It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Monday, April 5, 2010


Here's the pop version of the global boundaries pitch, thanks in large part to my classmate at UW, Prof. John Foley.

It's meant as a fresh approach to global limits, affording a clear separation between the social sciences on the one hand, and the physical and biological sciences on the other. It does seem to put matters on a clear enough basis that the fundamental ideas are hard to argue with.

The idea is this. Let's not think about Malthusian this and Malthusian that. Let's just consider the global processes of the earth, and identify which ones need to stay within certain limits in order to keep the earth in a state roughly comparable to the one provided by nature. There's no economics or politics here. It's just about physical and biological processes.

The current working set that a group headed by Johann Rockstrom, and including John Foley, ended up with looks like this:

and here's where we stand today (the color codes are for recent decades)

The more sober, serious presentation is here (part 1):

and here's part 2

So. Here we are. Now we need an economic theory that can play inside those boundaries.

The main thing Rockstorm et al. do for us is to separate the questions. But the harder question does not go away.

As I've explained before, I'm not opposed to "growth" that respects those boundaries, but I'm doubtful it can be made to work. If we don't have those boundaries in place though, whatever we are "growing" does not map onto human well-being.

In other words, business as usual may make us comfortable for a few more years but it will be increasingly stupid. The clarity of the picture is fuzzy and the details are not well-known, but the argument is sound. We may not need huge changes in how we live. We can continue to be comfortable and indeed more so. But we need some substantial changes in how we think about the whole arrangement at the large scale.

1 comment:

David B. Benson said...

In other words, economics needs be based on physics.