Chapter 4

 

Chasing butterflies

 

La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, October 1st, 2017

 

A part of buying the plane ticket to Madrid felt like defeat, like one click of a button turned me into a hypocrite, like I was sinning against the next generation, with my only defense being that I am unable to walk away from love when I see it. The part that felt like defeat was that I deemed myself unable to reach the floating city of Makoko and finish my letters at the same time. It saddened me that I won’t get to visit the largest city of Africa during this travel, but I gave myself better odds of chasing love and completing my letters simultaneously. I felt a bit like a hypocrite, because I have been both lecturing a course on environment economics and lecturing people about the environmental costs of flying the past two years. It had been about three years since my last flights, but unlike back then, I was now aware of my impact, making it feel like an extreme act of selfishness. I only started to feel better about myself over dinner, sharing it with people who had come to Dakhla just to surf; all came by plane, except for one, who drove from France.

The next morning, I hitchhiked to the airport; not only was I picked up by the second car that passed, the driver also resolutely waived away my suggestion to offer something for the gas. I took one last look at the incomplete and unconsummated collection of visas in my passport, considered them sunk costs, and boarded a flight to Las Palmas.1 

During my stopover, I texted Alef about my changed plans and whether she could send me the details of her flight to Mexico. She responded with the details, but also that my new plans made her feel scared, happy and confused at the same time; confused, because she was meeting her ex that night to give him ‘a chance to talk to her before leaving for Mexico’. Although I should have known that there will always be other suitors for a woman like her, her response got me a little worried. Did I make a mistake leaving Africa? Should I wait to buy the ticket?

During the flight to Madrid, I discovered that I left my laptop at the security check while texting back and forth. Some friends had placed bets, where I would lose it, but I don’t think anyone guessed Canary Islands, nor an airport. To add insult to injury, a bulky man about half my size felt the need to claim the armrest in between us. Perhaps it just served as a reminder how much I dislike airports and flights. I took a few deep breaths, let my mind wander off, and started thinking back on the last times I had been in the air. I remembered both the spectacular view of the top of Borneo’s Mt. Kinabalu breaking through the cloud cover and the depressing view of a patchwork of palm oil plantations replacing rainforest as far as the eye could reach. I woke up in Madrid, remembering how much Alef’s goals in life seemed to coincide with mine, and decided to buy my ticket to Mexico, hoping that Alef wouldn’t show up with her ex at the airport. That would be awkward…

 

The river island Majuli in the Brahamaputra is recorded as the largest river island in the Guniness Book of World Records; it is comparable in size to Malta or about five and a half times Manhattan. However, the size of the Majuli is not the most remarkable about the island, the story of the Molai forest is: In 1979, the 16-year-old Jadav ‘Molai’ Payeng found several snakes dying of overheating on a treeless riverbank. He contacted the local forestry department and argued for reforestation of the island, but his plea fell on deaf ears; nothing would grow on the sandy riverbanks they explained. Payeng did not believe the reply and wanted to see if he could grow something. After transporting red ants from his village – to aid the soil fertility of the sandbar – bamboo shoots started to sprout. Almost forty years later, the Molai forest has grown to a size of one and a half times New York’s Central Park and offers a refuge to Bengal tigers, Indian elephants and rhinoceros, amongst several other endangered species. Payeng, now in his early fifties, intends to keep on planting trees until his dying breath or until Majuli is covered with forest again.2

Unfortunately, Payeng is working against the global trend. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) monitors the global forest cover and reports their assessment with five-year intervals since 1990. Between 1990 and 2015, the global forest cover was reduced with an area larger than the size of South Africa, or larger than three times California, or about 14 soccer fields per minute.3Worse, however, Myers et al. show that the cookie cutter is not random — it is malevolent. In the 17 tropical forest areas designated as biodiversity hotspots, only 12% of the original primary vegetation remains, compared with about 50% for tropical forests as a whole. Even within those hotspots, the areas richest in endemic plant species — species that are found there, and only there — have proportionately the least remaining vegetation and the smallest areas currently protected.4 See Figure 4.1 for the geographic distribution of these hotspots. Some islands, often with species that endemic only to the island, have suffered even worse deforestation; for instance, only five percent of the original forest cover remains on New Caledonia and less than 2% of the native forests remains on Mauritius.5

 

Figure 4.1: The 25 biodiversity hotspots

 
 
 
 
 

Source: Myers et al. (2000, p. 853), and contains the note: “the hotspot expanses comprise 30 - 3% of the red areas.

