"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Monday, April 27, 2009

Malthusian in Theory but not in Practice?

So I asked for an explanation of how a policy of indefinite economic growth could be feasible.

I have a half-answer myself, if we enforce that real-world impact per dollar declines faster than the number of dollars increase, we can have indefinite growth in dollars. The endless growth in dollars may be so hard-wired into everything we do that this otherwise silly approach may be needed so as not to violate out institutional imperatives.

Is it possible? I don't know. Is there any chance this idea will be taken up in earnest? I don't know. I'd be very happy if I could start a conversation about it.

But absent this half-baked idea of a rate of decreasing impact per unit of wealth directly tied through policy to the rate global growth of wealth, I can't imagine us continuing to pursue growth while avoiding a catastrophe.

An interesting alternative was proposed in the comments to that posting by Paul Schick:
Oh, maybe that isn't so hard. Exponential growth of material things forever is surely impossible in this universe. But then again, on current physical theory, forever itself is of no practical interest or importance, because forever seems destined to contain at most, insentient photons, neutrinos, and/or whatever of quasi-infinite wavelength.

The practical question for a politician or anyone else is whether growth really needs to slow down or stop in any time-frame of practical interest, i.e. now. The obvious answer to that is "no", until some force majeure intervenes in a manner that is widely perceived as decisive. After all, all sorts of people have been raising every conceivable manner of scare and alarum from time immemorial, so we've heard it all before ad nauseam. Yawn.

Keep in mind that nothing clearly out of the ordinary, or even important in that sense, has yet happened except within computer simulations. More people are still living longer than ever before even in some of the more awful places. Oh, maybe there are vague hints emanating from the cycling of ice shelves thousands of miles beyond the back end of beyond, but those are almost as abstract and remote as, say, Barnard's Star.

This is a coherent position and at least worthy of consideration.

Whether it is to be taken seriously is a quantitative, not a qualitative matter. The idea that the whole world has never been overtaken by Malthusian crises is true enough, but one can also argue after falling 27000 feet from an airplane at 30000 feet without a parachute that the episode has been proven harmless, since 90% of the fall has happened without any sign of discomfort. Which model to take seriously has to be a matter of knowledge, not of faith. The historical argument is further weakened by the fact that individual isolated locales have indeed suffered Malthusian catastrophes in the past, as documented in Jared Diamond's excellent book Collapse.

Note that Obama is not arguing for growth in Mozambique or Nicaragua: he is arguing for growth in the USA. These days, everyone seems to forget the essentially explicit promise (and to be fair, one not entirely unfulfilled) made to the third world during and after the collapse of communism: support the capitalist fabric, participate in the GATT, and you too will eventually reap the benefits of capitalist creativity. There is no level of wealth which we in the west can attain that you in other lands cannot also attain was the promise. Eventually, following in the footsteps of Japan and Taiwan, you will become equal partners/friendly competitors on the happy global stage of friendly competition and endless happy growth.

So let us begin by proposing what no successful American politician would dare to admit was acceptable: a long-term growth rate, starting from the date of the Lehman Brothers collapse, of zero, essentially forever, or to make matters easier for people with a non-mathematical perspective to grasp, for a thousand years. Again, for the purposes of the present argument, this is not a proposal, it is a hypothetical. Consider it a
worst case
simplifying assumption
(see comments)

Now consider the business proposition made to the developing world. Essentially we have promised that they will eventually be in a position to catch up to us. If we make zero of what we continue to call "progress", the implications are easy enough to visualize. Recall the following from David MacKay's excellent book "Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air" (available online or in print)

(Actually I wonder about the vertical axis: I believe that should be tons of C as CO2, not tons of CO2. But it's the proportions that matter for the present argument.)

Now stretch the horizontal bar out to between nine and ten billion, where we hope population growth will stop, and fill the vertical up to the US level. Compare the size of the resulting rectangle to the cumulative size of the rectangles shown constitutes the implicit extra carbon load in a scenario with long term zero growth in the US and global equity. That alone requires something like thirty times the present impact.

So is the factor of thirty available? Can we emit carbon indefinitely at thirty times the present rate? Can we find the carbon to do so? The answer to both questions is quite obviously negative.

Consequently, if economic activity remains closely tied to carbon emissions, either the growth imperative or the equity imperative must be abandoned, and not in the distant future.

