Category Archives: Consumption

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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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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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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Hedonism, Survivalism, and the Burden of Knowledge by James Magnus-Johnston

 

A Black Friday commentary event in Portland, Oregon. Photo by Michael Holdne.

A Black Friday commentary event in Portland, Oregon. Photo by Michael Holdne.

If human beings are naturally predisposed to deny the precarious reality of our planet’s health, that would help explain the undeserved endurance of the growth narrative. Self-imposed ignorance, in other words, is bliss. It absolves us from the responsibility of action.

What about the rest of us? For those of us that have ‘quit denial,’ so to speak, can conscious awareness be channeled to motivate positive action? Or is hope futile in the face of an enormous task?

A recent article by Madeline Thomas in Grist featured the headline, “Climate depression is for real. Just ask a scientist.” Scientists’ intimate understanding of climate change has led to depression, substance abuse, suicide, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Camillie Parmesan, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize for her work as a lead author of the Third IPCC Assessment Report, became “profoundly depressed” at the seeming futility of her work. She had been screaming from the scientific rooftops, yet the best we could offer in response was little more than a call for more carbon-intensive growth.

Evolutionary psychologists Ajit Varki and Danny Brower believe that some of the earliest humans fell into depression due to their awareness of mortality, while others were able to carry on without becoming crippled by this realization. Mind-over-reality became humanity’s defining characteristic, enabling us to maintain sanity in the face of danger. On a society-wide basis, anxiety and depression could cause an avoidance of procreation, which would be an evolutionary dead-end.

We’re now confronting not only our individual mortality, but perhaps even the mortality of our species, according to a few controversial voices. Ecologist Guy McPherson is among those who have suggested that near-term human extinction is inevitable. James Lovelock, author of the Gaia hypothesis, believes that climate catastrophe is inevitable within 20 years. With an awareness of the rate of species loss and climate change, among other symptoms of breakdown, it isn’t hard to fall into paralysis and despair.

But others seem able to carry on without being crippled by this realization. Proponents of the steady state economy are among those who remain optimistic in the face of long odds, and generally, I think we fall into one of three camps: survivalists, hedonists, and denialists.

The Survivalists among us are easiest to spot. We all know the survivalists among us. They’re the lot that want to voluntarily extricate themselves from known civilization before the imagined ‘$h!t’ hits the fan in some kind of imagined catastrophic event. They dream of a semi-pastoral existence in the agrarian hinterlands, far from the commercialized zombies who wouldn’t know how to take care of themselves without the convenience of a department store. They’re hard workers who romantically hope to re-kindle the low-carbon self-sufficiency of generations past.

Then there are the Hedonists, and I’d be willing to wager that a great many well-educated millennials fall into this category, sometimes by accident. Hedonists might accept the ecological challenges we face and withdraw from the growth-obsessed formal economy. But rather than heading for the hills, they do what they love. I think these are many of the artists, dumpster-divers, and coffee-enthusiasts among us. You can’t measure their contribution to change in terms of GDP. Both McPherson and Lovelock seem to prescribe hedonism, with Lovelock calling for us to “enjoy life while we can” because “in 20 years, global warming will hit the fan.” McPherson, for his part, calls upon us to “passionately pursue a life of excellence,” and practice the radical generosity associated with hospice care. For the hedonist, “carpe diem” is the modus operandi. They’re always asking themselves: what must we do, knowing that we only have a little bit of time left?

And finally, the Denialist. A little bit of overconfidence and denial can come in pretty handy from an evolutionary perspective, because it keeps us from obsessing about the abysmal end. In this case, I’m not referring to outright denial of climate change–the “climate deniers.” I’m referring to those of us who accept planetary life support breakdown, but hope that maybe—just maybe—human civilization has enough wiggle room to squeak by. Just enough methodological uncertainty to restore this blue dot to health. After all, careful skepticism is the essence of good science. Hydrogeologist Scott Johnson, for instance, has written a long rebuttal to the claims of Guy McPherson. Denialists would be more inclined to lean on the kind of methodological uncertainty emphasized by Mr. Johnson, and reject the kind of claims offered by McPherson and Lovelock.

