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What chance a ‘free market’ would cure all the world’s ills?

by Stephen Hesse

An old friend is a successful investment banker who makes more money in a year than I will make in my lifetime. Like many people, though, he would like to make even more.

Standing in his way, he believes, are lawyers and environmentalists. If we could rid society of these self-serving Don Quixotes, he argues, the free market would remedy the ills that afflict us, from poverty to environmental degradation.

I hear this grouse often, and each time recall Shakespeare’s commonly misunderstood line from “Henry VI (Part II),” when Dick the Butcher, part of “an army of rabble,” suggests that to overthrow the government, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

But Shakespeare well understood that the easiest way to tyranny is to dispense with the rule of law. Dick was simply his foil.

Still, how nice to believe that we can curb climate change, end ocean acidification, rid the planet of toxic chemicals, and protect the life-giving tropical forests simply by getting rid of lawyers and environmentalists.

The unfortunate truth is that the challenges we face are myriad, persistent and life-threatening for humans and the ecosystems we depend on.

So, if you’re looking for some reality reading this summer, here are three recent reports that offer an opportunity to triangulate in on some of the serious impacts that humans are having on our planetary support systems. For readers seeking solutions, there are plenty of those, too.

The first is the report on a U.N. survey highlighting the challenges involved in, and the potential for, a green technology revolution; the second, titled “Trophic Downgrading of Planet Earth,” is a review paper published last week in the journal Science; and the third is a report from a recent workshop held in Britain by the International Programme on the State of the Oceans.

World Economic and Social Survey 2011: “The Great Green Technological Transformation”

Those who prefer less bad news and a bit more cheery optimism will appreciate this report on the annual survey from the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

This year’s DESA report on the adoption of green technologies comprises six chapters. The first explains why the transition to green technologies is essential; the second looks at clean energy; the third advocates a green revolution to ensure food security; the fourth explores how to reduce harm from natural disasters; the fifth looks at national policies for green development; and the final chapter outlines how we can develop and share green technologies on a global level.

While many readers will find the report far too heavy on U.N.-speak, it offers a comprehensive and well-documented primer on the U.N. system’s stand regarding the adoption of green technologies.

As U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon states in the Preface: “The world faces important decisions on how we generate energy and manage our natural assets — choices with implications that will reverberate for generations to come.”

These words ring true for all nations but, in light of the ongoing disasters in the Tohoku region since March 11, for Japan in particular.

Even if you only have time to skim the text and the informative graphs, the report offers useful background information for researchers and policymakers — and for progressive bankers looking for investment ideas.

“Trophic Downgrading of Planet Earth”

For decades we have been hearing about the planet’s steady loss of biological diversity as tropical forests are cleared for agriculture, as we overexploit marine resources, and as climate changes impact land and water ecosystems.

Most of us have probably understood this loss quantitatively, but this study just published in the journal Science takes a qualitative look at the decline in large carnivores and herbivores, and how the loss of these species is impacting land, freshwater and marine ecosystems.

“Trophic Downgrading of Planet Earth” is the work of James A. Estes, professor of ecology and evolution at the University of California at Santa Cruz and Ellen Pikitch, executive director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University in New York state.

“By looking at ecosystems primarily from the bottom up, scientists and resource managers have been focusing on only half of a very complex equation. [Our] findings demonstrate that top consumers in the food web are enormous influencers of the structure, function, and biodiversity of most natural ecosystems,” Estes explains in a Stony Brook press release.

“Trophic downgrading — the ecological consequences of losing large apex consumers from nature — causes extensive cascading effects in ecosystems worldwide, especially when exacerbated by factors such as land-use practices, climate changes, habitat loss and pollution,” explains the release.

Two interesting examples of the effects of losing large species concern lions and whales.

In parts of Africa where lion and leopard populations have declined, the number of baboons has increased, forcing them to forage closer and closer to human settlements. This proximity has led to the spread of intestinal parasites from baboons to humans.

Offshore, where large, plankton-eating (baleen) whales once sequestered carbon by depositing feces deep in the sea, the decimation of these cetaceans in the 20th century means that less plankton is being eaten and deposited in the deep. Hence, more plankton is now left in surface waters, where it biodegrades into carbon and increases the amount of carbon dioxide escaping into the atmosphere — information that should provide yet another interesting twist for Japan’s whaling advocates to debate.

International Earth Systems Expert Workshop on Ocean Stresses and Impacts

This past April, ocean experts representing multiple disciplines met for a two-day workshop at Oxford University under the auspices of the International Programme on the State of the Oceans (IPSO).

The result of their work is a clear, concise and prodigiously referenced 21-page report; indeed, references make up a third of it.

And more than any recent report on our oceans, this survey doesn’t pull any punches.

“Human actions have resulted in warming and acidification of the oceans and are now causing increased hypoxia [oxygen deficiency]. Studies of the Earth’s past indicate that these are the three symptoms that indicate disturbances of the carbon cycle associated with each of the previous five mass extinctions on Earth,” warns the report, released in June.

“Unless action is taken now, the consequences of our activities are at a high risk of causing, through the combined effects of climate change, overexploitation, pollution and habitat loss, the next globally significant extinction event in the ocean,” add the authors.

Human activities that put stress on marine ecosystems include chemical pollution, agricultural run-off, sediment buildup offshore, and overexploitation of marine resources. All are impacts that “singly and together severely impair the functioning of ecosystems.”

Their recommendations are equally straightforward: Immediate reduction of carbon dioxide emissions; urgent action to restore the structure and function of marine ecosystems; proper and universal implementation of the Precautionary Principle; and the urgent introduction by the U.N. Security Council and the U.N. General Assembly of effective governance of the high seas.

The Precautionary Principle states that in the absence of scientific consensus to the contrary, the burden of proof regarding whether an action or policy will not harm the public or the environment rests with those who would like to implement it.

Unfortunately, at the behest of industry, governments still shy away from this essential principle, meaning that by the time harm is confirmed it is often too late for remedial action to succeed.

Yes, contrary to what my friend believes, lawyers, too, have a role to play in saving the planet’s ecosystems. As British legal scholar Helena Kennedy has written, “The law is not only for lawyers — it belongs to and affects all of us.”

Law at its best ensures a predictable and level playing field, one that we all can rely on as we move forward.

But ecosystem conservation is also going to require investment bankers and environmentalists to be on board — and perhaps bankers even more than environmentalists. It’s also going to take politicians and engineers, young and old, rich and poor.

One of my favorite quotes is attributed to Chief Seattle, a native American who, in 1854, said:

“This we know, the Earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the Earth. This we know, all things are connected. Whatever befalls the Earth, befalls the sons of the Earth. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”

Truth so simple even lawyers and investment bankers can understand. Now let’s hope they do — and very soon.

Stephen Hesse is a professor in the Law Faculty of Chuo University and director of the Chuo International Center. He can be reached at stevehesse@hotmail.com. All three reports are on the Internet.Ecosystem conservation is going to require investment bankers and environmentalists to be on board — and perhaps bankers even more than environmentalists. It’s also going to take politicians and engineers, young and old, rich and poor.