"System change is now inevitable. Either because we do something about it, or because we will be hit by climate change. '...

"We need to develop economic models that are fit for purpose. The current economic frameworks, the ones that dominate our governments, these frameworks... the current economic frameworks, the neoclassical, the market frameworks, can deal with small changes. It can tell you the difference, if a sock company puts up the price of socks, what the demand for socks will be. It cannot tell you about the sorts of system level changes we are talking about here. We would not use an understanding of laminar flow in fluid dynamics to understand turbulent flow. So why is it we are using marginal economics, small incremental change economics, to understand system level changes?"

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Giant Mutant Space Hamsters

Greg Craven brings up Giant Mutant Space Hamsters in his excellent video, "How It All Ends", as an analogy for an unrealistic threat.

(Of course, if you find that video helpful you should have a look at his book, "What's the Worst That Could Happen? A Rational Response to the Climate Change Debate" and pass it along to people you know.)

What Greg missed, though, is the fact that many influential people actually believe in giant mutant space hamsters! Many influential people these days believe lots of silly things, including the silly idea that global warming is a conspiracy wherein the entire scientific community has sold out lock stock and barrel to malicious windmill manufacturers or something. But the foolish belief in the space hamster is perhaps the most widespread, influential and dangerous of the crazy ideas that are commonly believed.

: Scruffy Dan has more information and ideas about the GMSH phenomenon.


Vinny Burgoo said...

Can national economies be stable if they aim at zero growth? Straight question. From what I've read (not much), if you stop pedalling, you fall over.

Michael Tobis said...

That the 64 trillion dollar question, ain't it?

A great deal would have to be reworked, but it's necessary. Certainly the soft landing is a nontrivial problem, but the alternative looks like a crash.

The trouble is that economists have theories that are built on extrapolating presumed conditions that can no longer be extrapolated. Solving this problem is not optional. Avoiding the disaster is optional, but at the present level of political maturity in the west and especially in America, (with the other English-speaking democracies not in much better shape) seems desperately out of reach.

rustneversleeps said...

@ Vinny Burgoo... it's a bit disturbing, but surprisingly little work has gone into exactly that question...

One of the first to do so explicitly is Peter Victor in Managing Without Growth (slower by design, not disaster)... His conclusion - for Canada - is: yes... but he has to make/relax a lot of key assumptions... As I understand it, he is undertaking the same exercise for the UK...

It's a bit discouraging if so much effort has gone into this "argument" if it really is so that so little has gone into the what ifs/repercussions/consequences... But is somewhat reassuring that the lo/no-growth models can work... i.e. they don't automatically implode, depending on the scenario...

That said, Victor's models are quite abstract and at the economy-wide level. At the firm/institution level, all bets are off... Some are essentially built on assumed growth, and may fail... I think some insurance models and pension plans are candidates here... but still don't know enough...

gravityloss said...

The 9 billion ton hamster is too small in the video. Assuming water density: 9 billion cubic meters is 9 cubic kilometers. An over 2 km cube. Over twice the height of Burj Dubai.

Also, things in nature like say stars do remarkably get bigger and bigger for a long time.

But more seriously, I think resource usage growth is a bit different from things like improving technology. The latter could give an increasing standard of living at constant resource usage by enabling higher efficiency.

But all in all of course if you assume steady technology (which isn't smart but bear with me), even a level or slowly declining standard of living would be in trouble because of the fossil fuels running out.

Hence the whole growth thing is slightly a mathematical curiosity and a red herring in my view.

Michael Tobis said...

I don't entirely agree, gravity. What the growth thing tells us is that even if we solve the energy problem and the greenhouse problem other problems will arise to bite us. As they are, now that the size of the hamster exceeds the size of many of the natural processes that preceded it.

As we students of the exponential know, the time between an exponential being too small to worry about and being too large to cope with is just a small multiple of the time constant. In the case of the hamster, the time constant is a week. In the case of economics at 4% annual growth, about 25 years.

gravityloss said...

