Monthly Archives: April 2013

Immigration and the Environment: It’s About The Numbers by Leah Durant

Kelp

The US-Mexico border fence in Southern California.

As Americans prepare for the President’s next four years, many conservationists are feeling a bit disappointed about the direction the US is heading in meeting environmental goals. While there have been recent rumblings of the Administration’s plan to move quickly with a solution to the county’s immigration predicament early in the President’s second term, unfortunately most of this energy is being devoted to discussions of amnesty rather than more sensible immigration enforcement. Members from both sides of the aisle fail to realize how essential immigration restrictions are to ensuring the health of the planet and the preservation of the nation’s fragile ecosystems.

Many policy makers still consider it taboo to address how massive immigration to the US, both legal and illegal, is driving unsustainable population growth.

If current immigration trends continue the US is projected to reach half a billion people by midcentury. Considering the huge amount of energy the average American consumes, Americans must find ways to reduce our per capita consumption of fossil fuels in order to avoid major ecological disasters. However, conservation is only part of the solution and will never provide the total solution we need to ensure a sustainable future.

The carbon footprint of an average American is many times greater than the footprints of our counterparts in the developing world. A 2009 Oregon study found that environmental practices such as recycling, driving fuel-efficient cars or using solar energy only barely reduces the overall impact that the average American has on the environment. Ultimately, to enact a positive change the fertility rate/number of Americans must be addressed in some way.

Three million individuals are added to the US population per year. The Center for Immigration Studies estimates that new immigrants and births to immigrants contribute to an increase of 2.3 million people in the US every year. Statistics have found that immigrants ultimately drive up the US fertility rate and thus are heavily responsible for the burgeoning US population. Obviously, the most sensible corrective to this high growth rate is reduced immigration levels, but political leaders have been extremely reluctant to even raise this possibility. We should not expect the rest of the world to pick up our slack and help balance this environmental tragedy.

Despite having what is arguably a mixed record on the environment, the President’s success in setting strict vehicle mileage standards and funding renewable energy projects have done volumes to educate Americans about their day-to-day impact on the environment. Though these accomplishments are worthy of recognition and our individual consciousness may be greater, we are still light years away from any major breakthroughs. The President and congressional leaders need to move away from timid, partial answers and embrace a radically altered framework to address environmental concerns. Let’s hope whatever solutions they propose, that those solutions do address the impact of immigration and overpopulation on the environment.

Leah Durant is the Executive Director of Progressives for Immigration Reform, a 501(c)(3) organization which seeks to examine the unintended consequences of U.S. immigration policies and strives to enhance the working conditions of people worldwide. Prior to her tenure at Progressives, Ms. Durant served as an Attorney with the Civil Division of United States Department of Justice. Ms. Durant holds a B.A. Degree from the University of Maryland, College Park, and a J.D. from the University of Maryland School of Law. Source: Progressives for Immigration Reform <http://www.progressivesforimmigrationreform.org&gt; November 15, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Immigration, Population, Sustainability

Energy, Ethics and Civilization by Vaclav Smil

Dr. Smil is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Manitoba.

Dr. Smil is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Manitoba.

In 1922 Alfred Lotka (1880–1949) formulated his law of maximized energy flows: In every instance considered, natural selection will so operate as to increase the total mass of the organic system, to increase the rate of circulation of matter through the system, and to increase the total energy flux through the system so long as there is present and unutilized residue of matter and available energy.

The greatest possible flux of useful energy, the maximum power output (rather than the highest conversion efficiency) thus governs the growth, reproduction, maintenance, and radiation of species and complexification of ecosystems. The physical expression of this tendency is, for example, the successional progression of vegetation communities toward climax ecosystems that maximize their biomass within the given environmental constraints—although many environmental disturbances may prevent an ecosystem from reaching that ideal goal. In the eastern United States, an unusually powerful hurricane may uproot most of the trees before an old-growth forest can maximize its biomass. Human societies are, fundamentally, complex subsystems of the biosphere and hence their evolution also tends to maximize their biomass, their rate of circulation of matter, and hence the total energy flux through the system.