The solution, therefore, is to decouple growth from carbon, and given the scope of the changes required and the dawdling in getting started (after all, agreement in principle was reached in 1992, and matters have hardly proceeded in a realistic way since them), with urgency.

Suppose, though, that some Dysonian genius comes up with some carbon eating trees that grow harmlessly and rapidly whenever CO2 concentrations exceed 400 ppmv and survive without net growth at lower concentrations. A deus ex machina, then, to decouple concentrations from emissions. And suppose, meanwhile, that vastly superior oil extraction technologies emerge that can extract net energy from much smaller deposits than is now feasible, offering us an essentially unlimited supply of petroleum. Two dei ex machinae. Are we out of the woods?

No. Even if these two miracles occur, the chart above representing carbon impact is very similar to other impacts and demands:
  • ocean health; not just fisheries loss and ecosystem loss, but possibly per Lovelock other long-term homeostatic mechanisms preserving an equable climate
  • supplies of industrial minerals
  • water supplies and phosphorus for agriculture; soil depletion; declining biodiversity of crops
  • water supplies for industry, especially energy-related uses
  • regional climate change due to local and upwind land and energy use
  • pollution of various sorts
  • increased vulnerability to disease through increased population and mobility; arms race between medical science and infectious agents
All of these problems are arguably manageable individually, but they begin to overlap: a notable event in this increased coupling was the sudden rise in cost of the very cheapest foods as corn began to be diverted in earnest to ethanol production. This is not a one-time event: as the world becomes full the various limits will interact.

And all of this neglects the lack of any international legal protocol to protect individuals or the interests of the future comparable to the GATT which protects existing corporate interests.

And all of it happening already; none of it is in the future.

And all of it is just the product of per capita impact and population.

It really doesn't seem that the international equity position which requires at least a thirty-fold increase in wealth makes any sense at all.

The alternatives are:
  1. abandon growth
  2. abandon the idea that the system is fair, and pursue explicit exploitation of less developed countries
  3. find some way that impact per unit growth declines rapidly enough, which means, in practice, VERY rapidly
I personally find the second solution absolutely unconscionable. If you don't, at least consider how vicious and militarized such a world would end up being. It pretty much kills any idea of globalization anyway; so if that part of the economic conventional wisdom holds you still have a very big hole in your theory.

So if 3 is possible we should pursue it. But consider that the long term growth rate of every meaningful impact must be zero. Consequently the only way growth of any quantity is sustainable in a finite space is if impact per unit of global growth of that quantity on all physically constrained subsystems declines at least as rapidly as the quantity increases.

In other words

The only way economic growth can be sustained indefinitely on earth is if every environmental impact per unit growth declines at a rate equal or greater to the rate at which the economy grows.

Is this sustainable growth approach feasible? I don't know. It would require some new flavors of policy. I'd like to see it explored. As far as I know even this fairly straightforward connection of the economics and sustainability worlds hasn't been made.

I think the only alternatives are 1) decline of the leading economies or 2) imperialist fascism of the most vicious imaginable sort. Of those choices I prefer decline.

Now Schick's position doesn't essentially argue against any of this, except to assert that the problems must be far in the future since none of them has ever bit us yet. This is not the position widely held in the sustainability community. The following graph indicates the present opinion of how close we are to overshoot:

By "high income" they mean contemporary North American standards. By "middle income" I would guess they mean something like the level of Spain or Korea, comfortable and pleasant but much less overt wealth or luxury; obviously the idea is about a third of the impact of the average American. Even this level as average is now argued to be beyond the physical limits of the earth.

Of course, the fact that many people lack a gut feeling for exponential growth with relatively long time constants does mean that many things are estimated to be further in the future than evidence actually indicates. This is a big part of the greenhouse gas problem, after all.

But even people who think the problem is far in the future have an ethical dilemma. So to Paul Schick who suggests that the problem is immensely distant, I propose the following questions:
  1. On what basis are you confident that the problem you acknowledge remains far in the future?
  2. How would people of the future detect that the problem is impending soon enough to deal with it?
  3. What ethics should they apply to the situation if it were detected?
Update: It's really a tautology, isn't it?

Some things are obviously true and yet bear repeating, And it fits in a tweet!

A given economic growth rate can be sustainable *only* if average impact per unit wealth declines at an equal or greater rate.

