Tag: Rob Dietz

The fantasy of infinite growth

A fascinating and powerful message from CASSE.

(Apologies to all you readers – bit under the cosh at the moment in terms of free thinking time – so have lent on this timely update from CASSE for today.)

From CASSE, the Centre for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy

Why Do So Many People Believe in the Fantasy of Infinite Growth on a Finite Planet?

by Rob Dietz

How do you feel about the economy these days? How about the environment? Do you think we’re sitting in a better spot than we were ten, twenty, or thirty years ago? It’s hard to find folks who are satisfied with either economic or environmental conditions. In the first place, the way we run the economy is producing appalling results. We have a mix of financial fiascos, unacceptable unemployment, and a dismal disparity between the haves and the have-nots. And if you’re not soiling yourself (or at least somewhat concerned) about what’s happening on land, sea and air, then you’re not paying much attention to the omnipresent signs of environmental breakdown.

Each day it becomes more apparent that we are on a misguided mission. Pursuit of perpetual economic growth is not a winning proposition for a lasting prosperity. Building a bigger economy can make sense in some circumstances, but always aiming to build a bigger economy means taking an ever-bigger chunk out of the earth’s ecosystems and the life-support services they provide. Why, then, do so many people believe in the fantasy of infinite growth on a finite planet? Is it because we can’t come up with a better idea? Is it because the rich and powerful have trapped the rest of us in their web of conspiracy? Is it because people are hopelessly greedy and materialistic?

At various times and places we might answer these questions affirmatively, but we can more commonly answer, “No, no, and no.” Putting aside conspiracy theories for the moment, there are three honest (but bogus) reasons why we pursue economic growth past the point of effectiveness and reason.

Bogus Reason #1: We think we have to have economic growth to create jobs.

People, and especially politicians, want jobs. We’ve used the blunt tool of economic growth to create jobs for decades, but do we really need economic growth to have good jobs? It’s true that there are typically more job openings in a growing economy, but there are other, less costly ways to make sure jobs are available. Growth, however, gives corporate elites an easy out. They can point to economic growth as the job creator while doing what they want without considering the impacts of their decisions on jobs.

If jobs are really the priority, then we wouldn’t replace people with machinery. And we wouldn’t eliminate service jobs to shift more and more burden onto people to serve themselves. My friend Chris works as a gas station attendant and provides a valuable service pumping gas for customers. He wouldn’t have a job, however, if he lived elsewhere. He happens to live in Oregon where the law says that only professional attendants can pump gas. In most states, gas station attendants have been replaced by customer labor and credit card readers. This sort of substitution has become commonplace in the name of efficiency — policy makers find it easier (or at least they’ve found it easier in the past) to avoid considering jobs explicitly. Just grow the economy and let Chris find a job elsewhere — that’s just the way it goes if his job is eliminated and the customer is forced to pick up the slack.

The truth is that we can have good jobs without producing and consuming evermore stuff. For starters, we can institute policies to make job-sharing an attainable reality. Many people would gladly trade some salary for more time. We can also stop the process of eliminating jobs through outsourcing and machinery-for-people swaps. Of course stopping this process would require a change in corporate incentives…

Bogus Reason #2: Screwy corporate incentives require growth.

Shareholder corporations are severely flawed. In my household, let’s say my overriding goal is to maximize my earnings. What would I do? I would take the highest paying job I could get. I certainly wouldn’t be involved in public policy or a not-for-profit enterprise. I wouldn’t spend much time with my wife or daughter — that would be time away from my career, and it could eat into my earnings (cue the Cat’s in the Cradle). If the goal is so single-focused, the results aren’t surprising. Profit maximization, whether it occurs in my household or in a corporation, produces perverse outcomes.

