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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.

 

Seismic Political Shifts Reveal Desire for Serious Change

by James Magnus-Johnston

If you demonstrate to people that the NDP [New Democratic Party] can win in Alberta, suddenly anything seems possible. —Paul Fairie, University of Calgary political scientist

 

James Magnus-JohnstonOn the problematic political spectrum, neither the right nor the left have become wholesale champions of the steady state economy. Then again, embracing something perceived as ‘new’ has never been the strong suit of the politician. It takes years of ideological evolution among the grassroots before seemingly new and different ideas become politically palatable. Seismic political shifts like the one in Alberta suggest that big ideological evolutions are underway in the unlikeliest of places, and that steady state solutions may not be far behind.

The Canadian province of Alberta—which includes Canada’s oil patch—revealed its desire for serious change in its election of an NDP government last week. While the social democratic NDP doesn’t have an explicitly ‘green’ agenda, some policy shifts acknowledge the limits to growth—growth in the oil patch, growth in debt, growth in inequality, growth in carbon emissions, and growth in overall environmental costs. Growing the oil patch at all costs has left the province vulnerable to swings in the petroleum economy, and it isn’t building a stable economy for generations to come.

Alberta’s newly-elected NDP premier, Rachel Notley. Photo Credit: Dave Cournoyer via Flickr, Creative Commons

Alberta’s newly-elected NDP premier, Rachel Notley. Photo Credit: Dave Cournoyer via Flickr, Creative Commons

The political shift represents a strong movement away from a half-century of Alberta’s Conservative ‘conventional thinking,’ including relaxed regulations for the oil and gas industry as well as an export-first policy designed for economic growth as if there were truly no tomorrow. Time will tell whether or not Premier Notley will introduce measures to supplant carbon-intensive growth with a renewable steady state, but there are signs of movement in this direction.

In March, as opposition leader, Notley introduced a motion calling on the government of Alberta to phase out the use of coal for electric power generation in Alberta. Alberta’s oil sector produces almost as many GHG emissions as do the mining and extraction of oil from the oilsands.

This week, one of the largest oil and gas companies in Canada called upon Premier Notley to introduce a carbon tax, a measure which sits at number two on Herman Daly’s top ten list of steady state policies. The call counts as either a brilliant coordinated manoeuvre on the part of the NDP and the oil patch, or the beginning of a serious change in the way Canada’s oil and gas industry perceives its responsibilities in the face of climate change.

The NDP victory also signals a willingness to tackle point three on Mr. Daly’s top ten list—limiting the range of inequality in income distribution. While Premier Notley has not signalled a willingness to institute a ‘maximum income’ level, she has designs on raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour from the country’s second lowest minimum wage of $10.20. The NDP have also vowed to reintroduce progressive income taxes, and raise corporate taxes.

This is not a promotion for social democracy per se. Social democratic governments in different jurisdictions, like my home province of Manitoba, can sometimes reflect neoliberal economic thinking rather than focus on designing an economy for fairness. But in Alberta’s example, folks have acknowledged the problems associated with half a century of growth in the extractive industry, environmental degradation, and inequality. As the political pendulum shifts in other jurisdictions, there is an opportunity for political parties of various stripes to reconsider how they can respond to growing grassroots frustration with a debt-ridden, environmentally destructive, inequitable economy.

As the costs of uneconomic growth continue to escalate, and as a new generation prepares to bear those costs, we can be sure that further movement in the direction of a steady state economy will not only become more palatable, but absolutely essential.

 

When Growth Trumps Freedom: the Chill in Canada Comes from our Government, not the Weather

by James Magnus-Johnston

[it] smells like the biggest bait and switch this country has ever seen”

Wes Regan, Vancouver Observer

Johnston_photoWith the introduction of Canada’s so-called “secret police” bill, there is increasing concern the rights of the oil patch will trump the rights of ordinary citizens in a new and chilling way–through the kinds of fear tactics you’d sooner expect in Soviet Russia than a western liberal democracy.

Sound like exaggeration? Please prove me wrong.

Bill C-51 would give Canadian national security and intelligence forces the right to monitor ordinary citizens, and even detain them for up to seven days at a time if they are perceived to “interfere with the economic or financial stability of Canada or with the country’s critical infrastructure.” This includes what the government has branded the “anti-petroleum” movement, whose participants have been labelled ‘extremists’ by the Prime Minister and Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). The legislation would subject environmental activists to increased surveillance and intimidation under the guise of preventing terrorism. I wonder how, exactly, a government with strong ties to the oil patch will define ‘economic or financial stability.’

The truly chilling development as a result of Bill C-51 is that a citizen doesn’t have to actually organize a demonstration to trigger the use of new powers. Under this legislation, the agency simply has to suspect that you might do something that interferes with ‘critical infrastructure’ in order to monitor you or pay you a visit.

