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)

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Infinite Growth and the Crisis Cocktail - Guest Posting

This is a guest posting by Neven. I made no changes except for adding the hamster movie in among the references. I don't necessarily agree with every word, but this definitely seems to get at the root of the problem. --mt

The Crisis Cocktail

If only Thomas Robert Malthus would have been around to see this, I often think. During his lifetime, and even more so after it, he became famous for warning that if human population continued to grow at that rate sooner or later there would not be enough agricultural output to feed it (of course he said many more things, but this is what he's famous for). What he didn't foresee, was that through ingenuity and innovation people would find a way around that limiting factor by digging up coal and later oil which would spur on the Industrial Revolution and eventually lead to the Green Revolution of an industrial, mechanized agriculture feeding the billions of people who are currently more or less enjoying their presence on planet Earth.

I wonder what Malthus would have said, had he foreseen the transformative power of all that hidden energy underground. Would he have said: "Right, that's it, I was wrong, humanity and its economies can grow indefinitely"? Or would he have said: "Sure, my timing was poor, this discovery will prolong things by quite a bit, but in the end it will only make the crash that much bigger". We can never be sure what he would have said, but I'm quite certain it wouldn't be the first. And just a look or two around the globe seems to confirm he would be right to do so.

In Malthus' time the question revolved around the problem of enough food for everyone and not much else. But while mankind has more or less resolved that problem for the time being by subjugating Nature through sheer fossil fuel power, the palette of global problems has extended in manifold ways. If, for instance, we look at agriculture, we can see that much of the arable land has been over-ploughed, over-fertilized, over-irrigated and over-sprayed. The emphasis on monocultures (one type of corn, cotton, wheat, rice, etc) has reduced diversity and thus makes huge amounts of acreage around the world extremely vulnerable to resistent pests, which leads to a more extensive use of more agressive pesticides that are in turn weakening the indispensable pollinators, such as bees, who are massively dying off around the globe, and in combination with synthetic fertilizers lead to widespread topsoil erosion, because basically all the microscopic life in the topsoil has been reduced in such a way that the soil fertility and cohesiveness is close to zero, whilst aquifers worldwide are being drained much too fast, leading to salinisation of groundwater that is simultaneously getting more and more polluted by said fertilizers and pesticides.

When these chemicals reach the oceans and seas they cause low-oxygen coastal dead zones that are getting bigger every year, putting extra stress on fish stocks that are already suffering worldwide from overfishing by the enormous fishing industry, as well as by synthetic debris that floats around and ends up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, not to mention the slow but inexorable acidification of the oceans due to the excess of atmospheric carbon dioxide that the water is taking up and causes microscopic creatures at the bottom of the food chain to have an increasingly tougher time forming shells, just like coral reefs are enduring more and more stress due to bleaching events that they have more and more difficulty recovering from, coral reefs being the gigantic forests under the sea that hosts most of the world's subaqueous biodiversity.

Hold on, I'm not finished yet.

The forests above water are in many places dying off due to pests like the bark beetle, besides the ongoing problem of illegal (and legal) logging and more rampant forest fires, and also due to ozone pollution (one of those things one never hears about). I've said 'rampant forest fires' and I've said 'ozone', a greenhouse gas, and thus I can no longer delay naming the great enhancer of all the problems named so far: Global Warming.

The enormous amounts of energy that have been added to the coupled system of oceans and atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution will increasingly lead to the rapid disruption of the atmospheric patterns under which human civilisation managed to flourish in the last couple of millennia. I'm not talking 1 or 2 degrees Celsius warmer, I'm talking freak weather, like droughts, heatwaves, flash floodings, stronger hurricanes, rising sea level, disappearing glaciers. This has an indelible and inevitable effect on all those 'little things' I just mentioned (and there are more, such as desertification, landfills filled to the brim and species extinction in general).

Now of course some of these global problems may not turn out to be as bad as they seem, but even if they are half as serious, it's the combination of them all and their synergistic interrelations that makes me conclude for the moment that human civilisation has a Crisis Cocktail on its hands. Here's an interesting picture from a NewScientist special report with a collection of graphs that illustrate my point:



So what do these graphs have in common? Of course, they are all showing a growing trend, and this brings us to the point of this article. Sorry it's taking me so long, but first I have to offer doom and gloom and then show why I believe things are as they are and how this understanding is a first step towards potential solutions.

We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? - Winston Churchill, May 1942

Infinite Growth

All these problems seem to be getting bigger rather than smaller every year and for every single one of them there are hosts of organisations clamouring for attention and offering solutions to the problem. But the more I read and think about the problems as a whole, the more I become convinced that they were all in fact symptoms and not causes in themselves. Trying to remedy a symptom is almost always useless if the root cause is ignored. Obiously all the problems have to do with human activities, and these activities have to do with the context they are taking place in, the economic context to be precise. This economic context is determined by the dominant economic concept, and in our case I think it is safe to say that for many decades now the neoclassical economic concept of infinite growth has been shaping the economies of developed nations.

The main problem of this concept is its assumption that growth is always good and that growth can and should be infinite. In theory it sounds great, but unfortunately there is a big chasm between theory and practice. In practice nothing can grow infinitely in a finite system. This is a simple natural law which also applies to the finite system of this planet. Earth has a finite amount of resources, its ecosystems can supply a fixed amount of free services, such as clean air and water, and the solar energy that reaches the planet surface is fixed and constant. Once an organism such as the human global economy starts and continues to grow exponentially it will start to bump into limits. That was what the doom-and-gloom part of this article was about. The emerging global problems are symptoms of the disconnect between the economic concept of infinite growth and biophysical reality.

Now, of course there is nothing wrong with growth per se. It is an essential and universal part of nature. But normally things stop growing. Children stop growing when they reach adulthood, as do trees. Economic growth is a great thing when an economy needs to be developed, as we saw after World War II when Europe was in shambles. People needed housing and food, and putting economic growth on top of the agenda was the most efficient way to get all those things, fast. Developing nations such as India and China are doing the same as we speak. In principle there is nothing wrong with this kind of growth, but the idea that growth is always good and can be infinite is fallacious and dangerous. A thing that doesn't stop growing, is cancer. Until it destroys its host, of course.

After most basic needs were met in the developed world somewhere around the 60's and 70's of the last century exponential economic growth stopped being a means and became an end in itself. This has not only had an external effect (the Crisis Cocktail), but an internal effect as well. Because if you want to make a success of your economic concept of infinite growth you have to get everybody to participate. This has far-reaching psychological consequences that shape culture and society. First of all, everyone needs to be convinced of the fact that producing and consuming are the main goals of human striving. This inevitably has consequences for the way knowledge is transferred from one generation to another, and is thus reflected in education in schools and at home. If you want everyone to endlessly produce and consume the subconscious psychological message will be something along these lines: 'You do not have any worth if you do not produce and perform. People will not love you if you don't. And besides, you will not be able to consume as much you like, and consume you must for it will bring you happiness.'

Mass marketing and peer pressure drive the messages home some more and slowly there emerges an erosion of culture, the foundation on which we depend to relate to each other. Every tradition or ritual from the past has been infiltrated by the need to consume to make unending, exponential growth possible. From birthdays to Valentine's day, and from Thanksgiving to Christmas, all of it nowadays revolves around consuming large amounts of luxury foods and the uninhibited exchange of presents. And this has become pretty uniform all around the developed world. It's all about what you have, what you do, where you travel to, in short: your identity. This mentality is instilled into children at an early age through various marketing techniques such as brand advertising. These customers of the future are conditioned in a way that benefits economic growth. We are conditioned to believe economic growth is our raison d'être.

But there's a physical component to this as well. To consume means two things: Eat, drink, or ingest food or drink, and buy goods or services. Public health doesn't count, only growth does. And so people have to be made addicted to unhealthy low-quality food, sugar, coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, drugs and so on. The products they buy often contain toxins that are released during production or even use. People get sick physically and mentally, children get fat, diabetes rates soar, as do other diseases. The irony is that this is good for economic growth as well. Sick people get to live longer through extensive medication and neverending professional help. I've read once that there is no better thing for the economy than a businessman with prostate cancer who causes a big car accident on his way to his divorce lawyer.

Another aspect of this need for endless, exponential economic growth is the way corporations have been shaped. Whether big or small, no matter how many employees they have, these corporations are treated as legal persons who need to do one thing: maximize profits for their stockholders, which incidentally is also very good for growing the ecnomoy. This set-up is almost an invitation for large-scale pollution such as the BP oil disaster, creative cooking of the books such as the Enron scandal or the complete financial meltdown and ensuing global recession we recently witnessed due to the subprime mortgage crisis. It is the main driver behind fractional reserve banking and the continuous inflation of the debt bubble that keeps individuals, municipalities and even whole states in a stranglehold.

And talking about strangleholds: the whole system that has evolved to keep the economy growing, has eventually led to the creation of giant multinational corporations that have become bigger than countries and wield enormous power in the area of policy and the political system itself. Thus we now have Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Agro, Big Sugar, Big Tobacco, Big Finance, Big Coal, Big Military and so forth, who through their lobbying, through their sponsoring of think tanks, and their direct financial contributions to politicians, make sure that their interests are served first. Never mind the fact that they have in large part taken over the mainstream media and thus control the narrative that is fed to the masses, their clients that have to continue consuming to make their profits possible. To keep the economy growing for all eternity, because it can, because it's good.

From Symptoms to Solutions

But it's not good. It can't be sustained, period. Of course, rich people will get even richer, and some poor people will be less so, but all in all this flawed economic concept will eventually cost more than it delivers. In fact, it already is. And it is making societies all around the world increasingly vulnerable and prone to collapse. So how can this be solved?

Like I said halfway through the doom and gloom you cannot solve a problem by eradicating symptoms. You can spray forests with pesticides that kill off bark beetles, but it only postpones the inevitable. You can try to set up rules for bankers and their bonuses, but they are only doing what the system demands of them. You could perform miracles and replace fossil fuels by renewable energy sources, but it is virtually impossible if you want the economy to keep growing as well (at best it leads to Jevons Paradox).

You cannot solve a problem if you only treat the symptoms, and you cannot solve a problem with the same thinking that caused the problem. And thus no solution will work until the economic concept of infinite growth is replaced by an economic concept that recognizes that there are limits to growth and that this is a good thing. A society that can be sustained in the long term, will most probably be healthier and more just for everyone involved, not just for the small group who can afford it. Last but not least, a problem can only be solved if it is understood completely.

I hope that I have been able to show convincingly that our current economic concept of infinite growth is at the root of all global problems. I believe that when this is realized by enough people, solutions will automatically start to present themselves. Perhaps some day I will write about what these solutions might look like, but if people don't want to wait for that, I would suggest they pay a visit to the organisation that in my view is the only one that really 'gets it': the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, or CASSE. If you like what they do (and I know I do), then please become a member, donate if you can and spread the word.

The first step is ditching the illusory economic concept of infinite growth.
Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning. - Winston Churchill, November 1942


Further viewing:

The Story of Stuff
The Century of the Self
Blind Spot
The Corporation
Hooked on Growth
The Impossible Hamster

Further reading:

The Problem of Growth, a series by Jeff Vail
Question Everything, a blog by George Mobus
The Archdruid Reports, a blog by John Michael Greer
The Oil Drum

Update (mt): It's worth pointing out that David Roberts made a very similar argument in brief in 2009.

96 comments:

Tom Curtis said...

