A plastic link between work and pleasure

IMG_5425I was in Indonesia recently with people of Wageningen University’s Environmental Policy Group to learn about the problems that the country is grappling with to deal with its plastic waste. After China, Indonesia is the second biggest source of marine plastic debris. This is a problem for Indonesia itself, but obviously also for other countries as like fish, marine waste respects no borders. The reasons vary from technical (moving waste around among thousands of islands is expensive) to behavioural (not too long ago people would wrap their food in banana leaves, which can be discarded), so the solution most likely comes from a combination of technical and behavioural interventions.

IMG_5444Bali appears to be ahead of the rest of the country. Bye Bye Plastic Bags is one of the better-known initiatives (no doubt a charming TED Talk has helped), but there are many more. And it seems the local government does not sit on its hands either: modern shops and shopping centers are prohibited from providing plastic bags. As great as this sounds, however, there are still many smaller shops that will be allowed to use, sell, and provide plastic bags, many of which may eventually end up in the sea. And Bali is a tourist hotspot with huge stakes in cleaning up its act, but Indonesia is a huge country where people in many other regions than Bali will feel they have bigger problems to deal with. So whoever can find a solution to reconcile technology, household behaviour, and economic growth, has his or her work cut out.

A message from Sonja

This is also one of those occasions where work and pleasure coincide. At the 2017 Festival Maritim me and the rest of Tobermore met Sonja O’Brien. Sonja runs the Boghill Centre, where I have spent many Christmas holidays learning new tunes and enjoying sessions in the vicinity of Kilfenora, County Clare, Ireland. In Bremen Sonja taught us an Old Time tune by the name of The Big Sciote:


Sonja gave us permission to play the tune at gigs, but only under one condition: we must ask the audience not to discard their plastics in the ocean. This is of course a promise we are happy to keep. We play the tune with two other Old Time tunes, Ora Lee and Sail Away Ladies. It’s one of our favourite sets! So feel free to play The Big Sciote if you like, but please remember: don’t throw your plastics in the ocean. Or the rivers. Or the street. Or wherever. Don’t buy it in the first place!

Anyway, happy holidays y’all.


Doughnut Economics (1)

Kate Raworth’s book Doughnut Economics has caused a fair amount of controversy, not least among Dutch economists. This piece is a good illustration: Bas Jacobs (Erasmus University, Rotterdam) explicitly warns against reading it, accusing Raworth of attacking strawmen, while Ewald Engelen (University of Amsterdam) hails the book as “the book of 2017.” I find the sheer polarization and vitriol in such debates fascinating: what makes people disagree so fundamentally with each other on issues each finds self-evident?

And then fellow-tweeps Anthony Rogers and Ngaio Hotte suggested to read it as some sort of resource economics Twitter book club so I decided to buy it. I’ll write my impressions in a series of blog posts, but first I want to say a few things about where I come from, and with what state of mind I started reading the book. In the meantime this might already explain some of the extremely hostile responses by economists.

Where I come from

In an elevator I would introduce myself as a natural resource economist, but actually my academic background is a bit more complicated. At highschool I had only about two years of economics – I hated it and dropped it as soon as I could. After highschool I studied Environmental Studies at a Dutch polytechnic institute (Hogeschool in Dutch, comparable to the German Hochschule). Only somewhere in the fourth and last year of this education programme I developed an interest in the economics of the environment. Sure we want a clean environment, but how clean? When is it clean enough, and how much health care, wealth, and other goodies are we willing to forgo to reach that quality? I also felt my education so far had been inadequate: I knew a little of everything, but I was an expert in nothing.

So I came to Wageningen University to follow a study programme called, back then, Agricultural and Environmental Economics. I became fascinated with the combination of economics and ecology: I wrote a minor thesis on fisheries economics, and in my PhD thesis I combined metapopulation ecology with spatial-economic land use models. More recently I got bored with bioeconomic modelling so I am now exploring the boundaries between my field and other social sciences, such as psychology, sociology, and anthropology. Even though I first felt my environmental studies were too broad, I now think it enabled me to understand and communicate with other sciences – the horizontal bar in the T-shaped model that Wageningen University likes to champion. The vertical bar is my economics education.

