Harvard economist: Climate cost-benefit analyses are “unusually misleading,” warns colleagues “we may be deluding ourselves and others”

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"Harvard economist: Climate cost-benefit analyses are “unusually misleading,” warns colleagues “we may be deluding ourselves and others”"

Harvard economist Martin Weitzman published an important analysis last year in which he explained why conventional economic analyses of climate change are “arbitrarily inaccurate.”

The first draft of the paper had said the vast majority of such analyses should carry the following label:

“WARNING: to be used ONLY for cost-benefit analysis of non-extreme climate change possibilities. NOT INTENDED to cover welfare evaluation of extreme tail possibilities, for which a complete accounting might produce ARBITRARILY DIFFERENT welfare outcomes.”

The final version, “On Modeling and Interpreting the Economics of Catastrophic Climate Change,” eliminated that disclaimer, but replaced it with a longer statement that is equally devastating (see below).

Weitzman’s bottom line: If you don’t factor in plausible extreme-impact scenarios — and the vast majority of economic analyses don’t (this means you, William Nordhaus, and you, too, Richard Tol) — your analysis is worse than useless. It is delusional. Pretty strong stuff for a Harvard economist!

fat-tail.gifThe extreme or fat tail of the damage function (click on figure at right) represents what Weitzman calls “rare climate disasters,” although as we’ll see, they aren’t rare at all, they are near certain with business-as-usual emissions. For Weitzman, disaster is a temperature change of > 6°C (11°F) in a century, as he explains in an earlier paper on the Stern Review on the economics of climate change:

With roughly 3% IPCC-4 probability, we will “consume” a terra incognita biosphere within a hundred years whose mass species extinctions, radical alterations of natural environments, and other extreme outdoor consequences of a different planet will have been triggered by a geologically-instantaneous temperature change that is signi…cantly larger than what separates us now from past ice ages.

Weitzman says the IPCC Fourth Assessment gives the probability of such an “extreme” temperature change as 3%, and that “to ignore or suppress the signi…ficance of rare tail disasters is to ignore or suppress what economic theory is telling us loudly and clearly is potentially the most important part of the analysis” — more important than the discount rate.

For me, what is especially important about Weitzman’s analysis is that the science is now crystal clear that there is far greater chance than 3% chance we will have a total warming of 6°C in a century or so if we don’t reverse emissions trends soon.

Indeed, there is a very high chance we will see above 5.5°C warming or more this century according to the prestigious Hadley Center (see “Hadley Center: Catastrophic 5.5-7°C warming by 2100 on current emissions path“). Same for the normally staid and conservative International Energy Agency, which noted in its most recent World Energy, “Without a change in policy, the world is on a path for a rise in global temperature of up to 6°C.”

In fact, a close reading of the 2007 IPCC report makes clear that absent a very strong and immediate emissions reduction effort, we are aiming right at 1000 ppm or higher — which is a 5°C warming or higher this century — as I explained in my recent Nature online article.

[Note: Let me be clear that 550 ppm to 750 ppm or a 3°C to 4°C total warming from preindustrial levels -- which takes us to the same temperature the planet had the last time sea levels were 80 to 250 feet higher -- would be an unmitigated catastrophe for the planet -- that is Hansen's point. In any case, if we get that warm, the defrosting of the permafrost and or one (or more) of the myriad other amplifying feedbacks will probably take us to 6°C warming within a few decades (see Study: Water-vapor feedback is "strong and positive," so we face "warming of several degrees Celsius").]

Weitzman does not seem to understand this, in part because, like most economists who work on climate, it does not appear that he spends much time actually talking to leading climate scientists or reading the recent climate science literature very closely. His acknowledgments don’t indicate that he sent his paper to very many leading climate scientists. But then again, this failure of understanding by smart people who have taken what I would consider to be a moderate interest in the current state of understanding of climate science is not entirely their fault:

The failure to explain that business-as-usual greenhouse gas emissions leads to 5°C or higher total warming and thus catastrophe — indeed, most likely an irreversible 1,000-year catastrophe — may be the greatest single messaging failure of the scientific community (and science media).

