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

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Heartland Musings

Two very interesting essays at least as a result of the Heartland SICCC.

I thank Willard for pointing me to a moving piece by Wit's End: "Beware the Banality of Evil - Heartless at the Heartland Institute SICCC"

and Brian Dupuis for alerting me to Chris Mooney's "In the Climate Debate, the Misunderstanding is Mutual", along with (so far) two very interesting replies in the comments thereto.

I'll be responding to the latter myself, shortly. Any others?


Michael Tobis said...

Horner thinks worry about climate emerges out of ideology, specifically out of an ideology of limits to growth. For me it was very much the other way around.

Worry about climate arises from physical principles. But then when you look at the way the world works, and the stunning incompetence we have had in dealing with this issue, you discover a growth addiction that impinges on every environmental problem, not just on climate, one which by the literal definition of exponential gets exponentially worse with time.

Horner is absolutely wrong that concern about climate is driven by ideology. But he has a real weapon, in that concern about climate and similar issues (soil, water, sea life, trace chemicals, energy supply) inevitably leads to the old Club of Rome question about "Limits to Growth" (Meadows, 1972)

The climate issue stands alone without a limits to growth concern, and we can't let Horner and company get away with suggesting otherwise.

But many people who think about the climate problem, or various other global scale problems, are quickly led to a limits to growth position. If you think about microroganisms growing in a Petri dish, you get the picture quickly. If condtions are favorable, growth is rapid, and the transition from an uncrowded dish to a crowded dish is rather abrupt. The micro-organisms are not smart enough to adapt to their new circumstances. Are we?

Yes, this presents Horner with a propaganda opportunity.

The obvious way to address it on the climate side is to stick to the science, which in this matter is absolutely compelling.

But to address the broader question, we need to insist that it is not anti-capitalist, anti-corporate, anti-free-enterprise, even anti-competitive to recognize limits to growth. Indeed, it's the creativity of the American society that can lead the world out of this mess.

Some things can grow without bound. Books and movies and music can keep getting better. Education can improve. Our surroundings can get more pleasant and safer. We are not yet so overgrown that we cannot learn to live together, or that progress has stopped, or that ambitious people can do well. But in the end, full-time full employment in a world of forever growing aggregate economic activity is over in the west.

We cannot sustain much more activity without falling into the most egregious colonialism; if the rest of the world is to be allowed to catch up there will be nobody to exploit. In short, the behavior of the average suburban American family does not scale to the existing world population. It can;t be done without some serious changes.

Insofar as carbon use is concerned, there is no doubt that we are well into overshoot territory already. But solve that problem and several others wait right behind. This is not a bizarre coincidence. This is the inevitable second phase of the Petri dish. We have to get used to it, and the carbon problem, should we prevail, is just the first of many such battles.

mike roddy said...

I agree with your important point about not getting growth issues mixed up with global warming, Michael. To do so would be to end up suggesting some sort of back to the land microvillage way of life. This is neither feasible nor likely, and even bringing it up becomes a way to run away from the central issue here. Let's keep our eye on the ball!

Michael Tobis said...

I am not sure I agree with your agreement.

Steve Bloom said...

mt says over there: "I think it is a tall enough order to excise the growth imperative from capitalism."

Let me propose an analogy: I think it is a tall enough order to keep the shark alive while preventing it from swimming.

Query Krugman about this.

Re the other facets, of course see Rockstrom et al.

Michael Tobis said...

Since we are symbiotic with the shark, we have no choice.

Mossy and Pa said...

We really can't, at this point, separate issues of sustainability, population, and climate.

If the population were significantly less, perhaps we would be more sustainable, and the climate wouldn't be warming so much, due to lesser amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. Or, if we were more sustainable, perhaps we wouldn't have wastefully burned valuable fossil fuels to the point of wrecking a habitable climate.

But we're here now,in the middle of an interlocking Venn diagram with intersecting circles of population, sustainabilty, and climate change. And by sustainability, there's multiple resource depletion, from fossil fuels to water to precious minerals, soil, and forests.

Can the Heartland Institute find it in its heart to lead us out of this Venn trap?

Jim Bouldin said...

