Individuals and collectives

In politics and economics two themes seem to emerge in almost every conversation.  On the right, Mitt Romney has exclaimed “We believe in individual initiative, personal responsibility, opportunity, freedom, small government, the Constitution.”  On the left Bill Clinton and Obama have attempted to make sure the public know, that “We are all in this together.”  From the liberal view, government can and should support initiatives that benefit the collective, believing that what makes our collective nation strong, will benefit everybody.

This tug of war between individualism and collectivism seems to exist in every intellectual pursuit.  These themes were present in designing Democracy and opening trade barriers; from philosophy in education to philosophy in sports.

Mounting evidence is showing in neuroscience, that this ‘tug of war’ exists prominently in the human brain.  According to Iain Mcgilchrist, author, psychologist and Neuroscience expert, the left hemisphere of the brain is being understood as a “force for individuation” and the right, a “force for coherence.”

In ecology, Darwin’s theory, ‘survival of the fittest’ might be compared with E.O. Wilson’s work and the benefits of cooperation, explained in his new book, the “The Social Conquest of Earth.”

Evolutionary biologist Elisabet Sahtouris explains her study of the evolution of bacteria and the tendency of organisms to break out from “the whole”, like an infant becoming independent from it’s mother, becoming an individual, distinguishing itself, until cooperation is eventually required to evolve, culminating with a re-communion of a new whole. This seems to indicate that at times, individuation is possible and at others, integration is essential.

This brings us to the question, how do we know who is right, in any given moment?

To take again from Neuroscience, Iain Mcgilchrist explains that “Wherever the whole is not the same as the sum of the parts, the force for individuation exists within and subject to the force for coherence.”

Though governments and societies have feared the freedom of individuals, we know in the United States that this freedom of individualization is what allows for innovation, and specialization.  When these elements are combined with cooperation, we see success. This is how the free market functions, and the ecosystem itself functions.  Species who are able to both specialize AND cooperate have a serious advantage. Biodiversity has been shown to in itself, stabilize the climate.

In the United States we have developed an incredibly sophisticated balance between the individual and the collective.  Many are saying that now, it is time to take this a step further.  To illustrate this point; let’s compare the art from European History with that of the Aztecs, who both had advanced civilizations in a similar time period.

Mona Lisa, Lenardo da Vinci, 1503–1519
Xochiquetzal: Goddess of Flowers and Love, Codex Borbonicus, c.1525

The Mona Lisa, like most other European portraits, were at the very least confined to one species. On the other hand, in the Aztecs, we see a culture, whose temples were align with the stars and whose Gods and Kings were intimately connected with other creatures.  Portraits, never portrayed individuals alone without other species and elements of the ecosystem.

The moment that we see the part within the whole and the whole within the part, humans in nature and nature in humans, is the moment of progress.

Air pollution

Air pollution is caused by the introduction of thousands of types of gaseous, liquid and solid compounds by animal activity, primarily human.  The main causes are transportation, electric powerplants especially coal and oil, and industry, primarily steel mills, metal smelters, oil refineries and pulp paper mills.

There are  six that are primarily regulated: particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, ozone o3, lead.  Obviously, without regulation, and proper knowledge and information for citizens, the costs of polluting the air are distributed among all citizens and life forms, while the benefits go to polluting producers and consumers.

The first of the six, particulate matter is primarily caused by fuel combustion road traffic, agriculture and industry.  It is very unhealthy, as around 50% of the suspended particulates are able to penetrate deeply into the lungs and evade the body’s natural defense systems.

Sulfur dioxide SO2 irritates the respiratory systems, corodes metals, harms textiles, impairs visibility and kills or stunts the growth of plants, as well as cause acid precipitation.

Carbon monoxide is an extremely toxic pollutant gas caused by automobile emissions, and found at high concentrations in cities.  It is odorless and colorless and causes the most severe reactions among heart patients due to it’s binding with the hemoglobin in the blood. There is an increase in heart attack victims during high periods of CO concentrations. Other milder effects include mild headaches and the slowing down of mental processes and reaction time.

