The Public Good of Protection from Asteroids
By David Henderson
The Tanis site, in short, did not span the first day of the impact: it probably recorded the first hour or so. This fact, if true, renders the site even more fabulous than previously thought. It is almost beyond credibility that a precise geological transcript of the most important sixty minutes of Earth’s history could still exist millions of years later—a sort of high-speed, high-resolution video of the event recorded in fine layers of stone. DePalma said, “It’s like finding the Holy Grail clutched in the bony fingers of Jimmy Hoffa, sitting on top of the Lost Ark.” If Tanis had been closer to or farther from the impact point, this beautiful coincidence of timing could not have happened. “There’s nothing in the world that’s ever been seen like this,” Richards told me.
This is from Douglas Preston, “The Day the Dinosaurs Died,” New Yorker, April 8, 2019. The DePalma referred to above is Robert DePalma, whose work is highlighted in the article.
Alex Tabarrok has an excellent blog post that tells the importance of Preston’s article for public policy. Specifically, the quintessential public good, which, as Alex notes, he and Tyler Cowen discuss in their economics textbook, is the means to deflect or destroy an incoming asteroid before it can do harm. The “most important sixty minutes of Earth’s history” mentioned above is no exaggeration. It happened 66 million years ago and destroyed almost all of life on earth.
The dust and soot from the impact and the conflagrations prevented all sunlight from reaching the planet’s surface for months. Photosynthesis all but stopped, killing most of the plant life, extinguishing the phytoplankton in the oceans, and causing the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere to plummet. After the fires died down, Earth plunged into a period of cold, perhaps even a deep freeze. Earth’s two essential food chains, in the sea and on land, collapsed. About seventy-five per cent of all species went extinct. More than 99.9999 per cent of all living organisms on Earth died, and the carbon cycle came to a halt.
If you think that the government should provide truly public goods, that is, goods that are non-excludable and non-rival in consumption, then you should think that government should provide the public good of preventing an asteroid from hinting earth. Here’s the problem: The U.S. government, which has access to more resources than any other government on earth, is almost certainly underinvesting in the technology to deflect or destroy asteroids. Just as private actors don’t have much of an incentive to produce truly public goods, neither do government actors. When I think of all the things the government wastes money on, I would rather they took a few billions of those dollars annually and invest in that technology. Unfortunately, my wishes, plus $5.75, will get my wife’s favorite coffee drink at Starbucks.
Of course, I tend to be the optimist. So just as I think the probability of a really bloody world war is much lower than it ever was in the first 90 years of the last century, so I think that there’s a chance the federal government will, as Alex says in this video, muddle through and eventually start taking the problem more seriously. We’ll see.