Update: I was looking for this infographic for the present article but I was looking in the wrong place. It's not at WIRED but at New Scientist, here.


JJ said...

Mr. Schick wrote:
"The practical question for a politician or anyone else is whether growth really needs to slow down or stop in any time-frame of practical interest..."

For a politician the only practical time-frame is the next election. This, however, is not the time frame of a person who has any concern for the future of their grandchildren. Because of this, however, nothing will ever be done until regarding global warming (assuming for the sake of argument that it does actually exist) until the effects are totally incontrovertible - exactly as happened with tobacco. At this point, it will bee too late.

He states: "After all, all sorts of people have been raising every conceivable manner of scare and alarum from time immemorial, so we've heard it all before ad nauseam. Yawn."

This includes such alarms (before Katrina) of the fact that the levees of New Orleans were failing and could not sustain a hurricane such as katrina. Or perhaps the alarms of the rise of Hitler? I believe the psychology of the famous Appeasement policy towards Hitler is similar to the resistance by many to AGW or the need to move towards sustainability- the simple desire to deny "uncomfortable truths."

John Mashey said...

"So let us begin by proposing what no successful American politician would dare to admit was acceptable: a long-term growth rate, starting from the date of the Lehman Brothers collapse, of zero, ... Consider it a worst case."

It's nowhere near a worst case.

Google: net energy cliff

and add in the last page ofAyres, 2005,and consider Olduvai.

amoeba said...

The average UK citizen in 2005 used energy at the rate of 5.5 kW 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. These 'slaves' 'fetch' the energy that permits us to live as we do. The average UK citizen used 110 energy slaves, whereas the average US citizen used 200 energy slaves.

Since it is clearly and utterly impossible for one person to do the work of 110 people, [or for every man woman and child in the UK to have all these slaves], without cheap energy, most of this work clearly couldn't be done at all. Clearly without this low-cost energy, life just wouldn't be the same and we would all be rapidly returned to something resembling seventeenth century England [pre fossil-fuel] drudgery! Tough on the young, even tougher on the old, very few would ever get to be old in such a world.

What do these energy slaves do?
Our energy slaves: deliver the energy to: heat our homes; run our air conditioning; light our homes; power the vacuum cleaner; render our water potable; fetch our water; deliver the post; physically wash & dry our clothes and our dishes; dry our hair, transport us to work, from A to B or take us on holiday; make our clothes and stuff; take the dog to the vet; cut our grass and hedges; cook our food and everything else; you get the idea.
This is only a back of the envelope calculation, so I used 2007 population figures.
In mid-2007 the resident population of the UK was 61 million [UK National Statistics]. With energy slave numbers at 110 per capita, that's 110 x 61 million = 6.7 billion, very nearly equivalent to the world's population in 2008!
Seems like energy efficiency in all its forms has to be one of our biggest priorities. Add to that getting serious about fast nuclear reactors [not conventional thermal], stopping people buying useless stuff, population stabilization / reduction and we have a chance, but it's going to be difficult to sell it.

Michael Tobis said...

John, I agree that negative growth is quite plausible, but that messes up the argument.

Perhaps "worst case" is the wrong expression. I am just using zero as a convenient number for the rest of the exposition.

It is a sort of worst case politically, in that anything less is considered "recession", i.e., a pathological condition in need of a cure.

Dave Gardner said...

Glad to see these questions posed, John. I would guess if Mr. Schick (like most of us) doesn't see species extinction, fishery decline, pollution deaths, water shortages, and climate disruption right in his living room (without turning on the TV), then he believes there is no evidence this is happening.

I'd also like to suggest that your post displays some of our societal bias that economic growth is a worthy goal. It really is completely illogical to expect to find a way to achieve perpetual growth in a closed system, just as it would be illogical to expect we could maintain a stable economy on a planet that shrinks 10% every year.

So, the sooner we can leave this growth-obsessed bias behind, the better. Economic growth has not proven to be the most speedy, efficient, or fair means to lift all of humanity out of poverty, either. So if that is our goal, then we have better options, options that are physically possible rather than the impossible strategy of a "rising tide lifting all boats."

Great conversation!

Dave Gardner
Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity

Michael Tobis said...

Dave, welcome.