Nitrogen oxide is caused by combustion at high temperatures, auto emissions and power plants, and causes shortness of breath, coughing, respiratory diseases; it stunts plant growth and visibility, damages leaves, reduces visibility and contributes to formation of acid rain.
Ozone 03 occurs when photochemical oxidants combine with oxygen sunlight and nitrogen dioxide which is emitted by tailpipes.  Ozone season is considered to extend from May 1st through September 30th.  irritate mucous membranes of the respiratory system, causing couching choking and reduced lung capicity.  heart patients asthmatics and those suffering from bronchitis or emphysema are at special risk during periods of high O3 levels.   also cracks rubber, deteriorates fabrics and causes paint to fade.  eye irritation watery eyes.  Plant growth is severely impacted. ozone accounts for about 90% of annual u.s. crop losses due to air pollutions.  visible on leaves.   ground level ozone interferes with a plant’s ability to photosynthesize thereby reducing plant biomass and lowering crop yeilds.


There are of course many other pollutants, as mentioned earlier, thousands of gaseous, liquid, solid compounds put into the air by human and other activity.  While the six above have been identified as especially dangerous, it is important to note others.  Congress found 189 other pollutants in addition to the six many of which are toxic and carcinogenic, including asbestos, mercury, beryllium, benzene, vinyl chloride, arsenic, radionuclides, and coke oven emissions.

As far as aggregate health data:

2-3% of all deaths in the U.S. each year are attributed to air pollution-induced respiratory or cardiovascular disease.  Similar levels of mortality due to dirty air have been reported i Poland and the Czech Republic.  WRI (1996)

Today research indicates thatairborne particulates cause over 100,000 deaths annually in the U.S. alone.  (Schwartz, 2000)
According to WHO in 2003 urban air pollution reduces life expectancy in europe more than any other environmental risk factor.  Who estimates that long-term road traffic alone is responsbile for 80,000 European deaths each year.  worse in 3d world.

World wide 5-6% of all deaths each year can be attributed to air contaminants, both inddors and outdoors,  WHO  (saksena and smith, 2003)

Mystery of the dying lakes:

It is important to remember, that while our closest concern is for humans, air pollution is affecting all life and breaking down important components in our ecosystem.
417 acid rain.  by 2003 surveys showed that in New York’s adirondack mountains approximately 41% of the lakes had become too acidic for fish and other aquatic life;  the same situation applied to 15% of lakes in the new england states.  In new Jersey’s Pine Barrens, fully 90% of tall streams are acidic.  sulfuric and nitric acid, acid rain. Of course, these costs are not borne by the producers but by the many other affected.


The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences recently did a report on the effects of climate change on health, stating that it worsens existing diseases and conditions, helps to introduce new pests and pathogens, causes sea level rise, floods, and droughts, as well as heat waves and hurricanes.  With dangers of asthma, respiratory allergies, and other airway diseases, cancer, cardiovascular disease and stroke, foodborne diseases, neurological disease, and waterborne diseases, among others.

In the category of living in agricultural communities they have researched everything from the link between children’s asthma in locations near feedlots, to slight neurobehavioral behavior in children of farming communities, to lower semen quality among men and limb deformities among amphibians.

They are responsbile for thousands of findings in the categories of chemicals, air, water, waste, ozone, pesticides, mold, and electric and magnetic fields to name just a few.

The institute of Environmental health and human health (TIEHH) works with the department of Environmental Toxicology to research the environmental impact assessment of toxic chemicals with human health consequences.  They have been in charge of researching everything from declines in quail population to counter-terrorism efforts funded by the United States military.

The United States Geological survey, a scientific agency of the United States Government states that “Public health problems caused by environmental contamination and emerging infectious diseases are a growing concern worldwide. These public health threats are affected by the relationship between people and the physical, chemical, and biological nature of our natural environments.”  continuing, “Understanding environmental and ecological health is a prerequisite to protecting public health. “

These understandings are at the core of an emerging field of medicine which compares geographical location and disease called geo-medicine.  Bill Davenhall says that doctors have had it wrong.  When we go into the hospital the doctor asks two questions, he asks generally about your diet and your physical activity.  Davenhall argues that there is a third, very important component, where you’ve lived, as he says your ‘environment’, and as a biologist might say, your habitat.  The connections not only internationally but within the United States are startling. This map shows heart disease in the United States.


