The conversation we should be having

Via MT, I see that ClimatePolicy has reproduced a surprisingly direct and welcome keynote address given by Herman Daly at the 2007 AMS Federal Climate Policy meeting. It’s worth reading in full, so go to ClimatePolicy or Grist (a little clearer layout, IMO) and do so. Briefly, I was happy to see one of my personal gripes with economic ideology dragged fully into the harsh light of reality:

The next question we should ask is, What is it that is causing us to systematically emit ever more CO2 into the atmosphere? It is the same thing that causes us to emit more and more of all kind of wastes into the biosphere, namely our irrational commitment to exponential growth forever on a finite planet subject to the laws of thermodynamics. If we overcome the growth idolatry we could then go on to ask an intelligent question like, “How can we design and manage a steady-state economy, one that respects the limits of the biosphere?” Instead we ask a wrong-headed, growth-bound question, specifically; “By how much will we have to increase energy efficiency, or carbon efficiency, in order to maintain customary growth rates in GDP?”

As I’ve mentioned repeatedly, this is what I believe is not only an illustration of the failure of one of the most mainstream kinds of economic philosophy, it neatly explains the perversely self-destructive resistance to addressing climate change in a meaningful way from certain people and groups. When evidence threatens ideology, a large number of ideologues are going to attack the evidence rather than adapt their views to reality.

It’s refreshing to see this issue being addressed in a relevant setting, free from accusations of crypto-communism and Club of Rome, eugenics conspiracy-mongering. Limitless-growth economics is tantamount to a suicide pact in our current predicament. It is literally delusional to view economy and ecology as separate, distinct concepts, let alone as in competition.

This is the conversation we need to have as a planet. That means an entire economic philosophy and many associated socio-political ideologies are going to have to either adapt or be pushed out of the way. I have my doubts that this will happen in time to avoid some of the terrible consequences of inaction. From “drill, baby, drill” to “Breakthrough!” there’s little reason to expect it’s a conversation we’ll be having any time soon.


One response to “The conversation we should be having

  1. Things Break, I agree wholeheartedly. However, blogs that mention this — such as yours and mt’s — usually just stop after identifying the problem rather than suggesting a direction to work towards. As a scientist (well, grad student…) I can understand the reluctance to make such statements beyond personal expertise, but it’s very difficult to have such a discussion without having any material to discuss.

    Although I’m certainly not an economist, I know that there are some economic theories being posited that deal with changing the endless-growth assumption. The one I’m most familiar with (as the author’s from my hometown) is from Mark Anielski (published as The Economics of Happiness, which has been getting a lot of press on dealing-with-peak-oil sites, although I personally heard about it through his lectures), and it hinges upon redefining capital while leaving the more intrinsic growth paradigms alone.

    Hear me out. It does make sense.

    Under this theory, “capital” doesn’t just refer to available finances (as it usually means), or the monetary value of already-possessed infrastructure. Rather, it defines ‘capital’ as the collective sum of five types of resource: personal, social, natural, built, and financial (referring to individual workers’ motivation/quality of life, social networks/responsibility/charity/reputation, natural resources and environmental quality, infrastructure, and money). Note the explicit inclusion of environmental issues on the balance sheet — dumping CO2 in the air is no longer an ‘externality’ but rather an ‘expense’ applied to natural capital, in much the same way downsizing is an expense on personal capital.

    “Growth” and “Profit” are understood in terms of this amalgamation: one invests one or more types of capital in assorted amounts and aims for a higher return across all five. A classic example from modern economics that doesn’t hinge on environmental issues (useful if talking to modern conservatives) is cutting spending on infrastructure: the concept of an “infrastructure debt” is well understood, and is essentially incurring a built capital debt in exchange for a financial capital surplus. More to the point, what we’ve been doing globally is unsustainably tanking natural capital (and social and personal to a lesser extent) in the name of slight improvements in financial capital, which is fairly clearly a net loss once you look at the relevant gains and losses even before you factor in sustainability. Under this view, the biosphere places limits on growth in much the same way running out of money or a worker’s strike would. (As a side effect, this growth system doesn’t necessarily improve GDP, and thus Anielski spends a long time developing metrics to measure what it would improve, namely quality of life and happiness. This is an area I think he could improve on, but I’m too far out of my league to suggest how.)

    I think his theory is a bit idealistic, but it’s idealistic in the right direction and it certainly got me thinking in terms of sustainable economics. The part I found particularly clever was that it doesn’t remove the concept of growth (ingrained into the very nature of capitalism), but rather aims it at something less narrow-minded and more sustainable. A friend of mine is so right-wing that he literally threw the book across the room when it mentioned that oil production was going to drop, but even he eventually admitted the theory was probably better. I doubt he (and other conservatives) would have been so receptive had the theory been framed in terms of curbing growth.

    I know there are other such theories too, but I don’t know enough about them to discuss them here.

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