The technological and social change the world needs dwarfs anything that’s come before in history.
we aren’t going to geoengineer our way out of this mess—cutting emissions is our number one priority. But as this new report makes abundantly clear, the disease we’ve unleashed on this planet is only getting worse, and we aren’t doing nearly enough to find the cure.
To correct course and avoid 1.5 C, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, we’ll need to cut emissions by half before 2030, and go carbon-neutral by 2050, the report says. That gives us three decades to transform our energy production into something unrecognizable, with renewable energy galore combined with carbon capture techniques like the bolstering of forests, and maybe even sucking the stuff out of the atmosphere and trapping it underground. We’ll have to change our behavior as individuals, too. Meaning, we’re looking at unprecedented change, what is essentially the restructuring of civilization.
That report says almost explicitly that, starting next Monday, an awfully big lot of people worldwide should really just sit still and smell the roses, consuming as little physical resources as it is possible to do while still living a decent, happy, meaningful life. Deliberately or not, that report is the single biggest argument in favour of real Universal Basic Income (UBI) that I have ever seen. If that report is correct, it has just made UBI just like democracy: paraphrasing someone quoted by Churchill, after that report “UBI is the worst form of economy, except for all those other forms that have been tried”.
Speaking of (digital) buzzwords…
That report is also a death sentence for several things much more related to my main line of work, and a well deserved sentence, in some cases. That report says that:
we may still have stuff like Instagram or Netflix, but on the same smartphone we already have, until it physically falls apart. More generally, we should all:
stop now buying anything electronic, unless it is really, really, really necessary
never buy anything that is deliberately made impossible to repair, even if it comes from the “coolest” company on Earth
only use and tolerate software that does not pollute more than absolutely needed
something like at least 80% of what is currently being marketed as “Internet of Things” (IoT) should simply fade away as quickly as possible. IoT is the new plastic. Stuff like Juicero, or the Tapplock should never go into production.
Community-level Digital DIY, instead, makes even more sense than it already did
the really smart home is the one made in this way
the only “smart cities” worth building are those made with Open Standards, instead of blockchains, just because it’s trendy
none of the bullets above means living worst than today, when it comes to stuff that matters
Scary to see that world wide debt has increased by $57 trillion since the financial crises. Maddening that it would take only $16.5 trillion for the world to meet Paris climate change targets. Infuriating that rich people are hiding $26.5 trillion in offshore accounts, and that the wealth of the 1% is $127 trillion.
2018/sep/26: There may be more bicycles but there will also be more planes. We’re still in denial about the scale of the threat to the planet.
Beyond a certain point, economic growth – the force that lifted people out of poverty, and cured deprivation, squalor and disease – tips us back into those conditions.
how come oil production, for the first time in history, is about to hit 100m barrels a day? How come the oil industry expects demand to climb until the 2030s? How is it that in Germany, whose energy transition (Energiewende) was supposed to be a model for the world, protesters are being beaten up by police as they try to defend the 12,000-year-old Hambacher forest from an opencast mine extracting lignite – the dirtiest form of coal? Why have investments in Canadian tar sands – the dirtiest source of oil – doubled in a year?
The answer is, growth. There may be more electric vehicles on the world’s roads, but there are also more internal combustion engines. Given that economic growth, in nations that are already rich enough to meet the needs of all, requires an increase in pointless consumption, it is hard to see how it can ever be decoupled from the assault on the living planet.
It doesn’t matter how many good things we do: preventing climate breakdown means ceasing to do bad things.
Electric vehicles have driven a new resource rush, particularly for lithium, that is already polluting rivers and trashing precious wild places. Clean growth is as much of an oxymoron as clean coal.
2014/11/14: As the world seeks cleaner power, solar energy capacity has increased sixfold in the past five years. Yet manufacturing all those solar panels, a Tuesday report shows, can have environmental downsides.
Ben Santarris, strategic affairs director for SolarWorld, said his company has made efforts to recycle panels, but the volume isn't there yet. "We have product that's still performing to standard from 1978, so we don't have a big stream," he said. "It is a problem, because on one hand there is an interest in getting ahead of a swelling stream of returning panels. On the other hand, there's not a big market for it right now."
