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Renewable Ignorance

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyWe are all born pig-ignorant. Upon having accumulated a lifetime of knowledge we all promptly die. Ignorant babies replace learned elders. Knowledge is a depleting resource; ignorance is renewable. Yes, libraries and data banks grow, but knowledge finally has to exist in the minds of living people to be effective and evolve — unread books, unseen videos, and un-accessed hard drives are inert.

Like Sisyphus we push the rock up the hill only to have it roll back down again. Progress is not completely illusory. However, it is 3 steps up followed by 2.5 steps backward. Successive generations repeat earlier mistakes. They also invent new ones. Any solution to a given mistake is usually forgotten within 2 or 3 generations and we have to learn it again. But it is not all bad — after all, babies are delightful and happy while old people are grumpy — ignorance is bliss. Life consists of more than knowledge. Life expectancy has increased, so the old know more when they die, leaving the babies with still more to learn.

A massive transfer of knowledge each generation is an unavoidable necessity. This transfer is not automatic. It requires two decisions. The old must decide what knowledge is worth their effort to teach, and the young must decide what is worth their effort to learn. Some knowledge passes both filters and becomes the basis for guiding the future and for discovering new knowledge. Other knowledge fails to pass one or both filters and is lost. Just as the world is always only one failed harvest away from mass hunger, so it is always only one failed generational transfer away from mass ignorance.

What do we know about these two generational knowledge filters? What do they let pass and what do they filter out? I really don’t know the answer, but I have one speculation, taken from E. F. Schumacher’s reflections on Thomas Aquinas and Rene Descartes. Aquinas said that even uncertain knowledge of the highest things is worth more than certain knowledge of the lowest things. Descartes believed otherwise, that only knowledge that had the certainty of geometry was worth retaining, and uncertain knowledge should be abandoned even if it pertained to higher things. These two filters have very different selection biases. In their extreme forms they represent opposite errors of judgment about what knowledge to keep and what to jettison.

Which error are we most likely to commit today? I believe we overemphasize Descartes and pay too little attention to Aquinas. I take Aquinas’s “higher things” to mean purposes, knowledge about right purposes. Lower things I take to refer to techniques — how to efficiently do something, assuming it should be done in the first place. We have overdeveloped our relatively certain knowledge of technique, and left underdeveloped our less certain but more important knowledge of right purpose. The old seem more interested in teaching technique than purpose, and the young obligingly seem more interested in learning technique than purpose. So we develop more and more power, subject to less and less purpose. As physicist Steven Weinberg says, the more science makes the universe comprehensible and subject to our control, the more it also seems to render it pointless, and the less our control is guided by purpose.

These thoughts remind me of a public debate I participated in at LSU in the 1970s regarding the construction of the River Bend Nuclear Power Plant near Baton Rouge. I presented economic and safety reasons for believing that the plant should not be built, that there were cheaper and safer alternative sources of electricity, etc. After my presentation a nuclear engineering consultant from MIT made his rebuttal on behalf of Gulf States Utilities. It consisted entirely of presenting a scale model of the reactor core and explaining how it worked. He never replied to any of my arguments or said a word about why the reactor should be built. But his exposition of technique easily won the public debate. Afterwards everyone crowded around his model pointing to this and that, asking how it worked. “How to” questions of technique totally displaced “what for” questions of purpose. Maybe I needed a scale model meltdown of a reactor core! Maybe I needed a course in public relations. I might as well have been whistling Dixie.

Also I am reminded of a conversation with a friend who was the film curator for the Library of Congress. He told me that digital recording techniques were now so advanced and cheap that the Library would soon be recording and preserving everything that appeared on TV, or YouTube, or the radio, or Twitter, etc. Historians and scholars could then decide what was important and valuable. Librarians would avoid this difficult qualitative decision, and at the same time feel good about themselves for not imposing their value judgments on future historians. While I understand this point of view I cannot share it because it seems to me yet another example of “how to” questions displacing “what for” questions — a displacement likely to be continued by the “value–free” future scholars for whose benefit this almost infinite attic of junk is to be saved.

Knowledge is offered as a panacea these days. Young people are urged to go deeply into debt to “get a degree,” and are assured that the growth economy will allow them to pay it back with interest and still come out ahead. Many have been disappointed. As one who has spent over forty years in universities I am doubtful about this exaltation of knowledge, even though in arguing for a steady-state economy I have appealed to physical limits, not knowledge limits, leaving open the question of how much qualitative development could be supported within a biophysical steady state without quantitative growth. Also the “knowledge limits” I have appealed to are themselves knowledge — knowledge of physical limits, mainly the laws of thermodynamics, rather than any inherent limits to knowledge itself.