I fall into each of these camps from time to time. As a survivalist, I hope to learn how to garden a little bit every summer and support the DIY economy. As a hedonist, I will do what I love and passionately engage in conversations about catalyzing the steady state economy, because I believe it sets a new standard of excellence for the 21st century. In fact, all things considered, I believe the steady state economy represents a balanced “middle way” between ignorance and paralysis. And with a healthy dose of denial, I will continue to hope that somehow, the margin of error is just wide enough to turn Spaceship Earth around.

Source: The Daly News, Posted: 27 Nov 2014, from CASSE <http://steadystate.org/&gt;

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NOT YET? The Power of Ignorance, Denial, Faith, and Greed by Paul Ehrlich and John Harte

Sadly, the drift toward apocalypse is propelled by four horsemen: ignorance, denial, faith, and greed.

Sadly, the drift toward apocalypse is propelled by four horsemen: ignorance, denial, faith, and greed.

The summer 2014 issue of CALIFORNIA, the magazine of the University of California Alumni Association, was touted as the “Apocalypse Issue.” It contained articles, mostly excellent, on a series of potential California and global problems: asteroid collision, epidemics, extinction, climate disruption and earthquake.  In stark contrast, though, was a summary article, “Apocalypse Later” by Brendan Buhler, interim Science Editor for the issue. 

Buhler’s essay hinges around two assertions about the future.  On the one hand he says that apocalypse is far off in the future.  It is “not yet”; there is time.  Time for what?  For the technological solutions that he asserts are just around the corner.  To advise a wait-and-see attitude when it comes to confronting severe threats to us and our descendants, and a thoughtless confidence when it comes to future breakthroughs in technology, is a lethal combination; it is not the advice we and many of our scientist colleagues offer up in the classroom.

Sadly, the drift toward apocalypse is propelled by four horsemen: ignorance, denial, faith, and greed.  Education can cure ignorance, and most of the essays in this issue of CALIFORNIA are a useful step in that direction.  But denial, blind faith, and greed are pervasive and recalcitrant, as Buhler demonstrates. 

Greed, long recognized as the basis of modern economic systems, is illustrated by Buhler’s assertions about salvation via new supplies of oil made available by melting ice caps.  Those who would exploit these resources do so out of greed, not out of concern about the collapse of civilization, and in fact the exploitation of those resources will hasten collapse.  Buhler expresses faith that farm yields will begin to rise again, faith in a second coming of the Green Revolution.  And his assertion that biofuels could well be the path to sustainable energy denies a growing body of scientific literature demonstrating the many ways that reliance on biofuel technology will leave the planet in even worse shape than it currently is: more vulnerable to energy supply disruption because of energy dependence on a capricious climate, more depauperate of biodiversity, and shorter of food as critical resources such as water, nutrients, and land become even more depleted.   

To see Denial in operation, consider the rant that frames the entire article: Buhler’s dismissal of the concerns about population size found in both Malthus and The Population Bomb.  As is true of so many critics of Malthus and the “Bomb“, Buhler appears to have not understood the content of either.  A widely cited passage from the latter stated “In the 1970s the world will undergo famines – hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” Let’s evaluate that passage in the light of the reality today.  Buhler denies that some 300 million people have died of hunger or hunger-related disease since the “Bomb” was written, and that at least two billion people are hungry or nutrient malnourished today – despite the crash program of the “Green Revolution.”  

Buhler notes the many barriers to improving food security – the brutal crashes in fisheries, ocean acidification and warming, soil loss, and the like, but simply asserts “there are solutions to these problems.” He does not note how far above the long-term carrying capacity of Earth the human enterprise has expanded.   

