The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic. So if what I say now seems to you to be very reasonable, then I have failed completely. Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unbelievable, have we any chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen.

- Arthur C. Clarke (h/t Brin)

Monday, January 18, 2010

Growth

See, the economists believe we will have perpetual growth of something or other called wealth. If environmental impact is proportional to wealth or "gross product" or such in economic growth scenarios, the extinctions don't stop. Basically it goes on until it's down to us, our farm animals, our pets, and our pests.

But oh joy, we will be even wealthier than now in our further diminished world!

Whatever that means.

I think maybe it means everybody has a 600,000 square foot mansion with robot servants. We will be living on synthetic paste because the farmland will all be covered with big houses and big roads for our 98 ton cars. But what houses! What cars! We will all be the envy of our neighbors! We will all be members of exclusive clubs!

Maybe someday in the very distant future we will be rich enough to try to reconstruct our natural environment from whatever has been salvaged in arboretums and zoos! We will finally be able to afford the trees and flowers and birds and beasts that are now such an absurd and unconscionable extravagance, because they interfere with our accumulation of wealth.

24 comments:

Scruffy Dan said...

Seems like a visit to the easter bunny island is in order:
http://throbgoblins.blogspot.com/2009/11/while-im-simply-colouring-stuff-in-i.html

If you don't value nature, then there is no loss of wealth when it becomes degraded.

Pangolin said...

Pave The Planet!

One planet,
One people
One slab of asphalt

-unknown, circa 1980

Hugh said...

I refer the honourable gentleman to the monologue given by Syndrome [the baddie] in "The Incredibles":

"...when I'm old and I've had my fun, I'll sell my inventions so that *everyone* can have powers. *Everyone* can be super! And when everyone's super-[chuckles evilly]-no one will be."

GRLCowan said...

There are economists and economists, or anyway so I hope. Maybe one from the latter group can constructively explain how Tobis has got him or her wrong.

Perhaps we have to tax goods, not bads. By making several percent of their income on gross CO2 emissions, governments today make themselves unable to wish for those emissions' curtailment. All the associated bads are protected, because they are side effects of the accumulation of wealth by persons on government stipends. I think the first set of economists might all be so fed, or fed from private revenues on those same gross emissions. (Either way, how gross can they be, really?)

(How fire can be domesticated)

Pangolin said...

Even if we had the fictional "Mr Fusion" device available or neighborhood thorium breeder reactors available global warming would continue due to the heat pollution that would go along with a rising population. Should we maintain at our current population and merely have the world at the modest per-capita consumption levels of Italy that would still be sufficient to strip the world of charismatic megafauna, fish, metal ores, lumber and any number of other commodities.

Even an economy that consisted of exchanges of virtual bags of sand from an endless virtual beach on the internet would still cause environmental damage if that GDP growth encouraged population growth and resource use in the real world. The virtual sandbag traders would need server farms, interfaces, pizza delivery and residences.

Ultimately the planet cannot feasibly pay back the current debt load with current resources. Debt based economies are in zombie mode; dead but still moving.

It's a dead parrot.

rustneversleeps said...

mt says: "Basically it goes on until it's down to us, our farm animals, our pets, and our pests."

disturbingly, in E.O. Wilson's "The Future of Life" he says (and references the paper from which he draws this) "If humans used as energy all of the energy captured by plant photosynthesis on land and sea, some 40 trillion watts, the planet could support about 17" billion people, leaving nothing left for our livestock, pets OR ANY OTHER ANIMALS. (My quote ends, because I grabbed the first bit from Google Books - the rest is recollection - but that page 34 is not fully available online...).

Of course, that would be impossible, but it is interesting to consider how close we already seem to be to that absolute limit.

Frankly, I find the factoid hard to believe. He must be just considering net primary photosynthetic productivity - i.e. the leaves and nuts, not the trees???... But in a battle with E.O. Wilson and me, I would tend to bet on E.O. Wilson. And, he actually provides a reference, on page 195:

The absolute limit of 17 billion people imposed by the ultimate photosynthetic origin of food was calculated by John M. Gowdy and Carl N. McDaniel and reported in Ecological Economics (Journal of the International Society for Ecological Economics, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, 15(3): 181-92 (1995).

I think Wilson then indulges the cornucopians by suggesting that if we were able to, say, harvest fusion, and thereby grow plants 24-hours a day, and build apartment style "farms"... we could blow past the 40 trillion watt "limit"... but c'mon, point taken...

Another factoid that makes me go "hmmm" in terms of limits - but for which I do not have a reference handy - goes something like this: Just prior to the the beginning of the agricultural revolution, humans and their pets and livestock comprised roughly 0.5% of the land-based vertebrate mass. Today, humans and their livestock and pets comprise about 97% of the terrestrial vertebrate mass.

Take both factoids with a grain of salt. They may be utter nonsense (although I think they are both roughly correct)... The second one doesn't even seem to signify anything necessarily meaningful. But there are all kinds of metrics that indicate we are already near - or beyond - our ecological limits.

For instance, the "Planetary Boundaries" paper in Nature last year indicates we are already out of whack w.r.t. reactive nitrogen by 4-5x (!!!) what is ecologically sustainable, just for one vector...

Don't know how we reconcile it in the current economic frame...

Dano said...

Rust, your 97% vertebrate mass is way off. I don't have a ref either, but think about it.