Recycling is particularly important because of the materials used to make panels, said Dustin Mulvaney, an assistant professor of environmental studies at San José State University who serves as a scientific adviser to SVTC. "It would be difficult to find a PV module that does not use at least one rare or precious metal," he said, "because they all have at least silver, tellurium, or indium."
Because recycling is limited, Mulvaney said, those recoverable metals could go to waste: "Companies that are reporting on a quarterly basis, surviving on razor-thin margins—they're not thinking 20, 30 years down the road, where the scarcity issue might actually enter the conversation."
2018/09/21: it is impossible to achieve absolute decoupling of resource use from GDP on a global scale, even with rapid efficiency gains and aggressive taxes on resource extraction. This is the conclusion reached by literally every existing study that has been conducted on the matter (you can follow links to the original research here). The reason is simple: the rate of decoupling is outstripped by the normal rate of GDP growth, even in high-efficiency scenarios. To make matters worse, there are physical limits to resource efficiency, and as we approach them the rate of improvement slows down, giving yet more force to the scale effect of GDP growth.
Unlike resource use, GDP can (thankfully) be dramatically decoupled from carbon emissions. But this solves only one dimension of our ecological poly-crisis. Even if we magically switched to a completely clean and renewable energy system tomorrow, we would be no closer to reversing our overshoot of all the other critical planetary boundaries: biodiversity collapse, chemical loading, deforestation, etc.
What are we going to do with all that clean energy? The same things we’re doing with fossil fuels: raze forests, intensify agricultural extraction, produce mountains of stuff, send waste to landfill – and do all of this at an ever-increasing rate, because our economic system is programmed to require endless expansion.
I have never said that poor countries shouldn’t grow – nor has anyone in this field of study (which Noah would know had he read any of the relevant literature). I have simply said that we can’t continue with aggregate global growth. What we need, then, is a fairer distribution of global income, with much more of it going to poor countries (and poor people within rich countries).
Is it politically impossible? Well, it would certainly require a struggle. But it’s far less impossible than Noah’s preferred alternative, namely, to transcend the laws of physics.
the real cause of lower fertility isn’t higher GDP but rather better girls’ education. GDP is a confounding factor.
While poor countries may need some GDP growth, that should never – for any nation, rich or poor – be the objective as such. The objective should be to improve human well-being: better health, better education, better housing, happiness, etc.
there is no evidence that relying on a switch to services, in and of itself, reduces the material throughput of the global economy.
2'18/09/16: For the past seven decades, GDP growth has stood as the primary economic objective of European nations. But as our economies have grown, so has our negative impact on the environment. We are now exceeding the safe operating space for humanity on this planet, and there is no sign that economic activity is being decoupled from resource use or pollution at anything like the scale required. Today, solving social problems within European nations does not require more growth. It requires a fairer distribution of the income and wealth that we already have.
Growth is also becoming harder to achieve due to declining productivity gains, market saturation, and ecological degradation. If current trends continue, there may be no growth at all in Europe within a decade. Right now the response is to try to fuel growth by issuing more debt, shredding environmental regulations, extending working hours, and cutting social protections. This aggressive pursuit of growth at all costs divides society, creates economic instability, and undermines democracy.
2014/03/24: economic growth has already ended in the sense that the growth that continues is now uneconomic; it costs more than it is worth at the margin and makes us poorer rather than richer.
We still call it economic growth, or simply “growth” in the confused belief that growth must always be economic. I contend that we have reached the economic limit to growth but we don’t know it, and desperately hide the fact by faulty national accounting, because growth is our idol and to stop worshiping it is anathema.
some say that if our empirical measure of growth is GDP, based on voluntary buying and selling of final goods and services in free markets, then that guarantees that growth always consists of goods, not “bads.” The free market does not price bads—but nevertheless bads are inevitably produced as joint products along with goods.
Since bads are unpriced, GDP accounting cannot subtract them—instead it registers the additional production of anti-bads (which do have a price) and counts them as goods. For example, we do not subtract the cost of pollution as a bad, yet we add the value of pollution cleanup as a good. This is asymmetric accounting. In addition we count the consumption of natural capital (depletion of mines, wells, aquifers, forests, fisheries, or topsoil, for instance) as if it were income rather than capital drawdown—a colossal accounting error.