The trend toward higher energy throughputs has been universal, but the process has been proceeding at a very uneven pace, with affluent countries claiming disproportionate shares of modern energies…..

In order to keep the future global warming (climate disruption) within acceptable limits, concentrations of atmospheric CO2 should be kept below 500 ppm (they surpassed 394 ppm in 2012). That, of course, implies a necessity of limiting the future rate of fossil fuel combustion. Two much-discussed strategies commonly seen as effective solutions are energy conservation and massive harnessing of renewable sources of energy. Unfortunately, neither of these strategies offers a real solution…. Claims that simple and cost-effective biomass approaches could provide 50% of the world’s TPES by 2050 or that 1–2 Gt of crop residues can be burned every year would put the human appropriation of phytomass close to or above 50% of terrestrial photosynthesis. This would further reduce the phytomass available for microbes and wild heterotrophs, eliminate or irreparably weaken many ecosystemic services, and reduce the recycling of organic matter in agriculture. Only an utterly biologically illiterate mind could recommend such action. . . .

These realities make it clear that a society concerned about equity, determined to extend a good quality of life to the largest possible number of its citizens and hence willing to channel its resources into the provision of adequate diets, good health care, and basic schooling could guarantee decent physical well-being with an annual per capita use (converted with today’s prevailing efficiencies) of as little as 50 GJ. (US is about 375 GJ)

Pushing beyond 110 GJ per capita has not brought many fundamental quality-of-life gains. I would argue that pushing beyond 200 GJ per capita has been, on the whole, counterproductive. The only unmistakable outcome is further environmental degradation.

The benefits of high energy use that are enjoyed by affluent countries, that is by less than one-sixth of humanity consuming more than150 GJ per capita, cannot be extended to the rest of the world because fossil fuels cannot be produced at that rate even if their resources were not an issue, and, in any case, the environmental consequences of this expansion would be quite unacceptable. Are not these realities sufficiently compelling to start us thinking about what too many people believe to be unthinkable, about approaching the global energy problem as an ethical challenge, as a moral dilemma? 

We have the technical and economic means to move gradually away from the pursuit of maximized energy throughputs and thus reverse perhaps the greatest imperative of human evolution. The most important first step is to agree that an ever-rising energy and material throughput is not a viable option on a planet that has a naturally limited capacity to absorb the environmental by-products of this ratcheting process. To invert Lotka’s dictum, we must so operate as to stabilize the total mass of the organic system, to limit the rate of circulation of matter through it, and to leave an un-utilized residue of matter and available energy in order to ensure the integrity of the biosphere.

Vaclav Smil received a doctorate in natural sciences from Carolinum University in Prague in 1965. In 1969, after the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia, he came to the United States, earning a Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University in 1972. Smil is now a Distinguished Professor at the University of Manitoba. His interdisciplinary research deals with interactions of energy, environment, food, economy, population and technical advances. He is the author of 30 books on these topics. Source: http://www.vaclavsmil.com/wp-content/uploads/docs/smil-articles-science-energy-ethics-civilization.pdf  Excerpts from Chapter 35 of Science, Energy, Ethics and Civilization.

Leave a comment

Filed under Climate, Energy, Environment, Ethics

The Great Transition: Building a Wind-Centered Economy by Lester R. Brown

As fossil fuel prices rise, as oil insecurity deepens, and as concerns about pollution and climate instability cast a shadow over the future of coal, a new world energy economy is emerging.

As fossil fuel prices rise, as oil insecurity deepens, and as concerns about pollution and climate instability cast a shadow over the future of coal, a new world energy economy is emerging.

The great energy transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy is under way. As fossil fuel prices rise, as oil insecurity deepens, and as concerns about pollution and climate instability cast a shadow over the future of coal, a new world energy economy is emerging. The old energy economy, fueled by oil, coal, and natural gas, is being replaced with an economy powered by wind, solar, and geothermal energy.

