"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Cruel Hoax: Growth and Equity Cannot be Sustained

Via a perceptive summary at Bristling Badger, Jared Diamond addresses the Tobis tautology:
China’s catching up alone would roughly double world consumption rates. Oil consumption would increase by 106 percent, for instance, and world metal consumption by 94 percent. If India as well as China were to catch up, world consumption rates would triple. If the whole developing world were suddenly to catch up, world rates would increase elevenfold. It would be as if the world population ballooned to 72 billion people (retaining present consumption rates).

Some optimists claim that we could support a world with nine billion people. But I haven’t met anyone crazy enough to claim that we could support 72 billion. Yet we often promise developing countries that if they will only adopt good policies — for example, institute honest government and a free-market economy — they, too, will be able to enjoy a first-world lifestyle. This promise is impossible, a cruel hoax: we are having difficulty supporting a first-world lifestyle even now for only one billion people.
Yes, this is the problem. We can't equitably sustain the impact we already have. Which means that there are only two possible ways out of an absolute decline:

1) Abandoning the pretense that we have any interest in being fair
2) Reducing the impact per unit of wealth elevenfold

And that is just to break even!

Consider what an economist would consider business as usual.

Consider 2.5% annual growth, wherein the rest of the world can eventually catch up entirely to our final level. Let's give it fifty years of more growth. Then we hold still and wait for the rest of the world to catch up to us; this will provide a lower bound. (Things are worse if we keep growing after that, but this is a good place to start.)

Plus we suppose a 40% increase in population that the demographers are telling us is what to expect.

And now consider what the world what have to do to break even on impacts.

OK, the 2.5 % growth for 50 years amounts to a 3.4 fold increase in wealth for us. If the population does not increase, that means the 11-fold increase in the prior calculation (for others to catch up only to 2008 levels in the west) has to be multiplied by 3.4 to catch up to the west, plus another factor of 1.4 to account for the increased population.

As a consequence, the impact per unit of wealth has to decline by a factor of 11 * 3.4 * 1.4 = 52.9 .

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. Even that may not be sustainable: that is what is needed to fulfill the implicit promise of a growth economy to the rest of the world for another fifty years without increasing the RATE at which the earth is damaged. And even so, the growth idea implies continuing reduction in impact per unit of wealth thereafter.

This entirely leaves aside arguments from energy availability. It's completely sink-driven. For the most part, supply-side energy depletion arguments (peak all) are "served concurrently". They don't make matters easier, but at least they don't add new multipliers.

What really has me dismayed is the scenario that the west will indeed abandon the pretense of international equity and try to become explicitly cynical and apartheid. This would leave the numbers much more plausible, but the world in sorry shape, mutually hostile, sectarian and violent by choice.

The recent rise of China in particular, and to a significant but lesser extent of India, will probably preclude success of this strategy. I hope so. In that scenario, the "growth" would all be channeled to the military in any case, essentially leaving individuals no additional wealth.

As Diamond points out, our existing patterns, especially in North America, are very wasteful; little actual well-being results from much of the high-impact activity. Oddly, in this wastefulness there is some hope, hope that our inevitable "decline" will not be too severe or disruptive, hope that what we can trim is mostly useless anyway.

Maybe there is some way to impose some sort of "growth" on this just to humor the economists, the bankers and the pension funds, but in actual fact our North American rate of impact on the world is so unsustainable that we will either see a long period of decline or something vastly worse.


Dano said...

BTW. finally getting around to reading Schellenberger and Nordhaus' Break Through. Their thesis is that environmental action only comes when a number of other needs have been met, and only in rich countries. Etc. And the solutioning is based on continued growth. Not to say I agree with everything in the book, but until we get human population growth under control, forget it. Because everyone wants our standard of living. That means more consumption of resources.

So yes, growth and equity cannot be sustained because we already are in overshoot. But how are you going to say no? How are you going to take things away from people? You aren't.



King of the Road said...

