Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Just a meander

Through Christopher Moore I came across a review by Gideon Lewis-Kraus of Louis Menand's new book The Marketplace of Ideas, an examination of the state of higher education in the US. I skimmed the review first, found that I did not understand, so read it again several times.

It's a clear and well written review, so what's my problem? Simply, that some of the assumptions about the role of universities that seem built into the discussion are not the same as those I hold.  In August in Staff performance measurement in Australia's universities, I expressed reservations about the spread of corporate speak within Australian universities. These reservations come from a broader concern as to what I see as a decline in the real value of higher education associated with a move away from traditional university values.

I read Lewis-Kraus's review  from a perspective created  by that broader concern. Take, as an example, this excerpt:

The ultimate problem is this: How do you create a system for the production of knowledge that is, on the one hand, rigorous and peer-reviewed and, on the other, committed to aims and obligations beyond its own survival?

The words system, production and knowledge all carry very particular connotations that spark personal reactions, given my present starting point. These reactions actually make it difficult for me to read the review properly. However, I will come back to it later.

  In Consumerism & the global environment, Harry Clarke uses the State of the World 2010 Worldwatch Report as an entry point to a discussion of consumerism and the pressures this is placing on resources. He concludes:  

Finally, economists need to recognise the limits of their discipline. It is not enough to point out that Malthus got it wrong because he ignored technological progress.  It is clear that cheap carbon-based fuels and other resources acted to offset resource constraints but there can be no presumption – particularly given the devastating possible implications of climate change – that continued growth in global consumption standards is feasible in a finite world.  Taxes and transferable quotas are useful minutiae items that can be used to address environmental concerns but the broader picture of whether the continued human assault on the planet is sustainable also needs to be considered.

I found the post interesting because it raised questions in my mind.

One issue is in fact the way economics itself has created mental constructs that now affect thinking and action. The rise of the word "consumer" is an example. A second issue is the way that thinking in economics itself has shifted.

  In his recent obituary  of Professor Warren Hogan, Malcolm Brown commented that he was a traditionalist who believed that economics was meant to focus on how to make maximum use of finite resources. This was actually the way I was first taught economics at the University of New England all those years ago: the idea that economics was the study of the application of scarce means to alternative ends was introduced in the first lecture.

Economics has moved some distance from this traditional focus, focusing instead on efficiency and growth issues. By implication, the concept of scarcity has been largely relaxed at least in absolute terms.

Another issue lies in the concept of "resource" itself. Generally, we think of resources in physical terms - oil, coal, iron ore, water are all examples. In fact, the very idea of a resource is a cultural construct, a generally physical thing around which is wrapped technology and a whole set of ideas linked to use. The concept of resource therefore changes over time.

I make this point because the question as to whether a continued growth in consumption standards or incomes for that matter is possible in a finite world depends on what we mean. Clearly means will always be scarce relative to the things that we might want to do. Choices will always have to be made.

There will be cases where the supply of individual resources, oil in ground for example, are fixed. However, fuel for transport is not fixed in the same way as oil in ground. Other sources are available, if at a price.

In saying this, I am not attacking Harry Clarke's point that the broader picture of whether the continued human assault on the planet is sustainable also needs to be considered. To my mind, he is absolutely correct. However, I would perhaps add the word "present" before "continued human assault".

Some of the things that we do at present strike me as silly.

Yesterday I had to buy a new printer. I did so with great reluctance, but the costs of repairing the old one (assuming that I could find someone to do this) would have been many times the cost of a new printer. So out goes the old one to add to the rubbish stream.

The new printer came in quite complicated packaging designed to protect it. Some of this - the cardboard box for example - could be recycled. In my case, it just goes to the garden as part of the mulching process. Other parts of the packaging could not - more landfill.

My point in all this is, that we can do a lot to reduce impacts while still allowing for rising global living standards in areas such as food, accommodation, health, education, entertainment, whatever. However, it requires a change in what we demand as consumers. And that was one of Harry Clarke's key points.   

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