mfioretti: collapse*

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  1. Limited liability not only allows companies to act recklessly with regard to the interests of others – it obliges them to do so. Directors have a duty to use all legally available means to maximise shareholder value. Limited liability compels them to externalise risk.

    There is no way that fossil-fuel companies could pay for the climate breakdown they cause. There is no way that car companies could meet the health costs of air pollution. Their business models rely on dumping their costs on other people. Were they not protected by the extreme form of limited liability that prevails today, they would be obliged to switch to clean technologies.

    Various estimates put the cost that businesses dump on society at somewhere between 4% and 20% of GDP. In other words, it exceeds the rate of economic growth. Were such costs internalised, the economy would have to be run on an entirely different basis. Human health and the survival of the natural world would come first; corporate greed would come last.
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  2. are we really free to do less? If we look to the natural sciences, particularly ecology and thermodynamics, it is apparent that we may face additional obstacles. As Alfred Lotka, H.T. Odum, Martha Gilliland, and Ilya Prigogine have observed, it is in the nature of complex, self-organizing systems or ‘dissipative structures’―such as organisms, communities, or civilizations―to maximize their throughput of useful energy. This behaviour has a selective advantage and, as such, these systems develop a propensity to fully utilize all available energy sources and produce the greatest possible quantity of useful work. This is variously known as the maximum power principle, the minimum entropy principle, or simply ‘Lotka’s principle’. The language is not always intuitive and there are several theoretical jumps from power maximization to an analysis of human choice, but what it basically implies is that human societies and even individuals have acquired deep-rooted tendencies to do more rather than less. As argued by Vaclav Smil (1994), we need to break the hold of Lotka’s principle on civilization by concentrating our attention on the aspects of human development which don’t require power maximization. The prospects of achieving this are unknown, but such a move would certainly rule out heroic, world-shaping ambitions.

    The global economy as a dissipative structure within the biosphere

    The skeptic might argue that, as smart as we are, we can’t possibly be bound to some obscure biological theory. Doesn’t this view veer dangerously close to biological determinism? Well, in more common vocabulary, Lotka’s principle becomes something much more familiar: the profit motive. It is also reflected in the enduring primacy of the market and the fact that economic growth is everywhere and always the first priority, while the sustainability imperative is a distant second. Breaking Lotka’s principle would require unprecedented collective restraint, including intentionally forgoing many opportunities for profit. This shift should be a priority for research and policy. But given that it would be predicated on convincing a wary public of its necessity, we can’t be sure it can be achieved without radical change precipitated by a catastrophe or revolution.

    In contrast with the story we will continue to hear for some time to come, the answers to our ecological dilemma are not primarily technological. Insisting on more and shaping the world to suit our designs is a Faustian bargain. What we face is not so much a problem to be solved, but a crisis of culture stemming from the hidden conflict between Lotka’s principle and the boundaries of a finite world. Innovation, that favourite buzzword of the growth paradigm, is needed―not in its current form, but in imagining new ways to thrive while doing less. But first, we need to redouble our efforts to support an emerging narrative: the way out of our impasse lies not in forging ahead, but in having the humility to stop and
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  3. Today’s infinite growth mind trip, seemingly “on electric Kool-Aid,” originated with the discovery of fossil fuels, a transition from an agrarian economy to an industrial revolution powered by carbon-rich remains of ancient plants. Coal created a new world order of economic endeavours, supplying 25% of all fuel energies by the 1870s. The success and growth of the emerging Industrial Revolution depended upon it.

    Still, the greatest philosopher/economist of the English language of the 19th century, John Stuart Mill, one of the last of the great classical economists, similar to Smith and Ricardo, advocating trade liberalization and competitive markets, still harbored many doubts; e.g., whether endless growth was good for the human spirit.

    According to the celebrated economist, reaching an end to growth might lead to a more enlightened happiness and satisfaction, freeing people from “extravagant dreams of material plenty and encourage them to seek other forms of fulfillment… In contrast, the ideology of progress, with its intense drive for wealth, was leading toward a new kind of deprivation. Increasingly, it was depriving men and women of any moral or spiritual purpose, leaving them trapped in a culture of excessive materialism.” (pgs. 53-54) Subsequently, Mill’s statement has been proven downright prophetic!

    Worster takes the reader along fascinating pathways of Americana; e.g., the start of the modern conservation movement by George Perkins Marsh’s landmark book Man and Nature (1864), “man must learn to live with limits of nature,” an early trumpet of doom that represented the intellectual transition from the “age of plenty” to an “age of limits.”