If a handle on energy conversion at the required rates can be had (pie in the sky things like fusion, massive harvesting of insolation, etc.) then utilizing energy to undo the damage we've done will show up as economic growth. After all, "growth" is measured in GDP, and standard of living is measured in per capita GDP. Quality of life is, obviously, a different matter.

For example, there is research underway at Sandia in this regard, i.e., using energy to change CO2 and H2O into hydrocarbons. Similar research is going into other "rebuilding programs." It's in a nascent phase at best, but with sufficient energy, there's little doubt that these things can be done. Thermodynamics being what it is, much waste heat will be generated even in such otherwise positive processes of course. Maybe we can put hotness in boxes and rail gun it to the sun.

As Dano pointed out though, without population control, any attempts at damage mitigation are quixotic at best and hypocritical at worst. I've estimated that my family, all up (that is, including consumption of stuff, food, etc.) uses energy at the rate of about 40 kilowatts for the four of us and is responsible for the production of something like 96 tons of CO2 per year. We have what would be considered a good standard of living, but having nine billion people with that standard is out of the question.

David B. Benson said...

Something vastly worse.

Hank Roberts said...

> Reducing the impact per unit of
> wealth elevenfold

Well, hell, the rich don't need to do the damage they do just by being rich.

This reminds me of the last lines of Brunner's book "The Sheep Look Up" (1972) -- prescient work).

The computer coughs up the answer that, just maybe, the ecological collapse can be salvaged -- by losing the wealthiest ten percent of the planet's population who are doing most of the damage.

The speakers are talking, standing somewhere on a beach cliff, maybe Scotland, and someone remarks on the smell of smoke in the air and looks around for a fire.

And another remarks how, well, it appears people have already done what the computer's finally figured out is needful to save the ecology.

That smell?

"That's America burning."


Nearly forty years ago, he knew where we were going to go and the damage we were just getting started doing. And we did it.

And -- well, he was about right, eh?

Let's see if we can do better than the resolution he suggested.

Don't burn them -- but for sure, impoverish them by an order of magnitude or more, that'll cut the damage done casually by wealth.

Charles Barton said...

Considering the fact that advanced nuclear technology - the LFTR, the LCFR, or the IFR - is capable of producing up to 300 times as much energy from a given amount of nuclear fuel, while producing 1% of the waste, it should be obvious that the route to increasing human wealth is through advanced nuclear technology. Should be obvious, but not to the Club of Rome or RMI.

Michael Tobis said...

Charles Barton rather misses the point, here. For what it is worth I am in favor of development of nuclear power, but I think indefinite growth as most of its proponents imagine it is completely implausible.

(Also, there are arguments that most uranium counted as reserves is not recoverable at a net energy gain. The fact that the stuff is very potent acts to the benefit of waste management, but its scarcity makes the refinement process costly. But that's another topic.)

KOTR's point that some activities have negative impact is interesting, but I think those activities are scarce unless carefully mandated into existence, so it doesn't change the picture much.

King of the Road said...


First let's stop the growth of population and then let's find the means of converting energy in the staggering amounts required. THEN let's concern ourselves with how to mandate the processes, having already verified that they're effective.

In a sense, any discussion about any of the matters related to the subject matter of your blog is moot if extreme changes are ruled out. Even if we only consider the peak everything phenomenon or the total US debt equals 4 times GDP problem, etc., etc., and ignore climate change this statement holds.

Dano said...

Look: we aren't going to reverse population increase absent something big. So that's out. We aren't going to take away dreams of people wanting to live like Murricans. So that's out.

That means more ecological overshoot (we are already beyond capacity).

Hard landing or soft landing? We aren't even close to discussing this. Micheal. Ahem.



King of the Road said...

I would regard more ecological overshoot as "something big" though, so I'm not completely sure what the crux of your comment is. I'm not sniping, I really don't know.

Michael Tobis said...

How close or far we are from the crunch is really the issue.

Waxman Markey seemed like pretty weak beer (even before it got watered down), but at least it starts to change the direction.

The intuition of economists and politicians is that hey - look at us - you wanted big, this is huge! Of course, it is inadequate as well as, hmm, dubious in construction.