Visiting one’s potential parents-in-law within two weeks of meeting one’s potential life partner could be awkward, but fortunately, it wasn’t. Alef introduced me as ‘her souvenir from Morocco’, and her mom, Señora Ana Maria, welcomed me with a google-translated audio message. Her dad, Señor Francisco, did seem to be testing me a little; saying socialism is the worst political system one can have, and when I disagreed, admitting that he led a socialist student organization himself. Her older brother, Francisco, welcomed me with a t-shirt from his own brand and her sister, Gimel, shared my taste in music. Since Alef had been away from home for months, we stayed four days in Ojo de Agua before going on a roadtrip to her place.

It’s difficult to say what was more spectacular, the winding mountain roads through national parks or the stops we made on way, chasing big Blue Morpho butterflies around the surrealistic castle in Xilitla and clamping to a tree to peek into the ‘largest cave of the world’, Sótano de las Golondrinas. A few days ago, Señor Francisco had asked me: “What is your favorite tree?” I responded that I couldn’t choose between the chestnut tree in front of my parents’ house, the banyan trees in Cadiz, and the strangler figs I had seen on Borneo, but I found a new contestant during this roadtrip: The Roble trees that defy the Tula River in Ixmiquilpan. However, if I would have to reduce my recommendations to just one place, it must be Tolontongo. Bathing in the hot springs overlooking a green valley with scouring eagles, I couldn’t help falling deeper in love with both Mexico and Alef.

 

Fortunately, the vastness of largely unspoiled habitats one can still find on Earth is magnificent. Perhaps so much so, that one could be tempted to disregard, or maybe even distrust, statements like ‘14 soccer fields per minute’, especially so when living close to such habitats. The same statistic presented in another way – a decrease from 31.6% to 30.6%, in the global forest cover – may seem more credible, but less alarming. However, no matter how deforestation statistics are presented, the destruction of natural habitats is the leading cause of the current wave of species extinction.6 On top, it is one of the leading causes of climate change.7 

You may have wondered why the inhabitants of the Easter Island did not take measures to protect their natural resources at some point. Brander and Taylor (1998, p. 133) offer the following explanation: “It is even possible that individual islanders did not recognize that depletion was taking place. Although the forest disappeared rapidly by archaeological standards, change was slow over the course of an individual life span. Typical life spans for those who survived infancy would have been on the order of 30 years, and even during most rapid depletion, the forest stock would have declined by no more than 5 percent over a typical lifetime.” Similarly, the 40% increase in the atmospheric concentration of CO2 over the few generations since the industrial revolution may not seem enormous, but this change is epic by geological standards.8 

The concentration of CO2 is an important driver of climate change. Since experiments by John Tyndall in the 1850’s and 60’s, we know that various gases in the atmosphere have the capacity to absorb part of the infrared radiation spectrum, also known as radiant heat; greenhouse gases absorb radiant heat and reflect part of it back to Earth. A helpful analogy is to picture a giant sink filled up to some level, where the water level is analogous to the temperature on Earth, with a constant stream of water flowing in from the faucet and leaving the sink to the drain, where inflow is analogous to the incoming heat from the Sun, the outflow is equal to the heat radiating from the Earth back into space, and CO2 is something that partially clogs the sink. What happens in this case? The incoming water remains constant, but the outflow is increasingly hampered with, filling up the sink to a new higher level, until the pressure on the drain is such that the outflow is again equal to the inflow. Et voila, global warming.9

I didn’t make to Lagos, but after a flat tire, some help from a friendly truckdriver, and after crawling behind big trucks through thick foggy roads, we did make it to La Cruz. We arrived two days ago to this hot and humid beach town. Too hot and humid for this Dutchman, but Alef assured me that it will be less humid in a couple of weeks, and from late November, the temperatures will start to drop as well. She welcomed me to her home with a warning: “I don’t want you to be alarmed… but maybe it is better if you wear your flipflops tonight because of the scorpions.” After I asked her how often she finds them and how big and dangerous these scorpions are, she continued: “They are small, getting stung is painful, and quite dangerous if you are allergic or don’t treat it. I caught about twenty to thirty last year, and afterwards drowned them and kept them in alcohol for antidote, so don’t worry.” And she has dog, Luna.

