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¡Buenas noticias! ¡La recuperación económica se frena!

Publicado por Dave Gardner, director del documental de próximo estreno GrowthBusters

Artículo original traducido del Inglés al Español por Bosco Gámiz.

Las noticias económicas del pasado viernes fueron bastante positivas. El crecimiento anual del PIB de EE.UU. fue inferior al uno por ciento en el primer semestre de 2011.

Sin embargo, me atrevería a decir que …ehmm, un 99,9 por ciento de todo el mundo considera esto una mala noticia. El New York Times [1] lo calificó como “paso de tortuga”. Periodistas y comentaristas de todo el mundo con toda probabilidad están escribiendo palabras como debilidad, anemia, malestar general, sombrío, triste, abatimiento, y el estancamiento.

Entonces ¿qué tiene de bueno? ¿Acaso me produce un placer perverso y morboso ver a mis compañeros humanos desempleados, ahogados en sus hipotecas, o comiendo en comedores de beneficencia? No, no me lo produce. Las consecuencias de la recesión son reales; es doloroso, y es triste. Sin embargo, que el PIB sea constante o que baje un poco, no es una mala noticia. Tampoco es la caída en el gasto de los consumidores [2] que se dio a conocer el martes.

Aunque muchos de los impactos de la recesión son trágicos, son la cara negativa de adaptación a una nueva realidad: el fin del crecimiento. Son una parte necesaria de una fase temporal. Podríamos llamarlo la fase de crisálida, hasta que nos transformamos en algo más bello.

Considere estos titulares de los últimos dos años. ¿Son buenas o malas noticias?

  • La recesión pone a los bebés en espera
  • Movimiento por casas pequeñas prospera en medio de crisis inmobiliaria
  • Se construyen menos casas durante el frenazo de la economía
  • El uso mundial de carbón se estanca a pesar del creciente mercado chino e indio
  • Total Municipal Waste Generation Dropped
  • Caída de la generación residuos en el municipio
  • La contaminación por carbono de la UE cae
  • GM cierra la fábrica donde se producen los Hummer
  • Gasoline Spike Fuels Surge in U.S. Bicycle Sales
  • La subida de gasolina en EE.UU. aumenta las ventas de bicicletas
  • El tamaño medio las casas en EEUU se estanca tras 30 años de continuo crecimiento
  • El gasto en publicidad disminuye
  • Las aerolíneas dejan en tierra más del 11% de sus aviones
  • Los implantes mamarios se desinflan junto con la economía
  • Más de 400 de congresos cancelados en Las Vegas
  • El mercado de segunda vivienda cae un 30%

Si leemos estos titulares a través de una lente arcaica – la visión del mundo propia del siglo pasado en el que el crecimiento es el Santo Grial – estas historias parecen malas noticias. Pero a través de una lente más moderna, del siglo 21, que valora la verdadera sostenibilidad, son el anuncio de un mundo que se ralentiza hacia un nivel responsable de actividad humana.

Piensen en ello. Casas más pequeñas significa menos deforestación, menos hábitat partido en subdivisiones, menos hormigón (cuya producción emite mucho CO2, y menos espacios vitales que calentar o enfriar (una vez más, reducción de emisiones de CO2). Un menor uso del carbón es una buena noticia en el aprtado de gases de efecto invernadero – como lo son los aviones en tierra, no más Hummers y el cambio a favor de las bicicletas. Curiosamente no vemos señales de que los políticos, los expertos y los periodistas estén pensando tan en serio acerca de los temas.

No soy el primero en reconocer la recesión como una oportunidad. Grandes mentes como Gus Speth y David Korten están haciendo todo lo posible para convertir esta recesión en una corrección del rumbo. “¿Por qué esta crisis puede ser nuestra mejor oportunidad para construir una nueva economía” de Korten [3], y “Hacia una nueva economía y una nueva política” de Speth [4] son buenos ejemplos de esto. Incluso Jay Leno se ha apuntado, felicitando al Presidente George W. Bush por frenar la economía en 2008 y por tanto hacer más a favor de la lucha contra el cambio climático que Al Gore. Por supuesto que los impactos del crecimiento económico afectan a mucho más que el clima. Nuestra actividad económica en aumento está causando la destrucción del hábitat, la extinción de especies y contaminación [5], y está liquidando recursos críticos como el suelo fértil.