So where am I now? I’m no Bas Jacobs, nor am I Ewald Engelen. If you want me to list my top five economics books of the year you’ll have to wait at least five years before I have read enough of them. (Note that this post appears more than a year after I started reading Doughnut Economics – so much to read, so little time.) I’m your average associate professor on the tenure track, struggling to find time to keep up with the literature between the teaching, supervising PhD candidates, writing proposals, and joining committee meetings. What I’m trying to say is: I cannot pretend to speak for the entire field of economics. The field is too broad for anyone to oversee anyway, so my perspective is only one of many possible perspectives and probably a very limited one at that. All I can and will do is draw from my own experiences in class, conference rooms, and coffee breaks with colleagues. I might avoid topics I know nothing of, and I’m sure I won’t be able to avoid saying a few silly things.

My mindset reading Doughnut Economics

I started reading the book with a fair dose of skepticism, and it is important to understand where that skepticism came from, not least because it may explain why economists’ responses have been so downright hostile. As a natural resource economist I work a lot with other disciplines, notably ecology, sociology, and environmental science. Here are just a few responses I usually get after telling people I’m an economist:

  • “You look more like a leftie to me!” (If only you knew.)
  • “What I think is really stupid of you economists is that you think the economy can keep growing forever…” (We don’t)
  • “You economists ignore the environment. You call it an externality, as if it does not matter!” (That’s not what an externality is)
  • “Economics is not really a science, is it? After all you did not see the crisis coming” (Neither can climate scientists predict specific hurricanes.)

I can relate to climate scientists who have to debunk the same old nonsense time and again (“You don’t take into account the sun’s influence!” “The climate has not warmed in 16 years!”). The difference is, unfortunately, that climate contrarians usually do not get the starry-eyed media attention that anti-economics writers tend to get.

Don’t get me wrong here – I think there is a lot in my field that can be improved and criticism is vital. The tragedy is that a lot of the criticism comes from people who don’t know what they are  talking about, who have their own dogmas, prejudices, and political bias, and, most tragically, whose prejudice and poor understanding of the field prevents them from seeing the problems that do deserve attention.

My experience with Economics of Good and Evil by Tomas Sedlacek is a good illustration of this. Sedlacek takes a very original approach to economics, drawing from philosophy and ancient mythology to reflect on how the field deals with moral questions. I gave up on the book when I read how Sedlacek interprets the concept of utility:

…it is clear that any sentence on the maximalization (sic) of such utility is naturally valid. We gain a tautology: Utility is gained by an individual through activities that increase utility. And because each person has utility from something else, we get: An individual does what he wants to. We can see that this sentence is vacuous – and for this reason it can be constantly “valid” because it says that A=A. […] If an individual maximizes utility, which everyone defines themselves, Popper would immediately ask: How would an individual have to act in order not to maximize their utility? In other words: Can one go in an opposite direction to their optimization function? If it is not possible to present a thinkable example, then the theory is not falsifiable and is de facto pointless. (Tomas Sedlacek, Economics of Good and Evil, Oxford University Press, 2011, pages 224-226)

Despite having been the Czech president’s economic advisor, Sedlacek does not seem to understand that utility functions were never meant to be a testable hypothesis any more than the Gordon-Schaefer growth function is supposed to hypothesize how populations grow. Both utility functions and biological growth functions are mere models, i.e. abstractions of much more complicated processes. In the case of utility functions this complicated process is how people decide what they want. Such a simplified model helps us understand the choices that people make and how their choices play out at an aggregate level in the overall economy. Utility functions are nothing but preference orderings: indeed, an individual does what he wants to do, but what he wants, how he acts upon what he wants, and how his choices interact with those of others, that is the object of investigation in economics.

The biggest tragedy, however, is that Sedlacek apparently has not read enough economics books to pinpoint the restrictive properties underlying utility functions. Utility functions need to have particular properties in order to be rational, i.e. consistent, so that they can be used in the kind of formal analyses that economists like to do. These properties can be tested, they have been tested, and some have been shown to be false in at least some situations and individuals. For example, utility functions (to be more precise, preference orderings) have to be transitive in order to be rational. This means that if you prefer A over B, and B over C, you must prefer A over C. This property can be tested in a simple laboratory setting, so many psychologists and behavioural economists have done so. Rather unsurprisingly, they found it is often violated.