The Earth’s renewable energy resources are vast and available to be tapped through visionary initiatives. Our civilization needs to embrace renewable energy on a scale and at a pace we’ve never seen before.

We inherited our current fossil fuel-based world energy economy from another era. The 19th century was the century of coal, and oil took the lead during the 20th century. Today, global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2)—the principal climate-altering greenhouse gas—come largely from burning coal, oil, and natural gas. Coal, mainly used for electricity generation, accounts for 44% of global fossil-fuel CO2 emissions. Oil, used primarily for transportation, accounts for 36%. Natural gas, used for electricity and heating, accounts for the remaining 20%. It is time to design a carbon- and pollution-free energy economy for the 21st century.

Some trends are already moving in the right direction. The burning of coal, for example, is declining in many countries. In the United States (the #2 coal consumer after China) coal use dropped 14% from 2007 to 2011 as dozens of coal plants were closed. This trend is expected to continue, due in part to widespread opposition to coal now being organized by the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

Oil is used to produce just 5% of the world’s electricity generation and is becoming ever more costly. Because oil is used mainly for transport, we can phase it out by electrifying the transport system. Plug-in hybrid and all-electric cars can run largely on clean electricity. Wind-generated electricity to operate cars could cost the equivalent of 80-cent-per gallon gasoline.

As oil reserves are being depleted, the world has been turning its attention to plant-based energy sources. Their potential use is limited, though, because plants typically convert less than 1% of solar energy into biomass.

Crops can be used to produce automotive fuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel. Investments in U.S. corn-based ethanol distilleries became hugely profitable when oil prices jumped above $60 a barrel following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The investment frenzy that followed was also fueled by government mandates and subsidies. In 2011, the world produced 23 billion gallons of fuel ethanol and nearly 6 billion gallons of biodiesel.

But the more research that’s done on liquid biofuels, the less attractive they become. Every acre planted in corn for ethanol means pressure for another acre to be cleared elsewhere for crop production. Clearing land in the tropics for biofuel crops can increase greenhouse gas emissions instead of reducing them. Energy crops cannot compete with land-efficient wind power.

The scientific community is challenging the natural gas industry’s claim that its product is fairly climate-benign. Natural gas produced by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking (a much-touted key to expanding production) is even more climate-disruptive than coal because of methane gas leakage. (Methane is a potent contributor to climate change.)

The last half of the twentieth century brought us nuclear power, once widely touted as the electricity source of the future. Although nuclear reactors supply 13% of the world’s electricity, nuclear power’s limited role in our future has been clear for some time. It is simply too expensive.

Countries around the world are richly endowed with renewable energy, in some cases enough to easily double their current electrical generating capacities. A revamped clean energy economy will harness more energy from the wind and sun, and from within the Earth itself. Climate-disrupting fossil fuels will fade into the past as countries turn to clean, climate-stabilizing, non-depletable sources of energy. The growth in the use of solar cells that convert sunlight into electricity can only be described as explosive, expanding by 74% in 2011. Early photovoltaic (PV) installations were all small-scale—mostly on residential rooftops. That’s changing as more utility-scale PV projects are being launched. The United States, for example, has under construction and development more than 100 utility scale projects. Solar-generated electricity is particularly attractive in desert regions such as the U.S. Southwest because peak generation meshes nicely with peak air conditioning use.

The world’s current 70,000 megawatts of photovoltaic installations can, when operating at peak power, match the output of 70 nuclear power plants. With PV installations climbing and with costs continuing to fall, cumulative PV generating capacity could surpass 1 million megawatts in 2020. (Current world electricity generating capacity from all sources is 5 million megawatts.) Installing solar panels for individual homes in the villages of developing countries is now often cheaper than it is to supply them with electricity by building a central power plant and a grid.

