Tags: collapse* + growth*

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  1. an endlessly growing population is not sustainable, even if they live like peasants.

    That said, overpopulation is not, in my view, the main driver of planetary collapse today. The main driver is capitalism. The human population has roughly tripled since WWII. But our consumption of resources has multiplied many many times greater than population growth: We use something like 6 times as much steel as in 1950, 15 times as much aluminum, thousands of times more plastic and on and on. That ravenous overconsumption of resources, and its associated pollution, is overwhelmingly driven by the requirements of capitalist reproduction, the ceaseless invention of new needs and so on, not by human reproduction. Yes we need to reduce the human population, if only to give other life forms some space and resources. But there are easy ways to do so without using force like the Chinese government. Instead of building grandiose blingfrastructure and space shots to glorify the Communist Party, China’s so-called communists could have prevented their current overpopulation problem if they had spent that money on providing adequate old age pensions and social security so that peasant farmers don’t have to raise multiple kids in the hopes that one or two will live to support them in their old age. Amazingly, this is still the “social security sytem” for hundreds of millions of Chinese.

    So overpopulation is a real problem. But if we don’t overthrow capitalism, Mother Nature is going to solve the overpopulation problem in a hurry, but in a most unpleasant manner. That’s why I don’t concern myself much with the population problem. I don’t mean to ignore it. But I think its very much a secondary driver compared to capitalism.
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  2. There’s a problem, however. De-growth solves the sustainability challenge by shifting the burden onto a much more challenging issue, which is to design and implement a de-growth economy. Nobody has the slightest hint as to how to render viable a world economy that would be structurally de-growing while ensuring social balance, individual and collective satisfaction, and peace between the large states. Even the slow-growing economy (at a less-than-1% growth rate) that results from my earlier demonstration remains an unsolved challenge, since we still don’t know how to ensure employment, innovation, useful investments, and even democracy at such a low pace of economic growth. Just think back to the social structures and the kinds of international relations that prevailed across the world before industrialization.
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  3. “Material growth must be less, or even considerably less, than 1% per annum (growth rate of global production of each raw material, primary + recycled). The recycling efficiency rate must be greater than 60%, or even 80% (proportion of material contained in waste which is actually recycled). The rate of addition to stocks must be less than 20%, meaning that the economy must discharge as waste at least 80% of the quantities of each material it consumes. The path is narrow and challenging, demanding a strict balance between three fundamental parameters, failing which it would simply become impossible to find a solution to the problem of sustainable management of non-renewable resources.

    … The richer countries therefore, as regards resource management, can and should consider and implement a ‘quasicircular’ growth: an economy with a very low level of material growth, accumulating as little as possible, and therefore proportionally generating a large quantity of waste which is largely recycled.

    … a ‘permanently sustainable’ economy cannot, to be perfectly honest, rely essentially on material growth. … our analysis acknowledges the need » to work on a transition towards a sustainable economy and to set environmental limits on human activity, in the shape not of theoretical criteria, but of criteria related to the economy’s statistical values.”
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  4. Of every dollar of wealth created, 93 cents goes to the top one percent since 1998. You can see why we're told that the only model for any social change is more economic growth, more foreign direct investment, more GDP increase. Very few people benefit from that, but those are the same people who dictate what economic policy and theory is.

    Understanding that every dollar of wealth creates inequality, and every dollar of wealth heats up our planet—because we have a fossil fuels extractive-based system—you realize that there's no way that reforming this current system is going to change the quality of life for the majority of humanity. Quite the opposite. The more we improve the system, the more we're keeping in a vampiric system whose logical outcome will be the destruction of the planet.

    when we start recovering the root causes—we keep on going back, and we say, "The root causes of inequality and poverty and climate change is this brand of capitalism called neoliberalism." Well, what's the root of neoliberalism? The root of neoliberalism is this idea of debt-based currency, and the market determining all aspects of our life. Where does that come from? That comes from our separation from nature, when we became sedentary during the neolithic revolution and stopped trusting the earth to provide for us.

