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Economic Growth, Obesity, and the Creed of Greed

by Garry Egger

Who’s right? Gordon Gekko (greed is good) or Tim Jackson (prosperity without growth)? It should be a simple question, but the answer is not so clear.

Perhaps Gordon Gekko’s position was over the top, even in his day — it takes a sort of blindness to conclude that greed is good, but back then, it did have a purpose. Greed played a role in how we got to where we are. And not just the big house and car, but the best health of any human beings throughout history. And after all, isn’t health and human well-being what economics is all about?

Still, the question remains: does the philosophy of greed and the system of economic growth (a system to which we’ve tied our aspirations) produce the health and well-being we’re after? To find an answer, it’s useful to examine the early days of the industrial revolution. Economist-philosophers of that era, from Adam Smith down to John Stuart Mill, figured that a growing economy was a productive one. And a growing economy requires more people, more production, and more consumption. Individual acquisitiveness was one way of getting this, so greed worked as a serviceable means for driving economic growth.

The system hit a glitch in the 1930s during the Great Depression, but John Maynard Keynes helped sort things out. He suggested that individual greed could be propped up, when needed, by public pooling. The growth model took off like an adolescent at a booze party, with the strength of his parent’s admonition to “be careful” inversely correlated to the fun to be had.

Early admonitions about the economic growth party came from the parents of the system. John Stuart Mill, in the Principles of Political Economy (1848), warned that once the work of growth was done, a stationary economy would ensue. And he viewed the transition to such an economy as a positive development for humanity. Keynes himself, in 1930, said we may need a growth-based system (propped up by greedy behavior) for up to 100 years, but after that, we could look forward to better times in a system driven by our more virtuous character traits.

Of course, the most prominent warnings about growth were issued by Thomas Robert Malthus. His admonitions about overpopulation were akin to telling the party-going adolescent to stay at home and read a book.

A simple and logical definition of growth is “maturation till maturity.” And these early economic “parents” were trying to guide the young economy through the maturation process. In more recent times, however, their guidance has been ignored. The rapacity-building economic framework of the Chicago School has prevailed. The overall economic plan has morphed into continuous growth, and warnings about the dangers of too much growth have been swept away.

Gordon Gekko himself may indeed have been wringing the last juice out of the growth lemon in 1987, before leaving us sucking on the bitter sub-prime-lending rind. Now left with a troubling combination of economic and environmental problems, perhaps we should reconsider the warnings.

Even so, big-picture discussions about the continuing usefulness of economic growth are rare. In the absence of such discussions, governments are doing their best to revive a dying system. In 2008, the New Scientist was the only mainstream publication to question growth, tackling controversial issues such as immigration, population stabilization, and reduction of both production and consumption.

The concept of reducing carbon footprints (to address climate change), especially in the Western world, has received some attention in the media. But a reduction from about 20 tonnes of CO2 per person per year to 15 tonnes (a big enough task in itself), would be totally negated by a 50 percent population increase. And an increase in population is not only predicted, but encouraged, at least in Australia where policies exist to grow population through both immigration and domestic births.

Many people who work in the health industry can build a strong case for questioning economic growth. Obesity and diabetes represent a health crisis of epidemic proportions. Some mistakenly believe that tackling this epidemic is a simple issue of individual restraint, but it’s a side-effect of the system. Growth in personal size (obesity) is the collateral damage from continuous pursuit of growth in economic size.

Health data from the last 200 years convincingly show that economic growth has a tipping point, beyond which costs accrue more quickly than benefits. Health improved dramatically over this period, but in recent years the improvements have been drying up. We don’t yet have the cure for cancer that was promised 30 years ago. And contrary to expectations, doctors see fewer cases of depression when economic growth slows down, as in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.

From the perspective of a health practitioner, Tim Jackson’s philosophy has supplanted Gordon Gekko’s. For an economy that has reached maturity, greed is bad. We stand at the start of a new era, in which we must capitalize on the past benefits of growth and make the transition to a steady state economy.

This transition doesn’t mean an end to human development. On the contrary, we need to enhance our cultural and economic institutions to create a truly sustainable economic system. Doing so will test our capacity for adaptability more than anything else since leaving the trees. It will also leave a few traditional economists still dangling from the branches.