    Marsh argued that ancient Mediterranean civilizations collapsed due to environmental degradation, and, of course, they did, as they are faster than ever today! He saw early telltale signs of identical trends in the United States, as early as mid 19th century, over 150 years ago. Marsh’s Man and Nature next to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was considered one of the most influential books of the 19th century.

    nature’s breaking point is already nearly at hand in the Western United States from where the majority of America’s food-growing capacity feeds the country. Of course, nobody rings a bell to announce the official start of “the breaking point,” but Worster is quick to point out a troubling stranglehold developing throughout this key breadbasket region. Climate change, too much human-generated CO2 warming the planet, is altering hydrological cycles, especially in the Western U.S., to such an extent that California, the most bounteous state in the union, could experience a drop of 70% to 80% in its current water supply, assuming climate change, as it is now progressing, continues, thus prompting the million-dollar question: What’ll stop it?

    Alas, also at the breaking point, across the acidic-infested, CO2 laced, heated up Atlantic Ocean and thru the Mediterranean Sea to its eastern and southern landmasses, the world’s biggest drying-out of land and aquifers is fast approaching crisis levels, accompanied by more and more frequent dust storms which scientists believe may turn into the equivalence of America’s infamous Dust Bowl of the 1930s, as the incredible historical flourish of the Tigris/Euphrates Fertile Crescent dries out at record rates.1

    Alternatively, technology is the catchword and modus for continual drumbeat favoring the infinite growth credo, unrelenting GDP growth for eons. But forlornly, as expressed by Worster: “Technology does not open up immense, profitable frontiers of natural resources, untapped oceans filled with fish… or atmosphere rich in oxygen.” (pg. 222)

    Our option is to choose our own limits, or let nature chose them for us
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  4. La serietà della situazione può essere messa meglio a fuoco elencando una serie di verità abbastanza scomode. Ad esempio che non basta una politica fiscale intermittente per rilanciare le nascite, perché servirebbero misure imponenti; che non sono sufficienti incentivi economici simbolici per aiutare le coppie a soddisfare i propri desideri di genitorialità, perché non è con gli spiccioli che si cambia la vita; che non bastano neppure timide politiche per la conciliazione, se a essere carente è il lavoro stabile di massa e retribuito dignitosamente; e che è illusorio pensare a rivoluzioni culturali capaci di fare la differenza.
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  5. Some on the Left suggest that putting resources into space takes away resources from the social good here at home. Do they have a point?

    No. Space science is an Earth science. Our current presence in space is all about science and communications. Communications satellites are a big part of our civilization right now, and mostly in a good way.

    Space science is important because we live on a planet that we are impacting in unexpected ways, so we need to know more about planets to help figure out what to do about that. A good example of this is when we found out we were creating a hole in our atmosphere’s ozone layer, and managed to stop creating that hole before we all died from it. How did we do that? By sending orbiters to Venus and Mars and studying their atmospheres.

    There are many other examples of this kind of useful knowledge, because comparative planetology is a real thing. Earth is a planet, and we depend completely on it for our existence. Now that we’re damaging it in very dangerous ways, we have to invent a sustainable relationship with it. In that project, space science is useful. It isn’t a cure-all, not even close, and should only be funded in proportion to its usefulness. But it is useful.
    Tags: , , , , by M. Fioretti (2018-05-02)
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  6. Economics has failed on three main fronts. First, its emphasis on unique equilibria, diminishing marginal returns and average behaviours means it has a hard time dealing with the central characteristic of capitalism: technological innovation. Innovation causes long-run difference between companies, far from average events, and self-reinforcing mechanisms that cause multiple equilibria. Indeed, the use of mathematics from Newtonian physics (rather than biology) allows these dynamics to be ignored.

    Second, most economics students are not trained in the history of economic thought so they think there is only one theory of value — which is not presented as a possible theory among many. The lack of “debate” about value in economics departments has allowed business schools to capture the word — and the concept of shareholder “value” goes largely uncontested theoretically. Hence one of the greatest ills of modern capitalism — financialisation — is ignored and we end up blaming the robots for de-skilling and unemployment, rather than corporate governance structures which have meant a lack of reinvestment of profits into the economy.

    Third, the assumption that price reflects value means that we end up constantly correcting gross domestic product for the priceless activities it ignores (caring services at home, environmental damage, quality of life). And similarly, those activities which do have a price, but are just moving things around rather than creating value, get included (eg. most of the financial sector).

    My suggestion is that before we add happiness indicators, we first take out rents. This would cause the GDP of some countries to drop drastically and for new questions to be asked about the “direction” of growth, not only its rate.
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  7. hundreds of thousands of people die every year due to climate change related extreme weather events and millions lose their homes, go hungry or are forced to migrate. Ecosystems everywhere, and the biosphere as a whole, are reaching dangerous tipping points. The prolonged impact of an industrial growth society addicted to fossil fuels and the rapid extraction of non-renewable resources is pushing against planetary boundaries.

