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NGOs Challenged to Back Up Their Rhetoric

The following letter was sent to the top ten environmental NGOs today, challenging them to a debate on the topic, “Is there a conflict between economic growth and environmental protection?” Recipients included the National Wildlife Federation, Defenders of Wildlife, World Wildlife Fund, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Nature Conservancy, National Audubon Society and the Izaak Walton League.

Time to Stop Worshipping Economic Growth

By Brent Blackwelder

Brent Blackwelder

There are physical limits to growth on a finite planet. In 1972, the Club of Rome issued their groundbreaking report—Limits to Growth (twelve million copies in thirty-seven languages). The authors predicted that by about 2030, our planet would feel a serious squeeze on natural resources, and they were right on target.

In 2009, the Stockholm Resilience Center introduced the concept of planetary boundaries to help the public envision the nature of the challenges posed by limits to growth and physical/biological boundaries. They defined nine boundaries critical to human existence that, if crossed, could generate abrupt or irreversible environmental changes.

The global economy must be viewed from a macro-perspective to realize that infringement of the planetary boundaries puts many life support ecosystems in jeopardy. Without functional ecosystems, the very survival of life forms, as well as human institutions, is put in doubt, including any economy. There is no economy on a dead planet!

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Scientists are concerned that we have already overstepped the boundaries on biogeochemical flows (nitrogen) and biosphere integrity (genetic biodiversity). [click image for larger view] Image Credit: F. Pharand-Deschênes /Globaïa. 

These boundaries apply to the economy because the economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the ecosystems that make life on earth possible. (Some understanding of ecology should be a prerequisite for an advanced degree in economics!) Scientists are concerned that we have already overstepped the boundaries on biogeochemical flows (nitrogen) and biosphere integrity (genetic biodiversity).

Today’s global economy and the various regional and national economies regularly neglect planetary boundaries. Crossing a boundary is tantamount to crashing through a guardrail and plunging over a cliff. The blind encouragement of economic growth that does not respect these boundaries is setting up human civilizations for collapse. Two of the most harmful types of growth are ruthless and futureless.

Ruthless growth benefits a few at the top but does nothing for the middle class. One of the reasons that Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign has attracted larger and larger audiences is that he says the most crucial issue facing the United States is the gross discrepancy between the middle class and the billionaire class.

Futureless growth destroys resources, such as water, forests, fisheries, and farmland that will be needed by our children and grandchildren, and by wildlife. Futureless growth directly conflicts with common family values. We tell our children to save for the future rather than squander their money. We don’t tell them to outspend their peers. We don’t tell them to judge the quality of their lives based on material possessions and quarterly financial reports.

To remain within the nine planetary boundaries, nations must shed the fetish of economic growth and transition to a true-cost, steady state economy. Some of the critical transition steps include:

  1. Replacing the GDP as a measure of well-being (lots of work has been done on coming up with an index of sustainable productivity).
  2. Getting the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to require corporations to disclose their pollution externalities (the SEC is not hopeless, as can be seen by its recent decision to require CEOs to publish their salaries along with those of the average workers at their companies).
  3. Going to a four-day work week to secure fuller employment (this has happened in some European countries; Canadian economist Peter Victor has papers on why this is a crucial transition step).
  4. Dematerializing the economy (i.e., so that it’s cheaper to repair an appliance than it is to buy a new one).
  5. Identifying the areas in which the economy should grow—and those where it should shrink or degrow (i.e., the usage of fossil fuels must shrink sharply, and in so doing, roof-top solar will grow to become a much larger part of the global economy).
  6. Identifying the most heinous types of economic growth (ruthless and futureless) and showing how their costs exceed their benefits.
  7. Stabilizing population to keep humanity from further transgression of the nine boundaries.

There are about seven billion people on earth today, and forecasts indicate there will be nine billion by 2050. Already, almost one billion malnourished people are feeling the squeeze, as they painfully bear testimony to the truth of what Malthus predicted two centuries ago. Key first steps to stabilizing population in a progressive way are:

  1. Empowerment of women.
  2. Requiring all foreign assistance to be designed so that women will be better off as a result.
  3. Making contraceptives widely available.

Our global economy is treating the planet as if it were a business in a liquidation sale. Even environmental organizations—devoted to environmental protection— have been slow to acknowledge the major causes of environmental degradation, such as perverse economic incentives encouraging raw resource extraction and non-renewable energy use. We need environmental leaders to speak out for a new, just, and true-cost economy; and to challenge the mindless embracing of economic growth—even ruthless and futureless growth. Environmental leaders should be driving the push toward refocusing economic thinking on the changes that we will have to make if we are going to move to a healthier economy that exists within the nine planetary boundaries. Only if humanity stays within these nine boundaries can it continue to develop and thrive for generations to come.

 

 

What is Wrong with a Zero Interest Rate?

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyThe stock market took a dip, so the Fed will likely continue to keep the interest rate at zero, in conformity with its goal of supporting asset prices by quantitative easing. What is wrong with a zero interest rate? Doesn’t it boost investment, growth, and employment?

