Harvesting to Extinction: Is It Socially Rational?
This paper presents a critique of the neoclassical view of the optimal use of renewable resources and offers an alternative view based on the method of classical thermodynamics. The presentation is forwarded via the issue of harvesting to extinction. Based on simple models, the traditional theory suggests that society would benefit from wiping out any renewable resource whose intrinsic growth rate, though positive, is smaller than the social rate of time preference. The latter is the rate society is using to discount its future benefits and costs. To bypass this ecologically implausible outcome, the simplistic assumptions have been modified in various ways. For example, either the costs or the benefits of harvesting have been made to depend on the stock of the resource as well as on the yield. The modifications offered make society less prone to wipe out resources intentionally, but they still disregard a more fundamental difficulty: The traditional theory is not consistent with the second law of thermodynamics; it describes a process that defies the second law, which no known system is able to be undergoing. No doubt, the theory should be challenged first and foremost on this ground, but none of the offered modifications is capable of annulling this inconsistency. A deeper change is needed because the social values of the resource as perceived by a society that behaves in manners consistent with the second law and as defined by the traditional theory necessarily differ. The paper identifies the socially consistent value and shows that harvesting to extinction is never optimal socially. Were society to follow the socially inconsistent value, it would always underestimate the importance of self-sustained resources. However, the unlikely refutability of the second law turns this possibility and the socially favored extinctions into arguable outcomes of an untenable theory rather than undesirable outcomes of a sound theory. Potentially growing renewable resources are wiped out in real life for various reasons, but when they are preyed to extinction, their unfortunate fate is an outcome of the dynamics of a socially unregulated system rather than a social objective coming to fruition. Copyright Kluwer Academic Publishers 2002
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