La Cruz de Huanacaxtle is a small town with marina in Bahia de Banderas on Mexican’s Pacific coast. It named after the Huanacaxtle tree, also called the elephant-ear tree because of elephant-ear-shaped seedpods. Many of its fifteen hundred inhabitants work in the tourism sector, and if possible, escape the heat during the low-season. We arrived couple of weeks before the high-season, so it has been rather quiet, and indeed, hot. The past two days I have found some refuge at the beach, where the sea is warm enough to enter without a shiver and one is treated with a rainbow before the shower. Last night, we went to one of Mexico’s ‘magic villages’, Sayulita, to meet and pick up Alef’s younger brother, Karlos, who will join me to return the rental car to Mexico City tomorrow.

Sayulita is famous for its surfing and its nightlife, especially the beach parties on Friday night are popular among locals. It was Saturday, so instead, we headed to ‘Don Pato’. I like to dance, but I don’t like to be in the center of attention, while Alef often is. I watched heads turn while she walked in front of me towards Karlos. Both seemed fluent in salsa and reminded me why I feel especially clumsy with latin music. Even so, Alef had her eyes only on me, and with her encouragement, we ended up having a great night. I’m not looking forward to be away from her, but she needs some time to settle in after six months away from home. At least, I’ll get to visit my friend Antonio. I’ll get back to you with an estimate of how much kilograms of CO2 I contributed to the atmosphere during my travels so far, once I’m back in La Cruz. Regarding my footprint, I realize that I just made one big step back, hoping to make many steps forward soon.

 
 
 
 

There may be a crucial difference between us and the Easter Islanders from before their population collapse: We have the benefit of recognizing and recording changes in deforestation and global temperatures, and can to a certain extent predict how these changes harm the carrying capacity of our planet. The current question is rather whether we can react, collectively. The scientific community has been aware of these threats for a while already, as you may have noticed from the dates of some references, but has been unable to tame the of the invisible hand of our wants. Its destructive force is cutting down our forest and emptying our oceans; whether it is the sushi we eat or the toilet paper we flush, we are rarely confronted with the direct impacts of our actions.10 

The invisible hand usually refers to unintended social benefits of self-interested actions, as used by Adam Smith. Smith (1759, IV.1) first used the metaphor in relation to some ‘trickling-down’ of wealth argument: “…All the rich do is to select from the heap the most precious and agreeable portions. They consume little more than the poor; and in spite of their natural selfishness and greed, and despite the fact that they are guided only by their own convenience, and all they want to get from the labours of their thousands of employees is the gratification of their own empty and insatiable desires, they do share with the poor the produce of all their improvements [meaning: their well-cultivated land, their up-to-date ploughs, their state of the art milking sheds, etc.]. They are led by an invisible hand to share out life’s necessities in just about the same way that they would have been shared out if the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants. And so without intending it, without knowing it, they advance the interests of the society·as a whole·, and provide means for the survival of the species...11

The second use of the phrase was in Smith (1776, IV.II), where Smith used it as a metaphor to argument in favor of free markets: “… As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value, every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it.… …he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was not part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.

Smith is seen by many as the father of modern economics, and his work has had a profound influence on neoclassical economics. The invisible hand speaks to the imagination; it is indeed wonderful how the seemingly uncoordinated actions of self-interested agents in the marketplace maximize social welfare, under certain assumptions. The neoclassical school of thought is summarized by Weintraub (1993) as: “Neoclassical economics is what is called a metatheory. That is, it is a set of implicit rules or understandings for constructing satisfactory economic theories. It is a scientific research program that generates economic theories. Its fundamental assumptions are not open to discussion in that they define the shared understandings of those who call themselves neoclassical economists, or economists without any adjective.12 Those fundamental assumptions include the following: 1. People have rational preferences among outcomes.13 2. Individuals maximize utility and firms maximize profits.14 3. People act independently on the basis of full and relevant information.15 Theories based on, or guided by, these assumptions are neoclassical theories.”

I argue that the unintended social costs of our actions in the marketplace have become more important to economics in the Anthropocene than the unintended social benefits. We need a paradigm shift in economics, away from the neoclassical school and towards to steady state economics; hopefully, an increasing share of my fellow economists will come to see that economic policy in the Anthropocene needs to give a more central role to improving the carrying capacity rather than zealously chasing economic growth.16 Mill (1857) and Daly (1974) already argued for the necessity and desirability of steady state economics based on common sense and the second law of thermodynamics. The accumulated evidence that we harm global carrying capacity adds urgency.

While more suitable economic theories and more sustainable public policies would certainly make the carbon transition easier, the required revolution in consumer behavior is perhaps even more important than the paradigm shift in economics. I expect the change in consumer behavior to be more difficult as well, the challenge of a lifetime one might say.17 Only you and I can stop the invisible hand of our needs and wants from causing more damage. Let us look for ways to minimize our collective footprint together, together with hundreds of millions of people.

