The Resilience Imperative and Civil Disobedience

by Michael Lewis

As I was making a speech in Alberta, Canada, to a business audience, mainly from the finance and energy industries, a fully engaged participant in the front row caught my eye. He was the first to approach me after the question period and the first to get my autograph on The Resilience Imperative: Cooperative Transitions to a Steady-State Economy, the book that I co-authored with Pat Conaty.

During my talk, I had argued that economic growth and a casino-like financial system were taking us to the edge of a deadly precipice. I made the case that societies urgently need to navigate the turn to a steady-state economy, based on local and regional trade. I also offered suggestions on how we might accomplish this. The thesis has a bit of an edge to it, especially in a business crowd accustomed to globalization and growth, so I was anxious to learn more about the front-row enthusiast.

He turned out to be a warm, charming, and open senior manager at Cenovus Energy, a large player in the Athabasca Tar Sands. The corporation seems to be respected in Alberta and Saskatchewan because of its health and safety, community, and environmental initiatives. He rapidly brought the discussion to the issue of “social license,” a condition he acknowledged was a big problem for the tar sands operators. But his view, after many years around boardroom tables, is that the industry is becoming more transparent and responsible, and its performance is improving.

I believe this to be true; certainly Cenovus has been doing a lot of things right. However, I argued that he was missing the point; social license in this industry could only be understood in a global context, and it is not going to be forthcoming for two simple reasons: (1) economic growth produces carbon and (2) carbon is going to kill a lot of us and thousands of other creatures.

If the oil and gas sector wants to explore the potential for broadening its social license, it would have to stand shoulder to shoulder with scientists, governments, businesses, and civil society and argue for a stiff tax on carbon. Only by taking such responsibility can Cenovus and its fellow corporations expand their social license. At the same time they would be helping to set the stage for the transition to a steady-state economy.

“Nothing less would do,” I proclaimed.

“Well you know, Mike,” he replied, “I have not seen much evidence of such a move afoot.”

Why am I not surprised? “I know,” I said. “Shareholder interests are framed by the ideology of growth and profit maximization, and even when these interests are complemented by an ethic of corporate social responsibility, the ideology does not exactly encourage this vital and necessary conversation.”

A few days later I attended the launch conference of the New Economics Institute at Bard College in Upstate New York. It was a remarkable convergence of practitioners, researchers, and activists engaged in debates about economics, analysis of mindboggling challenges (both local and planetary in scale), and exploration of hopeful transformational pathways.

Bill McKibben delivered a Friday evening keynote speech to a packed audience. His laser focus on greenhouse gas emissions was at once absorbing, terrifying, and hopeful, precisely the kind of dynamic that is motivating more and more people to step up to the front lines of civil disobedience, including many scientists and even a few economists. Mark Jaccard, a well-known energy economist in Vancouver, is hardly considered to be a radical, but he joined the front-line battle as part of a action. He was arrested in May of this year for blocking a coal train headed north to Vancouver’s coal port.

McKibben and Jaccard are picking up on the analysis of James Hansen et al. that oil and gas are a problem, but we do not have enough of it left to take us over 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Coal is the real threat. Unless we phase out coal completely by 2050, we will blast beyond this concentration, and that’s an event that many climate scientists believe will trigger catastrophic consequences. What are we to do?

McKibben and Jaccard are showing us part of the answer. But to make real progress, we need to pay much more attention to Herman Daly, the outstanding chronicler of our economic and ecological lunacy. He concluded one recent essay with this strident statement befitting of our circumstances:

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

Dr. Daly has clarified and expanded the arguments for a steady-state economy that go back to John Stuart Mill, John Ruskin, Frederick Soddy, Kenneth Boulding, and Ghandi. In the same essay referenced above, Daly also noted that in spite of all the evidence of the growing crisis, “our economists, bankers, and politicians still have unrealistic expectations about growth. Like the losing gambler they try to get even by betting double or nothing on more growth.”

Well then, perhaps we need to follow the leads of McKibben, Jaccard, and Hansen, and go get arrested. Perhaps we need to breathe deeply and act courageously to make hope more concrete and despair less convincing. Perhaps those of us in the 50 to 90-year-old set need to commit to civil disobedience to honor our children, grandchildren and our hopes for their survival. The time has arrived for all of us, but especially the post-war “growth generation” to break out of our too comfortable zones. Stopping carbon emissions is a pre-condition, but nothing will change unless we are prepared to put ourselves on the line.