To the extent that this diagnosis is correct, it also spells out the doom of our civilization. It is doubtfull that even one western nation could be converted into, what is effectively, and eco-socialist utopia in the time scale required to respond to global warming. It is certain not all will.

Nor is it clear that it is an objective we should persue. Any transition from a capitalist economy to an eco-socialist economy would involve large scale economic disruption, on a scale with the great depression. Such policies could not be pushed through in a democracy. The pursuers of such a policy would be demolished at the next election. So actively pursuing such a policy would involve a transition to a totalitarian state, and the means worse than catastrophe it seeks to avoid (as dreadful as that is).

So, while I agree that the operations of the market need to be constrained towards ecological sustainability, that constraint must be limited in the short term. It is a process of buying time rather than a final solution to Malthus's dilemma. The time we must buy is so that we can transform our energy base to a sustainable basis. Having done that, we will then be able to transform the rest of our economy to a fully sustainable footing while maintaining economic growth.

Michael Tobis said...

Why is opposing the illusion of indefinite growth necessarily "socialist", and in what sense?

What does "eco-socialist" mean?

Tom Curtis said...

A society is more, or less, socialist depending on how it treats two issues:

a) Is root title to property vested in the individual or society; and

b) Do the needs of society or the individual take precedence in the disposal and use of property.

Socialist societies maintain that root title is vested in society, and that the needs of society take precedence in the disposal and use of property. The alternative view does not, so far as I know, have a general name, but the specific form of the alternative that is tied to a market economy and modern industrial structure is called capitalism.

I believe that bringing about an ecologically sustainable economy without first transforming our energy base would require massive regulation. Note that even a carbon tax or an emission trading scheme is still a form of regulation. Plainly this regulation is in the interests of society (ie, the sum of the interests of all the members of society both now, and in the forseeable future), rather than that of the individuals who currently own most of the wealth. Therefore commitment to achieving of economic sustainability in the short term de facto requires commitment to the view that societies needs take precedence with regard to the disposal and use of property. As this precedence is to be brought about by regulation rather than voluntarilly, it also commits the proponent to believing that such regulation is just, which in turn commits them to believing that root title is vested in society. Hence, it commits them to a socialist perspective.

I distinguish it as "eco-socialist" merely to indicate that it is a form of socialism that has ecological goals as a primary objective.

Steve Bloom said...

Tom, why do you assume the problem will do us the favor of being amenable to a solution that doesn't involve a considerable amount of disruption to present social, political and economic relationships? I'd love it if things weren't that urgent, but that's not how it looks to me.

Tom Curtis said...

Steve, I don't make that assumption. What I believe, however, is that solutions that require massive social disruption will not be implimentable, at least, not until the consequences of global warming and environmental degradation are so large and immediate that it is too late. That may mean that no solution is now possible. However, there is still a chance that advancing technology will give us the means to solve the problems which are currently beyond us. In a limited sence, Lomborg is right about this. However, where he goes wrong is that we still must do all that we can - ie, that is technically possible today, and socially possible to implement - to reduce GHG emissions to give us time to find potential future solutions.

Michael Tobis said...

Tom, you are missing the point of the article. If AGW were the only problem of this flavor on the table what you say might make sense.

If you think about it perhaps you'll agree that there is no more room for growth in the west, in a world where we presume that others are allowed to catch up to the west.

I try to elaborate here.

manuel "moe" g said...

Tom C. is pretty much right, but with two errors:

> So actively pursuing such a policy would involve a transition to a totalitarian state, and the means worse than catastrophe it seeks to avoid (as dreadful as that is).

Asserted, but not proven, not obvious. The globe is perfectly happy to terminate the experiment of the human race - as large mammals, we need a steady source of calories and nutrition, and we could be wiped out by a global one-two punch of climate catastrophes. If a "totalitarian" state is literally the only way for the human race to survive, my own squeamishness about the anti-democratic should not enter into it.

> The time we must buy is so that we can transform our energy base to a sustainable basis.

Jevons paradox means any efficiencies gained in using fossil fuels will just lead to a greater rate of consumption, if the consumer is not obliged to bear the externality. (The consumer can only be obliged to bear the externality if "the needs of society ... take precedence in the disposal and use of property." quoting Tom C.)

And fossil fuels are too cheap to make the search for alternatives pay. They are stores of the energy of millennia of sunlight, waiting to be plucked.

Where Tom is right is: "To the extent that this diagnosis is correct [[and it is correct]], it also spells out the doom of our civilization. It is doubtfull that even one western nation could be converted into, what is effectively, and eco-socialist utopia in the time scale required to respond to global warming."

The people who see the true severity of the future will over-consume resources in the definitely futile hope that their offspring, over a few dozen generations, can survive from hunting smaller grazing animals (wild grasses of low nutritional quality should do famously in a hotter wetter wilder world). They will act against a definitely futile hope, because what is the alternative? It will manifest as huge concrete shelters and stockpiles of very robust firearms (very simple designs, but very expensive because of materials and amount of metal used) and huge ammunition stores. Pathetic in the face of the challenges of the warmed, practically boiling, globe, but action in the face of futility is a human trait.

Humans have never displayed the ability to use the tools of the Enlightenment over the time span of many generations, and over populations of global scale.

manuel "moe" g said...

[more obnoxiousness, part 2 of 2]

Where Tom is right is: "To the extent that this diagnosis is correct [[and it is correct]], it also spells out the doom of our civilization. It is doubtfull that even one western nation could be converted into, what is effectively, and eco-socialist utopia in the time scale required to respond to global warming."

The people who see the true severity of the future will over-consume resources in the definitely futile hope that their offspring, over a few dozen generations, can survive from hunting smaller grazing animals (grasses should do famously in a hotter wetter wilder world). They will act against a definitely futile hope, because what is the alternative? It will manifest as huge concrete shelters and stockpiles of very robust firearms (very simple designs, but very expensive because of materials and amount of metal used) and huge ammunition stores. Pathetic in the face of the challenges of the warmed, practically boiling, globe, but action in the face of futility is a human trait.

Humans have never displayed the ability to use the tools of the Enlightenment over the time span of many generations, and over populations of global scale.

Brian Hayes said...

Hey!
Let's get danger calibrated in our labs. We're dealing with humans here. Let's back up, we're dealing with humans here. We make tomorrow. Now. zzzzzzzz That's dangerous!

I enjoy our gumming. I really do.
I make friends. I have many friends. And I worry with you too.

We are intention, damn it, and we are not together.

Which crisis is a crisis? Not information overload. Solution starved. I'm saying our resolve meets our imagination and there we are.

William T said...

Tom Curtis, I don't think that it is necessarily so that a "steady state economy" must be socialist. It seems to me that a large part of the growth imperative comes from the nature of the financial system, with a debt-based money system that falls apart without future growth to pay the interest. In theory (maybe not in practice) the financial system could be restructured without the debt basis, and still have private property as the basis of the economy.

Tom Curtis said...

Michael, while the other sources of environmental degradation are very relevant, I do not think including them changes the conceptual analysis very much. Consider just global warming. Assuming a growth rate of 2.5% in the west, 5% in China and India, and the expected population growth of 40% in 50years, if we are to keep global cumulative emissions under the 1 trillion tonnes of carbon estimated as the limit for preventing "dangerous" climate change; then we require reductions carbon intensity of around 6% per year over the next 50 years. For comparison, proposed annual reductions of around 1% a year brought down the Australian Prime Minister, and where too much for the US President to achieve. On the evidence, just dealing with climate change is beyond the realm of the politically achievable. Dealing effectively with other causes of environmental degradation just takes the task further beyond the realms of the politically possible.

Tom Curtis said...

Manuel Moe, I did not prove that it would be better to face extinction than to pursue a totalitarian solution because that is an ethical judgement. It is my firm belief that no ethical end can be achieved by unethical means; and that nor circumstance can excuse you from acting unethically. Pursuing a totalitarian solution necessarilly involves you in unethical behaviour; and so it is ruled out of court, in my view, as a solution.

I think I can show this to be the most rational stance, but I do not think I can do so in reasonable length here. So you must take it as a given, and either agree or disagree.

I will note, however, that were you to pursue that path, the necessities of imposing and maintaining the totalitarian regime would force you consistently away from achieving your original intentions; just as it has done in virtually every revolution in history. You would just give us an ecological example of France's "democratic" Robbespiere.

With regard to Jevon's paradox, no existing nation is purely capitalist; and the level of carbon price needed to avoid Jevon's paradox would not constitute any larger extent of socialism than already exists, even in the US. Setting a carbon price high enough to force the almost complete elimination of carbon emissions in 50 years, however, would require a very thorough going socialism, and probably a police state IMO.

Dan Olner said...

Thought-provoking; a few thoughts.

First-off, while I agree with a lot of this, it's always just a little too easy to pin the whole problem of growth on some monolithic 'neoclassical economics'. Recall as well that, for economists at least, one of the fundamental problems of the discipline is understanding the "relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses." (wikipedia link.) There's plenty of scope for criticising both how much of the discipline approaches the problem and how governments use the concept of growth - but the idea of scarcity is far from absent.

Something to bounce off - an article by Krugman, who's definitely a neoclassical economist, in the sense that he uses neoclassical assumptions in his modelling work. One of Krugman's arguments: cap and trade worked for sulphur dioxide management in the US, so why not for carbon? And what's cap and trade, ultimately? Managing a scarce resource by defining 'scarce' in a particular way.

The cap and trade approach relies on being able to define something as an externality, so one might argue most of the economy isn't covered - and so we're still going to head off the cliff. But one can't argue that the problem is ignored. Again, I'd refer to Elinor Ostrom as someone who's working on ideas outside of 'public' or 'private' management of common pool resources, which the 'internalise externalities' approach still works within.

I think it's unwise to tarnish the whole problem as a symptom of neoclassical economics, or - as I ranted about slightly over at Peter Sinclair's blog in response to the rather lovely film there - to pin the blame on a capitalism-fuelled consumerist treadmill of doom, where the only solution is to 'consume less'. (Compare to Krugman's argument, and early attempts to solve pollution problems by, more or less, legislating 'pollute less!')

Look at it this way: imagine some future world where carbon is in its rightful place as a scarce resource. If you wanted to spend your time doing some carbon-intensive activity, I wouldn't want to pass moral judgement on you. I'd just want both you and me to be living in a world where we'd agreed there was a limit. Whether that comes about through internalising cost, through some more regional Ostrom-like management or even something more involved and social-cognition heavy like the Balinese managing their water flow, I don't know. But we're not short of avenues to explore, even if time is running out.

So saying "limits to growth" means "eco-socialism" is, I'd argue, clearly not true. Indeed, if you were looking for eco-hyper-capitalist carbon-neutral future: in my rant over at crocks, I was arguing how it would be quite possible for a modern-day climate-change version of the UK's Highland clearances, when landlords discovered that sheep were more profitable than people. The modern version: car-food is more profitable than people-food, and will become more-so if a cap on carbon emerges, since our demand for personal transport is massively inelastic. This is, of course, happening right now, with the added dynamic of huge land-bank purchases by e.g. middle-eastern countries keen to guarantee their food supply.

Hell: there's also lots to say about what the nature of growth and development actually is. Jane Jacobs is my go-to man for this, but I've waffled far too much already.

Dan Olner said...

Thought-provoking; a few thoughts.