Interesting Articles:


Machu Picchu by Simon Tong

Evan Fraser co-author of Empires of Food gives some valuable historical perspective on the importance of natural resources and the patterns of growth.  Though, environmental conditions are easy to ignore and can be quite subtle, they are extremely important to recognize.  Fraser points out that empires have largely existed happily and come to prosper in good weather conditions for crops.  He points out the Minoan Warm Period, the Roman warm period and the Medieval warm period, as well as the current warm period we are being graced with during the 20th and 21st century thus far.  He also pointed out the lack of droughts or above average rain fall that existed during the success of all of these empires.  Though perhaps not always the obvious factor, the root cause of many Empire collapses can be linked to environmental and social conditions.

All of the above mentioned empires took the route of creating highly efficient short term farming techniques which involved deforestation, and monocropping, being susceptible to drought, erosion and pests.  When climate conditions were no longer favorable, food prices changed, the poor became susceptible to disease, armies could no longer be sufficiently fed and Empires collapsed. In the Medieval age, unexpectedly disease left nearly half of Europe dead, 100 years following the heights of prosperity.

Fraser names three traps that rising civilizations frequently fall into.  These include 1. ‘the vulnerable landscape trap. (deforestation, monocrop, high short term yields, susceptible to pests, drought and erosion.) 2.  The existence of a permanent underclass. living in utter deprivation, weak and susceptible to disease. 3. The good weather trap; expanding agriculture and depending on warmth and rain, until conditions are not as favorable. As i write we are facing the worst drought in many years.

The chief of the IMF recently stated that we are under a triple threat, of environment, economic and social strain.

John Bettington is concerned about food water and energy shortages for the future.

Fraser points out that while these factors frequently have unhinged societies in the last 100 years, we have also seen enormous adaptive capacity.

What the economy can and cannot measure

Here is a basic overview of where the market fails:

The free market was designed for the management of goods and services which are both rival and excludable.  Anything which is not rival and excludable is inherently not efficiently managed by the market as it is set up today.  In other words, the market effectively manages pieces of the whole, as long as they can be confined, defined and possessed easily, but the more these pieces are parts of greater systems, the more the market fails, causing the systems to fail, failing our preferences, our ecosystems, and our economies.

If I eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you can not also eat the same peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  The PB and J is rival.  However, the list of ingredients, and preparation instructions may be be valuable to both you, and I. The peanut butter and jelly sandwich is rival.  The ingredients information is non-rival.  In fact, if you are preparing food for my potluck.  Sharing a cookbook of mine, with you,  may turn out to be beneficial to myself.

A situation that might concern us to a greater extent. As I explained earlier, a rival good is a good which depreciates value with use.

THe Catskill watershed provides New York City with water purification.  This was a good enjoyed by the public and water companies.  Eventually sewage and pesticides from surrounding areas threatened the water supply and the EPA had to step in.  After changes, the natural abiotic processes such as soil absorption and filtration, and biotic recycling improved the water to levels back above standards.
In hindsight the waste dumping and pollution was extremely expensive to the collective group that used the water.  The watershed then performed non-rival eco-system services for all affected by the water.  The eco-system is wildly complex, and in any given place we may be affecting any number of eco-system services, which are extremely difficult to calculate value for.

In the case of consuming resources, as stock-flows it is easier to measure, calculate and create ownership, with fewer externalities.  With eco-system services, we it is highly difficult to measure, calculate and create ownership, and externalities exist across the board.

For instance, if i use a tree to make a table, that tree is no longer as valuable as a stump. The tree is rival. However, if walking down the local side walk next to the river, I am using the tree’s flood prevention, this is not rival and I would be happy if others also used this service that the tree provides.  The tree as material is rival.  The tree as providing a service is non-rival.

As a system of measurement, the market fails in maximizing the benefit of non-rival goods.  In the case of the tree that provides, water cleansing, river bed stability, oxygen, and carbon sink to all; our economy does not have an accurate way of valuing our ‘preferences’ toward maintaining the existence of that tree.

It would be appropriate to note that many market-failures revolve around natural-resources, so specifically in these areas, the market, is not capturing our true preferences.

