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The Canutist State

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyIn one version of the legend of King Canute’s failed attempt to stem the rising tide by lashing the sea, he told the assembled crowd of flatterers: “Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth and sea obey by eternal laws.”

In this version, Canute staged the attempt to control the tide in order to discredit the lying sycophants who kept telling him that he was all-powerful and therefore could do anything that they wanted him to do. But popular history, immune to subtlety, has portrayed Canute as really believing that the sea would obey him. Hence the term “Canutist State” has been used to refer to governments that try to mandate climate stability without burning less carbon, to grow forever in a finite and entropic world, and to abolish poverty without sharing. It would be more just to Canute if the term “Canutist State” referred to a wise government that constrained the ignorant attempts of its businessmen and economists to grow forever. With apologies to the wise King, I will perpetuate this injustice because the image of a stupid government serving business interests by trying to countermand nature’s laws is such an apt description of what is happening today that we need a name for it.

The Canutist State wants, in the words of one of its big boosters, IBM, to “build a smarter planet” — one that is “smart” enough to obey our mindless command to keep growing. The real Canute would not try to build a smarter planet (by geo-engineering, genetic engineering, globalization, quantitative easing, etc.), any more than he really tried to command the tide. He would have tried to build a smarter kingdom populated by wiser subjects, and thrown his growth-manic economic advisors into the dungeon. He would have said, “Let’s make a smarter adaptation to the wonderful gift of the Earth, out of which we were created and with which we have evolved.”

It would be tempting to emulate Canute’s strategy by putting the growth-manic advice to the test and watching it publicly fail. That would be very costly, but in a way it is exactly what is happening, although not by design. Unfortunately, the failures are attributed to insufficient growth rather than to the stupidity of the priestly economic advisors who inhabit palaces rather than dungeons. Their policy is to lash nature even harder with the whip of mega-technology until it gives us what we want — usually accompanied by a lot of “unforeseen consequences” that we certainly do not want.

A Smarter Planet?

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

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

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

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

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