First-off, while I agree with a lot of this, it's always just a little too easy to pin the whole problem of growth on some monolithic 'neoclassical economics'. Recall as well that, for economists at least, one of the fundamental problems of the discipline is understanding the "relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses." (wikipedia link.) There's plenty of scope for criticising both how much of the discipline approaches the problem and how governments use the concept of growth - but the idea of scarcity is far from absent.

Something to bounce off - an article by Krugman, who's definitely a neoclassical economist, in the sense that he uses neoclassical assumptions in his modelling work. One of Krugman's arguments: cap and trade worked for sulphur dioxide management in the US, so why not for carbon? And what's cap and trade, ultimately? Managing a scarce resource by defining 'scarce' in a particular way.

The cap and trade approach relies on being able to define something as an externality, so one might argue most of the economy isn't covered - and so we're still going to head off the cliff. But one can't argue that the problem is ignored. Again, I'd refer to Elinor Ostrom as someone who's working on ideas outside of 'public' or 'private' management of common pool resources, which the 'internalise externalities' approach still works within.

I think it's unwise to tarnish the whole problem as a symptom of neoclassical economics, or - as I ranted about slightly over at Peter Sinclair's blog in response to the rather lovely film there - to pin the blame on a capitalism-fuelled consumerist treadmill of doom, where the only solution is to 'consume less'. (Compare to Krugman's argument, and early attempts to solve pollution problems by, more or less, legislating 'pollute less!')

Look at it this way: imagine some future world where carbon is in its rightful place as a scarce resource. If you wanted to spend your time doing some carbon-intensive activity, I wouldn't want to pass moral judgement on you. I'd just want both you and me to be living in a world where we'd agreed there was a limit. Whether that comes about through internalising cost, through some more regional Ostrom-like management or even something more involved and social-cognition heavy like the Balinese managing their water flow, I don't know. But we're not short of avenues to explore, even if time is running out.

So saying "limits to growth" means "eco-socialism" is, I'd argue, clearly not true. Indeed, if you were looking for eco-hyper-capitalist carbon-neutral future: in my rant over at crocks, I was arguing how it would be quite possible for a modern-day climate-change version of the UK's Highland clearances, when landlords discovered that sheep were more profitable than people. The modern version: car-food is more profitable than people-food, and will become more-so if a cap on carbon emerges, since our demand for personal transport is massively inelastic. This is, of course, happening right now, with the added dynamic of huge land-bank purchases by e.g. middle-eastern countries keen to guarantee their food supply.

Hell: there's also lots to say about what the nature of growth and development actually is. Jane Jacobs is my go-to man for this, but I've waffled far too much already.

Dan Olner said...

I think my comment's too big for blogger to let it through. Apologies, I hope you don't mind me splitting it into two.

First-off, while I agree with a lot of this, it's always just a little too easy to pin the whole problem of growth on some monolithic 'neoclassical economics'. Recall as well that, for economists at least, one of the fundamental problems of the discipline is understanding the "relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses." (wikipedia link.) There's plenty of scope for criticising both how much of the discipline approaches the problem and how governments use the concept of growth - but the idea of scarcity is far from absent.

Something to bounce off - an article by Krugman, who's definitely a neoclassical economist, in the sense that he uses neoclassical assumptions in his modelling work. One of Krugman's arguments: cap and trade worked for sulphur dioxide management in the US, so why not for carbon? And what's cap and trade, ultimately? Managing a scarce resource by defining 'scarce' in a particular way.

The cap and trade approach relies on being able to define something as an externality, so one might argue most of the economy isn't covered - and so we're still going to head off the cliff. But one can't argue that the problem is ignored. Again, I'd refer to Elinor Ostrom as someone who's working on ideas outside of 'public' or 'private' management of common pool resources, which the 'internalise externalities' approach still works within.

I think it's unwise to tarnish the whole problem as a symptom of neoclassical economics, or - as I ranted about slightly over at Peter Sinclair's blog in response to the rather lovely film there - to pin the blame on a capitalism-fuelled consumerist treadmill of doom, where the only solution is to 'consume less'. (Compare to Krugman's argument, and early attempts to solve pollution problems by, more or less, legislating 'pollute less!')

Dan Olner said...

I seem to be having problems posting comments...

Neven said...

Thanks again for accepting my guest blog, mt. As incomplete and perhaps oversimplified as it is, I think it blends well with your theories and ruminations. In that sense it's a big honour to me as well (even though I proposed it myself).

Tom Curtis, thanks for your comment. Like mt, I also don't see how arguing for an alternative to the economic concept of infinite growth automatically means arguing for the replacing of capitalism with an authoritarian eco-socialist regime. I believe that in theory it should be possible to switch to a more rational/realistic economic concept (and system) without having to constrain individual freedom in a fundamental way. For starters, individual freedom isn't unlimited, although we are led to believe it is (so we buy more products). Individual freedom is limitless in theory, but in practice it's constrained by other people's individual freedom. L'enfer, c'est les autres, but that's just how it is.

And that's what in the end this is all about: limits. Something that is a natural part of life, but has become anathema in our western culture, where not even the sky should be seen as a limit.

You're talking about property, so let's take that as an example. I'm all for individual property, as collective property clearly didn't work in communist societies. But can this individual property have limits? Can we discuss whether an individual shouldn't have the right to own more than a certain amount of land, say an acre? Or whether an individual can own more than 2 or 3 or 4 houses? Or whether an individual should have an income higher than 5 million per year? Can we discuss this? No, we can't. Why? That's weird.

It should be possible for individuals to own property, but with limits, and still live like kings.

Neven said...

My piece isn't about imposing a new economic system from above, because as you say, the political will will be even less (if this is possible) than it is to take policy measures to curb greenhouse gases. My piece is about spreading awareness that this economic concept of infinite growth is fundamentally flawed and that it causes many, if not all global problems human civilisation currently faces. It must be a bottom-up thing. In theory, if this awareness spreads, the (real) solutions come into play by themselves. In practice...

I'm not saying that this is what will bring THE solution, for sure. I'm not sure anything will. But if you would want to tackle those big global problems, you would have to replace that economic concept of infinite growth with something more rational. It is an absolute prerequisite.

So in a way this is a response to Keith Kloor's question to the 'alarmists' and what they should do now that all their tactics have failed or even backfired. Instead of trying to appease the skeptics and the masses, I would broaden the whole front instead of focussing on just AGW and CO2 mitigation, and keep tying all those problems to the illusory and destructive nature of an economic concept that states that infinite growth is good and as vital as oxygen or water. Growth is good and vital, up to a certain point.

And people see those problems, maybe not all of them, but at least some of them, not just in nature, but in society as well. The things is that they think these problems are causes. But they're not, they're symptoms. So when the ecological and financial Pearl Harbours start to stack up - and pray they aren't fatal to our vulnerable western societies - you want people to associate them with the root cause: the illusory concept of infinite growth. If you manage to do that, you have a minor chance of things improving to the point that you can start working towards a sustainable society.

So, in short, that would be my tactic. In fact, it is CASSE's tactic. They have all the info and ideas. Everyone who is worried about AGW should become a member of CASSE.

Martin Vermeer said...

...but there are some forms of growth that have no obvious limit, like Moore's law... shouldn't we be talking about 'smart growth' rather than 'no growth'? We need all the smarts we can get.

keith said...

What's interesting about this post is that it addresses what many consider to be the true cause of AGW and overexploitation of natural resources. Of course, this is not really part of the policy or political debate, and it won't be unless Neven and his Steady Staters manage to switch the public discussion to something that has more to do with values and lifestyle issues.

If Neven et al manages to switch the conversation, then he'll need new spokesman, because Al Gore and Thomas Friedman have carbon footprints (and those mansions, of course) that don't really shout out, "hey, let's scale back our consumptive ways," if you see what I mean.

So who would be the leaders of this movement? Who are the faces of the steady-state economies?

On a separate note, haven't we see these arguments by Neven made before In Limits to Growth and Schumacher's "Small is beautiful."
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Small_Is_Beautiful

I would say the cultural and political context of the early 1970s made people more amenable to buying into it then. Obviously, it didn't stick.

So what would it take today to get society to revisit these ideas?
--KKloor

Belette said...

Since you raise Malthus: perhaps you can explain why his assumptions, which appear to be so blatantly wrong (http://scienceblogs.com/stoat/2009/01/why_did_malthus_assume_linear.php),receive so much attention.

Belette said...

> the neoclassical economic concept of infinite growth

You link to the wiki page, which characterises NCecon as:

1 People have rational preferences among outcomes that can be identified and associated with a value.
2 Individuals maximize utility and firms maximize profits.
3 People act independently on the basis of full and relevant information.

I presume, since you link to it, that you endorse as useful the information on that page.

So, do you regard Infinite Growth as part of NCecon, or are you instead criticising NCecon+IG?

> Children stop growing when they reach adulthood, as do trees

Are you sure about that? Sound dubious to me.

> corporations have been shaped.... need to do one thing: maximize profits for their stockholders... almost an invitation for large-scale pollution

I don't agree, but pretend I do: how else do you propose to solve this? Some goal for corporations other that pleasing their shareholders (A man cannot serve two masters, remember).

> a problem can only be solved if it is understood completely

Well, we're completely stuff in that case, and may as well give up trying to solve Climate Change, since we clearly don't understand it completely. Or was that not what you meant?

> solutions will automatically start to present themselves

Did you mean "automagically"?

Alexander Ac said...

Excellent summary IMHO,

I would only add that another complication is peak oil and years long deflation (See The Automatic Earth).

Now, global warming tells us we cannot "coal out" (hint - Bob Hirsch) our way out of peak oil, nor will renewables to the job.

So I really see no (peaceful) transition to steady-state economy (and population!), if such thing is ever possible.

Martin - there is no "smart growth", just as there is no "sustainable growth"

William - I am quite sure you understand that exponencial growth (whatever the percentage per year) is not possible - it is a mere ponzi scheme...

I think this is not about Malthus, rather than about exponential growth.

No I do not say we have anything better than what we have, since I am not aware how steady-state economy might actually work...

frank -- Decoding SwiftHack said...

Neven and MT:

So if I got you correct, instead of getting people to realize 'we are turning our own planet into crap and we should support policies to stop this', you want people to realize that 'the economics concept of infinite growth is based on flawed assumptions and we should sort of support in unspecified ways the creation of a steady-state economy whatever that means'.

Here's a thing. At the end of the day, I'm just another layman. I don't really care for this "growth" or "consumerism" or similar thangs. But there are many things I do care about. Food on my table. A roof above my head. Convenient transportation. Leisure time -- in quality and quantity. Bodily health. Good quality medical services. And I'd like the supply of these things to be stable.

Besides these, I want respect for human rights. Habeas corpus. Freedom from double jeopardy. Reasonable privileges and controls over the fruits of my own labours.

So the thing is, how is all this talk of "steady-state economics" and "growth" and "consumerism" and so on supposed to resonate with me, a layman, who is concerned mainly with certain simple needs and wants? The message here doesn't resonate with me -- not at all.

-- frank

Dan Olner said...

Oops, second half of comment:

Look at it this way: imagine some future world where carbon is in its rightful place as a scarce resource. If you wanted to spend your time doing some carbon-intensive activity, I wouldn't want to pass moral judgement on you. I'd just want both you and me to be living in a world where we'd agreed there was a limit. Whether that comes about through internalising cost, through some more regional Ostrom-like management or even something more involved and social-cognition heavy like the Balinese managing their water flow, I don't know. But we're not short of avenues to explore, even if time is running out.