It seems there is a misunderstanding.

1) The "efficiency improvements only" increase in standard of living would be less than 4% per year. Indeed it would by definition mean no increased resource usage. Say someone discovers a reason for a nonlethal disease that has been treated the wrong way before - the standard of living for the sick person increases while resource usage stays the same.
Maybe I'm mixing "improvement" and "growth" a bit here but I think it is an important point to stress.

1_a) Also but not entirely because of another reason, that people see things as ludditism if you don't provide explanations. It's easy for the prejudiced to misinterpret things so giving less chances would be better. I'm certain of some criticisms your text would raise in a particular audience: he's a luddite, he doesn't like progress like curing diseases etc etc. Of course those people should not be let to control the discourse but anyway...

2) Even a no growth scenario is not sustainable with the current practices.

gravityloss said...

I might have commented a bit hastily.

"Even if we solve the energy problem and the greenhouse problem other problems will arise to bite us".

Yes. The notorious Peak Everything.

It is interesting to think about something fundamental like phosphor. It's pretty darn hard to make from other substances, I'd say. Perhaps as a nuclear decay chain product... ;)

Humans are washing it to the seas at a pretty fast rate. But I have no good grasp on geology and biology to see what it means in a larger context, if it is a real problem or just a curiosity.

The whole cowboy vs spaceman thing again.

Though, curiously, an independent spaceship economy could possibly manufacture new spaceships. We have made a full circle. As a space enthusiast, this is our aim, space colonization.

Of course it's then an exponential problem again on a larger scale, starting from the embryo size: spaceship mass and energy needs compared to the mass of the solar system or asteroid belt and the sun's energy. It's a limited problem but the limits are quite large. If humans really can use energy on a solar system scale then it might be possible to build interstellar spaceships. Again entering a larger exponential cycle. Galaxies, after that, local groups etc.

The key to be able to enter the "next level" is to not destroy yourself on the previous level. The spacemen need to be able to survive with the limits of their spaceships, otherwise they never get to build more of them.

This is perhaps the positive motivational aspect of how I'd approach this.

Arthur said...

I love the giant mutant hamster video :)

But, I think the issue is largely one of social expectations and not directly related to physical/resource issues at all. How do you measure "growth" anyway? A dollar this year is different from a dollar last year. Last year there was no such thing as an "iPad" to buy; I would probably have spent that $500 on something that used far more resources (no I haven't purchased one yet...) In some ways GDP is a measure of things that, year to year, are really not commensurable. Inflation adjustments are only one poor way of underlining the lack of reality in that measurement.

Which is only one of many criticisms of GDP and other macro-economic measures.

But we don't have any other good measures either. We can count population - but that seems to be heading to demographic limits that are not necessarily too bad for the planet. We can count resource use - but, as with iPads and information technologies generally, resource use can decline even while GDP increases.

Is growth a meaningless statistic? Is it just a mask for some underlying irrationality in our monetary system (which can be dealt with by inflation similarly)? Part of it comes from the accumulation of capital, of which the most important part these days is knowledge, information. That has very low and declining per-unit resource costs.

When we reach the limits of information storage technology then we perhaps can start seeing the true limits of economic growth. I'm not sure anything really limits it (to the extent that year-on-year GDP change is meaningful anyway) otherwise.

Michael Tobis said...

Arthur, time to wheel out the old I=PAT equation. For every fractional increment in affluence there has to be an equivalent fractional improvement in technology (as an inverse in the PAT formulation).

If we assume 1) two more generations of affluence growth in America before a steady state (if any) and 2) everybody else catches up to America eventually, it works out to a factor of fifty. That is, if we are to avoid making matters worse even faster than we are already doing so, impact per unit of wealth must drop by a factor of fifty.

This requires more than a minor retweaking of what we mean by affluence, in the next two generations. I believe we could preserve well-being, but it would require far more subtlety in policy than we appear capable of at present. In any case it seems to me inevitable that some things we take for granted will actually have to be sacrificed.