Perhaps I should have checked who Tomas Sedlacek is before I read the book, because a search on Scopus yields two publications in Czech-language journals and one interview, where in the latter he repeats the tired old slur that “economics is a religion”. With all due respect to the Czech, publishing only in your local language is not exactly convincing of your awareness of the state of the art in your field. Nobody should take my opinion on economics seriously if my publication list featured nothing more than two publications in Economische en Statistische Berichten.

You might respond that in a field so fundamentally stuck in its own dogmas it takes an outsider to shake it up. But then I have to refer to climate science again. Suppose somebody who has never published in climate science, or only in a handful rather obscure journals, writes a book that purports to revolutionize climate science. Would you read it? Now add another feature: suppose that a casual browsing through the book reveals that it regurgitates all the nonsense that climate scientists have been debunking for years: that the so-called climate pause invalidates all of climate science, that climate scientists ignore the sun’s influence, that climate variation on geological scales suggests that current changes are nothing to worry about, and so on. Would you take it seriously – at all?

I hate to say this, but in that light I had every reason to be skeptical of Doughnut Economics. In Scopus I can find a whopping three peer-reviewed publications by Kate Raworth – none in economics journals. What’s more, see what Ewald Engelen wrote in his review of Doughnut Economics:

Take “externalities” – as if environmental pollution, depletion of resources, immeasurable animal suffering, declining species richness, carbon dioxide emissions are ‘external’ to our economic production, and not an intrinsic part of it.

I don’t know what I would find more shocking: that a best-selling book by somebody hailed as the new Keynes (granted, coming from George Monbiot you might not take this as a compliment) perpetuates the Suzuki Fallacy, or that somebody considered a celebrity economist in The Netherlands repeats this faux pas in his review.

So no, I did not expect much when I started reading Doughnut Economics.

Is it any good?

So now that I’ve read it, what do I think of the book? It’s certainly not as bad as Sedlacek’s – but that’s quite a low bar. Raworth makes an honest effort to construct an economics that is fit for the problems of the twenty-first century (global environmental change and dwindling resources combined with grinding poverty and repulsive inequality), where she believes that the economic approach has so far been inadequate. Not all is new, indeed, and while some economists accuse her of attacking strawmen, she actually cites a fair number of big names in economics who look beyond the standard neoclassical model, such as Elinor Ostrom, Richard Thaler, and Daniel Kahneman. She makes a number of very good observations, but also some statements that range from problematic to simply untrue – yes, she repeats the Suzuki Fallacy. My note book has a couple of “Spot on!!” notes as well as some “Nonsense!!” ones. Her recommendations are a mix of classical environmental-economic solutions, radical but interesting ideas, and poorly thought-through, hopelessly naive pies-in-the-sky.

So would I recommend it to my students? The short answer is: perhaps my MSc students, but definitely not my BSc students. For them there is simply too much in there that is simply not true (I want them to get the definition of externalities right, for example). The long answer is in the following blog posts.

Coming up next:

New tune: Sleepless In Seattle

It’s been months since my stay in Seattle for Fiddle Tunes and IIFET, but for several reasons my mind still wanders back to that summer, the great atmosphere in Port Townsend, and the wonderful people I met. While I was there I wrote a mazurka(*) that I started playing at the local Irish session here in Wageningen. Some people asked me to put the notes online, so here goes:


Note that mazurkas are never played as straight as they are written down. They may be noted as 3/4, but they are usually played with a bit of swing that makes it sound more like a 9/8.

Here is the abc code:

T:Sleepless In Seattle
C:Rolf Groeneveld
ddc |: B3 c BA | F3 F FE | D2 E2 (3FED | B,3 B, A,B, |
| D3 F A<B | A3 G FD |1 (E6 | E3) D dc :|2 (D6 | D3) FGA ||
| B2 c2 d<e | d3 c BA | (A6 | A3) F GA |
| B2 c2 d<e | d3 A de | f3 f ed | e3 d dc |
| B3 c BA | F3 FFE | D2 E2 (3FED | B,3 B, A,B, |
| D3 F A<B | A3 G FD | (D6 | D6) |

(*) OK, OK I get it – it’s probably more a waltz than a mazurka – at least in the Irish and American traditions! What I had in mind when I wrote it was the mazurka as I know it from the bal folk tradition. See this beautiful tune by the legendary Snaarmaarwaar for an example.