In short Buhler’s implication that controlling human numbers is not required to solve food problems may be true for the very wealthy, at least for now, but the failure of human beings to solve the production/distribution problems exacerbated by overpopulation has already caused, and is now causing, so much death and misery that “not yet” seems like a very bad joke. 

Buhler might have the ignorance excuse for not realizing things like the many nonlinear negative effects of population increase, or the frequently-studied tight relationships between human population size and epidemics, and human numbers and the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services.  But only denial can explain his (and most of the media’s) failure to point out the way human population growth helps drive climate disruption, sea level rise, ocean acidification, and soil loss (all those things which Buhler tells us have solutions, but just “not yet”).

Buhler’s “Apocalypse issue” doesn’t touch on one of the most significant elements of the approaching apocalypse:  building resource/climate wars could easily become nuclear, especially if triggered by the not unlikely possibility of nuclear terrorism.  He doubtless is unfamiliar with the doom inherent in even minor nuclear conflicts.  In his funniest statement Buhler says that “As [oil] supplies dwindle….before long it’s resource wars.”  We wonder if he even knows about Iraq!  But overall, Buhler sadly suffers from a clear case of what political scientist Gunther Anders calls “apocalypse blindness” – an inability to weigh up and respond appropriately to real dangers.   He does not make the connections among the generally excellent other articles in the “Apocalypse Issue” that would tie them together in the notorious perfect storm of environmental existential problems that are already ruining millions of human lives and darkening the future of civilization.  “Not yet”?  Nonsense.

Pete Seeger summarized our situation best when he wrote about Vietnam:  “We were waist deep in the Big Muddy, and the big fool said to push on.”  To a nation eager to cease fighting an unwarranted and unwinnable war nearly 50 years ago, the nation was told “not yet”.  Today, it is most disappointing to hear that same bad advice, “not yet”, given to university students eager to get to work on a warranted and achievable transition to a sustainable economy and a humane population size.  Means of achieving the former exist in the form of improved efficiency and ever more affordable energy from wind and sun.  Progress toward a sustainable human population worldwide can be made by affording women basic human rights and access to contraceptives, which give women the capacity to exercise freedom over their own reproduction.  Amazingly, in place of advocating these sensible strategies for reducing the risk of apocalypse, Buhler offers up biofuels, oil from under the ice caps, and obliviousness to the population issue. A magazine representing a great institution of higher education can do better than feature such a splendid example of ignorance, denial, faith, and greed

Source: Millenium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (MAHB) http://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/not-yet/

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Water and Population by Lester Brown and the Earth Policy Institute

Water scarcity may be the most underrated resource issue the world is facing today.

Water scarcity may be the most underrated resource issue the world is facing today.

It took all of human history (thousands of years) until 1920 for the Earth to have 2 billion people. Now, in only 94 years, the Earth holds more than 7.2 billion people. Each person needs fresh water and food every day. According to Lester Brown, “Each day we drink nearly 4 liters of water, but it takes some 2,000 liters of water—500 times as much—to produce the food we consume.” More people, more water consumption. Water scarcity may be the most underrated resource issue the world is facing today.

Water Resources Fact Sheet from Lester Brown, Earth Policy Institute

• Seventy percent of world water use is for irrigation.

• 1,000 tons of water is used to produce 1 ton of grain.

• Between 1950 and 2000, the world’s irrigated area tripled to roughly 700 million acres. After several decades of rapid increase, however, the growth has slowed dramatically, expanding only 9 percent from 2000 to 2009. Given that governments are much more likely to report increases than decreases, the recent net growth may be even smaller.

• The dramatic loss of momentum in irrigation expansion coupled with the depletion of underground water resources suggests that peak water may now be on our doorstep. Add to this the continuing growth of human population.

• Failing aquifers: Today some 18 countries, containing half the world’s people, are overpumping their aquifers. Among these are the big three grain producers—China, India, and the United States. Important: these are also the 3 most populous countries in the world.