There are many things wrong with a zero interest rate. Remember that the interest rate is a price paid to savers by borrowing investors. At a zero price, savers will save less and receive less return on past savings. Savers and pensioners are penalized. At a near zero price for borrowed funds, investors are being subsidized and will invest in just about anything, leading to many poor investments and negative returns, furthering the economy’s already advanced transition from economic to uneconomic growth. Zero interest promotes an infinite demand for savings with zero new supply. But the “supply” is provided artificially by the Fed printing money. The infinite demand would be checked by the rising costs of natural resources and environmental damage if those costs were internalized, but they are not. Yet the environmental costs are real and do not disappear just because they are not counted. With free money and uncounted environmental costs, why not invest heavily in fracking? A very unequal distribution of income does check demand, at least for non-luxury goods. Rich people have an increasing surplus of money to invest, which also helps hold down the interest rate. Yes, mortgage rates fall, and that benefits citizens as home buyers, but they lose more in terms of their retirement accounts. And there is still a significant spread between the zero rate paid to savers and the positive rates charged on credit card and other debt, so the banks are doing quite well.

Also think for a moment about the calculation of present value in finance—a perpetual stream of future income divided by the interest rate gives its capitalized value. If the interest rate is zero, then the capitalized present value of any positive perpetual income stream becomes infinite. To put it another way, a zero interest rate is equivalent to saying that a hypothetical stream of income into the infinite future is all totally available today. Supply of financial capital in terms of its present value is infinite. But financial capital is supposed to be a measure of real capital, which is not infinite. Furthermore, the interest rate, to a significant degree, reflects the risk of loss. With infinite capital it matters little if you lose some, so risk too is uncounted.

U.S. Treasury.Elfboy

U.S. Department of the Treasury, Washington, D.C. Photo Credit: Elfboy

Zero interest rates encourage aggregate growth in scale of the macro-economy to ecologically unsustainable, as well as uneconomic, levels. Zero interest rates also neglect risk of loss, while encouraging microeconomic misallocation to stupid projects. At the same time, it redistributes income inequitably. Does all this make you think that something might be screwy with the policy of zero interest rates? Economists pride themselves on their knowledge of advanced mathematics, but they don’t seem to mind the fact that their policies imply dividing by zero!

Granted that with severe unemployment it is worthwhile, as Keynes said, to hire people just to dig holes and fill them up again in order to increase spending. However, this would better be done by the Treasury paying the hole diggers with new Treasury money than by the Fed doing it by distorting the scale, distribution, and resource allocation of the whole economy with zero interest rates in order to create new bank money. Also, the money created by the Treasury costs no interest to the public, while the money created by the Fed costs us the positive rate charged to borrowers, not the zero rate paid to depositors. Money is a public utility like a road. Should private banks be allowed to set up a tollbooth and charge us for using public roads? By the way, the Fed is owned by its member private banks.

How does the Fed keep the interest rate at zero? By printing money—quantitative easing, so called. Some hyper-Keynesians want a negative nominal interest rate (we already have a negative real rate when corrected for inflation) because we still don’t have full employment even at a zero interest rate. But this is so crazy that it requires a separate discussion of its own.

Why has this huge monetary expansion not led to more inflation? For one, because the dollar is a reserve currency and other nations hold large dollar assets. Also, other major currencies, following the same expansionary policy, have been depreciating relative to the dollar. This will not likely continue. Furthermore, there really has been inflation, but of a hidden kind. Instead of stimulating new production and employment, the new money has increased the demand for existing assets such as stocks, houses, art, etc., providing little employment and leading to speculative bubbles. The Consumer Price Index (CPI), the official measure of inflation, does not include capital assets. And concurrent cheap-labor policies—off-shoring of production and tolerance of illegal immigration—depress wages, holding inflation in check. In addition, the externalization of increasing environmental costs keeps prices lower than they should be. Further, as any consumer can testify, the quantity per package of food is getting less, and the quality of service of airlines, internet providers, public utilities, etc. is deteriorating. Our leading newspaper, the New York Times, now repeats many of the same articles over and over for weeks at a time. Getting less quantity or quality or more repetition for the same price is equivalent to a price increase—hidden inflation. So the claim that quantitative easing has not yet led to inflation is at best only half true—it has certainly led to inflationary substitutes not measured by the CPI. Some official versions of the CPI even exclude such basics as energy, food, and housing (too “volatile” is the excuse). Do you ever feel that you are being lied to?

It is a bad idea to manipulate the interest rate as a policy variable—it has too many side effects cutting in too many different directions, especially in a fractional reserve monetary system. Better to control the money supply directly by moving to a full reserve banking system. We should abolish the Fed, let the Treasury directly control the money supply, constrained by avoiding inflation, not by a budget. An entity that can create money does not face a budget constraint, and has no need to borrow. But it does have a price-index constraint, and must be disciplined by avoidance of inflation (or deflation). As long as the public wants to hold more money, the Treasury can keep creating and spending it. When the public wants to hold more real goods and less money, they will exchange money for goods driving the price index up, which is the signal to the Treasury to stop issuing money, and if necessary to withdraw some. Money, in a full reserve banking system, becomes non interest-bearing government debt rather than interest-bearing private debt. Seigniorage (profit from creating token money at negligible cost and receiving its face value in exchange) will go entirely to the government, not largely to private banks. Also, banks no longer have the extortionary power to crash the entire payments system that fractional reserves gives them. The interest rate, like other prices, can take care of itself, determined by supply and demand. The policy focus should be to manage the money supply, constrained by a constant price index. In effect, the real value of the dollar is backed by all the commodities in the price index, rather than gold, or the “full faith and credit of the US government.” (See Nationalize Money, Not Banks)

Policies of this general kind, but elaborated on in much more detail, are currently suggested by the British NGO known as Positive Money. They are reviving and updating the sound monetary economics of Frederick Soddy, Irving Fisher, Frank Knight, and other leading economists of the 1920s. Fractional reserve banking supports the whole pyramid structure of Ponzi finance, and we badly need to move toward a full reserve banking system to escape instability.

