July 12, 2007


The Economic Naturalist: In Search of Explanations for Everyday Enigmas. By Robert H. Frank. Basic Books. $26.

The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis & the Fate of Humanity. By James Lovelock. Basic Books. $15.95.

      Ever since Thomas Carlyle first called economics “the dismal science” in the mid-19th century, there have been economists finding ways to prove the epithet wrong. Robert H. Frank, a professor of management and economics at Cornell University’s Graduate School of Management, is particularly clever at enlivening his subject in The Economic Naturalist. Many people realize that economic decisions affect us at times – for instance, should we drive a couple of extra miles to save a few pennies on a gallon of gas? But most people do not realize that there are underlying economic principles informing many of the decisions of everyday life. What Frank does, with clarity and wit, is to explain some of those principles and then show how they are part of activities that we experience all the time – by answering questions that have been raised by his students. For example, Frank looks at the economic realities that lead products to take particular forms – soda cans being cylindrical, and usually on the tall side, while milk cartons are rectangular solids. He shows how economics results in drive-up ATMs having Braille lettering, even though blind people cannot drive (Braille is needed for walk-up ATMs, and it is more economical for manufacturers to make all ATMs with Braille than to keep different types in stock and ship the right type to the right place). He discusses standardization of product and price, using it to show why movie tickets cost less at matinees than at night. If you have wondered why it costs more to transfer funds between banks electronically – a simple procedure for the banks – than to move money in a more complex way, by check, Frank has an answer (customers who choose electronic transfer show by their choice that speed matters to them, so they can be charged more). And on and on the explanations go: why there are video-rental stores but no book-rental stores; why most states enforce mandatory ages for children to start kindergarten; why cars must have seat belts but school buses do not have to. This is fascinating stuff, even when it occasionally seems wrong-headed. Example: Frank says that cars’ fuel-filler doors are not all on the same side, because that would lead to long lines on only one side of fuel pumps, with the pumps’ other side empty. But this assertion is true, at most, only for gas stations with a single entrance – two-entrance stations (which is what most of them are) have traffic flow to the pumps from two directions, so a one-side-only fuel-door design would work. It’s fun to learn economics the way Frank teaches it here, and fun to use your brain cells to come up with alternatives to some of his explanations.

      The Revenge of Gaia, originally published last year and now available in paperback, has none of the lightness or lightheartedness of Frank’s book. James Lovelock, creator of the Gaia theory – which says that Earth behaves as a single, self-regulating organism – is intensely serious in arguing that our planet is critically ill, because of human activity. Yes, this is the same greenhouse-gas argument that many others have made and continue to make, but Lovelock’s passion and scientific reasoning make his book clearer and more disturbing than anything coming out of self-interested politicians. “The concept of Gaia, a living planet, is for me the essential basis of a coherent and practical environmentalism,” writes Lovelock. “It counters the persistent belief that Earth is a property, an estate, there to be exploited for the benefit of humankind.” He adds that few people, “even among climate scientists and ecologists, seem yet to realize fully the potential severity, or the imminence, of catastrophic global disaster.” Lovelock’s aim is to increase the level of realization – which he does through effective and often-frightening marshalling and juxtaposition of facts about environmental change and degradation. Unfortunately for him, and perhaps for all of us, the parade of problems has become commonplace, and “imminent global disaster” is simply too big a concern to allow most people to take action. Lovelock does not believe in the “think globally, act locally” concept, since Earth’s problems are so huge that they require concerted global effort. But he acknowledges that we face a future of increasing tribalism – so how will we get together as one world to solve Gaia’s troubles? Even in a single country, the United States, concerted effort has so far proved impossible – and there exists no mechanism to convince, browbeat or compel people throughout the world to make the huge changes in their lives and expectations that Lovelock believes are necessary to restore Gaia to health. The Revenge of Gaia deserves a (+++) rating for its intense jeremiad against what humans have done: “We have made this appalling mess of the planet and mostly with rampant liberal good intentions.” But there are no genuine solutions here, nor any signposts to anything practical. Saying that “economists and politicians have to square the utter necessity of a rapid and controlled shutdown of emissions from fossil fuel burning with the human needs of civilization” is to say exactly nothing. Lovelock has a strong grasp of where we are, how we got here, and in what ways our future looks extremely bleak. But The Revenge of Gaia, with its hectoring tone throughout, is ultimately useless for pointing us anywhere but toward doom.

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