• Saudi Arabia is the first country to publicly predict how aquifer depletion will reduce its grain harvest. It will soon be totally dependent on imports from the world market or overseas farming projects for its grain.

• Rivers now run dry: While falling water tables are largely hidden, rivers that run dry or are reduced to a trickle before reaching the sea are highly visible. Among this group that has limited outflow during at least part of the year are the Colorado, the major river in the southwestern United States; the Yellow, the largest river in northern China; the Nile, the lifeline of Egypt; the Indus, which supplies most of Pakistan’s irrigation water; and the Ganges in India’s densely populated Gangetic basin.

• Many smaller rivers and lakes have disappeared entirely as water demands have increased.

• Overseas “land grabs” for farming are also water grabs. Among the prime targets for overseas land acquisitions are Ethiopia and the Sudans, which together occupy three-fourths of the Nile River Basin, adding to the competition with Egypt for the river’s water.

• Future wars will more likely be fought over water than oil, but in reality the competition for water is taking place in world grain markets. The countries that are financially the strongest, not necessarily those that are militarily the strongest, will fare best in this competition.

Climate change is hydrological change. Higher global average temperatures will mean more droughts in some areas, more flooding in others, and less predictability overall.

 

Posted on July 30, 2014. Data and additional resources available at www.earth-policy.org. Feel free to pass this information along to friends, family members, and colleagues!

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The Downfall of the Plastic Bag by Janet Larsen and Savina Venkova 

plastics

Cattle dine in an illegal dump site.

Worldwide, a trillion single-use plastic bags are used each year, nearly 2 million each minute. Usage varies widely among countries, from over 400 a year for many East Europeans, to just four a year for people in Denmark and Finland. Plastic bags, made of depletable natural gas or petroleum resources, are often used only for a matter of minutes. Yet they last in the environment for hundreds of years, shredding into ever-smaller pieces but never fully breaking down.

Over the last century, plastic has taken over the planet. On the one hand, plastic seems a miracle material, with beneficial uses ranging from medical devices to making vehicles lighter and more fuel-efficient. On the other hand, it is a curse, allowing for the seemingly cheap mass production of disposable materials that fill up landfills, cloud the oceans, choke wildlife, and sully vistas. Filled with additives that lack a safety record, plastics have been linked with a slew of health concerns, including certain types of cancer and infertility. While plastics can be used and recycled wisely, the majority of those produced are neither. Perhaps no other item symbolizes the problems of our throwaway culture more than the single-use plastic bag.

Given the multitude of problems associated with plastic bags, many communities around the world have attempted to free themselves from their addictions by implementing bag bans or fees. The oldest existing bag tax is in Denmark. Passed in 1993, this regulation affected plastic bag makers who paid a tax based on the bag’s weight. Stores were allowed to pass the cost on to consumers either in bag charges or absorbed into the prices of other items. The initial effect of this system was an impressive 60 percent drop in plastic bag use.

One of the most well-known bag measures is Ireland’s national bag tax, adopted in 2002. It was the first to charge consumers directly, starting at a rate of 15 euro cents (20ȼ) per bag. Within five months of the measure’s introduction, bag usage fell by over 90 percent. Litter was greatly reduced as well. Over the years, bag use started to creep up, however, so in 2007 the charge was increased to 22 euro cents, and in 2011 the law was amended with the aim of keeping annual bag use at or below 21 bags per person. Frank Convery of University College Dublin calls Ireland’s plastic bag levy “the most popular tax in Europe” and believes that it would be politically damaging to remove it.

Indeed, many communities looking at plastic bag reduction measures hope to emulate the Irish success. Other European countries where consumers pay for plastic shopping bags—either through law or voluntary initiatives—include Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Latvia, and the Netherlands. Throughout the European Union, member states will soon be required to take measures to reduce plastic bag use 80 percent by 2019.