Paradoxically, therefore, GDP, whatever else it may measure, is also the best statistical index we have of the aggregate of pollution, depletion, congestion, and loss of biodiversity. Economist Kenneth Boulding suggested, with tongue only a little bit in cheek, that we relabel it Gross Domestic Cost.
2017/04/24: Economists are very worried about the decline in labor’s share of U.S. national income. One reason they’re concerned is because when less of an economy’s wealth flows to workers, it exacerbates inequality and increases the risk of social instability. But another reason is that this trend throws a wrench in economists’ models. For decades, macroeconomic models assumed that labor and capital took home roughly constant portions of output -- labor got just a bit less than two-thirds of the pie, capital slightly more than one-third. Nowadays it’s more like 60-40.
There are four main theories, each of which falls apart under scrutiny.
2018/03/26: the more we grow, the more we eat away at the web of life on which we all depend.
We have known about this problem for decades now, but we've been told not to worry: As technology improves and becomes more efficient, we'll be able to keep growing the economy while nonetheless reducing our impact on the natural world. The technical term for this is "green growth," which requires absolute decoupling of GDP from material use. According to the theory, we can speed this process along by incentivizing innovation; if we tax carbon emissions and material extraction, we can spur companies to invest in more efficient tech.
Here's the magic number: 50 billion tons. That's how much of the Earth's materials and life forms we can safely use each year. That includes everything from wood to plastic, fish to livestock, minerals to metals: all the physical stuff that we consume. Right now, we're using about 80 billion tons each year-way over the limit. So for growth to be green, we need to somehow get back down to 50 billion tons despite expanding the GDP.
When green growth theory was first proposed, there was no evidence on whether it would actually work-it was purely speculative. But over the past few years, three major studies have set out to examine this question. All have arrived at the same rather troubling conclusion: Even under best-case scenario conditions, absolute decoupling of GDP growth from material use is not possible on a global scale.
Why the bad news? The main reason is that tech innovation just doesn't work the way most of us assume. We know that Moore's law says that chip performance doubles about every two years-but this doesn't apply to material use. There are physical limits to material efficiency, and once we start to reach them then the scale effect of growth drives material use back up in the long run. For instance you might be able to produce a wooden table more efficiently, but you can't produce a table out of nothing. In the end you'll need a minimum amount of wood, and once you reach that limit, then any growth in table production is going to come along with a corresponding growth in wood use.
It would be hard to overstate the impact of these results. Right now, our only plan for dealing with the ecological emergency that's staring us in the face is to hope that tech innovation and green growth will mitigate the coming disaster. Yes, we're going to need all the wizardry we can get-but that alone is not going to be enough. The only real option is in fact much simpler and more obvious: We need to start consuming less.
The Trump administration may find itself amidst serious economic trouble with a steadily increasing federal deficit and national debt. In case Donald Trump is re-elected in 2020 he may have to deal with a $1 trillion deficit and a US debt-to-GDP ratio exceeding 100 percent.
Decades of the government helping the rich are coming home to roost.
In addition to conducting independent research, The Rules provides assistance to anti-inequality campaigns including Ekta Parishad. (Image via Ekta Parishad)The Rules is a worldwide network of activists working to transform the politico-economic structure undergirding global inequality. The network, which actively supports individual social movements while operating as a think tank, advocates radical reform focused on five strategic areas: money, power, secrecy, ideas, and the commons.
Four experts tell the BBC World Service Inquiry programme how the expected doubling of Africa's population by 2050 will affect the continent.
Social scientists have never understood why some countries are more corrupt than others. But the first study that links corruption with wealth could help change that.
JFS Newsletter No.148 (December 2014)
Scientific American is the essential guide to the most awe-inspiring advances in science and technology, explaining how they change our understanding of the world and shape our lives.
MAHARASHTRA, 2010. In a village 130km (80 miles) from Mumbai, the head of a nursery is weighing a child. Four years old, she is just 10kg (22lb), two-thirds of what she should be.
At present, we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it GDP." - Paul Hawken Imagine if a corporation used Gross Domestic Product (GDP) accounting to do its books: it would be
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