The proper damage function is thus not fat-tailed — it is completely open-ended, like an S-curve. That is especially true because of the irreversibility issue. If we don’t keep concentrations below a threshold like 450 ppm (or lower), we face the prospect of essentially incalculably large damages that might well get worse and worse for centuries.

What exactly is the cost of sea level in 2100 of 5 feet rising therafter 10 inches or more a decade (potentially reaching 20 inches a decade or higher) until the planet is ice free in several centuries and sea levels are 250 feet higher? That is certainly a plausible scenario on our current emissions path. Indeed, once again, I’d call it business as usual. If any of you economists out there have a plausible net present value of the cost of that outcome, I’d love to see it. Same for one third of the planet becoming a permanent desert and large parts of the ocean becoming hot, acidic dead zones.

That is why essentially every cost-benefit analysis on climate in the literature is wrong and useless and hence very dangerous if taken serious by policymakers.

Weitzman’s paper replaced the blunt disclaimer above with this conclusion:

Perhaps in the end the climate-change economist can help most by not presenting a cost-bene…fit estimate for what is inherently a fat-tailed situation with potentially unlimited downside exposure as if it is accurate and objective –and perhaps not even presenting the analysis as if it is an approximation to something that is accurate and objective –but instead by stressing somewhat more openly the fact that such an estimate might conceivably be arbitrarily inaccurate depending upon what is subjectively assumed about the high-temperature damages function along with assumptions about the fatness of the tails and/or where they have been cut off.

In short, cost-benefit analyses (CBAs) are garbage in garbage out (GIGO), or perhaps, mainstream economics in, garbage out (MEIGO).

Weitzman continues by explaining the uselessness of conventional “Integrated Assessment Model”s (IAMs) in the face of his central analytical point, which he calls the Dismal Theorem or DT (first emphasis below in original):

Even just acknowledging more openly the incredible magnitude of the deep structural uncertainties that are involved in climate-change analysis –and explaining better to policy makers that the arti…cial crispness conveyed by conventional IAM-based CBAs here is especially and unusually misleading compared with more-ordinary non-climate-change CBA situations –might go a long way towards elevating the level of public discourse
concerning what to do about global warming. All of this is naturally unsatisfying and not what economists are used to doing, but in rare situations like climate change where DT applies we may be deluding ourselves and others with misplaced concreteness if we think that we are able to deliver anything much more precise than this with even the biggest and most-detailed climate-change IAMs as currently constructed and deployed.

Yes, that is what mainstream economists are doing by peddling their standard cost-benefit analyses to the public, the media, and policymakers — deluding themselves and others.

ADDENDUM: Weitzman’s paper is certainly hard for any non-economist to follow. His discussion of the Stern Review, however, covers many of the same points and is, I think, accessible to anyone who took an economics class or two in college, especially if first you read John Quiggin (here and here).It is worth noting that while Weitzman is critical of how Stern chose the key discount rate parameters, he still thinks that Stern is mostly right for the “wrong reasons” — because the “the implications of large consequences with small probabilities” — like the many scenarios of catastrophic climate change (ice sheet instability, tundra melting) — matter more than the choice of discount rate.

That said, the mainstream economic policy think tank — Resources for the Future (RFF) — wrote a major report, “An Even Sterner Review,” that concluded, “we find no strong objections to the discounting assumptions adopted in the Stern Review” (a point I have made, also, based on Quiggin). It also concluded Stern could have used “rising relative prices” from future scarcity to get the same result. The RFF report pointed out:

If we were to combine the low discount rates in the Stern Review with rising relative prices, the conclusions would favor even higher levels of abatement. This would in fact lead us to consider some of the levels of carbon content that Stern deems unrealistic, that is, aiming for a target of less than 450 ppm CO2 equivalents.

Now what I would like to see is a cost-benefit analysis combining a moderate discount rate with RFF’s rising relative prices AND Weitzman’s “extreme climate change possibilities.”