Although I am eager for knowledge to substitute physical growth to the extent possible, the basic renewability of ignorance makes me doubt that knowledge can save the growth economy. Furthermore, knowledge, even when it increases, does not grow exponentially like money in the bank. Some old knowledge is disproved or cancelled out by new knowledge, and some new knowledge is discovery of new biophysical or social limits to growth. New knowledge must always be something of a surprise — if we could predict its content then we would have to know it already and it would not really be new. Contrary to common expectation, new knowledge is not always a pleasant surprise for the growth economy — frequently it is bad news. For example, climate change from greenhouse gasses was recently new knowledge, as was discovery of the ozone hole.

One thing I have learned about universities is that much of what is taught in them today is based on the labor theory of value — “It was hard for me to learn this, so it must be worth teaching it to you.” This is a poor generational filter, and is even found in economics, which of all disciplines should know better! Also, much abandoned knowledge should have made the cut but did not. Indeed the whole field of history of economic thought has been cut from the curriculum to make room for more econometrics — the art of pretending to measure ephemeral and tenuous correlations among ill-defined variables in a world where the relationships to be measured change faster than the data for estimating them accumulates. The classical economists’ concept of the stationary state economy did not totally disappear, but almost.

Is just trying to save everything a solution? No. Do I have a solution? No. So I will stop here and simply ask that we all, young and old, pause, and calmly consider the proper balance between the “what for” and the “how to” questions as filters for the generational transfer of knowledge. Let’s help the babies deal better with the perennial problem of renewable ignorance.

The Influence of Donella Meadows and the Limits to Growth

by Rob Dietz

“There are no limits to growth and human progress when men and women are free to follow their dreams.”

This cornucopian quote sounds like something a Disney character would say, but it’s actually chiseled in stone on a monument in the heart of Washington, DC. These are the words of Ronald Reagan, and they have a permanent home in the atrium of the government building that bears his name. These words also seem to have a permanent home in the economic strategy of the U.S. and just about every other nation.

Reagan’s quote oozes with optimism. His optimistic attitude and his gift for inspiring people formed the core of his popular Presidential style, even if his rhetoric sometimes strayed far from reality. In his quote, he cleverly equated growth (which he championed for political reasons without considering the long-term environmental and social implications) with human progress (which pretty much every voter can get behind).

One prominent public figure was able to match Reagan’s hopefulness and ability to inspire. She was a humble writer and farmer, but first and foremost, she was a scientist who rooted her analyses in the laws of physics and ecology (she certainly never tried to gain support by resorting to fantasy-land notions such as infinite growth on a finite planet).

When Donella Meadows passed away suddenly in 2001, humanity lost a leading light. If you begin reading her Global Citizen columns, it’s hard to stop before you’ve read through the entire 16-year archive. With wit, style, and uncommon insight, she tackled some of the most pressing social and environmental problems, and her writing was so good that the column was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She became one of the most influential people to promote the vision of a sustainable society. In fact, the Post Growth Institute has ranked her at number 3 (right behind E. F. Schumacher and Herman Daly) in their list of the top 100 sustainability thinkers.

Meadows became internationally famous in 1972 as the lead author of The Limits to Growth, a little book with powerful ideas that went against the mainstream grain. She and her coauthors, Dennis Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and William Behrens, combined principles from the emerging field of system dynamics with newly developed computer modeling capabilities to assess the implications of ongoing growth in population, food production, industrial output, pollution, and consumption of nonrenewable resources. Even the most biting critic has to admire their guts and resolve for undertaking such an ambitious study to build a robust model of the world!

It’s hard to overstate the influence of The Limits to Growth, which was translated into 25 languages and became the best-selling environmental book of all time. That’s a stunning achievement on its own, but it’s all the more impressive for a book that covers such a disconcerting topic by presenting a bunch of output from a computer model.

The book’s level of influence can be demonstrated by three pieces of evidence beyond the sales figures. The first piece of evidence comes from the realm of politics. Jimmy Carter, a scientist and farmer like Meadows, was clearly inspired by her work and that of other like-minded scholars (he even hosted E. F. Schumacher at the White House). In his “Crisis of Confidence” speech (1979), Carter called for conservation of energy, sharing of resources, and pursuit of meaning through channels other than “owning things and consuming things.” That sounds a lot like a practical and hopeful approach to dealing with the limits to growth. But Carter’s political rivals re-branded his speech as the “Malaise Speech.” They successfully undermined his message, which was seen as a threat to corporate power and unchecked economic growth.