No conozco a ningún periodista que buscase a Speth, a Korten, a Daly, a Czech, a Victor o a Heinberg para contrastar una visión alternativa de las noticias del viernes. Una historia sobre la fusión de los hielos incluiría comentarios de parte de auténticos científicos del clima y de parte de negacionistas del cambio climático. Pero en la historia que conocemos sobre el PIB no hay discusiones en las redacciones para garantizar todos los puntos de vista – nadie que dijera lo buena noticia que es que el producto interior bruto se pueda estar acercando a un estado estacionario. Se supone que crecimiento del PIB es una buena noticia y la contracción económica es una mala noticia – para todo el mundo. Ni siquiera se les ocurre cuestionar esa suposición. La fe ciega en la antigua visión del mundo todavía tiene un férreo agarre sobre los periodistas y editores. Esto tiene que cambiar.

¡Quiero ver la mariposa!

Dave Gardner es el realizador del documental, GrowthBusters, que se estrena a finales de octubre. La campaña de esta película sin ánimo de lucro en Kickstarter [6] para recaudar fondos se encuentra en su última semana. Para más información sobre la película o para organizar una proyección, visite www.growthbusters.org [7]. David puede ser contactado en dave@growthbusters.org.

Enlaces:

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/30/business/economy/us-economy-worse-than-expected-in-second-quarter.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=tha2

[2] https://steadystate.orgdrop in consumer spending

[3] http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/the-new-economy/why-this-crisis-may-be-our-best-chance-to-build-a-new-economy

[4] http://www.thesolutionsjournal.com/node/619

[5] http://www.worldwildlife.org/sites/living-planet-report/

[6] http://tinyurl.com/kickstartGbusters

[7] www.growthbusters.org: http://www.growthbusters.org/

 

Good News: Economic Recovery Stalls!

by Dave Gardner, director of the upcoming documentary GrowthBusters

Economic news last Friday was quite positive. Annualized U.S. GDP growth was less than one percent in the first half of 2011.

However, I would hazard a guess that, oh, some 99.9 percent of the world considered this bad news. It was characterized in the New York Times as a “snail’s pace.” Journalists and commentators around the world are predictably typing out words like weak, anemic, malaise, gloomy, bleak, doldrums and stagnation.

So why would I celebrate? Do I get perverse, morbid pleasure at seeing my fellow humans unemployed, upside down in their mortgages, or dining at soup kitchens? I do not. The fallout of the recession is real, it’s painful, and it’s sad. But steady or declining GDP is not bad news. Nor is the drop in consumer spending reported Tuesday.

While many impacts of the recession are tragic, these are the pains of adjusting to a new reality: the end of growth. They are a necessary part of a temporary phase. We might call it the cocoon phase, as we metamorphose into something more beautiful.

Consider these headlines from the past two years. Are they good news or bad?

  • Recession Puts Babies on Hold
  • Tiny House Movement Thrives Amid Real Estate Bust
  • Home Production Falls as Economy Languishes
  • Global Coal Use Stagnates Despite Growing Chinese and Indian Markets
  • Total Municipal Waste Generation Dropped
  • Home Depot Calls a Halt to Rapid Expansion
  • European Union Carbon Pollution Drops
  • GM to Close Hummer
  • Gasoline Spike Fuels Surge in U.S. Bicycle Sales
  • Bottled Water Consumption Growth Slows
  • 30-Year Growth Spurt Ends for Average American House Size
  • Ad Spending Down
  • Airlines Ground More Than 11% of Their Jets
  • Breast Implants are Deflating Along With the Economy
  • More Than 400 Meetings in Las Vegas Recently Cancelled
  • 2nd Home Market Declined 30%

Looking at these headlines through an archaic lens, last century’s worldview that growth is the Holy Grail, these stories seemed like bad news. But through a more modern, 21st century lens that values true sustainability, they herald a world slowing down toward a responsible level of human activity.