Unfortunately, the most likely thing to go first is fairness.

duffandnonsense said...

"But the foolish belief in the space hamster is perhaps the most widespread, influential and dangerous of the crazy ideas that are commonly believed".

Nah! On second thoughts, I'll stick to AGW as my first choice!

David Duff

rustneversleeps said...

I knocked off a decent example, with linked chart, about how even modest GDP growth tends to overwhelm technological innovation/efficiencies for various "technologies" (in this case "carbon per unit GDP") here.

I should tidy that up and make a proper entry on that, with all the other slides presented in one place, etc. It could read a little easier. Weekend project, perhaps...

Arthur said...

I don't think I=PAT is helpful here. Population's essentially fixed (likely to within less than a factor of 2 anyway, over the next century). A, beyond essentials, is mostly psychological/informational and doesn't necessarily require any substantive resources. So the "T" factor is very non-uniform between information-based affluence (which I would assert can easily achieve many orders of magnitude lower "T" than today's average) and "essentials"-based affluence.

The essentials are food and water, shelter, perhaps transportation. Those aren't going to grow at any exponential rate faster than population, and for shelter and transportation there are also essentially no technological limits to de-carbonization. So the associated A for those parts is essentially fixed, and T can keep dropping.

So I don't see the doom and gloom on this - yes, we have an issue with parts of the world that don't even have the basics of food, shelter, transport yet. So working on improving T for those basics for China, India, etc. is important. But there's also a real de-coupling going on that the simple formula just doesn't capture...

gravityloss said...

That 2009 April thread was nice, thank you for linking to it.


John Mashey's comments on energy's close relationship with wealth were resonating.

It seems the second nuclear era [cue Alvin Weinberg] is almost inevitable, and the sooner we start working on it, the better.

We shouldn't forget about the other things as well of course. Chemical pollution, farming, mining, roads, water etc all present problems.

But with high energy usage you could potentially farm with artificial light in the cities, at least to a point. Nutrients separated from waste water etc. Creating "spaceship cities". Maybe it's an elite utopia that is unachievable for the masses. Maybe it's not.

Just observe the CO2 emissions of Germany and France. 6 vs 10 t per capita. I hunch France is more urban and Germany also has more heavy industry but still they're held as pretty much equal in the eyes of people. France picked up the ball and developed nuclear technology.

I don't mean limitless growth is possible with just applying trivial technology, I'm just saying technology is a very important dimension, though it is quite small at present compared to the growth that is mostly done by increasing resource usage.
Tech won't allow BAU but it might be a growth component.

Dano said...


The A is tied directly to resource exploitation.

The T allows faster and more complete extraction of resources, and more chemicals to create more products.

The P allows more people to extract more resources.

The equation is not sufficient for specific policy, but is a strong explanatory framework and can (and does) help inform policy goals.



Aaron said...

We can remodel or economy or Mother Nature will.

When I was doing risk management, I kept a list of "risks" with auto accidents at the top. Also, high on the list were volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis. Gradually global warming crept up the list.

In 2003, global warming hit the top of my risk event list. With AGW’s huge impact and high probability of occurring, it dominated all other risks, and everything else became trivial and dropped off the list. In a matter of weeks my risk event list went from pages and pages to one bullet – AGW.

Today, global warming is here. The probability of it occurring is 1. Its impacts range from giant squid moving north to storms that exceed the engineering basis of design for our structures and infrastructure. When engineering fails, then engineered structures do not have an estimated lifespan, cannot be financed or insured, and the economy, as we know it, has no basis. Would you sign a 99 year lease on a structure in Houston, TX? Would you write an insurance policy for a electrical power company in Oklahoma? (i. e., power goes off /you pay!)

Mother Nature is eating the "margin of safety" that engineers built into their designs. When she is done with that, she will eat the designs themselves. What will the NYC Stock Exchange look like when sea level rises 6 feet and floods the subway? Our GDP will take a hit as we write off flooded cities and infrastructure.

Our economy is going into a different phase, whether we like it or not.