Cleopatra’s Dessert and Shark Fin Soup








At a Brussels nuclear law conference in 2007, I gave a technical paper on intergenerational issues in nuclear waste economics. I argued for the prudence of applying a conservative discount rate when setting aside funds for future nuclear waste management so as to guard against contingencies. Recently I had the chance to look at my argument again with fresh eyes when I obtained a copy of the conference proceedings (published by Bruylant), and I was struck by one passage that may be of broader interest, especially given what happened between 2007 and now in global financial markets:  

“The fifth and final argument for [a conservative discount rate] is the possibility of some unforeseen event that could dramatically change the economic circumstances of one country or another. In Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s excellent recent book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, the mathematician and former trader argues that history is dominated by highly improbable, high impact events. He cautions that markets are poor predictors of war, for example, that government predictions are generally unreliable, and that the accuracy of a forecast ‘degrades rapidly as you extend it through time.’ Or as he cautions in a nutshell: ‘No one in particular is a good predictor of anything. Sorry.’

The  Asian financial crisis of 1997 led to rapid – and quite unforeseeen – devaluation of the Thai baht, the Korean won, and the Indonesian rupiah. Argentina’s economy, meanwhile, experienced hyperinflation in the late 1980s and then collapsed between 1999 and 2002. Japan actually experienced deflation and a zero interest rate policy between 2001 and 2005, quite at odds with economic predictions for the country two decades earlier (and also at odds with what one would expect of the world’s second largest economy). These examples give us pause, because Argentina, Japan and Korea have nuclear plants, and Thailand announced plans in June 2007 to build the country’s first nuclear plant. All will need [nuclear waste] repositories in time. But more within the spirit of Taleb’s argument, the better lesson is to recognize that we have no idea where the next financial crisis will occur.”

The last sentence was meant as a general warning, not a premonition. We may have recognized the lesson of that sentence for now – humility – but we’re likely to forget it again in the next bull market.

As for the title of this post, it comes from the fact that seemingly small human preferences at one moment in time – apparently marginal increments of utility or enjoyment – can have huge impacts on future generations. As Cowen and Parfit write (I quote them in my paper), “Imagine finding out that you, having just reached your twenty-first birthday, must soon die of cancer because one evening Cleopatra [the ruler of ancient Egypt] wanted an extra helping of dessert.” The example sounds far-fetched, right? But the issue is whether incremental forms of consumption and enjoyment at the expense of the environment today – widespread enjoyment of shark fin soup, for example – are set to have similarly dramatic and harmful impacts on future generations.

As the British economist F.P. Ramsey wrote in an important paper in 1928 (“A Mathematical Theory of Saving,”), to “discount later enjoyments in comparison with earlier ones … is “a practice which is ethically indefensible and arises merely from the weakness of the imagination.” Sadly, and ironically, Ramsey died only two years after writing those words, only 26 years old, and with the wisdom of someone who had lived much longer.

The most apropos news photograph never taken

June 3/09 (Reuters): “Dead whale found on bow of Exxon tanker in Alaska”

Oh, how the entire PR unit of ExxonMobil must have gone to bed on Monday night praising God that no photographer happened to be hanging around the terminal the day that tanker came in. But while this particular image-as-metaphor will apparently have to be provided by and preserved in our own imaginations, the report itself does contain one passage of almost poetic sadness:

Neither crew members on the Kodiak nor those aboard the tugs that escorted the tanker during the final approach to Valdez noticed anything out of the ordinary during the transit, said Ray Botto, external affairs manager for SeaRiver Maritime.

“There was nothing that suggested any deviation from standard operating practice,” he said, adding the poor condition of the whale, which had a noticeable stench, suggests it had been dead for a while.

Sums up the whole progress of civilization, somehow, doesn’t it?