By stifling free speech and democratic engagement, this effort demonstrates just how far some will go in order to cling to an aging growth-at-all-costs narrative–absurdly pitting human beings against one another and against the planet itself. At worst, this is carbon-fuelled neoliberal fanaticism disguised as pragmatic politics, given that the oil sands contribute about 2% to Canada’s GDP.

I’m not bothered by the notion of confronting terrorism, if that were indeed the explicit purpose of Bill C-51. To confront a problem as complex as terrorism, new techniques need to be adopted to monitor communication activities. But strong monitoring requires strong and transparent oversight, particularly if environmental activists can so casually be described as ‘deliberate threats,’ if not terrorists. And while the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms should prevail in the courts, it’s the lack of oversight that has former legislators and judiciary officials concerned that the courts won’t be able to intervene quickly enough if the security officials go too far.

CSPS Quiz

This screenshot comes from the Facebook page of Andrew Weaver, MLA for Oak Bay-Gordon Head, and was originally captured from the Government of Canada’s new online training course entitled ‘Security Awareness,’ which is being offered by the Canada School of Public Service.

In a show of virtually unprecedented solidarity, a handful of former prime ministers, solicitors general, and Supreme Court justices published a joint statement in a national newspaper last week. They believe this bill represents a decline into underhanded abuse and excessive state intrusion. Already, Canada’s tax agency has been used to spy on Canadian environmental organizations and citizens in what is apparently a coordinated effort between oil companies, the National Energy Board, the RCMP, and Canadian Security Intelligence Services (CSIS). One editorial describes the changes in tax laws as a “dishonourable attack meant to intimidate environmental groups.” These incremental changes have prompted Edward Snowden and Ralph Nader to chime in and issue their own warnings.

Do our elected officials believe it’s acceptable to stifle dissent in a democracy through the use of fear? Are they actually as afraid of extremists who behead others as they are of environmentalists who challenge old conceptions of economic justice? Or is Prime Minister Harper, trained by the University of Calgary as a neoclassical economist, so beholden to the narrative of carbon-intensive growth, that he believes it should undermine the bedrock of a just society–our freedoms and right to self-expression? A functioning democracy requires dissent so citizens can hold their leaders accountable when they go too far.

I hope this is all simply a sick intimidation exercise, because if Bill C-51 actually represents the erosion of our fundamental freedoms in the name of carbon-intensive growth, this could very well signal the beginning of a dark time. Peaceful resistance to burning fossil fuels cannot be futile.

I should clarify that I’m not just embodying the voice of the left wing fringe in Canada. In fact, I happen to believe the principles of a steady state economy–an economy that is truly economically stable–is fully coherent with traditional ‘conservative’ values. Former conservative Prime Minister Joe Clark is one of the leading voices cautioning against allowing national security services to administer justice without proper oversight. As he mentioned, the problem is that secret police services perform “in the shadows,” and can destroy lives by allowing suspicion to run rampant before the appropriate checks and balances can be applied in the courts. C-51, he argues, could be more damaging than no bill at all.

The only thing that would be more disturbing than the idea that our government believes these actions are just, is the prospect that Canadians might be too afraid and passive to challenge this bill. Perhaps we adore our oppressors more than we ought to. And by oppressors, I’m not just referring to the authors and supporters of C-51. I’m talking about our own propensity to consume and accumulate ad nausem, amusing ourselves to death as our civil liberties are eroded in plain sight.

So let’s hope all this talk of secret police is indeed exaggerated. While some environmentalists may feel afraid and needlessly manipulated, others will speak out and shame Canada on the international stage. If this whole charade becomes too absurd, some of us may even consider moving to Denmark, or Germany, where more sophisticated governments have chosen to confront a challenging future with foresight rather than intimidation.

Or more optimistically, maybe we can see this as a promising step on the road to real change. Arthur Schopenhauer said that “all truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” Perhaps we have arrived at stage two, with the government playing the role of the violent opposition. If so, I look forward to stage three–acceptance–being right around the corner.

Oil and Real Estate Bubbles in Canada: What Goes up Won’t so Smoothly Come Down

by James Magnus-Johnston

Johnston_photoFive years ago, I noted how unsustainable Canadian economic growth is fuelled by debt, which is leveraged to increase the prices–and ‘profitability’–of assets like oil holdings and real estate. It might as well be called “phantom growth,” because it’s bound to disappear in due course. When prices are high, the debt-based Ponzi scheme functions; when prices sustain lows, the scheme unravels. With Canada’s oil and real estate sectors both apparently slowing down, will it lead to a ‘Minsky moment?’

Economist Hyman Minsky studied financial instability as a result of debt accumulation, and his work was largely ignored by mainstream economists. He noted that debt-heavy capitalist economies exhibit inflations and deflations that tend to spin out of control–inflation feeds inflation and deflation feeds deflation. The ‘Minsky moment’ is the moment where our financial system begins to experience deflationary stress due to price shifts. Historically, government interventions to contain debt spirals were not terribly competent, and–other factors notwithstanding–the sheer volume of debt that has been leveraged makes the global economy poised for contraction. Canada’s recent dependence upon asset inflation makes it particularly vulnerable.

