Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Y2K and "The Management Problem"


By Ernest Partridge
University of California, Riverside
www.igc.org/gadfly // gadfly@igc.org

August 1998


... We have geared the machines and locked all together

into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now

There is no escape. We have gathered vast populations incapable

of free survival, insulated

From the strong earth, each person in himself helpless,

on all dependent.

Robinson Jeffers: The Purse Seine

Extinctions? Endocrine disruption? Pollution? Global warming? Population growth? Resource depletion?

Not to worry, say the "cornucopians" - most prominently, the late economist, Julian Simon.

Whatever environmental problems might appear in the future, human ingenuity - "The Ultimate Resource" - will be equal to it. Simon assures us that

The main fuel to speed the world's progress is the stock of human knowledge. And the ultimate resource is skilled, spirited, hopeful people, exerting their wills and imaginations to provide themselves and their families...(2)

The ultimate constraint upon our capacity to enjoy unlimited raw materials at acceptable prices is knowledge. And the source of knowledge is the human mind. Ultimately, then, the key constraint is human imagination and the exercise of educated skills.(3)

Philosopher Jan Narveson concurs:

Future generations will consist ... of rational animals, resourceful people like our ancestors and (I hope!) ourselves. They will be able to cope. The human species has made a decent or better than decent life for itself in an variety of "ecologies..." It is astonishing how contemporary humans can overlook the resourcefulness of their fellows in all of this recent cant about ecology... There is ... no resource problem of consequence for the globe.(4)

Oh, really?! Can we "manage" any and all problems that may appear as a result of our short-term cleverness? Consider "Y2K" - the Year 2000 "millennium bug."

As virtually every educated and news-conscious citizen is now aware, our cybernetic civilization is precisely timed to arrive at a precipice on the stroke of midnight, December 31, 1999 - seventeen months from now. At that moment, millions of computers, software programs, and microprocessors are due to go kaput - fubar. The consequences are not precisely known, but range from exorbitantly expensive at best to catastrophic at worst. (Best to hold that New Year's Eve party within walking distance of your home).

And why? Because some thirty to forty years ago, when computers and microprocessors first became commercially available and memory space was at a premium, it was universally decided that years would be designated with two digits - e.g., "98" for the current year. Thus, until quite recently, few computers or their programs had the silicon brain power to understand that "00" meant "2000." Some may recognize "00" as "1900," while others will be totally incapable of making any sense whatever of those deadly digits. Bank accounts may freeze, checks bounce, stocks tumble, traffic systems crash, cars stall - gawd only knows what else. But why go on, you've already heard the bad news.

To head-off the coming crisis, retired computer programmers, conversant with such archaic computer languages as COBOL and FORTRAN find their services at a premium, as they are urged to read the old programs. (The younger nerds, bewildered by the old codes, are obliged to tell their supervisors that "we can't have archaic and read it too!")

 For our purposes, what is most significant about this looming global foul-up is that it was totally foreseeable and avoidable three and four decades ago, when it was first set in motion. Given the known pace of computer development, "the memory deficit problem" was clearly temporary. And presumably anyone who could program a computer back then could also count up to and beyond the year 2000 and see troubles ahead. It took no super-quota of IQ points to ask, "This is all well and good right now, but what happens New Years Day, January 1, 2000?" But if ever asked, that question was likely answered, "Don't sweat it - we'll surely think of something by then!" Well, we didn't think of something, with the dire consequences that are now before us.

If, with just a modicum of collective patience and foresight, this debacle could have been avoided with three or four digit year codes, why are we now facing this problem?

First of all, given the economic dogma of "the discounted future," those forty years hence might just have well been forever. According to the standard economic discount rates, universally adopted by investors and economic planners, a 1960 dollar is calculated to be worth mere pennies in the year 2000. But even more, the technological optimism of such cornucopians as Simon and Narveson, noted above, reigned supreme then as it does now: "don't worry, be happy - we'll think of something when we get there."

Instead, those infernal double digits, embedded in the countless mainframes and the zillions of lines of software codes that keep our "information age" humming, proved too numerous, too cryptic, too entangled, to permit a simple solution -- as any moderately computer-literate 1960s individual could have foreseen.