Think about it. Smaller houses mean less deforestation, less habitat converted to subdivisions, less concrete (production of which emits significant CO2), and less living space to heat or cool (again reducing CO2 emissions). Less coal use is also good news in the greenhouse gas department — as are grounded jets, no more Hummers and a switch to bicycles. Strangely we see no signs that politicians, pundits or journalists are thinking this deeply about the subjects.

I’m not the first to recognize this recession as an opportunity. Great minds like Gus Speth and David Korten are doing their best to turn this recession into a course correction. Korten’s Why This Crisis May Be Our Best Chance to Build a New Economy, and Speth’s Towards a New Economy and a New Politics are good examples of this. Even Jay Leno got into the act, congratulating President George W. Bush in 2008 for doing more to fight climate change than Al Gore — by slowing the economy. Of course the impacts of economic growth reach far beyond the climate. Our increasing economic activity is causing habitat destruction, species extinction and pollution; and it is liquidating critical resources like fertile soil.

I’m aware of no journalist who sought out Speth, Korten, Daly, Czech, Victor or Heinberg for an alternative view on Friday’s news. A story about ice melting would include comments from both real climate scientists and climate change deniers. But for this GDP story there was no discussion in the newsrooms about getting the other side — a quote about how terrific it is that gross domestic product may be settling toward a steady state. They assume GDP growth is good news and economic contraction is bad news — for everyone. It doesn’t even occur to them to question that assumption. Blind faith in the old worldview still has a tight grip on the reporters and editors. This needs to change.

I look forward to seeing the butterfly!

Dave Gardner is the filmmaker behind the documentary, GrowthBusters, which premieres in late October. The nonprofit film’s final fundraising campaign on Kickstarter is in its last week. For more information about the film or to organize a screening, visit www.growthbusters.org. Dave can be reached at dave@growthbusters.org.

Make It Forty-Four Shades of Green

BrianCzechLast month in “Forty Shades of… Less Brown?,” I described the principle of increasing marginal brownness. This principle establishes that the process of economic growth invariably entails an environmental “browning,” even though some growth regimes are less brown than others. The idea is to use the brown portion of the color spectrum in framing discussions of economic growth. Otherwise it is too easy to fall for the seductive and dangerous rhetoric of “green growth.”

Don’t let the title of this week’s column fool you. I haven’t been drinking the Green Kool-Aid. This week we’re using the green portion of the spectrum, alright, but in a surprisingly different context.

You may recall that I concluded last month’s column with a stunning observation from the Eastern Economic Association conference in Philadelphia. Despite the stereotype we have of economists as wild-eyed growth-at-all-costers, pumping their fists for perpetually increasing GDP, something new was afoot in Philly. In fact, the overwhelming majority of economists I spoke with agreed wholeheartedly that there is a fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection. They acknowledged limits to growth and even concurred that wealthy nations, at least, should adopt the goal of a steady state economy!

“Proove it,” you said? I offered to do just that.

Proving it is easy, thanks to the CASSE position on economic growth. The CASSE position states precisely that there is “a fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection.” It also states that a steady state economy “has become a more appropriate goal in large, wealthy economies.” Forty-four conferees signed the CASSE position right there in Philadelphia. So there’s your proof!

Only a few conferees that I spoke with declined to sign the CASSE position, at least for the time being. Even these few may lend their good names at some point. None were openly opposed to it, either, and it is not uncommon for a prominent scholar (the type I sought) or public figure to ponder the significance of a statement for some time prior to signing it. But for EEA leaders past and present (such as Ingrid Rima and Steven Pressman, respectively), the CASSE position contained little to even hesitate about.