"I thank Willard for pointing me to a moving piece by Wit's End: "Beware the Banality of Evil - Heartless at the Heartland Institute SICCC""

Marion Delgado said...

I have to say that here I share Michael's "obsession."

What is ideological about there being limits to growth? The only ideological part, obviously, is what you do about the limits. And if you want to be combative, you can claim bad faith about where the limits ARE.

"But analysis by Harvard University's Harvey Brooks concluded that "the world could support a population of a trillion people at a material standard of living better than that of the most affluent countries." Brooks envisions two-thirds of these future folks living on artificial islands spread across the oceans. Brooks' scenario is a little too spread out for Bob Truax, who figures that the Earth would support a total population of about a septillion."

A septillion people would weigh 6.5 * 10^25 kg. The Earth weighs 6 * 10^24 kg. So we'd only need about 11 Earths or so to produce enough ATOMS to have a population of a septillion people.

That they (in this case, the Foundation for Economic Feedom) can make claims like that shows which side is letting ideology replace thought.

Steve Bloom said...

Remoras r us, Michael? :)

But anyway, the (I would hope)obvious point is that capitalism without growth isn't capitalism.

Paul Daniel Ash said...

I really don't get why Mooney is almost insisting that Horner is right because one commenter is filibustering.

There is a worrying tendency to self-flagellation on the putative "left;" a instance of the circularFiringSquad class, it seems.

Michael Tobis said...

Agree with Paul; disagree with Steve.

It's a matter of definition. I think it's possible to keep much of the present system without relying on aggregate growth. I certainly hope so, otherwise the "1985" troll at Mooney's is likely correct.

Keeping the system does not mean keeping the underlying economic theory, which is unworkable in zero growth conditions.

pough said...

One thing's for sure: all further stories about D.K. Watts should show that photo of his winking ass.

Steve Bloom said...

mt: "I think it's possible to keep much of the present system without relying on aggregate growth."

Now there is a bold claim. Evidence aside from wishful thinking? I suppose one would have to start by defining "present system" and then "much."

susan said...

I'm a fan of Witsend's gallant attempt to point out the cognitive dissonance between Heartland's claims and its intentions. So this is my cribbed response to "you cannot be serious" - we are, we are ... and so is what is happening in our world.

From MediaMatters:
"Heartland Institute Strives to Could the Consensus

"Heartland president Joseph Bast acknowledged at the conference that "the main motivation, frankly, for the Heartland Institute being involved in this debate" is to prevent the U.S. government from adopting policies that favor renewable energy, which he claims would cause an "economic disaster for the country." (But it's the other guys who are "alarmist.") In other words, the organization approaches the science with a policy agenda already determined, making Heartland an unlikely champion of "Restoring the Scientific Method," which was the theme of the conference."

This from "The Great Convulsion"

"As news from the frontiers of climate chaos - of floods, and desertification, of tornados and food shortages - worsens for those who are paying attention, and it becomes ever more apparent that technological advances to fix the problem will be far too little and implemented far too late, arguments are erupting in comments on various self-designated Important and Serious websites between those who believe the future is so dangerous for survival that it is (past) time for action, and those who should know better but continue to caution against merely sounding "overly alarmist"....

"every human with a heart is susceptible to suffer from their own version of denial. So personally I think it's tragic that people who almost all have the same fundamental concerns are wasting time and energy quibbling over tactics, such as whether climate science and models and discussions should focus solely on global warming from CO2, or include other emissions ....

"Another deepening disconnect is on whether to explicitly link free-market capitalism (as it has run amuck in the developed nations, and trampled over the rights of developing countries) with the unavoidable steps necessary to reduce emissions significantly enough to make any sort of dent in, by way of examples, catastrophic ice melting and sea level rise. The youth who carried signs at Copenhagen, "System Change Not Climate Change" understand that a vast cultural shift is critical, and bravely made the connection...but many of their more powerful elders prefer to ignore it. Some members of the educated elite also prefer to relegate issues of social and generational justice to the fringes of discourse, and frantically denounce any mention of the exponential and cataclysmic overpopulation of the human species.

"All this squabbling over the scraps just plays into the hands of professional deniers and their corporate puppet masters who are profiting every minute that the rest of us dawdle, some paralyzed by fear - or hope, as the case may be.

