Malthus is dead - get over it

Anti-consumerists are sometimes criticised for not practicing what they preach. Buying stuff is sinful – as long as it’s the stuff that other people buy. Frequenting fancy art galleries and organic food stores is not really consumption. That’s different, because… well, because it’s obviously different.

However, in terms of their discussion culture, opponents of economic growth do practice what they preach. The responses to my blog piece on the Steady State Economy (SSE) conference are a case in point. In a conventional discussion, you pick up your opponent’s arguments, and try to refute them. Ideally, this generates (intellectual) surplus value, resulting in growth (of knowledge and understanding). In a steady state discussion, you merely ‘respond’ by reiterating what you have been saying all along. A steady state discussion is thus like a Steady State Economy: it never progresses; it just goes around in circles forever.

Take the response by Sharon Ede from the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy:

 “A few tips for Mr Niemietz:

1. Limits to nature and to growth are a fact. There is only so much planet. Ask an astronaut.”

I’m afraid astronauts have preciously little to contribute on growth issues – you have to look at what people are doing down on planet earth’s surface. Real global GDP today is six times larger than on the day Yuri Gagarin first took off into outer space. This is not because we have discovered five additional planets since then, but because we’re constantly learning to make better use of the one we have. Since Gagarin’s take-off, energy consumption per real dollar of GDP has fallen by well over half in the US alone.

Edewould say that we have merely been granted a temporary period of grace, which has now definitely reached its end. But this is, of course, what doomsayers obsessed with alleged ‘natural limits’ have been claiming for at least 200 years: we have been lucky so far, but this time is different. For true believers like Ede, the failure of previous apocalyptic predictions is not a reason to question their underlying logic:

“Seeking to debunk Malthus and Ehrlich because their predictions have not (yet) manifested […] is arguably a bit of premature congratulation.”

Here, we are presented with an ingenious formula for shielding cherished beliefs against refutability: if anything goes right with the world, don’t cheer – it’s short-lived. If anything goes wrong with the world, integrate it into your mantra of overconsumption and resource depletion, even if it has nothing whatsoever to do with it. Take this statement:

“If Niemietz thinks that Ehrlich missed the mark about ‘prophesying decades of mass starvation in the Third World’, I suggest he familiarises himself with the Millennium Development Goals […]. Just because you are not starving, Mr Niemietz, does not mean many others are not.

There was actually hunger in the world before Ehrlich came along, a lot more than today. Between 1970 and 2000, the share of the world’s population living on less than the real-term equivalent of $2 a day fell from 30% to 11%.

That, needless to say, still corresponds to a huge number of people, and $2 a day is a minimalistic poverty line. But abandoning our prosperity in the name of the SSE community’s false ideology of self-abasement and self-chastisement will not help anybody in the Third World. It will only deprive emerging economies of their major export markets.

Unfortunately, the SSE community is much more appalled by flat screen TVs, mass tourism and big shopping bags than by world poverty.

