Thursday, 10 March 2011


Skeptical environmentalists, meet the dismal environmentalist. I am dismal because I optimize. Or so it is popularly believed, that economists mindlessly maximize and optimize, losing sight of all manner of intangible costs and benefits. I still recall quite prominently that an environmental law professor from a top-15 law school once opined, without a shred of doubt, that "sure, economists would advocate for slavery if it maximized profits." For obvious reasons, this person will not be named. And yet this perception of dismal-ness also comes from much weightier thinkers, such as one of my favorites, C.S. Lewis, who wrote in Letter I of The Screwtape Letters:
"My Dear Wormwood...Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don't waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous — that it is the philosophy of the future. That's the sort of thing he cares about. The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the Enemy's own ground. By the very act of arguing, you awake the patient's reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result?"
* * *
Above all, do not attempt to use science (I mean, the real sciences) as a defence against Christianity. They will positively encourage him to think about realities he can't touch and see. There have been sad cases among the modern physicists. If he must dabble in science, keep him on economics and sociology...
So writes Lewis's Uncle Screwtape, a Devil's disciple who in trying to school his nephew Wormwood on how to foment disenchantment with Christianity, advises him that Economics, and its accompanying Jargon, and not real science, is a good battleground for the dark side, which as juxtaposed with Reason, is not on the "Enemy's own ground." The Devil, it appears, has a comparative advantage in Economics and Jargon.

Among environmentalists (appreciating that this is far from being a monolithic group), there are a number of anti-economists, who are like-minded, and who bear more than a few misconceptions about economics, like one of my least favorite (and most popular) writers, Bill McKibben:
"Let's assume, for the duration of this article, that to you trees are vertical stalks of fiber, that a forest carries no more spiritual or aesthetic value than a parking lot, that woodland creatures are uninteresting sacks of calories, and that the smell of sunbaked pine needles on a breezy June afternoon merely matches the scent that comes from those conifer-shaped air fresheners that dangle from your rearview mirror.  Let's assume, in other words, that you've done something rotten and God has turned you into an economist." (Bill McKibben, What Good Is a Forest? Audubon, May 15, 1995, at 54)
Perhaps above all, I hope to convince the two groups of people with which I most closely work -- law professors and environmentalists -- that economics is not, as some would assert, a tool to perpetuate power, but an analytical approach. To be sure, economics is a way of thinking that is very different from those modes of analysis and thinking that form much of the intellectual capital of law professors and environmentalists. Maybe that is why economists find friends hard to come by in these circles.

We environmental economists are not dismal. Of all the economic areas, why would we pick environmental economics if we didn't care about the environment? Far more lucrative specializations are available.

And there is a third group of people I hope to reach: those who really are skeptical about environmental problems. I don't hope to change people's minds about the science of environmental issues, but of the economics of environmental protection. Years ago, a cost-benefit analysis of of the US Clean Air Act from 1970 to 1990 showed that just the monetizable benefits were more than an order of magnitude greater than the compliance costs. This is old hat for those that spend time thinking about air pollution regulation, but seemingly lost on modern libertarians, such as Tea Party members, that seem to delight in ranting about the excesses of environmental regulation.


  1. Great post. Glad to be linked to your blog by your colleague George Hoberg. That McKibben quote epitomizes the problem with the environmental movement's view of economics. Hopefully more of us getting involved in the discussion will help change that view. If you are interested, please check out my blog at where I take on some of the same issues that you do.

    Andrew Leach
    Univ. of Alberta.

  2. I agree that McKibben is painting economists with a broad and menacing brush in this passage, but given that it was 16 years ago, does it still jibe with his current thinking? I know I have changed my views on a lot of things since 1995. I would suggest that the environmental movement has really come to understand the power and the value of economics and market solutions. I'd point to the great collaborations done between eNGOs and economist Mark Jaccard, one of Canada's leading advocates of climate action.

  3. economics is not, as some would assert, a tool to perpetuate power, but an analytical approach.

    You are right, of course, but don't forget that economics is frequently USED as a tool to perpetuate power. And that it is what contributes to the bad perception of economists in the general population.