Where has all the Money Come From?

Debt has been leveraged in several investment streams, including derivatives, securities, and ordinary debt. After 2008, international quantitative easing–essentially the creation of money from nothing–has partly facilitated further investment in unconventional and costly oil production methods. As long as international prices and investment levels remain high, it is feasible for unconventional oil to achieve a return on the huge amounts of money and energy required to get it out of the ground. But the longer oil prices remain low, the longer investors will be exposed to defaults.

Investors include ordinary folks by virtue of our holdings in pension funds and RRSPs. Laricina Energy has defaulted on financing extended by Canada’s largest pension fund, the public Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board. We can likely expect defaults to international investors as well, which should create upward pressure on interest rates as investors try to cover exposure to losses.

Photo Credit: Robert Fairchild

These debt-fuelled investments likely won’t come down as smoothly as they went up. Photo Credit: Robert Fairchild

Optimism in the resource extraction industry–despite its disproportionately small role in creating jobs for Canadians–has fostered optimism in other parts of the economy, including real estate. One Canadian commentator remarked that the causes for slowdown in the two sectors are “completely unconnected.” They’re quite well-connected when you notice that in both areas, investors are ‘conservatively’ lending their money to what they think are sure bets, with the expectation of certain returns. In both cases, debt has been leveraged systemically to push prices higher.

Deutshe Bank has proclaimed that Canada is the most overvalued real estate market in the world, by as much as 63%. Canada’s current Bank Governor, Stephen Poloz (who is subject to ‘home country bias’) concedes that the market is overvalued, but by only 30% in his estimate–if only prices were quite so objective! As defaults in other sectors of the economy put upward pressure on interest rates, investment slows. Sure bets become bad bets, and real estate ‘growth’ will evaporate, too.

Debt and the Growth Imperative

Growth–even when it’s illusory or damaging–is an imperative in debt-heavy economies because the economy must expand by at least the rate of interest; if this doesn’t happen, the risk of default is potentially catastrophic. As Richard Douthwaite writes, the choice is between growth and collapse in a debt-based banking system due to the contagion of default–not growth and stability. In order to feed the growth imperative, we’ve normalized the practice of using debt to gamble on unsound high-return investments. In a saner banking system that didn’t require growth at the rate of interest, deflation might be cause for relief among millennials who have been priced out of the real estate market, or among those who have general concerns about the long-term consequences of unconventional oil production.

But in an overgrown lending system that feeds phantom growth, what goes up doesn’t so smoothly come down. After a string of defaults in the unconventional oil sector, credit would tighten, oil prices would react with further unpredictable volatility, and the banking system could require either the kind of government bailout we saw in 2008, or a ‘bail-in,’ where bondholders would cover some of the losses by providing equity for the bank. Canadians have likely forgotten by now that the federal government passed legislation in 2013 that allows banks to take money from bondholders.

Most importunately, unsustainable debt drives the expansion of the physical economy as a self-reinforcing (‘positive’) feedback, despite the fact that we’re pushing up against the planet’s physical limits. Debt is the engine of growth which drives climate change and rapid biodiversity loss.

The Steady State Solution to Overleveraging

It’s insane to require growth just to pay for the invented convention of ‘interest,’ which is at odds with basic physics and the fundamental geochemistry of the planet. But that’s how we roll these days. We celebrate the overexuberant rise in home values, all too willing to count this rise as positive GDP growth. We encourage spending money on products faster than it’s earned, and the debt-backed economy commands us to repeat this inherently unstable practice until the bubbles burst and the financial system collapses.

If we’re staring down the barrel of another inevitable financial crisis due to the fact that instability is built right into the system, why don’t we try doing things a little differently next time? When confronted with another need for a bail-out, rather than “priming the pump” and resurrecting a dead financial system, governments should gradually reduce the ability of banks to leverage so much. Maybe we could even begin to invest in more meaningful things, like small businesses that re-localize and de-carbonize the economy.

As Herman Daly suggests, increasing the fractional reserve requirement would have the effect of reducing risky lending. He writes,

With 100% reserves every dollar loaned to a borrower would be a dollar previously saved by a depositor (and not available to him during the period of the loan), thereby re-establishing the classical balance between abstinence and investment. With credit limited by saving (abstinence from consumption) there will be less lending and borrowing and it will be done more carefully–no more easy credit to finance the massive purchase of “assets” that are nothing but bets on dodgy debts.

By decreasing the potential to ‘leverage’ assets, the relationship between real savings and investment would be restored, and we wouldn’t be encouraging periodic wild swings in the economy and spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need. After all, when confronted with rapid biodiversity loss, climate change, and other serious planet-wide problems, indulging the whims of a risk-prone banking system seems to me an unnecessary distraction, particularly if what goes up doesn’t so smoothly come down.

