Here’s a disturbing study that seems to mimic nothing so much as my mother-in-law’s theory that small brownie pieces cut from the edge of the remaining mass of brownies left in the pan (“the efficient frontier,” an economist might call it) don’t have calories, because each little tiny mini-slice hardly changes the amount of brownie left at all.

On the one hand, the example cited is not particularly objectionable: Researchers claim to have found a mangrove where you can remove 20% of it with little reduction in flood control capacity — meaning you can use that 20% for factory farmed shrimp and such.

The attitude of this article is in sharp contrast with that of Aldo Leopold and others, who would suggest that recognizing nonlinearity is a good first step, but that wisdom, or even an approximation of it, doesn’t begin until you recognize that this …

If the data are available to help quantify goods and services, researchers say, values can be attached to them and used to reach societal compromises. This might lead to most – but not all – of an environmental resource being protected, and some – but not all – of resources available for commercial use. The combined value of the ecosystem protection and commercial development may approach, or even exceed the value of a “hands-off” approach.

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… is the serpent’s apple that leads to the destruction of the ecosystem. If we adopt such ideas, then as each decision is made, the before/after cost benefits are weighed and the project proponent (the coal mine operator, the nat gas driller, the shrimp factory farmer, etc.) shows that, properly discounting the value of the future benefits from the eco-system (as they are trained to do), the project pans out nicely, and everybody wins!

The developer gets to develop and talk about “partnering” a lot, the government gets to trumpet its ecological sensitivity, and the “reasonable” environmentalists get to get consulting gigs with other developers explaining how to overcome and marginalize the “radicals” who insist that nonlinearity — the realization that we really don’t know how many output change units results from a given unit input change — might be better interpreted as a sign that the area is too complex to be carved up.

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(Even “better,” the developer of the first piece is freed up from any competition for use of the formerly protected resource, securing a nice monopoly. Better, until you realize that it just pushes the next competitor to the next unspoiled spot, where he will be able to show, with proper discounting, that there is a greater economic value to degrading this new ecosystem than in protecting it. And so on, and so on.)