Chapter 5

References

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

"He who plants a tree

 Plants a hope.

 Rootlets up through fibres blindly grope;

Leaves unfold into horizons free.

 So man's life must climb

 From the clods of time

 Unto heavens sublime.

Canst thou prophesy, thou little tree,

What the glory of thy boughs shall be?

 

 

He who plants a tree,

 He plants love,

 Tents of coolness spreading out above

Wayfarers he may not live to see.

 Gifts that grow are best;

 Hands that bless are blest;

 Plant! life does the rest!

Heaven and earth help him who plants a tree,

And his work its own reward shall be."

 

Lucy Larcom (1876)

1. Sunk costs refer to expenses made in the past that should not affect your current decision; the classic example is not making use of a movie ticket you paid for because you no longer feel like it, for my visa, it meant disregarding that I once paid for the option to travel somewhere, or applied to the fossil fuel transition, it could mean disregarding the fossil infrastructure investments in the decision to allow for it use.

 

2. One of the kite-surfers on Dakhla told me the story about a man who planted a forest, see Sharma (2012) and the Kickstarter-backed documentary Forest Man (2013) for a more detailed coverage of Jadav Payeng. My search afterwards also gave a similar story from nearly the other side of the globe, where Antonio Vicente turned 31 hectares of nearly infertile land in the state of São Paulo into a dense rainforest with eight waterfalls, see Cowie (2017).

3. FAO (2016) reports a loss of 129 million hectares, corresponding to about 14 soccer fields of 0.7 hectares per minute, and consisting predominantly of tropical forests. This idea for this translation of scale comes from the WWF website, who currently report a loss of 48 soccer fields per minute, and Cowspiracy (2014) reports the loss of a football field per second.

4. See Pimm and Raven (2000, p. 844). The estimates depend on the exact definition of tropical forest cover and uncertainty about original forest cover. However, any debate about deforestation numbers is between bad and worse; e.g., see McConnell and Kull (2014) for a discussion whether deforestation on Madagascar is 50% and 90%.

5. See Conservation International (2011) and Norder et al. (2017), for the examples from New Caledonia and Mauritius, respectively. Madagascar is also on Conservation International’s most threatened list, where Conservation International noted 90% deforestation, McConnell and Kull (2014) estimate 50%.

6. Two thirds of terrestrial life lives in tropical forests, or similar, 17 out of 25 ‘biodiversity hotspots’ lie in the tropics, see Pimm et al. (2000) and Myers et al. (2000).

7. Rainforest are often referred to as the seen as the symbolical lungs of our planet, because plants inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen; or turn CO2 into O2, so rather the opposite of our lungs. Deforestation has contributed by about a one-fifth to a quarter to the anthropogenic change CO2 concentration, see Kindermann et al. (2008) and Burgess et al. (2012).

8. The pre-industrial CO2 concentration was about 280 parts per million (Rockström et al., 2009). According to observations at the NOAA observatory in Manua Loa, Hawaii, the CO2 last year’s concentration was 404.2 (www.co2.earth). That the change is epic by geological standards is best illustrated with graphs that go back tens of thousands of years, see Figure 5.2 and 5.3 in the next Chapter.

9. Fourier (1827) was first to suggest the greenhouse gas mechanism and Arrhenius (1896) estimated that a doubling of CO2 concentration gives a temperature increase of roughly 4 degrees Celsius. For a more extensive discussion of the physics of climate change, I like to refer you to a free online course taught by David Archer from the University of Chicago, who I also thank for the sink analogy.

10. Toilet paper can be recycled, or come from sustainable forest harvest. See Chapter xx on sustainable harvests.

11. For a similar trickle-down argument see Chapter 5 and see also Chapter xx for a discussion on income (re-)distribution.

12. Like I mentioned earlier, neoclassical economics is currently the mainstream school of thought.

13. There is an extensive literature on biases, called behavioral economics. See Kahneman (2011) or Taleb (2005) for excellent introductions into this literature. Chapter 9 includes a discussion on time preferences.

14. See Chapter xx for a discussion of happiness literature, and Chapter xx for some examples of social entrepreneurship.

15. There is a large literature on asymmetric information, which pushes the boundaries on this assumption, where some actors hold private information, but all actors know the rules of the game. Also see Chapter xx for a discussion on search cost.

16. See Chapter xx on steady state economics.

17. Behavioral change is difficult, I know, I have been trying to give up smoking for years.