The Gnat Is Older Than Man: Global Environment and Human Agenda

By Christopher D. Stone | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VII
Medicating the Earth: Preventatives
and Remedies

THE FACT that economics cannot provide a nostrum for environmental ailments should hardly be surprising. The planet's maladies are too complex and its cultures too diverse to rely on any single line of attack. Ideally, we should be aiming for a taxonomy of globaldegradation problems that can be matched with a taxonomy of control strategies. That is, what sorts of institutional responses appear best suited to what sorts of environmental problems? One imagines that some challenges would lend themselves to relatively strong reliance on economic instruments, such as excise taxes; for others, such as ultrahazardous chemicals, we best shift to preventive standards such as mandatory safety devices; for yet others, including some of the less well defined international conflicts, the most we can hope for may be some institutionalized patterns of notification and consultation among diplomats.

A thoroughgoing, problem-by-problem taxonomy would be, as I say, “ideal.” But it is also slippery. Typically, the characteristics, both of the problems and of the control responses, are diverse and still ill-understood. How do we know what instruments to call upon to combat red tides, if we do not know what is causing them? How can we deploy a carbon tax, when we are so uncertain about both the social costs of alternative fuels and the environmental damage carbon causes? Some remedies are highly situational. Attaching conditions to debt relief may serve as a lever against poor borrower nations, but it cannot influence the industrialized lenders.

In fact, the suitability of a remedy may even depend upon how a problem is defined subjectively. If we think of a problem as toomuch-dioxin-in-a-river, then there is something to be said for establishing a tight and shrinking market in tradable dioxin emissions

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