Old blog pieces, new journalism, timeless ideas
Two days ago, I bookmarked a column by Tim Harford, remembering the great economist Martin Weitzman. I knew Weitzman only because a colleague made use of his ideas on how to prioritise the conservation of species, the Noah's Ark problem. He wanted to pay people to conserve quinoa varieties, but which ones deserved support?
I was intrigued to discover Weitzman's objection to the idea that there's no point spending money on climate change now, because our descendents will be so much richer than us that they'll be able easily to cope. Weitzman focused on the tail risk. Using an analogy of treating his house for damp now, lest his great-grandchildren have to pay more to fix it in future, Harford explains:
The truly eye-opening contribution — for me, at least — was Weitzman’s explanation that the worst-case scenarios should rightly loom large in rational calculations. If there’s a modest chance that the damp problem will give all my great-grandchildren fatal pneumonia, I shouldn’t ignore that. And my great-grandchildren wouldn’t want me to: the probably rich great-grandchildren would happily sacrifice some trivial amount of income to avoid being the possibly dead great-grandchildren. But they won’t have the choice. It’s up to me.
And then, just moments ago, I revisited something I wrote 13 years ago: Take precautions: global warming deserves it, prompted by various published reflections on
global warming the climate crisis, in turn prompted by An Inconveient Truth. In my piece, I complained that The Economist was too supportive of Bjorn Lomberg. I didn't know about Weitzman's argument then, and apparently, neither did The Economist.
And then, a final strange connection. Last night I happened to read an article in The New Yorker about a former Economist journalist called Jonathan Ledgard. And blow me if that article didn't trumpet one of Ledgard's passel of huge ideas:
"Many species are at risk of local extinction because they have no independent means to change their financial value," Ledgard explained. The goals is to "pick a local species that is threatened with extinction, give it some financial agency in the world, and then work out how the value that it holds can be distributed to the local human community."
A few months later, Ledgard called me to say that he had refined the concept to focus on the promotion of insect life on European farms.
Well, blow me. Genius invents payments for ecosystem services, with nary a mention of Weitzman or anyone else who has not only thought about this before, but has actually done it.
How was your Sunday?