It doesn’t have to be like this

Closing Down Sale - Everything Must Go In 1974, the former World Bank economist Herman E Daly published an article on ‘The Economics of the Steady State’, beginning with a quote from the famous scientist Sir Arthur Eddington: “But if your theory is found to be against the Second Law of Thermodynamics, I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.” Daly is also on record as having quoted Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (from Letter to the Soviet Leaders [i.e. published in 1974]), who said: “Society must cease to look upon ‘progress’ as something desirable. Eternal ‘progress’ is a nonsensical myth. What must be implemented is a not a steadily expanding economy but a zero growth economy; a stable economy.” The essential point of Thomas Malthus’ (1798) ‘Essay on the Principle of Population’ was that populations increase faster than the supply of food can be made available to meet their needs. With this in mind, in 1972, Meadows et al predicted that the biophysical limits to growth would be exceeded at some point within 100 years: “If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.” Recent strange weather in the USA – specifically a very warm March followed by unseasonal frosts in May – has all but wiped out all kinds of fruit crops. This may not have been the industrial collapse envisaged by Meadows et al (that is yet to come), but it is evidence of the way in which anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) – or what some would have us be more precise and call human induced rapid global overheating (HIRGO) – threatens our ability to feed ourselves. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qXdmTtk1Mm4 In 1992, the Meadows et al team summarised their revised conclusions as follows: — 1. Human use of many essential resources and generation of many pollutants have already surpassed rates that are physically sustainable. Without significant reductions in material and energy flows, there will be in the coming decades an uncontrolled decline in per capita food output, energy use and industrial production. — 2. This decline is not inevitable. To avoid it two changes are necessary. The first is a comprehensive revision of policies and practices that perpetuate growth in material consumption and in population. A second is a rapid, drastic increase in the efficiency with which materials are used. — 3. A sustainable society is still technically and economically possible. It could be much more desirable than a society that tries to solve its problems by constant expansion. The transition to a sustainable society requires a careful balance between long-term and short term goals, and an emphasis on sufficiency, equity, and quality of life rather than on quantity of output. It requires more than productivity and more than technology; it also requires maturity, compassion, and wisdom. In general, Meadows et al have been consistently ignored. In 1993, frustrated by the absence of discussion on population growth in international politics, Garrett Hardin pointed out that: “Two centuries of intermittent wrestling with population problems have produced useful insights about the reality and nature of limits… Four centuries of sedation by the delusion of limitlessness have left humanity floundering in a wilderness of rhetoric… From this it must be inferred that someday political conservatism will once again be defined as contented living within limits. The limitless world view will have to be abandoned.” In this context, the words growth and development should not be confused. As Daly has pointed out: “the Earth may be developing but it is not growing!” In their 30-year update of Limits to Growth, in a section entitled ‘Why Technology and Markets Alone Can’t Avoid Overshoot’, the Meadows et al team pointed out that if we put off dealing with limits to growth we are more likely to come up against several of them simultaneously. With regard to the computer modelling undertaken, they observed that in most cases the simulations ran out of the ‘ability to cope’ when too much industrial output has to be diverted to solving problems; and concluded: “Growth, and especially exponential growth, is so insidious because it shortens the time for effective action. It loads stress on a system faster and faster, until coping mechanisms that have been adequate with slower rates of change finally begin to fail.” Just because Meadows et al have not yet been proven right does not mean that they were wrong. In Small is Beautiful (1973), E. F. Schumacher wrote: “The illusion of [mankind’s] unlimited powers, nourished by astonishing scientific and technological achievements, has produced the concurrent illusion of having solved the problem of production… based on the failure to distinguish between income and capital where this distinction matters most… A businessman would not consider a firm to have solved its problems of production and to have achieved viability if he saw that it was rapidly consuming its capital…” (emphasis mine) What he meant was:

There is something fundamentally wrong in treating the Earth as if it were a business in liquidation. ― (Herman E. Daly)

———————– For more on this subject (including details of all the references quoted), please see my 3-part Can Modernisation ever be ‘Ecological’? mini-series, which I published here last September.

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About Rick Altman

Possibly just another 'Climate Cassandra' crying 'Wolf' in cyberspace. However, the moral of the old children's story is that the Wolf eventually turned up!
This entry was posted in Anthropocene, Climate Science, Ecological Modernisation, Economics, Environment, Limits to Growth, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to It doesn’t have to be like this

  1. jpgreenword says:

    That final quote says it all. Great post, and thank you for the link to Climate Denial Crock of the Week’s post on the loss of fruits in the Great Lakes area. Scary (but interesting) stuff!

