What is the Price of a Human?


Currently I’m reading The Sustainable Economy: The Hidden Costs of Climate Change and the Path to a Prosperous Future by Robert S. Devine. What follows is a small synopsis of the book – augmented with my usual photo-essay approach.


Silverton Colorado quiet street 2016-10-14 bruce witzel photo

Quiet street in Silverton, Colorado – bruce witzel photo




     With a focus on climate change, journalist and author Robert S. Devine reveals the fundamental flaws in the economy that enable environmental degradation. The Sustainable Economy is a book about economics, but it skips the equations and eases through the jargon, opting instead for compelling stories and surprising humor. Readers will encounter high-tech narwhals, struggling coal workers, orbiting giant mirrors, the kids who are suing the U.S. government over climate policy, and vanishing Alaskan towns.
The Sustainable Economy looks at many of the most pressing climate issues, such as melting ice caps and farm-killing droughts, but by viewing them through the revealing lens of economics, the book delivers a fresh perspective. Devine shows how the basic mechanisms of supply and demand fail when it comes to global warming and the environment. Fortunately, he also lays out a path to an improved economy that can boost our well-being while also fostering a healthy environment. Most importantly, The Sustainable Economy shows how we can overcome the political and personal obstacles blocking progress toward a sustainable, just, and prosperous economy.



Yerba Buena Gardens in downtown San Francisco 2010-05-06 bruce witzel photo

Yerba Buena Public Park, San Francisco – bruce witzel photo


An autumn wedding in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado 2016-10-05 bruce witzel photo

Autumn Wedding in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado – bruce witzel photo


Here is what Devine says:

     Incomplete communication misleads us consumers into buying products laden with hidden costs. Countless goods and services bear the stains of harms such as pollution, habitat destruction, floods, child labor, extinctions and disease. When we fill up at the gas station the price we are charged doesn’t tell us that our purchase increases the odds that a wildfire will burn down our community. Making such partially informed choices is like buying a house having seen only the kitchen.

     Another characteristic of the market that leads to failure is its inability to provide incentives for businesses to produce or protect public goods, such as fire departments or city parks. Most important, the market doesn’t generate the public goods sometimes known as “ecosystem services”, such as nutrient cycling, soil formation, oxygen creation and a livable climate. Many of these essential services operate in the background; like plumbing and wiring, they go unnoticed and unappreciated unless they fail…


Wendell Berry and friends with hirse team- photographer unknown

Wendell Berry and friends – photographer unknown


4 seated cycle in Bend, Oregon 2016-10-01 fran guenette photo

Bend, Oregon-– Francis Guenette photo



Girl in Mexico City 1991-10-19  bruce witzel photo

Girl in Mexico City, 1991 – bruce witzel photo



And here is an excerpt from where I just stopped reading and now currently have bookmarked:


     Among the multitude of studies exploring the inequities associated with climate change is the UN’s World Economic and Social Survey 2016: Climate Change Resilience: An Opportunity for Reducing Inequalities. “Sadly, the people at greater risk from climate hazards are the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalized who, in many cases, have been excluded from socioeconomic progress,” writes then United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon in the report. “We have no time to waste – and a great deal to gain – when it comes to addressing the socioeconomic inequalities that deepen poverty and leave people behind.” The study estimates that over the last twenty years low-income countries have suffered a 5 percent drop in GDP due to climate-related disasters, while wealthy nations have not been smacked as hard. . .

     For years experts have been wrestling with whether and how to incorporate wealth disparities into climate economics and the social cost of carbon, though not always with equity as the goal. One early attempt showed how not to do it. As part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Second Assessment Report, produced in 1996, the working group on the economic and social dimension of climate change tackled the always delicate task of putting a price tag on a human life. Despite dissent from some members, the group assigned different values to different lives depending on such factors as the average income of a person from a particular nation. Writing about the group’s approach in their book, Priceless, economist Frank Ackerman and Georgetown University law professor Lisa Heinzerling report, “A careful reading of the fine print revealed that they were valuing lives in rich countries at $1,500,000, in middle-income countries at $300,000, and in the lowest-income countries at $100,000.”