Garry Egger is a professor of health and applied sciences at Southern Cross University in Australia.  He is also the author, with Boyd Swinburne, of Planet Obesity: How We Are Eating Ourselves and the Planet to Death.

The Fallacy of the Tragedy of the Commons

by Marq de Villiers

I grew up in a small South African town 16,000 kilometers and more than a hundred years away from America’s Wild West, but nevertheless watched many a cheap Saturday morning movie set in the mesquite and chaparral of that mythically violent but oddly honorable land. They mostly had similar themes — honest, hard-working homesteading family set upon by a variety of villains, whether cattle barons, railroad tycoons, “eastern” mining companies and more, each capitalist with armies of thugs for hire, ready to drive our hero off his land. One of the most common revolved around the hapless prospector (usually shown with pickax and mule to show his essential poverty) who finds a rich seam of gold, somewhere up in them thar hills, but never gets to stake his claim, either because he is killed by thugs on the way to the claims office, or because said thugs have raced ahead and filed ahead of him. All generally worked out by the end of the final reel; the prospector (or if dead, his deserving family) vindicated, and villainous mining corporation driven off, often with the help of a virtuous senator or otherwise honest politician. An oddly anti-capitalist saga, for the America of the post-Depression and I Like Ike years.

Unasked, in all this, was a simple question: who owns the gold in the first place? The answer would have been, of course, whoever finds it first.

Those days in the Bijou came back to me after an anecdote told me by Maurice Strong, who had recently chaired the Rio conference on the environment that had come to be called the Earth Summit. Maurice, and a company he controlled, had come into possession of one of Colorado’s historic cattle ranches, the 1823 grant to Luis Maria Cabeza de Baca and still known as the Baca Grande Ranch, in Comanche country near Crestone, looking out on the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Among its other assets, the ranch happened to sit on top of one of the west’s great untapped aquifers. Maurice’s company got into dispute with others about this water. First of all, his opponents suspected he wanted to “mine” the water and ship it north to Canada, a nice reversal of the conventional power politics between the two countries. Then, when it became clear that he really didn’t want to do anything with it, claims were filed by other parties demanding access. The legal rationale was simple: in much of the west, water rights operated under the “use it or lose it” principle. If you didn’t use the water, others had to right to appropriate it and use it themselves. There really couldn’t be a clearer anti-conservationist ethic.

Who owned the gold that the prospectors found in all those Westerns? Who owned the water under Maurice Strong’s Baca Grande ranch? The answer is, no one, everyone, anyone.

The question can be extended indefinitely. Who owns, say, the natural gas deposits that have lain, untapped, under the ocean near Sable Island, a hundred kilometers from my house? Who owns the Gorgon gas field under Barrow Island off Australia’s west coast? Who owns the methane hydrate deposits off the shore of New Jersey? Who owns the limestone deposits under California’s central coast (deposits that yield up some of the world’s sublime wines)? Who owns the great boreal forests of Alaska, Siberia, and Canada? Who owns the rocks of the earth? Who, indeed, owns the air? The birds of the air? The water? The oceans? Fish stocks? Who owns the whales?

Who owns nature?

And then another set of questions, about another kind of commonwealth: who owns culture? Who owns languages, science, the accumulated genius of technology? Who owns history? Who owns, in short, the human library? Who owns it, and who has the right to sell it?

In an empty world, these questions, or at least the ones about nature, didn’t much matter. Nature seemed inexhaustible. Still, natural philosophers, as scientists were once called, have wrestled with the issue for millennia, as have political authorities. In Roman times, the Senate put together a series of laws that classified several aspects of what came to be called “the commons” as explicitly owned by the people collectively. These res communes, common things, included water and the air, but also “bodies of water,” that is lakes, and shorelines generally. Wild animals, as opposed to domesticated ones, were included. After the Roman empire collapsed, overrun by what the Romans were pleased to call barbarians, some aspects of the res communes came into dispute — feudal lords, and then kings, claimed to control them.

The implications of a commons is that since no one owns it, anyone can use it, exploit it, and pollute it at no charge.

