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.