Nonetheless, Wilson's HANPP and such is only part of the problem, the much more dire issue is the earth's capacity to absorb our waste. That likely is tapped out. Combine that with our inability to play nice with others and our inability to respond quickly to disaster, and we won't see 17B people.

Best,

D

Hank Roberts said...

"a man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to leave alone."
-- Thoreau

Any little bit of wild or wild-like land, any empty lot, is where most kids learn about nature. Not the park, not the schoolyard, but the rough places that have been ignored for a while where nature is on top.

Michael Tobis said...

Dano, the 97% seems plausible to me. Where's (if you'll pardon the expression) your beef?

Lou Grinzo said...

Yes, Michael, as you well know, ALL economists, including me, believe in infinite growth on a finite planet, and every last one of us is totally blind to real-world energy and environmental issues, and use only the single measure of wealth for anything and everything. Yep, you got us figured but good.

Excuse me, I'm going to head over to my site--the one I've been writing about energy and environmental issues for six years--and say a few things about the breathtaking cluelessness of scientists when it comes to economics in general, how markets work, and public policy. I hope you won't mind if I borrow your two-foot-wide paint brush.

I sincerely apologize for the sarcasm. I'm sick to death of fighting this fight endlessly, sometimes with people I know personally. It's a terrible waste of time, and I find it personally more than a little insulting.

Michael Tobis said...

As Lou points out, my comment is meant to criticize some economists, perhaps most economists, but by no means is it meant to criticize all economists. My apologies.

This item was really a throwaway grumble, not even really coherent.

I'm impressed with some of the thoughtful responses and grateful for them, though. Much to think about.

Patrick said...

As someone with a love of good architecture, I take comfort in the thought that towns and cities are efficient in their use of land and offer the opportunity for the kinds of infrastructure both technical and cultural that make everyones life more meaningfull and pleasant. Examples vary from something as prosaic as streetcars and subways, to theaters, universities, museums, and specialized businesses. As pleasant as suburban life can be, mixed use high density towns, at least here in New Jersey, are more convenient and pleasant to live in. Unfortunately the rents and land values are much higher.

Phil said...

In my late teens (a long time ago) I made the mistake of reading, cover to cover, my brother's copy of Samuelson's famous "economics" textbook. To this day I don't know how I survived the experience, because even the first 100 pages made me pretty apoplectic.

My problem with "economics" is, as it was then, understanding how Samuelson and his ilk were so alienated from the real world and why their pseudoscientific cult had become so popular.

rustneversleeps said...

I know this is tangential, and might get Lou mad at this fellow economics grad... but whatever is this guy talking about?

I've always liked Gene Fama (Sr. and Jr., actually)... but this is weird... it just seems all over the place... not specifically about emh, but just about - i dunno - reality??? it seems like the pinnacle of the insight is... what exactly? everything is unknowable... except what i know?

Dano said...

Phil, my deepest sympathies. I never made it through one of their books as a kid, so I can only imagine how the horror accumulated and grew as you continued.

Best,

D

Kenneth P. Green said...

I see my comment on this thread was censored, despite your previous pledge to me that you would not censor my posts.

I guess I won't be visiting again. Best of luck.

Ken

Michael Tobis said...

I received no comment from Kenneth Green on this thread. According to a search of my email, the last submission from Kenneth Green was on Jan 12 and though rather contentious was published on Jan 13.

Perhaps Green didn't press "send" Perhaps Blogger lost it (there have been a couple of cases where people claimed that; obviously that is hard to prove either way).

A couple of times in heavy traffic I lose track of a posting and am a couple of days late moderating it, but I haven't deletes any submissions from my email for some time and this one just isn't there.

Michael Tobis said...

Correction, last submission from Ken Green that atcually made it to me was on Jan 8, not Jan 12. It was on the "Bad Guys" thread, about snappy comebacks by politicians.

David B. Benson said...

Kenneth P. Green --- Internet is best effort without guarantees of delivery; sometimes messages are lost (usually at the receiving end). It has happened to me many times, most recently on this very thread.

[Of course, my comment could have been so outre that MT simply deleting it without remembering doing so. :-) ]

EliRabett said...

FWIW, the nature is best nonsense has been a thread in western thought for centuries, mainly maintained by those with flush toilets. Nature is short, brutish and full of bunnies.

Kenneth P. Green said...

Michael -

I tried to post this the other night, but the post got eaten.

First, I have to tell you, I'm losing interest in your blog because of the religious good/evil; white-hat/black-hat orientation you bring to this. To me, anyone who is talking about "evil" is getting into a non-rational, religious framework that calls their ability to think rationally into question.

Second, you must be kidding about this post. If you think that is how economists think about consumption of natural resources, you have clearly never read any economics. Google the term "Environmental Kuznets Curve" and educate yourself before you say such absolutely insane things as this post suggesting we're going to pave the entire world and live in climate-controlled hives.

You could start here: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.127.3264&rep=rep1&type=pdf

There are many, may others.

Michael Tobis said...

Ken's link doesn't work for me.

"We are sorry.

"This URL does not match any resource in our repository."

Dano said...

I like the Kuznets curve, because it is a good indicator. Why is it a good indicator? The folk who use it want to continue to exploit resources and dump their externalities without paying, and the EKC allows you to point to something to back your assertion that you should be allowed to continue to exploit resources unchecked.

[/slight exaggeration to make a point]

Bset,

D

Michael Tobis said...

Bset, indeed.