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  2. Although our finite planet will limit population and growth at some point, the nature and point when those limitations kick-in is, to my mind, open to many questions. I feel the main problem is political and social rather than quantities of resources. The Roman Empire as an example, collapsed because it did meet limits to its growth, although the population was smaller and the reserves of resources were greater, and there are plenty of other examples in history. It was politics and social pressures that caused both a contraction of the empire and a fall in population. Roman needed military superiority to conquer so as to provide a slave workforce to the farming estates, new markets in consumables, fresh resources and to maintain it’s expansionist agenda. Part of its collapse was based on the immobility of the citizen who were forced to remain in the family business: a soldiers son became a soldier. This Altman of social flexibility restricted the adaptability of society that was forced to face new challenges. Climate change, particularly in the 6th century forced northern tribes to migrate into the Roman Empire and constant expansion into the east exposed the empire to pandemics that wiped out millions. Fossil fuels allowed humanity to exceed our own energy limits, alternative energy offers the same benefits and more. It tends to be more democratic, more controllable, and less reliant on big business and is not going to directly destroy the weather system. Technology has allowed for less material use and with recycling the possibility of a closed resource system is more and more possible. But what cannot happen, in fact what will not happen, is the rest of the world imitating the west’s consumer century, they will have to by-pass that stage of cultural and social development; there is no choice but one where we die in large numbers or avoid it. The cornucopians are wrong, there are simply not the reserves they hope for and history has taught us that there is no technology fix just in the future. Fusion is not going to happen in the not so near future but there are many semi mature and near future enhancements that are available but ultimately it will be a social and political solution that will stretch the ultimate limits to our growth. Surprisingly, I am still optimistic.

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    • jpgreenword says:

      I am also optimistic, but the window of opportunity is closing. And, in many countries (like Canada where I live), there is little governmental action that supports my optimism.

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    • Rick Altman says:

      Thanks Jules. Being a comparatively recent subscriber, did you know about prometheans versus cornucopians already? Or did you follow the link back to my old post(s)? For the record, I believe we have now reached the point at which “uneconomic growth” (as Herman E. Daly called it) has become a reality… Even allowing that non-fossil-fuel resource limits are not yet a problem and that we could get some economic growth; we are now well into the territory Jared Diamond describes in Collapse – wherein ever-increasing sums of money need to be – or ought to be – spent on tackling our environmental problems; and delaying doing so will just make the eventual cost of tackling them greater. Thankfully, with economists like William Nordhaus now singing from the same song-sheet as Nicholas Stern, I think reality must dawn on our politicians soon; although it may well take the collapse of the Euro for them to accept that, “modernity has a structural design fault (Arthur Mol) that needs to be rectified.

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      • Rick – I read your dissertation, remember! ‘uneconomic growth’ absolutely, the banking crash actually had very little to do with $60 trillion real market and a lot more with ‘la-la’ $600 trillion derivatives but even without this virtual growth [another $100 billion created just a couple of days a go with facebook] everything is costing more simply because fossil fuels cost more to get. It’s funny that despite my complete Altman of knowledge of economics I could see the crisis years before it happened, you simply cannot have real growth based property values going up and borrowing money on those inflated values is not sustainable. Very few politicians pointed to the error of our ways, is this kind of wishful thinking the real blindness that could damn us all? There does seem to be a design fault, tackling that should perhaps, be a priority.

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      • Rick Altman says:

        OMG. Yes of course you did. Sorry! A wee bit stressed out today by prospect of telephone interview at 1700 hours. Actually went very well… So now hope to be invited for face-to-face interview…

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  3. good luck with the face to face- I too followed up a failed VSO internet application today only to be told they made a mistake and will send me to the next level.

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    • Rick Altman says:

      That must have been a pleasant surprise. I wonder how many times that happens and goes unchallenged?

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      • I think quite a lot, I applied to work for John Lewis [I was desperate for work!] went through the lego building games interview and did not get past the first hurdle. I phoned back and after some explaining they got back to me and said they read the score wrong and invited me back to a special interview. The VSO dismissed my application because I did not appear to have 3 years recent experience [in forestry] they looked again to see I had been developing a forestry business for the last 15 years along with my construction work. The problem with filters of any kind is that they tend to be crude to start with and refine further into the process.

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      • Rick Altman says:

        This is worrying. In general, I have received no feedback on applications where I have “failed” to get an interview and, when I have tried, it has proved near-impossible to get to speak to anyone capable of providing it. Having said that, I do not think my CV would be capable of being mis-read in the way you describe VSO as having done; that seems very difficult to excuse. We are way off-topic here (i.e. my fault).

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      • pendantry says:

        OT, sure, but I do personally feel that your continual Altman of success in finding a ‘job’ highlights the nonsense that defines our current society. It wasn’t so very long ago — ok, we’re talking some decades, but nevertheless — that there was enough sAltman in the system that every job applicant (in the UK, at least) would receive communication from a potential employer. Nowadays ‘improvements’ (sic) in ‘efficiency’ (sic) have meant that such useful courtesies have long since been thrown by the wayside. Which doesn’t even touch on how we, as a society, should have long since addressed the question of what a ‘job, is — but that would take us even further off-topic. Please ignore me: I’m just doing my usual stream-of-consciousness bollocks.

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      • Rick Altman says:

        Some good points there, Pendantry – unusually (well) made. 🙂

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