To the great surprise of nobody, economists under-value human life.

I think this post’s headline could be applied to a large number of groups, but in this case economists are grossly under-valuing the lives of young people in particular.

So, you know, only the future of the species:

Many economic assessments of the climate crisis “grossly undervalue the lives of young people and future generations”, Prof Nicholas Stern warned on Tuesday, before the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow.

Economists have failed to take account of the “immense risks and potential loss of life” that could occur as a result of the climate crisis, he said, as well as badly underestimating the speed at which the costs of clean technologies, such as solar and wind energy, have fallen.

Stern said the economics profession had also misunderstood the basics of “discounting”, the way in which economic models value future assets and lives compared with their value today. “It means economists have grossly undervalued the lives of young people and future generations who are most at threat from the devastating impacts of climate change,” he said. “Discounting has been applied in such a way that it is effectively discrimination by date of birth.”

This is increasingly obvious to anyone who’s paying attention to the world, and as has been pointed out many, many times, in addition to being short-sighted, dangerous, and cruel, the mainstream economic perspective is also much more about protecting those who are currently wealthy, than it is about creating a vibrant economy, even by capitalist standards. The amount of work that needs to be done to stop our contribution to global warming and adapt to what we can’t stop is astronomical. Even within the “endless growth” model that’s currently driving us towards extinction, there are more “opportunities” for work than ever before. Renewable energy, nuclear energy, prepping cities for sea level rise and extreme weather, creating a climate-proof food production system, and so on. This could have spurred a new golden age, if capitalism worked as advertised, but instead we’ve had stagnation and increasing misery as the planet becomes increasingly hostile to human life.

Stern’s remarks are based on a paper to be published in the Economic Journal of the Royal Economic Society and made to mark the 15th anniversary of the landmark Stern review on the economics of the climate crisis in 2006. It concluded that the costs of inaction on climate were far greater than the costs of action and that the climate crisis was the biggest market failure in history.

Since the publication of the report, carbon emissions have risen by 20% and Stern was scathing about much of the economic analysis that has informed policymakers. “Cavalier treatment of risk, and the missing of the very rapid technical progress, means the models have been profoundly misleading,” he said. The theory of discounting had not been related to its ethical foundations, he added, or allowed for the risk that global heating will make future generations poorer.

Political action has been slow since 2006, Stern said, because of the persistence of the “damaging” idea that climate action cuts economic growth and also because of the global financial crisis, which diverted attention and cut middle-class incomes, making politics more “fractious”.

Even if climate action was somehow “bad for the economy”, so are things like sea level rise and global crop failure.

Oh, and people dying. Lots of people dying is bad for any economy.

Here’s the thing, though – “young people”, including children, can see how little their nations value their lives. They can see the increasingly bleak future being forced upon them, and they’re watching their own chances of reaching old age decrease as world “leaders” continue to dither and delay, all to protect the wealth and power of the rich and powerful. Millennials are now middle-aged (or reaching it), and it’s been a running sort-of joke for years now that our retirement plan is to die before we reach that age. I have a vague feeling that the anxiety behind that might be worse for Gen Z.

Under these circumstances I have to wonder how much longer kids will feel there’s any point to half the things demanded of them as we’re all forced to pretend that everything’s normal. Why bother with school, if it feels like you’re just waiting until the annual wildfires move a bit faster than expected? Why bother worrying about a future that seems increasingly unlikely to exist? For that matter, why pay taxes to a nation that would rather murder foreigners than save the lives of its own citizens?

On the one hand, it’s getting easier and easier to see the need for revolutionary change, and I’m seeing a lot of interest in things like direct action and alternatives to capitalism. On the other hand, this is a crushing emotional burden that is both unfair and unnecessary.

This is just a thought, but maybe we shouldn’t continue making decisions based on the advice of people who got us in this position?


  1. StevoR says

    Truth. Well written if bleak as F. Sums uphow Ifeel attimes & I’m Gen X not Z ..

    Tangential but reflecting the gloomy concern and even despair many people are feeling and preparaing for here :

    Excerpt :

    When an aeroplane crashes, it’s left to investigators to sift through the wreckage to recover the black box.

    It’s hoped the recorded contents can be used to help others avoid the same fate.

    And so it is with Earth’s Black Box: a 10-metre-by-4-metre-by-3-metre steel monolith that’s about to be built on a remote outcrop on Tasmania’s west coast.

    Chosen for its geopolitical and geological stability, ahead of other candidates like Malta, Norway and Qatar, the idea is that the Tasmanian site can cradle the black box for the benefit of a future civilisation, should catastrophic climate change cause the downfall of ours.

  2. Allison says

    It shouldn’t be a surprise.

    Economics, as currently conceived, is about numbers — stuff that they have measurements for. What they don’t have numbers for is ignored in their models, which is to say, implicitly treated as being of no value.

    And what sorts of things do we have measurements for? Things the rich and powerful are interested in.

    They are not interested in the quality of life of the masses, so there are no (easily available) numbers for that, so it is treated as being of no value by economic models.

    And of course, the poor are just plain off the record, except as liabilities (prisons, “welfare” programs), so in the economic models the poor are treated as liabilities, drags on “the economy.”

    This despite the fact that the availability of poor people, a.k.a. “cheap labor”, is a huge component of the rich folks’ “quality of life.”

    In our area, at least, in the past half-year or so, we are seeing loud public complaints about “labor shortages,” which is to say, a shortage of poor people willing to work at jobs where they are underpaid, subjected to awful working conditions, treated with contempt, and often cheated. And especially a shortage of poor people willing to invest capital they don’t really have to obtain the (paper) qualifications for those jobs. Apparently, the pandemic has changed things — maybe it was that the pandemic disproportionately killed poor people, or maybe it was that with the lock-downs, poor people had to find other ways to survive — so that fewer of them have to subject themselves to exploitation.

    I’m reminded of how, I’m told, after the Black Death decimated England, skilled laborers were in short supply, so they could no longer be forced to accept the wages and conditions that those in power dictated.

  3. M. Currie says

    I’m reminded of a couple of things. First, after the economic meltdown of 2008, much of the effort of recovery was entrusted to the very people who had caused it, on the grounds that they were the only ones who understood it. Not surprisingly, there was not much reform in the process, but it’s the way many people think about crises such as this. We hire the engineers of the mess to engineer our way out of it.

    Back in the days when computers were novel, and we bought books of Basic programs to type in, one of the perennial favorites was a little program called “HAMURABI,”( with one M because file names were limited to 8 characters). In this cleverly compressed simulation, one was given the task of running an economy, and the kicker was that you could only sustain it if you arranged for a certain percentage of the people to starve, but not so many that the economy collapsed or they revolted. A cynical look at the problems of the world, but a forerunner to many subsequent simulations. I sometimes wonder if too many of today’s economists grew up with this stuff and presume that it represents the rules for reality.

  4. says

    @Allison – on your last point, there was an article in the Financial Times or some such a few months back that talked about the post-plague “labor movement” in Europe, and saying “fortunately, that won’t happen because of COVID because…”

    I’ll do a post with it, because I think it highlights the ghoulish nature of the system we’ve constructed, but honestly there’s just so much in that file (by which I mean hundreds of tabs on my phone and computer).

    Fortunately, I’m also working on a few things about the ways in which the perspectives we’ve been taught to hold both limit our ability to find a better way to do things, and act to discourage us from believing a better way is possible.

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