Why do so many people equate “natural” with “good”?

Dec 3, JDN 2458091

Try searching sometime for “all-natural” products. It doesn’t matter whether you’re looking for dog food, skin cream, clothing, or even furniture polish; you will find some out there that proudly declare themselves “all-natural”. There is a clear sense that there is something good about being natural, some kind of purity that comes from being unsullied by industrial technology. (Of course, when you buy something online that is shipped to you in a box carried on a truck because it’s “all-natural”….)

Food is the most extreme case, where it is by now almost universally agreed that processed food is inherently harmful and the source of all of our dietary problems if not all our social ills.

This is a very strange state of affairs, as there is no particular reason for “natural” and “good” to be in any way related.

First of all, I can clearly come up with examples of all four possible cases: Motherhood is natural and good, but gamma ray bursts are natural and bad. Vaccination is artificial and good, but nuclear weapons are artificial and bad.

Natural Artificial
Good Motherhood Vaccination
Bad Gamma ray bursts Nuclear weapons

But even more than that, it’s difficult to even find a correlation between being natural and being good. If anything, I would expect the correlation to run the other way: Artificial things were created by humans to serve some human purpose, while natural things are simply whatever happens to exist. Most of the harmful artificial things are the result of mistakes, or unintended consequences of otherwise beneficial things—while plenty of harmful natural things are simply inherently harmful and never benefited anyone in any way. Nuclear weapons helped end World War 2. Gamma ray bursts will either hardly affect us at all, or instantly and completely annihilate our entire civilization. I guess they might also lead to some valuable discoveries in astrophysics, but if I were asked to fund a research project with the same risk-reward profile as a gamma ray burst, I would tear up the application and make sure no one else ever saw it again. The kind of irrational panic people had about the possibility of LHC black holes would be a rational panic if applied to a research project with some risk of causing gamma ray bursts.

The current obsession with “natural” products (which is really an oxymoron, if you think about it; it can’t be natural if it’s a product) seems to have arisen as its own unintended consequence of something good, namely the environmentalist movement in the 1960s and 1970s. The very real problems of pollution, natural resource depletion, extinction, global warming, desertification, and ocean acidification led people to rightly ask how the very same industrial processes that brought us our high standard of living could ultimately destroy it if we left them unchecked.

But the best solutions to these problems are themselves artificial: Solar power, nuclear energy, carbon taxes. Trying to go back to some ancient way of life where we didn’t destroy the environment is simply not a viable option at this point; even if such a way of life once existed, there’s no way it could sustain our current population, much less our current standard of living. And given the strong correlation between human migrations and extinction events of large mammals, I’m not convinced that such a way of life ever existed.

So-called “processed food” is really just industrially processed food—which is to say, food processed by the most efficient and productive technologies available. Humans have been processing food for thousands of years, and with very good reason; much of what we eat would be toxic if it weren’t threshed or boiled or fermented. The fact that there are people who complain about “processed food” but eat tofu and cheese is truly quite remarkable—think for a moment about how little resemblance Cheddar bears to the cow from whence it came, or what ingenuity it must have taken people in ancient China to go all the way from soybean to silken tofu. Similarly, anyone who is frightened by “genetically modified organisms” should give some serious thought to what is involved in creating their seedless bananas.

There may be some kernel of truth in the opposition to industrially processed food, however. The problem is not that we process food, nor that we do so by industrial machines. The problem is who processes the food, and why.

Humans have been processing food for thousands of years, yes; but only for the last few hundred have corporations been doing that processing. For most of human history, you processed food to feed your family, or your village, or perhaps to trade with a few neighboring villages or sell to the nearest city. What makes tofu different from, say, Fruit Loops isn’t that the former is less processed; it’s that the latter was designed and manufactured for profit.

Don’t get me wrong; corporations have made many valuable contributions to our society, including our food production, and it is largely their doing that food is now so cheap and plentiful that we could easily feed the entire world’s population. It’s just that, well, it’s also largely their doing that we don’t feed the entire world’s population, because they see no profit in doing so.