I'm Michael and this is my playground. The "John" in this thread is John Mashey, a valued reader of this and other science-inspired blogs. In fact he is so well-known for making such insightful comments on other people's blogs that several of us can't fathom why he doesn't start his own, and I'll take the opportunity to prod him yet again.

I completely agree with you that growth is a very silly goal in a finite system.

This posting is an attempt to come to grips with the fact that it is so hardwired into so much of what we do. It might be better if we could abandon the growth idea, but the urgency is so great and the idea so burned in that it would be more practical to simply render growth harmless.

The purpose of this essay is to determine the smallest possible change that would render growth harmless. Anyone who, like Obama, speaks of both sustainability and growth, is implicitly agreeing to follow this rule. I am simply making it explicit.

It's a stringent constraint but it's quite literally the least we can do. (In fact, it's necessary but less than sufficient.)

If you read back through this blog you will see that I have some very fundamental questions about what economics actually is and what it measures. "Wealth" is, I think, so poorly defined that it would not do the system any damage to redefine it.

Many people are suggesting gradually decoupling wealth from impact, but that is clearly insufficient. What I have done here is point out that they must remain coupled: that to preserve a growth-based culture we must define policy so that the impact intensity of growth declines rapidly.

If you understand me right, you may say "but that isn't growth", not in the sense of "growth" that you oppose. But that's exactly my point.

If we are tied to a system that must have endless growth in a finite space, the only way to do that is if the quantity that grows has an impact that shrinks! For such a quantity we can have as much growth as the bankers and trust fund and retirement fund managers and endowed nonprofiots could want.

Money is a fiction, and it is money that needs to grow, not impact.

Perhaps we just need to take the bull by the horns and stop listening to the deluded nonsense that takes the linkage of "money" to material grandiosity so seriously.

I don't really know if this is possible, but if it is, it seems the shortest path out of this mess.

Dave Gardner said...

Michael, so sorry to get the name wrong. I was speeding a bit on the web today after traveling a few days.

It sounds like you're attempting to be realistic about the amount of change possible in a growth-obsessed world. I applaud you for that. It may be my role (in producing my documentary Hooked on Growth) to set the bar even higher, helping pragmatists like you to get SOMETHING accomplished.

I do want to be clear I think we are better served IF we can change the goal completely. Happiness, self-fulfillment, and having basic needs met are worthy goals that don't doom us to extinction or collapse. Seeking continually growing material wealth or economic growth doom us to an unhappy future at best.

But I like your notion that perhaps we can all be delusionally happy if we are simply given more Monopoly play money and it has no connection to more resource depletion or environmental degradation! You may be onto something.

Dave Gardner
Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity

jg said...

I've been reading this topic with interest and wondering how I can turn it into a conversion with my local economic development agency, whose mission is to improve the quality of life through economic development. I sit on a local committee that oversees funding intended to correct economic blight. I believe that our committee is unique in that most blighted areas do not have a permanent oversight committee.

Here is what we have spent:

Developing local parks: $8,100,000
Flood management infrastructure $3,000,000
Business fa├žade improvement $1,000,000
Traffic signals, sidewalks, and drainage projects $550,000
Street Sewer Improvements $400,000
Community Trails $300,000
Lake restoration, aeration infrastructure $225,000
Master Drainage Plan $200,000
Graffiti abatement $6,000

I think these expenses show that we are capable of spending on community in ways that can be but don't have to be pro-growth.
One goal of these improvements is to raise property values. If we do that by improving infrastrucure, have we created wealth for the local residents without significantly changing our environmental impact? I guess it would depend on whether the demand to live here equates to more construction of homes that require long distance commuting and high energy use.
Trail construction may reduce vehicle use, but I have no proof. Not shown here is a my use of the bully-pulpit this committee provided to resist a pumped storage hydro electric project. Theoretically the project would have banked wind energy but the economics made it extremely unprofitable and the wind energy angle looked like a ruse. Most important to my objection, it would turn an oak riparian woodland into a rubber-lined storage reservoir.

Some time ago I spoke with my county supervisor saying that I see our community as having the potential to strike a sustainable balance between development and nature. He agreed but shared that government our major employer of the region is construction. So I find myself wondering what are the net balance of my actions here while I still have a pulpit.

Implicit in this comment is I'm aquainted with many grassroots politicians, none of which are very eager to be on the downward side of the growth curve.