    It also comes from Enlightenment rationalism, the idea that the human mind is the pinnacle of all of evolution, and that we can, using a certain type of Western axiomatic logic, understand everything. The entire world is reduced to the atom, the atom is reduced to the proton, neutron, and electron, and we've figured it all out. What's interesting, when you start looking, is: the root causes are always psychological and spiritual and psychosocial. They're not just economic—of course they're not.

    Economic problems, political problems have roots in a deep-seated humanity. In order to change the world we have to understand where that separation comes from. We also have to find that within ourselves, which is why the anarchist path is essentially the same as the mystical path, whether we want to believe that or not.

    To me, that's the second major lesson in the work. It's related to the third, which is: There's a one percenter in all of us.As the left, as an anarchist, as a revolutionary, as soon as we think that we are somehow holier than our "enemies," I think what happens is we become hubristic, we become moralistic.

    That is a huge blinder for the social justice movement. The benefit of seeing that there's a one percenter in all of us is we understand the primacy of context, we know that in any context we can reproduce this behavior. All the social science points to this, that we're highly contextual beings, whether that's the Good Samaritan studies, or the famous Stanley Milgram experiment where people in a white lab coat tell us to shock someone to death and we will, simply because they appear as an authority figure.

    When we understand the primacy of context, we can organize better. We know what kind of context to argue for, to create, to build, and we can empathize.
    Tags: , , , , by M. Fioretti (2016-03-20)
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  5. Unless some enterprising fracking promoter figures out how to elbow his way to the government feed trough, it’s pretty much a given that fracking will shortly turn back into what it was before the current boom: one of several humdrum technologies used to scrape a little extra oil out from mostly depleted oil fields. That, in turn, leaves the field clear for the next overblown “energy revolution” to be rolled out—and my working ghess is that the focus of this upcoming round of energy hype will be renewable energy resources: specifically, attempts to power the electrical grid with sun and wind.

    In a way, that’s convenient, because we don’t have to wonder whether the two little problems with biofuels and fracking also apply to this application of solar and wind power. That’s already been settled; the research was done quite a while ago, and the answer is yes.

    To begin with, the numbers are just as problematic for solar and wind power as they were for biofuels and fracking. Examples abound: real world experience with large-scale solar electrical generation systems, for example, show dismal net energy returns; the calculations of how much energy can be extracted from wind that have been used to prop up windpower are up to two orders of magnitude too high; more generally, those researchers who have taken the time to crunch the numbers—I’m thinking here especially, though not only, of Tom Murphy’s excellent site Do The Math—have shown over and over again that for reasons rooted in the hardest of hard physics, renewable energy as a source of grid power can’t live up to the sweeping promises made on its behalf.

    Equally, renewables are by no means as environmentally benign as their more enthusiastic promoters claim. It’s true that they don’t dump as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as burning fossil fuels do—and my more perceptive readers may already have noted, by the way, the extent to which talk about the very broad range of environmental blowbacks from modern industrial technologies has been supplanted by a much narrower focus on greenhouse gas-induced anthropogenic global warming, as though this is the only issue that matters—but the technologies needed to turn sun and wind into grid electricity involve very large volumes of rare metals, solvents, plastics, and other industrial products that have substantial carbon footprints of their own.

    And of course there are other problems of the same kind.

    It probably also needs to be pointed out that I’m actually very much in favor of renewable energy technologies, and have discussed their importance repeatedly on this blog. The question I’ve been trying to raise, here and elsewhere, isn’t whether or not sun and wind are useful power sources; the question is whether it’s possible to power industrial civilization with them, and the answer is no.

    That doesn’t mean, in turn, that we’ll just keep powering industrial civilization with fossil fuels, or nuclear power, or what have you. Fossil fuels are running short—as oilmen like to say, depletion never sleeps—and nuclear power is a hopelessly uneconomical white-elephant technology that has never been viable anywhere in the world without massive ongoing government subsidies. Other options? They’ve all been tried, and they don’t work either.