 

What Kind of Future Does Your Degree Prepare You For?

by James Magnus-Johnston

James Magnus-JohnstonAs the fall chill sets into the air and farmers begin to harvest, universities invite another wave of impressionable young minds to think about the future—of society, and of their place in it. But preparation for the future requires us to consider exactly what kind of future we think we’re in for, and far too many schools are preparing students for a fictional business-as-usual future.

Do your universities and instructors acknowledge that the global temperature will likely rise by at least two degrees this century? Do they invite you to reflect on the kind of droughts that some argue have hastened Syria’s civil war and caused mass migration? Are you asked to draw connections and present solutions to these challenges, or are you instead invited to rehearse standard narratives and become job-bearing cogs in the growth economy?

Steady state economics acknowledges some unsettling facts, but very few undergraduates will be exposed to anything resembling steady state economics. They’ll be lucky if the name Herman Daly graces the syllabus of their economics class. The lack of interest in post-growth thought more generally signals a curious rot in the academy away from creativity and the synthesis of new ideas, in favour of what’s couched as “critical thinking” within conventional, rigidly defined, and well-rehearsed disciplinary frameworks.

Patrick Finn, author of Critical Condition: Replacing Critical Thinking with Creativity, argues that the contemporary academy provides us with “advanced mental tactics that can be taught for a price,” when we should rather be provided with opportunities to foster creativity through a kind of “loving thinking.” By “loving thinking,” Finn means that we should connect dots from a position of hope and realism rather than merely rehearse advanced mental tactics. Karim Lakhani, a thinker with the Harvard Business School, cautions, however, that new paradigms and ideas that synthesize strands of research from different disciplines face an uphill battle.

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Virginia Tech campus, Blacksburg, VA. Photo Credit: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Ecological economics—the branch of thinking that includes steady state economics—is one such discipline. Some have labelled it a transdisciplinary field of research (Norgaard, 1989; Costanza et al., 1997; Costanza and King, 1999), which applies a wide array of techniques to analyse relevant issues from different disciplines. While we may face an uphill battle, I believe that steady state economics invites students to start working from a position of hope precisely because it invites cross-disciplinary thinking. There may not be a perfect consensus surrounding some steady state economic concepts, but the transdisciplinary framework is sufficiently open to foster adaptive, synthetic thinking without losing sight of important questions.

The charge that creative thinking is too general or “unproven” is not historically uncommon. For instance, in a review of Kenneth Boulding’s 1950 work A Reconstruction of Economics, reviewer Ralph Turvey charges that “the problem is that Professor Boulding touches on so many matters and makes so many stimulating or provocative remarks that another book would be required for an adequate discussion” (Turvey, 1951, p. 205). The same charge might be levelled against this author, or any other theorist concerned with the application of theory across and through disciplinary lines.

It is clear that what is acceptable to one discipline (such as environmental science) may be unacceptable to another (such as economics). Yet by understanding what sort of future we’re in for, and by knowing the stakes of the present moment, we cannot claim neutrality or indifference to the consequences of our arguments. Rather, we should work harder to understand the big picture economy-environment dynamics, and overcome inherent disciplinary biases.

Given the biosphere’s depleted regenerative capacity, Daly suggests that it’s too risky to simply research and develop further warrants for steady state economic reform before encouraging a transition. He explains:

As important as empirical measurement is, it is worth remembering that when one jumps out of an airplane, a parachute is more beneficial than an altimeter. First principles make it abundantly clear that we need an economic parachute. Casual empiricism makes it clear that we need it sooner rather than later. More precise information, though not to be disdained, is not necessary, and waiting for it may prove very costly (Daly, 2007, p.22).

Every discipline, and every student, should be (re)considering what kind of future they think they’re preparing for. A creative, unconventional framework is exactly what we need.

The Pope Francis Encyclical And Its Economics

By Brent Blackwelder

Brent BlackwelderThe Encyclical Letter of Pope Francis is attracting extraordinary attention for its message on global warming, deforestation, loss of biological diversity, and other pressing environmental issues. What is less well known is the extensive critique of the global economy found in his 184-page Encyclical. This blog highlights some of the significant points that Pope Francis makes about the need for systemic economic change.

Although the Pope does not use the phrase “steady state economy” or “true-cost economy” his message provides a comprehensive moral argument for a systemicshift to a new economy.