The incentives that a peasant village faces in producing its food are pretty well optimized for making the most nutritious food available with the least cost in labor and resources. When your own children and those of your friends and neighbors are going to be eating what you make, you work pretty hard to make sure that the food you make is good for them. And you don’t want to pollute the surrounding water or destroy the forest, because your village depends upon those things too.

The incentives that a corporation faces in producing food are wildly different. Nobody you know is going to be eating this stuff, most likely, and certainly not as their primary diet. You aren’t concerned about nutrition unless you think your customers are; more likely, you expect them to care about taste, so you optimize your designs to make things taste as good as possible regardless of their nutrition. You care about minimizing labor inputs only insofar as they cost you wages—from your perspective, cutting wages is as good as actually saving labor. You want to conserve only the resources that are expensive; resources that are cheap, like water and (with subsidies) corn syrup, you may as well use as much as you like. And above all, you couldn’t care less about the environmental damage you’re causing by your production, because those costs will be borne entirely by someone else, most likely the government or the citizens of whatever country you’re producing in.

Responsible consumers could reduce these effects, but only somewhat, because there is a fundamental asymmetry of information. The corporation “knows” (in that each of the administrators in each of the components that needs to know, knows) what production processes they are using and what subcontractors they are hiring, and could easily figure out how much they are exploiting workers and damaging the environment; but the consumers who care about these things can find out that information with great difficulty, if at all. Consumers who want to be responsible, but don’t have very good information, create incentives for so-called “greenwashing”: Corporations have many good profit-making reasons to say they are environmentally responsible, but far fewer reasons to actually be environmentally responsible.

And that is why you should be skeptical of “all-natural” products, especially if you are skeptical of the role of corporations in our society and our food system. “All-natural” is an adjective that has no legal meaning. The word “organic” can have a legally-defined meaning, if coupled with a certification like the USDA Organic standard. The word “non-toxic” has a legally-defined meaning—there is a long list of toxic compounds it can’t contain in more than trace amounts. There are now certifications for “carbon-neutral”. But “all-natural” offers no such protection. Basically anything can call itself “all-natural”, and if corporations expect you to be willing to pay more for such products, they have no reason not to slap it on everything. This is a problem that I think can only be solved by stringent regulation. Consumer pressure can’t work if there is no transparency in the production chain.

Even taken as something like its common meaning, “not synthetic or artificial”, there’s no reason to think that simply because something is natural, that means it is better, or even more ecologically sustainable. The ecological benefits of ancient methods of production come from the incentives of small-scale local production, not from something inherently more destructive about high-tech industry. (Indeed, water pollution was considerably worse from Medieval peasant villages—especially on a per-capita basis—than it is from modern water treatment systems.)

Nuclear power is safe. Why don’t people like it?

Sep 24, JDN 2457656

This post will have two parts, corresponding to each sentence. First, I hope to convince you that nuclear power is safe. Second, I’ll try to analyze some of the reasons why people don’t like it and what we might be able to do about that.

Depending on how familiar you are with the statistics on nuclear power, the idea that nuclear power is safe may strike you as either a completely ridiculous claim or an egregious understatement. If your primary familiarity with nuclear power safety is via the widely-publicized examples of Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and more recently Fukushima, you may have the impression that nuclear power carries huge, catastrophic risks. (You may also be confusing nuclear power with nuclear weapons—nuclear weapons are indeed the greatest catastrophic risk on Earth today, but equating the two is like equating automobiles and machine guns because both of them are made of metal and contain lubricant, flammable materials, and springs.)

But in fact nuclear energy is astonishingly safe. Indeed, even those examples aren’t nearly as bad as people have been led to believe. Guess how many people died as a result of Three Mile Island, including estimated increased cancer deaths from radiation exposure?

Zero. There are zero confirmed deaths and the consensus estimate of excess deaths caused by the Three Mile Island incident by all causes combined is zero.

What about Fukushima? Didn’t 10,000 people die there? From the tsunami, yes. But the nuclear accident resulted in zero fatalities. If anything, those 10,000 people were killed by coal—by climate change. They certainly weren’t killed by nuclear.

