"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Bartlett's Unfamiliar Quotations

Neven pointed to Albert Barlett's "Laws of Sustainability", published in 2006 in the anthology The Future of Sustainability by Marco Keiner and repeated at The Oil Drum. Thanks to Neven for pointing these out.

Because these claims are very close to my point of view, and in many cases articulate my point of view better than I have done to date, I will brazenly repeat them here. I have emailed Prof Bartlett asking for permission as well.

Before pasting, let me state my own caveats clearly, and one I think others holding these positions will be likely to agree with. The constraints here are essentially absolute, not culturally mediated. However, they operate on time scales long compared with conventional politics. How we get from here to there matters a good deal less than that we get there eventually. Limits to growth exist - we either plan for them or we get blindsided by them. Those are the choices.

Second, the law of limited growth, which I think ought to be explicitly stated in a rigorous form:

In a finite physical domain, in the long term average, the growth rate of any physically extensive quantity approaches exactly zero.

(note, I changed "limit" to the more correct "average")

This includes population, and that portion of wealth that involves real control of real physical resources. We've already had a bit of vigorous discussion on these things here, and I especially appreciated Pangolin's comment:
Well, we can sit on the beach in a circle and sell each other buckets of sand and call it economic growth.

Eventually, somebody is going to want a hot dog. Probably made of meat from a named animal. I suspect a soda or iced tea will be on the list of demands also.

Those items, like all similar items provided to people who engage in fictional economic activity, (cough, Wall Street, cough) have to come from the domain referred to as "physical reality."

The only physical reality providing resources to humans is this tiny skim layer between a ball of rock and an infinitude of hard vacuum. That layer is oversubscribed and actual production is falling in several resource areas due to overuse.

So, nope. Economic growth that includes growth in the use of real materials is a no-go in the long run.
There is no limit to the growth of "fictional" activity. "Real" economic activity can reasonably be defined as activities which cause redistribution of physically extensive quantities. Fictional activity is the stuff of bubbles. When food becomes scarce, making a really great movie will not have much value.

Finally, at least one of the points does not follow directly from the law of limited growth, and this has been one that has engendered some controversy. I highlight in red those that I think require some extra reasoning.

I highlight in purple one with which I slightly disagree. I do in fact question whether what we understand as agriculture might be replaced. Most people wouldn't like it very much, though.

First Law: Population growth and / or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained.

A) A population growth rate less than or equal to zero and declining rates of consumption of resources are a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for a sustainable society.

B) Unsustainability will be the certain result of any program of "development," that does not plan the achievement of zero (or a period of negative) growth of populations and of rates of consumption of resources. This is true even if the program is said to be “sustainable.”

C) The research and regulation programs of governmental agencies that are charged with protecting the environment and promoting "sustainability" are, in the long run, irrelevant, unless these programs address vigorously and quantitatively the concept of carrying capacities and unless the programs study in depth the demographic causes and consequences of environmental problems.

D) Societies, or sectors of a society, that depend on population growth or growth in their rates of consumption of resources, are unsustainable.

E) Persons who advocate population growth and / or growth in the rates of consumption of resources are advocating unsustainability.

F) Persons who suggest that sustainability can be achieved without stopping population growth are misleading themselves and others.

G) Persons whose actions directly or indirectly cause increases in population or in the rates of consumption of resources are moving society away from sustainability.

H) The term "Sustainable Growth" is an oxymoron.

I) In terms of population sizes and rates of resource consumption, “The only smart growth is no growth.” (Hammond, 1999)

Second Law: In a society with a growing population and / or growing rates of consumption of resources, the larger the population, and / or the larger the rates of consumption of resources, the more difficult it will be to transform the society to the condition of sustainability.

Third Law: The response time of populations to changes in the human fertility rate is the average length of a human life, or approximately 70 years. (Bartlett and Lytwak 1995) [This is called "population momentum."]

A) A nation can achieve zero population growth if:
a) the fertility rate is maintained at the replacement level for 70 years, and
b) there is no net migration during the 70 years.
During the 70 years the population continues to grow, but at declining rates until the growth finally stops after approximately 70 years.

B) If we want to make changes in the total fertility rates so as to stabilize the population by the mid - to late 21st century, we must make the necessary changes now.

C) The time horizon of political leaders is of the order of two to eight years.