2014 Pastoral Visit of Pope Francis to Korea Closing Mass for Asian Youth Day  August 17, 2014  Haemi Castle, Seosan-si, Chungcheongnam-do  Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism Korean Culture and Information Service Korea.net (www.korea.net)  Official Photographer : Jeon Han This official Republic of Korea photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way. Also, it may not be used in any type of commercial, advertisement, product or promotion that in any way suggests approval or endorsement from the government of the Republic of Korea. If you require a photograph without a watermark, please contact us via Flickr e-mail. --------------------------------------------------------------- 교황 프란치스코 방한 제6회 아시아 청년대회 폐막미사 2014-08-17 충청남도 서산시 해미읍성 문화체육관광부 해외문화홍보원 코리아넷  전한

Pope Francis. Photo Credit: Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism

I present a series of quotations to illustrate portions of the Pope’s forceful arguments. If we are to obtain systemic economic change, we need new, motivated allies. The Encyclical is a key tool to motivate religious congregations to be front and center in this economic debate to counter the greed and rapacious behavior of numerous governments and large corporations.

In Section 54 the Pope takes sharp aim at the control of politics and finance that prevent urgent changes from being made:

The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected. The alliance between the economy and technology ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests. Consequently the most one can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment, whereas any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented.

Pope Francis repeatedly questions whether the global economy is furthering the common good. In Section 109 he writes:

The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings. Finance overwhelms the real economy. The lessons of the global financial crisis have not been assimilated…” In Section 189 he looks again at the financial collapse of 2008: “Politics must not be subject to the economy, nor should the economy be subject to the dictates of an efficiency-driven paradigm of technocracy. Today, in view of the common good, there is urgent need for politics and economics to enter into a frank dialogue in the service of life, especially human life. Saving banks at any cost, making the public pay the price, foregoing a firm commitment to reviewing and reforming the entire system, only reaffirms the absolute power of a financial system, a power which has no future and will only give rise to new crises after a slow, costly and only apparent recovery. The financial crisis of 2007-08 provided an opportunity to develop a new economy, more attentive to ethical principles, and new ways of regulating speculative financial practices and virtual wealth. But the response to the crisis did not include rethinking the outdated criteria which continue to rule the world.

Pope Francis waxes eloquent on the subject of externalities in Section 195:

The principle of the maximization of profits, frequently isolated from other considerations, reflects a misunderstanding of the very concept of the economy. As long as production is increased, little concern is given to whether it is at the cost of future resources or the health of the environment; as long as the clearing of a forest increases production, no one calculates the losses entailed in the desertification of the land, the harm done to biodiversity, or the increased pollution. In a word, businesses profit by calculating and paying only a fraction of the costs involved. ‘Yet only when the economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources are recognized with transparency and fully borne by those who incur them, not by other peoples or future generations,’ can those actions be considered ethical. An instrumental way of reasoning, which provides a purely static analysis of realities in the service of present needs, is at work whether resources are allocated by the market or by state central planning.

Pope Francis talks about product diversification and consumerism; in Section 129 he extols the virtues of the “great variety of small-scale food production systems which feed the greater part of the world’s peoples.”

As Pope Francis points out, he is building on the messages that popes such as John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI have given on these problems. For example, Pope Benedict XVI proposed “eliminating the structural causes of the dysfunctions of the world economy and correcting models of growth which have proved incapable of ensuring respect for the environment.” Pope Paul VI wrote: “the most extraordinary scientific advances, the most amazing technical abilities, the most astonishing economic growth, unless they are accompanied by authentic social and moral progress will definitively turn against man.”

My hope is that the Pope’s message will be translated by religious congregations into tangible actions to make substantive changes in the economic drivers of environmental destruction. New allies are urgently needed.

One good place for tangible action is to go after the cheater economics being used by the G 20 nations to push tens of trillions of dollars into mega-infrastructure projects without regard to social, environmental, or climate impacts. (See my January 2015 blog for details on this subject.)

 

Good Health Requires Different Economics

by Dr. Trevor Hancock

Editor’s note: A version of this post ran originally in the Times Colonist.

TH - PHSPFor the past three years, I have been leading an important project for the Canadian Public Health Association (CPHA), which led to the release on May 25th of our Discussion Paper and a 100-page technical report on global change and public health.

In these documents, we identify what we call the “ecological determinants of health”: clean air and water, food, materials, fuel, the great cycles of water, nitrogen and phosphorus, detoxification of wastes, climate stability, and others.

These determinants of health come from the Earth’s natural ecosystems, and they are threatened by the massive and still growing human-induced global ecological changes now underway. These changes thus represent the greatest threat to the health of the public in the 21st century. They include the following:

  • Global warming and resultant climate instability;
  • The contamination of all ecosystems and food chains—and all humans—with persistent organic pollutants and other novel entities such as nano-particles;
  • The depletion of key resources and damage to ecosystems that provide life-supporting “goods and services”; and
  • The loss of species and biodiversity, a human-induced “sixth great extinction” that threatens the overall web of life.
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Human-induced global ecological changes are threatening public health.  Photo Credit: © Stockshoppe | Dreamstime.com

Here I explore some of the many issues and approaches we discuss in our report, beginning with the underlying values and beliefs that drive the ecological changes we are witness to, and the changes in those values and beliefs we need to create.

The drivers of the ecological changes noted above, now collectively being referred to as “The Anthropocene,” are a combination of population growth and affluence, with technology sometimes amplifying and sometimes reducing their impact. But underlying these drivers is an increasingly globally shared set of values and beliefs that together comprise “modernism.” The central value is a belief in “progress,” and that progress equates with growth, especially growth in material wellbeing.

This leads to the pursuit of economic growth to meet the growing demands of a growing population. But this is the fundamental problem because, in our current economic system, growth means more demands on the Earth’s natural resources and more damage to its ecosystems.