    Our current economic system is structurally committed to ever-increasing economic growth and intertwined with a financial system that generates money out of nowhere based on debt, and currencies that are not backed up by real material value (see module two). Attempts to resuscitate this structurally dysfunctional system are getting more and more expensive, as the cycles of economic crisis and costly (temporary) recovery are getting shorter and shorter.

    Continuing economic crisis, along with fear of war and terrorism have effectively kept climate and environmental issues at a lower level of political priority than they ought to have as critical factors of influence on national and global security and serious threads to human wellbeing and humanity’s future survival.

    Whether our structurally dysfunctional economic system can ever deliver sustainability is being questioned more and more. Not just anti-globalization activists but people within institutions such as the World Bank (Soubbotina, 2000), government think tanks (Jackson, 2009a), academia (e.g. Victor, 2010, Jackson 2009b) and the World Economic Forum (2012) are questioning the economic growth paradigm and our current version of capitalism.
    Klaus Schwab

    “Capitalism, in its current form, no longer fits the world around us » a global transformation is urgently needed, and it must start with reinstating a global sense of social responsibility.”

    - Klaus Schwab, Founder of World Economic Forum, Davos in The Economic Times 2012

    The evidence that inequality has devastating social and health impacts is mounting (Wilkinson, 1996, 2005, Wilkinson & Pickett 2011, Stiglitz, 2013), yet it keeps increasing in most countries and globally. Demographic changes are challenging some countries, such as Germany, Japan and the UK, with the effects of over-ageing populations, while other countries in South America, Asia, Africa and the Middle East have a growing population of disenfranchised youth with difficult economic prospects and inadequate education, facing a century of potential turmoil.

    The advent of the fossil fuel age over the last couple of centuries has made available unprecedented levels of energy that humanity has harnessed to satisfy its needs: we probably expended more energy during the twentieth century than in all preceding human history (MacNeill 2000). This has permitted a prodigious leap in economic output as well as important and beneficial breakthroughs in areas such as diet, medical and dental care and greater physical comfort for many within the global family.

    However, these gains have come at an enormous cost. The human population has grown by a factor of more than ten since the beginning of the industrial revolution in the mid-eighteenth century from around 700 million to more than 7600 million people today (see World Population Clock).

    Moreover, the various social and economic systems we have built on the assumption of continuing cheap energy are highly vulnerable. Not only because the remaining fossil fuel reserves are ever more expensive in their extraction, both economically and ecologically. Even if new discoveries of fossil fuel reserves are being made regularly, we cannot safely use them.

    Over the last thirty years, however, ecological indicators in most parts of the industrialised world have significantly improved — fish are returning to once dead lakes and rivers, air quality is improving in most cities, many reforestation programmes are being implemented. This could lead us to believe that things are actually improving. The truth, however, is that the economically rich countries have simply exported most of their heavily polluting industries. The worst social and ecological consequences of our economic behaviour are now felt in the Global South — far from the view of the world’s consumer class in the Global North.
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  8. Smartphones are particularly insidious for a few reasons. With a two-year average life cycle, they’re more or less disposable. The problem is that building a new smartphone–and specifically, mining the rare materials inside them–represents 85% to 95% of the device’s total CO2 emissions for two years. That means buying one new phone takes as much energy as recharging and operating a smartphone for an entire decade.
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  9. If anything, at this phase in history, ideas matter more — way more — than execution. Should we believe in the silly myth that “ideas don’t matter! Only execution does!”, then not only do we leave ourselves at the mercy of man-child macho-men like insert tech CEO »  — worse, we flunk the great test of this age in history.

    Everything’s broken, friends. What we really needs are ideas for rebuilding the great broken systems that lie in ruins around us. Healthcare systems, educational systems, financial systems, social systems, environmental systems, energy systems.

    Ideas of a special kind are what is needed to reinvent them. Big I Ideas. Idea have never mattered more — in fact, today, they matter so much, that the challenge is having the biggest, trust, and most transformative ones that we can. Huge ones. World-shaking ones. Life-changing ones. Let me explain what I mean.
    Tags: , , by M. Fioretti (2018-03-30)
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  10. ‘Inequality’ is a way of framing social problems appropriate to technocratic reformers, the kind of people who assume from the outset that any real vision of social transformation has long since been taken off the political table. It allows one to tinker with the numbers, argue about Gini coefficients and thresholds of dysfunction, readjust tax regimes or social welfare mechanisms, even shock the public with figures showing just how bad things have become (‘can you imagine? 0.1% of the world’s population controls over 50% of the wealth!’), all without addressing any of the factors that people actually object to about such ‘unequal’ social arrangements: for instance, that some manage to turn their wealth into power over others; or that other people end up being told their needs are not important, and their lives have no intrinsic worth. The latter, we are supposed to believe, is just the inevitable effect of inequality, and inequality, the inevitable result of living in any large, complex, urban, technologically sophisticated society. That is the real political message conveyed by endless invocations of an imaginary age of innocence, before the invention of inequality: that if we want to get rid of such problems entirely, we’d have to somehow get rid of 99.9% of the Earth’s population and go back to being tiny bands of foragers again. Otherwise, the best we can hope for is to adjust the size of the boot that will be stomping on our faces, forever, or perhaps to wrangle a bit more wiggle room in which some of us can at least temporarily duck out of its way.

