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A Demon of Our Own Design September 8, 2007

Posted by federalist in Energy, Finance.
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A recent vacation afforded me the rare opportunity not only to catch up on my piles of industry periodicals, but also to read two books cover to cover.

First was Rick Bookstaber’s most recent book, A Demon of Our Own Design. Fortunately, AllAboutAlpha.com has saved me the trouble of further comment with a thorough and accurate review. (Barry Ritholtz also managed to get the first chapter online.) Unlike many books, this one is worth reading in full. My one-line conclusion after reading it: The more you try to control risk with complex instruments or regulations, the less you will be able to predict how your attempts at control will fail — but they will fail.

Second was Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us. This was a sweeping sample of the impact of humans on the biosphere, as well as of the uncanny ability of the biosphere to recover from extreme impacts. In spite of the author’s occasional indulgence in liberal/anti-human jabs, the book contains a wealth of diverse examples that actually reinforce the thesis that the capacity of man to impact the biosphere is quite limited. In fact, there are really only two things that humans have definitively done that will have any lasting impact on the planet:

  1. Humans have hunted most large and tasty animal species to extinction. However, most of this occurred ages ago as primitive humans migrating through the Americas and Pacific islands encountered large animals that had apparently not evolved to fear these versatile hominid predators.
  2. Humans have produced artificial materials (plastics and other large molecules) that the biosphere is incapable of consuming. These could conceivably survive like artificial elements for many eons. Their long-term impact on the biosphere is unknown, but some hypothesize that organisms will eventually evolve that are capable of digesting them.

The third major human activity that bothers many environmentalists involves our propensity to dig up and concentrate toxic elements — like heavy and radioactive metals — that used to lie dispersed underground. However, visits to disaster sites like Chernobyl show us how quickly nature can rebound. The most remarkable message I took away from this book is that no matter what we do, natural processes will quickly work to break it down and bury it.

On my vacation I visited a glacier, which drove that point home: Nothing can stop the fact that during the next ice age massive sheets of ice will flatten and bury everything in their way. Nature’s primer.

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