Such damage is resulting in the decline, and may result in the collapse, of key ecosystem functions that are the basis for the life and survival of humans and other life forms; when ecosystems decline or collapse, so too do the societies that are dependent upon them. This damage in turn undermines the economy and threatens the continued wellbeing and even the very survival of communities, societies, and our increasingly interconnected global civilisation.

Moreover, as resources become scarce and ecosystems fragile, those with wealth and power will ensure their access to them, even if it means others—including other humans and other species—have less. This will both heighten global and local inequity and push more ecosystems toward collapse and more species toward extinction. It will also heighten the potential for both local and global strife.

Faced with these immense challenges of potential ecological and social decline and collapse, the only answer from conventional economics is more growth. But continued conventional growth in a finite system—the Earth—is clearly impossible when it involves more growth in demand for resources and more strain upon our increasingly fragile life-supporting ecosystems. There are indeed limits to growth—or to be more precise, there is a limit to growth, and that limit is the Earth itself.

Our current economic system is broken and must be discarded and replaced with an economic system that is compatible with the Earth and all its ecosystems and resources. This will require a massive global change in the underlying cultural and political values that drive our current economic system.

That change has to begin with the wealthy countries because we cannot say, in effect, that we will keep what we have but the rest of the world cannot have what we have because there isn’t enough to go around. We in the wealthy countries need to shift our focus from the pursuit of economic development to the pursuit of a higher goal: human development that is equitable and sustainable.

After all, what business are we in—or should we be in—as societies and governments? Are we here to grow the economy? Is that really the ultimate human purpose? Or are we here to “grow” people? And are we here only to “grow” some people—people like us, perhaps?—or are we here to pursue a more noble purpose: ensuring the achievement by everyone of the highest human potential of which they are capable, in a manner that is ecologically sustainable and socially just?

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a public health physician and a professor at the School of Public Health and Social Policy at the University of Victoria. He has played a key role in founding several environment-focused organizations, including the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and the Canadian Coalition for Green Health Care. In the 1980’s, Dr. Hancock was one of the founders and the first leader of the Green Party in Canada. 

thancock@uvic.ca

 

The Future History of Political Economy – Part 2

Thermodynamics in Economics: Revolutionary portent, future history

by Eric Zencey

Eric ZenceyEcological Economics represents the extension into economics of the thermodynamic revolution of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In physics, that revolution dethroned Newton and brought relativity. In biology, it was midwife to the birth of ecology, the study of ecosystems as wholes in which energy networks—food webs—are a defining structure. In chemistry the laws of thermodynamics brought clarity and rigor to a science that struggled to bring theoretical unity to diverse phenomena. So far, though, most economists are perfectly willing to treat their subject matter as if the laws of thermodynamics simply don’t apply to it.

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But the thermodynamic revolution in economics can’t be permanently forestalled. For one thing, it’s getting harder and harder for the neoclassical model to reassure us that its system of Newtonian abstractions is a good fit to the real world. The Great Collapse of 2008 demonstrated that whatever else it is, the discipline of economics isn’t very good at predicting major economic phenomena. Climate change and the Sixth Extinction make it hard for economics to maintain its pretense that economic activity takes place in abstractia, on the clean white pages of textbooks or on whiteboards holding formulae, with no roots in or consequences for anything outside of itself. Truths derived on the model of Newtonian mechanism are supposed to be abstract and ahistorical, but our planet and our economy are most assuredly evolving concretely and over time.

The driving dynamic of this economic and planetary change—the driver of history for the past three centuries—has been human use of high-EROI fossil fuel. The driving dynamic of the history yet to come will be the declining EROI of our civilization’s energy sources.

Oil Well 3.Texas State Archives

Oil used to gush out of the ground under pressure, making for a very high Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROI). In the 1920s, wells like this gave the industry an average EROI of 100 to 1 or more. Today’s petroleum industry has a much lower EROI. Photo Credit: Texas State Archives

You can see some of the consequences of declining EROI already:

  • Despite a rising real per capita GDP, for a significant percentage of workers in OECD nations personal income has flatlined or is declining. An increasing concentration of income helps explain this but another dynamic is at work as well. As EROI falls, it takes more economic effort to get the energy that’s needed to support economic effort. Even as gross economic activity (GDP) grows, production of net benefit is shrinking.
  • Other sectors of the economy have been affected by this ongoing increase in the economy’s matter-and-energy overhead. “Austerity” has become the watchword for governmental budgets, even in the wealthiest nations in the world. Developed countries find it increasingly difficult if not impossible to pay maintenance and upgrade costs on infrastructure investments made in the heyday of 100-to-1 oil.
  • In its 2013 report card on America’s infrastructure, The American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that the U.S. needs to invest $3.6 trillion over seven years to restore and maintain existing infrastructure.
  • Worldwide, many of the ecosystems that support human civilization are degraded and close to collapse. Forced by both ideology and declining EROI into austerity budgeting, governments are reducing their scope and energy at the exact moment that sustainability would have them take strong action to rein in the rational, free-market tendency of corporations to maximize profits by degrading the commons and externalizing other costs.
  • Pension-fund wipeouts are becoming common as one way to fulfill the economy’s structural need for debt repudiation—a need that lies in our system’s willingness to let debt grow faster than a declining EROI economy can pay back, even after growth has been stimulated by lifting or reducing regulations that limit the environmental damage done by economic activity.
  • The planetary carbon sink is full, producing climatic effects that even an abstraction-inhabiting, arithmo-morphizing economist has to acknowledge as a troubling reality.