I’m sure that such a comprehensive economic analysis would vindicate Stern again and drive us toward a target of 450 ppm or lower — which means we must peak in global emissions by 2020. The time to act is now. Real economics demands it.

Next stops, Tol and Nordhaus.

Note: This post is an update of this post from September.

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24 Responses to Harvard economist: Climate cost-benefit analyses are “unusually misleading,” warns colleagues “we may be deluding ourselves and others”

  1. jorleh says:

    Economists are, however, rather educated people. Why are they so ignorant of the facts of the real science? Think of some Lomborg. What is the source of their mad blindness?

  2. The author of the “Even Sterner Report:, Thomas Sterner, was just awarded the Myrdal prize in economics for his work in that paper: see

    http://www.efdinitiative.org/centers/eeu-sweden/news-press/news-archive/2009/the-myrdal-prize-2008-to-sterner-and-persson

  3. Greg N says:

    In the past year extreme economic events made a mockery of the bell curve and caused vast losses in a disaster scenario. Can’t we learn from this? Or must we make the same mistake again.

    We’ve become significantly poorer because of a extreme-impact economic scenario – a scenario that was way outside all probability but now looks inevitable with the benefit of hindsight.

    Humans are pretty dumb to assume a comfortable bell curve for the environment and to ignore the extreme-impact climate disaster.

    A few years ago an economist version of Joe might have written: “we could have a ‘rare banking disaster’, although as we’ll see, they aren’t rare at all, they are near certain with business-as-usual banking policy…”

  4. Rob says:

    “Weitzman’s bottom line: If you don’t factor in plausible extreme-impact scenarios — and the vast majority of economic analyses don’t (this means you, William Nordhaus, and you, too, Richard Tol)”

    Did you bother to read the Tol paper?!? Linking to that one as an example of someone who ignored the Weitzman point is very strange… Either you didn’t actually read the paper, didn’t understand it or I don’t know, but this is precisly an example of a paper that picks up Weitzman’s point…

    I can’t help it but get the impression that you are simply incredibly sloppy in your critique. Bashing other people is fine, but you seem to bash other people not by looking at what they are writing but rather by what group you think they belong to.

  5. Jose says:

    People certainly seem to consider best case scenarios so it only makes sense that the worst are factored in. However communicating this will be tricky as overly scary outcomes put a lot of people off.

    BTW, the blog’s sidebar isn’t loading for me properly in IE when I use the main address but it loads when I click on a specific article, strange.

    Jose

  6. Dano says:

    Joe,

    you can’t rag on economists one week and tout them the next. It looks fairly odd, to say the least.

    That is: conclusions you don’t like that happen to be written by economists result in fulminating. Conclusions you like that happen to be written by economists result in high praise.

    Folks notice.

    Best,

    D

    [JR: Huh? I am not "ragging on economists" as an end in itself -- I am explaining why the vast majority of economic analyses (done by economists) are wrong and worse than useless.

    Also, your "rule" is absurd. I criticize scientific analysis I think is weak and praise that which I think is absurd. Same for journalists. Same for politicians. Same for enviros. Pretty much everyone does that.

    If your rule is that either all economists are right or they are all wrong, then I'd say the only thing folks notice is your illogic.]

  7. john says:

    Joe;

    You alluded to this exact isssue a couple of years back in your posting on Nassim Taleb’s essay “The Black Swan.” Which has since been released as a book.

  8. Greg N says:

    The credit crunch is a classic “Black Swan”. An outlier that pops out of nowhere, confounding all those who were so certain of their previous models.

    Strictly speaking, the BAU path to 1,000ppm and climate disaster isn’t a Black Swan – the devastation is a certainty.

    The worry is that 550ppm or 450ppm scenarios will be modelled as following a bell-curve – unpleasant at one end, extremely costly at the other – but the reality could be a Black Swan outlier of climate devastation.

    Ignoring the fat tail of a Black Swan might, for example, make 550ppm seem like a reasonable outcome on a cost-benefit approach. Joe’s point is that the need to include the Black Swan possibility makes such a cost-benefit approach worthless.