John G

Dave Gardner said...

John G, bravo for your efforts. I'm not sure this will help, but you might find some interesting ideas or resources on the website for my city council campaign. I ran on a platform that growth was no longer creating prosperity for our community; that it is time for a more modern, sustainable approach to community prosperity. I lost to the incumbent but got 43% of the votes! see www.dave4council.comDave Gardner
Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity

tidal said...

The I=PAT equation - decades later - is still remarkable for it's insight and elegance.

If you make very basic simplifying assumptions, you get I = GDP * T/GDP for a given applied "technology" - electricity, fresh water, platinum, whatever... Assuming you have a varying (growing?) GDP, you get various isoquants for absolute "I" for various "T/GDP"s vs. GDP... If you look at what even modest growth in GDP implies for T/GDP efficiency gains to achieve a certain absolute level of impact... it's daunting.

To illustrate - just for GHG's and GHG/GDP, and just for Canada - see here. (That graphic is a build up of slides 159-205 in this presentation. It's a little awkward to navigate, and unfortunately the presentation doesn't appear to work, but it is reasonably easy to follow. You need to "magnify" to see the slides. It takes some poking around, but it is a good set.)

In any event, in the final slide I link to, you see the 'current' Canadian 2006 GDP of about $1.2Trillion, GHG/GDP intensity of ~ 0.56 kT/$M, and 720mt of emissions. You need to reduce GHG's by 87% in 50 years, and any point on red/beige line gets you to a GDP-GHG/GDP combo that accomplishes this. Any point on the red/beige line with a GDP below the original $1.2T obviously represents negative GDP growth, and anything in the green area represents both growth and at least some absolute reduction in GHG emissions.

But look at what happens to the implied final GHG/GDP intensities if you assume "normal" GDP growth rates.

At zero growth, you need to reduce GHG/GDP at a compounding rate of ~ 4% per year sustained for 50 years to achieve the 87% reduction. But at 3% GDP growth, you need to reduce GHG/GDP intensity by ~ 97%, or by close to 7% every year for 50 years. This is Michael's tautology.

Like I said, the practical implications of this are daunting. When you consider the rather unimpressive gains we have made in something like internal combustion engine efficiency over the last century, or basic limits as to the fossil-fuel-based-fertilizer requirements for industrial agriculture... we are suddenly going to bet on starting to achieve 7% p.a. gains?

Now, obviously we will get some outright energy substitutions, so it's not just a matter of gaining GHG/GDP efficiencies in every process. And not every material throughput has the same requirement for such large absolute reductions as GHG's. But the inevitable conundrum of controlling "I" when some combo of "P" and "A" is growing GDP, and trying to solve it by continually reducing various T's/GDP... it just runs out of viability depressingly quickly.

Those who argue for continued growth but with less impact per unit growth have a very high hurdle to meet in terms of technology gains.

This is not a new insight. I think this is discussed in more detail in the sustainability report Michael linked earlier. And I think the presentation linked above is good, albeit missing the audio. The presentation by Peter Victor, author of Managing Without Growth, Slower by Design not Disaster.

For me personally, I keep looking at this and hoping that I am missing something... that there is a "get out of jail free" card. I am not encouraged, and I'm not happy about what this all means. I'm certain the "economy" can take it, but there are institutional structures we have now, big ones, that I can't see doing well in any transition to no/low growth.

There was a reader on The Oil Drum talking about Peak Oil , but who sort of sums up my feeling about growth: "I do, however, miss the future I thought I was going to have."

Steve Bloom said...

Paul Krugman has an insight useful for this discussion:

"(A) key conclusion from the IMF’s new World Economic Outlook is that recessions caused by financial crisis typically end with export booms, with the trade balance improving, on average, by more than 3 percent of GDP. I find this a disturbing result: we’re now suffering from a global financial crisis, which means that the usual driver of recovery will only be available if we can find another planet to export to."

And from me, a semi-OT vision for the future: Within two or three decades, the principal function of the U.S military will be guarding the remaining tropical rain forests from the remnant populations of failed states, with the Navy guarding fish stocks and coral reefs.

tidal said...