Centuries from now economic historians are likely to understand the relationship between EROI and wealth creation much better than does the average economist of today. I think it likely that future political economists will express wonder not at the 20th century’s enormous economic success, but at how little we actually added to our stock of wealth for all the high-EROI coal and oil it was our pleasure to burn. They are almost certain to shake their heads in wonder that we, enjoying an energy supply and an EROI never seen on the planet before or since, could ever have experienced an economic downturn, could ever have let a human starve from want, could ever have been so programmatically blind to the physical origins of our fortunes.

The Future History of Political Economy – Part 1

Economics Ignores Thermodynamics

by Eric Zencey

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this essay appeared as a comment in the Great Transition Network Forum, which will appear on the Great Transition Initiative website next week along with a new essay by Herman Daly, “Economics for a Full World.”

Eric ZenceyEcological Economics and its corollary, Steady State Economic thinking, represent a step forward for the discipline of economics and also a return to how it was practiced in the past. In the nineteenth century, economics was a part of a larger enterprise: political economy, the integrated treatment of morals and economics, ultimate ends and efficient means. Late in that century economics calved off from political economy, leaving behind political science and political philosophy as the residuum. It did this in service to the ideal of becoming rigorously scientific.

It’s odd, then, that alone among disciplines with any pretense to analytic rigor, economics has steadfastly resisted the thermodynamic revolution that swept physical and life sciences in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Physics, biology, chemistry, geology, even the study of history were transformed, but not economics.

I think we can blame this on bad timing, willful ignorance, and oil.

Bad timing

In the late nineteenth century the archetypal science was physics and physics was Newtonian mechanism. Ignorant of what a young thermodynamic theorist named Albert Einstein would soon do to the Newtonian paradigm they emulated, Stanley Jevons and other economic “scientists” set about mathematically modeling the economy as sets and subsets of self-contained, equal-and-opposite actions and reactions, happily (and explicitly) assuming that all economic activity consists of ahistorical, which is to say completely reversible, processes. No one who has a nodding acquaintance with the law of entropy could have countenanced this. Entropy is Time’s Arrow, the law of irreversibility; it describes the one-way flow of energy use. A purely mechanical process can be run forward or backwards, but we’ll never invent a machine that can suck in exhaust gases, heat and motion and transform them into gasoline. The entropy law can tell you why. Newton couldn’t.

Just as a consumer might choose to keep a recently purchased appliance even though a newer, better model has been brought onto the market, neoclassical economists weren’t about to re-tool their brand-new thinking to reflect changes in the underlying metaphysics they had been so keen to adopt. It didn’t seem to them that there was any reason to.

“Seem” is the operative word here. Because the entropy process is time’s arrow, and because Ecological Economics places the entropy process at the center of its analysis, it’s entirely appropriate for Ecological Economics to understand its subject matter and itself as a discipline in historical terms. Like other paradigm-defining insights, this one seems obvious once it has been stated: elements of the neoclassical model that could pass for true on a large and forgiving planet a hundred years ago are obviously not true today, when the planet’s source-and-sink services are severely taxed, when natural capital is the limiting factor in production, when there are seven billion of us and our economic wants, capacities and expectations have been amplified by our access to the ancient sunshine of fossil fuels.

Willful ignorance

By modeling the economy as a closed and circular system, neoclassical economists have encouraged themselves to operate in a methodologically enforced state of denial about the physical roots and ecological consequences of our wealth-creating activities. And yet economics has experienced no paradigm-shaking crisis as a result. Neither climate change nor any of the other source-and-sink catastrophes facing civilization have been laid at the feet of bad economic theory. One reason: Neoclassical economists succeed in treating environmental costs as “externalities.” How could environmental degradation be the result of economic activity if it’s external to the economy?

Midas.Giovanni Caselli from the Age of Fable

The power to create wealth gave Midas an unsustainable life as a complete solipsist. Oil’s power to create wealth has had a similar effect on Neoclassical economics. Illustration by Giovanni Caselli from The Age of Fable.

In its self-confirming isolation of the economy from nature and theory from reality, neoclassical economics amounts to a highly principled practice of solipsism. When this pathology is manifest in an individual it produces unpleasant consequences that might eventually prompt some reflection and personal growth. Not so with the collective delusion of mainstream economists. Evidence of our ongoing ecological catastrophe falls far from their purview—not just disciplinarily but geographically, as the wealthier nations (wherein the vast majority of economists reside) export their ecological footprint to the impoverished nations of the world. And for several generations (at least since Reagan defeated Carter, removed Carter’s solar panels from the White House and ushered in an era of GDP growth through de-regulation of the social and ecological consequences of economic activity), there has been a strong self-selection among students of economics. Undergraduates with any kind of deep personal connection to natural systems tend to find the study of standard economics unattractive, displeasing, even soul-deadening. This leaves the field to those most willing to bracket off as irrelevant to their professional purpose any question about the moral and ethical consequences of economic activity, any question about the health and maintenance of nature, any question about the economy’s relation to the larger social and natural systems within which it operates.