"Paul Gilding has been writing about the "Great Disruption", which he predicts will be followed in time by a better social construct. I think it's far more likely at the rate we are (not) going that we will have something more akin to a "Great Convulsion" ..."

She says it so much better than I could.

Ugo Bardi said...

Michael, I am not sure about your comment on "The Limits to Growth". Sure, some people have been using it as a "weapon" to disparage concerns about sustainability. And Wit's End has duly reported that - as you would expect -it is a weapon that has been duly used at the Heartland conference.

But it is a dull weapon that they use. It is just one of the many rhetorical tricks that, examined in depth, turns out completely inconsistent. "The Limits to growth" never was "wrong" as some people claimed it was. On this point, I wrote an entire book (!!) (

So, I think we have to challenge this rhetorical trick and turn it against those people who use it. Already the original version (1972) was perfectly compatible with what we know today. They didn't mention climate change because, at the time, it wasn't yet a recognized issue. But they had a parameter that they called "persistent pollution" that quacked exactly like the duck of global warming. So, we should not be afraid of this bugaboo about "The Limits To Growth"- it is a paper tiger, if ever there was one!

Ugo Bardi said...

This is just to subscribe to the comment thread....

Neven said...

Phew, I finally have some time to read up on this. Thanks for the link to that Mooney piece and the interesting comments below, MT.

I think you are being unfair to categorize 1985 as a troll. He has said many things which are absolutely true. I have just posted a comment there with two pieces of advice for 1985, because his rants about religion and global population dilute his core message: you cannot have infinite growth in a finite system, no matter what the high priests of economic theory say.

Here are some excerpts from 1985's better rant that really resonate with me:

That the mainstream view does not attack growth as the root cause of the environmental/sustainability crisis is a big problem, not something for you to point out as a virtue. That’s why the mainstream view is nothing more than mere greenwashing that’s absolutely inadequate and incapable of making any actual difference. And I am sorry to say it but if you don’t think that growth is a problem then you are completely ecologically illiterate and have no serious place in this conversation at all, the same goes for everybody that doesn’t understand that infinite growth in a finite system is a biophysical impossibility.

Take a label that carries a lot of negative connotations, slap it to the position you want to denigrate, then use the negativity associated with it to seemingly invalidate the position. That the logic doesn’t work doesn’t matter. It is exactly the same thing with saying that those that dare to say that growth is a problem are extremist.

Continued below...

Neven said...

It boils down to the ability/inability to question the assumptions that you have been brought up with – that people need jobs and business, markets and economic growth are the only way to provide them. People don’t need jobs, people need to be fed and clothed. You can do that without jobs and without growth. But for that to happen, the whole socioeconomic structure has to be completely redesigned, and people’s worldview and values have to change dramatically. Not happening, of course, but the alternative is growth at all costs followed by collapse and possibly extinction. And there is nothing extremist about this, that’s just how it is; that the people who dare to point it out are called extremist is simply a manifestation of the intellectual cowardice of those who call them so.


What is more relevant to reality:

A. What is politically feasible
B. What the laws of physics dictate ?

I think the answer is clear. If what is politically feasible is hopelessly far away from what has to be done, then what this means is that what needs to be done will not be done and the logical extremely unpleasant consequences will follow.


Just to point one thing – the very opposition left-right and the following attempts to situate each and every issue along that axis on its own is a deep and very tragic delusion.

In this case, pointing out that limits to growth exist has absolutely nothing to do with left, right, liberal, conservative, communism, fascism, capitalism, anything of the sort. The limits to growth follow from the laws of physics, and those are completely apolitical.


Why do you have to insist that something is not “anti-capitalist, anti-corporate, anti-free-enterprise” when what you need to do is to remove those things from the position of untouchable sacred cows they have been elevated to?


Logic applied to facts very quickly leads to the conclusion that infinite-growth-based free-market capitalism is a totally moronic, outright suicidal thing once one thinks about things from that perspective. Then one becomes anti-capitalist in a certain sense but it is a consequence of all of the above, not the starting position

Continued below...

Neven said...