We know this about shareholder corporations. We know there are better ways to set up productive enterprises that have more worthy goals, but we don’t make the change. The reason is that we are addicted to two things corporations do well. First, we’re addicted to consumer novelty. We’ve gotta have the latest and greatest. People chase after I-phones, I-pods, I-pads, and plenty of other I-wants. Second, we’re addicted to receiving unearned income from investments in stocks or mutual funds. People who can afford it are invested in corporations. Their personal wealth is tied to the ability of corporations to grow. We’ve become accustomed to the idea of passive investment — we put extra money into an account and do absolutely nothing but watch the size of the account get bigger. Are we really entitled to get something for nothing?

Bogus Reason #3: We refuse to pay attention to the downsides of economic growth.

Few people are studying ecology and understanding how economic growth is degrading environmental resources. In fact, a whopping 21% percent of college students are business majors. And as Dr. Seuss noted in his classic book, The Lorax, “Business is business, and business must grow!” While we continue to tempt fate by disrupting and dismantling natural systems that we only partially understand, our attention is locked on the results of reality TV shows, Tiger Woods’s sex life, Jennifer Anniston’s and Justin Bieber’s haircuts, fairytale weddings of figurehead monarchs, and other matters of critical importance.

While we’re failing to pay attention, those who benefit most from growth — the corporate elites — will keep on doing what they do, and they’ll keep on selling it to the rest of us. If we don’t start asking, “why?” real soon, our kids will one day be asking “How did we let this happen?”

Approaches to ‘growth’.

Some thought-provoking articles on the need, or otherwise, of continued growth.

Intellectually, most people, if they stopped and thought about it, would not challenge the absurdity of the notion that a finite rock in space, Planet Earth, can handle an infinite increase in the demands and resources of that finite planetary body, our home in space!

Yet the reality is very different.  For many complex reasons, way beyond the competencies of this writer to fully explain, we, as in the peoples of Planet Earth, continue to behave as though there are no limits to the resources of this beautiful planet that is home for all of us.

Here are some extracts from some recent items that have passed across my ‘in-box’.

A piece from the CASSE website:

What If We Stopped Fighting for Preservation and Fought Economic Growth Instead?

by Tim Murray

Seriously.

Each time environmentalists rally to defend an endangered habitat, and finally win the battle to designate it as a park “forever,” as Nature Conservancy puts it, the economic growth machine turns to surrounding lands and exploits them ever more intensively, causing more species loss than ever before, putting even more lands under threat. For each acre of land that comes under protection, two acres are developed, and 40% of all species lie outside of parks. Nature Conservancy Canada may indeed have “saved” – at least for now – two million acres, but many more millions have been ruined. And the ruin continues, until, once more, on a dozen other fronts, development comes knocking at the door of a forest, or a marsh or a valley that many hold sacred. Once again, environmentalists, fresh from an earlier conflict, drop everything to rally its defense, and once again, if they are lucky, yet another section of land is declared off-limits to logging, mining and exploration. They are like a fire brigade that never rests, running about, exhausted, trying to extinguish one brush fire after another, year after year, decade after decade, winning battles but losing the war.

Just read again the sentence, “For each acre of land that comes under protection, two acres are developed, and 40% of all species lie outside of parks.” Powerful ideas.

Anyway, do read the article in full and see if it changes your attitude.  Here’s how it ends.

Sir Peter Scott once commented that the World Wildlife Fund would have saved more wildlife it they had dispensed free condoms rather invested in nature reserves. Biodiversity is primarily threatened by human expansion, which may be defined as the potent combination of a growing human population and its growing appetite for resources. Economic growth is the root cause of environmental degradation, and fighting its symptoms is the Labor of Sisyphus.

The next article is from The Christian Science Monitor writing about how scientists are getting a new idea about the rate of loss of polar ice.

The seasonal cooling effect of light-reflecting snow and ice in the Northern Hemisphere may be weakening at twice the rate predicted by climate models, a new study shows, accelerating the impact of global warming.

By Pete Spotts, Staff writer / January 18, 2011

A long-term retreat in snow and ice cover in the Northern Hemisphere is weakening the ability of these seasonal cloaks of white to reflect sunlight back into space and cool global climate, according to a study published this week.