The heat that comes from within the Earth—geothermal energy—can be used for heating or converted into steam to generate electricity. Many countries have enough harnessable geothermal energy to satisfy all of their electricity needs. Despite this abundance, the geothermal energy capacity installed as of 2012 is only enough to provide electricity for some 10 million homes worldwide.

Roughly half of the world’s 11,000 megawatts of installed geothermal generating capacity is concentrated in the United States and the Philippines. Altogether, 24 countries now convert geothermal energy into electricity. The United States, with 130 confirmed geothermal plants under construction or in development, will be bringing at least 1,000 megawatts of generating capacity online in the near term. Worldwide, this accelerating pace could yield 200,000 megawatts of generating capacity by 2020.

Each alternative energy source—whether solar, geothermal, or wind—has a major role to play, but it is wind that is on its way to becoming the foundation of the new energy economy.

In the race to transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy and avoid runaway climate change, wind has opened a wide lead on both solar and geothermal energy. Solar panels, with a capacity totaling 70,000 megawatts, and geothermal power plants, with a capacity of some 11,000 megawatts, are generating electricity around the world. The total capacity for the world’s wind farms, now generating power in about 80 countries, is near 240,000 megawatts. China and the United States are in the lead.

In the race to transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy and avoidrunaway climate change, wind has opened a wide lead on both solar and geothermal energy.

In the race to transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy and avoid
runaway climate change, wind has opened a wide lead on both solar and geothermal energy.

Over the past decade, world wind electric generating capacity grew at nearly 30% per year, its increase driven by its many attractive features and by public policies supporting its expansion. Wind is abundant, carbon-free and nondepletable. It uses no water, no fuel, and little land. Wind is also locally available, scales up easily, and can be brought online quickly. No other energy source can match this combination of features.

One reason wind power is so popular is that it has a small footprint. Although a wind farm can cover many square miles, turbines occupy only 1% of that area. Compared with other renewable sources of energy, wind energy yield per acre is off the charts. For example, a farmer in northern Iowa could plant an acre in corn that yields enough grain to produce roughly $1,000 worth of fuel-grade ethanol per year, or he could use that same acre to site a turbine producing $300,000 worth of electricity each year.

Because turbines take up only 1% of the land covered by a wind farm, ranchers and farmers can, in effect, double-crop their land, simultaneously harvesting electricity while producing cattle, wheat or corn. With no investment on their part, farmers and ranchers can receive $3,000 to $10,000 a year in royalties for each wind turbine on their land. For thousands of ranchers on the U.S. Great Plains, wind royalties will one day dwarf their earnings from cattle sales.

Wind is also abundant. In the United States, three wind-rich states—North Dakota, Kansas, and Texas—have enough harnessable wind energy to easily satisfy national electricity needs. Another attraction of wind energy is that it is not depletable. The amount of wind energy used today has no effect on the amount available tomorrow.

Unlike coal, gas, and nuclear power plants, wind farms do not require water for cooling. As wind backs out coal and natural gas in power generation, water will be freed up for irrigation and other needs.

Perhaps wind’s strongest attraction is that there is no fuel cost. After the wind farm is completed, the electricity flows with no monthly fuel bill. And while it may take a decade to build a nuclear power plant, the construction time for the typical wind farm is one year.

Future wind complexes in the Great Plains, in the North Sea, off the coast of China or the eastern coast of the United States may have generating capacity measured in the tens of thousands of megawatts. Planning and investment in wind projects is occurring on a scale not previously seen in the traditional energy sector.

One of the obvious downsides of wind is its variability. But as wind farms multiply, this becomes less of an issue. Because no two farms have identical wind profiles, each farm added to a grid reduces variability. A Stanford University research team has pointed out that with thousands of wind farms and a national grid in a country such as the United States, wind becomes a remarkably stable source of electricity.

In more densely populated areas, there is often local opposition to wind power— the NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) response. But in the vast ranching and farming regions of the United States, wind is immensely popular for economic reasons. For ranchers in the Great Plains, farmers in the Midwest or dairy farmers in upstate New York, there is a PIMBY (“put it in my backyard”) response.

