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The Higgs Boson and the Steady State Economy

By Brent Blackwelder

What does the Higgs boson have to do with the establishment of a sustainable economy? The discovery of this subatomic particle required a Herculean effort, involving billions of dollars, over 1,000 physicists, and thousands of craftsmen to construct and operate an almost incomprehensibly complex machine — the Large Hadron Collider. The same kind of diligent, prodigious effort is needed to construct and operate a new economic system for all nations of the world.

Physicist Lawrence Krauss, author of A Universe from Nothing, described the effort on the Higgs boson in ebullient terms:

…a triumph of technical and computational wizardry of unprecedented magnitude…

…cathedrals and colliders are both works of incomparable grandeur that celebrate the beauty of being alive…

…the discovery will change our view of ourselves and our place in the universe. Surely that is the hallmark of great music, great literature, great art… and great science.

Amid such extraordinary hype, it’s worth asking what we have to show for finding the so-called God particle? Will this momentous discovery help solve any crucial economic, social, environmental, or political problems besetting societies today and even threatening the livability of the planet? Will we possess the “key to the universe” and still wreck the planet we depend on?

If we can build the LHC, there’s hope for the SSE.

The most urgent task for humanity is the focus of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy: a transformation of the existing world economy. Today’s global economy rewards the depletion of natural resources, promotes overuse of fossil fuels, drives huge numbers of species to extinction, and turns a blind eye on the destruction of the very ecosystems that make life possible.

The transformation required in this emergency situation was described by economist Kenneth Boulding roughly half a century ago — the same period when physicists were formulating hypotheses about mystery particles. The essential change, Boulding said, was a move from “cowboy economics” (the unsustainable economics of continuous growth and resource overexploitation) to “spaceship economics” (the sustainable economics of the steady state).

Scientists specializing in ecosystem health warn that Earth is like a patient in the emergency room needing CPR — conservation, preservation, and restoration. The latest climate science reveals alarming physical changes to the planet — changes that are even more disturbing than the warnings issued in the big 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Here are a few such changes:

  • The oceans are warming 50% faster than predicted;
  • Greenhouse gas emissions are tracking the worst-case scenario;
  • Oceans are acidifying at the fastest rate in 300 million years;
  • Sea levels are projected to be over 3 times as high, and the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet would raise ocean levels 20 feet;
  • The earth is on track for an average warming of 7 degrees centigrade by 2100 — enough to produce massive agricultural failures.

We need a Herculean effort on both economic and ecological fronts to deal with climate destabilization. How many ecological economists are at work on a redesign of the global economy? What about the paucity of scientists who study the variety of life and the functioning of ecosystems? We do not know if there are 10 million species on Earth or 50 million.

In contrast, consider the stupendous volume of data being gathered by the supercollider. Dr. Krauss reports that this collider generates more data every second than the information in all the world’s libraries. The physicists got the billions they needed, but only a little progress has been made in developing spaceship economics. In fact, mainstream economics is reinforcing both the cowboy and casino thinking that is gripping most economies on Earth.

Physicists did not face a slick disinformation campaign funded by oil companies. Surely the job of rescuing our planet from an untimely demise should rank high in the funding priorities. Lester Brown estimates that $200 billion a year — less than a fifth of the world’s defense department budgets — is needed to shift to a clean-energy economy and do the CPR that planet Earth desperately needs.

New Evidence for Changing the Nature of the Global Economy

by Brent Blackwelder

Billion-dollar weather catastrophes this year, along with the latest figures on Chinese consumption, emphasize the urgency of a shift in economic thinking.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration cites 10 massive weather disasters in the U.S. this year, each exceeding a billion dollars. The nine months of unprecedented weather extremes include these estimates of death and damage:

  • Hurricane Irene: 50 deaths and $7 billion;
  • Upper Midwest flooding along the Missouri River: $2 billion;
  • Mississippi River flooding in spring and summer: $4 billion;
  • Drought and heat waves in Texas and Oklahoma: $5 billion;
  • Tornadoes in the Midwest and Southeast in May: 177 deaths and $7 billion;
  • Tornadoes in the Ohio Valley and Southeast in April: 32 deaths and $9 billion;
  • Tornadoes in Oklahoma and Pennsylvania in April: $2 billion;
  • Tornadoes in the Northeast and Midwest April 8-11: $2.2 billion;
  • Tornadoes in central and southern states April 4-5: $2.3 billion;
  • Blizzard in January from Chicago to the Northeast: 36 deaths and $2 billion.

Although we cannot conclude that any particular event was caused by global warming, climate models predict growing frequency and intensity of storms. The tragic weather events of 2011 could well be due to the accumulation of dangerous levels of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.

This year’s disasters are sending a powerful signal that the time has arrived for a new economic framework. The current structure of markets puts the wrong prices on goods and services, because it neglects the ecological costs of producing them. This market failure is especially critical in the energy sector, where overconsumption of fossil fuels is driving climate destabilization.

How long can governments keep spending huge amounts to deal with catastrophe after catastrophe? Weather disasters undermine governance in two ways: first, they require large amounts of money and human resources for emergency relief, cleanup and rehabilitation. Second, they impair the ability of governments to provide ongoing public services by diverting revenue and personnel.

At the beginning of summer, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman pointed to alarming evidence that the human race is consuming at a rate that requires one and a half planet earths to maintain. Friedman describes the consumer-driven growth model as broken and suggests a transition to a “happiness-driven growth model, based on people working less and owning less.” Many of us have been making these very points for some time, but it is noteworthy that a major growth advocate has had a change of thinking. And now there is new data on consumption in China that reinforces our concerns.

In a recent article entitled “Learning from China: Why the Existing Economic Model Will Fail,” Lester Brown provides some sobering statistics. When compared to the U.S., China consumes twice as much meat, three times as much coal, and four times as much steel. The per capita consumption of the 1.2 billion people in China is far below that in the U.S., but it is moving upward and is on track to equal ours in 25 years, Brown notes.

What does such growth in consumption mean if the Chinese embrace the same spending habits as U.S. consumers? Take a look at two factors: paper and automobiles. If the projected 1.4 billion people in China in 2035 consume paper at the American rate, then China itself would consume a quantity equal to four fifths of today’s paper usage. The world’s forests, already under intense pressure, would suffer under this additional onslaught.

Lester Brown considers what would happen if Chinese car ownership in 2035 matched that of the U.S., which currently has three cars for every four people. China would have 1.1 billion cars. Today the world has roughly one billion automobiles. Brown estimates that such a fleet of vehicles would necessitate so many new roads and parking areas, that an area two thirds the size of the acreage now growing rice in China would have to be paved. All these new vehicles would consume about the same volume of gasoline that the entire world auto fleet currently uses each day.

Why are the Obama Administration and Congress so focused on the debt panel when there are such pressing problems with the economy at home and around the world? They are missing the big picture and failing to enact changes that are called for in these perilous times. Now is the time to write letters to the editor about real economic solutions. We don’t need to be slashing government programs; we need to be making progress toward the transition to a steady state economy.