The theory of efficient markets, when applied beyond financial markets, is proposed by those who bridle against government regulation of business. Their idea is that markets will punish bad behavior of individual firms or even whole industries and thus create incentives for firms to produce goods and services without harming employees, consumers, or the environment. In theory, the desire of firms to maintain good reputations, and thus not degrade “brand equity,” is supposed to obviate the need for government regulation.
Of course we can all think of multiple examples of workers, consumers, or the general public hurt by firms that cut corners, particularly when introducing new products or production processes. Often the firms know about health and safety risks of their products well before the general public (think of the tobacco industry). This leads to a common market failure called information asymmetry – the firm knows something about its product that is invisible to consumers. The lack of full information leads consumers to buy products or services they might not otherwise purchase were they aware of that information.
This type of market failure was part of the rationale behind the technology assessment movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The idea was that before new technologies could be introduced their likely social, economic, and environmental impacts should be documented. The U.S. Congress even had an Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) to aid it in thinking about the public interest in new technological development. The belief was that innovation is not good in and of itself. The OTA was closed by the Republican Congress when Newt Gingrich delivered on his “Contract With America.” Government meddling with new technologies was an anathema to free market proponents.
We have yet another example of the pitfalls of new technology with unanticipated consequences as a threat to the quality of our environment. This threat derives from the success that nutritionists and chefs have had in encouraging people to cook with olive oil. The rising demand for olive oil has increased production (good for farmers), leading to the need for new olive harvesting technology. Mechanical harvesting of olives has grown dramatically in Europe. No one anticipated, at least not publicly, that this new technology would be bad for migratory song birds. Yet the use of these harvesters shows a wanton disregard for the importance of bird life.
Technology assessment done well would have identified that the new harvesting machines, when used at night as they are in much of the Mediterranean region, would kill millions of song birds. Even the best operating markets will not let consumers know which olive oil they buy kills birds and which does not. Some form of collective action (government regulation) is needed to protect critically threatened species.
This is a situation similar to what I have called Open Season on Chickadees. House cats (feral and those who are allowed to roam outside) and cell phone towers slaughter millions of song birds in North America every year, a phenomenon that is invisible to most people. Text a friend, kill a bird – this is now common place in our culture. The market delivered an incredible new communications mode, yet there was no regard for the impact on wildlife.
All of this is part of the larger phenomenon of the Anthropocene, the idea that we have entered a new epoch where humanity is the most impactful force for change on the planet. We collectively change the weather, eliminate other plant and animal species, and modify the surface of the planet in more and larger ways than any other force on the planet. And we aspire to solve the problems we have created with ever more engineering of natural processes. I called this the adoption of a management ethic. We believe we are smart enough to manage these complex natural phenomena with our technologies.
It is time for modern humans to adopt the precautionary principle, which would lead us to using technology assessment as a tool for public policy. The precautionary principle is the simple idea that before headlong embrace of new technologies we would publicly consider whether the benefits they provide are worthwhile given the potential damages they might do to us and the larger biotic community we belong to. The idea that markets will magically protect us is demonstrably flawed. We need to collectively take control of our future and not leave that to anonymous market mechanisms that may serve some individual interests but do not serve the common interest.
So the next time you sauté some garlic in olive oil, wonder whether it was produced with technology that destroys the natural world. If you cannot tell, that is a problem. It is a failure of markets to function well and it is a disaster for global song-bird populations.