On Grasses, Transects and Statistics or Science Is a Mess

As an environmental economist, I in a sense build my work upon the work of others. So, its foundations are provided mainly by ecology and related (sub-)disciplines such as conservation biology. However, while diving into some aspects of these disciplines and interacting with biologists who actually work in the field, I have realised that in many cases, reality is much more messy than a superficial look into the respective literature might suggest. Continue reading

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The Economic Value of a Statistical Life

A human life is worth $4 million to $9 million. At least according to an authoritative meta-analysis of economic studies that estimate the so-called “value of a statistical life”. This is one of the most controversial issues in modern economics, which has met with vast criticism. Particularly, it has been argued that one cannot attach a price-tag to the life of a human being. In what follows, I would like to argue that a) this criticism is largely based on a misconception of the estimates; b) economists can only blame themselves that the misconception actually arised; and c) the calculation of the value of a statistical life is not sensible, albeit for reasons different from the ethical ones that are commonly used to argue against it. Continue reading

Resource Economics’s Most Problematic Assumption

Every theory or, to use the term famously coined by Thomas Kuhn, paradigm is based on a set of assumptions. Some assumptions are more, others less important for the overall theoretical system that is built upon them. This has to do with the ease with which they can (or cannot) be relaxed if shown not valid. It is, however, a truism that every model, theory or paradigm must be based on simplifying assumptions and that “closeness to reality” is seldom a relevant criterion for their evaluation (this latter statement must be, of course, qualified, which I will do below). Resource economics, i.e., the branch of economic theory that deals with the exploration, extraction and markets for (non-renewable) resources is no exception from this rule. One of my professors at the university used to present empirical findings regarding important assumptions of economic theory (such as the interest rate parity) by stating: “This is one of the few economic assumptions that stand up to reality.” The so-called Hotelling’s rule, one of the crucial models and assumptions of resource economics, is not one of those few. Continue reading

3 Reasons Why a Post-Growth Society Is Not Within Reach

For reasons explained elsewhere (see, e.g., this post and that one), I am among those dreaming of a post-growth society. Of course, it is not entirely clear what a post-growth society would look like, and even less is known about the road there. Still, many people around the world–for instance those coming to Leipzig in September for the 4th International Degrowth Conference–agree that one of the greatest problems of the current societal-economic model is that it is heavily dependent on economic growth. And that at least the first steps towards it should be done soon, for the longer we wait the more we put our civilisation at danger of collapse of one kind or another. Nevertheless, there are numerous obstacles that hinder the urgently needed transition. In what follows, I would like to present three reasons why a post-growth society is not within reach, which are related to three aspects of human psychology: laziness, narratives and conservative inertia. Continue reading

Historical Dynamics of Growth Critique

Since the beginning of modern economic theory’s history, which set off in the second half of the 18th century, economic growth was one of the most central themes, creating controversies over and over again. The emergence of modern economics, identified oftentimes with the publication of An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, coincided with the onset of an exceptional process in human history: until the late 18th and early 19th century, economic growth had been a temporary intermezzo at best, not a general pattern of socio-economic development of human societies. Then, around the time when Smith wrote his book, a new pattern gained momentum, economic growth becoming a matter of course. However, the perception of growth and its limits has evolved over time Continue reading

Is Geo-Engineering a Viable Solution to Climate Change?

In a few months the Rio +20 conference will be held. This means that 20 years have gone since world leaders agreed on an unprecedentedly ambitious programme for global sustainability – including the first attempt to lay foundation for a global fight against climate change. During these 20 years, much has changed – unfortunately, mainly to the worse. We still find ourselves on the business-as-usual emissions trajectory – in other words, on collision course. Understandingly, this feeds calls for alternative approaches and solutions. One of them that gains ever more prominence is: geo-engineering. Continue reading

What Is Uncertain in Climate Economics?

One of the central problems of a majority of economic integrated assessment models of climate change is that they mostly ignore or at best underplay all the uncertainty around the problem they try to analyse. Meanwhile, these models are mostly presented in calibrated form, i.e. including concrete values for different variables – just what a cost-benefit analysis is expected to do. Even if there are some confidence intervals specified, they are mostly rather crude and are a kind of sherry-picking of “meaningful” uncertainties. However, the dynamics of the climate itself and the consequences of his changing are profoundly uncertain and full of feedback mechanisms. In the following I would like to present and discuss some major sources of uncertainty in economic climate modelling, arguing that it is even deeper than in “just” climate modelling and that the consequences for standard approaches are profound. Continue reading