A Stick in the Stocking: Santa’s Supply Shock

by Brian Czech

BrianCzechIt’s déjà vu all over again: another oil “supply shock.” Seems like we’ve had one every few weeks for the past few months. Santa stuck another one in the Christmas stocking, and by New Year’s Eve crude oil prices fell to Great Recession levels.

Frankly, though, an oil supply shock is hardly . . . well, hardly shocking by now! Furthermore, this is the kind of oxymoronic “shock” people enjoy, or at least most people in a growth-obsessed economy. We have a sudden increase in production and therefore drop in price, due mostly to OPEC. The drop in price sort of undermines the meaning of shock, no? Gas is below $2/gallon. “If such is a shock,” we say, “bring it on!”

Historically, though, the phrase “supply shock” would evoke deprivation, pain, and fear. In the 19th century the most notorious supply shock was the dramatic decrease in the availability of whale oil in the 1860s, due partly to the side-tracking of the New England whaling fleet during the Civil War. Sperm whale oil had been the predominant domestic fuel, used in household lamps as well as for heating, and adjusting to different fuels wasn’t easy.

In the 20th century, perhaps the biggest supply shock was the OPEC oil embargo of 1973. This time, there was no other significant fuel to adjust to, and the embargo resulted in a historic stock market crash. Now that’s a supply shock.

We can see from the examples that a supply shock tends to get its name from the “bigness” of the supply in question. A sudden shortage of smelt wouldn’t warrant a “supply shock” headline, because smelt are a bit player in the economy. A supply shock is more macroeconomic than micro. In the examples above, major fuels were the supplies in question.

Gas Can - Bryan Costin

Fuel isn’t just any commodity–dramatic changes in its supply can lead to supply shocks. Photo Credit: Bryan Costin

“Fuel” might sound like just another commodity, but the name says it all; it fuels the economy, not just smelt fishing. When the availability of fuel suddenly declines, that’s a shock indeed, a shock to the system, the economic system.

Oddly enough, this latest supply “shock,” resulting in a rapid drop in price, also caused a stock market tumble, just like the OPEC oil embargo. This time it wasn’t a full-fledged crash, at least not yet, but the Dow Jones dropped 315 points the weekend of December 12. We can chalk it up to the general insecurity caused by any major price shift, but we would be prudent to note yet one more case of Wall Street vs. Main Street. Here we all had cheaper fuel–with all that obviously meant for our household budgets–and Wall Street felt threatened.

It would be tempting to turn this into anti-Wall Street polemic, but the inequality of Big Capital is not even the main issue here. Rather, recent talk of “supply shock” is a wake-up call for the sustainability of Big Capital, the little man, and everyone in between. The latest news of cheap oil notwithstanding, we are moving inexorably into the era of Supply Shock, in which natural resources and environmental services become the limiting factors for human wellbeing; so limiting in fact that wellbeing declines quickly and ubiquitously.

Sure, at first glance Santa’s little “supply shock” of 2014 runs in the face of any limits-to-growth argument. But frogs feel fine as the water warms, too. When OPEC pulls out the stops for oil production, with whatever motives it might have–say for example to slap the Russian economy–it’s like a bigger gun to shoot ourselves in the foot with. In this case the gun is the global economy, and the foot is our climate, our biodiversity, and environmental protection at large.

And of course as the environment is whittled away from under us, so too is our kids’ and grandkids’ economy. A growing and then bloating economy is actually a threat to environmental protection, economic sustainability, national security and international stability.

I propose that we stop calling these short-term fuel gluts “supply shocks” and instead call them “supply parties.” We all know the parties must end, and the longer we party, the bigger the real shock, the after-shock, will be. When the suite of resources such as oil, natural gas, minerals, timber, fisheries, soil, rangeland–and oh yes, that cheap thing called “water”–are at a collective all-time low, relative to demand, and when climate change, biodiversity loss, and environmental unravelling are in full swing, and when our agriculture, extraction, manufacturing, and services are devastated by the loss of our natural capital, we’ll know we’re in the age of Supply Shock.

We’ll have been naughty, and Santa will have known. What’s that going to get us?

Spending on Preventing Climate Wars versus Spending to Secure Sources of Oil

by Dr. Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderThis summer, my CASSE blog featured the pending Iraq War III and argued that a steady state, true-cost, sustainable economy cannot be achieved if the US in going to engage in perpetual warfare over Middle East oil. The wars in Iraq have cost trillions in the name of national security—trillions that could have been spent on putting the US on a clean energy basis, including electric cars charged by solar and other renewable sources.