Oil

Even so, you might expect that a discipline with such a demonstrably deficient view of its subject matter would fail of its object—would fail to offer wise counsel about the collective project of augmenting the stock of wealth that humans can enjoy. But economics has had much apparent success. Despite regular downturns and financial crises, the wealth produced by our economies has grown and grown and grown. I think there’s a ready explanation that becomes visible through the conceptual lens of Ecological Economics, which tells us that energy isn’t a commodity like any other but a fundamental factor of production (part of a trio: matter, energy and human design intelligence). When your economy operates on an energy source that cranks out wealth-making value in a ratio of 100 to 1 or better—the estimated Energy Return on Energy Invested that petroleum offered us in the early 20th Century—you can believe any damn thing you want about how economies operate and your economy will still generate a great deal of wealth.

Which is to say, high-EROI oil granted the new science of economics immunity from being proven false by events. But falsifiability of principles and propositions is one solid measure of a science. (Non-falsifiable beliefs are called faiths.)

In effect the discipline of economics has a free rider problem—it’s been given a free pass by the enormous power of oil to misunderstand itself and its subject matter. You could also call it a Midas Problem, after the legendary king whose touch turned everything he touched into gold, including his dinner and his daughter. The power of wealth-generation that oil granted to our economy made it impossible for the discipline of economics to connect in any fundamental way with otherness, including the otherness of the planet and its role in the very processes that economics presumes to model.

 

The One Percent: Not Kristallnacht but Lebensraum

By Brian Czech

BrianCzechRemember Tom Perkins? Probably nobody wants to, but with all the talk about the profligacy of the one percent, Perkins comes iconically to mind. He’s the billionaire who nauseated the ninety-nine percent by suggesting that American “progressive” (his word) thinking was tilting toward Kristallnacht, due to an attitude toward the one percent. As if he and his capitalist captain cronies were innocent street-corner merchants and the rest of us jack-booted Nazis. What a way to win friends and influence people!

If we’re going to use World War II analogies, let’s at least use the correct one.  In this case it’s not Kristallnacht, but Lebensraum. And the one percent would be the perpetrators, not the victims.

Recall that the pursuit of Lebensraum — living space — was Hitler’s stated excuse for invading Poland, the beginning of World War II. It’s a doctrine to be ever wary of, and it might not always be as explicit as Hitler made it. (The relevance to Putin and Ukraine, for example, is left for others to speculate on.)

To understand the logic of Lebensraum, we need a quick review of structural economics. The economy has three basic sectors: agricultural/extractive, manufacturing, and services. (The “financial sector” is fairly distinct, but falls within the general category of services.) It seems like this basic structure ought to be conventional wisdom, but in the age of the Internet, economic wisdom is disappearing by the bitcoin. If we’re not careful we’ll end up like King Midas, a foolish one percenter if there ever was one.

TL Most Basic With Caption III

The three basic sectors of the human economy, with agriculture/extraction lumped together as “producers” of food, energy, and raw materials.

 

Every economy on the planet — and every political state — depends on its agricultural and extractive base for everything else. It doesn’t matter where the agricultural base is situated, or who controls it. Whether it’s the financial sectors of Hong Kong, the ecotourism of Costa Rica, or the State of Rhode Island, it’s agricultural and extractive surplus, coming from somewhere, that frees the hands of society for the division of labor. Adam Smith noted as much in Wealth of Nations. It’s the stuff of statecraft. Thomas Jefferson knew all about it.

 

 

TL with Arrows with Caption

The basic sectors re-arranged as trophic levels. Strictly speaking, the producers (farmers and extractors) and manufacturing sectors (from heaviest to lightest) are true trophic levels. Service sectors operate throughout the trophic structure, much like pollinators, scavengers, and decomposers operate in the “economy of nature.”

The basic economic sectors amount to the “trophic levels” of economic activity, to borrow a term from ecology. It’s a term worth borrowing, too, given that ecology is all about the “economy of nature.” A little ecology goes a long way toward understanding the plight of Homo sapiens in the 21st century. Humans are stuck with the same physical and biological laws that operate in the economy of nature.  There’s no making something from nothing — Lebensraum for example — and no waving a magic wand to make all the competitors disappear. Guns and bombs are not magic wands.

Of course we all know that the American economy has a lot more than the basic farms, factories, and financial firms. For example there are some really fancy watches, 289-foot yachts, and even personal submarines. You know, the kind of stuff Tom Perkins has to have. Well, with plenty of agricultural and extractive surplus at the base, there’s enough money left over in society for such luxuries, at least for those who commandeer a high enough percentage of the money.

Note that word “money” in the context of trophic levels. This is the “trophic theory of money” — more and more real money (adjusted for inflation, technological progress, and purchasing power) requires more and more agricultural and extractive activity at the base of the economy.  In other words more and more money takes more and more resources.  It takes more… Lebensraum.

Now who among us contributes most to the pressure for Lebensraum? (Hint: It’s easy to tell with the trophic theory of money.) All else equal, it’s those who require and spend the most money, because the amount of money indicates the level of agricultural and extractive surplus that had to be issued from the base of the economy.

The point here seems even more obvious when the expenditure is on luxury material goods, say for example “your typical football field size yacht,” as Perkins referred to his “Maltese Falcon.” The point is more nuanced when it comes to spending hundreds of millions on, say, derivatives in Hong Kong or ecotourism in Costa Rica. But whether the millions are spent on nuts, bolts, or pure nonsense, the origination of the money required Lebensraum at the base.