Work and pleasure, arts and science

One can dream up uncountable categories in any profession, of course, but among academics, and perhaps especially among economists, two types stand out for me: the athlete and the artist/entrepreneur.

Athletes want to be the best in whatever competition they perceive to be in. Rankings are all that matters: all admiration goes to those in the Top 3. Athletes have a strong sense of who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’: you want to associate with people who are ‘in’ because they publish in all the cool journals, go to the cool conferences and some of that coolness may someday rub off on you. Like real athletes, these academics choose their game, learn the rules, and try to be really good at it. Does this field require me to eschew interdisciplinary research, and prove difficult mathematical propositions? Then by heck I’m going to be the best at it. An athlete is another athlete’s competitor, first and foremost: if other athletes score he cringes his teeth in jealousy and swears to beat them in the next game.

Artists/entrepreneurs want to make a good product. A product is good if they themselves think it is good (the artist) or if it is good enough for a sufficient number of people (the entrepreneur). Artists/entrepreneurs don’t choose games or follow rules: they invent their own game, their own rules. When other scientists produce a great product, like a highly original paper, an artist/entrepreneur is eager to read it, and learn from it. Where athletes are driven by a constant comparison of themselves with others, artists/entrepreneurs are intrinsically motivated: they want to make something they themselves can be proud of.

Fiddle Tunes and IIFET

I have a lot more affinity with artists/entrepreneurs than with athletes – no surprises there. The current system in academia is largely geared towards athletes, with its emphasis on journal citation scores, H-index, and university rankings. This worries me. Athletes may be rule-followers, they are also more likely to cheat – just witness the doping scandals in bicycle racing and other sports. Rule-following also kills creativity – an essential ingredient of science.

IMG_4434 smallI had plenty of opportunity to reflect on the importance of creativity and inventing your own rules in science in the past three weeks. The first week of July I was at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, Washington. It was an overwhelming experience to immerse myself in the music and hospitality of all the folks at this beautiful spot on a peninsula at the Puget Sound. One of the highlights was an improvisation workshop by bluegrass fiddler Tatiana Hargreaves. I don’t want to give away too many details about what we did (perhaps to preserve the secret but actually just because the truth is too embarrassing), but an important lesson that scientists might want to draw from it is that to get out of your comfort zone you should not take yourself too seriously!

DSC00089_smallAnd then there was the conference of the International Institute of Fisheries Economics and Trade (IIFET) in Seattle, in the third week of July. It was my second IIFET meeting but I’m sure it won’t be my last. One of the things I like about IIFET is its broadness, including not only economists but also policy scientists, sociologists, and people from NGOs and the fishing industry. Where the environmental economics conferences can feel like a gathering of athletes, IIFET is the place to go for artists/entrepreneurs. I was also excited to hear that 2020 will see the second edition of MSEAS, a conference on marine social-ecological systems, in Japan! The first edition, in Brest in 2016, yielded what must be the first comic in a peer-reviewed journal – another example of how art and science can make a happy marriage. More of that please!

Why cost-benefit analysis is a much better context for ecosystem service valuation than natural capital accounts

Help! I just discovered I agree with George Monbiot!

Well, sort of. He makes a number of sensible points against natural capital accounting that are worth considering:

Natural capital accounting suggests substitutability. Prices are substitutions. In a market money is best understood as a numeraire good, a good that has no immediate value of its own but that acts as an intermediary and a yardstick for the value (read: relative scarcity) of all the other commodities. I know natural capital adherents who try to estimate the monetary value of ecosystems, but flinch at any suggestion of it being a “price tag”: ecosystems cannot be substituted, they say. If a commodity cannot be substituted it has an infinite price. Attach a finite number to it, and it becomes substitutable. Period. This means two things. First, as Monbiot rightly argues, a price is meaningless without the suggestion of a transaction. Indeed, much non-market valuation aims at finding the compensating variation of a public good: how much money people should pay (receive) to make them just as happy as if they had not seen the public good reduced (improved). But these are incremental changes, whereas natural capital accounting regards the value of total stocks of capital. Second, if you value the total area of forest at some price (usually the per-hectare value times the area in hectares) you suggest we would be happy if we sold all our forest at that price (plus, say, one euro). But the per-hectare value reflects the marginal value of the first hectare you would cut; by the time you’re done cutting all the forest the last tree will be worth astronomic sums of money.