Chernobyl, on the other hand, did actually kill a lot of people. Chernobyl caused 31 confirmed direct deaths, as well as an estimated 4,000 excess deaths by all causes. On the one hand, that’s more than 9/11; on the other hand, it’s about a month of US car accidents. Imagine if people had the same level of panic and outrage at automobiles after a month of accidents that they did at nuclear power after Chernobyl.

The vast majority of nuclear accidents cause zero fatalities; other than Chernobyl, none have ever caused more than 10. Deepwater Horizon killed 11 people, and yet for some reason Americans did not unite in opposition against ever using oil (or even offshore drilling!) ever again.

In fact, even that isn’t fair to nuclear power, because we’re not including the thousands of lives saved every year by using nuclear instead of coal and oil.

Keep in mind, the WHO estimates 10 to 100 million excess deaths due to climate change over the 21st century. That’s an average of 100,000 to 1 million deaths every year. Nuclear power currently produces about 11% of the world’s energy, so let’s do a back-of-the-envelope calculation for how many lives that’s saving. Assuming that additional climate change would be worse in direct proportion to the additional carbon emissions (which is conservative), and assuming that half that energy would be replaced by coal or oil (also conservative, using Germany’s example), we’re looking at about a 6% increase in deaths due to climate change if all those nuclear power plants were closed. That’s 6,000 to 60,000 lives that nuclear power plants save every year.

I also haven’t included deaths due to pollution—note that nuclear power plants don’t pollute air or water whatsoever, and only produce very small amounts of waste that can be quite safely stored. Air pollution in all its forms is responsible for one in eight deaths worldwide. Let me say that again: One in eight of all deaths in the world is caused by air pollution—so this is on the order of 7 million deaths per year, every year. We burn our way to a biannual Holocaust. Most of this pollution is actually caused by burning wood—fireplaces, wood stoves, and bonfires are terrible for the air—and many countries would actually see a substantial reduction in their toxic pollution if they switched to oil or even coal in favor of wood. But a large part of that pollution is caused by coal, and a nontrivial amount is caused by oil. Coal-burning factories and power plants are responsible for about 1 million deaths per year in China alone. Most of that pollution could be prevented if those power plants were nuclear instead.

Factor all that in, and nuclear power currently saves tens if not hundreds of thousands of lives per year, and expanding it to replace all fossil fuels could save millions more. Indeed, a more precise estimate of the benefits of nuclear power published a few years ago in Environmental Science and Technology is that nuclear power plants have saved some 1.8 million human lives since their invention, putting them on a par with penicillin and the polio vaccine.

So, I hope I’ve convinced you of the first proposition: Nuclear power plants are safe—and not just safe, but heroic, in fact one of the greatest life-saving technologies ever invented. So, why don’t people like them?

Unfortunately, I suspect that no amount of statistical data by itself will convince those who still feel a deep-seated revulsion to nuclear power. Even many environmentalists, people who could be nuclear energy’s greatest advocates, are often opposed to it. I read all the way through Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything and never found even a single cogent argument against nuclear power; she simply takes it as obvious that nuclear power is “more of the same line of thinking that got us in this mess”. Perhaps because nuclear power could be enormously profitable for certain corporations (which is true; but then, it’s also true of solar and wind power)? Or because it also fits this narrative of “raping and despoiling the Earth” (sort of, I guess)? She never really does explain; I’m guessing she assumes that her audience will simply share her “gut feeling” intuition that nuclear power is dangerous and untrustworthy. One of the most important inconvenient truths for environmentalists is that nuclear power is not only safe, it is almost certainly our best hope for stopping climate change.

Perhaps all this is less baffling when we recognize that other heroic technologies are often also feared or despised for similarly bizarre reasons—vaccines, for instance.

First of all, human beings fear what we cannot understand, and while the human immune system is certainly immensely complicated, nuclear power is based on quantum mechanics, a realm of scientific knowledge so difficult and esoteric that it is frequently used as the paradigm example of something that is hard to understand. (As Feynman famously said, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”) Nor does it help that popular treatments of quantum physics typically bear about as much resemblance to the actual content of the theory as the X-Men films do to evolutionary biology, and con artists like Deepak Chopra take advantage of this confusion to peddle their quackery.