    The scary thing is that a Black Swan might exist for a 450ppm stabilisation returning to 350ppm. By definition we do not, and cannot, know every possible outcome and extreme climate events lie in the darkness at the end of the bell curve…

  9. Richard Tol says:

    Note that the paper of mine you refer to actually agrees with Weitzman.

    [JR: I noticed that and will blog on it. Your paper "agrees" with Weitzman that there is a fat tail -- but then refuses to accept Weitzman's conclusion that this means the CBAs are useless. You seem to agree with his premise but not his conclusion.]

  10. Lou Grinzo says:

    Speaking as a card-carrying economist and energy/enviro geek, let me address the “why are so many economists dumb as dirt when it comes to climate chaos (or some other similar topic)” notion that’s often mentioned in such discussions.

    It’s very simple: We’re trained narrowly and deeply in economics, not energy or environmental topics. Would you expect a heart surgeon to know how to treat your slipped disk or cataracts?

    This is exactly the same reason why I see endless comments online from my fellow energy/enviro geeks who obvious have NO BLOODY CLUE how markets or economies work. So, why don’t they? They live in an immense world economic system that determines to a very large extent what their life is like, just as economists live in an environment and use energy that determines the course of their lives.

    My point is that yes, there’s plenty of legitimate cause for blaming economists for being dumb as a sack of rocks about some issues, but it’s just as reasonable to slam other groups that run around issuing their online proclamations about how we should tax or fund various activities, with no sign they know what the heck they’re talking about. As one can imagine, I spend a lot of my online time swearing at my monitor over the idiocy of one group or another I belong to.

    As for the business of properly accounting for the essentially infinite costs of inaction on climate chaos, I’m glad to see this (finally!) getting some serious attention, even if it’s very likely going to be a minority view for decades to come.

  11. John McCormick says:

    Dano and Rob,

    you might be making a valid point regarding Joe’s approach to the views of economists wading into climate change matters.

    Consider the reading, digesting and commenting on the huge volume of information he takes in and tries to interpret to us. I don’t know how he manages this blog with the high quality it presents and we are fortunate to benefit from his labor.

    We can take any and everything he posts with as many grains of salt we feel they deserve.

    As I understand Joe’s message regarding economists: if they intend to relate their specialty to climate change matters, they had better have done the hard lifting to understand the science of climate change and that means temperature sensitivity, positive and negative feedbacks, temp and precip impacts, snowfall rates, expanding tropical zone, etc. etc.

    Otherwise their publication or pronouncement should be considered only a work in progress.

    Better yet, those economists writing on climate change matters should submit their piece to journals such as Climate Change for review by scientists.

    John McCormick

  12. Dano says:

    John M and Joe:

    My point here has always been that complexity means that solution sets must be derived from multidisciplinary teams’ work. Therefore when there is ululating about professions, there is a higher likelihood that needed and important work is affected by the ululation.

    Decision-making is done with different and multiple ways of knowing. Scientific results are only one of those ways. Another way of knowing is emotional reactions (like it or not, but after all we are only human). That is: old-school econ has something to tell us. It is not the only way of knowing, it is often not the best way, but it can be used to inform decision-making.

    As John says: good econ analyses will stick to human reactions to likely future scenarios. That’s all they can do – and they answer only part of the question, as we need political science and sociology to tell us the likelihood of groups to adopt and adapt to future societal change.

    Complexity and global change are imperatives that require us to use all ways of knowing to attempt to address these issues.

    My opinion.

    Best,

    D

  13. Dean says:

    Joe – An article in the Portland Oregonian this morning reports that an economics study that indicates long-term economic benefit from carbon caps in the PNW (as advocated by Oregon’s governor) was withheld by the business and utility interests that helped fund it. It is a draft – they expect better quality information to finalize the study. That’s what they say.

  14. john says:

    Lou:

    The problem with economists is that depsite their ignorance — which you acknolwedge — they insist on making pronouncements which profoundly shape energy policy.

