Time to Stop Worshipping Economic Growth There are physical limits to growth on a finite planet. In 1972, the Club of Rome issued their groundbreaking report—Limits to Growth (twelve million copies in thirty-seven languages). The authors predicted that by about 2030, our planet would feel a serious squeeze on natural resources, and they were right on target. In 2009, the Stockholm Resilience Center introduced the concept of planetary boundaries to help the public envision the nature of the challenges posed by limits to growth and physical/biological boundaries. They defined nine boundaries critical to human existence that, if crossed, could generate abrupt or irreversible environmental changes. (Click image for larger view)The global economy must be viewed from a macro-perspective to realize that infringement of the planetary boundaries puts many life support ecosystems in jeopardy. These boundaries apply to the economy because the economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the ecosystems that make life on earth possible.
Recovered Sustainable Means Bunkty to Me 1977 views this month; 1977 overall What? Don’t know what bunkty means? Now you know how I feel about the word “sustainable.” My paper towels separate into smaller segments than they once did. It’s sustainable! I think most would agree that the rapid depletion we currently witness in natural resources and services, climate stability, water availability, soil quality, and fisheries—to name a few—suggests that we do not live sustainably at present. Sustainability, in Numbers I have made the case in the past that growth—either in physical measures like population, energy use, etc., or in economic terms—cannot continue indefinitely in our finite world. If we think about the fact that growth must one day end, we realize that an ultimate steady state would tend to reduce income inequalities. Our dream is that the poor of the world can improve their standard of living toward first-world norms. You may object that Americans don’t eat five times more food than the average Earthling today.
The economic heresy of Herman Daly If economics is a religion, the World Bank is perhaps its grandest church. For the last half century, the venerable institution at 1818 H Street in Washington, D.C., has been dispatching its missionaries around the globe, spreading the theology of the free market to the heathens. And if economics is a religion, Herman Daly is its arch-heretic, a member of the high priesthood turned renegade. From 1988 to 1994, Daly was the World Bank’s senior environmental economist, a lonely voice of dissent in an organization that frowns on unbelievers. During his six-year tenure, Daly, the economist-turned-ecovisionary whose works established ecological economics as a discipline, succeeded in getting the World Bank to take notice of the environment in its policies and programs. At last, frustrated with the institution’s unwieldy bureaucracy and antiquated policies, he resigned. It was Daly’s parting shot not only at the World Bank, but at the entire edifice of neoclassical economics. Don’t Bank on It
Exponential Economist Meets Finite Physicist [slimstat f='count' w='ip' lf='resource contains economist'] views this month; [slimstat f='count' w='ip' lf='strtotime equals 2011-07-01|interval equals -1'] overall Some while back, I found myself sitting next to an accomplished economics professor at a dinner event. Shortly after pleasantries, I said to him, “economic growth cannot continue indefinitely,” just to see where things would go. It was a lively and informative conversation. I was somewhat alarmed by the disconnect between economic theory and physical constraints—not for the first time, but here it was up-close and personal. Cast of characters: Physicist, played by me; Economist, played by an established economics professor from a prestigious institution. Note: because I have a better retention of my own thoughts than those of my conversational companion, this recreation is lopsided to represent my own points/words. Act One: Bread and Butter Physicist: Hi, I’m Tom. Economist: Hi Tom, I’m [ahem..cough]. Total U.S.
Review of Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development, by Herman Daly Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development. Herman E. Daly. 253 pp. Although I've never met him, I must admit: economist Herman Daly has had a big impact on my life. Student-initiated seminars (like most forms of activism) were rare at Princeton University at the time, but our goals were ambitious: to uncover the limits of growth economies, from the Soviet to the U.S. model. In spring 1981, Isles was born. Beyond the quixotic story of Isles' founding, why should Daly's work be important to community builders? What is the goal of the economy? As a former economist at the World Bank, Daly takes them head on in Beyond Growth with reasoned arguments and increasingly intellectual elegance. Daly clarifies that the economy is only a subset of the larger environment. Daly is the grandfather of steady state economic theory (increasingly called environmental economics). If growth is not going to lift us out of poverty, what will? Perhaps Daly's message is working.
Galactic-Scale Energy Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we have seen an impressive and sustained growth in the scale of energy consumption by human civilization. Plotting data from the Energy Information Agency on U.S. energy use since 1650 ( 1635-1945 , 1949-2009 , including wood, biomass, fossil fuels, hydro, nuclear, etc.) shows a remarkably steady growth trajectory, characterized by an annual growth rate of 2.9% (see figure). It is important to understand the future trajectory of energy growth because governments and organizations everywhere make assumptions based on the expectation that the growth trend will continue as it has for centuries—and a look at the figure suggests that this is a perfectly reasonable assumption. (See this update for nuances.) Total U.S. Growth has become such a mainstay of our existence that we take its continuation as a given. This post provides a striking example of the impossibility of continued growth at current rates—even within familiar timescales.
Ecological economics Ecological economics/eco-economics refers to both a transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary field of academic research that aims to address the interdependence and coevolution of human economies and natural ecosystems over time and space. It is distinguished from environmental economics, which is the mainstream economic analysis of the environment, by its treatment of the economy as a subsystem of the ecosystem and its emphasis upon preserving natural capital. One survey of German economists found that ecological and environmental economics are different schools of economic thought, with ecological economists emphasizing strong sustainability and rejecting the proposition that natural capital can be substituted by human-made capital. Ecological economics was founded as a modern movement in the works of and interactions between various European and American academics (see the section on history and development below). History and development Nature and ecology
Growth thumbnail from NYT As a rejoinder to my piece a couple weeks ago (not really), the New York Times published an article on population growth, and why we need not worry. The problem—and solution—is all in our head. The bottom line was that we have always transformed our ecosystem to provide what we need, and in so doing have pushed the carrying capacity along with our growing population. Clearly there is a misunderstanding, but I’ll side with the natural scientists, naturally. Continue reading Sometimes considered a taboo subject, the issue of population runs as an undercurrent in virtually all discussions of modern challenges. The subject is taboo for a few reasons. Recently, participating in a panel discussion in front of a room full of physics educators, I made the simple statement that “surplus energy grows babies.” So in the spirit of looking at the numbers, let’s explore in particular various connections between population and energy. Continue reading Continue reading Continue reading
Can Economic Growth Last? [slimstat f='count' w='ip' lf='resource contains can-economic'] views this month; [slimstat f='count' w='ip' lf='strtotime equals 2011-07-01 | interval equals -1'] overall As we saw in the previous post, the U.S. has expanded its use of energy at a typical rate of 2.9% per year since 1650. We learned that continuation of this energy growth rate in any form of technology leads to a thermal reckoning in just a few hundred years (not the tepid global warming, but boiling skin!). What does this say about the long-term prospects for economic growth, if anything? World economic growth for the previous century, expressed in constant 1990 dollars. The figure at left shows the rate of global economic growth over the last century, as reconstructed by J. The difference between economic and energy growth can be split into efficiency gains—we extract more activity per unit of energy—and “everything else.” Exponential vs. First, let’s address what I mean when I say growth. Potential Gains and Limits
Arithmetic, Population and Energy - 1 - a talk by Al Bartlett