The second piece of evidence is closely related to the backlash heaped on Carter, which helped sweep him out of office and set the stage for the era of reckless Reaganomics. The Limits to Growth received the same backlash as Carter, and as Richard Heinberg reports, detractors took such strides to discredit the book that millions of people mistakenly believe it was debunked years ago. This is nonsense — the book’s analysis and its underlying message have held up surprisingly well. In fact, in 2008 the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization took a close look at the book’s scenarios. The findings show that thirty years of historical data compare favorably to key features of the book’s business-as-usual scenario (ominously, this scenario results in collapse of the global economic system sometime around 2050. The fact that The Limits to Growth struck such a nerve and raised the ire of so many critics serves as a potent reminder of its influence.

The third piece of evidence is anecdotal. I bought my own copy of The Limits to Growth (a 1975 second edition) from a used book store a few years ago. The book’s original owner received it as a Christmas present from someone named Rex. In his “Merry Christmas” note on the inside cover, Rex wrote, “I haven’t read this yet, but it’s supposed to contain some interesting ideas on where we are heading.”

Meadows and company summarize “where we are heading” right up front by stating these three far-reaching conclusions:

  1. 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.
  2. It is possible to alter these growth trends and to establish a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future. The state of global equilibrium could be designed so that the basic material needs of each person on earth are satisfied and each person has an equal opportunity to realize his individual human potential.
  3. If the world’s people decide to strive for this second outcome rather than the first, the sooner they begin working to attain it, the greater will be their chances of success.

Detractors of The Limits to Growth clearly had an agenda — they didn’t want any obstacle to impede their quest for unlimited profits and accumulation of wealth. But Meadows and company had an agenda, too. Their agenda, revealed in the second concluding point, is profoundly humanitarian. They were desperate to find a way to maintain human well-being without undermining the life-supporting systems of the planet.

Unfortunately, even to this day, the anti-limits marketing machine continues to churn out propaganda and sway public opinion toward the wishful thinking of infinite growth. We are not going to achieve infinite economic growth on planet Earth. Not only is it physically impossible, but it’s also an undesirable goal to begin with.

We’ve made disappointing progress on the third concluding point of Meadows and company over the last forty years. Even so, their premise still holds. The sooner we begin working toward a steady state economy, the greater our chances of providing a lasting prosperity for all of civilization.

Technological Progress for Dummies

by Brian Czech

Not you, CASSE signatory. You’re no dummy. You already know that the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection can’t be overcome with technological progress.

But we’re all dummies about something. Most of us are dummies about toothpick manufacturing, for example. Toothpick dummies range from presidents to pot-scrubbers. So do plasma physics dummies, Arabic language dummies, and root canal instrument dummies. So don’t take this the wrong way if you think technological progress can overcome the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection. You may be wrong about that, but you are legion!

Now among dummies, there’s dumb and dumber. That’s just the way it is. But toothpick dummies and other specific dummies can be smart overall. So the generally smart and smarter are specifically dumb and dumber.

Technological progress sure brings out the dumb in the smarter. This I discovered by trying to get scientific organizations to adopt positions on economic growth. Invariably, the biggest hurdle was the notion that, with technological progress, economic growth and environmental protection could go hand-in-hand.

And frankly, it is an extremely difficult notion to refute, at least in plain language. It’s different if you’re a physicist; you probably get it immediately. You know that, no matter how much invention and innovation, you can’t make something from nothing and you can’t get perpetually more efficient. You know it because you’re steeped in the first two laws of thermodynamics.

But there we go, with “laws of thermodynamics,” already outside the vernacular, way beyond plain language. Few among us are physicists. Legion are we thermodynamic dummies, from presidents to pot-scrubbers.

That doesn’t mean you must be a physicist to get it. Farmers tend to get it too, as do many people who work with their hands, city or country. The fact that you can’t make something from nothing, that you can’t have your cake and eat it too, is really a matter of common sense. Or it should be.

The problem is that common sense is not very common any more. It’s been vanquished by disingenuous marketers, truth-bending politicians, and scholarly “smart-dummies” (generally smart, specifically dumb on technological progress) who have legions thinking there is no limit to economic growth. But surely it’s not far below the surface. Surely there is latent common sense to invoke.