Brilliant. Let's see if there is an engaged response.
What was interesting about my limited engagement with them was the way they kept identifying problems of scarcity as if I had never come across them. The whole point of economics is to discover means to achieve ends. New means can be discovered through entrepreneurship (as can new ends) but they can also be scarce. Economists spend their (scarce) time trying to deal with problems of scarcity. It is not that we have not thought of the problem of scarcity - we disagree with "steady staters" about how those problems can best be overcome (through both the efficient use of resources that may well be scarce and the discovery of alternatives). So, we are well aquainited with where they are coming from but they seem to have no conception of the purpose of economic science.
"Anti-consumerists are sometimes criticised for not practicing what they preach." I live a frugal life, both to demonstrate to myself and others that it can be done - despite the cultural pressure to do otherwise - and to reduce my carbon footprint etc. (It also brings spiritual rewards of its own. There's no pretentiousness about it.) Perhaps more important is to prepare my kids, by example, for the energy-lean future we are now entering. The phrase "consciencious economic underachiever" suggests this striving for a future, this burgeoning cultural shift, away from money-values. "Real global GDP today is six times larger than on the day Yuri Gagarin first took off" Wondering to what extent the virtual "profits" in, for example, the financial and property sectors is included in your reality. And it is necessary to understand the negative correlation (beyond an income level that has met basic needs) between wealth and happiness, since about 1970 I believe. Together with the corrosive societal effects (for both sides of the tracks) brought about by income inequality. This government has made noises about using new measures of economic wellbeing to better reflect the true "condition" of our society, but I fear it's just rhetoric. "Since Gagarin’s take-off, energy consumption per real dollar of GDP has fallen by well over half in the US alone." Important to note how easy it is for a country like the USA - which even today uses 3 times more energy per-capita than Europe - to make such savings. Aside from the huge economic incentive to do so, they were blessed with the entrepreneurial and technological means to achieve it. I wonder what the global impact of decoupling amounts to... "this is, of course, what doomsayers obsessed with alleged ‘natural limits’ have been claiming for at least 200 years: we have been lucky so far, but this time is different. For true believers like Ede, the failure of previous apocalyptic predictions is not a reason to question their underlying logic" Quite so Kristian. You stay in denial if you must - I'm taking steps to prepare for the transition, with my friends joy and hope. (i.e. I'm not a doomsayer) "if anything goes wrong with the world, integrate it into your mantra of overconsumption and resource depletion" Well, yes. The big one is climate change. If we don't sort out emissions we're condemning our forebears to a potentially uninhabitable planet. We can live without "stuff" - 10K years of civilisation before the industrial revolution - but none of the modern trappings will enable 6.5Bn people to co-habit without a stable climate. "SSE community’s false ideology" My ideology is this. We have a financial system based on banks creating money by usury. The money supply is premised on growth, otherwise there won't be new money to pay the interest. No growth = collapse. The nub of your argument, Kristian, is whether it is possible to continually grow the economy (exponentially) on a planet with finite natural resources. You may genuinely believe - indeed it seems to be your mantra - the objective which the powers-that-be (bankers, politicians, corporations, media) have successfully embedded into the population. But it's undesirable because of the system's failure to separate economic growth from increasing greenhouse gas emissions and energy use. And unachievable because we've reached peak oil and peak debt, coupled with dependence on a planet stressed to the point of collapse by the industrial age. The need for systemic change is urgent. "pick up your opponent’s arguments, and try to refute them"
I am a strong supporter of making a transition to a steady state economy in nations where we are consuming enough (and in many cases, more than enough) to meet our needs. It is not because I am a pessimist or I underestimate the potential of human ingenuity. I'm no Malthusian. I accept that he's dead. I also accept that Julian Simon is dead. It's not about optimism or pessimism -- it's about examining the facts in front of us and figuring out what sort of economy gives us the best chance to live well on this planet without wrecking the place for those who come after us. You have thrown out statistics to support your argument for everlasting growth without examining what they mean. Real GDP is 6 times bigger than it was in 1961. We use half as much energy per dollar of GDP in the U.S. Are we 6 times better off? Are we actually using less energy and polluting less? The answer is a resounding no to both of those questions. I used to be a proponent of economic growth until I began asking difficult questions. Here are three -- please see if you can answer them with something other than insults and blind faith: 1. How can we safely support infinitely increasing consumption and production on a finite planet? 2. After two centuries of rapid economic growth, we still have serious problems with unemployment and poverty, so why is continued growth the answer to these problems? 3. We have unintended consequences of economic growth (e.g., climate change, ecosystem eradication, and increasing disparity between the haves and the have-nots). With these problems becoming more urgent by the day, why are we locked into the strategy of growing the economy larger? Aside from that, I really don't understand some of your attacks on steady staters. You call us frequenters of fancy art galleries and organic food stores. In your last blog entry on this topic, you called us well-to-do professionals who get together to talk about why prosperity is not good for other people. I don't know who you're using to construct this false description of a typical steady stater, but there's not a lot of money or prestige in taking on the growth paradigm. I could make a higher income doing just about anything else. Most of the people involved in promoting a steady state economy volunteer their time and efforts because they want to live in a better, more hopeful world. Your concluding (and, once again, insulting) sentence is flat-out false. We care deeply about poverty -- we just don't think that buying a bunch of luxury goods is the best way to end it.