I want to raise some questions about Obama’s new war to deal with the Islamic State (or ISIS or ISIL, depending on the news outlet). Question 1: Does ISIS pose a low, medium, or high security risk? If the answer is low, then it is difficult to see the basis for launching a new war. Suppose that the risk is medium or high; then a person might wonder how we as a nation just spent trillions on a decade-long Iraq war at the end of which we have a medium to high security problem. Question 2: Who would want to put money into another such inept endeavor whose result achieves the very opposite of what the public was told was the purpose? In reality, the prime objective of the Iraq wars centers on oil.

In terms of war and national security, a much more serious long-term threat is that of climate wars. Money being spent on oil wars ought to be shifted to strategies to prevent climate wars by getting at the root causes of climate disruption.

In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond examines the environmental factors contributing to the collapse of advanced societies around the world, such as the Mayans in Central America and the Polynesians on Easter Island. The Mayans had a calendar dating back to 3114 B.C., built magnificent temples, and did sophisticated astronomy. But their population grew to an estimated 5 million, well beyond what the land could sustain, while huge amounts of resources were spent by chiefs trying to surpass other chiefs in building even bigger monuments. The leadership continued to misjudge the land stewardship and the food resource needs, and as a result several smaller collapses occurred before a large collapse around 900 AD, due in part to a severe drought. When Spaniards reached Mayan territory after 1500 AD, the temples had been abandoned and the Mayans scattered.

Easter Island - Christian Bobadilla

As we fail to adequately address climate change and its root cause, will our society face a similar collapse? Photo Credit: Christian Bobadilla

The peoples settling the isolated Easter Island around 900 AD met a similar fate after several hundred years of expanding their population and quarrying gigantic stone statues (weighing up to 270 tonnes) which they then moved to the perimeter of the island. They deforested the island and the surrounding waters filled with silt, while at the same time vast energies were occupied on rivalries over which clan could build the biggest stone head. When Captain Cook arrived at the island in 1774, he found a tiny population (down perhaps from a peak of 20,000) that he described as “small, lean, timid, and miserable.” The civilization had collapsed in a cannibalistic endgame.

Common causal factors include population growth beyond the capacity of the land to support it, destruction of good farmland, and the use of resources in tribal conflict and monument building. Leadership in both societies failed to respond to the handwriting on the wall.

There is an eerie resemblance to the actions of the United States in spending trillions on wars to secure oil supplies instead of investing in a clean energy economy. Germany, in contrast, put over $100 billion into solar and wind energy installations and became for a while the number one country in both solar and wind. Today, Germany (about the size of Montana) has triple the roof-top solar (36,000 MW) of the U.S., even though its physical area is small by comparison with the lower 48 states.

We are looking at a “perfect storm” of conditions around the world that will lead to major conflicts and wars: growing populations, reduced food resource base, destruction of fisheries with dead zones and acidification, enormous deforestation, and the like.

Already we see serious problems with ecological refugees trying to escape unlivable conditions in their homelands and get to Europe or North America. In Asia, India is building a huge fence along its border with Bangladesh, fearing massive fluxes of refugees as Bangladesh gets swamped by sea level rise and major storms.

In Climate Wars, Harald Welzer writes “nearly all academic studies, models and prognoses regarding the phenomena and consequences of climate change have been in the natural sciences” whereas “such things as social breakdown, resource conflict, mass migration, safety threats, widespread fears, radicalization and militarized or violence-governed economies” fall directly in the purview of the social sciences. Those in the natural sciences generally do not have knowledge or capability of fashioning solutions that involve key aspects of human behavior and motivation.

The same concerns arise as we try to move toward a steady state, true-cost economy: we need expertise from the social sciences.

Iraq and the Military-Industrial Complex versus a True Cost Economy

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderIraq has been in the news again as civil war looms. President Obama has sent several hundred military advisers to Iraq, perhaps in preparation for Iraq War III. George W. Bush proclaimed victory in Iraq War II and told the American Legion “Slowly but surely, we are helping to transform the broader Middle East from an arc of instability into an arc of freedom.” But the grim fact today is that US actions have achieved the very opposite of what was officially described to the American public as the objective.

A true cost or steady state economy can never be reached in a society consumed with perpetual war, especially warfare over oil. A steady state economy must have its energy supply based on renewable sources like solar and wind. To reach a true cost, steady state economy, the resources currently devoted to waging war must be transformed, and the use of natural resources like oil that are causing wars must be shifted.

Recent developments in Iraq highlight the decades of failure to put in place renewable energy that would have minimized the use of oil in the transportation sector. Trillions of dollars have now been spent on the Iraq II war, where more civilians than soldiers have been killed and billions more will need to be spent caring for severely wounded veterans from these ongoing wars.

A look at news coverage of the situation in Iraq shows what has been really driving the situation. In a June 3, 2013 New York Times article “China is Reaping Biggest Benefits of Iraq Oil Boom,” Michael Makovsky, former Defense Department official under the Bush administration, complained that “We lost out. The Chinese had nothing to do with the war, but from an economic standpoint they are benefiting from it, and our Fifth Fleet and air forces are helping to assure their supply.”