Indeed, over the past 30 years, the cooling effect from this so-called cryosphere – essentially areas covered by snow and ice at least part of the year – appears to have weakened at more than twice the pace projected by global climate models, the research team conducting the work estimates.

This is a well-constructed article, easy to read with obvious conclusions.  Towards the end, the author writes:

Snow appears to have its maximum cooling effect – reflecting the most sunlight back into space – in late spring, as the light strengthens but snow cover is still near its maximum extent for the year. Sea ice in the Arctic Ocean has its biggest effect in June, before its annual summer melt-back accelerates, explains Don Perovich, a researcher at the US Army Corps of Engineers Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Hanover, N.H., and a member of the team reporting the results.

The final article that I want to include is one from the website Foreign Policy. I’m going to take the liberty of reproducing it in full because it strikes me as an extremely intelligent commentary on where mankind is in terms of our attitudes to growth.

Thomas Homer-Dixon
ECONOMIES CAN’T JUST KEEP ON GROWING

Humanity has made great strides over the past 2,000 years, and we often assume that our path, notwithstanding a few bumps along the way, goes ever upward. But we are wrong: Within this century, environmental and resource constraints will likely bring global economic growth to a halt.

Limits on available resources already restrict economic activity in many sectors, though their impact usually goes unacknowledged. Take rare-earth elements — minerals and oxides essential to the manufacture of many technologies. When China recently stopped exporting them, sudden shortages threatened to crimp a wide range of industries. Most commentators believed that the supply crunch would ease once new (or mothballed) rare-earth mines are opened. But such optimism overlooks a fundamental physical reality. As the best bodies of ore are exhausted, miners move on to less concentrated deposits in more difficult natural circumstances. These mines cause more pollution and require more energy. In other words, opening new rare-earth mines outside China will result in staggering environmental impact.

Or consider petroleum, which provides about 40 percent of the world’s commercial energy and more than 95 percent of its transportation energy. Oil companies generally have to work harder to get each new barrel of oil. The amount of energy they receive for each unit of energy they invest in drilling has dropped from 100 to 1 in Texas in the 1930s to about 15 to 1 in the continental United States today. The oil sands in Alberta, Canada, yield a return of only 4 to 1.

Coal and natural gas still have high energy yields. So, as oil becomes harder to get in coming decades, these energy sources will become increasingly vital to the global economy. But they’re fossil fuels, and burning them generates climate-changing carbon dioxide. If the World Bank’s projected rates for global economic growth hold steady, global output will have risen almost tenfold by 2100, to more than $600 trillion in today’s dollars. So even if countries make dramatic reductions in carbon emissions per dollar of GDP, global carbon dioxide emissions will triple from today’s level to more than 90 billion metric tons a year. Scientists tell us that tripling carbon emissions would cause such extreme heat waves, droughts, and storms that farmers would likely find they couldn’t produce the food needed for the world’s projected population of 9 billion people. Indeed, the economic damage caused by such climate change would probably, by itself, halt growth.

Humankind is in a box. For the 2.7 billion people now living on less than $2 a day, economic growth is essential to satisfying the most basic requirements of human dignity. And in much wealthier societies, people need growth to pay off their debts, support liberty, and maintain civil peace. To produce and sustain this growth, they must expend vast amounts of energy. Yet our best energy source — fossil fuel — is the main thing contributing to climate change, and climate change, if unchecked, will halt growth.

We can’t live with growth, and we can’t live without it. This contradiction is humankind’s biggest challenge this century, but as long as conventional wisdom holds that growth can continue forever, it’s a challenge we can’t possibly address.

Thomas Homer-Dixon is the CIGI chair of global systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Canada.

As Rob Dietz of CASSE wrote in a recent email to me, “I’m a big Thomas Homer-Dixon fan.  His book, The Upside of Down, is outstanding.