Malthus will ultimately prove very much alive and very correct in the 21st century. As the UK adds another 11 million people within 20 years, and as the world adds 1 billion every 13 years, we will witness whopping human starvation deaths on a scale exceeding the current rate of 18 million annually worldwide. Beyond Malthus, we're acidifying our oceans, slaughtering our fisheries, poisoning our biosphere, causing the 6th Extinction Session, disrupting weather patterns and losing any quality of life or standard of living for much of the human race. To continue human growth on a finite planet ensures economic, environmental and quality of planet demise and destruction. Anyone that understands the 'exponential growth' equation can figure out the end result of growth on a finite planet. www.albartlett.org will give you an idea of realities we all face. In the end, you can fool Mother Nature for a short spell, but you cannot fool her for the long run. Every species on this planet must and will answer to the limits of carrying capacity. UK already exceeds its ability to feed and warm its current population. It imports much more than it can sustain. It can only get worse for all citizens. And, looking at quality of life, why and what is the point for adding human numbers? I'd love to hear that one from the author of such an inane column based on emotions rather than science. As Dr. Paul Echlich said, "All causes are lost causes without limiting human population." As that 18 million starvation deaths grows to 20, 30 and 40 million annually by mid century, the author will eat his words or try to eat his words to keep alive as Peak Oil, Climate destabilization and other consequences really hit their stride from the human onslaught. FrostyWooldridge.com Author of: American on the Brink: The Next Added 100 Million Americans and 6 continent bicycle traveler. I've already seen what's coming!
As a relatively poor supporter of SSE I would like to say that I do not frequent organic food stores nor do I worry about flat screen tellies : rising inequality-(UK for example); rising unemployment-particularly amongst the young-(see the Middle East and the UK); mass extinctions ; human population and economic growth straining the world's resources are what concern me. Wages/incomes have lost their value in real terms since the 1970s for the bulk of the population in many countries : the US and Uk for example. Free market growth has not addressed this, but relies on an ever increasing pool of casual/poorly paid labour and indebtedness to keep the party going.Wage differentials have soared in the UK and US in the past 30 years. Total world energy and water consumption are rising steadily; food and fuel prices are rising-hitting the poor the hardest. What is so wrong about accepting the need for limits ? What about the rest of the world's inhabitants? (The non-human ones)? Economics needs to address environmental and social justice if it is to become part of a viable future.
The last time I commented on your blog, Mr. Niemietz, your moderator blocked my response from being posted. Not quite the kind of deregulation and liberalism I'd expect from an establishment of your stripe. Despite the temptation, not to mention ample excuse, there was no profanity in my comment, nor anything that would make it stand out as inappropriate. That is, unless it is inappropriate to point out, as I did in my previous (blocked) comment, that you work for an establishment that was set up by a battery chicken farmer who lost his fortune farming endangered green turtles for food, a pirate radio pioneer who shot a man dead and a dues-paid member of the British Eugenics Society. Considering the harsh allegations you level at the Steady State group, it would be best to look to your own house first. The stridence of your declamation as regards the Steady State concept rings slightly of the lady protesting too much. A Conservative-led coalition is pursuing the so-called liberalist policies that you weep for, and yet a group of interested individuals merely suggesting an alternative sees you climbing the walls with vitriolic indignation. Is your ideology so weak, your platform so termite-chewed, that you fear the idea that you may indeed, despite your exhortation to the ghost of Gagarin, live on a planet of spherical and therefore finite nature? You teach economics to people who pay to be educated by you, and yet you are so unshakeably certain of your chosen direction that anything contradictory is treated as a threat. You work for an organisation founded by a eugenicist and a man who shot someone dead and yet you accuse others of misanthropy. You object to the state providing things that the private sector can provide instead. Quite rich for a guy who went to a state university in Berlin. While you were receiving your state education, did you campaign for the university's privatisation? Did you offer to pay what the market would bear rather than what they were charging? When you receive your alumni emails, do you write back in protest that dear old Humboldt has not yet seen the light of liberalism? Wasn't it St. Augustine who said "Give me chastity and give me constancy but do not give it yet"? I believe the German word for that is "Heuchelei". In fact, the