Farmers and ranchers welcome the additional income from having wind turbines on their land. Rural communities compete for wind farm investments and the additional tax revenue to support their schools and roads.

One of the keys to developing wind resources is building the transmission lines to link wind-rich regions with population centers. Perhaps the most exciting grid project under consideration is the ‘Tres Amigas’ electricity hub, a grid interconnection center to be built in eastern New Mexico. It will link the three U.S. electricity grids—the Eastern, Western, and Texas grids. ‘Tres Amigas’ is a landmark in the evolution of the new energy economy. With high-voltage lines linking the three grids where they are close to each other, electricity can be moved from one part of the United States to another as conditions warrant. By matching surpluses with deficits over a broader area, electricity wastage and consumer rates can both be reduced. Other long distance transmission lines are under construction or in the planning stages.

We know that rapid growth in wind generation is possible. U.S. wind generating capacity expanded by 45% in 2007 and 50% in 2008. If we expanded world wind generation during this decade at 40% per year, the 238,000 megawatts of generating capacity at the end of 2011 would expand to nearly 5 million megawatts in 2020. Combined with an ambitious solar and geothermal expansion, along with new hydro projects in the pipeline, this would total 7.5 million megawatts of renewable generating capacity, enabling us to back out all of the coal and oil and most of the natural gas now used to generate electricity.

In addition to the shift to renewable sources of energy, there are two other critical components of this climate stabilization plan: rapidly increasing the energy efficiency of industry, appliances, and lighting, and restructuring the transportation sector, electrifying it as much as possible while ramping up public transit, biking and walking. (With this latter component, we would be able to back out much of the oil used for transportation.)

This energy restructuring would require roughly 300,000 wind turbines per year over the next decade. Can we produce those? For sure. Keep in mind that the world today is producing some 70 million cars, trucks, and buses each year. Many of the wind turbines needed to back out fossil fuels in electricity generation worldwide could be produced in currently idled automobile assembly plants in the United States alone. The plants would, of course, need to be modified to shift from automobiles to wind turbines, but it is entirely doable. In World War II, Chrysler went from making cars to tanks in a matter of months. If we could do that then, we and the rest of the world can certainly build the 300,000 wind turbines per year we now need to build the new energy economy and stabilize the climate.

For the first time since the Industrial Revolution began, we have an opportunity to invest in alternative sources of energy that can last as long as the Earth itself. The choice is ours. We can stay with business as usual, or we can move the world onto a path of sustained progress. The choice will be made by our generation, but it will affect life on Earth for all generations to come.

The Washington Post has called Lester R. Brown “one of the world’s most influential thinkers.” He started his career as a farmer, growing tomatoes in New Jersey with his brother. After earning a degree in Agricultural Science from Rutgers University, he spent six months in rural India, an experience that changed his life and career. Brown founded the WorldWatch Institute and then the Earth Policy Institute, where he now serves as President. The purpose of the Earth Policy Institute is to provide a vision of an environmentally sustainable economy, a roadmap of how to get from here to there—as well as an ongoing assessment of progress. Brown has authored many books. His most recent is Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity. It is available online at www.earth-policy.org/books/fpep  and at booksellers. Supporting data, endnotes, and additional resources are available for free downloading.

Leave a comment

Filed under Climate, Economy, Energy, Environment, Growth, Natural Resources, Sustainability

Have You Had Enough? by Suzanne York

The book contains an actual blueprint of policies that could create a sustainable economy.

The book contains an actual blueprint of policies that could create a sustainable economy.

A Plan for a Sustainable Economy

“Here’s the deal: forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done.”  ~ Paul Hawken

This quote by Paul Hawken epitomizes the ideas and initiatives reflected in the new book Enough is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources, which lays out a path for overcoming so-called impossibilities in our world. The book constructs a realistic and actionable plan that should guide all of us as we confront increasingly dire and critical issues facing the planet. There will always be naysayers yelling out “impossible!”, but clearly we are way past listening to them.

