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Thales of Nashville

Todd Zywicki challenges environmentalists to make like Thales and earn some profits from their predictions of climate change:

But I do understand economics. And if believers in global warming are so certain that it is going to occur that they are willing to impose taxes and other coercion in order to combat it, why aren't they buying up all the land 300 yards or so from the current beach, or wherever they expect the sea level to rise to in the future? Shouldn't Al Gore be cornering the market on coastal land twenty feet above today's sea level? Surely that land must be a bargain today compared to what it will be worth if his predictions are accurate.

But there are a host of problems with this proposal:

1. Not everyone is an insatiably profit-seeking homo economicus. And environmentalists in particular are unlikely to have such an orientation, being more attracted to what we might call the homo sufficientus model. Speaking for myself, even if the other objections I list were somehow neutralized, I wouldn't be buying up any future beachfront property, because "real estate speculator" is not the kind of person I want to be or the kind of life I want to lead regardless of the amount of profit to be made. (On the other hand, there are certainly entrepreneurial environmentalists out there, including to some degree the one Zywicki singles out, Al Gore.)

2. You'd think a devotee of economics would remember to account for incentives. Once you own a piece of future beachfront property, you have a vested interest in the amount of climate change that will make it pay off. In Thales' case this wasn't an issue, because he had no control over the weather that he was banking on. But the whole point of climate change is that we are controlling the weather. What environmentalist would want to create a real or percieved conflict of interest with his or her advocacy of policies aimed at minimizing climate change? (Indeed, it's easy to imagine some clever economist proposing that all policymakers working on the climate change issue own current beachfront property, to give them an incentive to seek the strongest policies.)

3. Post-sea-level rise beachfront property will not be as valuable as current beachfront property. The value of beachfront property is due not strictly to the proximity to water, but to the type of shoreline landscape associated with relatively stable coastlines. People want a nice clean beach with a view out over a big flat ocean and nice places to swim. What future beachfront property will overlook, however, is a swamp dotted with the roofs of flooded houses, trees obscuring the horizon, debris washing in all the time, and perhaps some ugly, hastily-constructed levees. It's possible that the view could be so depressing that coastal property would end up being less valuable than inland property. Just take a look at any of the immediately post-Katrina pictures of New Orleans and ask yourself if you'd want to vacation somewhere that overlooks that.

4. Sea level is not going to quickly rise 20 feet and then stabilize there. Sea level rise will be a long process, potentially continuing long after today's investors are dead. So you can't just draw a line on a map and say "I predict that these parcels will be the future's beachfront property." What property is beachfront will change over time as climate change unfolds. (And indeed, under the most optimistic geo-engineering scenarios such as widespread carbon sequestration, today's beachfront may end up being beachfront once again.)

5. Presumably sea level rise will stop at some point (if only because we run out of ice to melt and thermal expansion for the oceans to experience). But predicting that ultimate stop date requires predicting the outcome of political choices, which are affected by lots of things outside the environmental arena (e.g. current US climate policy has been shaped by 9/11 and the GOP corruption scandals through their impacts on which party gets power). Predicting long-term political outcomes is orders of magnitude more difficult than predicting the short-term behavior of markets or geophysical systems.

Stentor Danielson, 10:40, |

Marriage Down Under

Australia's Labor Party has endorsed registered partnerships. The proposal is both less and more progressive than the civil union proposals here in the US (such as New Hampshire's recently passed bill). It's less progressive because the set of rights that they would grant is more modest, and supporters went out of their way to reassure the party's recalcitrant right wing that civil unions are not equivalent to marriage. But it's more progressive because, as John Quiggin notes, the partnerships would be available to people in non-romantic relationships, such as a carer and their dependent, which is a step in the direction of the "Beyond Marriage" principle of providing recognition, protection, and support to any long-term relationship of interdependence and care.

People on the anti-marriage side often get worked up over the term "homophobia," since taken literally it implies that opposition to equal treatment for homosexuality is rooted in visceral revulsion, rather than a principled stance. But looking at the arguments from Labor's right wingers, it's clear that in this case "homophobia" is a quite apt term. They are against registered partnerships because they would "demean" and "attack" opposite-sex marriage and "robs marriage of its unique and privileged status." The only way that expanding access to a right or status can "demean" the people who already had it is if those people think "eww, I don't want to be in the same category as those people."

On the other hand, another argument made by Labor's right would be better described as "homo-callous," though it rests on the electorate's homophobia. I mean here the US-Democrat-style argument that rights for same-sex couples have to be sacrificed to the all-important goal of getting elected.

Stentor Danielson, 09:52, |



Dear Blogger,

I had my archiving system all set up the way I wanted it. Please stop changing my settings without telling me.


PS: No comments telling me to use a different blogging tool are allowed.

Stentor Danielson, 20:48, |

Toxic Wastes and Race

In 1987, the United Church of Christ's Commission on Racial Justice issued Toxic Wastes and Race, a report documenting the disproportionate number of people of color living near toxic facilities. The report played a key role in catalyzing the environmental justice movement and bringing national attention to the issue. The UCC recently produced a follow-up report, Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty (pdf), that uses improved GIS methodology and 2000 census data to update the 1987 report's conclusions. It's a long report, but it's worth reading at least the executive summary to get a picture of the grim situation facing our country.