There are several crucially important and sobering lessons here for anyone willing to pause a moment and reflect. First, the fundamental assumptions that guide economic thought and commercial decisions (notably "the discounted future") are systematically myopic - i.e., leading to policies and practices that eagerly adopt short-term advantages while they ignore long-term costs. Second, because pleasant myths are always more attractive than unpleasant realities, entrepreneurs and investors find it easy to embrace the technological optimism of such cornucopians as Simon and Narveson. Third, and conversely, such individuals are equally disinclined to take seriously the implications of "the tyranny of unintended consequences." Fourth, a responsible assessment of technology is best performed by impartial agencies, representing the public interest - which presumably means government. Due to the relentless, and largely successful, public relations campaign against "big government interference," this has become politically unfeasible. (In 1994, the highly reputed congressional Office of Technology Assessment was abolished by the 104th Congress). Finally, due to mega-corporate control of the news/entertainment media ("info-tainment") the above "official line" - systemic myopia, technological optimism, disregard of unintended consequences, and hostility toward governmental oversight - has obtained widespread public support. Thus it happens that even a clearly foreseeable and soluble future technological crisis such as Y2K can be routinely ignored, until it is too late. Ironically, the very commercial interests that brought about that crisis, now ruefully wish that they did not. "Today is the tomorrow that we failed to prepare for yesterday".

Economics, once described as "the dismal science," has thus, it seems, become "the cheerful science," with ecology now emerging as the new "dismal science" (which explains the politicians' preference for economic "expertise" over the warnings of the ecologists). From that latter perspective, we offer, as warning,


  • Every current environmental problem is the result of a prior technical solution. Overpopulation is the result of improvements in public health. Both ground and surface water pollution are the result of improved crop yields through the importation of fertilizers. Global warming is the result of the availability of cheap and abundant energy through fossil fuels. And so on.

  • Every solution to our current environmental problems will cause further problems. This clearly follows from Rule One.

  • The only exception to Rules One and Two is undisturbed nature - but only from the point of view of nature as a whole. From the point of view of both the hungry predator and the endangered prey, "mother nature is a bitch."

And why do these dismal rules obtain? In a word, due to entropy. According to the fundamental thermodynamic laws upon which the concept of entropy is based, order and complexity (i.e., "negentropy" such as is found in organisms, ecosystems, societies and physical artifacts) can only be obtained at the cost of disorder and simplicity ("entropy") elsewhere. Natural systems sustain and increase their complexity by drawing upon the energy (and thus the entropy) of the safely distanced sun. With artificial systems to the contrary the "entropy costs" of our technical "progress" (which increases order and complexity) are exacted closer to home - as pollution, waste, social disorder, and "unintended consequences." (For more about "entropy costs," see Section Four of "Holes in the Cornucopia," this website).

We are not advocating a return by homo sapiens to the caves or to a Paleolithic, hunter-gatherer existence. Even if desirable (which it is not), such a "return" is now impossible. Our species uniquely produces, in addition to disorder in natural systems, poetry, symphonies, literature, science and philosophy. All these are appropriately cherished by our civilization. But we are also unique as the only species which produces (entropic) garbage. In contrast, the wastes of all the other species serve as resources for yet other species in the system.

Thus if our species is to enjoy a safe and enduring existence on this planet, we must replace our "struggle with nature" with an imitation of nature, by recycling our wastes and drawing our energy from the constant sun. And throughout we must apply our acquired scientific intelligence and technical capacities to the task of monitoring and minimizing our impacts upon the natural estate which produced us, which sustains us, which is us.

Copyright 1998 by Ernest Partridge

1. In Werhane and Westra (eds), The Business of Consumption, Rowman and Littlefield.

2. Julian Simon, in Norman Myers and Julian Simon, Scarcity of Abundance, New York: Norton, 1994, p. 33.

3. Simon, "Resources, Population, Environment: An Oversupply of False Bad News," Science, v. 208, June, 1980, pp 1435-6.

4. Narveson, "Humanism for Humans," Free Inquiry, Spring, 1993, p. 24.

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .