check.

It is worth pausing for a moment to reflect upon this. It means that Suzuki does not know the first thing about environmental economics. It means that in 38 years as a university professor, public intellectual and environmental activist, he did not once take the time to find out what social scientists have to say about the problem of global warming. It means that he has never even glanced at the Wikipedia page on environmental economics.

Because of this, Suzuki winds up committing the core fallacy of environmental activism. He thinks that if people only understood the consequences that their actions were having on the environment, they would each be motivated to change their behaviour. And so, to the extent that we are not changing our behaviour, it must be because we do not understand, or that we have not been telling ourselves the right “story.” Yet this is manifestly not the case. My wife understands the science of global warming perfectly well. But she also does not like dandelions growing by the side of the road. And when push comes to shove, the desire to kill dandelions wins over environmental peccadilloes. It is not particularly mysterious. It is called free riding; people do it all the time.

Thus when Suzuki writes “we say we are intelligent, but what intelligent creature, knowing that water is a sacred, life-giving element, would use water as a toxic dump?” he seems genuinely not to know. The answer is easy: we are intelligent creatures who care just slightly more about ourselves than we do about other people. For example, like most residents of Toronto I do not use the water on my land as a toxic dump; I use Lake Ontario for that purpose. Saying that “we are water, and whatever we do to water, we do to ourselves” sounds very nice, but all the “we” talk actually encourages a very serious confusion. What I do to water, I primarily do to other people, not to myself, which is why I care about it just ever-so-slightly less.

In the end, and somewhat contrary to all expectations, Suzuki winds up coming off as a science chauvinist. There are basically two bodies of knowledge that he respects. There is physical science — genetics, biology, the stuff that he studies — and there is what he calls “traditional knowledge” — by which he means the wisdom of aboriginal and indigenous peoples. Conspicuously absent is any interest in what social scientists might have to say about how human beings work, about the political process, about the economy and about how societies mobilize to address collective action problems. As a result, he knows a lot more about the nature of things than he does about the nature of people.

H/T to Andrew Potter, via Stephen Gordon for the link.

The Edge of the Abyss – Mountain Warfare On The Italian Front I THE GREAT WAR Special

Filed under: Europe, History, Military — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

The Great War
Published on 14 Oct 2017

The mountains along the Italian front made for one of the most brutal and unforgiving battlefields of the World War 1, and the soldiers who fought here were tougher and more resilient than most. The Italian Alpini and the Austro-Hungarian Alpenjäger and Kaiserschützen who fought in the Dolomites waged different versions of mountain warfare, but both were subject to the harsh conditions of the peaks.

The end of the Bronze Age

Filed under: History, Middle East, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Colby Cosh linked to an article discussing a convoluted survival from about 1180BC (the image was preserved, but the work itself was destroyed in the late 19th century), which casts some light on the fall of the great Bronze Age cultures of the eastern Mediterannean:

Luwian Hieroglyphic inscription by the Great King of Mira, Kupanta-Kurunta, composed at about 1180 BC.
Credit: Luwian Studies

The 35-cm tall limestone frieze was found back in 1878 in the village of Beyköy, approximately 34 kilometers north of Afyonkarahisar in modern Turkey. It bears the longest known hieroglyphic inscription from the Bronze Age. Soon after local peasants retrieved the stones from the ground, the French archeologist Georges Perrot was able to carefully copy the inscription. However, the villagers subsequently used the stones as building material for the foundation of their mosque.

From about 1950 onwards, Luwian hieroglyphs could be read. At the time, a Turkish/US-American team of experts was established to translate this and other inscriptions that during the 19th century had made their way into the collections of the Ottoman Empire. However, the publication was delayed again and again. Ultimately, around 1985, all the researchers involved in the project had died. Copies of these inscriptions resurfaced recently in the estate of the English prehistorian James Mellaart, who died in 2012. In June 2017, Mellaart’s son Alan handed over this part of the legacy to the Swiss geoarcheologist Dr. Eberhard Zangger, president of the Luwian Studies foundation, to edit and publish the material in due course.