Reducing the amount of plastics in the marine environment has been a major driver of bag regulations in Europe and elsewhere. In a memo on its bag reduction proposal, the European Commission notes that “in the North Sea, the stomachs of 94 percent of all birds contain plastic. Plastic bags have been found in stomachs of endangered marine species: green turtles, loggerhead turtles, leatherback turtles, black footed albatrosses, and harbour porpoises.” In sum, “at least 267 different species are known to have suffered from entanglement or ingestion of marine litter.” The desire to protect the whales that migrate off the coast of Tasmania led to Australia’s first local plastic bag ban in 2003. Now half of Australian states and territories ban plastic bags.

Beyond the seas, the reasons for taking action against plastic bags vary from malaria outbreaks associated with bags collecting water in Kenya to sewers clogged with plastic bags exacerbating flooding in Bangladesh, Cameroon, and the Philippines. Cattle choking on plastic bags gave impetus for bag regulations in Texas ranch country and in Indian communities concerned about the sacred cow. In the capital of Mauritania, an estimated 70 percent of cattle and sheep deaths are from plastic bag ingestion; in the United Arab Emirates, the concern is for camels. (Additional details on anti-plastic bag initiatives around the world are at http://www.earth-policy.org.)

In South Africa, where plastic bags caught in bushes and trees had become so common that they were called the national flower, a ban on the very thin non-biodegradable bags that tear readily and easily blow away went into effect in 2003. Thicker bags are taxed. Botswana’s plastic bag fee, which began in 2007, is credited with cutting bag use in half at major retailers. All told, at least 16 African countries have announced bans on certain types of plastic bags, to varying levels of effectiveness.

In China, where plastic bag pollution was widespread, a few cities and provinces tried to introduce policies to limit bag use in the 1990s, but poor enforcement led to limited success. Before Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympic Games, a national law went into effect banning extra thin bags and requiring stores to charge a fee for thicker bags. The Chinese government reported that bag use has dropped by more than two thirds, although compliance appears to be spotty. A number of cities in Southeast Asia, the source of many of the world’s plastic bag exports, have come up with legislation to reduce bag use.

In the United States, 133 city- or county-wide anti-plastic bag regulations have been passed. Bag bans cover one of every three Californians and virtually all Hawaiians. Chicago’s city council voted for a bag ban in April 2014. Dallas and Washington, D.C., are among the handful of jurisdictions that charge 5-10ȼ for each plastic or paper bag; in both cities, charges were instituted to reduce the number of bags in local rivers. In Canada, much of the anti-bag action is voluntary, with a number of retailers participating. The provinces of Ontario and Quebec have each halved their plastic bag use through a variety of measures, including store incentives for using reusable bags and retailer-imposed fees. Liquor stores in Manitoba, Quebec, and Nova Scotia have tossed out the plastic bag for good.

Latin America also hosts a number of initiatives to reduce plastic bag litter and waste, including bans in the Chilean cities of Pucón and Punta Arenas and in the states of Buenos Aires and Mendoza in Argentina, to name a few. Carryout bags in a couple of Brazilian states are required to be biodegradable. São Paulo state banned free single-use plastic bags starting in January 2012, allowing heavy reusable or biodegradable bags to be sold for 10ȼ, but the measure was removed by an industry-supported court injunction, despite the backing of the supermarket trade association. Similarly, Mexico City banned plastic shopping bags in 2009, but, under pressure from plastics manufacturers, the measure was replaced before enforcement began with a recycling initiative—a common tactic used by industry groups around the world against stricter bans or fees.

Plastic bags clearly have a cost to society, one that is not yet fully paid. Reducing disposable bag use is one small part of the move from a throwaway economy to one based on the prudent use of resources, where materials are reused rather than designed for rapid obsolescence.

From our friends at Earth Policy Institute. Additional information, including a timeline of the plastic bag and a collection of international plastic bag initiatives is available at www.earth-policy.org

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