For several years in the early 2000’s, I looked high and low for a thorough explanation of why technological progress could not reconcile the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection. I felt I had common sense — horse sense, farm sense, construction sense — and I couldn’t believe the best-selling authors blathering about perpetual growth in the “information economy” and the politicians chanting the mantra, “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.” All this was based on a fuzzy notion of technological progress, and had most Americans (64% according to a Roper poll) believing there was no limit to economic growth. So I searched for scientific literature to refute the fallacious rhetoric.

Much to my chagrin, there was almost nothing. There were rigorous explanations for limits to growth, most notably by our Daly News namesake. Herman Daly had used laws of thermodynamics to demonstrate limits to growth and to advocate a steady state economy. He and others also described how economic growth required natural capital, which helped to explain the basic trade-off between growth and environmental protection. All this implied that technological progress could not reconcile the trade-off, at least in the long run, and here and there were statements to that effect.

There were also critiques of technological progress that were focused less on limits to growth and more on cultural impacts. Perhaps the most famous was by E. F. Schumacher in Small is Beautiful. Schumacher called for “appropriate technology.”

Yet there seemed to be a missing concept. Nowhere was there a thorough, rigorous, and compelling explanation for why technological progress could not allow a nation, or the world, to continue growing the economy without necessarily degrading the environment in the process. After all, there seemed to be many examples of technological progress that helped protect the environment, even in the midst of rapid economic growth. These examples, along with the lack of a rigorous trade-off thesis, explained why legions were unwilling to acknowledge limits to growth, or even a trade-off between economic growth and environmental protection.

It also explains why very smart dummies in academia, government, and the private sector are paid handsomely for “science and technology policy” affairs. These folks are often brilliant in general terms, and about many specific topics, yet many are dumber than a boot about the relationships among economic growth, technological progress, and environmental protection. Invariably they recognize that economic growth and technological progress are tightly linked, and they know that many new technologies are “greener.” They therefore figure it’s a slam dunk that economic growth may be reconciled with environmental protection via technological progress. For them, the object of science and technology policy is to steer science toward providing technological progress, thereby growing the economy and protecting the environment. It’s a classic win-win!

Partly because they’re paid so handsomely, jetting from conference to conference, most others think they must be experts on the subject. They should, therefore, be believed. Meanwhile, because their win-win message is political gold, politicians find them useful. Smart-dummies are appointed to high governmental posts, becoming more credible yet in the eyes of the public.

If you go to a typical science and technology policy conference, you’ll find one group of speakers talking about where the money for science is coming from or could come from. Another group will point to where the money is going; what kind of science is being conducted, who is conducting it, and what new technologies are coming online as a result. Another group will address what it means to the environment, and another will address what it means to the economy. Keynote speakers weave these threads into the tired message that we need newer technology and therefore more science – we’ll just have to find funding for it – so we can continue growing the economy while protecting the environment. Then it’s time for wine and hors d’ oeuvres and planning for the next highfalutin conference.

Clearly we have to look elsewhere for a clear description of why the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection cannot be reconciled with technological progress. Ideally this description would not rely exclusively on the laws of thermodynamics, either, but could be put in much plainer language. That would make it relevant to the public and policy makers.

When I found no such description during those years around 2000, I decided to attempt it myself. The experience was daunting and taught me how easy it would be to slip into accepting the idea of perpetual economic growth, or at least the idea of reconciling growth with environmental protection for extended periods of time. But I got lucky in stumbling upon an overlooked concept — maybe the overlooked concept in these matters. It’s a concept necessary to explain how economic growth and technological progress can continue in lockstep, but not without environmental degradation. It’s actually a well-known concept in the economics profession, but hadn’t been applied to the issue at hand. I stumbled upon it while studying the methods and findings of national income accounting, especially the findings of the late Edward Denison, a pioneer in the measurement of GDP.

Now I won’t claim that the concept — “economies of scale” — is exactly plain language either. Yet it is much plainer than laws of thermodynamics. For one thing, far more citizens are businessmen than physicists, and economies of scale resonate with them.

I wrote it all up in a peer-reviewed paper published in 2008 for the journal Conservation Biology. The paper isn’t plasma physics, but neither is it plain language. So I haven’t yet completed the plain-language part of the task. There’s no better place to try than the Daly News.

Frankly, I’m not sure I can do it, and I’m not sure it can be done by anyone. The topic may be just tricky enough to defy the vernacular. We’ll see how it goes in the conclusion of this two-part column next week…