Book Review: What Environmentalists Need To Know About Economics

This book is somewhat troubling. The author, Jason Scorse, makes a few good points, shows a complete misunderstanding of some issues, and tends to explore each issue in sometimes exhaustive and exhausting detail. Rather than economic advice, much of the book is a polemic on Scorse’s view of what constitutes an environmental problem; chief among those is anthropogenic caused climate change.

The seven chapters of the first part of the book deal with determining the optimum amount of pollution, tying to put a value on ecosystems, property rights, and jobs.

Scorse’s main points in part one are:

The world’s oceans and atmosphere are devoid of property rights (this is the tragedy of the commons), therefore no one takes responsibility for the sustainability of the resources. He uses the example of fisheries in which, Scorse says, fisherman take as much as they can, as quickly as they can.

Scorse notes that food production and electricity are really two things we cannot do without and both engender some pollution. He says that zero pollution is not feasible and environmentalists must accept this fact. They have to judge the benefit versus cost. Some pollution can be abated at a relatively low cost. “The optimum level of pollution is the amount where the benefits of abating additional pollution are not worth the added cost.” Scorse offers advice on how to judge that optimum point. He also notes that many U.S. environmental statutes, such as the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and many EPA programs specifically mandate that the agencies are not allowed to use benefit-cost analysis.

Scorse spends many pages bashing the market system, but then he says “Market-based mechanisms have the benefit of allowing firms multiple pathways to compliance, thereby allowing them to choose the cheapest. Market-based mechanisms are also generally much better at promoting innovation because they create incentives for the development of new cleaner technologies.”

Some conflicting statements: As a result of environmental regulations “many forestry industries have experienced significant employment declines” (page 73). “There is no evidence that, overall, environmental regulation leads to job losses” (page 74).

In Part 2, Scorse takes another seven chapters to deal more specifically with climate change, forest and biodiversity conservation, agriculture, chemical pollution, fisheries, population growth, and “demand side interventions”. Scorse says that it is critical that private land owners be provided positive incentives to conserve natural resources. He advocates ending agricultural production subsidies saying these are “a colossal waste of taxpayer money.”

In discussing the ban on DDT, Scorse makes a foolish generalization: “Almost forty years have passed and there is virtually no one in the United States who believes that the ban was the wrong direction.” Apparently Scorse is not familiar with many studies which showed that the ban was unnecessary and has doomed many people, especially children in Africa, to death by malaria. (See 100 things you should know about DDT , The Excellent Powder, and DDT, A Case Study of Scientific Fraud.)

Some other points from the book: “The population issue is largely a distraction.” “The example of ethanol subsidies should be environmentalists’ Exhibit A of how not to craft government policy.”

As I said at the top, this book is troubling, many of Scorse’s economic recommendations are ambiguous platitudes rather than specifics. On the other hand (and Scorse uses many “on-the-other-hands”), “economic theory does not offer black and white answers…”

The author: Jason Scorse received his Ph.D. in Agricultural & Resource Economics, 2005 and M.S., Agricultural & Resource Economics, 2003, from UC-Berkeley and , M.S. in Applied Economics & Finance, 2001 and B.A. in Environmental Studies, 1991, from University of California, Santa Cruz.

The book is available at Amazon.com. I received a free copy from the publisher.

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5 comments

  1. Maybe someone should write a book, “What Capitalists Need to Know About the Environment”.  If there is a lack of understanding about reality, I think it is on the other side of the equation. 

    It is certainly a practical matter to look at the issue of environmental consequences within the context of capitalist economics, but the environmentalists are like the small band of defenders at the Alamo: brave and determined, but destined to be overrun by the overwhelming forces arrayed against them.  Capitalism, with its need for ever-expanding profits and markets, emphasis on short-term gain and inherent over-production, is incompatible with any sort of sustainable approach to available resources. 

  2. <blockquote>Apparently Scorse is not familiar with many studies which showed that the ban [on spraying DDT on cotton in the U.S.] was unnecessary and has doomed many people, especially children in Africa, to death by malaria.</blockquote>
    Or, more likely, he’s very familiar with them, and he knows they are crank science polemicals, and not good science at all.
    You cite Steven Milloy’s Junk Science blog, which is based on Gordon Edwards’ unpublished and unpublishable screed against Rachel Carson (well, it was printed in one of Lyndon Larouche’s outlets — but that is more of an indictment than a commendation); you cite Milloy’s good buddy and propaganda colleague Richard Tren, and you cite another article by Gordon Edwards printed in the crank science journal JPANDS.
    Go take a look at the science of DDT and malaria, say at PubMed, the National Institutes of Health’s publicly-available search engine, and see if those publications even come up — and then compare then to the dozens or hundreds of hard research articles going the other way.
    Or look at the history, and check your calendar.  The U.S. banned agricultural use of DDT in 1972, some seven years after WHO had to stop its campaign to eradicate malaria from the world, because abuse of DDT by agricultural interests in Africa and Asia had bred mosquitoes resistant and immune to DDT.  The U.S. ban on DDT on crops had zero effect on use of DDT against malaria in Africa.  In fact, the U.S. “ban” specifically left manufacturing in the U.S. running full tilt, for export to Africa.  If more DDT could have made a difference, it would have, by 1974.
    Mosquitoes do not migrate from Texas to Africa — so the U.S. ban did not affect any African mosquito in any way.
    But, then, please look at the numbers.  Did the U.S. cessation of agricultural DDT doom Africans to death by malaria?
    In the peak years of DDT use, about 1959-1960, about four million people a year died from malaria, in the world.  By the time the U.S. stopped using DDT on crops, the death toll was down to about two million per year, worldwide.
    Today, largely without DDT (since it’s ineffective in so many places), the death toll from malaria is estimated to be under 900,000 per year.  Deaths from malaria dropped by more than half after the U.S. “banned” DDT, and dropped at a faster rate than ever before in history.
    There are good sources on malaria and DDT out there.  The noted science historian Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway discusses Gordon Edwards’ unholy campaign against Rachel Carson in a chapter of their relatively new book, Merchants of Doubt.   Sonia Shah discusses thoroughly the real challenges of fighting malaria in her new book, The Fever: How Malaria has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 years.

    Each of those books is closely in tune with the best scientists have to offer, and neither one engages in the conspiracy claims that mar the work of Gordon Edwards, Steven Milloy, and others out to impugn the reputations of scientists and environmentalists.
    There are many studies, perhaps hundreds, that show Mr. Scorse to be accurate about DDT, mosquitoes and malaria.  There is a tiny handful of radical cranks who claim otherwise.  Sail in the mainstream, and avoid the shoals of shallow science.

    1. The argument was that Scorse said nobody disagreed with banning DDT.  I found three who did thereby falsifying his generalization.

  3. Scorse should have qualified his statement with “nobody with reputable credentials diagreed with banning DDT.”

  4. The deductions your employer took from your gross to pay your insurance coverage is not a tax, and neither is your 401(k) contribution. Add up your actual tax liability from your 1040 (line 44) and state income tax forms, your FICA taxes (boxes 4 and 6 on your W-2), real estate and personal property taxes, plus whatever you put in line 5 on your Schedule A, by your total income.

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