Regarding population, though...

It looks very different on the ground in the southwest, vs from anywhere else. The US-Mexico border is unique in the world. There is no place else where so much wealth abuts so much poverty.

It's very easy for us to get pissed off about Mexican population rates.

Once you put some actual physical distance between yourself and the border, the population question really loses its saliency quickly. The reason population doesn't dominate the conversation in Europe or Canada isn't that they are foolish liberals; it's that the saliency of the population question is exaggerated by the local intermingling of absurdly rich/wasteful and dramatically poor/primitive populations.

(Also worth noting that how little wealth it takes to trigger the transition; Mexican birth rates are already in decline.)

The demographers tell us that there is a fertility transition that invariably occurs above a certain modest wealth threshhold. The population is expected to stop growing somewhere around the memorably easy to remember number of 10^10.

In any case, due to the resource usage, adding an American is sort of like adding twenty Mexicans. The footprint question dominates the population question.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Fertility_rate.jpghttp://www.uwmc.uwc.edu/geography/Demotrans/demtra16.gifSo while the population question makes matters worse, it isn't the top issue. The top issue is whether we have made a false promise to the world, and if so, what we can do about it.

Energy is the key to the short run, but one point of this essay is that even assuming energy solved we still don't get endless growth.

Ultimately (I posted about this a few months back) you get global warming without greenhouse gases, just from waste heat. Eric Chaisson shows this. At conventional growth rates this gives us three centuries of growth.

http://initforthegold.blogspot.com/2008/07/limits-to-clean-energy.htmlEventually the growth idea breaks. The only question is when.

It looks to be just about now, which of course is what the Club of Rome said forty years ago. So things continue to unfold more or less as per expectations.

But it appears the best we can hope for is 300 years from now. This may not matter much in practice but at least it matters as an ethical matter. The end to growth on the finite earth is inevitable. What should the societies finding themselves in overshoot do? It would be good to discuss this in the abstract.

300 years from now, even in a growth scenario, the likelihood that the USA will dominate the world's economic activity is small. Suppose the fusion trick works and we start getting to direct global warming problems.

Suppose by then, say, the Chinese or the Brazilians are using a much bigger share of this new energy than we are. What would we say? How would they respond?

What should we say? What should they respond?

I wonder.

skanky said...

Not specifically on topic to this thread, but it's the most recent close one. You've probably seen it already, but...


Dano said...

the population question really loses its saliency quickly. The reason population doesn't dominate the conversation in Europe or Canada isn't that they are foolish liberals; it's that the saliency of the population question is exaggerated by the local intermingling of absurdly rich/wasteful and dramatically poor/primitive populations. I see I was unclear in making the connection.

8B people is already bad. Many of them trying to be more like us is a disaster.

Consumption Dwarfs Population As Main Environmental ThreatIt's overconsumption, not population growth, that is the fundamental problem: By almost any measure, a small portion of the world's people — those in the affluent, developed world — use up most of the Earth's resources and produce most of its greenhouse gas emissions.
by fred pearce

It’s the great taboo, I hear many environmentalists say. Population growth is the driving force behind our wrecking of the planet, but we are afraid to discuss it.

It sounds like a no-brainer. More people must inevitably be bad for the environment, taking more resources and causing more pollution, driving the planet ever farther beyond its carrying capacity. But hold on. This is a terribly convenient argument — “over-consumers” in rich countries can blame “over-breeders” in distant lands for the state of the planet. But what are the facts?

The world’s population quadrupled to six billion people during the 20th century. It is still rising and may reach 9 billion by 2050. Yet for at least the past century, rising per-capita incomes have outstripped the rising head count several times over. And while incomes don’t translate precisely into increased resource use and pollution, the correlation is distressingly strong.

Moreover, most of the extra consumption has been in rich countries that have long since given up adding substantial numbers to their population.




Hmmm...Word Verification says 'ovasil' What is a 'sil'?

Steve Bloom said...

FYI, Michael.