    As a discipline, economists seem to believe they’ve been given the Rosetta stone to all mysteries.

    Rarely would you find .. say, a climatologist telling the Fed how to conduct fiscal and monetary policy. Sadly, economists show no similar restraint, misinforming environmental, health and climate policy with great conviction and near normative certainty.

    As Herman Daley said, they know the price of everything, but the value of nothing.

  15. paulm says:

    We shouldn’t have given all those rich bankers our money! We should not be spending bail outs on the traditional consumer paradigm. The spending needs to be on green infrastructure. And its not happening enough!

    Here is Professor Hofstra on the Huff.

    Argues The Economic Wisdom Of A Green Recovery (VIDEO)
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/01/28/hofstra-professor-argues_n_161540.html

  16. Joe:

    The neglect of the fat tail is only part of the problem:

    When some argue that a BAU prediction of an average 2º C temperature rise by 2100 is WRONG because their own calculations, with the very best data, show that the figure should be 1.5º C, with 95% confidence, they fail to also note that that at best means the catastrophes are only slightly delayed! They’re just about inevitable, and on their way. And we can’t avoid them by sticking our heads in the sand.

    As I wrote to you a few days ago, journalists (and economists and even most scientists) don’t know how to qualify the practical relevance of confidence intervals, margins of error, etc., when discussing risks of GREAT MAGNITUDE.

  17. When your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
    When your only tool is cost-benefit analysis, everything looks like an economy.

    Economists are NOT scientists, they are numerate humanitologists, and they are NARROWLY educated, just like humanities people in general. If you want to find somebody who is broadly educated, look in the physics department. A broader education is exactly what is needed for economists. Economists need to learn what physicists already know: Every theory and every method and every tool has limits of application. Every student needs to learn to discover those limits of application. The situation may have arisen because physicists have invented a great many more theories and tools and methods than economists have. Physics is a harder subject and requires a higher IQ, but surely the economics professors could learn a little about limits of application. The economics professors also need to learn a few more tools and methods, meaning a lot more branches of mathematics.

  18. paulm says:

    “James Hansen, top climate scientist at NASA said, “We have passed tipping points, but we have not passed a point of no return. We can still roll things back …”

    I dont think so. We are just hoping that we can contain things close to 3degrees. The arctic is gone and that means we are heading for +2degress.

  19. Lou Grizno
    “As for the business of properly accounting for the essentially infinite costs of inaction on climate chaos, I’m glad to see this (finally!) getting some serious attention, even if it’s very likely going to be a minority view for decades to come.”

    It’s easy to think that way after the last eight years, but lets hope that the nature of the conversation will change now. At least there won’t be officially sanctioned denial and propaganda from the controlling party. The battle for minds is about the strength of the science, which the public has doubts about, thanks to the PR campaign designed to do just that. I think about how the country pulled together for WW2. It’s possible with enough motivation. If the public really understood that this is a much greater threat than anything short of a maybe a thermonuclear war, they would get behind it. (Most Americans weren’t aware of even the concept of a nuclear threat until the end of WW2.)

    I always thought the image Al Gore used of a scale with the globe on one side and a pot of gold on the other, was a powerful one.

    We need to somehow get off the consumerism ride. Lately I think about all the electronic gadgetry that everyone must now have. And you have to replace it every few years to keep up with the technology. It’s cool and all, but sometimes I miss the days when Ma Bell would supply you with a phone that would last your life time.

  20. John McCormick says:

    Richard Mercer,

    a great post offering some challenges to Americans’ need for comfort, convenience and cool.

    You said:

    [I think about how the country pulled together for WW2.] I do as well.

    My opinion is that the public was not involved in the decision to mobilize American forces to go into Europe. Military intelligence about German war machine and troop mobilization, savage attacks on people and places, and increasing news accounts brought Americans on board.

    But, it was likely the millions of American families who saw their husbands and fathers off to war that really got America galvanized to supply our troops with the best of everything they needed immediately to assure the soldiers would come home soon. It was the wide expanse of personal sacrifice of the troops and their families that united America around our declaration of war.