Nuclear radiation is also particularly terrifying because it is invisible and silent; while a properly-functioning nuclear power plant emits less ionizing radiation than the Capitol Building and eating a banana poses substantially higher radiation risk than talking on a cell phone, nonetheless there is real danger posed by ionizing radiation, and that danger is particularly terrifying because it takes a form that human senses cannot detect. When you are burned by fire or cut by a knife, you know immediately; but gamma rays could be coursing through you right now and you’d feel no different. (Huge quantities of neutrinos are coursing through you, but fear not, for they’re completely harmless.) The symptoms of severe acute radiation poisoning also take a particularly horrific form: After the initial phase of nausea wears off, you can enter a “walking ghost phase”, where your eventual death is almost certain due to your compromised immune and digestive systems, but your current condition is almost normal. This makes the prospect of death by nuclear accident a particularly vivid and horrible image.

Vividness makes ideas more available to our memory; and thus, by the availability heuristic, we automatically infer that it must be more probable than it truly is. You can think of horrific nuclear accidents like Chernobyl, and all the carnage they caused; but all those millions of people choking to death in China don’t make for a compelling TV news segment (or at least, our TV news doesn’t seem to think so). Vividness doesn’t actually seem to make things more persuasive, but it does make them more memorable.

Yet even if we allow for the possibility that death by radiation poisoning is somewhat worse than death by coal pollution (if I had to choose between the two, okay, maybe I’d go with the coal), surely it’s not ten thousand times worse? Surely it’s not worth sacrificing entire cities full of people to coal in order to prevent a handful of deaths by nuclear energy?

Another reason that has been proposed is a sense that we can control risk from other sources, but a nuclear meltdown would be totally outside our control. Perhaps that is the perception, but if you think about it, it really doesn’t make a lot of sense. If there’s a nuclear meltdown, emergency services will report it, and you can evacuate the area. Yes, the radiation moves at the speed of light; but it also dissipates as the inverse square of distance, so if you just move further away you can get a lot safer quite quickly. (Think about the brightness of a lamp in your face versus across a football field. Radiation works the same way.) The damage is also cumulative, so the radiation risk from a meltdown is only going to be serious if you stay close to the reactor for a sustained period of time. Indeed, it’s much easier to avoid nuclear radiation than it is to avoid air pollution; you can’t just stand behind a concrete wall to shield against air pollution, and moving further away isn’t possible if you don’t know where it’s coming from. Control would explain why we fear cars less than airplanes (which is also statistically absurd), but it really can’t explain why nuclear power scares people more than coal and oil.

Another important factor may be an odd sort of bipartisan consensus: While the Left hates nuclear power because it makes corporations profitable or because it’s unnatural and despoils the Earth or something, the Right hates nuclear power because it requires substantial government involvement and might displace their beloved fossil fuels. (The Right’s deep, deep love of the fossil fuel industry now borders on the pathological. Even now that they are obviously economically inefficient and environmentally disastrous, right-wing parties around the world continue to defend enormous subsidies for oil and coal companies. Corruption and regulatory capture could partly explain this, but only partly. Campaign contributions can’t explain why someone would write a book praising how wonderful fossil fuels are and angrily denouncing anyone who would dare criticize them.) So while the two sides may hate each other in general and disagree on most other issues—including of course climate change itself—they can at least agree that nuclear power is bad and must be stopped.

Where do we go from here, then? I’m not entirely sure. As I said, statistical data by itself clearly won’t be enough. We need to find out what it is that makes people so uniquely terrified of nuclear energy, and we need to find a way to assuage those fears.

And we must do this now. For every day we don’t—every day we postpone the transition to a zero-carbon energy grid—is another thousand people dead.

Externalities

JDN 2457202 EDT 17:52.

The 1992 Bill Clinton campaign had a slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid.”: A snowclone I’ve used on occasion is “it’s the externalities, stupid.” (Though I’m actually not all that fond of calling people ‘stupid’; though occasionally true is it never polite and rarely useful.) Externalities are one of the most important concepts in economics, and yet one that even all too many economists frequently neglect.

