Is Africa underpolluted?

I’m not always in favour of the kind of argument defended here – it all depends on context, intent and, as the author says, whether it’s offered as the start or the end of a conversation – but the case for this style of argument is well put by Chris Dillow at Stumbling and Mumbling

Larry Summers appointment as head of the National Economic Council has resurrected the controversy about his notorious World Bank memo, in which he argued that African countries were vastly under-polluted.For me, though, that episode was a perfect – yes perfect – example of what economists can and should contribute to public debate.  

The thing is, economics is not a body of hard science that can be applied mechanically to social and economic problems. Nor do economists necessarily possess better judgment or foresight than others.

Instead, what economists have are questions, not answers. They can offer arguments based in logic and evidence but which contradict instinct and consensus. They can force people to acknowledge that some moral principles, keeping poor Africans safe, can conflict with others – making them richer. They can force people to think.

Yes, Summers memo showed that economic logic has limits. But it also showed that cosy morality has costs too. 

Better still, Summers memo was intended to be the first words of a conversation, not the last. He was valuing debate as an intrinsic good. The question that leaps out of every line of that memo is: what if anything is wrong with this idea?

And this is what is so rare, and valuable. Too many policy pronouncements are intended to be last words, as if the puny mind of one individual suffices to solve tricky policy problems. 
Worse, they are often  mere projections of ego. Among newspaper columnists – and in this regard Polly Toynbee, Melanie Phillips and Richard Littlecock are indistinguishable – this consists of a form of grunting intended to signal that the author belongs to the readers tribe.

Among politicians, it consists in the effort to signal that one has judgment, in the precisely opposite sense of the Summers memo – being the ability to pander to the received ideas of the trash media. The upshot is that on the rare occasions when a politician does say something intelligent, he is howled down.

The great virtue of the Summers memo was that it showed a hope that policy debate can be something better than this, richer in evidence and logic and free of ego* and intellectually stimulating – that there is a place for thinking in policy debate.
Sadly, this hope was not fulfilled. But I like to think Mr Summers has not learned from experience.

* Anyone who points out that Summers has a big ego is missing the point here.

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Sinclair Davidson
Sinclair Davidson
12 years ago

Of course, Africa is not at all under-polluted. At least not those parts I’m familiar with. Unfortunately the pollution is of a very different kind than that of, say the US. In the US pollution is a by-product of economic activity, whereas in Africa a lot of the pollution is a by-product of decay and poverty.

Summers’ general point is good. There are parts of the world that would be excellent sites for waste (at an appropriate fee, including environmental costs). Africa might be one of those places. I’m told that parts of Australia would be excellent sites to store nuclear waste – but at the moment there is no support for that at any price. Another consideration is transport costs – transport infrastructure in Africa is poor and expensive. Such a scheme would require a massive investments before it could be implemented.

Pappinbarra Fox
Pappinbarra Fox
12 years ago

Too many policy pronouncements are intended to be last words, as if the puny mind of one individual suffices to solve tricky policy problems.
Worse, they are often mere projections of ego. Among newspaper columnists – and in this regard PIERS ACKERMAN et al are indistinguishable – this consists of a form of grunting intended to signal that the author belongs to the readers tribe.

This is one of the best discriptions of some journos that I have seen in a long time – I just wish I coul dhave thought of it.

Patrick
12 years ago

I think the general point, Sinclair, is that Africa is underdeveloped, ie might be net better off with some more ostensibly harmful pollution from industrial plants, etc, rather than merely dumping waste:

Dirty’ Industries: Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging MORE migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs [Least Developed Countries]

That said there is merit in your different point, particularly as applied to South Australia – as long as it is not too close to the wineries :)

NPOV
NPOV
12 years ago

The problem with migrating dirty industries to “LDCs” is that often end up being more polluting than they were in first world countries they were established, hence increasing the total amount of pollution, which is hardly something we want to see. This is especially unjustifiable when a particular company that is capable of building relatively clean factories and running them profitably in first world countries decides they’ll be more profitable elsewhere because they don’t have to comply to the same level of environmental regulations. I don’t see how anybody benefits from that (except perhaps aging shareholders who aren’t going to be around long enough to suffer an ill-effects). It’s one thing to build a factory in an “LDC” to make use of an excess supply of relatively low-skilled labour, which makes perfect economic sense (and gives the occupants of such countries a decent chance at gaining some skills and becoming significantly more productive), but you’ve already gained your extra profitability right there, so there should be no need to further boost it by taking advantage of lax government oversight of environmental damage.