In the keep of the tree

The "iron-eating" sycamore of Brig o' Turk
The "iron-eating" sycamore of Brig o' Turk

Plants, it is well known, have a remarkable ability — born, perhaps, of their immense patience and gradualism — to physically merge themselves with elements in their environment. Ivy will bind fast to brick, beans will curl around poles, and trees… well, consider the iron-eating sycamore of Brig o’ Turk, a village in central Scotland near Loch Lomond. The tree, well over a century old, stands next to a disused smithy and over long years has subsumed numerous metal items that had been discarded against its trunk or hung on its boughs: items including a bridle, a ship’s anchor and chain, and a bicycle, the handlebars of which are the only part still visible.

Not only is this ability a tribute to the adaptability of plants, but it also provides a particularly moving example of nature’s role as a keeper of time. In the same inevitable way that grass pushes through the cracks of unmaintained asphalt, or a lover’s heart carved into an oak will deepen and slowly scar over, the sycamore in Brig o’ Turk reminds us of the transience of our material possessions, and, of course, ourselves.

All of which provides me with a credible excuse to introduce some beautiful verses on that very theme, written by 25-year-old poet-to-watch Robert Selby (who, as you’ll see from some of the poems on his site, particularly “The Leaving of the Institutions”, has a fine sense of man’s relationship to nature — or should I say, of nature’s relationship to man).

The Sycamore

Up the narrow road beside the tea-room
and you pass an iron-eating tree… (Gazetteer for Scotland)


The black-faced smithy’s boy of Brig o’ Turk
propped his bicycle against the sycamore
before his final shift at the clanging hearth,
soon to head off for war to escape the bore
of pouring coal into the firepot’s girth.
Proud of his young apprentice, the old mentor
drove the new recruit homeward on his dray,
so the bicycle remained in the keep of the tree.

As the smithy’s boy made corporal and set sail,
the sycamore began a cruelly slow advance.
As bugles called from shires their lonely scale,
the bicycle was raised on a timber lance.
When the smithy’s boy died at Passchendaele
and the village darkened in remembrance,
the sycamore drew about the bicycle,
clutching to its bark the spokes and saddle.

Long since the blacksmith sold off the yard,
since war ended, resprouted, withered again,
and the Trossachs became a National Park,
the bicycle protrudes still, a man-made limb
mimicking new growth, the ribbed handlebars
waiting for the smithy’s boy to reclasp them,
to pull free the frame and tour off, roadworthy,
the cast-iron memorial in the skyward lee.

– Robert Selby (Times Literary Supplement, April 18, 2008)

Global Zero


Following my recent thoughts on nuclear energy expansion and disarmament, I was heartened to run across Global Zero. In December 2008, one hundred global leaders met in Paris and launched an effort to eliminate nuclear weapons worldwide. The idea is to phase out the world’s 27,000 or so weapons over the next 25 years (96% of them are in Russia and the United States). It will be easier said than done, of course, and there will be major game theoretic issues to sort out, like how to respond to a violator with a secret cache in a world in which all other countries have eliminated their weapons. Still, I admire the simplicity, clarity and moral resolve of the initiative.

Signatories include the likes of Zbigniew Brzezinski, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, Yoriko Kawaguchi, Robert McNamara, Desmond Tutu, and Muhammad Yunus; Canada’s Lloyd Axworthy is also among them. Building on this high profile support, events are planned for 2009 culminating in a World Summit in early 2010.

Will this initiative open space for Obama to advance a disarmament agenda, notwithstanding how much else he will have on his plate? In July 2008, he said “as long as nuclear weapons exist we will retain a strong deterrent.” But he also said, intriguingly, “We will make the goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons a central element in our nuclear policy.”

If you want to sign the declaration, as I have done, you can do so here.

Obama’s Energy


 Happy New Year!

I have been away from this wonderful blog for far too long. Thanks to A.M., Ian and Jeet for carrying the ball in the latter half of 2008, and 2009 will see me blogging at Sans Everything once again.

