May 7, 2021Liked by Brendan Ruberry

We need to stop concerning ourselves so much with individual behavior and carbon footprints and start focusing on the small collection of giant corporations (not to mention the US military, the biggest polluting force on the planet) that contribute over 70 percent of all global carbon emissions

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This is a poorly conceived article.

The premise is that when one optimizes for thing X, one is implicitly ignoring everything else that's not explicitly X. Of course this is correct; this underspecification problem is well known in computer science. The issue I have with Trembath is that all those externalaities are equally unmeasured in the original algorithm as in the eco-friendly algorithm. Once one notices this, Trembath's piece collapses to an argument that changing things can lead to new negative consequences; the issue is that he gives no justification (and there is essentially none that can be given*) that these consequences will be worse than the original unmeasured consequences. For example: the argument that Google is optimizing for speed alone could be used to conclude that Google might often direct people through neighborhoods where the speed limit is too high and therefore dangerous to pedestrians. This consideration exists equally for the speed-only algorithm and for the eco-friendly algorithm.

For this reason, I find that the main objective point of the piece is incorrect. The rest is opinion. He brings up some fine points. It's just that they're all organized around an incoherently presented thesis. Here is my condensed version of this article which captures what I find valuable in it: "We should attempt to quantify side-effects of algorithms so we better understand their net utility."

* In order to be friendly to Trembath, I can imagine one making the heuristic argument that the eco-friendly algorithm is pursuing two objectives at once and is therefore more constrained in its solution space; thus, the compromises it makes on unspecified externalities will be more extreme. This is a natural outcome to suspect, but it is hard to quantify--and certainly Trembath makes no effort to do so. In this case, the solution space is so large to begin with that my hunch is that the additional constraint is a drop in the bucket.

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This is perhaps the most unintentionally ironic piece I’ve ever read. The article is dead-on when it comes to pointing out the ridiculous one-issue rules that simplify away all tradeoffs to make it easy for people to feel like they know THE answer and they are the pinnacle of righteousness.

But who is telling us this? The very group that has spent its lifetime trying to prevent the one carbon-reducing method that most favors helping people make complex trade-offs. Instead, it has adopted a simplistic rule of thumb: Tech breakthroughs — good; other approaches — bad. That’s why it’s called the Breakthrough Institute.

Now I’m all in favor of more money for research into tech breakthroughs for cleaner energy. As an economist, the undersupply of such research is a well-known market failure, and a severe one. But it’s certainly not the only one. And is likely not the largest.

So what is the pro-tradeoff policy that The BI is suppressing? Well, this little trade-off. Should I spend more money or effort to reduce my emissions, or should I save money and effort? And if I’m going to spend to save carbon, should I buy more insulation, buy a tesla, carpool to work, eat less meat, or what? These are all of the fundamental trade-offs that have been made badly for one obvious reason. The market fails to include the global-warming cost in the price of gas, the price of beef, the cost of flying, etc. etc.

That means it’s really hard for us to make smart trade-offs. We are not going to stop all our emissions tomorrow. That’s just way too costly. But we are willing to put some money and effort into the project. But what cut-back should we choose? Well, the one thing economics gets right is that businesses pass on costs, so if you add the global-warming cost onto the cost of fossil fuels, it will get passed on in about the right proportion to every product we buy or choose not to buy.

This means we can put our money and effort where it does the most good at the least cost to us. And we don’t have to figure out all the carbon and methane inputs needed to make a hamburger before we bite into one.

And pricing carbon means that even non-environmentalists start making good choices because good choices suddenly become smart even for selfish people.

Carbon pricing makes sensible tradeoffs far, far simpler, so they will be made far more sensibly. But noooo. The Breakthrough Institute knows THE right answer — spend all our money on high-tech research. Be a single-minded fanatic and feel righteous. So they’ve been preaching against putting global-warming costs onto fossil fuels for over a decade.

And about the attack on Google and algorithms? It’s ridiculous. If Google doesn’t help me find the low-carbon route will that cause me to start making all of Trembath’s tradeoffs? Am I going to start factoring in my noise pollution, risks to pedestrians, and the localized effects of my pollution, before I start my engine? What planet does Trembath live on? Google is just taking one more step toward a sensible tradeoff. That’s not a bad thing.

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It sounds like readers need another example to be convinced of other factors which Google’s algorithm cannot consider at this time. In recent years there has been a considerable push to adapt to bicycle use both for commuting and recreation, in pursuit of environmental improvement. As a result fat tire riders have taken to the asphalt and seniors are seen in clusters along city trails. There has also been a serious uptick in fatalities due to road collisions between motorists and cyclists.

This is true in Minneapolis and nationwide. Here is a recent article about a particular intersection. Crash that injured cyclist is latest incident at troubled south Minneapolis intersection - StarTribune.com As you read the piece take into consideration how long it has been since the problem was identified and how long it will take to get the intersection sorted out. Now you want to have Google send a whole bunch of motorists down low traffic streets. (?)

Cities are growing and changing with the preferences of their dwellers. These decisions are daily and numerous and steeped in social concerns. The solutions and mechanisms to address and adjust for concerns can be slow as they filter through petition processes and city councils. Until we have a better handle on this, I think Alex Trembath is exactly right. Promoting an eco-friendly route falls short in understanding its consequences in a comprehensive system of social tradeoffs.

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This is a great piece pulling apart the onion so to speak of all the layers of tradeoffs which occur in a public endeavor, one to improve the environment. I am right on board with the author that there are too many other outcomes left untracked to turn over eco-friendly driving to an algorithm. To truly evaluate the ‘best’ route there is more big picture sorting to do, and data to accumulate. Then we could start to do a sensible analysis. Here is a short piece on how to price out our time in daily tradeoffs: https://home-economic.com/

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