So what’s going on here? What happened to our stereotype of the professional economist as denying limits to growth, based on simplistic notions of perpetual technological progress? After all, that stereotype is not without a basis in fact. Examples abound, and one of my personal favorites (in a sense) was the wackiness of one Robert Bradley: “Natural resources originate from the mind, not the ground, and therefore are not depletable.” This, while receiving the Julian Simon Award from the Cato Institute! (Simon is another story altogether, which I covered in Chapter 4 of Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train). The stereotype was not only well-deserved but proudly flaunted during decades of neoclassical nuttiness.

Therein lies a key word: “neoclassical.” This is the brand of economics most responsible for our stereotype. Neoclassical economics is exemplified and promulgated by the Chicago School, and it’s increasingly credited with a variety of crisis-causing shortcomings. A short list of neoclassical icons would include Frank Knight, Milton Friedman, and Alan Greenspan. Let it be quickly said that these are (or were) no dummies, but neither should they have been expected to know everything, or even something, about ecological affairs and long-run economic sustainability. And these are (or were) the cream of the neoclassical crop.

As a matter of lingo, at least in the U.S., the neoclassical brethren have recently been labeled “freshwater” economists by themselves and by journalists, indicating the prominence of Chicago and some other inland schools as bastions of neoclassical thought. This is probably a welcome development for many neoclassicals who would gladly trade the stigma of “neoclassical” for the cleanly sound of “freshwater.”

Our stereotype of the GDP Growthman, then, should have always been attributed primarily to neoclassical economists, not economists at large. The problem for sustainability is that the neoclassicals comprise a large and influential portion of economists, especially those appointed to government posts and those running the Federal Reserve System. That shouldn’t be a surprise, when you think about the influence of Big Money in government and academia. The historical linkage of Big Money and neoclassical economics is described in Mason Gaffney’s Corruption of Economics, among others.

But our focus is these other, non-neoclassical economists, so prominent at the EEA conference. Who are they? To start with, there are the Keynesians, neo-Ricardians, Austrians, Sraffians, Marxists, and Georgists (some of my personal favorites). There are also the “saltwater” economists who tend to synthesize neoclassical and Keynesian thought. There are numerous subdivisions among these broad categories, too, such as “red” Marxists, “green” Marxists, and even Marxists who conclude, like Marx did, that “I am no Marxist.” The point is that many, and perhaps a large majority, of these economists would reject the neoclassical notion of unlimited growth, if given the chance.

Of course, we also have ecological economics, for which limits to growth is the starting point and top priority for analysis and policy reform. The fact that there is a limit to economic growth is not an “assumption” in ecological economics, but a scientifically sound and nuanced conclusion, and other topics in ecological economics must square therewith. I hesitate to list ecological economics among these other schools of thought, though. Ecological economics doesn’t yet have the historical cachet or the strength in numbers, certainly not of the Keynesians, Marxists, or neoclassicals. Nor does it have a strong presence in the policy arena, yet.

Perhaps more importantly, unlike these other traditions in economics, ecological economics is as much ecology as economics. It is sometimes described as a “transdiscipline,” transcending even an “interdisciplinary” approach of combining environmental and economic concerns. Ecological economics is not just about applying another twist from the social sciences to economic affairs. Rather, it is about basing the social science of economics on a solid foundation of natural sciences, especially physics and ecology. At this point in history, with a crowded planet replete with climate change and a burgeoning list of endangered species, falling over like canaries in the coalmine, ecological economics should become a presence in conventional economic affairs.

That brings us back to the EEA. Unlike the American Economic Association, historically dominated by neoclassical economists, the EEA is known for its openness to the various schools of thought. Economists of all ilks, including neoclassicals but not excluding the others, assemble at the annual conference. In Philadelphia, for example, Gregory Mankiw gave the presidential address, marking his exit as the figurehead of the EEA and making way for the presidency of Duncan Foley.

Foley is a free-ranging, highly respected economics professor with a remarkably diverse approach that defies categorization. Meanwhile, Mankiw is squarely in the neoclassical hall of fame. A leading author of neoclassical textbooks, Mankiw served as the Chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors under George W. Bush. Yet, when I talked with him about the CASSE position on economic growth, even he seemed curious and willing to consider the merits. This may reflect the saltwater in his intellectual veins. It might reflect a healthy dose of common sense, too. Perhaps this neoclassical icon will be a CASSE signatory at some point.