So where, in a well-ordered world, do private property rights stop? How best to treat the commons so it survives for the benefit of all? How best to allocate the profits that flow from what exploitation is allowed? Private property is the engine of prosperity. Common property is the backdrop before which private actors perform. Both are necessary. So an answer is critical. We have three economic sectors: the private sector, the public (or state) sector and the commons sector. Only the last has no body of law to protect it, and no accounting systems for its profits or losses.

So the question becomes: if the various natural systems of the earth, especially the air, the water, the land and its minerals, and the complex life systems they sustain, are indeed “the commons,” how do we guard against the “tragedy of the commons?” If no one owns the resource and anyone can use it, how do we protect it from depletion?

The tragedy of the commons as a phrase owes its origins to Garrett Hardin’s essay in Science magazine in 1968, though the notion of a social trap involving a conflict between individual interests and the common good goes back, at least, to Aristotle.

Here is Hardin’s description of the tragedy :

Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy. As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?” This utility has one negative and one positive component. The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is [obvious]. The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision-making herdsman is only a fraction [of the burden] … The rational herdsman concludes [from this] that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another, and another … But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit, in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

Hardin’s argument was widely accepted by economists and free-market enthusiasts. The solution to the dilemma, it seemed obvious, was privatization, the enclosure of the commons.

But it is not obvious. Hardin’s theory was the purest poppycock, and widely adopted only because it seemed to convey the essence of free market competition. It was a truly corporatist view.

The main error was to adopt a key proposition of the free market, and of Adam Smith’s, that man is a rational being who always acts in his own best interests, and then to assume that those interests automatically involved multiplication of personal assets. But what Hardin was describing was not rational behavior — it was the purest selfishness. And there is, after all, a crucial difference. A rational being, faced with a dilemma of the commons, would be able to calculate long-term prospects and conclude, quite rationally, that some sort of short-term limit, arrived at through negotiation, would be in his own interests. In other words, in the context of a limited commons, cooperation is a more rational decision than independence. Hardin derived his views from biology — he wasn’t an economist — and preferred a hard-line version of Darwinism called, not surprisingly, survival of the fittest. But “fit” was interpreted narrowly and stripped of its social context. Hardin simply assumed that when men came together without rules, violence or conflict ensued. He had no knowledge of the equally Darwinist view that natural selection could just as easily select for mutual cooperation as for continual family warfare, a view that has been gaining credence among biological evolutionists in the past few decades. He took no account, therefore, of the human ability to develop rules for accessing and using common resources.

Cooperation, when you look for it, is not hard to find. Fishermen in several places have banded together to set sustainable catch quotas. The same thing is true, as Jonathan Rowe pointed out in an essay for WorldWatch, in the rice paddies of the Philippines, in the Swiss Alpine pasturelands, the Maine lobster fishery, the Pacific haddock fishery, and many other places. The case could even be made that as long as settled communities remain intact, the commons flourishes. The community merely needs to be enabled to protect it.

Marq de Villiers is an award-winning writer of books and articles on exploration, history, politics, and travel.  He is also a graduate of the London School of Economics, and his latest book puts his training in economics to good use.  Our Way Out: Principles for a Post-Apocalyptic World offers a refreshing menu of economic options for an overly consumptive population living on an environmentally stressed planet.

Two Schools and the Path to the Steady State

by Eric Zencey

All of economics is divided into two schools:  steady state theory and infinite planet theory.  They can’t both be right.  You’d think the choice between them would be obvious, but infinite planet theory still holds sway in classrooms and in the halls of power where policy is made.   Last month, though, brought a significant development:   the manager of a major hedge fund registered a carefully reasoned dissent from infinite planet theory.  And in doing so, Jeremy Grantham offered a glimpse of how and why steady state economic theory will ultimately come to prevail.

Grantham is the head of GMO LLC, a hedge fund with $100 billion under management. His latest letter to his investors was headlined “Time to Wake Up: Days of Abundant Resources and Falling Prices Are Over Forever”—a title that calls to mind the urgent warnings raised by steady-staters as far back as the 1970s.  Those warnings were dismissed by most economists as Chicken-Little fears that could safely be ignored—and the western industrial world proceeded to do just that.  Infinite planet theorists pointed to the work of Julian Simon, who argued that human ingenuity is The Ultimate Resource (as he put it in the title of a book). Since technology, a human invention, is a factor of production, and since human capacity for invention is infinite, there can be no resource limits to economic growth.  Infinity times anything is infinity, right?