Pressure for Leb With Caption

Unsustainable consumption of the one percent and pressure for Lebensraum. Note how disproportionate the extremely luxurious goods and services are. The alarming disproportionality indicates how the base of the economy must grow outward to support the acquisition of such goods and services. In other words, if agriculture and extraction is at full capacity within the borders, the nation must commandeer Lebensraum to support the luxurious consumption (Photo Credit: Greg Covey.)

At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, 1992, George H. W. Bush said, “The American way of life is not up for negotiation.” The problem with that attitude is the American way of life, taken as a whole, includes an unhealthy dose of Perkins-like consumption. If that’s not up for negotiation, war is a matter of time.

And please, don’t tell us the real onus is on the 99%. Obviously every bit of conservation helps, but how much do you spend in a year? Somewhere between $20,000 and $60,000? That means a guy like Perkins or Trump or Schwarzman spends not 10 times as much as you, not 100, but more like a thousand or even 10,000 times as much. That requires a helluva lot more Lebensraum! I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that should be part of the American way.

This is not to say the one percent is guilty of conspiring to precipitate a war for Lebensraum. It’s hard to imagine the Donald, for example, having any type of geopolitical strategy. And if there is one thing I have learned as a visiting professor of natural resource economics, it’s just how deeply misinformed people are about the trophic origins of money. Our society, political system, and even academia abound with fuzzy notions of “dematerializing” the economy and “green growth.” It would be hard to blame the one percent for an ignorance of ecological economics.

On the other hand, somewhere around 99% of us, if stopped for violating a relatively obscure statute or regulation, will be told, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.” In this case we are talking about natural law; the physics and biology establishing the trophic structure of the economy.  A guy like Perkins is supposed to be a cut above the rest; a brilliant captain of industry, high-tech industry no less. Shouldn’t we expect more acumen with regard to the functioning of the economy he has supposedly mastered?

Frankly, I’m not so sure Perkins is blissfully ignorant after all.  His 60 Minutes interview suggested he knows something is wrong with the gaudy expenditures on yachts and moats and such.  In fact, he was too embarrassed to say how much he spent on the Maltese Falcon because he admitted the money could have been used for far more beneficial and charitable purposes.  Yet he just can’t control the urge to have the biggest and most expensive toys, largely to stroke his ego, he admits.

Now in America there are other behaviors, stemming from supposedly uncontrollable urges, that wreak havoc in society. These behaviors are not only frowned upon but punishable by law. Why are there no deterrents to reckless levels of consumption?

It bears repeating that pushing for perpetually more stuff — especially luxury goods and services, the biggest, best, and most expensive — is tantamount to Lebensraum doctrine. It may not be intentional, but it’s basic economics. And bad economics.

Enough: the Central Concept in Economics

by Herman Daly

Foreword to Enough Is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources, a book by Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill (published by Berrett-Koehler in the U.S. and Earthscan in the U.K.)

Herman DalyI have long wanted to write a book on the subject of “enough” but never did. Now I don’t have to because Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill have done it in a clearer and more accessible way than I could have. Therefore it is a special pleasure for me to write a foreword calling attention to their important contribution.

Enough should be the central concept in economics. Enough means “sufficient for a good life.” This raises the perennial philosophical question, “What is a good life?” That is not easy to answer, but at a minimum we can say that the current answer of “having ever more” is wrong. It is worth working hard and sacrificing some things to have enough; but it is stupid to work even harder to have more than enough. And to get more than enough not by hard work, but by exploitation of others, is immoral.

Living on enough is closely related to sharing, a virtue which today is often referred to as “class warfare.” Real class warfare, however, will not result from sharing, but from the greed of elites who promote growth because they capture nearly all of the benefits from it, while “sharing” only the costs.

Enough is the theme of the story of God’s gift of manna to the ancient Hebrews in the wilderness. Food in the form of manna arrived like dew on the grass every morning and was enough for the day. If people tried to gather more than enough and accumulate it, it would spoil and go to waste. So God’s gift was wrapped up in the condition of enough — sufficiency and sharing — an idea later amplified in the Lord’s Prayer, “give us this day our daily bread.” Not bread for the rest of our lives or excess bread with which to buy whatever luxuries we may covet, but enough bread to sustain and enjoy fully the gift of life itself.

EnoughIsEnough_Final_LoResThis story from Exodus has parallels in the thoughts of pioneer ecological economist and Nobel Prize-winning chemist, Frederick Soddy. Soddy observed that humanity lives off the revenue of current sunshine that is gathered each day by plants with the aid of soil and water. Unlike manna some of the sunshine was accumulated and stored by geologic processes, and we have consumed it lavishly with mixed results. Today we also try to accumulate surplus solar income and exchange it for a permanent lien on future solar income. We then expect this surplus, converted into debt in the bank, to grow at compound interest. But the future solar-based revenue, against which the debt is a lien, cannot keep up with the mathematics of exponential growth, giving rise to debt repudiation and depression.

For the Hebrews in the wilderness the manna economy was designed with “enough” as a built-in feature. Our economy does not have that automatic regulation. We have to recognize the value of enough and build it into our economic institutions and culture. Thanks to Dietz and O’Neill for helping us do that.

For more information about the book, including ordering information, please click here.