Economic growth may one day turn out to be a curse rather than a good, and under no conditions can it either lead into freedom or constitute a proof for its existence” Hannah Arendt (1906-1975).

 

Well said, Hannah!

What’s in a song or two?

Trust all Learning from Dogs readers and their families had a wonderful Christmas Day.

Here’s a little distraction, with a serious under-message, courtesy of CASSE.

Top 10 Songs for the Steady State

by Rob Dietz

I have a friend who sees the end of the world coming soon.  When he ponders the limits to economic growth, climate destabilization, and other ecological and economic problems, he tends to fall into a state of malaise.  I understand to some degree where he’s coming from – I’m not one to hide my head in the sand and ignore or deny the profound problems we face.  But given the amount of time that I spend contemplating the limits to growth, I can’t afford to get mired in the swamps of doom and gloom.  The main way I keep a positive perspective is by working to change the root cause (i.e., pursuit of growth everlasting) of our ecological overshoot.  A steady state economy that can meet people’s needs and exist within healthy environmental systems is a truly inspiring idea.

I also do some other things to keep a positive perspective.  For example, I like to play and listen to music regularly.  Music speaks to most of us in a way that no other art form can – we all have special songs that touch our souls.  Before I go any further with this line of thought, I need to provide a brief disclaimer about my musical taste.  I grew up in the 1980s on Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 radio program.

Besides indoctrinating me on some suspect styles, songs and sounds, American Top 40 taught me a lesson.  It demonstrated how fun and addictive countdowns can be.  In the spirit of keeping things light-hearted, I thought it would be interesting to compose a top-ten list of songs with a steady state theme.  In descending order below, I’ve listed the title of the song, the performer, the album on which the song appears, and some choice lyrics.  I’m sure that I’ve missed some good ones, so please feel free to comment on your favorites.  I have also made a YouTube playlist in case you find yourself in a steady state mood.  And now, on with the countdown…

10. The Finest Worksong
R.E.M.
Document
(1987)

Take your instinct by the reins
Your better best to rearrange
What we want and what we need
Has been confused, been confused

9. Can’t Buy Me Love
by The Beatles
(1964)

Say you don’t need no diamond ring and I’ll be satisfied
Tell me that you want the kind of thing that money just can’t buy
I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love

8. Excuse Me Mr.
by Ben Harper
Fight for Your Mind
(1995)

Excuse me Mr.
But isn’t that your oil in the sea
And the pollution in the air Mr.
Whose could that be
So excuse me Mr.
But I’m a mister too
And you’re givin’ Mr. a bad name
Mr. like you

7. All U Can Eat
by Ben Folds
Sunny 16
(2003)

Son, look at all the people in this restaurant
What do you think they weigh
And out the window to the parking lot
At their SUV’s taking all the space
They give no @#%!
They talk as loud as they want
They give @#%!
Just as long as there’s enough for them

6. Nothing but Flowers
by The Talking Heads
Naked (1988)

I miss the honky tonks
Dairy Queens, and 7-Elevens
You got it, you got it
And as things fell apart
Nobody paid much attention
You got it, you got it

5. Paradise
by John Prine
John Prine
(1971)

Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man

4. Fake Plastic Trees
by Radiohead
The Bends
(1995)

She lives with a broken man
A cracked polystyrene man
Who just crumbles and burns
He used to do surgery
For girls in the eighties
But gravity always wins

3.  Big Yellow Taxi
by Joni Mitchell
Ladies of the Canyon
(1970)

They paved paradise and put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique, and a swinging hot spot
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot

2. Society
by Eddie Vedder and Jerry Hannan
Into the Wild
motion picture soundtrack (2007)

It’s a mystery to me
We have a greed with which we have agreed
And you think you have to want more than you need
Until you have it all you won’t be free

1. Imagine
by John Lennon
Imagine
(1971)

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world

Bonus Track:  Corporation Day
by Dan O’Neill, CASSE Director of European Operations