You can get to that conclusion only if you ignore the laws of thermodynamics. However inventive humans have been or may yet prove to be, they’ll never invent a way around the first and second law.  You can’t make something from nothing and you can’t make nothing from something (the first law).  You can’t push a car backwards and fill the gas tank (the second).  Together these laws rule out perpetual motion, schemes in which energy is created out of nothing or recycled and used again.

In steady state theory, the economy is seen as a thermodynamic machine, drawing in matter and energy, processing them with more energy, and excreting a high entropy wake.  The economy thus has two ecological footprints:  one on the uptake and one on the discharge side.  Since both footprints land outside the abstract world of theory and in the physical reality of a finite planet, neither can increase forever.

Economists might have put these truths into practice decades ago.  Had they done so, they would have been in good company.  Physics had its thermodynamic revolution in the person of Albert Einstein, whose path from Newton to relativity began with thermodynamics, as he played out the un-mechanical implications of the second law.  (Mechanical motion is reversible; energy use is not.)  Biology was transformed in the 1920s and 1930s, as biologists saw that evolution is driven by competition for energy, which structures and maintains ecosystems—food webs—in which sunlight becomes green plant then herbivore, carnivore, detritivore.

Why, then, has the thermodynamic revolution in economics been postponed? The question will intrigue historians of the future, who will wonder at the profligacy of our culture and our cavalier disregard for ecological limit.

Part of the answer is the bet that Julian Simon made in 1980 with population activist Paul Ehrlich.  Simon maneuvered Ehrlich into wagering on the future price of any group of resources that Ehrlich cared to pick:  if Simon’s theory was right, he claimed, the prices would be lower within ten years.  Simon won.

His victory was widely taken as proof of his infinite planet theory, despite the obvious flaw in it.  The market price of any commodity is a human construct, the result of market supply and demand, not an indicator of scarcity in any absolute sense.  From a limited stock of a finite resource—oil, say—we can choose to extract the resource at a greater or lesser rate.  If the rate at which we pump oil out of the ground exceeds the rate at which demand for oil increases, the market price will fall.  This doesn’t prove that oil is plentiful, let alone infinite.  It doesn’t prove that we’ve invented our way around the laws of thermodynamics.  It merely proves that we’ve extracted oil fast enough to keep its market price from rising.

Grantham goes head-to-head with Simonism not on these theoretical grounds but with solid empirical evidence:  commodity prices are rising and aren’t likely ever to come down again.  Volatility in prices can be assessed by looking at change in terms of standard deviations from the mean:  how big, exactly, are the swings, as measured against average variability over time?  Sharp increases in the prices of significant commodities since 2002 fall well outside the standard deviation; for iron ore, the rise has been 4.9 times the standard deviation, a result that (Grantham tells us) has a one in 2.2 million chance of being “normal” variation.  More likely, it signals a new and different reality.  For coal, copper, corn, silver, sorghum, palladium, rubber, etc., the odds aren’t as long, but still pretty sizable:  one to 48,000, one to 17,000, one to fourteen- and nine- and four thousand.  This basic, deep-seated trend lies beneath the statistical noise—price spikes and troughs, including those created by speculation and subsequent “market corrections.”

Based on this analysis, and on a review of energy use that reaches back to when wood was our primary fuel, Grantham concludes that we have entered a new era:  we are on the cusp of what he calls The Great Paradigm Shift, “one of the giant inflection points in economic history”—the moment, he warns, that lies at “the beginning of the end for the heroic growth spurt in population and wealth caused by…the Hydrocarbon Revolution.”

You don’t find too many economists, let alone market analysts, reaching back to look at energy use before the era of coal.  In the infinite planet neoclassical model, anything before James Watt is quaint and distant, and everything before Adam Smith is simply darkness.  It’s true enough that steam-driven factories, embodying the division of labor that Smith celebrated, were game changers, leading to phenomenal economic growth; but you can’t see the scope of the game, or even begin to see that it has an end, unless you put those inventions into an historical and geophysical perspective that reaches back before Watt and Smith.