D) It will be difficult to convince political leaders to act now to change course, when the full results of the change may not become apparent in the lifetimes of those leaders.

mt: Obviously requires some detailed demographics, but this all seems pretty clear.

Fourth Law: The size of population that can be sustained (the carrying capacity) and the sustainable average standard of living of the population are inversely related to one another. (This must be true even though Cohen asserts that the numerical size of the carrying capacity of the Earth cannot be determined, (Cohen 1995))

A) The higher the standard of living one wishes to sustain, the more urgent it is to stop population growth.

B) Reductions in the rates of consumption of resources and reductions in the rates of production of pollution can shift the carrying capacity in the direction of sustaining a larger population.

Fifth Law: One cannot sustain a world in which some regions have high standards of living while others have low standards of living.

mt: some debate on this topic. I see it as a consequence of basic ethical principles rather than a substantive result.

Sixth Law: All countries cannot simultaneously be net importers of carrying capacity.

A) World trade involves the exportation and importation of carrying capacity.

Seventh Law: A society that has to import people to do its daily work (“We can’t find locals who will do the work,”) is not sustainable.

Eighth Law: Sustainability requires that the size of the population be less than or equal to the carrying capacity of the ecosystem for the desired standard of living.

A) Sustainability requires an equilibrium between human society and dynamic but stable ecosystems.

B) Destruction of ecosystems tends to reduce the carrying capacity and / or the sustainable standard of living.

C) The rate of destruction of ecosystems increases as the rate of growth of the population increases.

D) Affluent countries, through world trade, destroy the ecosystems of less developed countries.

E) Population growth rates less than or equal to zero are necessary, but are not sufficient, conditions for halting the destruction of the environment. This is true locally and globally.

Ninth Law: ( The lesson of "The Tragedy of the Commons" ) (Hardin 1968): The benefits of population growth and of growth in the rates of consumption of resources accrue to a few; the costs of population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources are borne by all of society.

A) Individuals who benefit from growth will continue to exert strong pressures supporting and encouraging both population growth and growth in rates of consumption of resources.

B) The individuals who promote growth are motivated by the recognition that growth is good for them. In order to gain public support for their goals, they must convince people that population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources, are also good for society. [This is the Charles Wilson argument: if it is good for General Motors, it is good for the United States.] (Yates 1983)

mt: This is a plausible inetrpretation which I share, but it's much weaker than the rest of it.

Tenth Law: Growth in the rate of consumption of a non-renewable resource, such as a fossil fuel, causes a dramatic decrease in the life-expectancy of the resource.

A) In a world of growing rates of consumption of resources, it is seriously misleading to state the life-expectancy of a non-renewable resource "at present rates of consumption," i.e., with no growth. More relevant than the life-expectancy of a resource is the expected date of the peak production of the resource, i.e. the peak of the Hubbert curve. (Hubbert 1972)

B) It is intellectually dishonest to advocate growth in the rate of consumption of non-renewable resources while, at the same time, reassuring people about how long the resources will last "at present rates of consumption.” (zero growth)

Eleventh Law: The time of expiration of non-renewable resources can be postponed, possibly for a very long time, by:

i ) technological improvements in the efficiency with which the resources are recovered and used

ii ) using the resources in accord with a program of "Sustained Availability," (Bartlett 1986)

iii ) recycling

iv ) the use of substitute resources.

Twelfth Law: When large efforts are made to improve the efficiency with which resources are used, the resulting savings are easily and completely wiped out by the added resources that are consumed as a consequence of modest increases in population.

A) When the efficiency of resource use is increased, the consequence often is that the "saved" resources are not put aside for the use of future generations, but instead are used immediately to encourage and support larger populations.

B) Humans have an enormous compulsion to find an immediate use for all available resources.

Thirteenth Law: The benefits of large efforts to preserve the environment are easily canceled by the added demands on the environment that result from small increases in human population.

Fourteenth Law: (Second Law of Thermodynamics) When rates of pollution exceed the natural cleansing capacity of the environment, it is easier to pollute than it is to clean up the environment.

Fifteenth Law: (Eric Sevareid's Law); The chief cause of problems is solutions. (Sevareid 1970)

A) This law should be a central part of higher education, especially in engineering.

mt: Really a claim of a different ilk. Probably it doesn't belong here. But still it's an opinion which I share. The whole limits to growth problem is a consequence of past successes in evading the limits to growth. Had we failed in the first place, the probable reimposition of limits by nature would not be taking us by surprise.

