Knowing what the Earth will do next? Necessary, but not sufficient.

Several sites, including the AMS blog, The Front Page, picked up the last post, “Knowing what the Earth will do next?…priceless…” There the post prompted this comment, contributed by Quyen Arana: “Politicians have been putting valuations on policies since citizens began to learn math. This attempt to persuade naysayers have [sic] resulted in numbers that often make little, if any sense. This isn’t a problem of economics. It’s a problem of an age that believes everything can be priced and the price dictates it’s [sic] value. Even geopolitical stability. It is unfortunate that priceless means so little to so many, especially when the environment is at stake.”

A lot of food for thought in those few words! First, Mr. Arana draws attention to the shortcomings of individual or societal investment strategies that attach value only to what can be monetized. How can or should we place a dollar value on the joy we derive from viewing a pristine landscape… on the comfort of being safe and secure…on preservation of our culture and heritage…on an education…on hope itself? And if we can’t place a solid dollar estimate on these things, does that mean we should abandon their pursuit? Surely not.

He then points out that the pressure to assign dollar values in order to shape or influence national policies can lead to arguments that are contrived or forced to the point of uselessness. However, even as these points are argued, most would agree that a thoughtful, structured approach to valuation – what do we value, and why, and how much? – is important to us as individuals and as a culture. We need such a discussion! But we need to pursue it with the same discipline that we pursue other matters of consequence.

Nowhere does valuation prompt more reflection and attendant ethical concerns and moral ambivalence than when society attempts to value a human life. How much is a life worth? How might it vary with age? With the geographical location and ethnic background of the individual? These are hot button issues! Isn’t human life priceless? Theologians wrestle with this.[1] Some economists have dared to amble through this minefield, in search of answers to questions such as: what payments should tobacco companies make to the families of smokers who die of lung cancer? How should airlines make restitution to the families of crash victims? How should the victims of medical malpractice and their families be compensated? Their work on these and other questions, though controversial, has born much fruit.

[If dangers await those who dare to contemplate such valuations in the abstract, how about those who tackle these issues in the real world? Here we owe a special debt of gratitude to Kenneth Feinberg, currently working out settlements to those financially injured by the BP oil spill. This man has managed the 9-11 victims compensation fund, payouts to the families of victims of the Virginia tech shootings, and served as the pay “czar” for banks bailed out by the government. In Mr. Feinberg’s case, how should we value the valuator? Given that in each of these tragic events, the result has not only been a settlement of claims, but a sense of closure not just for those directly involved, but for society as a whole, with respect to both the process and the outcomes, the value of his work would seem to far exceed his actual dollar compensation.]

This brings us to Quyen Arana’s final point – that in part because of our overuse of the word “priceless,” because we’ve been too quick to invoke it, we’ve managed to cheapen it, to rob it of much of what it should represent.

And speaking of “too quick to apply it,” consider two cautionary addenda to the earlier post. First, “knowing what the Earth will do next” might indeed be priceless, but “knowing with uncertain probability what the Earth might do next,” which is the only attainable goal in the real world, is clearly of lesser worth. Much of the debate about the value of Earth observations and the related science and services will necessarily revolve around questions of marginal utility of added investments.

Finally, “knowing what the Earth will do next” may be priceless, but its value may nonetheless be quite limited. The value hinges in great part on how we as individuals and as a society act on that knowledge.

Consider, for instance, Hurricane Katrina’s August 29, 2005 landfall on the Gulf coast. Concerns about New Orleans’ vulnerability had been public for years. The short-term weather forecasts were about as unequivocal as they get. Many of those who evacuated that day may have considered the warnings priceless. But New Orleans’ defense relied heavily on levees and evacuation, to the exclusion of alternative policies such as land use and building codes which might have provided a greater ability to shelter-in-place. In the event, 100,000 people were too poor to find a ride, while 10,000 people were too sick to move. And nearly 2000 people, many from the ranks of these poor and sick, paid with their lives. So, knowing what the Earth would do next, on that day, at that place, was necessary, but not sufficient.

This week, as the United States enters a season of remembrance – looking back at that tragedy from five years on – the next few posts will be address the hazards of living on the real world, and how we might realistically cope.

[1]For instance, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the value of a human life stems from the fact, as stated, for example in Genesis 9:6 “…in the image of God has God made man.” Later, in Leviticus 27, the value of a male between the ages of twenty and sixty is set at sixty shekels of silver, while that of a male between five and twenty is set at twenty shekels. Those boys younger than five are valued at five shekels, while men over sixty are valued at fifteen shekels. This Levitical text reflects only the value of a man as a laborer, with the value falling with advanced age, and reduced for children to account for the waiting period before they start to be useful (probably one of the earliest articulations of the notion of “present discounted value”).

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