So saying "limits to growth" means "eco-socialism" is, I'd argue, clearly not true. Indeed, if you were looking for eco-hyper-capitalist carbon-neutral future: in my rant over at crocks, I was arguing how it would be quite possible for a modern-day climate-change version of the UK's Highland clearances, when landlords discovered that sheep were more profitable than people. The modern version: car-food is more profitable than people-food, and will become more-so if a cap on carbon emerges, since our demand for personal transport is massively inelastic. This is, of course, happening right now, with the added dynamic of huge land-bank purchases by e.g. middle-eastern countries keen to guarantee their food supply.

Hell: there's also lots to say about what the nature of growth and development actually is. Jane Jacobs is my go-to man for this, but I've waffled far too much already.

Adam said...

I believe that when this is realized by enough people,...

Yeah, no doubt that will happen soon.

Michael Tobis said...

Belette's link.

Michael Tobis said...

Frank, I agree that those things are really what people want; their desire for huge bank accounts being a shabby proxy. That's the hopeful side of this.

The question here isn't so much about messaging as about ideology. The question you raise amounts to what the relationship between the two is.

The growth ideology is currently accepted by all major political players, socialists included. And of course we do want considerable growth, still, in less developed places.

The question is how to we get the overdeveloped places to accept negative growth. And indeed, there is no technical reason we can't provide the things you ask for under negative growth. It's just that we don't know how to organize it.

In particular, every political player, left and right, wants "full" employment, though they may define the term somewhat differently. But people only want "jobs" to the extent that they need "money". If money were a "want" rather than a "need", if basic 18th-century needs were taken care of, some people would work for money and some wouldn't. It seems to me that capitalism itself, and most of the advantages of capitalism would continue to operate in such a scenario.

The idea that you put your savings in an ever-growing stock market would go away. But your savings would be less important.

So, I'm not speaking for Neven here, but I think the idea that your life is a disaster if you have no savings and no income is what needs to go away in a post-growth economy. In other words, rather than despising the welfare state we must embrace it.

Which in turn raises the population question. But I'm in enough trouble as it stands.

manuel "moe" g said...

From CASSE website:

"The logical way forward for nations of the world is to take a different path to achieve sustainable, healthy, and equitable lifestyles for citizens."

I appreciate that for CASSE that the problem of climate change is not kept separate from the problem of the immense waste of human potential that is the plight of the bottom billion. A healthy moral imagination should attempt to solve both simultaneously.

quoting Tom C.:

"It is my firm belief that no ethical end can be achieved by unethical means; and that nor circumstance can excuse you from acting unethically. Pursuing a totalitarian solution necessarilly involves you in unethical behaviour; and so it is ruled out of court, in my view, as a solution. ... I think I can show this to be the most rational stance, but I do not think I can do so in reasonable length here. So you must take it as a given, and either agree or disagree."

This is silly. Many successful businesses are run, fundamentally, as totalitarian regimes, because the competition circumstance necessitates it. Most definitely not run as clubhouses of widespread equitable prerogative and warm feelings and sing-alongs.

I assert that Tom C. names "partly socialist" those totalitarian society-wide forces he is forced to agree are adaptive, and names "totalitarian" those socialist society-wide forces he chooses to insult. And his request for pages and pages of argument, unseen, is just to better obscure his mushiness of terminology, from those who will not forgive it.

When an individual's prerogative is frustrated, now, in this moment, the distinction between "socialist" and "totalitarian" is cold comfort and an academic distinction. Yes?

Where I agree with Tom C. is the impossibility of CASSE's goal. Too many billions are swayed by comforting prattle, and will defend this prattle to the end. There is no market demand for Enlightenment rational action.

Michael Tobis said...

I don't like the word "impossible" where applied to social phenomena.

Humans are immensely adaptable and can operate under an enormous range of circumstances. The pervasive stubbornness is real enough but the adaptability is more fundamental.

History is unlikely. EVERY outcome has very low probability.

The fact that any particular outcome of the bottleneck centuries has low probability is not a concern. What is of interest is the criteria that a tolerable outcome will need to fulfill.

Mal Adapted said...

There's discussion of the folly of infinite growth all over the 'toobz, of course, but one of my favorite venues is Casaubon's Book. The current post links a short video, "300 Years of FOSSIL FUELS in 300 Seconds". It suggests that the adoption of fossil fuels really is the root of the problem.

Alexander Ac said...

No, it is not "the adoption of fossil fuels", rather than devicing of extremely efficient steam engines and combustion engines that enabled us to use these huge resources. If we had not these machines, we could never economically burn our way to hell... I think, stephen hawking and carl sagan would probably agree with me :-)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mu1PicT0TMU

Tim G said...

First, economic growth depends on doing more with less input. We generate more wealth per unit of energy consumed today than we did 30 years ago. In 30 years that ratio will increase even further.

The same is true of resources of all types. This endless drive for increased efficiency is the result of the market based economic system that rewards people who can do more with less.

Second, the stress on limited resources is being mostly driven by population growth - not economic growth. Economic growth is the only way to bring that under control.

Neven said...

Thanks everyone for commenting. I'm going to try to answer some of the comments, one by one.

Martin Vermeer said:

...but there are some forms of growth that have no obvious limit, like Moore's law...

From Wikipedia:

"On 13 April 2005, Gordon Moore stated in an interview that the law cannot be sustained indefinitely: 'It can't continue forever. The nature of exponentials is that you push them out and eventually disaster happens.'"

And then:

"He also noted that transistors would eventually reach the limits of miniaturization at atomic levels:

In terms of size [of transistors] you can see that we're approaching the size of atoms which is a fundamental barrier, but it'll be two or three generations before we get that far—but that's as far out as we've ever been able to see. We have another 10 to 20 years before we reach a fundamental limit. By then they'll be able to make bigger chips and have transistor budgets in the billions."

Of course, the analogy fails. They can make bigger processor dies, but we can't make the Earth bigger. Perhaps one day if things would stabilize in a sustainable way, the conquest of space could start for real. Now there's a message that would appeal to the masses! ;)

Tom Curtis said...

manuel "moe" g accuses me of mushy language because he does not like my arguments. In doing so, he incorrectly describes "many successful businesses" as being "fundamentally totalitarian". The definition of "totalitarian" is "
adj.
Of, relating to, being, or imposing a form of government in which the political authority exercises absolute and centralized control over all aspects of life, the individual is subordinated to the state, and opposing political and cultural expression is suppressed: "A totalitarian regime crushes all autonomous institutions in its drive to seize the human soul" (Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.)." (From answers.com) Clearly, if you do not use a mushy definition, most businesses are not totalitarian, and Manuel's accusation is based on very imprecise, and inaccurate terminology.

For what it is worth, I gave a clear definition of "socialist" that allows the level of "socialism" in a society to be easily compared. I have used "totalitarian" in its literal, and well defined sense.

Further, in suggesting that,"When an individual's prerogative is frustrated, now, in this moment, the distinction between "socialist" and "totalitarian" is cold comfort and an academic distinction", Manuel makes a category error. The correct distinctions are, in the political realm is between socialist and capitalist; and in the political realm between totalitarian and democratic.

A minor point, there is not necessity for businesses to be run on an authoritarian, let alone a totalitarian, basis - as, for example, Ricardo Semler has shown.
http://semco.locaweb.com.br/en/content.asp?content=1

Tom Curtis said...

William T (@Dec 19, 1:40 am) suggests we can move to an economy restructured around zero growth by moving to a financial system not structured around debt. It is difficult to see how this is possible. Money placed on deposit with a bank is, in actuality, money lent to the bank, which consequently is in debt to the depositer. A literally debt free financial system is, therefore, also a deposit free financial system, ie, not a financial system at all.

Perhaps William did not mean something as radical as this, and only meant a restriction on easy credit. That would be a good thing, but even in the fifties when credit was restricted, the economy was built around the necessity of growth. Merely restricting access to credit would not bring about the fundamental reform he desires.

Again, this may not be what he intended. If not, could he please describe the operation of the financial system he has in mind.

Tom Curtis said...

Neven (@Dec 19, 3:15am), I am aware that you are not arguing for replacing capitalism with a totalitarian socialist regime. But it is a flaw in your argument that your desired objective is not otherwise achievable in a usefull timescale (ie, within the next 50 years).

This is not because the desired end is not economically viable. On the contrary it is viable, though it would require very radical changes in our society. It is because you will not be able to generate the political, or economic will to make the transition in the time available.

Consider just one of your dificulties. You wish to persuade people away from consumerism. But in doing so, you are going up against the largest, best funded, and most scientific propoganda campaigns ever seen in history - the advertising industry. Every add on TV carries with it, along with a message about a specific product, an additional message of "spend, spend, spend". Consequently, with the average citizen, your message will simply not cut through.

Your also going to have to go up against three other prominent promoters of conspicuous consumption - the fashion industry; youth culture; and the cult of celebrity.

And even if you manage to get your message to cut through, you will be battling against inumerable "prisoners dilemmas". So, for example, if you persuade more people to use public transport, by reducing congestion you will make personal transport more valuable, thus encouraging defaulters.

Finally, you are also battling the problem that those with the majority of the resources are also, as a general rule, most firmly committed against zero growth. Not only are they so committed, but they gain more by maintaining the current economic system; and because they have the resources to respond to it, they loose least by the failure of ecosystems.

Neven said...

Keith wrote:

If Neven et al manages to switch the conversation, then he'll need new spokesman, because Al Gore and Thomas Friedman have carbon footprints (and those mansions, of course) that don't really shout out, "hey, let's scale back our consumptive ways," if you see what I mean.

I see what you mean, and I agree. Al Gore, James Cameron, Di Caprio just aren't credible in this respect. They're not credible because they do not walk the walk, and they are not credible because they cloud the issue by not tying AGW to the root cause.

New spokespeople should do that, but I don't know who'd be willing to. And first they'd have to become aware of the crux of the matter.

In the end I guess you would need a Gandhi-type who doesn't care about what he owns, or at least about the amount of it. A wise fella who keeps repeating the facts: all global problems are caused by the conditioned need to grow.

So who would be the leaders of this movement? Who are the faces of the steady-state economies?

I don't know. They're simply not here yet.

On a separate note, haven't we see these arguments by Neven made before In Limits to Growth and Schumacher's "Small is beautiful."
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Small_Is_Beautiful

I would say the cultural and political context of the early 1970s made people more amenable to buying into it then. Obviously, it didn't stick.

So what would it take today to get society to revisit these ideas?


What it will take is problems becoming more and more visible. I don't think there is any other way. The reasons all tactics backfire is not because they are bad tactics per se, but because they simply have no chance of being taken seriously. There are many reasons for that: the in-built psychological defense of denial, aggravated by what I described as the erosion of culture when everything and everyone must act in service of perpetual economic growth. Add a pinch of organised und spontaneous (pseudo-)skepticism, et voilà.

I really don't see how this can be changed through some kind of message uttered by the right spokesperson. First the problems have to become even more obvious than they already are (in my opinion). All that can be done is to prepare for that eventuality, and in the meantime keep pounding the fact that those problems are caused by the illusory economic concept that growth can and should be infinite.

That was Part 1...

Neven said...

Part 2 of my reply to Keith:

Limits of Growth was written almost 40 years ago, I know I'm not saying anything new in that respect. It's ironic that highlighting the symptoms (AGW is a prime example) has pulled up a smokescreen that hides the root cause from view. It's almost like a very successful divide & conquer strategy, with all global problems competing with each other for the attention of the incredulous masses.