One year later, the New York Times featured a story about all this “progress” being put in jeopardy with the intense military offensive by extremist insurgents. The president of the oil service company Mediterranean International told the Times “The collapse of Iraq would bring an international oil crisis.”

Solar Panels

An important step towards escaping perpetual warfare over oil. Photo Credit: Michael Mazengarb

To escape from perpetual warfare over oil, I propose that the biggest category of funding in all the world’s military budgets should be for installing rooftop solar energy and wind turbines. These renewable resources are widely available, they do not require large central generating facilities for electricity or refineries and pipelines for oil and natural gas usage, they are tension reducers rather than enhancers, they are essentially waterless technologies, and they do not produce the serious pollution and climate disruption caused by fossil fuels.

The younger generation does not realize that Iraq War I in 1991 caused the largest oil spills in history: on the land, in the sea, and in the air. Massive clouds of oily pollution carried as far away as India. Did stability come as a result? Rather than stability, resentments worsened over the US behavior. Osama bin Laden cited the actions of the United States and transnational oil companies as the reason for his launching the terrorist bombing on 9/11.

While some strong efforts are being made to transform energy economies into a more environmentally sustainable form, particularly in some European nations, vast sums continue to be provided to support wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The sums that could have been used for a solar revolution have fundamentally been undermining the movement for renewables.

But there is good news on the solar front. In one month this year, Germany got more than 70% of its electricity from renewable energy. Germany, with 36,000 megawatts (MW) in solar capacity, leads the world. But in 2013, China added at least 11,300 MW, making it second to Germany with 18,300 MW in overall capacity.

Solar power is starting to take off in the United States with about 4,800 MW added in 2013, increasing our total photovoltaic capacity by 65 percent to 12,000 MW–still far behind Germany, which is about the size of Montana.

President Obama supports legislation to deal with global climate disruption and has made some significant gains in transportation fuel economy, but the US is not a leader in bringing electric vehicles run by solar power into widespread use.

The price of rooftop solar has dropped 75 percent in the last five years and flat roofs are available throughout metropolitan areas, so the opportunity for Obama to do a lot more is present, but oil wars in the 20th Century have continued under his administration, even as many top military people worldwide are calling attention to environmentally driven conflicts as being top security threats.

Before launching a war against any country, the United States should take the vegetable test: would we be on the attack if that country’s leading export were carrots or green beans?

The key step to reaching a true cost, steady state economy is to keep the emerging solar revolution going full speed ahead. It is the underpinning of stability–the kind of stability needed for an environmentally sustainable economy.

The End of the Age of Extraction

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderToday’s global economy is causing shortages of natural resources (both renewable and nonrenewable) as we come to the end of what might be called the Age of Extraction. A true cost, steady state economy, on the other hand, would prevent resource problems by maintaining population and resource consumption well within the carrying capacity of the planet.

Energy and mineral shortages, along with depletion of forests and fisheries, are driving the extractors and harvesters to evermore remote places. No longer able to find gushing oilfields, vast stands of virgin timber, or waterways teeming with fish, the extraction companies are racing to the farthest reaches of the planet in search of profits.

The end of the Age of Extraction does not mean that such resources will disappear. In his recent book, The Quest, Daniel Yergin describes oil and gas discoveries that he predicts will turn the Western Hemisphere — from Canada to Brazil — into the next Saudi Arabia. But today’s extraction is pursuing fuels that are either dirty or hard to get. We see more pollution, both from accidents and mundane chronic causes, increasingly pushing civilization beyond the carrying capacity of the earth, wiping out more and more species, and accelerating climate destabilization.

Today’s global economic operating system tolerates and even abets severe pollution damages as industries externalize the costs from their books. Scarcity has made some of the most environmentally devastating energy and mining projects “short-term cost effective.” For example, according to price and revenue figures, it’s cost effective to extract oil from tar sands in Alberta, a process that requires huge energy inputs, grotesquely contaminates land and water, and poisons people, fish, and wildlife.

A surge of fracking to reach natural gas deposits more than a mile underground has attracted drillers in a manner reminiscent of the California Gold Rush days. Fracking, along with very deep offshore oil drilling, illustrates the contamination that is occurring from energy extraction in numerous locations. Shell oil company is preparing to drill in the Arctic Ocean where little if any emergency relief will be available to contain a spill.

Overfishing during the Age of Extraction (photo taken in 1983) has pushed the goliath grouper to the edge of extinction.

Overfishing during the Age of Extraction (photo taken in 1983) has pushed the goliath grouper to the edge of extinction.