Fortunately for this one, I really don’t need much math; the concept isn’t even that complicated, which makes it all the more mysterious how frequently it is ignored. An externality is simply an effect that an action has upon those who were not involved in choosing to perform that action.

All sorts of actions have externalities; indeed, much rarer are actions that don’t. An obvious example is that punching someone in the face has the externality of injuring that person. Pollution is an important externality of many forms of production, because the people harmed by pollution are typically not the same people who were responsible for creating it. Traffic jams are created because every car on the road causes a congestion externality on all the other cars.

All the aforementioned are negative externalities, but there are also positive externalities. When one individual becomes educated, they tend to improve the overall economic viability of the place in which they live. Building infrastructure benefits whole communities. New scientific discoveries enhance the well-being of all humanity.

Externalities are a fundamental problem for the functioning of markets. In the absence of externalities—if each person’s actions only affected that one person and nobody else—then rational self-interest would be optimal and anything else would make no sense. In arguing that rationality is equivalent to self-interest, generations of economists have been, tacitly or explicitly, assuming that there are no such things as externalities.

This is a necessary assumption to show that self-interest would lead to something I discussed in an earlier post: Pareto-efficiency, in which the only way to make one person better off is to make someone else worse off. As I already talked about in that other post, Pareto-efficiency is wildly overrated; a wide variety of Pareto-efficient systems would be intolerable to actually live in. But in the presence of externalities, markets can’t even guarantee Pareto-efficiency, because it’s possible to have everyone acting in their rational self-interest cause harm to everyone at once.

This is called a tragedy of the commons; the basic idea is really quite simple. Suppose that when I burn a gallon of gasoline, that makes me gain 5 milliQALY by driving my car, but then makes everyone lose 1 milliQALY in increased pollution. On net, I gain 4 milliQALY, so if I am rational and self-interested I would do that. But now suppose that there are 10 people all given the same choice. If we all make that same choice, each of us will gain 1 milliQALY—and then lose 10 milliQALY. We would all have been better off if none of us had done it, even though it made sense to each of us at the time. Burning a gallon of gasoline to drive my car is beneficial to me, more so than the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is harmful; but as a result of millions of people burning gasoline, the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is destabilizing our planet’s climate. We’d all be better off if we could find some way to burn less gasoline.

In order for rational self-interest to be optimal, externalities have to somehow be removed from the system. Otherwise, there are actions we can take that benefit ourselves but harm other people—and thus, we would all be better off if we acted to some degree altruistically. (When I say things like this, most non-economists think I am saying something trivial and obvious, while most economists insist that I am making an assertion that is radical if not outright absurd.)

But of course a world without externalities is a world of complete isolation; it’s a world where everyone lives on their own deserted island and there is no way of communicating or interacting with any other human being in the world. The only reasonable question about this world is whether we would die first or go completely insane first; clearly those are the two things that would happen. Human beings are fundamentally social animals—I would argue that we are in fact more social even than eusocial animals like ants and bees. (Ants and bees are only altruistic toward their own kin; humans are altruistic to groups of millions of people we’ve never even met.) Humans without social interaction are like flowers without sunlight.

Indeed, externalities are so common that if markets only worked in their absence, markets would make no sense at all. Fortunately this isn’t true; there are some ways that markets can be adjusted to deal with at least some kinds of externalities.

One of the most well-known is the Coase theorem; this is odd because it is by far the worst solution. The Coase theorem basically says that if you can assign and enforce well-defined property rights and there is absolutely no cost in making any transaction, markets will automatically work out all externalities. The basic idea is that if someone is about to perform an action that would harm you, you can instead pay them not to do it. Then, the harm to you will be prevented and they will incur an additional benefit.

In the above example, we could all agree to pay $30 (which let’s say is worth 1 milliQALY) to each person who doesn’t burn a gallon of gasoline that would pollute our air. Then, if I were thinking about burning some gasoline, I wouldn’t want to do it, because I’d lose the $300 in payments, which costs me 10 milliQALY, while the benefits of burning the gasoline are only 5 milliQALY. We all reason the same way, and the result is that nobody burns gasoline and actually the money exchanged all balances out so we end up where we were before. The result is that we are all better off.