The basic question that Enough is Enough asks is how we can transition from a global economic system dependent upon unsustainable and endless growth to a steady-state economy. According to authors Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill, the purpose of the book is to show “how to establish a prosperous yet non-growing economy.”

A steady-state economy is defined as an economy which “aims for stable or mildly fluctuating levels in population and consumption of energy and material.” Even Adam Smith realized there were limits to economic growth. He predicted that eventually natural resources would become more scarce, population growth would depress wages, and division of labor would approach the limits of its effectiveness.

For some people, a steady-state economy is a radical idea. For others, it makes perfect sense in a world of finite resources with gross inequalities and a lot people stuck in the daily grind and not so happy, despite the latest got-to-have-it technology.

Enough is Enough actually builds the groundwork for moving towards a society that lives within its means and focuses on the things people want—happiness, well-being, economic security, food security, good health, clean environment, strong communities, and so on. Perhaps most importantly, it does so in a straightforward and reader-friendly manner.

The book contains an actual blueprint of policies that could create a sustainable economy. Proposed solutions include: establishing more worker-owned companies, prohibiting banks from issuing money as debt (essentially preventing banks from creating money “out of thin air”), local currencies, and work-time reduction (to help reduce unemployment and improve citizen well-being).

Dietz and O’Neill believe the following policy directions would serve as pillars of a steady-state economy:

  • Limit the use of materials and energy to sustainable levels;
  • Stabilize population through compassionate and non-coercive means;
  • Achieve a fair distribution of income and wealth;
  • Reform monetary and financial systems for stability;
  • Change the way we measure progress;
  • Secure meaningful jobs and full employment;
  • Reconfigure the way businesses create value.

Enough is Enough also positively and pro-actively deals with the often taboo subject of population growth. Just as with the economy, a steady population is needed in a world of finite resources. Most importantly, Dietz and O’Neill recognize that “hidden in population numbers are real people”, something that often gets lost in the discussion of a world of 7 billion people, and likely to grow to between 8 to 10 billion by 2050. Unless compassionate, non-coercive policies are devised, any population policy will ultimately not work. Successful policies include actions such as educating girls, empowering women, and providing family planning services.

The two authors bravely wade into the immigration debate, also a tumultuous issue. They are in favor of honoring current U.S. immigration policy of accepting refugees and reuniting families. As for admitting workers with specific skills to fill jobs (also U.S policy), they suggest that the U.S and other wealthy countries are tapping the best educated and skilled foreign workers, which results in a “brain drain” for the developing countries from which these workers mainly come. Developed countries want top talent to spur more economic growth. Yet in doing so, the wealthy (and high-consuming) countries increase population growth to the detriment of less wealthy nations.

It’s a sensitive subject, yet if you look past the emotional arguments around immigration, as the authors do, you’ll see that their position is one where, in their words, “Instead of recruiting educated and entrepreneurial people from abroad, wealthy nations should cultivate talent at home and encourage nations abroad to retain their most capable workers.” In a sense, it’s localizing the workforce, for the good of societies in both developed and developing countries.

The world is facing many critical issues, yet for the most part stubbornly continues with business as usual, to the detriment of society and the planet. Enough is Enough effectively tackles issues too many people want to ignore. Moreover, it not only provides fodder for lively discussions, but practical ideas for achieving a sustainable economy and healthy communities.

Suzanne York is a senior writer with the Institute for Population Studies.

Source: PopulationGrowth.org < http://populationgrowth.org/have-you-had-enough-a-plan-for-a-sustainable-economy/> January 18, 2013. Reprinted with permission.

Leave a comment

Filed under Economy, Growth, Population, Sustainability

What is the Limiting Factor by Herman Daly

"Somehow, we have come to think the whole purpose of the economy is to grow, yet growth is not a goal or purpose. The pursuit of endless growth is suicidal." ~ David Suzuki

“Somehow, we have come to think the whole purpose of the economy is to grow, yet growth is not a goal or purpose. The pursuit of endless growth is suicidal.” ~ David Suzuki

Problems can be solved, but first they have to be recognized and then recognized as urgent. Then comes the more difficult process of changing our mindset and our expectations.

In yesteryear’s empty world, capital was the limiting factor in economic growth. But we now live in a full world.

Consider: What limits the annual fish catch—fishing boats (capital) or remaining fish in the sea (natural resources)? Clearly the latter. What limits barrels of crude oil extracted—drilling rigs and pumps (capital), or remaining accessible deposits of petroleum—or capacity of the atmosphere to absorb the CO2 from burning petroleum (both natural resources)? What limits production of cut timber—number of chain saws and lumber mills, or standing forests and their rate of growth? What limits irrigated agriculture—pumps and sprinklers, or aquifer recharge rates and river flow volumes? That should be enough to at least suggest that we live in a natural resource-constrained world, not a capital-constrained world.

Economic logic says to invest in and economize on the limiting factor. Economic logic has not changed; what has changed is the limiting factor. It is now natural resources, not capital, that we must economize on and invest in. Economists have not recognized this fundamental shift in the pattern of scarcity. Nobel Laureate in chemistry and underground economist, Frederick Soddy, predicted the shift eighty years ago. He argued that mankind ultimately lives on current sunshine, captured with the aid of plants, soil, and water. This fundamental permanent basis for life is temporarily supplemented by the release of trapped sunshine of Paleozoic summers that is being rapidly depleted to fuel what he called “the flamboyant age.” So addicted are we to this short-run subsidy that our technocrats advocate shutting out some of the incoming solar energy to make more thermal room for burning fossil fuels! These educated cretins are also busy chemically degrading the topsoil and polluting the water, while tinkering with the genetic basis of plants, all toward the purpose of maximizing short-run growth. As Wes Jackson says, agricultural plants now have genes selected by the Chicago Board of Trade, not by fitness to the ecosystem of surrounding organisms and geography.

What has kept economists from recognizing Soddy’s insight? An animus against dependence on nature, and a devotion to dominance. This basic attitude has been served by a theoretical commitment to substitutability and a neglect of complementarity by today’s neoclassical economists. In the absence of complementarity there can be no limiting factor—if capital and natural resources are substitutes in production then neither can be limiting—if one is in short supply you just substitute the other and continue producing. If they are complements both are necessary and the one in short supply is limiting.

Economists used to believe that capital was the limiting factor. Therefore they implicitly must have believed in complementarity between capital and natural resources back in the empty-world economy. But when resources became limiting in the new full-world economy, rather than recognizing the shift in the pattern of scarcity and the new limiting factor, they abandoned the whole idea of limiting factor by emphasizing substitutability to the exclusion of complementarity. The new reason for emphasizing capital over natural resources is the claim that capital is a near perfect substitute for resources.

William Nordhaus and James Tobin were quite explicit (“Is Growth Obsolete?,” 1972, NBER, Economic Growth, New York: Columbia University Press): “The prevailing standard model of growth assumes that there are no limits on the feasibility of expanding the supplies of nonhuman agents of production. It is basically a two-factor model in which production depends only on labor and reproducible capital.  Land and resources, the third member of the classical triad, have generally been dropped… the tacit justification has been that reproducible capital is a near perfect substitute for land and other exhaustible resources.”

The claim that capital is a near perfect substitute for natural resources is absurd. For one thing substitution is reversible. If capital is a near perfect substitute for resources, then resources are a near perfect substitute for capital—so why then did we ever bother to accumulate capital in the first place if nature already endowed us with a near perfect substitute?

It is not for nothing that our system is called “capitalism” rather than “natural resource-ism.” It is ideologically inconvenient for capitalism if capital is no longer the limiting factor. But that inconvenience has been met by claiming that capital is a good substitute for natural resources. Ever true to its basic animus of denying any fundamental dependence on nature, neoclassical economics saw only two alternatives—either nature is not scarce and capital is limiting, or nature’s scarcity doesn’t matter because manmade capital is a near perfect substitute for natural resources. In either case man is in control of nature, thanks to capital, and that is the main thing. Never mind that manmade capital is itself made from natural resources.