    With climate change, the poor nations suffer soonest and hardest and America is not of a mind to mobilize to defend them. The 6.7 billion of us are not related to the separated and remote victims so there is not going to be a collective global call to arms against climate change.

    Instead, large nation’ governments will act to abate the impacts of climate change at some point when those impacts are evident, reported and hurt.

    Likely China and the US will come to terms on our mutual need to survive peak oil and the drying out of North America’s bread basket…two threats that cannot be solved unilaterally and WILL require cooperation. Survival of US and Chinese economies will be the motivation to join forces (not at the citizen level) but at the force level…government mobilization. My hope.

    John McCormick

  21. Publius says:

    Lester Brown’s Worldwatch Institute calculted the cost of a gallon of gasoline with externalities included, at $15 per gallon. Note that the U.S. now pays about $2/gal. and EU pays $7-12. I would expect the true cost to be higher because we still run into the problem of pricing with relationship to climate tipping points.

    Perhaps the true cost is closer to $1,000+ per gallon considering we are risking the extinction of life? This would be consistant with the Precautionary Principle and leading scientists saying we need to reduce ghgs already emitted (not just cut our emissions 80%, but achieve negative emissions). This would imply burning VERY limited amounts of fuel for only the most important purposes (maintaining international stability and cooperation abd the progress of information and understanding).

  22. paulm says:

    Here,s an interesting angle….

    http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/features/science/index.html#episode5

    Ulrich Beck 1986 in Germany he published Risk Society, and the name has become a touchstone in contemporary sociology.
    ….
    science has become so powerful that it can neither predict nor control its effects. It generates risks too vast to calculate. In the era of nuclear fission, genetic engineering and a changing climate, society itself has become a scientific laboratory.
    ….
    Bruno Latour, the author of We Have Never Been Modern. He will argue that our very future depends on overcoming a false dichotomy between nature and culture.

  23. Roger Clark says:

    Bravo and thanks Joe and all for an extremely enlightening exchange.
    Thanks to Publius for invoking the Precautionary Principle.

    Please consider Cass Suskind’s point quoted by Thomas Friedman last month: “According to the Precautionary Principle, it is appropriate to respond aggressively to low-probability, high-impact events — such as climate change. Indeed, another vice president — Al Gore — can be understood to be arguing for a precautionary principle for climate change (though he believes that the chance of disaster is well over 1 percent).” http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/09/opinion/09friedman.html?em

    And to center the conversation with another source of solace, please consider this poem:

    Some Further Words
    by Wendell Berry.

    Let me be plain with you, dear reader.
    I am an old-fashioned man. I like
    the world of nature despite its mortal
    dangers. I like the domestic world
    of humans, so long as it pays its debts
    to the natural world, and keeps its bounds.
    I like the promise of Heaven. My purpose
    is a language that can repay just thanks
    and honor for those gifts, a tongue
    set free from fashionable lies.

    Neither this world nor any of its places
    is an “environment.” And a house
    for sale is not a “home.” Economics
    is not “science,” nor “information” knowledge.
    A knave with a degree is a knave. A fool
    in a public office is not a “leader.”
    A rich thief is a thief. And the ghost
    of Arthur Moore, who taught me Chaucer,
    returns in the night to say again:
    “Let me tell you something, boy.
    An intellectual whore is a whore.”

    The world is babbled to pieces after
    the divorce of things from their names.
    Ceaseless preparation for war
    is not peace. Health is not procured
    by sale of medication, or purity
    by the addition of poison. Science
    at the bidding of the corporations
    is knowledge reduced to merchandise;
    it is a whoredom of the mind,
    and so is the art that calls this “progress.”
    So is the cowardice that calls it “inevitable.”

    I think the issues of “identity” mostly
    are poppycock. We are what we have done,
    which includes our promises, includes
    our hopes, but promises first. I know
    a “fetus” is a human child.
    I loved my children from the time
    they were conceived, having loved
    their mother, who loved them
    from the time they were conceived
    and before. Who are we to say
    the world did not begin in love?