Let me start by sharing some energy policy suggestions I offered to President-elect Obama recently on the Huffington Post.  What do you think? Am I missing some big  items? Do you agree or disagree with the ideas below – and if so, why? If you had to advise Obama on priority changes in energy policy, what would you say?


Transforming the Energy Economy 

by John Haffner

With volatile oil prices, growing global energy demand, and the spectre of catastrophic climate change, energy has become a front-page and household issue — not just in the United States, but around the world. The next president has the opportunity to lead a radical energy transformation towards a future based on low carbon, reliable and sustainable energy. There are seven steps the next administration could take that would help drive this transformation.

First, the United States must lead global climate discussions before and after the United Nations Climate Change Conference in late 2009. Carbon reduction targets for the period from 2012 to 2050 must be rooted in the latest scientific findings on the pace of climate change, and the successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol must include aggressive intermediate reduction targets so as to drive investment decisions.

Second, the United States should introduce a federal moratorium on new coal-fired plants that do not have carbon capture and storage (CCS), as well as an aggressive time frame for retirement or retrofit of existing coal-fired plants without CCS. It should challenge other countries to do the same.

Third, the United States should challenge every country to generate 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, and 30 percent by 2030. It should commit to underwriting global and regional financing and policy mechanisms that support this objective.

Fourth, as the global community prepares to expand the peaceful use of nuclear energy, the administration must undertake serious efforts to restore the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and to begin a discourse that looks beyond non-proliferation and towards disarmament. The president should review how to strengthen the oversight capacity of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and devise a plan, in collaboration with other countries, towards universal (or near-universal) adoption of key international legal instruments to be used against proliferation: the Additional Protocol, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty.

Fifth, the United States must adopt aggressive energy efficiency standards and codes nationwide, and the president must be willing to exercise strong leadership in challenging builders, cities and companies to adopt a wide array of visionary efficiency measures in homes, buildings, and transportation.

Sixth, the United States should reduce its domestic agricultural subsidy policies and apply sustainability criteria towards ethanol production — in comparison with other options — so that the United States will be able to expand the use of biofuels in a sustainable manner.

Finally, the next president of the United States should move away from the misleading rhetoric of “energy independence,” and instead embrace a new discourse of “energy interdependence,” a more enlightened language that recognizes that energy nationalism is dangerous for everyone, and global energy challenges will be solved together or not at all.

Comparing apples and oranges


We’re not supposed to compare apples and oranges – or so the saying goes. But as H.P. Glenn, erudite author of Legal Traditions of the World points out, we can compare apples and oranges: “[t]here are obvious criteria of roundness, acidity, colour, sweetness, price and so on. “ As Glenn goes on to ask, “Why do people say you cannot compare things, that they are incommensurable, when they are so obviously comparable or commensurable?”

A bit of etymology may be in order: ‘incommensurable’ is the negation of the Latin ‘com’ and ‘mensurabilis,’ indicating, as Glenn says, “a degree of common measure.” Incommensurable, in other words, is a fancy way of saying that things are incomparable. The term derives from debates in ancient Greek mathematics: there was an issue at the time of whether everything mathematical could be expressed in integers, and the Pythagoreans demonstrated that some aspects of geometry could not be so expressed.

I mention all this not out of sheer pedantic interest, but because some friends have been urging the notion of incommensurability on me recently in the context of energy policy debates. Oddly enough, the abstruse idea of incommensurability has implications for our energy choices. Continue reading

Jesus and Recycling

Marc Chagall’s Ruth Gleaning.  

Jesus thought a great deal about garbage. He had been raised in a tradition that made a fundamental distinction between purity and impurity, kosher and treif, the sacred and the profane. These seem like very strict and absolute binary divisions but Hebrew scripture also contained an ambiguity. The sacred texts abound in narratives that contradict the absolute division between the clean and the dirty by celebrating people who were closest to the grimy ground, the rejected and the dejected. Prototypically, there were slaves of Egypt who became the chosen people (slaves being those who do the dirty work of society); there is also Ruth gathering gleanings (i.e. picking up food not worth the farmer’s time); and also the many unkempt prophets who were closer to God than all the Rabbis. Consider Jonah: a man of God swallowed by a whale and then extruded, the prophet as vomit or excrement, yet fulfilling his divine mission even in his humiliation. (The story of Jonah is one that seems to have been particularly dear to Jesus). 