Pricing something crowds out intrinsic motivations to preserve it. A growing body of social-psychological research demonstrates that this is indeed a risk. A now-classic study demonstrated that when parents were fined for being late to pick up their kids at a day-care centre, they were more likely to be late – paying the fine absolved them of the moral obligation to be on time. Another study demonstrates that when being informed on the economic value of a park, people are less likely to donate money to its conservation.

I don’t think monetary valuation is entirely useless, but I do admit I’m getting more skeptical of natural capital accounting. Originally non-market valuation was developed to be included in cost-benefit analysis, and I think it should stay there. For three reasons:

Cost-benefit analysis has a null option. A properly done CBA compares at least two alternatives: adopting the policy and not adopting the policy. Both alternatives should be defined carefully, so they can be compared on their positive and negative effects on human well-being. NCA has no such null option. Suppose the government wants to build a highway straight through a forest. A CBA would compare two alternatives: one where we keep the forest and accept the traffic jams, and one where we lose the forest but win travel time. Comparing the economic costs and benefits of both alternatives gives us the incremental costs and benefits of building the highway. Now, I know that NCA was never meant to be used in such decisions (which raises for me the question what it is being used for), but the example demonstrates the problem with its lack of a null option: if we lose the forest, what do we have left? There is no proper definition of “no forest”: is it barren land, a hole in the soil, a graveyard of trees? The worst case of valuation-without-context is replacement cost pricing, where the forest is valued by the costs you would make to rebuild it elsewhere if it disappears. In a CBA such rebuilding efforts could be part of your policy alternative, and the CBA will inform you on the merits of that choice. In NCA, however, you would have to assume that the forest would be rebuilt no matter what.

Cost-benefit analysis is done in incremental terms. As rightly pointed out by Monbiot (and, actually, many economists), it is silly to assume that the total value of a biome is equal to its marginal value times its area. In fact, economists developing methods to value natural capital are aware of this, so what they do is to account for the value of natural capital in a way that is consistent with how we calculate GDP. Nevertheless, the very act of valuing all forest in a country yields numbers that are very difficult to interpret, and therefore prone to misinterpretation. In a CBA, both alternatives are defined by a proper storyline and a delineation.

Cost-benefit analysis has a context. CBA is usually done to inform a concrete policy decision, and most of the time it is an input into a wider decision-making process that involves multiple stakeholders. Also, in this process many other values are considered besides economic value, such as social impacts, aesthetics, ethical considerations. Non-market valuation of ecosystem services can be part of this, but one can also choose not to monetize those values, and leave them to a wider debate that can also include other considerations. (I’m currently reading up on taboo trade-offs and the IPBES theoretical framework – exciting stuff!) At best, the valuations done within NCA are included in satellite accounts that also list biophysical parameters such as species richness, forest cover, and air quality. But the wide range of considerations that will feature in the public debate will still be reduced to a set of statistics.

Loomings (2)

Were Niagara but a cataract of sand, would you travel your thousand miles to see it? Why did the poor poet of Tennessee, upon suddenly receiving two handfuls of silver, deliberate whether to buy him a coat, which he sadly needed, or invest his money in a pedestrian trip to Rockaway Beach? Why is almost every robust healthy boy with a robust healthy soul in him, at some time or other crazy to go to sea? Why upon your first voyage as a passenger, did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land? Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and make him the own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.


Again, Moby Dick of course.

All knowledge is hearsay

Why do we believe what we believe? One of the many complicating factors in marine policy is that different stakeholders hold different beliefs. Is pulse trawling a boon or a disaster for the marine environment? Do Marine Protected Areas enhance fish catches? Does human activity change the global climate? Finding consensus on how to allocate marine resources is difficult enough when all the people involved agree on the facts. Problems become a lot more difficult when facts are disputed, or worse, when beliefs run parrallel to divisions between political, religious, or other segments of society.