The absurdity of the claim that capital and natural resources are good substitutes has been further demonstrated by Georgescu-Roegen in his fund-flow theory of production. It recognizes that factors of production are of two qualitatively different kinds: (1) resource flows that are physically transformed into flows of product and waste; and (2) capital and labor funds, the agents or instruments of transformation that are not themselves physically embodied in the product. If one finds a machine screw or a piece of a worker’s finger in one’s can of soup, that is reason for a lawsuit, not confirmation of the metaphysical notion that capital and labor are somehow “embodied” in the product!

Further, capital is current surplus production exchanged for a lien against future production—physically it is made from natural resources. It is not easy to substitute away from natural resources when the presumed substitute is itself made from natural resources.

Curing Poverty?

It is now generally recognized, even by economists, that there is far too much debt worldwide, both public and private. The reason so much debt was incurred is that we have had absurdly unrealistic expectations about the efficacy of capital to produce the real growth needed to redeem the debt that is “capital” by another name. In other words the debt that piled up in failed attempts to make wealth grow as fast as debt is evidence of the reality of limits to growth. But instead of being seen as such, it is taken as the main reason to attempt still more growth by issuing more debt, and by shifting bad debts from the balance sheet of private banks to that of the public treasury, in effect monetizing them.

The wishful thought leading to such unfounded growth expectations was the belief that by growth we would cure poverty without the need to share. As the poor got richer, the rich could get still richer! Few expected that aggregate growth itself would become uneconomic, would begin to cost us more than it was worth at the margin, making us collectively poorer, not richer. But it did. In spite of that, our economists, bankers, and politicians still have unrealistic expectations about growth. Like the losing gambler they try to get even by betting double or nothing on more growth.

The Steady-State Economy

Could we not take a short time-out from growth roulette to reconsider the steady-state economy? After all, the idea is deeply rooted in classical economics, as well as in physics and biology. Perpetual motion and infinite growth are not reasonable premises on which to base economic policy.

At some level many people surely know this. Why then do we keep growth as the top national priority?

First, we are misled because our measure of growth, GDP, counts all “economic activity” thereby conflating costs and benefits, rather than comparing them at the margin.

Second, the cumulative net benefit of past growth is a maximum at precisely the point where further growth becomes uneconomic (where declining marginal benefit equals increasing marginal cost), and past experience ceases to be a good guide to the future in this respect.

Third, because even though the benefits of further growth are now less than the costs, our decision-making elites have figured out how to keep the dwindling extra benefits for themselves, while “sharing” the exploding extra costs with the poor, the future, and other species. The elite-owned media, the corporate-funded think tanks, the kept economists of high academia, and the World Bank—not to mention Goldman Sacks and Wall Street—all sing hymns to growth in perfect unison, and bamboozle average citizens.

What is going to happen?

Herman E. Daly is one of the world’s foremost ecological economists. He is Emeritus Professor at the University of Maryland, School of Public Policy. From 1988 to 1994 he was Senior Economist in the Environment Department of the World Bank. His interest in economic development, population, resources, and environment has resulted in over a hundred articles in professional journals and anthologies, as well as numerous books, including Toward a Steady-State Economy. He is co-author with theologian John B. Cobb, Jr. of For the Common Good  which received the 1991 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas for Improving World Order. Over his career, Herman has taken a courageous stance, swimming upstream against the currents of conventional economic thought. Source: Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE) < http://steadystate.org/what-is-the-limiting-factor/>

“Somehow, we have come to think the whole purpose of the economy is to grow, yet growth is not a goal or purpose. The pursuit of endless growth is suicidal.”

~ David Suzuki

6 Comments

Filed under Economy, Energy, Growth, Natural Resources, Population