By the way, just a comment on one of the motivating points for Michael's post... this comment from Paul Schick: "Keep in mind that nothing clearly out of the ordinary, or even important in that sense, has yet happened except within computer simulations... Oh, maybe there are vague hints emanating from the cycling of ice shelves thousands of miles beyond the back end of beyond, but those are almost as abstract and remote as, say, Barnard's Star."Look. I am actually quite willing to listen and be convinced that we will make enormous technical breakthroughs in fusion and geothermal and desalination and recycling, etc., etc. I would love to be persuaded of that.

But the idea that "nothing clearly out of the ordinary, or even important in that sense, has yet happened" is, bluntly, disconnected from reality.

I keep linking to this table from a synopsis of various surveys of ocean "health".

Look at the decline rates! For practically EVERYTHING! Whales, large predators, small herbivores, turtles, raptors, sea grass, wetlands, sharks, coral, oysters... declines of 65%, 85%, 95%, 99%.

"nothing clearly out of the ordinary, or even important... has happened yet"???? "Vague hints"??? WTF??? And that's just the oceans. Seriously, how can people see these kinds of data and say "nothing unusual there."?

Unrelated - I post to a finance bulletin board site regularly. I post a fair bit of sustainability stuff, which I think is actually going to dominate finance within a decade. However, I do take some serious flak from a certain participants for this.

Yesterday, on a thread about the oceans, I linked to this study precis (scroll down), which is a visual in-your-face "something is seriously wrong in the oceans" wake-up call. The first two responses were this 1992 gem: Abraham Gesner saved more whales than Green Peace ever will - "The first step that led to saving the whales was made by Dr. Abraham Gesner, a Canadian geologist. In 1849, he devised a method whereby kerosene could be distilled from petroleum." WTF??? What has this got to do with wiping out the cod? Maybe John Galt or Santa Claus is coming to save them? Then, the next response is some new nay-saying research that hints that maybe - maybe - dinosaurs were not wiped out by the Chicxulub impact, but by some other catastrophe shortly thereafter. And the poster suggests that maybe this one study means that the whole consensus theory regarding dinosaur extinction could be overturned, which in turn implies that the whole ocean acidification and global warming theories are on shaky ground as well. WTF????

The responses aren't even related to the topic at hand. I honestly believe they are more like a reflex reactions, a psychological defense mechanism, a means of avoiding unpleasant data. Beer me.

John Mashey said...

GDP may or may not be a good metric, but energy, or rather:

work = energy*efficiency

is actually quite relevant to real wealth, although it's not linear..

As amoeba notes, first-world people have a lot of energy slaves - my favorite example of that is:

Assume you live in a flat place. Put a gallon of gas in your car. Drive as far away as you can. When you run out, hire some people to push you back by hand. How much will it cost you compared to the gas?

But back to:

work = energy*efficiency:

A) A subsistence farmer, with no draft animals (like in Tsetse fly areas) likely has only human labor, which is why they tend to have more kids. Most are really, really poor, and many who rhapsodize about rural life haven't tried subsistence farming.

B) A farmer with a few horses or oxen, and a well-managed 60-100 -acre farm can actually have a more reasonable life, illustrated by Old Order Amish, who are superb farmers. Still, eighth-grade educations and ~7-children families are not for everybody.

C) A farmer with 500 acres in Kansas, electricity, and a 400HP combine (like this) may actually do OK (or may not), and even afford vacations in nice places. Of course, it also helps to have roads and railroads.

Economic growth for A) is being able to own an ox. They will never have a diesel tractor, the fuel to run it, or the money to maintain it at the far end of a supply chain. An Old Order Amish family would be viewed as fabulously wealthy. The Kansas farmer would be unimaginable.

Without getting into whether or not mechanized farming is optimal/sustainable or not, a clear difference is the amount of physical work (=energy*efficiency) someone commands.

In the US, about 2% of the people live on farms, compared to ~40% in 1900, and ~80% in 1800, and that's horses, and later, petroleum+electricity. Many Americans take that for granted.

In many places, (like China,say), it's ~60%... and people should think what that actually means. I've never visited poor Chinese farms, only "wealthy" ones, but having done so, I understand why so many people flock to sweatshop manufacturing jobs on the coasts.

Again, read that whole Olduvai article, and reflect on the idea that those (like us) who use a lot of fossil energy had better figure out how we're going make things work without it. See especially COnventional Fossil Fuels. Assume that chart is right, assume (For convenience) that total energy supply is 12000 MToe/a, 10000 of which right now is fossil, and that at best, in 2100AD, that's down to 2000. (Actually, for that chart not to be climate disaster, the coal piece either has to drop much faster or someone has to make CCS work.)