    The point that nearly everyone in the debate is trying to evade is that the collection of extravagant energy-wasting habits that pass for a normal middle class lifestyle these days is, in James Howard Kunstler’s useful phrase, an arrangement without a future. Those habits only became possible in the first place because our species broke into the planet’s supply of stored carbon and burnt through half a billion years of fossil sunlight in a wild three-century-long joyride. Now the needle on the gas gauge is moving inexorably toward that threatening letter E, and the joyride is over. It really is as simple as that.
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  6. It could end well or it could end badly, depending on how we act now.

    To understand the argument, the first thing we need is a bit of context. So before the robots take over, let’s look at how we got to where we are.

    The material conditions of what we in a country like Australia, (or the US, or Iceland) think of as a normal, decent life, are largely an artefact of a particular set of social and economic circumstances that arose in the West from about the end of World War II. The hours we work, the money we earn, the things we can do with that money, the age at which we retire — the very notion of ‘retirement’ — the services that we expect from our government, were, by and large, formed within this period.

    Broadly, those circumstances are: a manufacturing-based economy that directly and indirectly employed large numbers of skilled and unskilled people in such a way that they were able to enjoy a reasonable level of financial security and had the means to afford a given standard of material comfort.

    All of this was underpinned by a welfare state in which government managed the major risks and needs associated with an economy based on capitalist growth. Health and education, financial support when you were unable to get work, and an income when you retired were its major pillars, and these were not “entitlements” as it is now fashionable to label them, but the material expression of what most citizens saw as the whole point of government.

    This had nothing to do with any particular affection for government per se, let alone with a national commitment to collectivism. It was rather the practical realisation of a belief in positive personal freedom. It held that there is such a thing as society and we are all better off, and freer, when the state aims at some basic level of equality of opportunity and outcome.

    Growing prosperity brought with it challenges to key social institutions and practices. As the writer Ellen Willis has said, the sixties were mythical but they were also consequential. They launched genuine changes to notions of family, religion, women’s role, race, and recreation, (especially as the latter related to drug taking). Willis notes:

    The expansion of the American economy after World War II produced two decades of unprecedented prosperity, which allowed masses of people unprecedented latitude in making choices about how to live….

    As a result a growing minority — particularly among the children of the upper middle class — felt free to question the dominant social arrangements, to experiment and take risks, to extend student life with its essentially bohemian values into adulthood rather than graduate to professional jobs, nuclear families, and the suburbs….

    What most counterculture opposition to capitalism amounted to was this minority’s anger at the majority for refusing to make the same choice.

    This “liberation” was always contested, especially by those who had the most to lose from the new, freer social arrangements. But it took a halt in the growth of economic prosperity to allow the forces of conservatism to push back with any force. That is to say, the backlash against “the sixties” and the liberation it represented were in part driven by the sort of white, male privilege that drives much of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s current social agenda, but it was also tied to the retreat of prosperity.

    As ever, as economic circumstances changed, so too did social relations. As industry globalised, a professional layer of managers and technocrats arose, a group Milovan Dijas and others have called “the new class”, and they insinuated themselves into the heart of these industries. This prosperous strata of managers, because of their professional, international focus, started to weaken, or even break the bonds of commitment between themselves and their countries of origin. Why, they asked, should I pay taxes for services I don’t use (health education, transport et al) in a country where my roots are shallow?

    By the time of Reagan and Thatcher, and in Australia, of Hawke and Keating, government itself was being redefined as the problem. We were being told there was no such thing as society and that freedom equated to choice in a marketplace. Industry regulations, unionisation, government ownership and the services government provided were recast as dead weights upon the alleged entrepreneurial hand of business and the alleged aspirational values of the middle class. A narrative was born — or more accurately, reanimated — and it was powerful, sweeping up not just the conservative parties of the world, but those of the centre-left too. Indeed, for those on the left who had eschewed the notion of living in or raising traditional families, and who had abandoned religion as any sort of unifying social force, work itself became the lingua franca of middle-class acceptability. The obvious ties between the centre-left of politics and the labour movement reinforced the tendency to latch onto work and employment as a unifying mantra. In recent times, this was particularly noticeable in the person of former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard, who, along with education, elevated work to the top of her list of personal values:

    …I believe in the importance of hard work; the obligation that we all owe to ourselves and others, to earn our keep and do our best.