As strange as it may seem, some very basic evolutionary considerations will easily show anyone who has the sufficient background to understand them that the selfish and greedy thing to do in our situation is to cooperate and sacrifice, not to drive the species to extinction by keeping the foot on the pedal.


You say that such posts provide more ammunition for the denialists. So what? If those things are not understood by pretty much everyone, there is no hope for any meaningful change to happen on time. But how is this going to happen if we never have real discussion of the real issues because if we do, it may confirm someone’s paranoia? In that sense, and I again, I am sorry and very sad to say it, the difference between you and the denialists is smaller than the difference between you and the people who actually get it. If you do not understand that growth has to stop and be reversed immediately (and why), despite all your writings on the subject, you are actually in the same kind of denial that the people you write about are.


The key thing is to understand that we are entirely dependent on the health of the planet’s ecosystems for our continued survival, that the state of a technological civilization that we exist in currently is itself entirely dependent on a large number of non-renewable resources that we neither have substitutes for, not can be certain we will ever find such; and that there is nothing special about us that will make sure nothing bad happens or we don’t go extinct.

Those are the kind of things a truly sentient species would be expected to be thinking about in our situation. But we are so burdened with all sorts of cultural and ideological baggage and an inability to overcome it, that we are almost completely unable to do so.

Then come the rants on religion, energy and population control. But to dismiss someone who writes the above is a troll, is unfair and mistaken.

Neven said...

Okay, on-topic now (sorry for the copy-paste, but the guy says some really sensible, though in-your-face things).

It's a matter of definition. I think it's possible to keep much of the present system without relying on aggregate growth. I certainly hope so, otherwise the "1985" troll at Mooney's is likely correct.

Keeping the system does not mean keeping the underlying economic theory, which is unworkable in zero growth conditions.

I agree with MT here. I've been thinking a lot about these questions: Is a system that doesn't have infinite growth at its core still capitalism?

Mind you, it's not communism/socialism either, as the totalitarian regimes of lore were focused exclusively on growth as well.

Is it possible to continue the current system without growth? I'm not sure, but I think it is. But it will entail setting limits. Accounting for externalities, limiting personal wealth/property/income, that kind of stuff.

This summer I read a book that most of you probably know: Prosperity Without Growth by Tim Jackson. It still hasn't sunk in with me (probably have to read it again), so I haven't incorporated it into my personal world view, but there is a lot in it that is about the question 'will it still be capitalism?'.

Here is Tim Jackson's Ted Talk. Not a troll or an extremist either, I would say.

Hank Roberts said...

Worth a look:

---excerpt from the abstract follows----

In brief, Victor describes economies as ‘open systems situated within the biosphere on which they depend’ (p. 2) and says that ‘we ought to take the biophysical limits to economic growth more seriously than we do’ (p. 97).
In the latter chapters of the book, Victor applies computer models to create scenarios of how Canada would do in a situation with only low or even no economic growth. ...

Overall, Peter Victor's take on economic growth joins the revived discussion about the limits to growth....

I would recommend supplementing Victor's text with other recent contributions such as Tim Jackson's (2009) Prosperity without Growth and Serge Latouche's Farewell to Growth (2009)....

Hank Roberts said...

PS, as Dr. Bardi points out at

When you see people raising what Michael refers to as "the old Club of Rome question about 'Limits to Growth' (Meadows, 1972)" -- check whether they're also relying on references to other original work. Often that's the "founder fallacy" in action.

The "founder" types don't attack -- or referer to -- current work. They attack the first publication in the area -- Darwin, or Hansen's first paper, or the 1972 Limits to Growth paper.

Dr. Bardi nails this tactic clearly.

When you see people raising the 1972 edition, I suggest citing Dr. Bardi's book, and also citing "The limits to growth: the 30-year update" (Donella H. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, Dennis L. Meadows, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004)

"... Over the past three decades, population growth and global warming have forged on with a striking semblance to the scenarios laid out by the World3 computer model in the original Limits to Growth. While Meadows, Randers, and Meadows do not make a practice of predicting future environmental degradation, they offer an analysis of present and future trends in resource use, and assess a variety of possible outcomes. In many ways, the message contained in Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update is a warning. Overshoot cannot be sustained without collapse...."