    I would like to die in love as I was born,
    and as myself of life impoverished go
    into the love all flesh begins
    and ends in. I don’t like machines,
    which are neither mortal nor immortal,
    though I am constrained to use them.
    (Thus the age perfects its clench.)
    Some day they will be gone, and that
    will be a glad and a holy day.
    I mean the dire machines that run
    by burning the world’s body and
    its breath. When I see an airplane
    fuming through the once-pure sky
    or a vehicle of the outer space
    with its little inner space
    imitating a star at night, I say,
    “Get out of there!” as I would speak
    to a fox or a thief in the henhouse.
    When I hear the stock market has fallen,
    I say, “Long live gravity! Long live
    stupidity, error, and greed in the palaces
    of fantasy capitalism!” I think
    an economy should be based on thrift,
    on taking care of things, not on theft,
    usury, seduction, waste, and ruin.

    My purpose is a language that can make us whole,
    though mortal, ignorant, and small.
    The world is whole beyond human knowing.
    The body’s life is its own, untouched
    by the little clockwork of explanation.
    I approve of death, when it comes in time
    to the old. I don’t want to five
    on mortal terms forever, or survive
    an hour as a cooling stew of pieces
    of other people. I don’t believe that life
    or knowledge can be given by machines.
    The machine economy has set afire
    the household of the human soul,
    and all the creatures are burning within it

    “Intellectual property” names
    the deed by which the mind is bought
    and sold, the world enslaved. We
    who do not own ourselves, being free,
    own by theft what belongs to God,
    to the living world, and equally
    to us all. Or how can we own a part
    of what we only can possess
    entirely? Life is a gift we have
    only by giving it back again.
    Let us agree: “the laborer is worthy
    of his hire,” but he cannot own what he knows,
    which must be freely told, or labor
    dies with the laborer. The farmer
    is worthy of the harvest made
    in time, but he must leave the light
    by which he planted, grew, and reaped,
    the seed immortal in mortality,
    freely to the time to come. The land
    too he keeps by giving it up,
    as the thinker receives and gives a thought,
    as the singer sings in the common air.

    I don’t believe that “scientific genius”
    in its naive assertions of power
    is equal either to nature or
    to human culture. Its thoughtless invasions
    of the nuclei of atoms and cells
    and this world’s every habitation
    have not brought us to the light
    but sent us wandering farther through
    the dark. Nor do I believe
    .artistic genius” is the possession
    of any artist. No one has made
    the art by which one makes the works
    of art. Each one who speaks speaks
    as a convocation. We live as councils
    of ghosts. It is not “human genius”
    that makes us human, but an old love,
    an old intelligence of the heart
    we gather to us from the world,
    from the creatures, from the angels
    of inspiration, from the dead–
    an intelligence merely nonexistent
    to those who do not have it, but –
    to those who have it more dear than life.

    And just as tenderly to be known
    are the affections that make a woman and a man
    their household and their homeland one.
    These too, though known, cannot be told
    to those who do not know them, and fewer
    of us learn them, year by year.
    These affections are leaving the world
    like the colors of extinct birds,
    like the songs of a dead language.

    Think of the genius of the animals,
    every one truly what it is:
    gnat, fox, minnow, swallow, each made
    of light and luminous within itself.
    They know (better than we do) how
    to live in the places where they live.
    And so I would like to be a true
    human being, dear reader-a choice
    not altogether possible now.
    But this is what I’m for, the side
    I’m on. And this is what you should
    expect of me, as I expect it of
    myself, though for realization we
    may wait a thousand or a million years.

    May-August, 2001
    Berry, Wendell. “Some Further Words.” American Poetry Review May/Jun 2002 31(3):29-30.
    Berry, Wendell. “Some Further Words.” Best American Poetry 2003. NY: Scribner, 2003, p. 28-32.

    http://www-personal.umich.edu/~pfa/poemquot/berry.html

  24. Paul Sheldon says:

    Thanks, Roger!
    Wise words, well worth remembering!