Riss Reads: Super Freakonomics

I am not a self-described fan of economics, and I loved this book. New York Times bestseller Super Freakonomics, written by economics professor Steven Levitt and former New York Times editor Stephen Dubner, turns so many facts and phenomenons that society considers irrefutable on its head. It makes you question the unquestionable! For example, did you know that 43% of players of European national youth soccer teams were born in January, February, or March? And that car seat belts (which only cost $25 each) have saved a quarter million lives since they were invented? Or why changing computer screen savers was the most successful incentive to improve hospital staff hygiene in the U.S.? You must read this incredible book to find out!

For me, one of the world-turned-upside-down parts of this book was its focus on global warming, and a few of these facts I didn’t know (keep in mind, this book was published in 2009, but I believe most of these facts are evergreen):

  • In the mid-1970s, global cooling was more of a concern than global warming, our current issue. From 1945 to 1968, the Northern Hemisphere cooled by .5 degrees Fahrenheit (page 166)
  • “Buying locally produced food actually increases greenhouse gas emissions,” two Carnegie Mellon researchers found. Although in 2016 we are encouraged to “eat local” and seasonally, these researchers found that more than 80% of emissions associated with food comes from the production phase, whereas transportation accounts for only 11% of emissions. Thus, the researchers suggest that subtle changes to your diet (i.e. replacing red meat with more sustainable proteins) can reduce the carbon footprint of your plate more substantially (page 167)
  • “It is much too late for sustainable development; what we need is a sustainable retreat” – a good quote by James Lovelock (page 170)
  • (WARNING: this one contains some econ jargon!) “Once you strip away the religious fervor and scientific complexity, an incredibly simple dilemma lies at the heart of global warming. Economists fondly call it an externality.” (page 171)
    • “What’s an externality? It’s what happens when someone takes an action but someone else, without agreeing, pays some or all the costs of that action. An externality is an economic version of taxation without representation.”
    • The authors give the example of having a friendly bonfire: you’re not just toasting marshmallows in your backyard, your fire is emitting gasses that help to heat the whole planet. “Every time you get behind the wheel of a car, or eat a hamburger, or fly in an airplane, you are generating some by-products you’re not paying for.”
  • The problem with global warming being an externality is that people often have little incentive to change their behavior because it’s an externality. “People are being asked to change their behavior not out of self-interest but rather out of selflessness. This might make global warming seem like a hopeless problem unless — and this is what [“An Inconvenient Truth” creator] Al Gore is banking on — people are willing to put aside their self-interest and do the right thing even if it’s personally costly. Gore is appealing to our altruistic selves, our externality-hating better angels.” (page 173)
    • As an aside, I completely agree with this. If I put aside my self-interest I would become a vegetarian or vegan to reduce my food’s carbon footprint, but I’m not as altruistic as Al Gore thinks I am! Maybe I should be…
  • Fun fact: volcanic eruptions are scary (and often fatal), but the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 discharged more than 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, which sounds bad, but this “stratospheric haze of sulfur dioxide acted like a layer of sunscreen, reducing the amount of solar radiation reaching the earth”!!! How cool is that? (page 176)
    • The authors note that the connection between volcanoes and climate is “hardly a new idea.” In 1784, Benjamin Franklin published the first scientific paper on the topic, noting that recent volcanic eruptions in Iceland had caused a particularly harsh winter and a cool summer with “constant fog all over Europe, and a great part of North America.”
  • This book was published in 2009, so this part of about “An Inconvenient Truth” was more relevant then, but still makes a point about pop environmentalism and green documentaries:
    • The authors write that when “An Inconvenient Truth” is mentioned at a table of scientists, they all groan. It’s because the film’s purpose, inventor Nathan Myhrvold believes, was “to scare the crap out of people.” Al Gore “isn’t technically lying” Mryhvold says, but some of the nightmare scenarios Gore claims in his film (i.e. the state of Florida disappearing under rising seas) “don’t have any basis in physical reality in any reasonable time frame. No climate model shows them happening.” (page 181)
  • The authors interview several scientists or “climate heavyweights” and their proposed solutions to alleviate worsening global warming, and these solutions involve geoengineering. But they’re just scientists – the real heavyweights in the climate fight, the authors write, are people like Al Gore. But what does Gore think of geoengineering? “I think it’s nuts,” he said. Environmentalist Al Gore thinks geoengineering is nuts! So what we do? (page 200)
    • “The scary scenarios could occur even if we make herculean efforts to reduce our emissions, in which case the only real answer is geoengineering,” Myrhvold said. (page 203)
    • Al Gore, on the other hand, said “If we don’t know enough to stop putting 70 million tons of global-warming pollution into the atmosphere every day, how in God’s name can we know enough to precisely counteract that?”
    • The authors’ response: “If you think like a cold-blooded economist instead of a warm-hearted humanist, Gore’s reasoning doesn’t track. It’s not that we don’t know how to stop polluting the atmosphere. We don’t want to stop, or aren’t willing to pay the price. Most pollution remember, is a negative externality of our consumption. As hard as engineering or physics may be, getting human beings to change their behavior is probably harder. At present, the rewards for limiting consumption are weak, as are the penalties for overconsuming. Gore and other environmentalists are pleading for humankind to consume less and therefore pollute less, and that is a noble invitation. But as incentives go, it’s not a very strong one.”

© Rissponsible Living, 2016

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