In my view there is nothing to it but to keep tying all global problems with each other and with the flawed concept of infinite growth, and then wait for the problems to start occurring in people's backyards (like a big recession, or an increase in diabetes and obesity, or a freak heat wave). There is a serious risk things might be too late by then, but that's a risk that is forced upon is. The advantage is that this realization that the point of a consciousness shift is ultimately out of our hands, potentially frees us from frustration and wasting time clamouring for attention for one global problem or other and fighting the corporate-funded or DIY (pseudo-)skeptics. That gives us room to keep repeating the core message of my article, so that when the coin finally drops people make the right association: "Yes, that's the root cause. Whatever we do, that has got to change."

In the meantime scientists have to continue doing what they do, not pay attention to the skeptics too much (not ignoring them either), and people of good will have to direct their efforts to walking the walk, and not talk the theory and getting frustrated with the success of (pseudo-)skeptics and waiting for top-down solutions à la Cancun. I know, I'm being extremely subjective here.

But the main thing that needs to be done in my view is outlined in this piece. Don't just highlight one global problem (as an organisation or a person in a debate), highlight as many as possible, external as well as internal to society, and show the connection with the flawed and illusory economic concept of infinite growth. And then end with the positive message that a a more sustainable, healthy and equitable society can be developed through things like a steady state economy (or whatever you want to call it) to replace the growth for growth's sake economy.

Neven said...

Tom Curtis wrote:

A minor point, there is not necessity for businesses to be run on an authoritarian, let alone a totalitarian, basis - as, for example, Ricardo Semler has shown.
http://semco.locaweb.com.br/en/content.asp?content=1


I've read a book by Ricardo Semler and was impressed. Just like some large corporations are indeed run in a totalitarian way, you can also take Semler's example and translate it to a socio-economical level.

a form of government in which the political authority exercises absolute and centralized control over all aspects of life, the individual is subordinated to the state,

A major difference with totalitarian regimes and key aspect of a sustainable society is decentralisation and more autonomy versus centralisation and (forced) dependence. I'm thinking food, energy and political power.

In that sense the current system in western society is highly totalitarian. Food and energy are produced in a very centralised way keeping people totally dependent on a non-local food and energy system. By decentralising you automatically start to impose limits in many ways.

Neven said...

Dan Olner wrote:

First-off, while I agree with a lot of this, it's always just a little too easy to pin the whole problem of growth on some monolithic 'neoclassical economics'.

Belette wrote:

So, do you regard Infinite Growth as part of NCecon, or are you instead criticising NCecon+IG?

I'm not interested in attacking neoclassical economics as a whole. It would be sheer arrogance as I know very little about economic theory, and nothing is black or white either, so I'm sure neoclassical economic theory has interesting and realistic notions to offer.

But I believe I'm not mistaken when I say that neoclassical economics has been the dominant force in economic theory for quite a while now. And it's also not too difficult to ascertain that we have left the domain of growth for the sake of basic societal needs and useful wealth, and entered the zone of growth for growth's sake, as an instrument to keep capital flowing in one direction mainly, with western society totally in service of this growth.

Whether this is neoclassical economics spun out of control or a mutated version of it, is in my opinion irrelevant, or a minor detail at best.

The fact is that we are being conditioned into thinking that growth can and should be infinite, and that this has consequences on a global scale that are probably going to become more obvious than they are already.

Neven said...

Tom Curtis, I actually agree with most of what you write, but I still think my tactic is the best option.

Every organisation that busies itself with one global problem or other, like the ones I outlined in my piece, should clearly mention that the root cause of their global problem de choix is the economic concept of infinite growth (which is impossible on a finite planet). That's all I'm asking for now.

Martin Vermeer said...

Neven, what I meant (and thought that was clear) was that the evolution of computing power doesn't push against any limits of the material Earth system. Sure, some limit will eventually appear ('disaster'? WTF? Surely not in any non-metaphorical sense)... and they'll figure out something to keep on chugging (quantum computing?)

This actually applies to all information rather than matter based development, e.g., also genetic technology.

About space colonization, hmmm...

> Martin - there is no "smart growth",
> just as there is no "sustainable
> growth"

Alexander -- on whose authority? Hybrid car engines, white LEDs, heat pumps, wind power and concentrating solar getting more efficient and cheaper (and getting deployed); even little things like internal combustion engines improving in fuel efficiency all the time, aircraft flying great circles using WAAS, ... you may argue that there's not enough of it, not that it doesn't exist.

frflyer said...

Regarding corporations having rights of people.
Society, and by extention a democratic nation, is based on shared values.
Corporations have no values. No hopes or fears, dreams, love children, parents, friends, morality............
They have no business (pun intended) in the political arena.

Eliminate them from politics and something more like "government of, by and for the people" will follow. Is that what you mean by socialism, Tom? God forbid they then should enact legislation that is for the common good. They might even decide to have universal health care. Gasp! How totalitarian.

Alexander Ac said...

Tom,

I absolutely agree with you except this:

"and because they have the resources to respond to it, they loose least by the failure of ecosystems"

not in the case of nuclear war.

Make an argument that *everybody* loose in the growth economy, and we have won the fight :-)

VicDiesel said...

@Martin Vermeer: "but there are some forms of growth that have no obvious limit, like Moore's law"

Moore's law is strictly about the number of transistors. Increasing that becomes harder and harder, taking more and more basic materials (such as water!) to produce chips. If you let the die size grow, then at current processor speeds, the speed of light puts a limitation on how large you can make the die. Data can just not get to the other side of the die soon enough.

If you want to keep the die size constant, then the limit is that it's very hard to make the wires any thinner than they are now.

In a more loose sense, Moore's law is about flops (floating point operations per second.) That is partly obtained by increasing the clock speed. There is a good reason that clock speed has been more or less constant for years: with increase as it was up to 5 or 10 years ago, a chip would have the energy density of a nuclear reactor by now.

Limits left and right.....

Victor.

phil263 said...

Neven your post hits the nail on the head. As you rightfully say in your comments, the point is not at this stage to formulate a policy or a strategy but to create an awareness. I suggest to interested readers with an open mind (Belette and Keith may be you should not bother!) who want to know more about ecological economics to read the work by Herman Daly whose work is considered seminal. More recently Tim Jackson (from the University of Surrey) published a book called " Propserity without growth". This work is very accessible to non-economists but it is supported by solid evidence.
Jackson shows how capitalism in its present form is addicted to growth i.e capitalism survives through a process of "creative destruction" where new products and innovation emerge constantly and overthrow existing ones at a faster and faster pace. Jackson also emphasises that there is a social logic to consumerism in asmuch as material artefacts carry a social neaning about status etc.
Jackson also debunks the myth of "angelised GDP" i.e the possibility of growing the economy without using more stuff.

Dan Olner said...

Tom Curtis: you seem very certain about what can or can't happen in the space of 50 years. Anyone playing crystal ball games is going to be wrong. What we need to do is make ourselves nimble enough to adapt, bright enough to see which direction we're steering things and an understanding that tiny steers, over 50 years, amount to revolutions.

Consider where things were only 55 years ago: the shipping container had just been invented - this is on my list of most important inventions of the 20th century (see this Wired article for a good take on the story.) A truck driver from North Carolina set in motion something that's changed the planet. I don't think that's too hyperbolic: if any of us look around the room we're sat in now, the range of goods you're looking at was simply not possible in the pre-container world. Many of them couldn't even have been assembled.

Jane Jacobs argued back in '69 that development as a "process is full of surprises and is hard to predict - possibly it is unpredictable - before it has happened." She likens it to art: an attentive feedback to that flow of unpredictability is what human beings bring to the picture. The results are rarely, if ever, what we will have predicted or designed for, but we can steer.

gryposaurus said...

These questions really shouldn't circle around the "private property" problem, or whether we should allow for it for this particular discussion, but *what* should be allowed to be privatized. Tom C is correct that time is limited and a slow move away from liberal economics isn't a feasible solution, and the time to start a Gramsci-esque War of Maneuver is well past its expiration date.

There are many types of governments that are not complete totalitarian regimes, like Red Toryism, for example, that both promote growth through targeted taxation of large private corporate enterprises AND controls the interests of it's people by providing necessary welfare and resource management. In other words, they are capitalists, they are not socialists, and they do NOT sell off their resources to highest bidder and cross their fingers, hoping for both growth and positive impacts on the national collective.

The Technocrats developed a post-scarcity view of economics due to the changing nature of how labor decreased as energy and machinery increased. At the root of the technocratic methodology was the belief that all economic politics is wasteful, and problems, both ecological, labor, energy, resource management are all best solved by using a scientific method that benefits the collective and not specific subgroups.

Why do I bring these ideas up in the context of this conversation? Not because I think these ideological views will appear in a $poof$ of magic and save us from ourselves, but to show that these ideas are there, and they can be useful and integrated as part of our way forward. But we need to come to a collective decision over what values are most important, what freedom and liberty really mean, and what are responsibility is to our country's people and planet in expansive terms.

In other words, (and I understand I'm playing fast and loose with some basic terminology here) will we ever drop the idea that individual freedom is more useful in managing scarce resources than our collective liberty in accessing them?

Lazar said...

mt writes,

"In particular, every political player, left and right, wants "full" employment, though they may define the term somewhat differently. But people only want "jobs" to the extent that they need "money". If money were a "want" rather than a "need", if basic 18th-century needs were taken care of, some people would work for money and some wouldn't. It seems to me that capitalism itself, and most of the advantages of capitalism would continue to operate in such a scenario."

In other words, distributing wealth through employment when capitalism drives ever increasing efficiency requires ever increasing consumption. We consume so that we can work. An alternative could be a citizen's wage viewed as an individual right.

Hank Roberts said...

I'd argue against recommending Lew Rockwell on fractional reserve banking (or much else) in this topic's context. Out of the VonMises/Austrian/Libertarian spoke, if you can find any good ecological thinking or any limits to growth acknowledged, pointer welcome. He'll get his chance to shine if he can now, with Ron Paul heading the committee that has oversight of the Federal Reserve.

Michael Tobis said...

It's worth pointing out that David Roberts made a very similar argument to Neven's in brief in 2009.

Tom Curtis said...

Nevin (@Dec 19, 9:40 pm), I would possibly agree with you on tactics except for two points.

First, pushing zero growth is pretty much guaranteed to alienate conservative voters. Evidence may suggest that conservative voters are a lost cause on ecological issues as it is; but unless we can swing a significnat number of conservative voters behind ecologial action, we will never get enough action even to delay ecological collapse, let alone prevent it.

Second, in the end I do no buy limits on growth as a fundamental principle. Throughout history, wealth is correlated with effective use of energy; with the best predictor of human productivity being the amount of energy they can typically call upon. This is true even in the pre-industrial era, so it is probably a fairly fundamental relation. As it happens, there is one energy source that is effectively infinite, fusion power. When I was born, scientists were predicting commercial fusion power plants within 50 years. Now, fifty years on they have made a great advance, and are now predicting them within 40 years. Despite this slow progress, commercial fusion power is probably actually possible, and if achieved will remove the limits on growth because its fuel is for practical purposes inexhaustable.

With sufficient energy, the other limits on growth, based on ecological footprints, can be side stepped. In fact, we could have on going growth while our ecological impact declines effectively to zero (although that may require a resort to algae farms for food).