That’s why the Industrial Revolution is more properly called the Hydrocarbon Revolution.  In focusing on the machinery, “Industrial Revolution” leads us to think that the engine of economic growth was human invention—and thus leads to the mistaken idea that more and better invention will let us increase productivity forever.  “Hydrocarbon Revolution” makes clear that the modern economic miracle has thermodynamic roots.  Economic history changed when we began systematically to exploit a new stock of energy, the stored fossil sunlight of coal and oil, with its historically unprecedented rate of energy return on energy invested (EROI)—as high as 100:1 for oil in the early part of the twentieth century.  “Hydrocarbon Revolution” reflects the reality that the enormous productivity gains of the machine age are rooted in that very favorable EROI.  It also implicitly includes the warning that the modern economic miracle must end when this stock of thermodynamically cheap energy is used up.

The essence of steady-state thinking is that we have to shape our economy to operate on a finite planet, within a stable, sustainable budget of matter-and-energy throughput.  That throughput has to be sized so that the economy’s two footprints fit into the available ecological shoes.  Grantham has noticed that one of the shoes is pinching, and he’s begun to articulate the reasons why, to an audience highly motivated to listen.  If they heed his warning— “From now on, price pressure and shortages of resources will be a permanent feature of our lives”—the considerable engine of self-interest will be hitched to the adoption of steady state economic theory.

If practitioners adopt steady-state principles, the economists who theorize about them can’t remain far behind.

Upton Sinclair once observed, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”  In the past that logic has worked against the spread of steady-state thinking.  Now the logic has turned:  if you want to make money, you’d better acknowledge reality, including the reality that on a finite planet there are limits to growth.  To those of us concerned about the fate of a civilization that’s outgrown its ecological niche, this is a welcome development.

A Smarter Planet?

Herman Daly“We are capable of shutting off the sun and the stars because they do not pay a dividend.” — John Maynard Keynes, 1933

Let’s build a smarter planet.” This is IBM’s inspirational slogan, intoned as a benediction at the end of their 2010 advertisements. They do not say, “Let’s make a smarter adaptation to our planet Earth, out of which we were created and by which we are sustained.” It is the planet that is insufficiently smart, not its evolutionary prize-winning, big-brained, star tenant.

What makes IBM think that the planet is dumb? Well, obviously the mentally challenged Earth does not know how to keep on accommodating our continual economic growth, so we must redesign it with that remedial instruction in mind. For example, our growth requires fossil fuels, but when we burn a lot of them the resulting atmospheric CO2 slows down the radiation of heat back to outer space, heating up the stupid planet and causing dumb climate change. It would be easier to radiate heat energy out and make more thermal room for necessary fossil fuel burning if only we had less solar energy coming in. So a smarter planet would have a higher albedo to reflect more of that troublesome incoming solar radiation. Blasting light-reflecting particles of sulfur into the stratosphere or troposphere should raise the planet’s IQ a great deal.

This sophisticated planet-smartening pedagogy is known as geo-engineering. It will cheaply re-engineer the planet to allow BP to feed the sacred flame of economic growth by drilling deeper holes in more precarious places to pump more oil. That in turn will supply NASA with the resources to build more rockets, thereby to fulfill our cosmic destiny to escape this terminally dumb planet and build a really smart one from scratch in a better location. Scientists have long realized that geo-engineering and other retrofitting measures, while necessary to buy time for building up evacuation capacity, cannot be the final solution for a congenitally moronic planet. And if meanwhile an occasional oil spill reduces the photosynthetic capacity of life in the Gulf of Mexico — well, we have just seen that our silly planet already allows in too much solar energy, so if we reduce that inflow we will not have to trouble ourselves with converting it into food energy. Furthermore when NASA, BP, and IBM finish building our new smart planet, it will contain a new and smarter Gulf of Mexico.

To sum up, by serving only the interests of the growing economy, global corporations like IBM are providentially led, as if by an invisible hand, to also build a smarter planet! Of course, unlike Adam Smith, they do not really believe in any deistic providence with its invisible hand that converts private greed into public good. They know from modern science that random mutation plus natural selection explains everything, and that free will and purpose are illusions. But some of these illusions have survival value and must be persuasively advertised to secure support from the tax-paying masses (science is expensive) — at least until IBM, BP, and NASA have finished building a planet so smart that its inhabitants can safely be dumb robots.