I recently started reading some of the psychological literature on this issue and I came across an article by Dan Kahan of Yale Law School. It addresses the phenomenon that for some policy topics, such as climate change, nuclear power, or genetic modification, acceptance of the scientific consensus correlates strongly with one’s political preferences. In a nutshell, conservatives are more likely to be skeptical of climate science, and to accept the scientific consensus that transgenic crops are safe; progressives, on the other hand, tend to accept the scientific consensus on climate change but are often suspicious of genetic modification. Kahan’s article explains and tests three hypotheses for this phenomenon:

  1. Bounded Rationality. A common theory in psychology posits that our brains have two systems to process information: a “fast” system that works through low-effort heuristics and associations (System 1); and a “slow” system that works through high-effort systematic reasoning (System 2). According to this hypothesis a member of the Dutch Party for the Animals is against biotechnology not because she has read all the literature and visited all the conferences, but because she applies a heuristic that accepts a belief if people like her believe it.
  2. Ideological Asymmetry. Empirical studies have shown that conservatives tend to be averse to complexity and ambiguity: they prefer their beliefs and principles to be simple, clear, and unshakable. According to this hypothesis these preferences make them more closed-minded and less willing to accept facts that contradict their current beliefs.
  3. Expressive Utility. The naive economic view is that values come before affiliations: people hold particular values and beliefs, and then vote for parties and politicians that conform those values and beliefs. A recent publication by political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, however, turns this idea on its head: people choose which politician they like, or what party they prefer to associate with, and adapt their values accordingly. According to the Expressive Utility hypothesis, people express group membership through their beliefs: in a sense, they are willing to ignore facts in order to avoid becoming a heretic to their group.

Kahan goes on to test the three hypotheses and he finds that people who use more systematic reasoning are more, not less, likely to align their beliefs with their political affiliation. This makes it unlikely that they use a heuristic (System 1); rather, they invest considerable effort to justify their rejection of scientific facts. This supports the Expressive Utility hypothesis: conservatives are skeptical of climate science because accepting it would make them a bad conservative. I find it a plausible conclusion, particularly considering the findings of Achen and Bartels, and it resonates with other findings that more highly educated people are more skeptical of vaccination.

I’m not buying the Ideological Asymmetry hypothesis that conservatives are inherently dogmatic. I’ve encountered similar closed-mindedness among progressives, especially the radical Left, so I suspect it is more a feature of political extremism than of any particular end of the political spectrum.

Neither am I convinced by the Bounded Rationality hypothesis, although I do think there could still be a grain of truth in it. As far as I understand the dual-thinking model (i.e. as an economist with a half-read copy of Thinking Fast and Slow on his bedside table), System 1 is a fast, associative heuristic: it makes people give the wrong intuitive answer to the Bat and Ball Problem when they don’t have the time or the energy to use the kind of cognitive effort typical of System 2. But climate skeptics or vaccinophobes are not being asked to give their response on the spot. They have Googled the issue, they have read blogs and articles, they have discussed it with friends, relatives, and colleagues. This is not a System 1 activity. But there could still be a mechanism at work that is related to Bounded Rationality – just not in the way suggested by dual-thinking theory.

All knowledge is hearsay

I’m sure there is a theory on this in social psychology or a related field, so I’d be happy to hear about it if anyone who reads this knows more. I suspect that what is going on is that very little of what we know (or think we know, or hold to be true) comes from genuine first-hand experience or logical reasoning. The vast majority of our beliefs depend crucially on information that we got from other people, for example through newspaper articles, scientific publications, radio programmes, and coffee-table chit-chat. Every such piece of information involves a messenger, and whether you accept that information depends on whether you trust the messenger. Moreover, we don’t have time to check all our beliefs, so any time we receive new information we need to decide whether to trust the messenger, to dismiss the message right away, or to verify it with other information – which, again, has to come from other messengers with varying degrees of trust. There will always be a point where we stop verifying and go with the information we have, in other words trusting the messengers of the information we have not been able to verify. So it is not a black-or-white question of using either the heuristics of System 1 or the systematic reasoning of System 2, but rather finding the mix of believing and verifying that leads to an efficient use of cognitive effort.

What makes us trust a given messenger? There used to be messengers with a particular authority, either through formal designations such as college degrees or through informal assignments such as reputations. The views of a professor would have more weight than those of a layman because we assumed that the professor had earned his degree by studying hard, gathering a lot of knowledge, and being really smart; newspapers like The Economist or The Washington Post had solid reputations for honest and well-researched reporting. Both forms of authority have eroded of late due to the increased role of social media and online news outlets, but also a growing anti-intellectualism.