    Life is given direction and purpose by work. Without work there is corrosive aimlessness. With the loss of work comes a loss of dignity.

    Market, market uber alles became the chant. With it came a rebirth of the sixties counter-culture, but this time it was firmly lodged within a market and consumption framework.

    What we have been living through since about the seventies, then, is a massive realignment of the philosophical and material conditions of Western civilisation. To call this a transition period is to presume that there is some sort of end in sight, that there is some sort of rest point looming, a settlement where the questions posed by the present are answered. I doubt very much that it makes sense to think in those terms. It is transition all the way down.

    And the nature of the transition is structural; that is, the changes that are happening are built into the very fabric of how wealth is created and how work is done, and it is this fact that we have to get through our heads.

    This is why what is to come is different to what has happened before. The worldwide economic stagnation flowing from the 2007 global financial crisis is not simply another trough in the usual economic cycle, but a break from what has gone before, from what we think of as “normal”. The essence of the way we construct work — the sort of paying work that underpins all our discussions and presumptions about “standards of living” — is fundamentally changing. In part this is to do with the shift in wealth creation from manufacturing-type industries to finance and technology — neither of which need much in the way of paid labour.

    given what we are about to go through in terms of automation, robotics and artificial intelligence, the elevation of work to the centre of the centre-left’s philosophy is likely to cause something of an existential crisis.
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  7. Myth 4: The world can decouple economic growth from the use of fossil fuels.

    As ideal as decoupling would be, this is unattainable without radical new technology or nuclear energy (which is usually off the table). How are we supposed to provide electricity for the billions of people who still lack access to reliable energy -- a basic right -- without using carbon? The International Energy Agency predicts that over 75 percent of the world's energy in 2040 will still be provided by fossil fuels. A radical shift to renewables is not feasible in the short-term, given that the rate of renewable energy production per unit of area is significantly smaller than with fossil fuels.

    The one sure way to realistically "decarbonize" the economy is to set policies that directly reduce emissions and take carbon out of the atmosphere. These will impinge on the types of economic growth we take for granted, and also lead to hard policy questions: What should governments support in spite of their use of carbon, and what consumption must be restricted to help "pay" for that? Is it more important to produce electricity for millions of poor, or to allow private car ownership with cheap gasoline?

    So long as we understand economic growth as our only indicator of prosperity, the world will never have a specific plan to reduce emissions. Creating a different indicator -- one that is not reliant on a free ride on carbon -- is the challenge that the developing world must meet. The answer is not in promised but often under-delivered handouts from richer countries.
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  8. We can have it all: that is the promise of our age. We can own every gadget we are capable of imagining – and quite a few that we are not. We can live like monarchs without compromising the Earth’s capacity to sustain us. The promise that makes all this possible is that as economies develop, they become more efficient in their use of resources. In other words, they decouple.

    There are two kinds of decoupling: relative and absolute. Relative decoupling means using less stuff with every unit of economic growth; absolute decoupling means a total reduction in the use of resources, even though the economy continues to grow. Almost all economists believe that decoupling – relative or absolute – is an inexorable feature of economic growth.

    On this notion rests the concept of sustainable development. It sits at the heart of the climate talks in Paris next month and of every other summit on environmental issues. But it appears to be unfounded.

    A paper published earlier this year in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences proposes that even the relative decoupling we claim to have achieved is an artefact of false accounting. It points out that governments and economists have measured our impacts in a way that seems irrational.