I have seen it argued that fourth generation fission reactors similarly remove the growth restriction. The argument is plausible, but I am not up enough on technical details to assess it.

In a way, my view is that the human race gets one shot to develop a sufficiently energy intensive civilization to develop a practically inexhaustable cheap energy source. If we fail, we will not get another because we will not have access to cheap energy in the form of fossil fuels to again develop that level of energy intensity. At the moment, the great risk appears to be that we will face ecological collapse before we achieve the end; but that is no reason to give up the ambition (although every reason to take steps to avoid the collapse). If we prematurely cut back the energy intensity of our civilization, we also cut back our ability to fund the basic research needed to take the next step.

Marlowe Johnson said...

interesting discussion. one small nit. jevon's paradox isn't normally thought of as a 1-to-1 phenomenon. IOW, a 50% increase in fuel economy doesn't lead to a 50% increase in VMT. For most things there are natural limits to demand (think marginal utility).

Oh and glad to see that Schumacher's work came up. I suspect many here would also find Murray Bookchin's more recent ideas (e.g. communalism) pertinent.

manuel "moe" g said...

Tom C's first quibble is easy to dispatch: it is only a category error to a literalist without comprehension.

How little imagination needed to seize an image of the totalitarian mode of corporate governance "imposing a form of [governance] in which the [upper managerial] authority exercises absolute and centralized control over all aspects of [operation], the individual [employee] is subordinated to the [corporation], and opposing [labor rights] and [social responsibility] expression is suppressed", from the dictionary definition of totalitarianism given. (Why Tom C. saw fit to also throw in a literary quote, I cannot say - maybe Tommy wanted to prove that he knows how to read a search engine result page.)

And then Tom C. gives the game away by saying "there is not necessity for businesses to be run on an authoritarian, let alone a totalitarian, basis", making him guilty of the same alleged category error he accuse others of!

Tom C. continues to protest: "The correct distinctions are, in the political realm is between socialist and capitalist; and in the political realm between totalitarian and democratic." Funny to lecture to us - given that Tommy is trying desperately trying to create an equivalence between socialism and totalitarianism - quoting Tom C.:

"Any transition from a capitalist economy to an eco-socialist economy would involve large scale economic disruption ... Such policies could not be pushed through in a democracy. ... So actively pursuing such a policy would involve a transition to a totalitarian state"

Tom is arguing that these socialist goals necessitate vile totalitarianism (he must be, or else his statement "It is my firm belief that no ethical end can be achieved by unethical means" is meaningless). Then, why the wailing that socialism and totalitarianism are very very very different in kind?

Tom: the reason is because you got called on it, it simply will not go over with anyone who isn't addled by reading too much Hayek and too little of everything else, so you turn on a dime and argue the converse, and hope you won't get called on that too. (Hayek, like Friedman, is subtle and competent in academic writing, and shrill and silly in popular vulgar writing.)

manuel "moe" g said...

Our connected economic system should move to a steady-state mindset, from the evidence of immoral deprivation of the bottom billion and evidence of climate disruption from carbon released from fossil energy stores burned. And the Roman Empire should have moved to a steady-state mindset after the last conquest with the ability to add to Rome's coffers, not deplete from them.

But the Roman Empire kept with the growth-through-conquest economic model past that point, and drained and devalued the coffers trying to maintain perpetually a massive standing army and populace soothing entitlements. And it crashed, and a thread of civilization leading back to the Greeks was broken. And so many Greek and Roman writings were lost. (I can partially forgive them for letting the writings rot - they were too busy starving and being brutalized and killed at the time.)

For the same reasons, the same will happen to us. There is no store of rational responsible action that will materialize to save what we hold dear.

There will be a final futile burst of over-consumption and colossal pollution, from jockeying for a marginally better position ahead of the food and transportation system crashes. All for nought, unless you are an Inuit elk hunter (their hunting grounds will actually increase - one of the many "blessings" of global warming/climate disruption).

Or we could just assume the best, and argue backwards, throwing away any evidence that conflicts with a rosy outcome.

The strange thing about CASSE is that they are arguing like the denialists, except they are arguing backwards from a different rosy outcome. Instead of arguing backwards from infinite growth, CASSE is arguing backwards from a world characterized by self-satisfied enlightened rational restraint.

Which may be the best course of action. Like two frogs flailing their legs to keep from drowning in a bucket of creme. One frog sees the situation is hopeless, and gives up and allows himself to drown. The other frog keeps flailing, and when he finally churns the creme into butter, the butter gives his legs purchase and he hops out alive.

But how much more effective we might be, acting in the face of futility, if we navigate away from the hazards of arguing backwards from a rosy outcome. For example, if we are arguing for rational restraint, we should argue only for an audience that demonstrates the capability of rational restraint, etc.

David B. Benson said...

Isaac Asimov - An Exponentialist View

Much earlier Issac pointed out that even if there were no earlier limits, the speed of light would eventually limit human growth to subexponential.

Michael Tobis said...

David, thanks, I remember that essay!

Still, our concerns should be much more mundane. Even if human life survives, if earth is just another rock in space it will be a great loss.

The question is what the biosphere can support, not what the universe can support.

David B. Benson said...

Of course some sort of approximately steady state is required, but in reading the essay I was struck by the fact that many of the current environmental problems are solvable with a sufficient abundance of energy, say electrical.

The oceans have enough uranium to last for millions of years. That should be long enough for a combination of ethics working together with fission to postpone collapse for a very long time...

Gail said...

Neven, thank you for linking to the Basic Premise page about the impacts of ozone. Of course hardly anybody is interested in mundane pollution, but it is actually, a very major wall that we have hit, even though very few people realize that our food supply is in dire jeopardy from invisible atmospheric toxins.

I have been calling our situation more generally, the Trifucta: http://witsendnj.blogspot.com/2009/12/lets-call-it-trifucta.html

We have imminent ecosystem collapse - ocean and terrestrial - and economic collapse - and we are running out of cheap abundant energy.

Any one of these three calamities would be enough to ensure human extinction, sooner or later, whether through famine or war or both.

It is nice to think that enlightened citizens of the earth could avert disaster, but I really doubt it, it is too late. As a mother of three young women I have been in a state of constant grief ever since I realized the future isn't going to be anything like I or they imagined it, and they are almost assuredly going to experience painful and terrifying deaths.

Lately though I am trying to cheer myself with the notion that in fact, they have had the incredibly precious gift of living at a time of previously unimaginable creature comforts and opportunities and even if they die prematurely, and are eaten by cannibals, well, they have had one hell of a ride at the utter peak of luxury.

William T said...

Tom Curtis @December 19, 2010 5:13 PM

Perhaps it is slightly OT from this thread, but I have often wondered about why GDP growth of several percent is required for the economic system not to start tottering. If growth is zero, things actually go backwards with unemployment increasing etc. The best answer I have come across is to do with the cost of money - money in our system is created as debt and interest must be paid on it. So if there is no growth, the amount of available money gradually decreases because of the interest being skimmed off by the banks. So the govt and central bank have to keep trying to get people to borrow more so that the scheme can keep rolling forwards.

Perhaps our pre-enlightenment forbears had a point with proscribing interest? I don't think their economies grew much either...

ourchangingclimate said...

I’m a little skeptical to pointing fingers to only one “grand cause” of all our problems. Population and economic growth have both been put forward throughout modern history as the culprit of all our ills. Whereas both “only” tackle one of the terms each in the Kaya identity (which one could set up for other kinds of impacts besides CO2 emissions as well). If we manage to substantially diminish the impact per unit of GDP and/or per person, that would help as much as a certain decrease in GDP or number of people. So if one wants to reduce the impacts, there is a choice as to how to go about doing that: Decreasing population, decreasing GDP, improving positive output per unit GDP, decreasing negative output per unit positive output. See http://ourchangingclimate.wordpress.com/2010/08/23/what-does-population-have-to-do-with-climate-change/ for some relevant images of the world related to the Kaya identity.

There’s a pragmatic argument to be made that with projected GDP and population growth, it’ll be sheer impossible to keep up with the other two terms in the equation (mt made such an argument before: “In order to support business as usual without increasing net impact or abandoning any claim to international equity, impact per unit wealth has to decrease by more than a factor of fifty.” (http://initforthegold.blogspot.com/2009/05/cruel-hoax-growth-and-equity-cannot-be.html ) But Pat Cassen makes a similarly pragmatic argument that decreasing GDP is also sheer impossible in a political sense. So we’re kind a stuck it seems. I think our best bet is to attempt to weaken the link between GDP and negative impacts, ie work on the latter two terms of the Kaya identity.

Musing on the economics, the issue of interest rate is important I think: It necessitates growth in order to pay back the interest. But interest may also be rational: Would you rather have 1000 euros today or next year? Today of course. Would you rather have 1000 euros now or 1100 euros next year? The break-even point defines the interest rate so to speak. Very simplistic of course, but it shows that an absence of interest somehow isn’t natural. But it’s also a vicious circle: Because you can use the money to make more money, you’d much rather have it now than next year. OTOH, if you wouldn’t necessarily need/want to make money, you wouldn’t care as much as to when you’d get it (as long as you’d have enough now to do what you want to do). So it’s also a self reinforcing mechanism: growth requires interest, and interest requires growth. These concepts are intricately linked.

Then there’s the issue of externalities: The problem isn’t economic growth per se (physical limits notwithstanding); the problem is negative impacts which are currently externalized. The more they are internalized in the economic system, the more they will be minimized. Leaves the ‘wicked’ problem of how to economically value natural commons like clean air and a stable climate, about which I have serious doubts that they can be meaningfully translated in a currency. But I’m not sure there’s another way that’s workable.

Bart

ourchangingclimate said...

I’m a little skeptical to pointing fingers to only one “grand cause” of all our problems. Population and economic growth have both been put forward throughout modern history as the culprit of all our ills. Whereas both “only” tackle one of the terms each in the Kaya identity (which one could set up for other kinds of impacts besides CO2 emissions as well). If we manage to substantially diminish the impact per unit of GDP and/or per person, that would help as much as a certain decrease in GDP or number of people. So if one wants to reduce the impacts, there is a choice as to how to go about doing that: Decreasing population, decreasing GDP, improving positive output per unit GDP, decreasing negative output per unit positive output. See http://ourchangingclimate.wordpress.com/2010/08/23/what-does-population-have-to-do-with-climate-change/ for some relevant images of the world related to the Kaya identity.

There’s a pragmatic argument to be made that with projected GDP and population growth, it’ll be sheer impossible to keep up with the other two terms in the equation (mt made such an argument before: “In order to support business as usual without increasing net impact or abandoning any claim to international equity, impact per unit wealth has to decrease by more than a factor of fifty.” (http://initforthegold.blogspot.com/2009/05/cruel-hoax-growth-and-equity-cannot-be.html ) But Pat Cassen makes a similarly pragmatic argument that decreasing GDP is also sheer impossible in a political sense. So we’re kind a stuck it seems. I think our best bet is to attempt to weaken the link between GDP and negative impacts, ie work on the latter two terms of the Kaya identity.

Musing on the economics, the issue of interest rate is important I think: It necessitates growth in order to pay back the interest. But interest may also be rational: Would you rather have 1000 euros today or next year? Today of course. Would you rather have 1000 euros now or 1100 euros next year? The break-even point defines the interest rate so to speak. Very simplistic of course, but it shows that an absence of interest somehow isn’t natural. But it’s also a vicious circle: Because you can use the money to make more money, you’d much rather have it now than next year. OTOH, if you wouldn’t necessarily need/want to make money, you wouldn’t care as much as to when you’d get it (as long as you’d have enough now to do what you want to do). So it’s also a self reinforcing mechanism: growth requires interest, and interest requires growth. These concepts are intricately linked.