Excludable goods, are those goods which can be made private.  An example is a cook book.  “This cook book is mine, because the law says so.” Example of non-excludable goods are fish in the oceans.  When fish are out of the water, they are eaten, by one or a couple of persons becoming excludable and rival.  Because the ocean is an open access regime, the fish are non-excludable. It may be intuitive that for a good to be efficiently allocated in our market it must be excludable, or able to be privatized.

Therefore, to judge whether a good is able to be efficiently allocated by the market it must be rival, excludable, generate no externalities and the well-being of future generations must not be affected by its current use.   Unfortunately, no good or service provided by nature meets all of these criteria.  So in the case, of our market.  The idea that we are constructing a world of our choosing is illusory.  Based on a monetary voting system we are producing the rival and excludable goods of our preferences.  Unfortunately, this occurs at the costs of devalued, non-rival, and non-excludable goods, for which we cannot voice our preferences!

This may come to a relief, to people who were believing that it was simlpy our collective preferences that have led us toward the levels of natural world destruction we are currently seeing.

We see these intersections with goods in open access regimes, excludable and non-rival goods pure public goods and market goods.

Other Market failures:

Missing markets

Substitutability of capitals

Disintemporal discounting


Market momentum

Government failures:

Ecological Economics

The Major paradigm shift which is called for by Ecological Economics is the transition from understanding the Economy as the whole and the environment as a subsidiary, to understanding the Environment as the whole and the economy as a subsidiary.  The economy uses inputs from the environment and then produces outputs into the environment.

Here is the conventional model of the economy.

Unfortunately, the source of resources and energy would not be mentioned and neither would the waste, and absorptive capacity of the environment.

According to Herman Daly:
“Studying economics in terms of the circular flow without considering the throughput of
energy and resources is like studying physiology in terms of the circulatory system without ever mentioning the digestive tract.”

With the Ecosystem as part of the Economy, “The Ecosystem is merely the extractive and waste disposal sector of the economy.  Even if these services become scarce, growth can still continue forever because technology allows us to “grow around” the natural sector by substituting of manmade for natural capital, following the dictates of market prices.  Nature is, in this view, nothing but a supplier of various indestructible building blocks, which are substitutable and superabundant.  The only limit to growth, in this view is technology, and since we can always develop new technologies there is no limit to economic growth.  The very notion of “uneconomic growth” makes no sense in that paradigm.  Since the economy is the whole, the growth of the economy is not at the expense of anything else; there is no opportunity cost to growth.  On the contrary, growth enlarges the total to be shared by the different sectors.  Growth does not increase the scarcity of anything; rather, it diminishes the scarcity of everything.  How can one possibly oppose growth?”

from “Ecological Economics” by Herman Daly and Joshua Farley

This chart includes the second law of thermodynamics and the environment, (putting the economy in its place.)

It is important to understand the nature of our resources moving not in a circular flow but from low entropy to high entropy.

Source: Herman E. Daley, “Beyond Growth”, p. 49,1996.


The goal of an efficient economy would therefore be to find a sustainable level of “resource throughput” and recycle goods as much as possible, as is increasingly to goal of many cities such as Oakland.

© Herbie Girardet and Rick Lawrence, courtesy World Future Council


Economic growth and maximization of GDP seem foolish when considering the costs of growth.

The goal then of economies would change, and for this we can shift back to understanding human behavior, and attempting to value what is important to us.  Check out my human nature pages.  The neo-classical economists assume that humans are rational, self-interested and insatiable; and for this growth serves; but all of these assumptions have been proven wrong by modern sciences of the mind.


“All economic activity is dependent upon that environment and its underlying resource base of forests, water, air, soil, and minerals. When the environment is finally forced to file for bankruptcy because its resource base has been polluted, degraded, dissipated, and irretrievably compromised, the economy goes into bankruptcy with it.”

—Gaylord Nelson

“You show me pollution and I will show you people who are not paying their own way, people who are stealing from the public, people who are getting the public to pay their costs of production. All environmental pollution is a subsidy.”

— Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

“The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the other way around.”
—Gaylord Nelson


Obama Speaks on Climate Change

On Tuesday Obama spoke on Climate Change; the need for action, his past actions and his plan for the future.

Obama brought us to the moon for the beginning of his speech. He recalled the first images of Earth presented by astronauts. Kudos to his speech writers. This beautiful imagery provides a place to stop and gain some perspective. The delicacy of our home, the feasibility of global climate trends and the beauty of earth were brought to life.