Of course, this is not enough. We have many questions to answer. How are we going to meet basic needs for energy, food, and shelter? How are we going to finance the economic transition? How do we restructure property rights to overcome the pervasive me-first culture? How do we achieve more local and democratic ownership of the means of production? How do we share jobs and income in a transition that will require less stuff and thus less making of stuff?

These are the questions we concentrate on in The Resilience Imperative. Pat Conaty and I put 42 months of serious forehead pressing into the book, and the early results are gratifying. People as divergent as John Fullerton, former managing director of JP Morgan whose focus is now on resilience and transition (good-bye Wall Street), and Robin Murray from the London School of Economics have endorsed it — they believe we have presented hopeful ideas for getting the transition going.

After presenting numerous positive examples of how people are changing the economy today, we end the book on this note:

The tasks of transition are many. The challenges are daunting. The outcomes are uncertain. Our courage remains untested. But we are a resilient species. We are not alone; there is “blessed unrest” all about. If we but open our eyes, we will SEE change is possible. If we act in ways that recognize we are interdependent, we will continue to innovate cooperative transitions to a steady-state economy.

There is one key question we need to ask ourselves. What stories will we be able to tell our loved ones about what we did to advance the Great Transition?

Economics as if the Laws of Thermodynamics Mattered

by David Jones

There is no wealth but life. –John Ruskin

Have you ever considered the question: what is life? If we are aiming for a new economic system that will preserve and enhance life, rather than the current system, which more often than not seems to destroy and degrade life, perhaps we should consider what life is and how it is made possible. I recall learning about “living things” in high school biology classes, but always found the definitions of these “living things” to be somewhat vague. Let me try a physicist’s definition then, which might feel unfamiliar at first. A living thing is a kind of low-entropy-maintenance machine: a configuration of differentiated parts that succeeds in performing complex, interdependent functions for a prolonged period of time.

Having used the word “entropy” in the previous sentence, I should try to explain what it is. All living and non-living things (and hence all human economies, whether or not economists pay attention to the fact!) obey the laws of thermodynamics. The second law, in particular, introduces the concept of entropy and the idea that the entropy of a closed system must either remain constant or increase, but never fall. Entropy is a measure of how “special” a particular arrangement of parts is — the lower the entropy, the more “special” the arrangement. Life is “special.”

To illustrate this concept of “specialness,” imagine first a set of red and blue gas molecules, fifty of each say, bouncing around in a room. Which is more likely: (A) that all 50 red molecules will be in one half of the room and all 50 blue in the other half, or (B) that some roughly even mixture of red and blues will be present in both halves? Scenario B, is the less “special” and more likely one, but why? The answer is that there are many ways of arranging the molecules to have “some roughly even mixture” of red and blue — a great many pairs of molecules can be swapped between the halves without making a difference. However, with the perfect red and blue split, if any molecule is swapped with a partner in the other half of the room, then each half gets “contaminated” with one molecule of the “wrong” color — such a swap does make a difference. Hence what we see tends to be an equal mixture of each color, just because there are vastly many more ways of seeing an equal mixture.

Now I can state the notion of entropy precisely — the entropy of such a set of molecules is a number that is large when there are many ways of swapping pairs of molecules and getting the same overall state, and small when there are few ways of swapping them and getting the same overall state. Explicitly, an entropy S is given by Boltzmann’s entropy law:

S = k log W

Here k = 1.38 x 10−23 joule/kelvin (Boltzmann’s constant), W is the number of ways of swapping the components of a state (say red and blue molecules) without making an overall difference to that state and log W means “the natural logarithm of W” — the power you have to raise Euler’s number (e = 2.718) to in order to get W (for example if W is equal to e then log W is equal to 1, because e to the power 1 is e).

Boltzmann's tomb, with his famous entropy law above the bust

That little equation of Boltzmann’s explains a huge number of phenomena. For example, why do hot things tend to get colder and cold things hotter? Easy — bring a hot thing and a cold thing into contact and it’s like the red and blue molecules all over again — there are many, many more ways for hot molecules and cold ones to get mixed together equally than for them to stay separated into a hot part and a cold part. So the temperature equalizes.

