A Stern admonition to carnivores

Kiwiblog and others are bothered by Nicholas Stern’s pronouncement that:

Meat is a wasteful use of water and creates a lot of greenhouse gases. It puts enormous pressure on the world’s resources. A vegetarian diet is better.

[Stern] predicted that people’s attitudes would evolve until meat eating became unacceptable.

Matt talked recently about why subsidising agriculture is a bad idea, so I don’t want to rehash those arguments. What really baffles me is why Stern feels that changes in peoples’ attitudes are important. If we price greenhouse gasses, and other natural resources, appropriately then there is no need to worry about peoples’ attitudes. As Stern says, meat is far more environmentally costly to produce, so its price will rise. Meat will become a luxury that most can’t afford to eat on a daily basis. That’s something that will happen whether people consciously make a choice to become vegetarian or not.

Will attitudes then shift? I don’t see any reason to think that meat will become unfashionable because it is more expensive. I would imagien that the opposite will happen: meat will become the fancy food that you serve on special occasions because it is too expensive to eat regularly.

So why is attitudinal change important? Public support for pricing natural resources appropriately is essential if politicians are to pass enabling legislation. It’s hard to see many governments passing deeply unpopular legislation, at a significant cost, in order to protect the environment. The argument over meat is a storm in a teacup. The overarching question is whether we have the political motivation to price carbon, and other greenhouse gasses. If we can sort that out then nobody has to worry about taking a moral stand on vegetarianism, leather shoes or any other ‘trendy greenie’ issues.

  • I completely agree with you.

    I think his point on attitudes is irrelevant – even if I can conceive of that actually happening. It is like an argument where the premises are true, but the conclusion doesn’t actually logically follow from them.

  • I agree with your point about the need to price externalities, but until people stop seeing pastoral farming as a divine right that seems unlikely. Sterns comments may (or may not) help here.

    In addition, it is pretty obvious that price is only one determinant of people’s behaviour. Therefor attitudes are not irrelevant.

    Thirdly, accurately pricing carbon is just about impossible, given the uncertainties. Governments either set a tax level, or a cap on emissions. Where this is set is at best a guestimate, and may not properly represent the full externalities. Much pricing of natural resources, in fact, is based on little more than people’s willingness to pay.

    So in principle, yes, but in practise not likely

  • @Nandor Tanczos

    “In addition, it is pretty obvious that price is only one determinant of people’s behaviour. Therefor attitudes are not irrelevant.”

    Attitudes are just short-hand for preferences that are (partially) socially determined. People should be allowed to hold these preferences, but should have to pay the full cost for the actions they take on. When we have a policy goal we solely want to make it such that people face the full costs of their actions.

    In this sense the attitude is irrelevant UNLESS we feel that the value of the outcomes that would occur with different attitudes (which can be adjusted because they are partially socially determined, but are costly to adjust) is sufficiently better. This is a claim I would be uncomfortable making.

    On point 3 I agree – but in this case it seems more likely that in practice we could achieve the first best outcome (one where we accurately price carbon) than some second-best outcome where we guilt people into changing consumption habits. As a result, I don’t see a practical policy trade-off between these methods here.

  • moz

    I agree but think you’ve misunderstood your own argument. If you instead concluded that Stern does not believe that economic signals will be used and is left with the faint hope that people will prioritise their long-term interests over their short-term ones I think you’d be closer to the mark. What I see in politics right now is a lot of rock’n’roll lefestyle – “I’ll be dead before this stuff affects people as rich as I am”. Or at best “I’d like to do this but I’d be unelected before I could have any meaningful effect” (an argument given some support by the last NZ election).

    One interpretation is that we have a strategy choice between persuading people to vote for change and persuading them to implement change. In theory we can do both, but I think only the former can succeed and both are currently failing. The climate change vote seems to be small and limited to people swinging between green and left, so is electorally irrelevant in most countries, even those with some form of proportional voting.

  • Ben G

    I wouldn’t be so quick to discount the impact of consumer tastes and preferences.

    If Governments price carbon then the cost of supplying meat will increase and market quantities will fall (all else equal). Your prediction that meat would become more of an exclusive meal item assumes that none of the factors influencing demand have changed, so people can’t afford to eat meat as much anymore.

    However, there are some significant demand factors that make the quantity effect of an increase in the cost of supplying meat ambiguous at best. I am thinking of demographic changes influencing the demand for meat over the next 20 years, like changing attitudes in India towards eating beef and the effect of rising income levels in the developing world.

    Maybe Stern is hoping that he can convince the developed world to go vegan, so their demand for meat is just replaced rather than compounded? He obviously hasn’t learned yet that the developing world isn’t listening to him.

  • @Ben G
    That’s a really good point that I hadn’t considered. I still don’t think that any attitudinal change is required, though. Maybe the marginal benefit of eating meat will go up and we’ll eat more but, as long as it’s properly priced, that shouldn’t be a problem.