Volume 29, Number 3 July 2000


The Natural Wealth of Nations: Harnessing the Market for the Environment.

By David Malin Roodman. W.W. Norton & Company, 1998, $13.00.

Any physical scientist worth his or her salt cares about natural resources. Physical scientists are involved with understanding global climate systems, developing ways to track monarch butterflies to see if they’re being threatened by transgenic corn, and developing new energy technologies. Caring about natural resources also means trying to understand relationships between humans and the environment. This requires consideration across multiple disciplines, one of the most important of which is economics. Fortunately, there are a lot of good books available today that deal with relationships between economics and the environment. The Natural Wealth of Nations, by David Malin Roodman, a senior researcher in at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C., is a decent broad-based introduction to the subject.

Roodman presents numerous examples of environmentally harmful public subsidies in various sectors, including mining, logging, fishing, agriculture, grazing, water and energy use, and highway transportation. He identifies some of the cited rationales for such subsidies, such as economic stimulation, national security, job preservation, and social equity. He proceeds to explain how these subsidies can waste public resources (e.g., land, water, and money), fail to fulfill originally-stated objectives, and lead to environmental harm. High on Roodman’s list are fishing and agricultural production subsidies. He reports that these subsidies have been tremendously expensive to the public, may have hurt the very fishers and farmers they were intended to help, and have encouraged overfishing and environmentally destructive farming.

Roodman offers both general and specific suggestions for reform. These include removing environmentally harmful subsidies such as below-cost extractive use of public land, and adopting new policies, such as targeted taxes and tradable emissions rights, that would use the market to actively encourage better practices. As he acknowledges, some of these may present significant political challenge. He suggests that this is partly attributable to varyingly nondemocratic aspects of current political regimes–from what some see as fee-for-service campaign financing in the U.S., to nakedly corrupt practices in countries like Nigeria. At the same time, he observes that more populist approaches don’t always favor environmentally sound policies. As examples, he points to the widespread popularity of low gasoline prices and the broad support among Alaskans for expanded drilling to boost future oil royalties. When push comes to shove, however, Roodman says he’ll put his money on democratic practices.

It’s hard to argue with Roodman’s view that governments–especially ones that would like to be perceived as democratic and concerned about fiscal and environmental sustainability–should do away with policies that waste money, harm the environment, and wouldn't be supported by a well-informed public. Although this book generally doesn’t have room for thorough analysis of all the suggested policies, some of them are clear candidates for reform.

The problem is figuring out what to do in less black-and-white situations. For example, Roodman suggests that if the U.S. would stop giving away mining and logging rights in places like Oregon, nature-loving information workers would quickly move in, to the benefit of those places. However, in making this suggestion, Roodman does not deal with the possibility that those workers and their families would demand services such as roads, schools, gas stations, and shopping malls. Would the end result still be environmentally preferable to logging, or to more sustainable logging? I’m not sure and neither, I suspect, is Roodman.

Roodman later does devote an entire chapter to infrastructure subsidies, related for example to water resources and highways. He suggests that reforming these subsidies would tend to discourage the sort of exurban sprawl I raise here as a possible concern. Further, Roodman’s discussion of potential reforms is refreshingly level-headed compared to recent calls to abandon regulatory mechanisms in favor of the market. For example, he observes that the market can only deal with the measurable. And he acknowledges that although environmental sustainability probably can’t be achieved without market reforms, such reforms aren’t a panacea. They have to be complemented with education and technological progress, as well as regulations that, for example, discourage black markets.

There are a few areas I would like to have seen addressed more extensively. Although Roodman offers some very good examples of subsidies that lead to ecosystem degradation, he doesn’t present a satisfying set of market-based approaches to preserve biodiversity. Perhaps the market doesn’t have much to offer here. He does mention that some pharmaceutical corporations appear willing to pay for rights to genetic information accumulated in Costa Rican ecosystems. However, while he notes that there are probably limits to this approach, he doesn’t offer ideas regarding the preservation of species that don’t serve some anticipated commercial purpose. He also doesn’t address broader moral questions regarding whether humans are the appropriate arbiters of biological worth and, even if they are, to what extent one ought to own rights to genetic information accumulated over vast expanses of time and without human assistance. I also would like to see Roodman deal more directly with population and the subsidies that influence it. Perhaps the environmental community no longer has the stomach to take on this issue, but it’s fundamental enough to deserve more than the occasional passing reference to family planning.

It’s a good sign that The Natural Wealth of Nations left me hungry for more. It is a well-organized review of a range of environmentally problematic policies, with alternatives worthy of consideration. It isn’t an environmental policy cookbook, but it goes a long way toward helping one to distinguish between good recipes and bad.

Kevin Green

99 Haynes Hill Road, Brimfield, MA 01010



The Politics and Technology of Nuclear Proliferation

By Robert Mozley, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1998, 316 pages, $25 paper.

I switched. My spring quarter class, "Nuclear Proliferation in the Post-Soviet World" (Physical Science 171) will be using Mozley's very nice book, The Politics and Technology of Nuclear Proliferation. Since it's a science course, we do quite a bit of science for the humanists in PSC-171. Of course we talk about the Nuclear Nonprolifeation Treaty, but we also do descriptive science. And Mozley does the mix of politics and technology with style.

I am delighted to review Mozley's book, not only to report that it is very good, but also to commemorate the man. Bob Mozely had a prolific and fruitful career at SLAC where as associate director he was a true leader on carrying out discoveries in particle physics. He was a physicist's physicist. After retiring at age 70, he spent the next 10 years of his life dedicated to slowing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Mozley was active with the U.S. and Soviet scientists, under Sagdeev and von Hippel, to smooth the transition at the end of the Cold War. He wrote many key papers on warhead detection and monitoring, as part of a thrust to make individual warheads accountable. Because Mozley was such a good physicist, he knew how to approximate complexity to get very good answers. Certainly Mozley is a role-model for us, as we all begin to gray. Why not live in a small apartment in Washington, DC, and work on important physics-related issues? When Physics and Society suggested I review Mozley's book, I immediately agreed since Mozley was an inspiration and I already had the book and was going to choose it for PSC-171.

Nuclear proliferation is far more complex than the Soviet-U.S. strategic arms race. The former concerns 190 nations, the commercial sector, thousands of nearest-neighbor conflicts, a global norm of behavior, the denial of sovereignty in military technology, the coupling to energy issues, and more. This list makes the two-party START treaties intellectually simple by comparison--but too difficult nevertheless.

Chapter 1 lays out dangers of proliferation and the present status. The next four chapters cover the technical issues of weapons, plutonium, uranium, and bomb-assembly. These chapters are not the usual brief renditions, as Mozley describes in non-mathematical detail the nuclear physics of weapons and their components. Even though I have been reading these things for many decades I found the writing so well done that I wanted to read more about what I mostly already knew. The changing of the isotopic content of plutonium with further irradiation is still a lively topic, and is essential for students in order to discuss weapons-grade and reactor-grade plutonium, and their differences.

Chapter 6 shifts the book from the technical to the political. It nicely summarizes the non-proliferation efforts, the IAEA, the NPT, and safeguards. Chapter 7 is a nice summary of the evolution of proliferation from the U.S. to the more than 20 states that have at least flirted with the bomb. Chapter 8 addresses the theft of nuclear materials by smaller nations or subnational groups, an issue that could be very dangerous with the complications following the Cold War. Of course there is no silver bullet for totally curing proliferation, but Chapter 9 reviews the main ideas and concepts of various luminaries. I am looking forward to using this book and telling my class about a fine gentleman, Bob Mozley.

David Hafemeister

Physics Department

California Polytechnic State University