    Mainstream social science now seems mobilized to reinforce this sense of hopelessness. Almost on a monthly basis we are confronted with publications trying to project the current obsession with property distribution back into the Stone Age, setting us on a false quest for ‘egalitarian societies’ defined in such a way that they could not possibly exist outside some tiny band of foragers (and possibly, not even then). What we’re going to do in this essay, then, is two things. First, we will spend a bit of time picking through what passes for informed opinion on such matters, to reveal how the game is played, how even the most apparently sophisticated contemporary scholars end up reproducing conventional wisdom as it stood in France or Scotland in, say, 1760. Then we will attempt to lay down the initial foundations of an entirely different narrative. This is mostly ground-clearing work. The questions we are dealing with are so enormous, and the issues so important, that it will take years of research and debate to even begin understanding the full implications. But on one thing we insist. Abandoning the story of a fall from primordial innocence does not mean abandoning dreams of human emancipation – that is, of a society where no one can turn their rights in property into a means of enslaving others, and where no one can be told their lives and needs don’t matter. To the contrary. Human history becomes a far more interesting place, containing many more hopeful moments than we’ve been led to imagine, once we learn to throw off our conceptual shackles and perceive what’s really there.

    Quite independently, archaeological evidence suggests that in the highly seasonal environments of the last Ice Age, our remote ancestors were behaving in broadly similar ways: shifting back and forth between alternative social arrangements, permitting the rise of authoritarian structures during certain times of year, on the proviso that they could not last; on the understanding that no particular social order was ever fixed or immutable. Within the same population, one could live sometimes in what looks, from a distance, like a band, sometimes a tribe, and sometimes a society with many of the features we now identify with states. With such institutional flexibility comes the capacity to step outside the boundaries of any given social structure and reflect; to both make and unmake the political worlds we live in. If nothing else, this explains the ‘princes’ and ‘princesses’ of the last Ice Age, who appear to show up, in such magnificent isolation, like characters in some kind of fairy-tale or costume drama. Maybe they were almost literally so. If they reigned at all, then perhaps it was, like the kings and queens of Stonehenge, just for a season.

    The first bombshell on our list concerns the origins and spread of agriculture. There is no longer any support for the view that it marked a major transition in human societies. In those parts of the world where animals and plants were first domesticated, there actually was no discernible ‘switch’ from Palaeolithic Forager to Neolithic Farmer. The ‘transition’ from living mainly on wild resources to a life based on food production typically took something in the order of three thousand years. While agriculture allowed for the possibility of more unequal concentrations of wealth, in most cases this only began to happen millennia after its inception. In the time between, people in areas as far removed as Amazonia and the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East were trying farming on for size, ‘play farming’ if you like, switching annually between modes of production, much as they switched their social structures back and forth. Moreover, the ‘spread of farming’ to secondary areas, such as Europe – so often described in triumphalist terms, as the start of an inevitable decline in hunting and gathering – turns out to have been a highly tenuous process, which sometimes failed, leading to demographic collapse for the farmers, not the foragers.

    Jared Diamond notwithstanding, there is absolutely no evidence that top-down structures of rule are the necessary consequence of large-scale organization. Walter Scheidel notwithstanding, it is simply not true that ruling classes, once established, cannot be gotten rid of except by general catastrophe.

    The pieces are all there to create an entirely different world history. For the most part, we’re just too blinded by our prejudices to see the implications. For instance, almost everyone nowadays insists that participatory democracy, or social equality, can work in a small community or activist group, but cannot possibly ‘scale up’ to anything like a city, a region, or a nation-state. But the evidence before our eyes, if we choose to look at it, suggests the opposite. Egalitarian cities, even regional confederacies, are historically quite commonplace. Egalitarian families and households are not. Once the historical verdict is in, we will see that the most painful loss of human freedoms began at the small scale – the level of gender relations, age groups, and domestic servitude – the kind of relationships that contain at once the greatest intimacy and the deepest forms of structural violence. If we really want to understand how it first became acceptable for some to turn wealth into power, and for others to end up being told their needs and lives don’t count, it is here that we should look. Here too, we predict, is where the most difficult work of creating a free society will have to take place.
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