silly illustrationOne of the subtlest and most dangerous flaws haunting environmental analysis is the tendency to view the world as some sort of moral health club. The world is not a series of tests; it is an imperfect place we do our imperfect best to make better.

Bjørn Lomborg, for example, loves to point out you can save more lives per dollar by funding clean water or mosquito netting than by fighting global warming. Economists and statisticians deal with the hard choices — for other people anyway. I notice Lomborg never suggests that people would be better off donating money to UNICEF than buying copies of his books, or paying his speaking fees. I’ve never heard of a study comparing the benefits of funding economics departments at universities to mosquito nets; maybe we could get by with one-third of the economists, and use 66 percent of the money we currently spend on various types of economics to help save the lives of poor people.

I expect economists would answer back indignantly that you could find money for mosquito netting lots of other places before you cut back on their departments. Economic studies provide valuable benefits, information we need. And they would be right. (If I was in a mood to provoke I would ask to see analysis showing they provide net benefit, given all the harm incompetent and dishonest economists do.) Fundamentally it is an unfair question.

What we spend money on as a society is not determined by building our morals on the hard choice machine, the way we build muscles on the stair-master. We direct our resources to the many or to the few as a people, not as atomized individuals. Rat choice theory fails to explain why we choose tax cuts and growing profits for the rich versus health care and wages for everyone else. Structural factors, not lack of individual virtue, explain why our nation chooses to fight endless war for empire and profit rather than engage in peaceful struggle against disease, poverty, and environmental devastation.

In local politics, I have never seen teachers complain that money their schools need is being spent on art museums. I have worked with many homeless advocates, and never heard one complain of money spent on schools rather than on the needs of truly desperate people — even though much school money is spent on debate clubs, and sports, and other activities not essential to “core” education.

That’s because teachers and homeless advocate are mostly not trained economists. Teachers know that both art museums and schools are worth funding, and that someone willing to fund the first is more likely to fund the second than someone who opposes it. Homeless advocates know that someone who understands that schools are worth funding is more likely to care whether people have food and shelter than someone who thinks teachers are overpaid and under-worked.

There is a lot of overlap between fighting global warming, fighting disease, fighting economic inequality, and opposing war. Of course they are not all exactly the same thing; there are aspects to each struggle that are not part of the others. But you are not going to find many people who ignore one but are willing to do much about the others. I’ve never heard Lomborg put any effort into supporting efforts to obtain clean water for those who lack it; he only uses it as issue to bash people who want to do something about global warming.

At best, that kind of ranking is a narcissistic exercise in a moral health club. “You go work on your little issue over there,” says the ranker. “I’ve sorted them, picked out the world’s most important issue, and that’s where my efforts are going. You second raters can contaminate your precious bodily fluids with other things if you please, but I’m only exercising on this machine — right here — where I can stay pure.”