Sixteenth Law: Humans will always be dependent on agriculture. (This is the first of Malthus’ two postulata.)

A) Supermarkets alone are not sufficient.

B) The central task in sustainable agriculture is to preserve agricultural land. The agricultural land must be protected from losses due to things such as:

i ) Urbanization and development

ii ) Erosion

iii ) Poisoning by chemicals

mt: I wonder if agriculture couldn't be moved indoors and into three dimensional structures. I don't think this change would be popular, though. And it would remain resource intensive, just not land intensive. It would also be resilient to widespread pollution.

Seventeenth Law: If, for whatever reason, humans fail to stop population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources, Nature will stop these growths.

A) By contemporary western standards, Nature's method of stopping growth is cruel and inhumane.

B) Glimpses of Nature's method of dealing with populations that have exceeded the carrying capacity of their lands can be seen each night on the television news reports from places where large populations are experiencing starvation and misery.

Eighteenth Law: In local situations within the U.S., creating jobs increases the number of people locally who are out of work.

A) Newly created jobs in a community temporarily lowers the unemployment rate (say from 5% to 4%), but then people move into the community to restore the unemployment rate to its earlier higher value (of 5%), but this is 5% of the larger population, so more individuals are out of work than before.

Nineteenth Law: Starving people don't care about sustainability.

A) If sustainability is to be achieved, the necessary leadership and resources must be supplied by people who are not starving.

mt: Obviously. But not exactly a growth law.

Twentieth Law: The addition of the word "sustainable" to our vocabulary, to our reports, programs, and papers, to the names of our academic institutes and research programs, and to our community initiatives, is not sufficient to ensure that our society becomes sustainable.

Twenty-First Law: Extinction is forever.


manuel moe g said...

Thank you for bringing this list to our attention. It is of the highest quality. Cheers, keep up the good fight.

Rich Puchalsky said...

I'm not really much happier with a lot of the rest of this list other than the "Fifth Law", but it's going to be even more difficult to explain why.

People have been saying that you can't have infinite growth on a finite Earth for a long time. It's not exactly some great, recent insight. But the implications are nowhere near as neat and pat as this list suggests.

For instance, what does "living standards" mean? Daily calories? Quality of life? Food quality? Once you allow any variation in what people want above the bare essentials of survival calories, drinking water, and housing that prevents death from exposure, there are vast variations in what living standards mean and how they are measured. And sustainability, to be meaningful, has to allow that different people want different things. There are a good number of sustainable setups -- including among them all of those that are likely to be actually possible -- that work by combining into one workable whole different people's living standards goals.

That means that there isn't any simple number that you can really say, a ha, this is finite and it can't go to infinity. Not in any practical way. And approaching the problem in this way means that you're already predisposed towards seeing people as indistinguishable calorie-consuming units, which means that the problem looks insoluable.

Michael Tobis said...

First, it's not supposed to be a great recent insight. It's supposed to be a summary of what is practically tautological, which the prevailing assumptions of the culture disavow.

Second, the main issue here is impacts on resources, especially nonrenewable or limited resources. "Living standards" is his old fashioned way to talk about environmental footprint.

Of course, not every individual or every demographic group will have an identical footprint. I don't think there's a claim to that effect here. I do think everyone should have comparable rights, though, regardless of their nationality. Since we are really talking about necessary new constraints, individual rights must be constrained.

If you MUST have a Hummer, you are going to be required to give a great deal back in some other way. I'd rather this were achieved on an individual level rather than the national sovereignty level which appears to be incapable of agreement anyway. But however it is achieved, the average impact must and will be constrained. That's the point. You really don;t want the involuntary version.

So, no, there isn't a single numner, but yes, there are a bunch of numbers that must remaan finite. Net carbon concentration growth must stop, so net carbon emissions must go down. This is not an exhortation. It's a strong prediction. If we don't do it, some of the consequences of our actions will eventually do it for us.

William M. Connolley said...

> "Real" economic activity can reasonably be defined as activities which cause redistribution of physically extensive quantities.

OK, by adding something "physical" to the mix you're doing your best to construct a defn that makes unlimited growth impossible. But does this reflect the real world? In mt world, buying and reading paper books is real economic activity, but doing the same on a kindle isn't. You need to fix that.

Tom Fiddaman said...

Re, "Fictional activity is the stuff of bubbles" - it's also the stuff of laughter, learning and love.