Continue reading

Climate Change vs. Human Inertia – Part 2

penseur1.jpgIn late November my post on climate change and human inertia met with 16 responses. I’m happy that what I wrote generated so much discussion, including from some esteemed visitors to Sans Everything who have a lot to say on this issue (Ray Ladbury, Eric Steig, John McCormick). But I’m also concerned that some of my learned friends, including the inimitable David Sachs and the inestimable Greg MacIsaac, appear content to stand on the sidelines of this issue. Their response opens some new tributaries of the question I asked previously: of why some hyper-educated folk still pooh-pooh the issue, and what it means that they do.

My earlier post was presented as a problem of action. I suggested that most people who sit on the climate fence do so not because of genuine scientific perplexity, but rather because of distractions like inordinate media controversy. But some of the people who responded to me wanted to shift the discussion back to scientific first principles all the same. Fair enough, I suppose, although I suspect that some of those responses may have had to do simply with the medium: the blogosphere invites contest on all matters.

Blog discussions are fun, and don’t get me wrong: I’m happy to go a few rounds trading declamations and propositions as much as the next penseur. But I believe climate change is the sort of issue that demands we move past parlour games, so I am genuinely interested in the levers of persuasion here. Greg invited us to think of climate change as a problem of epistemology. Well, here is a riddle for knowledge: if a well-informed philosopher is still harrumphing against climate change, how does one expect to convince someone who is rooted, say, in the evidentiary standards of religious fundamentalism? Greg also appealed to the idea of first-hand empirical verification, opening another wrinkle. Climate change is already a big enough challenge of persuasion as it stands: it becomes positively googolplexian if we believe that everyone on the planet has to investigate the matter firsthand before their view has any validity.

Continue reading

Singer on climate change

A few posts down I mention Peter Singer on egalitarianism. It must be Peter Singer week in the blogosphere, because over at his blog Philosophy Sucks!, Richard Brown also has a post quoting Singer, this time on the subject of climate change:

Yesterday LaGuardia College hosted Peter Singer who gave a short talk entitled “Climate Change and Ethics.” His basic argument was that by any reasonable standard of justice that one picks the U.S. comes out having a duty to lead the movement to reduce climate change. This is directly contrary to Bush’s stated reason for opting out of the Kyoto agreement (he said it wasn’t an ‘even-handed’ agreement because it exempted China and India . . . thereby implying that the treaty was unjust). He talked about three reasonable sounding principles of justice.

1. You break it you buy it: Historically the U.S. has been the number one contributor to greenhouse gasses and so should have the most responsiblity for cleaning up the environment

2. Forget the past, divide it up evenly according to how much each industrialized nation pollutes: The U.S. puts out about six times as much greenhouse gasses (per capita) as any other industrialized nation and so again, we have the greatest responsibility to clean up the environment

3. Benefit the least advantaged: This is the Rawlsian conception of justice according to which an inequality is acceptable only if it is to the advantage of the least advantaged member of (the global) society. This would (obviously) entail that the U.S. would have to make drastic cuts to the amount of greenhouse gasses that we contribute (per capita).

So no matter how you slice it it looks like the U.S. has a moral obligation to take the lead in reducing climate change, and yet we refuse to be a part of Kyoto because it is “unfair”!

Until recently, Australia was also a Kyoto holdout. Following the recent election however, one of the first things Kevin Rudd’s new Labour government has done is to ratify the Kyoto protocol. Let’s hope that following the U.S. election in a year’s time, we see something similar happen there.