Another example: why do balls bounce lower and lower, but never start bouncing higher and higher? Easy — after they’re done falling, ball molecules are moving more, on average, than floor ones. During each bounce, there are more ways of sharing out this motion randomly amongst the ball and floor than there are of keeping all the faster molecules in the ball and all the slower molecules in the floor. So this sharing out is what happens, and the ball eventually stops bouncing. The opposite case — a ball spontaneously bouncing higher and higher — never happens in practice because it is so unlikely. That’s how you can tell a film is being played backwards; everything that happens is so unlikely that it is never seen to happen in practice. These examples demonstrate the second law of thermodynamics: the total entropy always increases and never decreases because of how incredibly unlikely a decrease is.

What about life and entropy? A living thing has a very low entropy compared to its surroundings, because there are not many ways of swapping its constituent parts and leaving it in an invariant state. For example, swapping molecules between your heart and brain wouldn’t leave you in “an invariant state” — it would kill you! In fact, coming into thermodynamic equilibrium with your surroundings is also known as being dead!

Next question: how is life able to maintain this low-entropy state, in apparent defiance of the second law? Well, life is part of the Earth-sun system. We can regard this as “a closed system” to a very good approximation — a vast ocean of space separates it from other systems. But the Earth alone (plus moon, of course!) is not “a closed system.” The sun — a nuclear fusion reactor — provides the Earth with a constant input of low-entropy “organized” energy in the form of high-intensity photons (particles of light). Plants use this energy to make food which animals (including humans) eat, keeping the low-entropy-maintenance machinery of life running.

The Earth-sun (plus moon) system, of which the human economy is a sub-system

Save for a few ocean vent ecosystems, this low-entropy input from the sun makes all life on Earth possible, and hence all human economies (again, whether or not economists pay attention to the fact!). When we humans burn reserves of oil and coal laid down over millennia in a geological eye-blink, we are liberating the low-entropy energy captured from ancient sunlight and buried deep underground.

The second law of thermodynamics has profound implications for our economic systems. A constant stream of low-entropy energy from the sun is required to maintain life’s organized state. Without this “entropy gradient” the machinery of life would soon wind down, like the bouncing balls or mixing molecules did. So in order to prolong life on Earth, we should try to use this vital low-entropy input as efficiently as possible, to recycle it through all sectors of the economy. We should certainly not waste it and assume that we will be able to increase our use of it more and more and more, forever.

Unfortunately, most mainstream economists don’t seem to have heard of the second law of thermodynamics. Perhaps this isn’t really their fault, since it’s not in their textbooks. But it should be. It governs all life and all systems on Earth, including the economy. As our leaders in business and government race to implement misguided economic models that are not founded upon the laws of thermodynamics, and as nation after nation refuses to question the pursuit of never-ending economic growth, we draw closer to a fate that will end in tears for the human race. I worry that the tears have already begun falling.

David A. Jones is a PhD student in theoretical physics at Southampton University in the UK. He writes frequently for the Positive Money blog.

Surely We Can Do Better than Nuclear Socialism

by Brent Blackwelder

They were in the news a half century ago when they were called “too cheap to meter.”  Now “absolutely safe” nuclear reactors are once again in the news.  As the horrifying scene in Japan unfolds this month, many politicians and media pundits are acting as if the only electricity choice for the U.S. is nuclear reactors or coal power plants.  This is a false choice.

A sustainable economy requires a sustainable energy supply, one that is not subject to the vulnerabilities of big central energy systems.  A steady state economy would run on a decentralized set of renewable energy sources that is clean and resilient.  It would be an economy powered by the sun, the wind, the natural heat content of the Earth, and other renewable sources. Advanced designs for where we live and how we travel would be a key part of this energy transformation. For example, buildings would be designed to generate power rather than requiring external energy supplies for cooling and heating.  And let’s not forget about conservation – we need to set up the economy such that it uses less energy in the first place.