William M. Connolley said...

Fifth Law: I'm with RP on this: it is not a law, its a statement of the authors desired moral outcome.

Sixth Law: nah, not true. We could all be importing fish.

Seventh Law: not clearly true. A country could, indefinitely, import workers from another country with indefinite population surplus.

And so we could go on. In brief, there is very little in the actual "law" category that makes any sense: just the bleedin' obvious: infinite growth in the use of physical objects is impossible indefinitely. Most of the rest is not "law", but politics. Why disguise it?

Michael Tobis said...

I posit no limits to growth in laughter, learning, and love. Indeed, it is this and only this which can save us.

But in the end someone is still going to want the hot dog and the lemonade. That's where part of the problem lies.

The reason I am who and what I am and that this blog is what it is, is precisely because I value the content of the book more than the paper it is printed on or the "jobs" it created.

The problem is that we have a system which is cleverly designed to resolve a shortage of labor and of finished materials using a surfeit of raw materials and optimal use of such labor as exists. This system works fine under conditions of growth in finished materials, decline in raw materials, and (by definition) maximum utilization of labor.

In short, it solves the wrong problem. Yet we are up against a unanimity of prevailing political parties that this problem must be solved - that the issues we now face are about "underemployment".

Do you Brits still say "daft"? That's the word that just popped into my head. It's daft.

William M. Connolley said...

> I value the content of the book more than the paper it is printed on

And I have some sympathy with that. Though I found my free download of King Solomons Mines on Kindle very pleasant too: books are about the ideas.

But my point really is that these are largely value judgements. If you'd called them that I would not have objected. Calling them "laws", and saying that "The constraints here are essentially absolute, not culturally mediated" is misleading, I'd say.

Rich Puchalsky said...

And I in turn agree with WC, but I'd go a bit further -- disguising items of politics as laws is actively harmful when you're trying to get people to learn about actual physical laws. If you want to say "net carbon concentration growth must stop", fine. That's an easily definable physical quantity. But "living standards" isn't just an old-fashioned way to talk about environmental footprint. Or rather, it's old-fashioned in a bad way -- one that implicitly assumes that people are all alike. Even the concept of footprint shares some of the same problems.

If someone wants to drive Hummers, I'd bet that a way can be found in which they could do it within a sustainable society. The thing is that the Earth is very big. If Hummer-driving is something that a very small percentage of people do, there are vast ways to balance that out.

Michael Tobis said...

I'll give you the moral judgment on #5 in the medium term. You could, instead, resort to neocolonialism or neofeudalism without much of the windowdressing of noblesse oblige or bringing civilization to the heathens and so on.

Even so, both the wealthy and the less wealthy components will be zero-growth.

Re #6:

"Importing fish" is an edge case that doesn't seem to matter in practice given that we have violated the rules regarding the ocean so badly. Imagine the ocean as finite jurisdiction N+1, and the arguments repair themselves immediately.

We could also import wealth from space, which in the long run may be much more important. So point taken. This really is a potential weak point in the argument or a potential way to rescue growth capitalism, precisely because the original assumptions underlying growth capitalism would be restored to something like plausibility. (Which brings me to my long-delayed space rant.) So what is the time frame for genuinely economically self-sustained activity on the moon? The scale of the bootstrap seems far beyond what any nation would contemplate now. Did we miss the boat?


Re #7:

OK, fair enough. Maybe this is best considered corrolary to points #5 (as wellas #6) and is therefore an ethical question.


Victor said...


I'll guess that Michael is quite aware that producing a kindle takes tons of physical resources, so he'll probably count buying a book for one as "real" economic activity: the resources for producing the reader have to be amortized over the ebooks.

Unless you never upgrade, and your children will inherit your kindle from you, and their children from them.

Michael Tobis said...

Rich, I have no choice but to counter with what I call Schellnhuber's law, one of my key tenets, and one which I recommend to policyakers and politically active people everywhere.

“Political reality must be grounded in physical reality or it's completely useless.”

Hans Joachim "John" Schellnhuber

If you have a counterproposal, by all means propose it. But please take into account that I will have a very hard time understanding it.

Anthony said...

I don’t see the Fifth Law as a prescription for ethical or equitable behavior much less an excuse to kill the Amish. Am I the only one who sees the Fifth Law as a formal sounding answer to the question “How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” Answer: “You won’t.” And thus you won’t convince any less “developed” nation to moderate its behavior until Americans demonstrate their willingness to moderate their behavior in the long term. Thus it is substantive. Ask Bartlett what he meant.