Key points of the new report are:

1. Race is a strong predictor of the location of toxic waste sites, and it remains highly significant after class variables (income, education, blue vs white collar) are controlled for. Nationwide, there are nearly two times as many people of color living within 3 km of a toxic waste facility as living farther out. Racial disparities are highest for Latinos, but not statistically significant for Native Americans. We should be careful, though, not to take that result as indicating that Native Americans are not the victims of environmental injustices. The report dealt only with toxic waste facilities, which are disproportionately located in urban areas, while it did not consider such environmental harms as water-borne pollution that travels more than 5 km. Also, environmentally destructive activities often impact Native lands (official or traditional/culturally significant) without necessarily being within a few kilometers of Native houses. (Indeed, this raises a larger methodological issue, in that impacts on a person are typically judged strictly by where that person sleeps at night, rather than other places they may occupy, such as work sites, or other locations that are important to them even if they're not physically present, like a sacred mountain.)

2. The situation is worse than the original Toxic Wastes and Race report indicated. The original report simply said that if you lived in the same ZIP code as a toxic facility, you are affected, and if not, you're not. The new report uses more sophisticated GIS techniques to include anyone living within a specified distance of a facility, regardless of where the census tract boundaries fall. This methodological change significantly increases the measured racial and class disparities.

3. Environmental justice has improved only a negligible amount between 1990 and 2000. During the 1990s there was an enormous increase in environmental justice activism, and numerous significant victories in places like Kettleman City and West Harlem. So the lack of nationwide improvement suggests the scale of the forces pressing toward environmentally unjust outcomes. Further, it's likely that the situation has worsened even more since 2000. The report describes a number of recent federal-level setbacks. These include the 2001 SCOTUS decision in Alexander v Sandoval striking down the key EJ legal argument that unintentional disparate impacts violate the Civil Rights Act, and the Bush EPA's persistent failure to implement the environmental justice policies called for in Clinton's Executive Order 12898.

4. Churches are key players in the fight for environmental justice. The report doesn't address this issue explicitly, but its very existence as a publication of the United Church of Christ testifies to the importance of the church. The (deserved) praise heaped on white evangelicals for their newfound interest in addressing climate change can sometimes obscure the long history of black and Latino churches providing organizational skills, resources, and inspiration for environmental justice struggles.

Stentor Danielson, 00:10, |


Mayberry and Racism in Casa Grande

Environmentalism is generally considered a left-wing issue, but it has an unfortunate tendency to get tied up with un-progressive positions on other issues. This is clear here in Casa Grande, where the overarching theme of local politics concerns the direction that the city's rapid growth is taking it. The debate is carried on in reference to the Mayberry ideal, a certain vision of rural life that underpins both newcomers' attraction to the area and older residents' unease with them.

The Mayberry ideal is generally positively inclined toward the environment. It creates a strong presumption against growth in general, and in particular against the kind of sprawling growth that dominates the city today. This growth is environmentally detrimental, as its landscape of walled-off high-income housing is water-intensive, promotes reliance on cars (to commute all the way to Phoenix every day, or even just to get around the decentralized town), and encourages the building of big box stores and separate shopping plazas rather than mixed-use areas. Perhaps its biggest oversight is its lack of accommodation to smart growth, such as public transportation, preferring instead to cling to small-town rurality.

But the Mayberry ideal has a darker side, in that Mayberry was a white town. We don't have any local Don Imuses willing to say it in bluntly racial terms, but there is a clear undercurrent of anti-diversity sentiment in the city council race. Candidates -- particularly the two whites, Tina Cramp and Mary Kortsen -- hinted at the undesirability of "those kind of people" moving to Casa Grande, bringing their urban crime and meth problems to our quiet town.

But the clearest example I've seen came from a recent community forum on the police department's treatment of the black community. As reported in today's Dispatch (not yet posted online), Tad Roberts told the forum:

There was an incident where certain kids had driven up to a fast gas station here in town, coming out of football practice, and they were told that their kind of element was not wanted in Casa Grande. Just because the kids had on some sweats, had a little rag on top of his head.

I have to commend the police officer that rolled up. He said (to the initial officer), "why do you have those three young men sitting on the curb like this?" The first officer said "well, they're not the element we want in Casa Grande, they look like drug dealers." And the other officer said, "that's Mr. Roberts' son, you get in the car and you go home and take your cousins with you." The officer felt like this big.

The forum generated a host of other complaints of the sort commonly made when a largely white police force patrols a black neighborhood -- lack of service, hiding in cars rather than building rapport with the community, etc. But I highlight the story of Roberts' son being stopped because the first officer's explanation points at the rotten heart of the Mayberry ideal -- "they're not the element we want in [our town]." Whether "they" are the snowbirds, "California transplants," and retail chains moving into the sprawling developments, or black people (especially if they engage in typical urban black culture), they're not wanted because they disrupt the small-white-town ideal.

Casa Grande needs a new ideal, one that motivates resistance to environmentally destructive sprawl while also resisting attempts by dominant groups to seal the town off as the property of "our kind of people" by marginalizing their neighbors.

Stentor Danielson, 23:20, |