Then think about population curves. [Of course, there's a pretty good chance that some pandemic will slow that down, if not food problems.]

Finally, if one wants to get really serious about the relationship of energy and wealth, see Ayres & Warr, book coming soon. Get your library to get one. For some reason, they put my blurb first :-)

Bottom line: IF we invest a lot of fossil fuel (one-time energy capital) into efficiency and sustainable energy supplies, there is probably enough energy from {sun, wind, hydro, geothermal, etc, + (maybe) nuclear) for some number of people (not 9B, probably not 6B) to have reasonable lives, using energy to provide services, recycle materials, build seawalls, etc. IF we do that well enough to stop using coal soon enough, the climate might even stay survivable.

Personally, I'd be ecstatic if most of the home construction industry spent the next few years focused on upgrading energy efficiency, rather than covering more land with new homes. Likewise, I hope people will stop building "instant stranded assets" that only make sense with cheap oil, but are irrelevant by the time they're finished.

However, there is no way around the fact that people with low (work = energy*efficiency) are mostly pretty poor, and growth for them is something very different than building more McMansions in exurbs.

Anonymous said...

JJ said, "For a politician the only practical time-frame is the next election." Bingo, that's got it, JJ gets the prize. Long term incumbency of Congress critters makes it longer than literally that, but nonetheless their game is to enact laws written so they can take credit right away, while the fallout occurs down the line well after they're safely retired or into some other line of work.

JJ also lists a couple of alarms that proved correct. The real problem is, amidst all the noise and hype over all the centuries, how is the voting public supposed to tell the difference? If the public heeded every last alarum and conniption arising in some professor's computer, or in some Congress critter's box of cheap Queen-For-A-Day sob-story sentiments, everybody would strap themselves in bed lest they fall down if they try to stand, and there would be absolutely no time or opportunity to live life. Life is simply not 100% free of risk, and cannot be made so, not in this universe.

Dave Gardner said, "Economic growth has not proven to be the most speedy, efficient, or fair means to lift all of humanity out of poverty, either." True enough, perhaps, but what's the alternative? With so much of humanity still in poverty, cutting back and redistributing what's left is certainly not going to "lift all of humanity out of poverty". So if humanity is to be condemned to eternal poverty - if prosperity is physically impossible - or if we airily and bizarrely reject prosperity from the well-fed air-conditioned comfort of its apex, which is more like what much of the current literature seems to suggest - let's at least call the alternative what it is. Let's also recognize that given the opportunity, people who are currently living the alternative will take desperate risks with their very lives (such as attempting to cross the Florida straits in unseaworthy boats) to escape. That, and all the politics that flow from it, will remain, utterly obliviously to whatever my personal attitude or anyone else's might be, and irrespective of a measure of irony in my original comment that has evidently proved too subtle (sorry about that.) When push comes to shove, it will also supersede cheap sentiments about whales and polar bears.

Tidal recites a long list of complaints, but since the original subject was connected with political responses and/or the lack thereof, said complaints are mostly or entirely moot. Not false, that's a different thing. Just moot. Until there's something more tangible than unintelligibly turgid academic papers, uncertified computer models, lurid but essentially unbelievable science-fiction PowerPoints and movies, and so on - describing real or imagined events taking place in Ultima Thule or other semi-mythical places far beyond the back end of beyond, and/or in the safely distant future, and/or indistinguishable from random occurrences (i.e. the tired and unsettleable argument over whether every heat wave and cold snap is weather or climate), and/or so imperceptible that it takes certified instruments and procedures to measure/detect them, don't look for a whole lot of political action that actually bites. (In fact, even if something becomes blatantly obvious and close at hand, don't expect a lot of action, since life always involves tradeoffs. After all, every academic office producing papers on this or any other subject could have, in principle, remained wilderness supporting the much-worshipped 'other species' instead.) Sure, the US Congress or the EU Parliament will pass some high-sounding laws for the purpose of lookin' good to each other, but probably only with the major real effects, if any, scheduled to bite long after they are safely out of office.

Michael Tobis said...