Although the neoclassical stereotype has a basis in fact, some benefit of the doubt should be allocated to the neoclassical forebears. After all, the Knights, Friedmans, and Greenspans of the neoclassical world cut their macroeconomic teeth in an age dramatically different from ours. Even conservation heroes such as Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold, mid-century contemporaries with the neoclassical icons, weren’t talking clearly about limits to economic growth. You can almost read about it between the lines (especially the last lines of Leopold), but explicitly describing the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection is only a recent development, even among the ecological professions. Furthermore, it’s slow going there, too. One organization, the Ecological Society of America, is still sipping the “sustainable growth” Kool-Aid (sickening a considerable share of members in the oxymoronic process).

The point is that neoclassical economists should not get all the blame for promulgating economic growth beyond the optimum, also known as “uneconomic growth.” The fact is, many of them may be undertaking a paradigm shift and may soon shed the stereotype they inherited. Mankiw, for example, didn’t get where he is by being oblivious to world affairs or unable to adapt. If a scholar and leader of his ability had received his education in the ecological sciences along with economics, he conceivably could have been a steady state economist on par with Herman Daly. The CASSE blog might be called The Daly News and Mankiw Views. Furthermore, to the extent that Mankiw and other prominent figures in neoclassical economics are noting the world around them, and are “shocked” (as Greenspan allowed) in retrospect by the shortcomings of neoclassical economics, it isn’t too late for them to part with their perpetual-growth past.

While talking with Mankiw in Philadelphia, I noted the stark contrast with the conversation I’d had with Robert Lucas (the Chicago School growth theorist) after his presidential address, for the American Economic Association. I asked Lucas if he thought there was a limit to economic growth, and he automatically replied, “No, that’s what technological progress is for.” It was as if I had tapped his knee with a rubber hammer, and his perpetual-growth kick was instantaneous. This may not be entirely a matter of his freshwater, neoclassical lineage, though. It’s been 8 years since I questioned Lucas, and a lot of economic and ecological crises have probably shaken the faith of neoclassicals in the intervening years. Certainly a lot of faith in the neoclassical school has been shaken, which presumably would engender some re-inspection of neoclassical theory.

If Lucas is impervious to critique, or too stubborn to re-inspect his neoclassical paradigm, and fails to apply his renowned calculus to growth limits, he will forfeit what could otherwise be a grand finale of applied and important mathematics. Instead, he will be a last bastion of an unsustainable, stereotypical, 20th century neoclassical mistake. Other economists that have thought their way through the perpetual-growth nonsense, identifying the key ecological principles with due diligence, will take his place in the annals of economic thought.

That brings us back to the EEA conference and the conclusion of this week’s Daly News. The professional economists, professors, and students populating the EEA were fun, smart, and even inspirational to be with. In turn, many of them were inspired by the CASSE mission, with forty-four of them signing the CASSE position on economic growth. That included Georgists, Keynesians, Marxists… even some neoclassicals of a “kinder, gentler” sort for the 21st century. So it is a pleasure, a fond memory, indeed an honor, to conclude by celebrating the fine, forward-thinking members of the EEA. Although the right color to use in economic growth discussions is brown, a good way to describe the EEA economists is with forty shades – actually, make that forty-four shades – of green!

Read All About It

The Daly News, your source of information for innovative ideas about building a better economy, is set to launch. Each week, The Daly News will provide a thought-provoking feature essay that challenges the predominant economic paradigm and explores creative solutions to our profound economic and environmental problems. The first essay by Herman Daly will appear March 1. In addition to Professor Daly, the core rotation of authors at The Daly News includes Brian Czech (wildlife biologist, ecological economist, and author of Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train), Brent Blackwelder (former president of Friends of the Earth and founder of American Rivers), and Rob Dietz (environmental scientist and executive director of CASSE).

The Daly News also will present guest posts and news briefs about economic growth and sustainability. Readers are invited to subscribe to the RSS feed.