Along the world’s coastlines overfishing has depleted stocks. Some near inshore “fisheries” have actually become fishless. Recent analyses of the history of fishing off the California coast, as seen through interviews with three generations of fishermen, produced startling findings. The youngest group (age 15-30) had no idea that it was once common to fish right off the coast. They didn’t view the coastal zone as being overfished because, they said, there were no fish in this zone (see p. 140 of Climate Wars by Harald Welzer).

The oldest group (age 55 and above) could recall eleven species that had disappeared from today’s far offshore fishing ground, whereas the group between age 31 and 54 could recall seven, and the youngest group only two. Sixty years ago the oldest group could recall catching 25 goliath groupers per day, but by the 1960s the number had plunged to eleven, and then to only one a day in the 1990s. Tragically, only ten percent of the youngest group believed that stocks of the grouper had disappeared because they didn’t think they were ever there to begin with.

Today this experience is being repeated on a massive scale as ocean trawlers are “vacuum cleaning” the oceans as they seek scarce schools of fish. A strong potential exists to push fish and other renewable resources beyond the point of recovery.

The world economy has been unable to reverse the depletion trend. Without a true cost, sustainable economy, nations are faced with three choices. They can:

  1. reject concerns about shortages and environmental decline and proceed for a few more decades with expanded drilling, mining, and harvesting;
  2. acknowledge the problem and adopt policies that lead to sustainable resource use and reliance on renewable energy; or
  3. treat the situation like a wartime crisis as President Franklin Roosevelt did in World War II when practically overnight he forced Detroit to shift from making cars to manufacturing ships and airplanes.

High-tech operatives try to assuage public concern with the claim that geoengineering on a gargantuan scale can enable the oceans to absorb more carbon and produce more cloud cover to prevent planetary overheating. For those nations that can’t get a robust program going on such easy technologies as wind and solar energy, the claim for geoengineering as a savior from climate disruption seems a tad on the ambitious side.

After the transition to a true cost, sustainable economy, the extractive projects I have described would be a curious relic. The global economy would be seen as a subset of Spaceship Earth. Survival on board the spaceship depends on using sufficient supplies (not ever increasing supplies) of resources, as well as consumption rates that are commensurate with regeneration rates.

Too many world leaders are focused on restoring an economy that has been undermining the life-support systems of Spaceship Earth. A different kind of economy — a true cost economy — is needed to take us forward at the end of the Age of Extraction.

What Kind of Economy Says OK to Tar Sands Oil?

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderOn Sunday, February 17, I marched in the largest climate change protest in U.S. history. About 35,000 people gathered on the Washington Monument grounds for a rally and then marched past the White House, calling on President Obama to deny permission for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline that would transport oil from Canada’s tar sands through the heart of the U.S. to the Gulf Coast.

Two of the victims of tar sands development in Alberta, Chief Jackie Thomas of the Saik’uz First Nation and Crystal Lameman of the Beaver Lake Cree First Nation, spoke of the contamination of their lands and people. Even without the pipeline, the gigantic oil extraction operation is already causing plenty of harm.

If carried to completion during the next several decades, over the objections of the indigenous people who have been stewards of this land, tar sands mining will have transformed an area the size of Florida or Wisconsin. A land teeming with fish and wildlife will have been turned into a grotesque zone of toxicity where the lakes will act as predators as they entice unsuspecting waterfowl to land in their polluted waters.

What kind of economy would find such an activity acceptable? At the very least, the economy must be making some perverse calculations to justify such devastation.

As if the direct devastation of the land and water were not enough, the utilization of tar sands oil by the U.S. and other countries means “game over” for the global climate, according to NASA scientist James Hansen. In other words, the energy-intensive extraction followed by the burning of tar sands oil will put so much carbon pollution into the atmosphere that we will enter an era of radical climate destabilization.

The exploitation is proceeding on Cree lands against their consent and in violation of the Canadian Constitution. It represents a blatant refusal to abide by Article 32 of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that says: “States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples… in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources.”

President Obama appears poised to give permission to build the pipeline and contribute to this industrial nightmare. So what can we do in the aftermath of the big protest?

The time has come to reject the premises of today’s economy, because it is not a true-cost economy, and it undermines good governance. It is an economy set up for cheaters and gamblers. It is also an economy that exploits those lacking political clout and that disrespects international law, except when it comes to trade agreements that enable polluters to enter special secret courts (see the Chevron trade case against Ecuador for one recent example).

A true-cost, sustainable economy would not countenance commercial activities like tar sands mining that are tantamount to an all-out war against the natural environment and a form of industrial genocide. The genocide is underway not because of racial hatred, but because tribal people have stood in the way of a major money-making venture. Furthermore, the indigenous people lacked political power to stop the transnational corporations from ruining their lands.

Protests of the Keystone XL pipeline should blossom into protests of our unsustainable economy.

Protests of the Keystone XL pipeline should blossom into protests of our unsustainable economy.

A true-cost economy would exemplify resilience. It would be less susceptible to disruptions from speculation, violent weather events, and terrorism. Such an economy would not pursue activities that generate or are likely to generate irreversible pollution. No one has to worry about a “solar spill” or a “wind spill” ruining their drinking water.