The inscription and a summary of its contents also appear in a book by Eberhard Zangger that is being published in Germany today: Die Luwier und der Trojanische Krieg – Eine Forschungsgeschichte. According to Zangger, the inscription was commissioned by Kupanta-Kurunta, the Great King of Mira, a Late Bronze Age state in western Asia Minor. When Kupanta-Kurunta had reinforced his realm, just before 1190 BC, he ordered his armies to storm toward the east against the vassal states of the Hittites. After successful conquests on land, the united forces of western Asia Minor also formed a fleet and invaded a number of coastal cities (whose names are given) in the south and southeast of Asia Minor, as well as in Syria and Palestine. Four great princes commanded the naval forces, among them Muksus from the Troad, the region of ancient Troy. The Luwians from western Asia Minor advanced all the way to the borders of Egypt, and even built a fortress at Ashkelon in southern Palestine.

Panzers in Poland 1939 – Success, Failures & Losses

Filed under: Europe, Germany, History, Military — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Military History Visualized
Published on 1 Sep 2017

German Panzers in Poland 1939 were crucial in the success, but also suffered quite some losses and various shortcomings were detected.

QotD: Developmental psychology

Filed under: Quotations, Science — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Developmental psychology describes how children go from helpless infants to reasonable adults. Although a lot of it has to do with sensorimotor skills like walking and talking, the really interesting stuff is cognitive development. Children start off as very buggy reasoners incapable of all but the most superficial forms of logic but gradually go on to develop new abilities and insights that allow them to navigate adult life.

Maybe the most famous of these is “theory of mind”, the ability to view things from other people’s perspective. In a classic demonstration, researchers show little Amy a Skittles bag and ask what she thinks is inside. She guesses Skittles, but the researchers open it and reveal it’s actually pennies. Then they close it up and invite little Brayden into the room. Then they ask Amy what Brayden thinks is inside. If Amy’s three years old or younger, she’ll usually say “pennies” – she knows that pennies are inside, so why shouldn’t Brayden know too? If she’s four or older, she’ll usually say “Skittles” – she realizes on a gut level that she and Brayden are separate minds and that Brayden will have his own perspective. Sometimes the same mistake can extend to preferences and beliefs. Wikipedia gives the example of a child saying “I like Sesame Street, so Daddy must like Sesame Street too.” This is another theory of mind failure grounded in an inability to separate self and environment.

Here’s another example which tentatively sounds like a self-environment failure. Young children really don’t get foreign languages. I got a little of this teaching English in Japan, and heard more of it from other people. The really young kids treated English like a cipher; everybody started out knowing things’ real (ie Japanese) names, but Americans insisted on converting them into their own special American-person code before talking about them. Kids would ask weird things like whether American parents would make an exception and speak Japanese to their kids who were too young to have learned English yet, or whether it was a zero-tolerance policy sort of thing and the families would just not communicate until the kids went to English school. And I made fun of them, but I also remember the first time I visited Paris I heard somebody talking to their dog, and for a split second I was like “Why would you expect your dog to know French?” before my brain kicked in and I was like “Duuhhhh….”

The infamous “magical thinking” which kids display until age 7 or so also involves confused self-environment boundaries. Maybe little Amy gets mad at Brayden and shouts “I HATE HIM” to her mother. The next day, Brayden falls off a step and skins his knee. Amy intuits a cause-and-effect relationship between her hatred and Brayden’s accident and feels guilty. She doesn’t realize that her hatred is internal to herself and can’t affect the world directly. Or kids displaying animism at this age, and expecting that the TV doesn’t work because it’s angry, or the car’s not starting because it’s tired.

Scott Alexander, “What Developmental Milestones Are You Missing?”, Slate Star Codex, 2015-11-03.

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