Michael Tobis said...

via email. Slightly missing the point perhaps. Or perhaps not.

Well, class, we have a summer project. Read on:


Thanks for the letter.

I am delighted that you copied my laws of sustainability and are using them in your classes. It is my hope that we can get more and more people involved in discussing sustainability. It is vital to our survival.

I am extremely busy right now getting ready to leave shortly for a camping vacation and in preparing an invited paper on sustainability for the summer meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers. So I won't have time to participate with your students in your discussion of sustainability.

But let me ask you to ask your students;
1) Are there Laws they feel are in error?
2) Are there places where the laws could be stated more clearly?
3) Are there Laws that I have left out that should be added to the list?

If these could be communicated to me after about the 10th of August, I would be delighted to look them over.

Ask your class to discuss these things and then try to agree on the answers to the questions above.

With best wishes,

Albert A. Bartlett; Professor Emeritus of Physics
University of Colorado at Boulder, CO; 80309-0390

Rich Puchalsky said...

"If you have a counterproposal, by all means propose it."

Basically, you're failing to take your claim about global sustainability seriously. It's really the fallacy of division, although I'm tempted to bump it up to the ecological fallacy just because that sounds better in this context. Sustainability relationships that are true of the Earth as a whole are not true of persons, areas, or subgroups.

Nor is the presumption that they should be true necessarily ethical superior. Yes, it's possible to go on about fairness and equal division of resources. But it's also possible to value freedom and the space for people to be different from each other. A society based on values of equality could be a small-d democratic paradise or enlightened technocracy -- or it could be a crushing, heavily enforced uniformity. A society that allows more disequality could be a feudal dictatorship or a capitalist oligarchy -- or if could be a heterogenous mixing of cultures and people with different life-paths.

Neither one is grounded or determined by Schellnhuber's law. Your usage of Schellnhuber's law strikes me at being simple avoidance of politics via the pretense that a solution space is bounded in ways that it really isn't.

John said...

Schellnhuber is contemporary and apparently well acquainted with US politics.

I am at a loss, then, why is his law not stated thusly:
“Political and economic reality must be grounded in physical reality or they are potentially suicidal.”

Let me define "suicidal" in in terms inverse to "sustainable" (which itself seems never to be defined): a human society is suicidal the extent that it fails to remain in existence until the big nuclear energy source in the sky blows up, goes out or otherwise fails to make possible the life systems extant on its third rock.

Re: Mr Tobis comment to 15th law:
"Had we failed in the first place, the probable reimposition of limits by nature would not be taking us by surprise."

Should this not be " ... Had we NOT failed ... "?

Re: 16th law

Agriculture should not be moved "indoors" but human couch potatoes should be moved outdoors, en masse, to grow their own food.

(The notion of indoor agriculture has now taken on the "flavor" of laboratory agriculture:http://tinyurl.com/3pq5qqz)

Ah, the pure suicidal idiocy of our love affair with our own "creative" cleverness ... as distinct from intelligence!!!

John Puma

Dol said...

Coupla things. First, readings-wise -

E. Daly, “Georgescu-Roegen versus Solow/Stiglitz,” Ecological Economics 22, no. 3 (September 1997): 261-266. (PDF here)

Daly: Classical econs is "making a cake with only the cook and his kitchen. We do not need flour, eggs, sugar, etc., nor electricity or natural gas, nor even firewood. If we want a bigger cake, the cook simply stirs faster in a bigger bowl and cooks the empty bowl in a bigger oven that somehow heats itself."

thus "a technical production recipe that contradicts both the 1st and 2nd laws of thermodynamics as well as best practice in cooking."

H.E. Daly and J Farley, Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications (Island Press, 2003).

I worry about Daly and this sort of thing: makes me think people are mistaking economic models for economists' understanding of the world.

Second, MT: "Political reality must be grounded in physical reality or it's completely useless." In a physical sense, it must be - but not really in a political sense. That distinction does matter: consider e.g. how the Balinese manage water running through rice-production subaks (or at least Lansing's take on it.) The lesson I take from that: structures that manage resources sustainably don't necessarily need to have those issues visible 'on the outside' as it were.

Michael Tobis said...

I don't understand why these points are seen as reducing the solution space beyond what is necessary.

Working with constraints on the per capita average takes astronomically huge numbers and turns them into mundane quantities.

How we allocate constraints among individuals or among nations must be perceived as fair. Some country that loves beef and rice may want more methane allowance, but I figure their bulgogi ought to cost them in gasoline or something, somehow.

But it's the total, or equivalently, the per capita times the population, that ends up determining strict sense sustainability (as Bartlett is advocating) near-enough-sustainability as I think Belette is advocating, or flirting with doom, as most people who don't think about it much inadvertently advocate.

Anonymous said...

Even "per capita" limits themselves are fraught with complexity - even beyond just the idea that some might use more or less.

For instance, sustainable use of freshwater resources varies remarkably between geographies.

Just sayin'.

Michael Tobis said...

Rust, sure, but is that helpful?

On the grand scale of things some constraints are local. Biofuels, it turns out, are local. It does not pay to ship unprocessed grass, cornhusks, etc. very far.

Same is indeed true, albeit to a lesser extent, for fresh water.

Such quibbles remind me of the bad programming style called "premature optimization". Whatever emerges in practice will have many complications (mostly to adapt to distortions of the old system), but first it is best to think of the overall architecture of the thing.

If we can't resolve the stuff that works out nicely on a per capita basis, we're hosed. Why not start there?

Pangolin said...

Thank you for quoting me. If only I could get a degree in stating the bleeping obvious I would be set.

There is no replacement for agriculture; merely refinement. Growing algae in tubes, requires tubes pumps, culture labs, filters, dryers and means of keeping the tubes clean; all energy sinks. A fish in a pond eats algae and turns it into edible flesh for a small fee in lost net energy while producing plant fertilizer. Which system is going to use less fossil fuels?

Over harvesting sea life has stripped the seas of vertebrate fish and given rise to masses of jellyfish and toxic algae blooms. That path is closing off until reason prevails and enforces catch limits.

Importing energy from space is not viable. Energy collected from the moons surface and added to the earth's biosphere in the form of microwaves will only accelerate global warming. Food imported from space would add to the net CO2 imbalance. You can import rocks from space but we already do 24/7/365. Just look up on clear night.

This is it. For the vast majority of human life for the foreseeable future we have one small planet.

Rich Puchalsky said...

"Energy collected from the moons surface and added to the earth's biosphere in the form of microwaves will only accelerate global warming."

Um, what? Global warming is a radiative balance problem. It's not that the Earth is heating up because of waste heat.

I'm not that impressed by the hot dog bit either. Assuming that that hot dog has pork in it or anyways is not halal, there's an an approximate half of the world's population that belongs to a religious tradition that says that they shouldn't eat it. Yes, if you follow MT's suggestion, then everyone on the globe gets issued their right to 2.5 hot dogs per month or whatever, while they're sitting on a beach (I'm not even going to guesstimate how many people never have access to beach vacations) but it's really nonsense. There's a reason why people who we talk to come up with examples involving hot dogs and beaches and implicitly think that those are great examples for everyone because everyone is after all just like us. It's not a good reason.

Pangolin said...

Um, what? Global warming is a radiative balance problem. It's not that the Earth is heating up because of waste heat._Rich

1) The point being that radiative balance is not being maintained with current solar income. Adding energy that is collected anywhere off planet, concentrating it and adding it to the Earth's radiative income will hinder rather than help.

That energy may arrive as microwaves but most of it will eventually end up as heat added to the atmosphere. It's the same problem we would eventually face with any sort of hot or "cold" fusion. Operate enough reactors and we cook the atmosphere.

b) I did specify a named animal because most meat eaters have something they refuse to eat.

III) Sitting on a beach trading sand in a circle is no more nonsense or fictional that selling derivative investments based upon fiat currency. Except the derivatives traders get to convert their "surplus" currency into land, fuel, housing, vehicles, wine, minerals and other "hard" assets.

It's precisely the decoupling of the most lucrative forms of economics (google: carry trade) from physical reality that makes climate and environmental issues so hard to address. The people with all the money, read power, are relatively independent of the costs of environmental damage.

Michael Tobis said...

Pangolin, no, you misunderstand the physics, apparently.

If it was the way you describe, nuclear energy would have no climate advantage over carbon.

The heating effect of an extra molecule of CO2 from fossil carbon is much, much greater than the waste heat from its combustion. At present, it is about two orders of magnitude worse. If you calculate over a very long time, it is four or five orders of magnitude worse.

That is the whole problem.

Climate change via waste heat is a potential growth limiter, but many other hurdles have to be jumped before that. There was an article in EOS about it. It cuts in after about 200 to 500 years of continued growth in energy output.

Dol said...

David Attenborough made a jolly good programme in support of the Optimum Population Trust; he looks at an example of the following point -

"The higher the standard of living one wishes to sustain, the more urgent it is to stop population growth."

Attenborough talks about what's the biggest absence in all this for me: the closest thing to an established fact in the social sciences - the relationship between fertility and development, and especially women's education.

The implications are both hopeful and worrying: if higher standards of living *do* lead to slower population growth, what component is doing that? Women's education comes out near the top, but if material development is also a major factor, that leads to the question: can we manage the right sort of material development? Can we decouple development and damaging growth?

Obviously it's an issue fraught with complexity (there's a recent Nature paper in the wikipedia link above that looks like a good read). But it's interesting that, while we need to understand the carrying capacity issue, one of the key methods for solving it has little to do with thinking ecologically. Developing primary education for women - massive win. (Most of the gains come with basic education, less after that, I think...)

But then, what is the relationship between education infrastructure and broader development? How do the feedbacks work? I'm reminded of Hans Rosling's washing machine again.

Zowish said...

Excellent list, a springboard for much dialogue. Reminds me of Derrick Jensen's 20 Premises:


Rich Puchalsky said...

I second Dan Olner's mention of women's rights. One of the tipoffs for me that this list was old was that they aren't mentioned. They're the main reason why we are under population projections. (Well, that and dictatorship. Not sure how large an effect China's one-child policy has had.)

I think that MT has dealt with the waste heat thing. Waste heat could eventually be a problem, but not yet, and it has essentially nothing to do with global warming.

I think that decoupling of the most lucrative forms of economics from physical reality is all to the good. At that level it's all about social status and power anyways. If someone can assert that they are a mighty financial leader with lots of bits in a computer somewhere, I'd rather that they do that than have them have to pile up a huge heap of objects.

Michael Tobis said...

Yes, that is one possible workaround; the decoupling of money from actual real goods and its attachment to conceptual ones.

In other words, go with the sandcastles and hope enough hot dogs show up. (Where by hot dogs we mean "something to eat"; the hot dogs are not meant to be any more literal than the sandcastles.)

At present I am inclined to think it won't work; indeed the current financial crisis is, I think, precisely its failure; and we need some other sort of workaround.

Hank Roberts said...

A good series, relevant:
(hat tip to http://www.metafilter.com/104852/The-Growth-Ponzi-Scheme )

Rich Puchalsky said...

"At present I am inclined to think it won't work; indeed the current financial crisis is, I think, precisely its failure; and we need some other sort of workaround."

And so the series loops around again. Once more: the current financial crisis has nothing to do with resource limits. Or rather, the people who say that it does are about as likely to be right as the people who say that solar variability is the cause of the global climate warming up now. The current financial crisis has everything to do with lack of regulation and other things that affect financial instruments.

Sure, the sand castle dealings need more regulation and other things. But that really has nothing to do with your point.

And -- in passing -- I'll note that your point is incoherent even if we took the premise as being true. The financial crisis didn't interrupt the production of hot dogs (i.e. or any kind of vital, caloric necessity). It did lower oil usage by quite a bit. Isn't that good, according to what you've been saying? Shouldn't we welcome the sandcastles in the sky that when they fall screw up unneeded activity?

Hank Roberts said...

Just came across mention of this movie -- impressive sources they've relied on

"After long decades of activism and effort, planetary ecosystems are closer to collapse than they have ever been. I can think of three basic reasons for this. First, we have largely failed to look at the whole thing at once. Second, we’ve refrained from deeply feeling our predicament. And third, we haven’t been asking the right questions of the right people.

What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire is an attempt to fill in these missing pieces. By looking at as much of the whole as we can, by creating a feeling experience of that whole, and by asking the deep questions of culture, psychology and spirit that lie at the root of our situation, it is our intention that What a Way to Go will break through the denial that has us locked in inaction...."

Michael Tobis said...

I discussed the flick here. I don't agree with its conclusions but the argument is compelling and these ideas should be on everybody's radar.

There is also a silly Shirley Maclaine flick of the same name.