Clive Hamilton has an attack on Tim Flannery in The Age here. The criticisms of Flannery are of interest and generally well made. It’s also interesting to see Hamilton’s attack on green groups that he thinks are going over to the enemy – a theme which was taken up at greater length in an attack on WWF in 2004 “Taming the Panda” (pdf).
I think he makes pretty telling points against Flannery’s economic naivete. Flannery – according to Hamilton, I’ve not read his book, is full bottle on mass personal commitment – we should all spend a lot of money getting solar cells and buying hybrid cars even though we don’t know if anyone else will and there are far more cost effective actions that can be taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (by producers in particular).
Two claims that stood out for me were these.
1 “The assignment of individual responsibility is consistent with the economic rationalist view of the world, which wants everything left to the market, even when the market manifestly fails.”
Well, if you want to use the expression ‘economic rationalist’ to mean ‘everything you hate about the Howard Government’ then I guess it’s economic rationalist. In any event, Clive decided long ago that economic rationalist was a ‘boo’ word that should be used as disparagingly as possible ritually.
But any reasonable economic rationalist, even very free market ones would know that the market cannot address the externalities of pollution. This is economics 101. So economic rationalists would broadly be in two camps. Those who don’t challenge the scientific consensus that greenhouse is a substantial problem and who would (therefore) support government action to internalise the costs – like a carbon tax. And those who don’t accept the scientific consensus who (therefore) don’t. In other words, those economists who oppose taking government action don’t have that view on the economics, but on the science.
Then there is this statement of Clive’s.
2 Flannery is an advocate of individual consumer action as the answer to environmental problems. Instead of being understood as a set of problems endemic to our economic and social structures.
So there you are – environmental problems are more than environmental problems. They’re ‘a set of problems endemic to our economic and social structures’. I think Clive wants to allow some people to read into his words the idea that we shouldn’t be trying to solve our environmental problems with simple and efficient economic instruments. We need to take them as a sign that we are called to higher level solutions. Me? I’d just like to work on any and all of the problems on their merits with the most efficient instruments at hand.