To be clear, the necessity of growth in the nations that are substantially below the level of, say, Greece or Portugal, is not at issue. It is often thrown up as a straw man but it's never a serious argument in favor of the growth imperative in the developed countries.

A careful reading of my exposition shows that I explicitly state as a moral precondition of growth that it be feasible that the entire world catch up to the given target level. I don't think enforced and permanent inequity is an acceptable trajectory. If Mr. Schick doesn't either, then we have nothing to debate on the matter.

Beyond that rather childish trick, it's hard to disagree with Paul Schick's dire reading of the situation, one can't help reading a certain satisfaction, indeed even glee, into it.

Unfortunately, the circumstances he describes are quite certain to reach a tragic end sooner or later, as he actually acknowledged in his first message on the prior thread quoted above.

The question at hand was whether that would be soon enough to matter. A great deal of evidence was duly provided that it is. To all the evidence proffered that such is indeed the case, we are presented in response with what amounts to a shrug and a smug and mischievous grin.

One is left wondering whether Mr Schick is a member of our own species or some sort of internet enabled representative of a competitive species, say rats or cockroaches, that stands to benefit from our rapid decline.

To be fair, there is another more charitable possibility, which is that Mr. Schick's understanding of system dynamics greatly lags his capacity with language. Unfortunately that is a very common case, and therein precisely lies our tragicomic predicament and the roots of the smug foolishness of our tormentors.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum remind us that this was not entirely unforeseen.

If the species survives long enough to surmount this trap, it will eventually be the stuff of Monty Pythonesque comedy, but it will not be entirely funny, I fear, not for a very very long time.

Anonymous said...

You raise an interesting point by stating that we should decouple wealth from impact, and decouple money from material grandiosity. And you are clearly right that the only way growth can be sustainable is if the impact intensity decreases as fast or faster.

But in the current financial crisis, didn’t the fact that money is already to a great extent decoupled from material items contribute to the problem? Didn’t the (risky) dealing with money as hot air, without a link to a real product or service, play a role in the current financial crisis? Or is it not really a crisis to begin with?

In order for that to be true, other impacts also need to be decoupled from the flow of money. E.g. if a shrinking economy (or the current crisis) means more people will become unemployed, then clearly that’s a problem (or crisis, if the scale of the problem is large enough). But perhaps they don’t need to be intrinsically linked either? That seems hard to achieve though, at least within the current set-up of the economy. If the government cuts back its funding for research, because they need to save money (because they receive less tax money because economic activity is down), then that will at some point have repercussions for the employment in research, just to name an example. And this quickly becomes a vicious circle, as now seems to be happening.

Could a redefinition of the growth parameter (GDP) help? More car accidents raises GDP, but decreases the average wellbeing. If impacts, also those that are distant in time or place, are included within the growth parameter, then the picture of growth would quickly look very different. The genuine progress indicator (GPI) and other initiatives along similar lines could perhaps serve as an example.


John Mashey said...

As for blogging, thanks to MT for the kind words, and it probably deserves a decent writeup ... but that will take a while, as it depends on finishing a taxonomy of blogs and blog behavior I've been working on.

However, I'd never start a blog unless I thought it was truly a value-add, and in some cases, even a blog that is good on its own could be a value-subtract, if it *dilutes* discussions by spreading them around too many blogs. There are many fine blogs that seem to get little traffic already,and some of the tools I'd like to have don't seem to be there yet.

The blogoverse needs at least some people who could do good blogs to usually contribute to other quality conversations and help create cross-connections. [For example, in 1973 I encountered an operating system that ran on ~20 machines and decided it might be better to help it along, rather than trying to invent one.]

Anyway, there is actually a fairly subtle mesh of reasons for not (yet) doing a blog, but explaining that coherently is queued behind other issues.

William T said...

"Now stretch the horizontal bar out to between nine and ten billion, where we hope population growth will stop, and fill the vertical up to the US level."

Why not fill it up to the Japanese level? Or some energy-efficient fraction of that? Gives a much more plausible picture. Then assume that it is possible to generate a significant fraction of that energy with non fossil fuel systems.

Also, it is evident that the excessive emitters on the left have to at some stage reduce their impact by giving up most of their CO2 emissions.

Now we're talking...

Michael Tobis said...

Indeed, William, I agree.

Anonymous said...

An interesting portrayal of some of the issues/data in your first graphic: here.