Day in Las Vegas
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
if you don't want a catastrophe, kick the dictator out.
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.
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
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.
have they? Would anyone care to place a bet?
Steigler is a science fiction author and futurist. His most recent
novel is Earthweb
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