Today’s economy, on the other hand, is permitting all sorts of damaging activities that violate the criterion of reversibility and bequeath a legacy of poison. Consider the contrast between renewable energy projects and coal mining.

If a wind farm or solar rooftop array is causing problems, it can easily be removed without leaving centuries of pollution behind. The roof or the land can be returned to other uses. In fact, wind farms are fully compatible with agricultural production around the wind turbines. One wind farm I visited near Dodge City, Kansas, consisted of 150 turbines in a 20-square-mile area, and the land requirements were just seven acres.

In contrast, coal mining in West Virginia through mountain-top removal is converting biologically diverse, forested mountains into a Martian landscape. In the words of former Congressman Ken Heckler, reclamation amounts to “putting lipstick on a corpse.” Such mining projects violate the principle of reversibility, just like tar sands oil extraction. What will be available to people in the future who want to live in and explore places like West Virginia’s formerly bountiful mountains and valleys?

Whenever concerns are raised over the destructive impacts of big extractive projects, the predicament of joblessness always comes up. But joblessness cannot be solved with the current economic strategy that allows temporary construction jobs to destroy permanent jobs and livelihoods. Big extraction projects cannot create the volume of jobs that can be had by pursuing renewable energy. In fact, the oil industry generates the fewest jobs of almost any industry in the federal government’s database.

It is time to start demanding a true-cost economy that will create diverse jobs without creating no-go zones of carcinogenic and mutagenic wastes.

Climate Change Trumps Terrorism as Threat to National Security

by Brent Blackwelder

Climate destabilization eclipses all other security threats to human civilization except for a major nuclear war. But the current global economy gives no signals to investors and consumers about the profound implications of climate destabilization on water cycles, agriculture, and humanity’s ability to grow food for seven billion people.

The latest weather disaster, the monster Hurricane Sandy, demonstrated that changing environmental conditions pose a huge threat to U.S. security and stability. In the aftermath of the storm, thousands of people in New York and New Jersey face grim conditions, with $50 billion in damages, over 20,000 homeless, and some dying of hypothermia.

The American public, however, has been conditioned to think of national security in terms of terrorist threats. The Washington Post’s veteran Pentagon reporter Greg Jaffe makes the case that the world has never been safer, if security is to be measured by acts of human sabotage and terrorism. Jaffe asserts that according to “most relevant statistics, the United States — and the world — have never been safer… global terrorism has barely touched most Americans in the decade since Sept. 11, 2001.”

Jaffe appropriately criticizes presidential candidates and other politicians for exaggerating the national security threat from terrorism because they want to “cast themselves as potential saviors in an increasingly dangerous world.” During this time, he notes, more U.S. citizens have been crushed to death by furniture and televisions falling on them than have been killed in terrorist attacks (Washington Post 11/4/12).

Despite the way politicians are talking about national security, the reality is that over the past twenty years, national security has become more closely tied to environmental factors such as energy, water, food, and climate disruption. President Clinton’s State Department made the formal acknowledgment that deteriorating environmental conditions can cause conflicts and constitute threats to stability.

Hurricane Sandy comes ashore.

Rampaging global weather disasters pose serious challenges to governments around the world. According to Swiss Re, the world’s largest reinsurance company, twenty to forty percent of losses from disasters are uninsured. The company says economic losses from climate-related disasters are substantial and rising. One news release states, “Over the last 40 years global insured losses from climate-related disasters have jumped from an annual USD 5 billion to approximately USD 60 billion.” Another news release says that “without further investments in adaptation, climate risks could cost nations up to 19% of their GDP by 2030, with developing countries the most vulnerable.”

To address the root causes we must move from our current global system of cheater economics and casino economics to a true-cost economy. In a true-cost sustainable economy, the climate-disrupting effects of coal and oil would be factored into their prices, and prices would rise beyond most people’s idea of affordability. Ironically, the current method for calculating national economic well-being (GDP), counts the billions spent on fixing storm damages as a plus.

In the presidential debates Romney and Obama competed to see who could be more supportive of oil and gas and who would accelerate the movement of tar sands oil from Canada the fastest. It was as if they were saying, “Let’s see who can generate the most greenhouse gases the fastest and create even more gigantic storms and weather disruptions.”

The extraction of tar sands oil is devastating the homes of native people in Canada and creating a wasteland scene reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno. Utilization of such a filthy fuel on the scale now being advocated means “game over for the climate,” according to NASA climate scientist James Hansen.

At least the victorious President Obama stressed that he wanted more renewable energy, whereas Romney opposed wind power, belittled concerns about climate destabilization, and joked about rising sea levels. Now is the time to demand that Obama fulfills the clean-energy promise he made in his first term. Along the way, we might even alleviate some threats to national security that are already on our shores.