Reviewed 1/07/2009

The Environmental Endgame, by Robert L. Nadeau

Access to this book courtesy of the
Mountain View, CA Public Library
Mainstream Economics, Ecological Disaster, and Human Survival
Robert L. Nadeau
New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2006




ISBN-13 978-0-8135-3812-9
ISBN-10 0-8135-3812-2 211pp. HC $24.95

Robert L. Nadeau is professor of environmental science and public policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. The principal point of this, his eighth book, is that economics has for centuries endorsed the illusion that its tenets are tantamount to laws of science. Nadeau demolishes this misconception by means of clear and cogent writing buttressed by thorough study not only of economics and its history but of the hard sciences, philosophy and religion as well. He argues that this hidden distinction between economics and true sciences like physics, always important, has now become an obstacle to dealing with the looming environmental crisis of climate change and creating a sustainable global economy.

Nadeau devotes the first three chapters of the book to a description of the present situation and to prognostication. Drawing on the "Godgame," a computer simulation of the world's environment being developed by Electronic Arts, and on strategic planning by the Pentagon, he paints a picture of the potential crisis: a drastic drop in potable water supplies; major disruptions in the extent and location of arable lands; 25 million environmental refugees; and probable wars between nation-states over these adverse developments. (He also discusses the longer-term, less quantifiable bugaboos featured by the major media, such as rising temperatures and sea levels.)

Chapter 4 briefly reprises human evolution, emphasizing the gift of language which makes possible shared knowledge and common cultures. At its end, Nadeau posits that ongoing cultural evolution may result in new narratives, enabling the mindset necessary for achieving sustainability.

The next three chapters cover the development of economic theory and the American model of government in exhaustive detail, discussing the work of European and American luminaries vital to the story. These include the prominent (John Locke, David Hume, Thomas Paine, Ethan Allen) as well as the obscure (figures such as Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot.) Historical and contemporary economic superstars like Adam Smith and Milton Friedman are of course also included. Chapter 7 introduces the work of the ecological economists and discusses their prospects for bringing about the necessary reforms of economic theory which will incorporate realistic valuations of environmental degradation.

In Chapter 8, Nadeau returns to the subject of mainstream economics (which is undergirded by what he calls the Washington or market consensus) and shows us how it has interacted with politics during the twentieth century. This chapter devotes considerable space to former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, and concludes with an assessment of the administration of George W. Bush, who, in Nadeau's words (p. 162), "is one of the prime examples in American politics of a true believer in the market or Washington consensus who conflates the natural laws of economics and with (sic) the laws of God."

Finally, in Chapter 9, The Endgame, he sketches the outlines of a way to resolve the environmental crisis. An essential part of this resolution is an environmentally responsible theory of economics. Nadeau makes clear the difficulties involved in getting to such a theory — not only political opposition on behalf of the status quo, but problems of rigor and effectiveness. Some critics fault Nadeau for not providing a more rigorous prescription himself. I do not regard this as a defect, since so much development remains to be done. Nadeau does understand the stakes. He describes the result of failure in stark terms:

If the natural laws of economics and the sovereign nation-state were sacredly ordained aspects of a cosmic scheme or plan, business as usual could be very good business indeed. But since these constructs exist only in the minds of those who believe in their existence, and since belief in their actual existence is effectively undermining efforts to revolve (sic) the crisis in the global environment, the time has clearly come to recognize that living in the service of false gods is not in the interests of human survival. If this does not happen and the international community refuses to abandon the business-as-usual approach to resolving the environmental crisis, we may soon find ourselves living in a world that resembles the one described in the Pentagon report. In this world abrupt, large-scale changes in the global climate system would have disastrous impacts on people living in every region or territory on the planet; the competition for scarce resources between nation-states would result in endless cross-border conflicts and armed invasions; and such conflicts could easily escalate to the point where one or more countries may elect to use nuclear bombs and other weapons of mass destruction.

– Pages 165-6

The following paragraph projects a future as glorious as this picture above is grim. And the next paragraph explains why the routine dismissal of such a hopeful projection as merely "the [product] of the overheated imaginations of muddleheaded idealists" is not germane to this situation. I won't reproduce Nadeau's explanation here. I'll simply note that, if you forgive the inappropriate reference to religion, the gist of his argument is aptly expressed in the adage, "There are no atheists in foxholes."

This is, in short, a hopeful book. It is also a very well-written one. It conveys a great deal of information in a very readable way; it is based on solid scholarship; its point of view is sensible and well-supported; it contains very few errors; and it is well indexed and thoroughly end-noted. Its only defect is that it is somewhat repetitive in telling the reader that the foundations of mainstream economics are built on sand. Despite that, I give it my highest recommendation.

1 "From 1990 to 1998, wind energy technologies grew at an annual rate of 10 percent and photovoltaic technologies at 16 percent." (page 180)
2 This represents "about 2.3 percent of the $35 trillion global economy." (page 181)
3 An example illustrates one reason why attempts to include environmental factors in econometric models have so far failed. As Nadeau asks rhetorically on page 134, "Is the value of whooping cranes the $22 per year average that one set of households was willing to pay to preserve the species and that of bald eagles the $11 per year average that another set of households would spend to preserve this apparently less valuable species?" The answer is obvious: Popular opinion is not well-informed enough on ecology to provide valid results. (Equally obvious is the fact that duplicitous politicians can and have exploited this ignorance.)
Another reason is self-deception. Consider this economic assessment: "In reality, most of the U.S. economy has little interaction with climate. For example, cardiovascular surgery and parallel computing are undertaken in carefully controlled environments and are unlikely to be directly affected by climate change. More generally, underground mining, most services, communications, and manufacturing are sectors likely to be largely unaffected by climate change—sectors that comprise about 85 percent of GNP." This rationalization, which Nadeau quotes on p. 130, is by what he calls "a well-known environmental economist." (You can discover his identity in the book's endnotes.) I can't say if this individual really believes what he said, but I do know it is flat wrong. And note that Nadeau is careful to distinguish environmental economists from ecological economists, which "diverse group of interdisciplinary scholars" (p. 123) he accords respect.
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