The American Enterprise Online

04/22/02   

Earth Day in Las Vegas
by Marc Stiegler 

Earth Day has to be the most irritating of our recently minted holidays. The problem is not really the goals of Earth Day. Even if you don't buy the doomsday prophecies of the Greens, it is nice to be able to hike in the woods without seeing empty pop cans under every bush. 

And certainly we all prefer the current balmy climate to the vision of an apocalyptic often presented as the inevitable result of driving your Ford Expedition to work every Tuesday (hey, you knew that 4-wheel drive would come in handy sooner or later). The real problem with Earth Day is not the goals, it is the methods that most Earth Day enthusiasts would use to get there. Those methods are so unpopular, Earth Day itself is a toothless exercise in silliness. So here's the question: how do we turn the current Earth Day celebration into a true vehicle for cleaning up the planet? How do we get from badly written folk songs to well-designed styles of living? 

The first step in saving the planet is figuring out how to fix the most problems for the least pain. There are members of the eco-community who would say that pain is irrelevant, or even desirable, since people should be punished for the sins already committed. Ahem. 

For the rest of us, identifying good solutions with little pain is a serious concern. Do I really have to give up my job in the logging industry for an eco-friendly welfare check? Couldn't I instead just stop toasting organic marshmallows on an open campfire when I go on those pop-can-free hikes? 

It is actually pretty difficult to tell what actions are truly eco-friendly. It is also quite difficult to determine how much those actions really cost. It might feel very eco-hip to trade that Expedition in for a Honda, but don't do it: the pollution cost in coal and steel and oil and electricity for manufacturing the additional Honda far outstrips the gas costs in maintaining the Expedition. If you want to save the environment, keep that old clunker running as long as you can. Just make sure to keep the engine tuned. 

Real solutions, as opposed to feel-good solutions, can only be identified by looking at real facts and treating them to real analysis. This is distinctly different from having a bunch of politicians appoint a Blue Ribbon Commission and then pretending that the results are more scientific than the recommendations made by C3PO in Star Wars. Fortunately, new developments in future forecasting and decision making allow us to move forward, if not without error, then at least without lobbyists. The modern invention that makes this possible is the football betting pool. 

Football betting pools? Are you crazy? I hear you cry. Well, the answer is not exactly the office betting pool. Actually, we should run idea futures markets, and allow our decisions to be guided by the predictions made in the market. 

The basic concept of an idea futures market is fairly straightforward: create a carefully qualified prediction of the future, and allow people to buy positions for and against the prediction. When the prediction comes due, the people who bought the correct side of the prediction get the money from the people who foretold wrong. People who predict the future badly will lose their money and get real jobs instead; people with superior crystals balls will make a bundle, and continue to make predictions. People who are certain they are right about the future will put their money where their mouth is, or they will shut up (well, those kinds of people hardly ever shut up; but at least we can stop listening to them). 

The football betting pool is a kind of idea futures market in which the predictions have been standardized. The commodities futures markets are also like idea futures markets. The difference is mainly in the eye of the beholder. If you are a professional economist, idea futures look a great deal like commodities futures. If you are a member of the Federal Gaming Commission, idea futures look a great deal like football betting pools, which are forms of gambling, and which are hence illegal.  

So the first step in saving our ecosystem may be to eviscerate the Federal Gaming Commission. Allowing those offshore Web casinos to employ people here in the United States and pay taxes is a small price to pay to save our planet. In the meantime, however, the fate of Earth probably lies in the hands of island nations like Anguilla and Tonga, where the long arm of the government falls just a bit short. 

Would idea futures really change the dynamics of the current popular debate, which seems generally shaped by the person who shouts the most ridiculous falsehood most loudly? History suggests it could, if given a proper chance. A sample of both potentialities and limitations of the concept was delivered gift-wrapped in 1980, when Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon did indeed back their claims with real cash. Paul Ehrlich, knowing the world was doomed, confidently bet that the cost of resources (in particular, metals) would gallop out of control over the course of the next 10 years, as overpopulation magnified the problems of scarcity. Julian Simon predicted prices would fall, as human innovation outstripped demand. 

When the prediction's due date arrived, a clear winner emerged. The Earth had not been ravaged beyond recognition; the price of metals had gone down; in 1990 Paul Ehrlich forked over $570.07. 

This futures market worked brilliantly. The good predictors gained, the bad ones lost. Anyone watching the outcome of the betting learned something important. The market did exhibit a failure, however. Though Paul Ehrlich has never again put his money on the line, some of us still continue to listen to him. 

Idea futures have had other successes as well. The Ideosphere idea futures market, which does not even use real money (that would be gambling, remember), correctly predicted in 1999 that most of the computers would continue to run in the year 2000, and the Millennium Bug would be a bust. 

How would we apply the power of idea futures more generally to ecological decision making? The first obvious choice is to work predictions on the economic and ecological consequences of different eco-friendly policies. However, futures on matters of this type have a simple, predictable outcome: emissions trading schemes, like those proposed by Milton Friedman and vigorously defended by Al Gore in Kyoto, produce by far the most eco-improvement for the least amount of pain. These proposals were met with near-violent resistance from the communist government of China and other central planners, all of whom are of course experts in ecological and economic policy, as demonstrated by the great per capita wealth of their nations and the pristine state of their ecosystems (North Korea, Cuba, Iraq). 

This leads us a significant step closer to the true opportunity. History profusely demonstrates that, however sinful capitalist democracies may be on the eco-frontier, the truly spectacular disasters issue forth from centralized command-and-control dictatorships. The destruction of all life in Lake Baikul will stand as a monument to communism far longer than any of the statues in Red Square. The radiation from Chernobyl will reach the stars long before our children do. If you want a really whopping ecological catastrophe, put a dictator in charge.         

And if you don't want a catastrophe, kick the dictator out. 

Let us consider, then, a real Earth Day Festival, an action-oriented event that takes place once a year. The idea futures pools are used to identify a winning government. The winner is the one government on earth that is most ecologically disastrous. Then special members of the Festival Planning Commission (known as Festival Coordinators) snatch the leaders of that government and take them some place where they can do no more harm. The Festival Coordinators are drawn from the Green Berets, Navy Seals, Delta Force, and Britain's SAS, and are specially trained in the festival arts of government leader extraction. A frequent destination for such ex-leaders is the World Court at the Hague, since often these same dictators are wanted for crimes against humanity as well as crimes against the planet. 

Who would be the winners of the first Earth Day Festival? This is very hard to predict, there are so many good choices. Would it be Saddam Hussein, winner of the Most Oilfields Set Ablaze in a Single Day Award? Could China get the nod, with the Three Gorges Dam project that will displace a million people even before it starts ravaging the ecosystem? Or would victory go to a dark horse, such as the Sovereign Socialist State of California, which turned in a virtuoso performance, disrupting electricity markets so brilliantly that the oldest, most expensive, most polluting, most inefficient power plants got a new lease on life? The only way to find out the winner is to start up the market. 

And perhaps, once such a market was started, we could lure Paul Ehrlich and others like him back into Predicting For Dollars. I certainly hope so. I could use the extra income. But it seems unlikely that they would take the risk. Theories of doom are only profitable when not put to the test. The doomsters have surely learned that lesson by now. 

Or have they? Would anyone care to place a bet? 

Marc Steigler is a science fiction author and futurist. His most recent novel is Earthweb

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