Then there’s the issue of externalities: The problem isn’t economic growth per se (physical limits notwithstanding); the problem is negative impacts which are currently externalized. The more they are internalized in the economic system, the more they will be minimized. Leaves the ‘wicked’ problem of how to economically value natural commons like clean air and a stable climate, about which I have serious doubts that they can be meaningfully translated in a currency. But I’m not sure there’s another way that’s workable.

Bart

Martin Vermeer said...

Victor, do you or don't you agree that we are getting more raw processing out of every joule spent using current computers than using those of, say, a decade ago?

Nick Palmer said...

Tom Curtis.

Arguing for a switch from indefinitely expanding economic growth, which demands ever more energy and ever more materials and ever more waste generated for ever, is not a move to an "eco-socialist economy".

In 1968, people wondered about the increasing population (3.6 billion at the time). The same type of mentality that denies climate science these days, calculated that the entire world population could squeeze on to the Isle of Wight (148 square miles off England's south coast).

They put this forward as some sort of argument that therefore the world was not crowded at all - in fact quite empty. I was 14 and briefly reassured but I was curious to see the other side of the subject so I did the opposite calculation. It turned out we only had 195 metres square per person as our personal share of the land surface of planet Earth within which we had to do our share of everything. Grow our food and food animals. Extract/mine our energy and materials. Dispose of our waste/pollution. Set aside space for the other life forms such as the rainforest that we need to keep the oxygen coming.

Bear in mind that part of your 195 metres square would have consisted of inhospitable mountain and ice/sand desert etc.

Fast forward 40 years. Population 6.8 billion. We now have 145 metres square each. See the way things are going?

Stabilising things is a survival tactic; it's not to be belittled as just a political ideology.

If what it must take involves aspects that resemble what you would call socialist, so be it. If what it takes resembles a true free market with all the currently disregarded environmental and planetary safety/security costs brought on to the accountant's and economist's "bottom line" then so be it.

Whatever it takes is what we have to do.

We have reached the end of the usefulness of conventional concepts of growth. People who have grown up and been educated in those ways need to recognise that things need to be thought out again.

William T said...

Martin, this is the graph you wanted -
http://spectrum.ieee.org/computing/hardware/outperforming-moores-law

Processing performance is beating Moore's Law! Although I bet that software isn't making use of the increased efficiency.

keith said...

Murray Bookchin! Now there's a name that doesn't come up at all these days, but for those who know their history will recall that Bookchin fought hard to steer environmentalism into a different direction several decades ago. I'd say he reached his apex as a major influence during his legendary debates with Dave Foreman. Social Ecology is the movement he founded, for those unfamiliar with Bookchin.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_ecology
--KKloor

David B. Benson said...

William T --- Nice graphic. That's the fast growth portion on a S-shaped curve which hardly grew, just a little, from the days of the Babylonians until the first electromechanical (pre)computers like the Haarvard Mark I.

In another decade or so, it'll go back to slow, minute advances.

In the nonce, however, it has been quite a runup!

Neven said...

In case my comments aren't accepted by the software, I cross-posted them over at Bart's blog as they address his comment.

Neven said...

Let's try again:

Bart, thanks for your comment. You raise a few issues I'd like to go into.

I’m a little skeptical to pointing fingers to only one “grand cause” of all our problems.

Of course. I've said from the start that my overview and conclusions are slightly oversimplified. Behind or next to every root cause there are other causes, and it's the same with the economic concept of infinite growth (things like human basic psychology, historical evolution that made this stage inevitable, etc). But what I'm trying to show is that this concept is the instrument that enabled western society to get to this point, and whether this economic concept of infinite growth is a 'grand' cause or not is irrelevant. The point is that all the global problems will not get solved as long as that concept is the dominant force of our economy, culture and society.

And that's what I'm missing in the environmentalist message (and Keith Kloor is right to criticize this aspect, although unfortunately he won't propose alternatives). They offer solutions to the symptoms, but they neglect to mention that a much bigger and more fundamental problem is the conditioned need to grow. That's what's bothering me about people like Al Gore and James Cameron.

Population and economic growth have both been put forward throughout modern history as the culprit of all our ills. Whereas both “only” tackle one of the terms each in the Kaya identity (which one could set up for other kinds of impacts besides CO2 emissions as well).

I haven't mentioned population growth in all of this (and the peaking of resources such as oil, BTW), because:

1) I'm not sure how many people the Earth can carry when the concept of infinite growth would be replaced by something more rational. Perhaps even the 10 billion that is said to become the maximum at which number global population will stabilize.

2) I think the one third of global population that is reasonably well off is having way more impact than the two thirds that live below the poverty line. And that has everything to with economic growth.

3) Population growth in developed countries is very low, and I look to focus on what we in the western world can do (ie change the dominant economic concept). The undeveloped countries have every right to do what we did. Besides, I believe it is pretty certain that economic growth reduces population growth.

continued below...

Neven said...

4) The socio-economic problems within developed societies are not caused by population growth. Obesity and diabetes aren't caused by population growth (although in a way people getting bigger is a linguistic perversion of 'population growth' ;-) ). The 2 trillion debt that could be bringing down 100 US cities soon, isn't caused by population growth.

I'm not counting out overpopulation as an influence, but the economic concept of infinite growth is much more important. Having 7 billion people on a planet is one thing, but all of them craving a US lifestyle is quite another.

They are emulating us, so we have to come up with something better. With a bit of luck they might then skip a large part of the wasteful and destructive growth we have had the past 30-40 years.

Whereas both “only” tackle one of the terms each in the Kaya identity (which one could set up for other kinds of impacts besides CO2 emissions as well). If we manage to substantially diminish the impact per unit of GDP and/or per person, that would help as much as a certain decrease in GDP or number of people.

The whole GDP-mantra is the issue, isn't it? Like I said: A businessman with prostate cancer causing a major car accident on his way to his divorce lawyer, is great for GDP growth. Why can't something else be measured to assess the wealth of a nation? Something like the percentage of the populace whose basic needs (water, food, shetter, clothing) are met.

If you would do that, it would radically change the basics of the the Kaya Identity, which looks useful in principle.

Neven said...

Musing on the economics, the issue of interest rate is important I think: It necessitates growth in order to pay back the interest.

Yes, this is an essential element in the whole story and you need to take a look at history to see how these things came about.

Because they couldn't make the economy grow as fast as the concept of infinite growth prescribed, already bumping into certain physical limits (such as the population not buying more things because they simply didn't need them or have the money for them), they let go of the Gold Standard in 1971 (that standard was an agreement that made sure that for every amount of money there had to be a corresponding amount of gold; remove that and you can start a virtual financial world that has nothing to do with physical reality and thus magically create 'wealth' through debt). With 'they' I'm referring to economists, corporations and politicians, not to 'They'.

If you look at the history of the Federal Reserve and fractional reserve banking, you start to grasp how insane this system really is. And remember, the system is there because growth needs to go on forever. There are many good documentaries on this.

Neven said...

Final part of my reply to Bart:

Once people agree that growth cannot go on forever, the solutions are pretty clear-cut (fractional reserve banking has to go, corporation and state must be separated, GDP has to be measured differently, etc). But this can only come about when the whole idea that it is possible and desirable to grow forever, and its influence on culture and society, is understood and then rejected.

And this in turn can only happen when the global problems I mention in my article are visibly tied to this concept of infinite growth by everyone who wants to solve a global problem. As these problems get worse, and they undoubtedly will, the connection with the economic concept of infinite growth should be made as apparent as possible.

You don't want to tell people what to do, you want them to make the right associations when the moment comes that global problems become indisputable, and not start pointing fingers at the bankers, at the liberals, at the conservatives, at the climate scientists. Once that happens, we can maybe start discussing how much is enough.

In the meantime people who are already aware that enough is enough, need to stop waiting for governments and the masses to start moving, but move themselves by asking how much is enough for them and dissociate themselves from the system as much as they can (by becoming more independent with regards to energy and food, for instance). I'm projecting here what I think I should do.

Marlowe Johnson said...

Keith after seeing your reference to 'Losing Ground' over at your place I'm beginning to suspect that we may have similar bookshelves :P

Michael Tobis said...

I think it's madness to sell Keith too short. I still wish he and his sort would get off the damned dime more often.

The New York Times has a wonderful counterexample today; an excellent history of the Keeling curve and its context. This is how mainstream journalism should be addressing sustainability issues.

Neven said...

Unfortunately Keith still hasn't given his view on my proposition that most, if not all global problems can be linked to the flawed economic concept of infinite growth. And also my proposition that activists/alarmists, instead of focusing on just their global problem, should show how their global problem relates to other global problems, and how all these problems are ultimately caused by a system that is predicated on the belief (for several generations now) that economic growth can and should be infinite.

He's been bashing environmentalists lately, and not without reason I might add. I think it's true that the big organisations (like WWF or Greenpeace) have turned into corporations that sometimes have interests that have become more important than the problems they are trying to tackle.

Maybe that's why they have strayed from the message in the 70's that there are limits to growth, and have fragmented that central issue into a myriad of problems (the ones I describe in my article) that are treated as causes instead of symptoms. I mean, stressing that all these problems are actually caused by a root cause, might actually point people to a real solution. Can't have that.

I'm being cynical here. There are other reasons as well. Global problems that showed we were bumping into limits were less visible in the 70's than they are today.

Again, unfortunately Keith Kloor doesn't give his view on whether he thinks the global problems are real, and whether they are caused by the ECoIG. Instead he aks: "So what would it take today to get society to revisit these ideas?"

This: the problems becoming more apparent. I hear for instance that 100 US cities are in big, big trouble because of 2 trillion worth of debts. I would also keep an eye on the Arctic sea ice, the dead zones and the fat kids.

The point is: do we keep the message fragmented, ie 'the bankers are to blame for the recession', 'poor Polar bears boo-hoo', 'fat kids should exercise more'? Or do we point to the root cause of all these problems, so that people start realizing that there is no chance we can solve these global problems if we do not replace our current dominant economic concept by something that is more rational?

Neven said...

BTW, the New York Times featured a horrible, horribly flawed article last week by a certain Paul Voosen.

Michael Tobis said...

What, in your opinion, is wrong with the Voosen article?

Neven said...

Well, Michael, since you ask. I thought this was very sloppy:

Those fears, which peaked in 2007, were likely exacerbated by the stark retreat in sea ice that year. The Arctic lost more than 1.6 million square kilometers of ice, an area larger than Alaska;

That could have been explained a lot better.

However, since that shocking decline, the ice has modestly expanded during the summer, perhaps the best evidence that Arctic ice won't drop off a cliff, said Eric DeWeaver, a co-author on the Nature paper and physical climatologist at the National Science Foundation.

The 2007 loss was "spectacular," he said, but "one would not expect to see it very often."


This goes against everything I have learned about the Arctic so far. 2010 was pretty spectacular too and would have smashed the 2007 record to pieces if the Arctic hadn't been covered with clouds at the moment when extent falls the fastest, around peak insolation, in July and the first half of August.

Besides, it became clear, especially towards the end of the melting season, that the ice pack was showing some pretty weird behaviour. I wrote about it extensively on my Arctic Sea Ice blog.