The next part of his speech displayed the frustration that must be felt by those pushing for environmental protection. He dropped terms like “science”, “97 %”, “Billions of dollars”, “floods”, “wildfires”, “droughts” and “Firemen”.



He then went on to tell us that action is required, outlining first what we has already done:
1. Pledged to reduce 2005 emissions by 17% by the end of this decade.
2. Doubled the electricity we generate from wind and the sun.
3. Doubled car mileage capability by the middle of next decade.
4. Building the first nuclear power plants in more than three decades.
5. We are poised more of our own oil than we buy from other nations.
6. Today we produce more natural gas than anybody else.
7. Reduced carbon emissions to that of 20 years ago.
8. Since 2006, no country on earth has reduced it’s carbon emissions as much as the U.S.

His new plan, in his own words will “lead the world in a coordinated assault on a changing climate”. His plan for a climate assault involves less dirty, more clean and less waste.

He went on to share a few interesting facts. The clean air act was signed by a Republican president and voted for essentially unanimously in the House and Senate. In 2006 the Supreme Court deemed it the task of the EPA to determine whether CO2 should be considered a harmful pollutant, and in 2009 the EPA decided that yes, it should, making CO2 subject to regulation.  Obama is directing the EPA to regulate power plants emissions of CO2.

He said that the determination of whether CO2 would exacerbate our climate problems was a huge factor in determining whether the keystone pipeline should be permitted to be built.

Obama then made a case for conserving economic growth despite regulations, pointing to past regulations as evidence.  He seems to believe that innovation and pioneering American spirit is what we need more of.

His new plan will
1. Again, double energy from wind and sun.
2. He will open up public lands for private renewable energy: enough to power 6 million homes by 2020.
3. Department of defense will install three gigawatts of renewable power on its bases.
4. End tax breaks for big oil companies, invest that money in the clean energy companies that will fuel our future.
5. Regulation for car mileage and truck, van and bus mileage.
6. Federal Government: run on 20% renewable energy in the next seven years.

Obama also mentioned preparing for impacts of climate change. He suggests any construction built with tax dollars will be built to withstand flood risk, forest fires and droughts and offers to share NASA data in aid to towns and cities.

He insists that the U.S. should lead the world in combatting climate change by:
1. Mobilizing private capital for clean energy around the world.
2. Aid others in switching toward natural gas.
3. Calling for an end to public financing of coal.
4. Global free trade in renewable, waste reducing technologies.
5. Teaming with China, India, and Brasil, to reduce hydrofluorocarbons and other emissions.

Obama says he is open to any ideas for combatting climate change, but can no longer deal with people who are still denying the threat of climate change.  He said: “Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel safer, but it’s not going to protect you from the coming storm.”

Obama insisted that those listening “stand up for the facts”, speak loudly, invest, divest and work toward protecting future generations.

NASA: Earth from Space

He closed once again from the moon, looking down, and pointing out that we are fighting for “everything we hold dear, the laughter of children a quiet sunset, all the hopes and dreams of posterity, that’s what’s at stake, that’s what we’re fighting for. And if we remember that, [Obama is] absolutely sure we’ll succeed.”



While I am very happy that Obama stood up and created a plan for tackling climate change. I am left with a couple of questions…

International Leadership: We can hardly claim to be leaders yet. We have enormous emissions per capita as well as a devastating ecological footprint. Leading and opening up trade barriers for trade of technology does not necessarily lead toward the healthy development of other nations.  When a nations ability to protect their environment certainly seems tied to their sovereignty and health of their local economy, this seems almost perverse.  This is certainly not the easiest way to tackle climate change. Public finance and technology sharing would much more rapidly lead to mitigation but this puts more burden on the wealthy countries and less on the poor, and does not provide further open markets for corporations. Of course that line of thought belongs to the left.  This still begs the question. With regulation of CO2 alone can the private market solve climate change? This also demonstrates a total reliance on technology. Technology may be where both sides meet, but alone it may not be sufficient.