The energy system that would run a steady state economy does not have the severe security problems that plague current systems, nor would it require massive subsidies in the form of liability limits, loan guarantees, externalization of  health damages, etc.  You don’t have to worry about a solar or wind “spill” contaminating the air, land and water; you don’t need liability caps for a wind farm or for solar collectors on roofs; and finally, you don’t need to bill consumers (instead of stockholders or investors) in advance for a nuclear reactor that may never be completed.

The strength and resilience of decentralized power, its superior employment intensity, and the potential for community involvement are all features that make a different energy model very attractive. Various European nations such as Spain, Germany, and Denmark have demonstrated the huge potential of wind and solar power, as has the state of Texas in the case of wind with 9,700 megawatts installed.

But look at the powerful forces today pushing nuclear reactor construction in the southeastern U.S. and obstructing the clean energy path of the future.  Even after the terrible nuclear meltdown in Japan, two big southern utilities, South Carolina Electric & Gas and Georgia Power, announced that they are not pausing to consider some lessons to be learned before proceeding full speed ahead with four new reactors.  To pay for two new reactors at Plant Vogtle, Georgia Power has begun billing its Georgia customers this month for the intended construction. Ironically, the proposed new reactors being billed to Georgia consumers are intended to supply customers in Florida.  Consumers and taxpayers are bearing all the risks, not investors.

The energy systems used to power the global economy are highly vulnerable to extreme weather events, sabotage, terrorism, and war.  The Japanese catastrophe this month certainly brings to mind the nuclear disasters at Chernobyl in 1986 and Three Mile Island in 1979.  But the nuclear and fossil fuel industries have supplied many less well-known disasters.  A brief  review of some of the accidents will accentuate the difference between the polluting energy of today’s economy and the clean energy future that would, by its very nature, avoid these messes:

  • In  July of 1979, at the Navajo community of Church Rock, New Mexico, an earthen dam at United Nuclear Corporation’s uranium mill broke, releasing 95 million gallons of radioactive wastewater into the Rio Puerco.  The spill sent contaminants over 100 miles downstream.  This unpublicized spill is estimated to have contained over triple the amount of radiation (curies) that the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor released in the very same year.
  • Last year tornado warnings near Detroit forced the shutdown of the Fermi 2 atomic reactor.  This was the same site where a meltdown in 1966 nearly irradiated the Greats Lakes Region.
  • For much of 2010 the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was an ongoing saga of futility and despair.
  • In July of 2007 a major earthquake in Japan badly damaged one nuclear reactor in a complex of nuclear reactors.
  • In December of 2008 a Tennessee Valley Authority reservoir, which was storing the contaminated ash from one of its power plants,  burst and  sent a toxic stew of waste 100 times larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill into a tributary of the Tennessee River.  Despite assurances that such dam bursting was unusual and would never happen again, scarcely a month had passed when yet another coal waste reservoir (this one in Alabama) failed and spewed contamination downstream.

Vulnerability lessons are not new.  After World War II German military leaders pointed out that the U.S. could have ended the War two years sooner by bombing the big coal power plants. Instead the allies were bombing individual industrial sites like steel mills, failing to recognize that the big coal plants powered 80% of Germany’s manufacturing.   In contrast, Japan’s electric power was provided by a huge number of small dams that were not attractive targets for attack because no single one was crucial for the power system of the nation.

The energy for a steady state economy can be supplied by a huge number of solar panels and wind mills as outlined by physics professors Jacobson and Delucchi at Stanford University (Scientific American, November, 2009) and by many others.  It would be a refreshing change to see President Obama propose such an ambitious solar/wind plan in the aftermath of the meltdown in Japan, but he seems content merely to suggest a thorough review of nuclear reactors.

Before having to hear how high the costs of renewable energy are, I’ll close with a brief reminder of the government subsidies the U.S. nuclear industry is slated to receive.  Here are some components of the $46 billion being offered up over the next 5 years in addition to the cap on liability for any accident:

  • $22.5 billion in loan guarantees for new reactors;
  • $12.3 billion in nuclear waste fund liability payments;
  • $3 billion for mixed oxide activities; and
  • $1.9 billion for fusion energy.

For more details, please see the green scissors report.

Seeing this list of handouts, one might think that Republican leaders would recoil at what might be termed nuclear socialism.  One would think that the Tea Party activists would revolt at the sight of this massive government program to fund something that Wall Street would not touch even before the catastrophe in Japan.