     Understandably, this raised the hackles of many people, particularly residents of the $100,000 countries. They let it be known that they did not think that the life of, say, an Indian or a Nigerian was worth only one-fifteenth as much as the life of an American or a Saudi Arabian, The controversy dealt the IPPS Second Assessment a painful blow. When the Third Assessment came out five years later [2001], it suggested a single value for everyone.


The Sustainable Economy: The Hidden Costs of Climate Change and the Path to a Prosperous Future 

by Robert S. Devine (2020)  pages 177-178


Woman in Mexico City,1991 - bruce witzel photo

A woman in Mexico City, 1991 – bruce witzel photo


Matthew holding Emma 2009-04-10 bruce witzel photo

My granddaughter Emma, held by her father Matthew at our piano in 2009 – bruce witzel photo



Peace and regards,




6 thoughts on “What is the Price of a Human?

  1. Bruce, I would argue that all human life is priceless. It is unfortunate the condition our culture has created in which an athlete, entertainer, CEO, politician, and rober barron make millions upon millions and yet those who create the societal infrastructure live on subsistence wages. Many people I know want an alternative to plastics, yet powerful lobbyist give us more single use plastics. Many people want healthy food and buy local, but powerful lobbyists create tougher laws on small farms. Many people want an alternative to gasoline, and yet alternative fuel sources are kept unreasonal high and sold as trendy to the elite who mock those who can’t afford it and tax them out of their cars for better trafic conditions for themselves. Envionmental issues are caused by the above mentioned to legislate freedom of choice from the masses. Does the author mention any of these issues?

    • Hi Mark… I am with you on believing that human life is priceless… maybe life in general, Seem the economists with the equations they use need to plug in a value. it was a month ago I finished the book and i can;t recall if the author brought up these specific issues. He was really focused on “external costs; that aren’t accounted for…. like in your recent blog about fixing your wife’s bicycle compared to taking it to be recycled to a land fill. Who pays for the land fill or the recycling depot? Not the manufacturer for sure… and that should be part of the equation, because then they would have a better incentive to build a better bike. The book focused alot on what the author called the social cost of carbon (wasted or burned.) Anyways, its always heartening… others as yourselves working and living in a conservor society mode vs. the consumer society trap. Enjoy your summer break from teaching..

  2. Your photography is always so beautiful, Bruce, and the last one, of your granddaughter, ended a solemn essay with a big smile. Precious! I am sure I don’t give nearly enough time to thinking about the hidden costs of economic decisions and looking deeper at how all decisions contribute to climate change and ecological crisis. It’s tremendously difficult to not feel hopeless in light of so much denial and in the United States, just to pick on my own country, so much waste and a worship of consumerism. But you’re a good beacon to follow, Bruce. Thank you for a compelling review. I just downloaded it from my library app!

    • Hi Debra… awe, thanks for your personal affirmation. I hear you loud and clear about the hard to keep hope thing, though I always tell myself I would be irresponsible to not to. Of course as you say. also then requires action… Maybe another way I heard this human dilemma of ours put in perspective is as such: disillusionment is not necessarily bad… it is only us realizing what is unreal.

      About the book itself, it is not an easy read… A lot of it I don’t completely understand or and there are paragraphs where my eyes glaze over, and I re-read or even skim… but there are lots of important pieces I do get. So far I am only half way through (still book marked at same place I mentioned). i think he gives solutions and action part more at the end… thank god.

      • That’s a great quote about disillusionment. i think worth remembering! I started reading the library book and immediately recognized that I will need to buy a copy. It will be slow reading. 🙂 But I think I’d like to commit to it!

  3. Thanks for the synopsis, Bruce. Devine’s book sounds like a must-read. We the consumers are intentionally kept in the dark about the true cost of the food we consume and the products we use.

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