    Here’s how the false accounting works. It takes the raw materials we extract in our own countries, adds them to our imports of stuff from other countries, then subtracts our exports, to end up with something called “domestic material consumption”. But by measuring only the products shifted from one nation to another, rather than the raw materials needed to create those products, it greatly underestimates the total use of resources by the rich nations.
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  9. let’s recap what’s happening in China. The Chinese government has been lying about its growth numbers for years. Every year, the Government sets a target for the GDP. And miraculously, at the end of every year, the Government reports that it managed to beat its GDP target with an impressive growth rate of 7 to 10 percent. Economic growth is too important for the Chinese Government to rely on statisticians.

    Traders in New York know that, the IMF knows that, the Fed knows that, everybody knows that. And that’s exactly why stock markets already freaked out after the three-day devaluation of the yuan a couple of weeks ago. We don’t know exactly how well China is doing. Every little sign that says that the Chinese economy isn’t doing as well as expected leads to big market movements.

    So is there any way to know China’s actual economic growth? You can look at steel production numbers for example. As China needs to import most of its iron to produce steel, it can’t lie on these numbers. Steel production has been down 1.3 percent since January. Electricity production is another good indicator. It was up 7.7 percent in 2013, meaning that the country was producing more goods. It’s been up only 1 percent since January 2015.

    And yet, growth is key to China’s current situation. When China became a socialist market economy, the population and the Government sealed a tacit agreement. As long as the standard of living would improve, people wouldn’t interfere with the Government. And it has worked incredibly well so far thanks to low salaries, a huge domestic market and some very smart moves to attract foreign companies.

    But China’s real growth rate is way below 7 percent. Unemployment combined with an aging population is going to become a serious issue as there is no safety net. We are not there yet, but if the standard of living decreases in China, it could mark the beginning of an important transition period.
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  10. can we transition to these renewable energy sources and continue using energy the way we do today? And can we maintain our growth-based consumer economy?
    The answer to both questions is, probably not.

    The industrial sector: Making pig iron—the main ingredient in steel—requires blast furnaces. Making cement requires 100-meter-long kilns that operate at 1500 degrees C. In principle it is possible to produce high heat for these purposes with electricity or giant solar collectors, but nobody does it that way now because it would be much more expensive than burning coal or natural gas. Crucially, current manufacturing processes for building solar panels and wind turbines also depend upon high-temperature industrial processes fueled by oil, coal, and natural gas. Again, alternative ways of producing this heat are feasible in principle—but the result would probably be significantly higher-cost solar and wind power. And there are no demonstration projects to show us just how easy or hard this would be.

    The food sector: Nitrogen fertilizer is currently produced cheaply from natural gas; it could be made using solar or wind-sourced electricity, but that would again entail higher costs. Food products—and the chemical inputs to farming—are currently transported long distances using oil, and farm machinery runs on refined petroleum. It would be possible to grow food without chemical inputs and to re-localize food systems, but this would probably require more farm labor and might result in higher-priced food. Consumers would need to eat more seasonally and reduce their consumption of exotic foods.

    In short, there are far more challenges associated with the energy transition than opportunities. There are potential solutions to all of the problems we have identified. But most of those solutions involve higher costs or reduced system functionality. Moreover, the energy dynamics of the transition itself will pose a challenge: where will the energy come from to build all the solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, electric blast furnaces, and solar cement kilns that we’ll need? Building the fossil-fueled energy producing-and-consuming infrastructure of the modern world has been by far the greatest construction project in human history. It took over a century, and it’s still a work in progress. Now we’ll have to replace most of this vast infrastructure with something different

    the preponderance of research literature supports the conclusion that the all-renewable industrial economy of the future will be less mobile and will produce fewer and more expensive goods. The 20th century industrial world was built on fossil fuels—and in some ways it was built for fossil fuels (as anyone who spends time in American suburban communities can attest). High mobility and the capacity for ever-expanding volumes of industrial production were hallmarks of that waning era. The latter decades of the current century will be shaped by entirely different energy sources, and society will be forced to change in profound ways.

    that implies a nearly complete rethinking of the economy—both its means and its ends
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