And this erosion of the authority of traditional messengers also points towards another mechanism: we tend to trust people who are like ourselves. A conservative is more likely to reject the consensus on climate change because the Wall Street Journal does so too, and he is more likely to trust the Wall Street Journal than the New York Times. Likewise, an environmentalist is more likely to believe The Ecologist than The Economist on the merits of free trade and biotechnology.

And of course I’m no exception. On all the issues I mentioned above, pulse trawling, MPAs, climate change, vaccinations, and biotechnology, I tend to adopt the scientific consensus. Is that because scientists should be trusted, objectively, to do their work right or is it just because I work in science myself so I am more willing to trust them?

Impressions of the North Sea Days 2017

This year’s North Sea Days had the motto “Time to set a different course”. I realised the motto also applied to my own research. After years of building bioeconomic models I have recently decided to focus on the normative questions of marine economics: how do we analyse tradeoffs between different uses, can we use the lessons learned from cost-benefit analysis in management strategy evaluations, and is CBA the right tool for problems as complicated and multifaceted as marine policy?

Anyway, here are my impressions of the North Sea Days, in no particular order.

Not everybody was ready to admit it, but the development of wind energy is now a key driver for Dutch North Sea policy. The current generative capacity is about 1 GW, to which the Dutch government plans to add another 10.5 GW between now and 2030. Eventually the North Sea should have about 35-75 GW worth of wind turbines. That is an incredible amount that also makes conservation NGOs uneasy.

I was shocked by the adamant refusal of conservationists (from whatever organisation) to even consider human interests when talking about protecting and restoring biodiversity. In a session on nature conservation I seemed to be the only participant answering “people” when asked which species I specialised in. When another participant had the tenacity to ask the question why we want to conserve nature the rest fell over him like a ton of bricks. I have heard suggestions like “increase fish biomass to 10-100 times current levels” (is that even physically possible?) and “ban the beam trawl” like nobody depends on fishing for a living. Ironically the conservation NGOs came across as the most reasonable voice, understanding that different objectives, including fishing, energy production, and conservation, need to coexist. Dirk Kraak, a Dutch fisher present at the North Sea Days, had a similar impression at another session (in Dutch).

It was therefore, again, quite clear that fishers are in a very difficult position. The world is changing, and so are the seas. Fishers need to share more and more of the sea with other uses and demands, where they used to have the entire area for themselves. Putting your foot down, as some are trying to do, is not going to stop this juggernaut. As difficult as it is, they will have to accommodate and try to make the best of a bad situation.

The session on cumulative ecological analysis demonstrated that like in any marine system, the web of activities, ecosystem components, and impacts on human well-being in the North Sea is incredibly complex. This is a huge complication for any form of policy appraisal (like CBA), which depends heavily on the delineation of the problem. This is difficult enough on land, but at sea, where everything hangs together with everything else, it seems near impossible.

Uncertainty is another key issue, and therefore so is adaptability of policies and institutions. How fast will sea levels rise? How will marine currents and ecosystems respond to big hard structures such as wind turbines? What will be the energy source of the future – wind, solar, tidal, biomass? Time may tell, but only at different temporal scale levels. We cannot wait for all uncertainties to be resolved, but we can develop institutions and policies that are able to adapt to new information.

All in all two incredibly inspiring days.

Maritime Music

Apparently people associate Irish traditional music with the sea. At least the organisers of Bremen’s Festival Maritim do, or else I would not have played there with Tobermore last August, alongside other folk bands like Harmony Glen and Alban Fuam. Perhaps Ireland’s insular geography evokes an association with anything marine in the heads of continental land lubbers. Perhaps the cultural ties with other British islands blurs the distinction between sea shanties and slip jigs. What’s more, the hornpipe, which is found throughout English, Scottish, and Irish traditional music, is a sailor’s dance by origin.