Also, there are simple facts like the persistent clouds that ring the Arctic and lack of sunlight during the ice's natural minimum that could neutralize declining reflectivity.

This is not simple and it's not a fact either. Au contraire.

Modeling sea ice decline is notoriously difficult, and there remains wide disagreement in the models on how quickly the Arctic will retreat under warmer temperatures. Several models project a complete loss of summertime ice before the century's end, while others chart a modest 15 percent decline.

Mind you, this article was published last week, not in 2000. There are models that project a complete loss of summertime ice in 2016. The more conservative ones aim for 2030-2060.

Joe Romm explains the biggest flaw in the paper that this article is based on: Polar bears aren't necessarily lost, if we manage to freeze GHG concentrations at 2020 levels. Right.

This isn't mentioned anywhere in the NYT article.

Adam said...

...do we point to the root cause of all these problems, so that people start realizing that there is no chance we can solve these global problems if we do not replace our current dominant economic concept by something that is more rational?

Alas, I think it matters not what we point to. People, i.e. enough of the human race to matter, are not going to "realize" anything on such a grand scale.

Human civilization is nothing more than biological evolution in action. It is no more teleological than any other part of the evolutionary process. The maximal exploitation of our environment will proceed as heedlessly as always, because that has been a successful adaptation since we branched off; it's how we got to this predicament. Future considerations beyond successful procreation are irrelevant to evolution, it has no "plan" for a species to avoid causing its own extinction by crashing its environment, and neither does human society have such a plan, nor will it. Climate change will bring selective pressures—almost certainly extreme ones—to bear on the species, and evolution will take its course, as always.

Michael Tobis said...

Human beings rejected slavery on ethical grounds, despite immense social momentum. The existence of such counterexamples at least calls into question the veracity of the sort of pessimism that these sorts of questions raise.

I also think it's deeply unethical to propose that we are at the mercy of our baser nature. Frankly it makes me angry.

Adam said...

But Michael, the scale of human changes required to forestall severe climate change dwarfs anything needed to end slavery--and, by the way, there's still plenty of slavery going on--or any other pernicious human practice you can name. We are hoping the race will dial back its natural urges for acquisition and expansion enough to reconfigure its whole economic system--voluntarily. That ain't gonna happen.

I'm sorry I made you angry, but I don't believe in "baser instincts". I believe in a synergy of evolved behaviors that comprise h. sapiens, none of which can simply be repressed out of existence, as we see by all the evil abroad in the modern world. Perhaps we are evolving towards a smarter social beast, and the progenitors of h. s. prudens are even now among us. I doubt they will become dominant in time to stop 800 PPM, though.

Michael Tobis said...

I doubt too, but that is no excuse for not trying.

Michael Tobis said...

Neven, you haven't been looking at the press much if you consider that "horrible, horribly flawed".

I think the dominant hypotheis remains that the Arctic response is continuous with respect to forcing; there is no literal tipping point (i.e., no hysteresis) in the physical system in the near future. Eisenman's argument in this regard appears solid.

You are sounding uncomfortably Rommesque here. Just because the tone of an article doesn't verge on panic doesn't make it "horrible".

Neven said...

Because it's you, mt, I had another hard look at that article, and I see that I might have exaggerated the horribleness of the article.

For instance it is mentioned in the article later on that "Amstrup's Nature study used one global climate model, developed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research, to test how sea ice would behave under various scenarios, including the type of global, rigorous effort that scientists have long said would be needed to curb climate change", without stating what is meant by that exactly (stabilizing GHG emissions at 2020 levels). I think Romm covers that aspect pretty well, despite the fact that Romm can be Rommesque at times.

It doesn't have to verge on panic for me. My point was simply that the writer of the article wrote a few things that makes me doubt whether he knows what he's writing about (I gave the examples). On second reading it wasn't as bad as I initially thought, but I believe it paints a too rosy picture (and of course it doesn't mention the economic concept of infinite growth as the root cause ;-) ).

I'll end with a comment on ClimateProgress that sums it up quite well IMO:

Joe makes the statement:

“And the weird thing about citing and criticizing that article is that it quotes heavily from a study by the lead author of the current study, Steven C. Amstrup, of the USGS”

but Amstrup is no longer with USGS but is now Chief Scientist with Polar Bears International. The latter organization needs to keep potential donors and collaborators optimistic. Take a look at the extent of their “Donate and Help” page on their website. They cannot admit they are essentially on a deathwatch given current and projected emissions – and the demonstrated inability of governments to curb those emissions.

The tragedy is that many people hearing of this study come away with the idea that new data now shows polar bears to be in less trouble than previously thought. People do not realize the decreased risk is only true should some extremely unlikely events occur. I have talked to at least two people who, having heard sound bites about the paper in Nature, told me that it has been shown that polar bears are not in as much danger as some have claimed. So the authors have served to ease the public’s concerns about climate change – which clearly is not a good or realistic thing to do.

keith said...

Neven,

I'm not sure you'll find this satisfactory, but I tend to find Joseph Tainter's arguments pretty compelling. Here's a recent essay by him:

http://campfire.theoildrum.com/node/6942

adelady said...

Adam, Britain nearly bankrupted herself enforcing bans on shipping slaves around the African continent - at a time when no-one thought there was anything amiss with the trade.

With the "help" of the USA afterwards, Britain *did* pretty well bankrupt herself winning WW2.

My view about these "baser" human urges are simply that it is all down to leadership. Leaders can bring out the best in their communities or pander to and reinforce the worst.

Just look at 20thC ethnic cleansing in European countries where religions and races had happily lived, married and shared everything in their streets and villages. All washed away in a flood of vile rancour used to exploit ordinary human weaknesses and incite violence within and between families.

Good leadership can work wonders, just as bad leadership can visit horrors.

Neven said...

Keith, thanks for replying. Indeed, I don't find your answer entirely satisfactory, although Tainter's work is very interesting (you pointed to several other things that stimulated my thinking, so thanks for that). I read that piece on The Oil Drum last year, and he also features on Blind Spot, one of the documentaries I recommended as further viewing.

Of course, I would rather have heard exactly what YOU think with regards to the two questions I asked (are the global problems real and tied to the irrational economic concept of infinite growth; shouldn't the tactic be to stress this fact instead of trying to focus the attention on symptoms (such as AGW), because none of those symptoms can be solved if the root cause isn't tackled), because Tainter says a lot of things in his piece.

continued below...

Neven said...

I admit I haven't thought that vision out as of yet (I'll need about two more years for it), and Tainter might be right that there is no other option than to stay on the treadmill and throw ever more complexity and energy at emerging problems. But I think this would be easier if at least we would ditch the economic concept of infinite growth. It'd be pretty hopeless otherwise, in my opinion.

Besides, no amount of energy and societal complexity can replace or recreate the ecosystems that we rely on to eat, drink, breathe and sleep, so in a way Tainter is saying that all hope is lost. His message is one of despair if you think it through.

Keith, I believe you said you didn't like that tactic?

Neven said...

Here is the middle part of my comment-trilogy (in two parts because Bllogger doesn't accept the whole thing):

What Tainter basically says is that when there is enough energy, societies will increase in complexity. This increase is caused because of the emergence of problems that are then solved by more complexity. But more complex also means more costly, because complexity leads to further problems, which require more complex solutions, etc. According to Tainter this is one of the main reasons the Roman Empire collapsed.

I'll quote the end of Tainter's article:

In actuality, major infusions of surplus energy are rare in human history. More commonly, complexity increases in response to problems. Complexity emerging through problem solving typically precedes the availability of energy, and compels increases in its production. Complexity is not something that we can ordinarily choose to forego.

Applying this understanding leads to two conclusions. The first is that the solutions commonly recommended to promote sustainability–conservation, simplification, pricing, and innovation–can do so only in the short term. Secondly, long-term sustainability depends on solving major societal problems that will converge in coming decades, and this will require increasing complexity and energy production. Sustainability is not a condition of stasis. It is, rather, a process of continuous adaptation, of perpetually addressing new or ongoing problems and securing the resources to do so.

Neven said...

Part 2:

When I say 'sustainable society' I'm not aiming for stasis (because it doesn't exist, as shit happens and something can always be improved). I'm also not of the neo-primitivist type that believes we need to turn back the clock 250 years (even if it were possible, it's too late now).

However, I do have a vision of a combination of the old with the new that might make for a more stable, healthy and just society. The old would be getting food and energy from as close as possible (and not from 1500 miles away), and every member of society being able to perform useful work and not just be specialized in one piece of the machine to keep it going (economists, lawyers, etc). The new would be things like the internet (to replace physical globalization in large part) and useful appliances that create more time (unlike gadgets) to do useful stuff. Just to cover basic needs and create a maximum of comfort for minimum energy input.

keith said...

Neven,

I haven't spent as much time thinking about this stuff, as you might think.

In terms of my lifestyle: I live in an urban environment and believe it is among the greenest paths one can take. I also don't worship at the alter of consumerism. That's my tangible contribution, for whatever it's worth.

But I'm not into preaching a way of life to others. People will have to find their own way. The stuff you talk about is in the realm of values and maybe that's where more of the focus of this debate should be. I don't know.

In terms of solutions, I've often expressed my enthusiasm for the "Resilence" paradigm. I think it would be a good thing if more people could be educated about that, because I think ultimately that's what will be necessary. Sorry, I'm still addled by remnant flu symptoms, so perhaps I'm not being clear enough. Maybe I'll take this up in a post after the New Year.
-KKloor

Neven said...

Keith, thanks for replying. Even though you may not have thought a whole lot about this (and kudos to you for admitting that) you still bring up very interesting things. It could be that only the connections between the dots are missing.

But I'm not into preaching a way of life to others. People will have to find their own way. The stuff you talk about is in the realm of values and maybe that's where more of the focus of this debate should be. I don't know.

I try not to preach, but I think that people can only find their way if they have information that is as complete as possible. Otherwise there's a very big chance that they will direct their energy to fighting symptoms instead of trying to solve the root cause.

I like to think that the stuff that I'm talking about is in the realm of logic (i.e. in a finite system nothing can grow perpetually). The solutions to the stuff I'm talking about might be in the realm of values, in fact I'm pretty sure they are, but we haven't reached that stage yet. For that a lot of people need to get on board (especially people from the diaspora of environmental issues).

First we have to agree that there are problems. Your answers so far (and especially that piece you linked to about global land use that I hadn't read yet) have convinced me that you believe that there are problems, and that they are serious threats to society.

Second we have to agree that a very big part in all this is played by the irrational economic concept of infinite growth (that's what my guest blog here has been about). That's the stage we're at right now.

Third will be about the implications of this agreement with regards to solutions. I could say a lot of things on this subject, but to tell the truth I haven't thought much about it either. I think I know what the heart of the problem is, and in this quest some solutions popped up out of their own accord (in the shape of seemingly logical conclusions), but I'm not sure of their validity.

I'll continue some more on Collide-a-scape.

ed-davies said...

Trivia: first Churchill quote was from 1940, not 1942.

Michael Tobis said...

Ed, the link looks authoritative, and says 1942.

Anyway, everybody agrees CHurchill said it, which itself seems rare enough.

Neven said...

MT, the first link isn't in italics though. I'm sure not a lot of people are reading it (although I still link to it here and there, and will continue to do so), but could you change it anyway?

Somebody on my blog pointed out that I forgot Churchill's best quote:

"The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences". November 12, 1936.

I believe the beloved Al Gore used it as well.