Environmental issues: While Obama spoke on climate change, there was no mention of biodiversity, soil, oceanic acidifications, or any of the other environmental crisis that we face. Solving this problem unilaterally by decreasing carbon emissions seems incredibly optimistic. Given that climate regulation and environmental health are certainly related, I am surprised this was not mentioned. I would like to have seen a hint at more systemic solutions. These may naturally follow an economy with less cheap abundant fuel.

Again though, I am happy that Obama finally stepped forward on climate change.  Some contributing factors to the timeliness of this speech may have been recent negotiations with China, the keystone pipeline decision, and the appointment of Gina McCarthy to the EPA.  This appointment may stir some conversation in the coming weeks.

The Fiscal Cliff: A long term solution

American politics has come to systemic paralysis, a lack of creativity, and is constantly stuck between two of the same old answers, which don’t get at the core of the problem.

One solution to raising revenues and balancing the budget… tax the wealthy.  This is based on the correct idea that the top earning 1% in this country are extremely high earners, and more money can do very little to help their welfare.  Meanwhile the country is facing serious economic constraint and could simply use some help.  It is perhaps ignorant to call those top 1% the “productive members of society”.  At the same time, we must understand that in some ways this elite group have played the game which we have constructed and been very successful.  In many cases, they are creating value for society, (one major exception being financial speculation sectors). Their visions and management (along with institutional support) have led toward job creation, innovation, cheaper products, and products which consumers buy.  In the words of ex-world bank Economist Herman Daly, “We have to raise public revenue somehow, and the present system is highly distortionary in that by taxing labor and income in the face of high unemployment in nearly all countries we are discouraging exactly what we want more of. The present signal to firms is to shed labor, and substitute more capital and resource throughput, to the extent feasible.”  In some ways, taxing the wealthy does seem counter-intuitive when attempting to raise revenues, bring jobs home, and remain competitive.

This view leads to the second option which is, lower taxes and allow the free-market to innovate, grow, and therefore create more revenue without raising taxes. A couple of reasons that this is not “just”:  1)  The government needs revenue, and a small percentage increase for the wealthiest tax payers makes an enormous difference in comparison with taxes on the middle class or poor.  2)  The public certainly do support the wealthy.  Infrastructure, a stable economy, laws, consumers, labor, academic excellence, a healthy society, publicly funded research and development, subsidies: These all contribute to the 1% shine.  3) The reason which no one ever mentions: Externalities.

How do we balance these seemingly opposing views?  Tax the takers, not the makers.

The cliff is a glacier?

A long term solution will mean avoiding the edge of the cliff, and ensuring that the foundation of our economy does not crumble.  The balance sheet must come to include natural capital. While countries have historically subsidized throughput from ecosystems in order to stimulate economic growth, Herman Daly argued in 1994 that counting the consumption of natural resources as income is backwards as the definition of income is “the maximum amount that a society can consume this year and still be able to consume the same amount next year.”  While privatizing profits from resource consumption and externalizing costs has been a strategy for raising GNP in the past, we have long since understood the flaws in this approach.  Yet, with the politics of the United States the question remains, tax the wealthy or free the “productive members”.  With an economic paradigm which takes “natural capital” into account, the phrase “producer” may gradually be applied to different sectors of the economy.  To deny that “productive” members of society exist certainly is being over-egalitarian.  To deny that “takers” exist in the 1% is ludicrous as well.  For instance, in 2008 ‘The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity’ (TEEB) found that the top 500 companies of the world cost global economies 6.8 trillion dollars annually in lost ecosystem services.

Adam Smith understands the needs to tax the wealthy. “It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.” Daly agrees with Smith in that the “income tax structure should be maintained”.  At the same time however, as we redefine what contributes to national wealth we may be able to move toward an even more just solution. Daly continues, “Tax labor and income less, and tax resource throughput more.”

Herman Daly’s advice, from 1994 seems increasingly applicable today.  “It would be better to economize on throughput because of the high external costs of its associated depletion and pollution, and at the same time to use more labor because of the high social benefits associated with reducing unemployment.”

While Obama’s carbon tax was shut down early in his first term, perhaps it could become a part of the current negotiations. For this to become possible, it seems the congress and our nation as a whole could use a crash course in the importance of “natural capital”, so that we might continue to shift toward an economy which serves its purpose and rewards the productive members of society.

Daly’s full speech can be viewed at: