Category Archives: Sustainability

Growing, Growing, Gone: Reaching the Limits – An interview with Dennis Meadows

growth_limitsThe Limits to Growth, released in 1972, has profoundly influenced environmental research and discourse over the past four decades. Allen White of the Tellus Institute talks with Dennis Meadows, one of its co-authors, about the genesis of the report and its lessons for understanding and managing our uncertain and perilous global future.

The Limits to Growth report [from the Club of Rome] focused on natural resource demands, pollution, and population growth, yet the Club of Rome’s initial focus was more on weapons, nuclear proliferation, and security. What prompted this shift? 

The shift stemmed from Jay Forrester’s insight that the issues about which we were talking then (and still talk about today)—hunger, poverty, oil depletion, climate change—are not in themselves problems; they are symptoms. The problem is continued material growth in a physically finite world.

Continual physical growth of population and economic activity eventually reaches the point where the globe simply cannot accommodate anymore. Biophysical systems press back, whether through disease, scarcity, climate, or other response mechanisms. These pressures are danger signals, indicating overshoot of some aspect of the planet’s physical limits.

It is very frustrating to me to hear people talking about starvation as a problem and then say that the way to solve it is by producing more food. The only way we are ever going to have adequate food is by stabilizing the population. Regardless of genetic modifications, food subsidies, or improved storage techniques, as long as population continues to grow, we will eventually overshoot our capacity to feed the world.

Upon publication in 1972, The Limits to Growth triggered intense discussion and debate in academic and policy circles. How would you characterize this spectrum of reactions?

First of all, one common misconception about our report was and is that we proved the existence of limits. Our model assumed the existence of limits [on a finite planet] and then traced out the implications. Available data, however, were sufficient to identify and roughly quantify such limits.

It is also important to understand the nature of the controversy surrounding the report. At the risk of oversimplification, there are two kinds of people: those who decide which salient facts they like and then try to trace their implications, and those who decide which implications they like and then look for salient facts to justify them. You see this distinction in full display in contemporary debates around climate change.

The economics profession is based on the assumption that continual growth is possible and desirable. Likewise, most politicians have a predisposition for growth because it makes the problems they address—unemployment, poverty, diminished tax bases—more tractable. Instead of having to divide a fixed pie, which gets you in trouble with some constituents, you can grow the pie so that nobody has to make a sacrifice or compromise. So there was—and is—a set of vested interests in the notion of growth.

Economists claimed that we were underestimating the power of the market or technological innovation, and some politicians argued that we were trying to block the development of the poor.

After four or five years, people lost interest in the debate, and public discourse returned to its traditional short-term, siloed form. In 1992, we came out with the second edition of The Limits to Growth, and there was again a brief, but now much smaller, effort to discredit the work.

In light of the early danger signals that had already appeared by then—ozone depletion, oil shortages, toxic loadings—why was the reaction so muted? 

The first edition was published in thirty-five foreign language editions; the second edition, in fifteen. The number of articles referencing or criticizing Limits in the 1970s was probably ten times what it was in the 1990s. The economists and politicians simply felt less threatened by our analysis the second time around. From their perspective, it was not worth their effort to challenge our findings. The time horizon of politicians and economists was shorter than ever, whereas our analysis focused on longer-term issues.

Were there any regional differences in reaction, e.g., between the US and Europe or between developed and developing countries?

Yes. Of course, when we talk about developing countries, we are dealing with a very diverse group. But, viewed together, the developing countries basically said, “You are the ones who caused the problems, and you have to solve them. Our goal is to develop. And don’t use this kind of analysis to block us from causing the same problems that you caused.”

The Europeans have always been more receptive to the type of analysis found in The Limits to Growth. For example, I get many more invitations to speak in Europe than I do in the U.S. The sales of the book were greater in several European countries than they were in the US. You also see this reflected in legislation. The precautionary principle has substantial standing in Europe, but it is typically dismissed in the United States.

A third edition appeared in 2004. What insights did it offer thirty years after the original?  

In the second and third editions, we revisited our findings, looked at how global trajectories were unfolding, and compared them with our forecasts. Generally speaking, our forecasts were borne out. Last year, Graham Turner of the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute (and formerly of the Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organisation) analyzed the predictions in The Limits to Growth and found that our business-as-usual forecasts for population growth, economic growth, and environmental impacts have been fairly accurate.

Does the current work on planetary boundaries signal the prescience of The Limits to Growth?

I admire very much the research on ecological footprints and planetary boundaries by Matthis Wackernagel, Johan Rockström, and others. They are dealing with these issues at a level of detail that was not possible back in the 1970s.

Our interests, however, are somewhat different, and I would say that there has not been, to my knowledge, anyone who has focused on our core question, that is, the dynamics of growth in a finite world. Although a recent article on planetary boundaries traces out the future dynamic implications of limits, much of the work in that field focuses only on the limits themselves and our proximity to them.

Were we prescient? In the 1950s, Harrison Brown’s books dealt with the issue of limits without using a computer model. Two centuries ago, Thomas Malthus famously projected a clash between population growth and food provision, albeit in a simplistic way. The ancient literature, too, contains references to the limits to growth and consequences of violating them. Our insights were not unique or unprecedented, but our modeling was.

Regarding modeling and future scenarios: Do you see normative modeling or extrapolative modeling as more powerful for inspiring corrective action?

I think we are now in a situation where it doesn’t make much difference what we want to see happen fifty years from now.

White water rafting provides a useful analogy here. When you are going down the river, most of the time it is placid, but every once in a while, you hit the rapids. When it is placid, you can sit back and think where you want to be, how you should time your journey, where you want to stop for lunch, etc. When you are in the rapids, you focus on the moment, desperately trying to keep your boat upright until you return to quiet waters. During the placid moments, it is very useful to have a discussion about where you want to be tomorrow or the day after. When you are in the rapids, you don’t have the luxury of that kind of discussion. You are trying to survive. Our society has moved into the rapids phase.

Climate change is an example of this. There was a period where we had some possibility of influencing future climate by our decisions about the use of fossil fuels. I think that time has passed. Climate change is increasingly dominated by a set of feedback loops—like the methane cycle and the melting of Arctic ice sheets—which are beyond human control. They have come to be the drivers of the system. The dominant drivers of the system are not people sitting around trying to reach a consensus about which of several different possible outcomes they most prefer.

Any modeling exercise is rife with uncertainty. Under such circumstances, some lean toward optimism, others—like yourself—toward pessimism. What underlies this divergence? 

Our research and reports are neither optimistic nor pessimistic; they are realistic. In my professional life, I lay out our assumptions, support them with empirical data, and then use computer simulations to trace their implications for the future behavior of the system. When the simulations show that current trends cannot be continued, people with a vested interest in current trends may become pessimistic; I do not. In my personal life, I hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

In the next few decades, if we maintain our current trajectory, we are destined to overshoot multiple planetary limits. In the face of this reality, how do we move forward? 

Conventional oil production peaked around 2006. Unconventional oil production, e.g., fracking and tar sands, has continued some degree of growth, but it is a totally different matter. Conventional oil is inexpensive and yields a relatively high energy return on investment. Unconventionals don’t do that. They are expensive, and the net energy return on investment is quite low.

When you don’t have conventional energy sources like oil, you cannot sustain the kind of economic growth rates that we have seen in the past. As a practical matter, then, there is now very little real wealth generation. Most of the economic activity these days consists of those who have more power getting richer by taking away from those with less. This is why we see widening gaps between rich and poor.

Many of the futurists presume large-scale energy consumption of one kind or another. It is energy intensive to coordinate and motivate large assemblies of people and organizations. Absent abundant, cheap energy, this becomes more difficult. I expect that the trend towards global integration is going to stop and then start to recede.

In my own work, I have shifted from a preoccupation with sustainable development, which is somewhat of an oxymoron, toward the concept of resilience. I think that is the future: to understand how different scales—the household, the community, the school––can structure themselves in a way to become more resilient in the face of the shocks that are inevitable regardless what our goals might be.

You see the climate debate evolving this way. Talk about prevention is on the wane, giving way to talk of adaptation. Adaptation really means resilience. It is about designing actions for dealing with New York City the next time superstorms threaten to paralyze the city or for figuring out what California can do if the current drought continues for many more years, or even decades.

Aspirations and good fortune will get us only so far.  Human survival cannot risk reliance on them alone.

Dennis Meadows is Emeritus Professor at the University of New Hampshire, where he was Director of the Institute for Policy and Social Science Research. He co-authored the pioneering 1972 book The Limits to Growth, which analyzed the long-term consequences of unconstrained resource consumption driven by population and economic growth on a finite planet. Dr. Meadows co-founded The Balaton Group in 1982, an international network of researchers and practitioners in fields related to systems and sustainability, and co-authored updates to The Limits to Growth in 1992 and 2004. 

Source: Great Transition Initiative, June 2015.      <http://www.greattransition.org/publication/growing-growing-gone>

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The Values of Hope and Happiness from the David Suzuki Foundation

Materialistic values undermine well-being, perpetuate feelings of insecurity and weaken the ties that bind us as human beings.

Materialistic values undermine well-being, perpetuate feelings of insecurity and weaken the ties that bind us as human beings.

A fight is going on inside us, between two wolves. Which wolf will win? The one we feed.*

Reading the news, it’s hard not to feel a growing sense of unease. The threat of terrorism, growing instability and conflict overseas, and uncertainty about the economy diminish our collective feelings of safety and security. To this we add the looming environmental threats of climate change, pollution, declining ocean health, oil spills and extreme weather.

All of it takes a psychological toll, even when we’re not directly affected. Studies show that when we feel threatened, we isolate ourselves and focus on restoring our sense of security.

Many people attempt to alleviate anxiety by grasping for wealth, seeking pleasure and taking solace in achievement or status. But this strategy backfires. Instead of bolstering our sense of security and well-being, it diminishes it.

Across cultures and regardless of age and gender, people whose values centre on social position and accumulation of money and possessions actually face a greater risk of unhappiness, including anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. In his book The High Price of Materialism, psychology professor Tim Kasser shows how materialistic values undermine well-being, perpetuate feelings of insecurity and weaken the ties that bind us as human beings.

People who are materialistic also tend to be less interested in ecological issues, have negative attitudes toward the environment and demonstrate fewer instances of sustainable behaviour. That’s a tragedy for humanity and the rest of life on Earth.

Cross-cultural research in social science has identified a set of consistently occurring human values. Social psychologists refer to one cluster as “extrinsic”, or materialistic. These are concerned with our desire for achievement, status, power and wealth. Opposite to those are “intrinsic” values. They relate to caring, community, environmental concern and social justice.

Although each of us carries both, the importance we attach to one set of values tends to diminish the importance of the other. When power values like social status, prestige and dominance come first, the universal values of tolerance, appreciation and concern for the welfare of others are suppressed.

The U.K.-based Common Cause Foundation is synthesizing this growing body of values research. It offers guidance to social change organizations on ways to engage cultural values to further their causes. Because values are like muscles — they get stronger the more we exercise them — activists can consciously stimulate intrinsic values in communications and campaigns.

Researchers have also discovered what they call the values “bleed-over effect”. Because values tend to exist in clusters, when one is activated, so are compatible neighbouring values. For example, people reminded of generosity, self-direction and family are more likely to support pro-environmental policies than those reminded of financial success and status.

The forces behind planetary crises are complex. History, politics and economics influence how humans act. Social change requires a focus on individual behaviour, corporate responsibility and government policy. In today’s unstable political environment, values must also be part of the equation.

That’s where we find an important connection between environmental and social justice movements. On a values level, the efforts and strategies to combat climate change and biodiversity loss complement and strengthen those required to bring about greater equality. When environmentalists invoke intrinsic values to increase support for their cause, they also increase support for social justice.

Because values are an important driver of attitudes and behaviour, they are essential to changing social norms. What can we do as individuals? Our social responsibility goes deeper than our consumer habits and voting choices. We need to reflect on what’s important to us. We all deserve to feel secure in our homes and communities, but we can’t depend on the false sense of security that isolation or materialistic pursuits bring. When psychological insecurity is on the rise, we need to stay committed to the values that make us environmentalists and champions of social justice. Instead of retreating to our corners, let’s turn toward one another to re-establish our sense of security and strength.

The good news is that values that support a healthy society and sustainable planet — self-respect, concern for others, connection with nature, equality — also make us happiest in the long term. Each one of us is a value prism, subtly bending the light in a particular direction. Let’s be conscious of where we direct our light.

From our friends at the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Public Engagement Specialist Aryne Sheppard.

*An old Cherokee chief was teaching his grandson about life.
“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. “One is evil — he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, self-doubt, and ego. “The other is good — he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. “This same fight is going on inside you — and inside every other person, too.” The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?” The old chief simply replied, “The one you feed.”

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Thoughts on Pope Francis’ Laudato Si by Herman Daly

The big ideas of the encyclical are Creation care and justice, and the failure of our technocratic growth economy to provide either justice or care for Creation.

The big ideas of the encyclical are Creation care and justice, and the failure of our technocratic growth economy to provide either justice or care for Creation.

As a Protestant Christian my devotion to the Catholic Church has been rather minimal, based largely on respect for early church history, and for love of an aunt who was a nun. In recent times the Catholic Church’s opposition to birth control, plus the pedophile and cover-up scandals, further alienated me. Like many others I first viewed Pope Francis as perhaps a breath of fresh air, but little more. After reading his encyclical on environment and justice, dare I hope that what I considered merely “fresh air” could actually be the wind of Pentecost filling the Church anew with the Spirit? Maybe. At a minimum he has given us a more truthful, informed, and courageous analysis of the environmental and moral crisis than have our secular political leaders.

True, the important question of population was conspicuous by its near absence. In an earlier offhand remark, however, Francis said that Catholics don’t need to breed “like rabbits,” and pointed to the Church’s doctrine of responsible parenthood. Perhaps he will follow up on that in a future encyclical. In any case, most lay Catholics have for some time stopped listening to Popes on contraception. The popular attitude is expressed in a cartoon showing an Italian mamma wagging her finger at the Pontiff and saying, “You no playa da game; you no maka da rules.” Discussing population would not have changed realities, and would have aroused official opposition and distracted attention from the major points of the encyclical. So I will follow Francis’ politic example and put the population question aside, but with a reference to historian John T. Noonan, Jr.’s classic book, Contraception* which sorts out the history of doctrine on this issue.

The big ideas of the encyclical are Creation care and justice, and the failure of our technocratic growth economy to provide either justice or care for Creation. Also discussed was the integration of science and religion as necessary, though different, avenues to truth. And yes, the Pope supports the scientific consensus on the reality of climate change, but, media monomania to the contrary, the encyclical is about far more than that.

Francis’ voice is of course not the first to come from Christians in defense of Creation. In addition to his ancient namesake from Assisi, Francis also recognized Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of the Eastern Orthodox Church, who has for two decades now been organizing conferences and speaking out in defense of rivers and oceans, including the Black Sea. The Orthodox Church lost a generation of believers to Communistic atheism, but is gaining back many young people attracted to the theology of Creation and the actions it inspires. Liberal mainline Protestant Christians, and more recently, conservative Evangelicals, have also found their ecological conscience. So Francis’ encyclical would seem to be a capstone that unifies the main divisions of Christianity on at least the fundamental recognition that we have a shamefully neglected duty to care for the Earth out of which we evolved, and to share the Earth’s life support more equitably with each other, with the future, and with other creatures. Many atheists also agree, while claiming that their agreement owes nothing to Judeo-Christian tradition.

This theology of Creation should not be confused with the evolution-denying, anti-science views of some Christian biblical literalists (confusingly called “Creationists” rather than “literalists”). Mankind’s duty to care for Creation, through which humans have evolved to reflect at least the faint image of their Creator, conflicts headlong with the current dominant idolatry of growthism and technological Gnosticism. Creation care is also incompatible with the big lie that sharing the Earth’s limited resources is unnecessary because economic growth will make us all rich. Francis calls this magical thinking. He skates fairly close to the idea of steady-state economics, of qualitative development without quantitative growth, although this concept is not specifically considered. Consider his paragraph 193:

“In any event, if in some cases sustainable development were to involve new forms of growth, then in other cases, given the insatiable and irresponsible growth produced over many decades, we need also to think of containing growth by setting some reasonable limits and even retracing our steps before it is too late. We know how unsustainable is the behaviour of those who constantly consume and destroy, while others are not yet able to live in a way worthy of their human dignity. That is why the time has come to accept degrowth in some parts of the world, in order to provide resources for other places to experience healthy growth.”

Laudato Si is already receiving both strong support and resistance. The resistance testifies to the radical nature of Francis’ renewal of the basic doctrine of the Earth and cosmos as God’s Creation. Pope Francis will be known by the enemies this encyclical makes for him, and these enemies may well be his strength. So far in the US they are not an impressive lot: the Heartland Institute, Jeb Bush, Senator James Inhofe, Rush Limbaugh, Rick Santorum, and others. Unfortunately they represent billions in special-interest money, and have a big corporate media megaphone. They believe in letting The Market set policy and behavior. The encyclical calls out the opponents and forces them to defend themselves. Neither The Market nor technology created us, or the Earth that sustains us. Thanks to Francis for making that very clear when so many are denying it, either explicitly or implicitly.

* John T. Noonan, Jr., Contraception: A History of its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists, Belknap Press, 1986. Noonan demonstrates the lack of a biblical basis for opposition to contraception, as well as the origins of church doctrine in secular Roman law, which was absorbed into canon law. The ancient Roman meaning of “proletariat” was “the lowest class, poor and exempt from taxes, and useful to the republic mainly for the procreation of children.” Clearly contraception was not indicated for them, although tolerated for patricians. This literal meaning of proletariat as the prolific class was lost when Marx redefined the word to mean “non owners of the means of production.” But the Malthusian connection with overpopulation and cheap labor has remained real, even if downplayed by Marxists as well as Catholics.

Source: The Daly News, 23 Jun 2015. <http://steadystate.org/thoughts-on-pope-francis-laudato-si&gt;

Also see: <Pope Francis.aletela.org>

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Scientists: Earth Endangered by New Strain of Fact-Resistant Humans by Andy Borowitz

earthMINNEAPOLIS (The Borowitz Report) – Scientists have discovered a powerful new strain of fact-resistant humans who are threatening the ability of Earth to sustain life, a sobering new study reports.

The research, conducted by the University of Minnesota, identifies a virulent strain of humans who are virtually immune to any form of verifiable knowledge, leaving scientists at a loss as to how to combat them.

“These humans appear to have all the faculties necessary to receive and process information,” Davis Logsdon, one of the scientists who contributed to the study, said. “And yet, somehow, they have developed defenses that, for all intents and purposes, have rendered those faculties totally inactive.”

More worryingly, Logsdon said, “As facts have multiplied, their defenses against those facts have only grown more powerful.”

While scientists have no clear understanding of the mechanisms that prevent the fact-resistant humans from absorbing data, they theorize that the strain may have developed the ability to intercept and discard information en route from the auditory nerve to the brain. “The normal functions of human consciousness have been completely nullified,” Logsdon said.

While reaffirming the gloomy assessments of the study, Logsdon held out hope that the threat of fact-resistant humans could be mitigated in the future. “Our research is very preliminary, but it’s possible that they will become more receptive to facts once they are in an environment without food, water, or oxygen,” he said.

Source: http://www.newyorker.com/humor/borowitz-report/scientists-earth-endangered-by-new-strain-of-fact-resistant-humans

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Optimism abounds despite grim data on climate change, overpopulation, oil depletion, and economy by Charlie Smith

"I confess that I'm troubled by all the optimism I encounter from leading thinkers on inequality, climate change, overpopulation, and oil depletion." -Charlie Smith

“I confess that I’m troubled by all the optimism I encounter from leading thinkers on inequality, climate change, overpopulation, and oil depletion.” -Charlie Smith

It’s not cool to be pessimistic.

This is my conclusion after interviewing scores of thoughtful people who’ve wrapped their minds around the most vexing challenges facing humanity.

Economist Robert Reich, who focuses on growing inequality, says he remains optimistic even though the top one percent of income earners are enjoying 95 percent of the gains in the U.S since the last recession.

Author Alan Weisman, who has studied the world’s explosive population growth, says he’s optimistic while acknowledging there’s little prospect of another Green Revolution sharply increasing food production.

Scientist Tim Flannery, who has written extensively on climate disruption, has an optimistic view of how things might turn out for the world. This depends on Gaia protecting herself from the havoc being wreaked by her most intelligent species.

Similarly, environmentalist David Suzuki speaks bravely of humanity’s chance of survival in the face of rising greenhouse gas emissions. What is required is more sensible decisions about the use of fossil fuels. He’s also optimistic that the Fukushima nuclear disaster won’t cause serious health problems for people who eat fish from the Pacific Ocean.

Gwynne Dyer has written hopefully about geo-engineering rolling back the climate crisis. All it will require is seeding the skies in certain ways to reflect some of the sunlight back into outer space.

Conservationist Tzeporah Berman seems to think if we work with well-intentioned corporate executives and elect climate-friendly governments, there’s a chance of turning things around before some sort of environmental Armageddon.

Then there’s economist Jeff Rubin, who has chronicled the depletion of conventional oil supplies. He often expresses optimism about how people will make do in a world with slow-to-no economic growth for the foreseeable future. He also believes international trade will plummet as energy costs increase, but hey, we’ll adapt.

Meanwhile, media and entertainment executives maintain a cheery disposition even as they acknowledge how the Internet is eviscerating their businesses.

I spent a fair amount of my Saturday at a workshop with some brilliant young people seeking to enter the media. I’m guessing that they have taken on substantial debts to become educated in ways that I can only envy. Some spoke several foreign languages. I’m not optimistic about all of them ending up in their chosen field.

Later that day, I attended the Amnesty International Film Festival, which featured a movie about brave Mexican journalists killed covering the war on drugs. Mexico used to be such a peaceful country, but not any more. It’s hard to feel good about Mexico’s future in the face of all of this violence.

I confess that I’m troubled by all the optimism I encounter from leading thinkers on inequality, climate change, overpopulation, and oil depletion. Adding up all the variables, I’ve concluded that more global food shortages and increased famine are inevitable. Despite this, our Canadian Premier plans to build a new bridge to Delta that will result in the loss of some of Canada’s finest farmland.

Having a cheery disposition may make someone sound more pleasant in radio and television interviews. It might even enhance a person’s likelihood of obtaining book contracts, becoming a media or entertainment executive, or getting elected to high public office. But it has a way of sugar-coating problems, diminishing the sense of urgency that we should all be feeling about these crises.

I’m not falsely optimistic.

See: http://www.straight.com/news/513406/optimism-abounds-despite-grim-data-climate-change-overpopulation-oil-depletion-and-economy

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Overpopulation and the Collapse of Civilization by Paul R. Ehrlich

All of the interconnected problems are caused in part by overpopulation, in part by overconsumption by the already rich.

All of the interconnected problems are caused in part by overpopulation, in part by overconsumption by the already rich.

A major goal of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (MAHB) ais reducing the odds that the “perfect storm” of environmental problems that threaten humanity will lead to a collapse of civilization.  Those threats include:

  • climate disruption,
  • loss of biodiversity (and thus ecosystem services),
  • land-use change and resulting degradation,
  • global toxification,
  • ocean acidification,
  • decay of the epidemiological environment (plagues),
  • increasing depletion of important resources (think water) and resource wars (which could go nuclear).

This is not just a list of problems, it is an interconnected complex resulting from interactions within and between what can be thought of as two gigantic complex adaptive systems: the biosphere system and the human socio-economic system.  The manifestations of this interaction are often referred to as “the human predicament.”  That predicament is getting continually and rapidly worse, driven by overpopulation, overconsumption among the rich, and the use of environmentally malign technologies and socio-economic-political arrangements to service the consumption.

All of the interconnected problems are caused in part by overpopulation, in part by overconsumption by the already rich.  One would think that most educated people now understand that the larger the size of a human population, ceteris paribus, the more destructive its impact on the environment.  The degree of overpopulation is best indicated (conservatively) by ecological footprint analysis, which shows that to support today’s population sustainably at current patterns of consumption would require roughly another half a planet, and to do so at the U.S. level would take four to five more Earths.

The seriousness of the situation can be seen in the prospects of Homo sapiens’ most important activity: producing and procuring food.  Today, at least two billion people are hungry or badly in need of better diets, and most analysts think doubling food production would be required to feed a 35% bigger and still growing human population adequately by 2050.  For any chance of success, humanity will need to stop expanding land area for agriculture (to preserve ecosystem services); raise yields where possible; increase efficiency in use of fertilizers, water, and energy; become more vegetarian; reduce food wastage; stop wrecking the oceans; significantly increase investment in sustainable agricultural research; and move feeding everyone to the very top of the policy agenda.

All of these tasks will require changes in human behavior long recommended but thus far elusive. Perhaps more critical, there may be insurmountable biophysical barriers to increasing yields – indeed, to avoiding reductions in yields – in the face of climate disruption.

Most people fail to realize the urgency of the food situation because they don’t understand the agricultural system and its complex, non-linear connections to the drivers of environmental deterioration.  The system itself, for example, is a major emitter of greenhouse gases and thus is an important driver of the climate disruption that seriously threatens food production.  More than a millennium of change in temperature and precipitation patterns is now already entrained, with the prospect of more crop-threatening severe storms, droughts, heat waves, and floods— all of which are already evident.  Thus maintaining – let alone expanding – food production will be ever more difficult in decades ahead.

Furthermore, agriculture is a leading cause of losses of biodiversity and the critical ecosystem services supplied to agriculture itself and other human enterprises, as well as a major source of global toxification, both of which pose additional risks to food production.  The threat to food production of climate disruption alone means that  humanity’s entire system for mobilizing energy needs to be rapidly transformed in an effort to hold atmospheric warming well below a lethal 5 degrees Centigrade rise in global average temperature.  It also means we must alter much of our water-handling infrastructure to provide the necessary flexibility to bring water to crops in an environment of constantly changing precipitation patterns.

Food is just the most obvious area where overpopulation tends to darken the human future – virtually every other human problem from air pollution and brute overcrowding to resource shortages and declining democracy is exacerbated by further population growth.  And, of course, one of our most serious problems is the failure of leadership on the population issue, in the United States and most nations. The situation is worst in the U.S. where the government never mentions population because of fear of the Catholic hierarchy specifically and the religious right in general, and the media keep publishing ignorant pro-natalist articles.

A prime example was a ludicrous 2010 New York Times screed by David Brooks, calling on Americans to cheer up because  “Over the next 40 years, the U.S. population will surge by an additional 100 million people, to 400 million.”  Equal total ignorance of the population-resource-environment situation was shown in 2012 by an article also in the New York Times by one Ross Douthat “More Babies, Please” and one by a Rick Newman in US News “Why a falling birth rate is a big problem,” both additional signs of the utter failure of the US educational system.

A popular movement is needed to correct that failure and direct cultural evolution toward providing the “foresight intelligence” and the agricultural, environmental, and demographic planning that markets cannot supply.  Then analysts (and society) might stop treating population growth as a “given” and consider the nutritional and health benefits of humanely ending growth well below 9 billion and starting a slow decline.  In my view, the best way to accelerate the move toward such population shrinkage is to give full rights, education, and job opportunities to women everywhere, and provide all sexually active human beings with modern contraception and backup abortion.  The degree to which that would reduce fertility rates is controversial, but it would be a win-win for society.  Yet the critical importance of increasing the inadequate current action on the demographic driver can be seen in the decades required to change the size of the population humanely and sensibly.  In contrast we know from such things as the World War II mobilizations that consumption patterns can be altered dramatically in less than a year, given appropriate incentives.

The movement should also highlight the consequences of such crazy ideas as growing an economy at 3-5% per year over decades – forever! — as most innumerate economists and politicians believe possible.  Most “educated” people do not realize that in the real world a short history of exponential growth does not imply a long future of such growth.  Developing foresight intelligence and mobilizing civil society for sustainability are central goals of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (“the MAHB” – mahb.stanford.edu).

Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org. Paul R. Ehrlich is the Bing Professor of Population Studies in the department of Biological Sciences at Stanford University and president of Stanford’s Center for Conservation Biology. He is the author of The Population Bomb, as well as hundreds of articles.

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Top 10 Policies for a Steady-State Economy by Herman Daly

A steady-state economy is one that develops qualitatively without growing quantitatively in physical dimensions.

A steady-state economy is one that develops qualitatively without growing quantitatively in physical dimensions.

Let’s get specific. Here are ten policies for ending un-economic growth and moving to a steady-state economy. A steady-state economy is one that develops qualitatively (by improvement in science, technology, art and ethics) without growing quantitatively in physical dimensions (getting bigger); it lives on a diet—a constant metabolic flow of resources from depletion to pollution (the entropic throughput) maintained at a level that is both sufficient for a good life and within the assimilative and regenerative capacities of the Earth’s ecosystem.

Ten is an arbitrary number—just a way to get specific and challenge others to suggest improvements. Although the whole package here discussed fits together in the sense that some policies supplement and balance others, most of them could be adopted singly and gradually.

1. Cap-auction-trade systems for basic resources.

Caps limit biophysical scale by quotas on depletion or pollution, whichever is more limiting. Auctioning the quotas captures scarcity rents for equitable redistribution. Trade allows efficient allocation to highest uses. This policy has the advantage of transparency. There is a limit to the amount and rate of depletion and pollution that the economy can be allowed to impose on the ecosystem. Caps are physical quotas, limits to the throughput of basic resources, especially fossil fuels. The quota usually should be applied at the input end because depletion is more spatially concentrated than pollution and hence easier to monitor. Also the higher price of basic resources will induce their more economical use at each upstream stage of production, as well as at the final stages of consumption and recycling. Ownership of the quotas is initially public—the government periodically auctions them to individuals and firms. There should be no “grandfathering” of quota rights to previous users, nor “offshoring” of quotas for new fossil fuel power plants in one place by credits from planting trees somewhere else. Reforestation is a good policy on its own. It is too late for self-canceling half measures—increased carbon sequestration and decreased emissions are both needed. The auction revenues go to the treasury and are used to replace regressive taxes, such as the payroll tax, and to reduce income tax on the lowest incomes. Once purchased at auction the quotas can be freely bought and sold by third parties, just as can the resources whose rate of depletion they limit. The cap serves the goal of sustainable scale; the auction serves the goal of fair distribution; and trading allows efficient allocation—three goals, three policy instruments. Although mainly applied to nonrenewable resources, the same logic works for limiting the off-take from renewable resources, such as fisheries and forests, with the quota level set to approximate a sustainable yield.

2. Ecological tax reform.

Shift the tax base from value added (labor and capital) to “that to which value is added,” namely the entropic throughput of resources extracted from nature (depletion), and returned to nature (pollution). Such a tax shift prices the scarce but previously un-priced contribution of nature. Value added to natural resources by labor and capital is something we want to encourage, so stop taxing it. Depletion and pollution are things we want to discourage, so tax them. Payment above necessary supply price is rent, unearned income, and most economists have long advocated taxing it, both for efficiency and equity reasons. Ecological tax reform can be an alternative or a supplement to cap-auction-trade systems.

3. Limit the range of inequality in income distribution with a minimum income and a maximum income.

Without aggregate growth poverty reduction requires redistribution. Unlimited inequality is unfair; complete equality is also unfair. Seek fair limits to the range of inequality. The civil service, the military, and the university manage with a range of inequality of a factor of 15 or 20. Corporate America has a range of 500 or more. Many industrial nations are below 25. Could we not limit the range to, say, 100, and see how it works? This might mean a minimum of 20 thousand dollars and a maximum of two million. Is that not more than enough to give incentive for hard work and compensate real differences? People who have reached the limit could either work for nothing at the margin if they enjoy their work, or devote their extra time to hobbies or public service. The demand left unmet by those at the top will be filled by those who are below the maximum. A sense of community, necessary for democracy, is hard to maintain across the vast income differences current in the United States. Rich and poor separated by a factor of 500 have few experiences or interests in common, and are increasingly likely to engage in violent conflict.

4. Free up the length of the working day, week, and year—allow greater option for part-time or personal work.

Full-time external employment for all is hard to provide without growth. Other industrial countries have much longer vacations and maternity leaves than the United States. For the classical economists the length of the working day was a key variable by which the worker (self-employed yeoman or artisan) balanced the marginal dis-utility of labor with the marginal utility of income and of leisure so as to maximize enjoyment of life. Under industrialism the length of the working day became a parameter rather than a variable (and for Karl Marx was the key determinant of the rate of exploitation). We need to make it more of a variable subject to choice by the worker. Milton Friedman wanted “freedom to choose.” OK, here is an important choice most of us are not allowed to make! And we should stop biasing the labor-leisure choice by advertising to stimulate more consumption and more labor to pay for it. At a minimum advertising should no longer be treated as a tax-deductible expense of production.

5. Re-regulate international commerce—move away from free trade, free capital mobility, and globalization.

Cap-auction-trade, ecological tax reform, and other national measures that internalize environmental costs will raise prices and put us at a competitive disadvantage in international trade with countries that do not internalize costs. We should adopt compensating tariffs to protect, not inefficient firms, but efficient national policies of cost internalization from standards-lowering competition with foreign firms that are not required to pay the social and environmental costs they inflict. This “new protectionism” is very different from the “old protectionism” that was designed to protect a truly inefficient domestic firm from a more efficient foreign firm. The first rule of efficiency is “count all the costs”—not “free trade,” which coupled with free capital mobility leads to a standards-lowering competition to count as few costs as possible. Tariffs are also a good source of public revenue. This will run afoul of the World Trade Organization/World Bank/International Monetary Fund, so….

6. Downgrade the WTO/WB/IMF.

Reform these organizations based on something like Keynes’s original plan for a multilateral payments clearing union, charging penalty rates on surplus as well as deficit balances with the union, and seek balance on current accounts, and thereby avoid large foreign debts and capital account transfers. For example, under Keynes’s plan the U.S. would pay a penalty charge to the clearing union for its large deficit with the rest of the world, and China would also pay a similar penalty for its surplus. Both sides of the imbalance would be pressured to balance their current accounts by financial penalties, and if need be by exchange rate adjustments relative to the clearing account unit, called the “bancor” by Keynes. The bancor would also serve as the world reserve currency, a privilege that should not be enjoyed by any national currency, including the U.S. dollar. Reserve currency status for the dollar is a benefit to the U.S.—rather like a truckload of free heroin is a benefit to an addict. The bancor would be like gold under the gold standard, only you would not have to tear up the Earth to dig it out. Alternatively a regime of freely fluctuating exchange rates is a viable possibility requiring less international cooperation.

7. Move away from fractional reserve banking toward a system of 100% reserve requirements.

This would put control of the money supply and seigniorage (profit made by the issuer of fiat money) in the hands of the government rather than private banks, which would no longer be able to live the alchemist’s dream by creating money out of nothing and lending it at interest. All quasi-bank financial institutions should be brought under this rule, regulated as commercial banks subject to 100% reserve requirements. Banks would earn their profit by financial intermediation only, lending savers’ money for them (charging a loan rate higher than the rate paid to savings or “time-account” depositors) and charging for checking, safekeeping, and other services. With 100% reserves every dollar loaned to a borrower would be a dollar previously saved by a depositor (and not available to him during the period of the loan), thereby re-establishing the classical balance between abstinence and investment. With credit limited by prior saving (abstinence from consumption) there will be less lending and borrowing and it will be done more carefully—no more easy credit to finance the massive purchase of “assets” that are nothing but bets on dodgy debts. To make up for the decline in bank-created, interest-bearing money the government can pay some of its expenses by issuing more non-interest-bearing fiat money. However, it can only do this up to a strict limit imposed by inflation. If the government issues more money than the public voluntarily wants to hold, the public will trade it for goods, driving the price level up. As soon as the price index begins to rise the government must print less and tax more. Thus a policy of maintaining a constant price index would govern the internal value of the dollar. The Treasury would replace the Fed, and the target policy variables would be the money supply and the price index, not the interest rate. The external value of the dollar could be left to freely fluctuating exchange rates (or preferably to the rate against the bancor in Keynes’s clearing union).

8. Stop treating the scarce as if it were free, and the free as if it were scarce.

Enclose the remaining open-access commons of rival natural capital (e.g., the atmosphere, the electromagnetic spectrum, and public lands) in public trusts, and price them by cap-auction-trade systems, or by taxes. At the same time, free from private enclosure and prices the non-rival commonwealth of knowledge and information. Knowledge, unlike the resource throughput, is not divided in the sharing, but multiplied. Once knowledge exists, the opportunity cost of sharing it is zero, and its allocative price should be zero. International development aid should more and more take the form of freely and actively shared knowledge, along with small grants, and less and less the form of large interest-bearing loans. Sharing knowledge costs little, does not create un-repayable debts, and increases the productivity of the truly rival and scarce factors of production. Patent monopolies (aka “intellectual property rights”) should be given for fewer “inventions,” and for fewer years. Costs of production of new knowledge should, more and more, be publicly financed and then the knowledge freely shared. Knowledge is a cumulative social product, and we have the discovery of the laws of thermodynamics, the double helix, polio vaccine, etc. without patent monopolies and royalties.

9. Stabilize population.

Work toward a balance in which births plus in-migrants equals deaths plus out-migrants. This is controversial and difficult, but as a start contraception should be made available for voluntary use everywhere. And while each nation can debate whether it should accept many or few immigrants, and who should get priority, such a debate is rendered moot if immigration laws are not enforced. We should support voluntary family planning and enforcement of reasonable immigration laws, democratically enacted.

10. Reform national accounts—separate GDP into a cost account and a benefits account.

Natural capital consumption and “regrettably necessary defensive expenditures” belong in the cost account. Compare costs and benefits of a growing throughput at the margin, and stop throughput growth when marginal costs equal marginal benefits. In addition to this objective approach, recognize the importance of the subjective studies that show that, beyond a threshold, further GDP growth does not increase self-evaluated happiness. Beyond a level already reached in many countries, GDP growth delivers no more happiness, but continues to generate depletion and pollution. At a minimum we must not just assume that GDP growth is economic growth, but prove that it is not uneconomic growth.

Currently these policies are beyond the pale politically. To the reader who has persevered this far, I thank you for your willing suspension of political disbelief. Only after a significant crash, a painful empirical demonstration of the failure of the growth economy, would this ten-fold program, or anything like it, stand a chance of being enacted.

To be sure, the conceptual change in vision from the norm of a growth economy to that of a steady-state economy is radical. Some of these proposals are rather technical and require more explanation and study. There is no escape from studying economics, even if, as Joan Robinson said, the main reason for it is to avoid being deceived by economists. Nevertheless, the policies required are far from revolutionary, and are subject to gradual application. For example, 100% reserve banking was advocated in the 1930s by the conservative Chicago School and can be approached gradually, the range of distributive inequality can be restricted gradually, caps can be adjusted gradually, etc. More importantly, these measures are based on the impeccably conservative institutions of private property and decentralized market allocation. The policies here advocated simply reaffirm forgotten pillars of those institutions, namely: (1) private property loses its legitimacy if too unequally distributed; (2) markets lose their legitimacy if prices do not tell the truth about opportunity costs; and as we have more recently learned (3) the macro-economy becomes an absurdity if its scale is required to grow beyond the biophysical limits of the Earth.

Well before reaching that radical biophysical limit, we are encountering the classical economic limit in which extra costs of growth become greater than the extra benefits, ushering in the era of uneconomic growth, whose very possibility is denied by the growthists.

The inequality of wealth distribution has canceled out the traditional virtues of private property by bestowing nearly all benefits of growth to the top 1%, while generously sharing the costs of growth with the poor. Gross inequality, plus monopolies, subsidies, tax loopholes, false accounting, cost-externalizing globalization, and financial fraud have made market prices nearly meaningless as measures of opportunity cost. For example, a policy of near zero interest rates (quantitative easing) to push growth and bail out big banks has eliminated the interest rate as a measure of the opportunity cost of capital, thereby crippling the efficiency of investment.

Trying to maintain the present growth-based Ponzi system is far more unrealistic than moving to a steady-state economy by something like the policies here outlined. It is probably too late to avoid unrealism’s inevitable consequences. But while we are hunkered down and unemployed, enduring the crash, we might think about the principles that should guide reconstruction.

Herman Daly is an American economist recognized as one of the founders of the field of ecological economics and as a critic of standard economic growth theory. Daly’s worked centers on the relationship of the economy and the environment, and the relationship of the economy to ethics. In his proposal for a steady state economy, he argues that policies are needed to guide society towards a constant population, a constant material standard of living, and a equitable distribution of wealth. 

From our friends at the Center for a Steady State Economy (CASSE) Source: http://steadystate.org/top-10-policies-for-a-steady-state-economy/

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