In any case, Festival Maritim was a absolute blast, a feast of music, food, and drink, the closest you might get to rock ‘n roll without amplifiers. We played four gigs, sold a load of CDs, had a massive session on Saturday night and met many wonderful fellow musicians. Special mention goes to the Shoepolishers, a French folkpunk band we befriended over sessions and Kraken rum. Except for The Pogues and Kultur Shock I find most folkpunk bands painfully boring and staggeringly unoriginal, but these folks played a juggernaut of a show: such energy, such enthusiasm.

Do the Shoepolishers play maritime music? Not that I could hear. If you’re looking for any musical reference to maritime affairs at the Festival Maritim, go to one of the uncountable shanty choirs, who will sing old sailor’s songs from the days when singing was a way of synchronising manual labour on a sailing vessel or in the harbour. There is no guarantee that any of the singers has ever been at sea, although I would not be surprised if some or most have a sailing boat at home. Fascination with the ocean does not require a maritime profession, and there are many ways to quench your thirst for salty water if your day job is at the office.

This summer I also had a very short-lived musical career with The Pyrates, substituting for their violinist Rowan Schuddeboom. The Pyrates play old English, Irish, Australian, and New-Zealand folk songs, played on drums, guitar, bass, and fiddle. And dressed as a pirate from Pirates Of The Caribbean, of course. It was one of the most difficult and stressful things I ever did for fun. Most of the band had extensive musical experience, which put the bar a lot higher than I could manage. The drummer had toured all over the world with Within Temptation, and the reason Rowan was not available was that he was busy completing his conservatory education. When, after one gig (on Kijkduin beach, aptly) the band decided that they would rather cancel the second gig than play it with me I felt disappointed, hurt, but also relieved. But it was a valuable experience, and I learned a lot from it musically as well as personally. Don’t quit your day job, an A&R manager would say.


So what makes music maritime? Surely lyrics can refer to a sailor’s life, the call of the sea, or the mysteries below the waves. There are countless Irish tunes with names like Out On The Ocean, The Rolling Waves, or The Ships Are Sailing. But music itself? Can something as abstract as music capture the rhythm of the waves, the endless horizons, and the merciless rage of a stormy ocean?

After my fishing trip on the SL-9 I wrote a tune that I decided to call The Flyshoot:


I felt it had to be a slip jig. Only a slip jig can capture the broken rhythm of a cutter as it makes a seemingly perfect arch in the sky while it climbs over a wave, only to violently crash into another wave as it comes down, and then goes up again. (Considering that flyshooting is originally a Danish fishing technique – the Danes call it snurrevaad – a polka may have been more fitting but it just doesn’t feel right.)

How about metal? One of my favourite post-metal bands is a German collective called The Ocean. Although I had missed their gig at Roadburn in 2013, I blindly bought their CD Pelagial, and only because it was their only CD with an instrumental version (I usually hate what passes for vocals in metal: most of it is grunting, screaming, or just whining). Pelagial describes a journey to the darkest depths of the ocean, which is supposed to be a metaphor for the unconscious (what metal bands lack in basic psychology they compensate with pseudo-Freudian psycho-babble). I’m sure the sounds of a heavily breathing diver and bubbles escaping from his mental submarine help, but even without those sounds the music is fitting for the dramatic contrasts between tense, eery calm and uncontrollable rage that makes the sea so fascinating to us terrestrial apes.

Recently I discovered Ahab, a German doom metal band whose music is inspired entirely by Moby Dick. Their first album, Call Of The Wretched Sea, is full of slow, dark, heavy riffs as macabre and unstoppable as the fate of the captain and his white whale. Yes, there is grunting on the album, lots of it, and I needed to get used to it to appreciate the album. But it works.

Then there is Alcest‘s Écailles de Lune, which supposedly is inspired by oceans and seas, but hearing that in their music takes more of my imagination than it does for the two albums I just mentioned. Nevertheless it’s a beautiful, dramatic album, shoegazing at its best. Internetfora also mention ISIS‘s Oceanic, and Mastodon‘s Leviathan, but I find those least convincing. Oceanic sounds too blunt, too ‘square’, to resemble the ocean in any way (perhaps a four-fourth measure just doesn’t cut it). And Leviathan is simply Mastodon: perfect music for a biker bar but not for rolling waves.

Any other suggestions? Which ocean-inspired metal band should I absolutely check out?


Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

And that is just the first paragraph. If you read only one book in your life, for God’s sake, let it be Moby Dick.