The first thought you probably have is: How do I pay everyone who doesn’t hurt me? How do I even find all those people? How do I ensure that they follow through and actually don’t hurt me? These are the problems of transaction costs and contract enforcement that are usually presented as the problem with the Coase theorem, and they certainly are very serious problems. You end up needing some sort of government simply to enforce all those contracts, and even then there’s the question of how we can possibly locate everyone who has ever polluted our air or our water.

But in fact there’s an even more fundamental problem: This is extortion. We are almost always in the condition of being able to harm other people, and a system in which the reason people don’t hurt each other is because they’re constantly paying each other not to is a system in which the most intimidating psychopath is the wealthiest person in the world. That system is in fact Pareto-efficient (the psychopath does quite well for himself indeed); but it’s exactly the sort of Pareto-efficient system that isn’t worth pursuing.

Another response to externalities is simply to accept them, which isn’t as awful as it sounds. There are many kinds of externalities that really aren’t that bad, and anything we might do to prevent them is likely to make the cure worse than the disease. Think about the externality of people standing in front of you in line, or the externality of people buying the last cereal box off the shelf before you can get there. The externality of taking the job you applied for may hurt at the time, but in the long run that’s how we maintain a thriving and competitive labor market. In fact, even the externality of ‘gentrifying’ your neighborhood so you can no longer afford it is not nearly as bad as most people seem to think—indeed, the much larger problem seems to be the poor neighborhoods that don’t have rising incomes, remaining poor for generations. (It also makes no sense to call this “gentrifying”; the only landed gentry we have in America is the landowners who claim a ludicrous proportion of our wealth, not the middle-class people who buy cheap homes and move in. If you really want to talk about a gentry, you should be thinking Waltons and Kochs—or Bushs and Clintons.) These sorts of minor externalities that are better left alone are sometimes characterized as pecuniary externalities because they usually are linked to prices, but I think that really misses the point; it’s quite possible for an externality to be entirely price-related and do enormous damage (read: the entire financial system) and to have little or nothing to do with prices and still be not that bad (like standing in line as I mentioned above).

But obviously we can’t leave all externalities alone in this way. We can’t just let people rob and murder one another arbitrarily, or ignore the destruction of the world’s climate that threatens hundreds of millions of lives. We can’t stand back and let forests burn and rivers run dry when we could easily have saved them.

The much more reasonable and realistic response to externalities is what we call government—there are rules you have to follow in society and punishments you face if you don’t. We can avoid most of the transaction problems involved in figuring out who polluted our water by simply making strict rules about polluting water in general. We can prevent people from stealing each other’s things or murdering each other by police who will investigate and punish such crimes.

This is why regulation—and a government strong enough to enforce that regulation—is necessary for the functioning of a society. This dichotomy we have been sold about “regulations versus the market” is totally nonsensical; the market depends upon regulations. This doesn’t justify any particular regulation—and indeed, an awful lot of regulations are astonshingly bad. But some sort of regulatory system is necessary for a market to function at all, and the question has never been whether we will have regulations but which regulations we will have. People who argue that all regulations must go and the market would somehow work on its own are either deeply ignorant of economics or operating from an ulterior motive; some truly horrendous policies have been made by arguing that “less government is always better” when the truth is nothing of the sort.

In fact, there is one real-world method I can think of that actually comes reasonably close to eliminating all externalities—and it is called social democracy. By involving everyone—democracy—in a system that regulates the economy—socialism—we can, in a sense, involve everyone in every transaction, and thus make it impossible to have externalities. In practice it’s never that simple, of course; but the basic concept of involving our whole society in making the rules that our society will follow is sound—and in fact I can think of no reasonable alternative.

We have to institute some sort of regulatory system, but then we need to decide what the regulations will be and who will control them. If we want to instead vest power in a technocratic elite, how do you decide whom to include in that elite? How do we ensure that the technocrats are actually better for the general population if there is no way for that general population to have a say in their election? By involving as many people as we can in the decision-making process, we make it much less likely that one person’s selfish action will harm many others. Indeed, this is probably why democracy prevents famine and genocide—which are, after all, rather extreme examples of negative externalities.