Sunday, September 29, 2019

Bad Person

I’ve been thinking about our conversation on climate change, and specifically why it was so heated and personal, and I’ve decided it’s because our positions boil down to me calling you a bad person.

It’s not that I dislike you, or want to hurt your feelings. I just can’t help having an opinion on right and wrong, and my eyes are open to the things that are going on around us. So let me explain my calculus and you can tell me where I’ve gone wrong.


I think that the most basic rights are property rights, and the most basic property is your own body. So if I punch, stab or murder your body, I’ve violated your most basic rights.

If our society has decided that you can own something like a sheep, and we’ve agreed that you own a specific sheep, then my unwanted interference with that sheep is a violation of your property rights. For me, all such interference is the same as stealing. Let me show you why.

If I sneak into your farm and take your sheep and butcher it and sell it at the market, you’ll agree that I stole your sheep. But if I sneak into your farm and take your sheep and dissolve it on the spot in a vat of acid, it’s not as clearly theft. The loss in value to you is the same. The only difference is that you don’t understand dissolving-in-acid as an increase in value to me. I don’t think we need to understand everyone’s motivations or value systems. It’s all theft to me.

In any case, this kind of justice should be simple. At the very least, I owe you a sheep. But that’s not what happens in the real world. Unless societal structures prevent it, those with power will simply take your sheep.

Sudbury is a good example. You can learn more about it here: CBC Ideas: Sudbury Effect

And here: Canadian Historical Review: Protection to the Sulphur-Smoke Tort-feasors

The short story is that nickel was a strategic military material, and Sudbury was a major world supplier. When pollution from mining killed all the plants and put all the farmers out of business, they weren’t fairly compensated.


I’m not against mining, but it’s an operation that often has large externalities. In that environment market forces tend towards evil.

Let me clarify.

Let’s say that two companies are trying to profit from nickel extraction in similar circumstances. These companies are competing on all fronts: innovation, workforce, scale. Neither company is primarily interested in fairly compensating for every last dead sheep. In fact, if the cost of these dead sheep out-weight the cost of the actual nickel extraction then the profit motive drives the companies to focus their energies on cheating the farmers as much as possible.

Mining isn’t evil. There’s lots of ways out of this problem. You could have not-for-profit companies, or you could have rigourous third-parties that measure and levy compensation for the externalities. These are the societal structures I mentioned.

But in loosely regulated for-profit mining, there’s an important distinction between the profit options. Why cheat the farmers? Why not focus on innovation, workforce or scale?

Here’s an exaggeration to demonstrate the point. If we extract 100 of nickel per year at an operational cost of 45 and an externality cost of 45 and a profit of 10, and if we’re anywhere near competitive, then it’s very difficult to reduce that 45 operational cost. However, if we only have 10 shareholders splitting that 10 profit and the externality cost of 45 is distributed over 4500 people then each shareholder has a hundred times the incentive (and resource) to argue that the externality shouldn’t be paid. This is magnified when the cost to the 4500 isn’t felt until years after the 10 have received their profit, or when some of the 4500 don’t even know that their loss is due to the mining operation.

And what about the good people who simply don’t want to cheat the farmers? That’s what I mean about market forces (in situations of large externalities) tend towards evil. Everyone who doesn’t use this leverage to extract profit via externalities is out-competed.

Here the story is simple: one person’s profit, the miner, was built on the back of another person’s loss, the farmer. This is simply theft. Climate change isn’t as simple.


There is a village. They dig a hole in the sand and bury a man up to his neck so only his head is exposed. All the villagers stand in a circle about him and raise a rock in each arm. All arms throw in unison. All rocks strike in unison. The dust settles and we see that the man is dead.

Who killed the man? Nobody? That can’t be, because the man is dead. It must be everyone. Everyone is equally guilty.

In Sudbury, the pollution was sulphuric acid, and the operation was nickel mining, and the guilty party was everyone who profited: the workers, the shareholders, the levels of government that received revenue, and the citizens who supported those governments.

Remember, I’m not complaining about the pollution itself. I’m complaining about not paying for the dead sheep. That’s theft.

With climate change, the pollution is greenhouse gasses, and the operation is pretty much everything we do, and the guilty party is all of us.

But some of us more than others. Wikipedia: Countries by CO2 emissions per capita

The climate is a slow turning ship. We’re feeling the effects now of actions from decades past, and our actions now will only have effects in decades future. Many of the dead sheep are future sheep. Much of the theft is from our children.


This is a collective problem, and it will only be solved by collective action. I want us to do something about it. And everyone who wants to do nothing is stealing sheep.

Ah! But I don’t want to do nothing, you say. I just prefer Andrew Scheer’s Climate Plan.

He’s going to lower greenhouse gas emissions without taking money out of Canadians’ pockets. He’s going to set emission limits on major emitters, and if they don’t meet those limits, they’ll be required to invest in research for emission-reducing technology related to their industry.

This problem has been well publicized since the National Academy of Sciences report in 1977, before I was born. But all we need now is to compel a few companies to invest in a little research. Problem solved. It’s just a fluke that in the decade that Andrew Scheer served under the Harper government, neither of them thought of this easy fix.

I’m not a Liberal. Justin Trudeau doesn’t represent my interests. I don’t like his carbon tax. I’d prefer something more extreme, but it’s clear to me, that of the options available, a conservative vote is the weakest action on climate change.

When I hear you preferring a plan to “lower greenhouse gas emissions without taking money out of Canadians’ pockets”, I hear you saying that you don’t want to pay for the sheep you stole. Do you really think his plan is more effective? Or do you just think it will cost you less?

Let’s remember that the Trudeau tax only applies to provinces that have no price on carbon. So it wouldn’t affect Ontario if Doug Ford hadn’t scrapped the cap-and-trade system. And you voted for Doug Ford, right?

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