only two comments agreeing with your position are from two fellow bloggers for the IEA. I did not realise that your think tank was more of an echo chamber. It is no wonder that you are so convinced of your own rectitude if the only opinions you are truly exposed to without the help of a moderator are those of your colleagues. Your desire to live in a substitutable world filled with fungible objects, not the least of which are humans as per your economic view, is the depressing thing. The reduction of humans as well as all other species and substances to replaceable, interchangeable parts in an impersonal engine that promises everything and delivers nothing but more of itself is the misanthropic stance. Any time that you would like to debate the finer points of your private sector crusade, I am available to meet you on neutral ground for a genuine exchange of ideas. We can record a podcast of the conversation and post it to both our sites simultaneously while we are both present, lest the temptation to fudge the balance of truth with sound editing become too strong in private. I'd love to challenge you face to face rather than through the clearly restrictive filter of your site's moderator. The gauntlet is down. I hope that the legacy of your illustrious farmer/founder has not left you chicken.
It seems like one way of looking at things is extrapolating from trends so far, which I think Kristian is saying. That view would conclude that things always work out pretty well, and should continue to do so. The other way of looking at the world economy is a quantitative or scientist's view, comparing rates of population growth, consumption per capita, resources, etc. That view would conclude, the numbers don't look good for our future. Which is right? Both have some merit. Obviously one can't ignore math. And yet, humanity has an impressive track record of coming up with new feats of ingenuity. On balance though the scientific approach is probably a better way to go. A deciding factor, for me at least, is that the quantitative approach regards the earth as a place with limits (this last point, limits, is where I think Kristian and the late Julian Simon disagree, saying humanity always overcomes limits). A key point is that the quantitative/scientific view dwells on the topic not only of limits for resources, but also limits to the planetary capacity to act as a waste sink for undesired outputs. *That* is where I think we're seeing the first evidence of problems. We're seeing enough problems with the oceans and with climate change to demonstrate that limits to waste sinks do exist. If we accept that limits exist for the planet's waste sinks, it's difficult to assert that no limits exist to the planet's resources. At the very least, if we accept that limits to waste sinks exist, it implies the quantitative/scientific approach has at least half of the equation right. Some hints to the likely answer can be found in tried and true microeconomic theory. I think all economists would agree microeconomics is much more mature than macroeconomic theory. Microeconomic theory of the firm predicts that at some point the benefit of additional units of revenue ("growth") do not cover the additional units of cost, and that is the point at which in a firm needs to put on the brakes and back up to it's optimal point on the long term cost curve (due to limits of the marketplace). That theory of the firm rests on the notion of limits due to the size of the marketplace. Unless limits to planetary waste sinks can be disproven, I fear we'll find that human civilization will ultimately turn out to be a giant "firm" itself and will find that it too has an optimal size, based on a super aggregate long term cost curve of everything we do. At some point humanity's marginal revenue from growth won't cover the marginal cost to waste sink capacity, and growth after that point will be uneconomical at best. On balance I think we'll find that human ingenuity will continue to amaze us on a case by case basis, especially in a crisis, but limits will start to manifest themselves more and more uncomfortably across the board. /
As far as I'm concerned, Paul Ehrlich's prediction has come true. 10 million people per year die of starvation. And I suppose it's true that we haven't bumped up against ultimate natural resource limits--global fisheries are _only_ depleted by about 75%, and we've only lost about 50% of topsoil, and potable water is down 35-50%... of course we can always clean the water, but that takes energy, and oops, according to the International Energy Agency we're past the peak of global oil extraction and production, and peak coal is only about a decade or less away at current usage rates. In one of the latest IEA reports, they say we're running out of time, and point out what orthodox growth economists refuse to consider: "Energy availability underpins economic growth, and without the opportunity for future repayment of debt the financial system as we know it could stop working." Regardless of how good the law of perfect substitutability sounds, technology can't substitute for energy. So, until you can figure out how to overcome the laws of thermodynamics, while we still have some natural resources left to work with, you might want to start considering how we're going to transition from becoming bigger to becoming better. If we humans actually have the innovative spirit growth capitalism (which I do prefer to call economic cannibalism) tends to count on, a steady-state economy is a dynamic economic system that could encourage even more entrepreneurship than what we have now, as we wouldn't be shackled by only doing that which makes someone else a whole lot of financial wealth.
@Mark Pennington: "Brilliant. Let's see if there is an engaged response." That's rich! A proper debate about this would be something of a coup - with the entrenched establishment growth-obsessed position and their/your apparent intent to deny broadening the discussion to a media or public forum. Bring it on... @Philip: "Economists spend their (scarce) time trying to deal with problems of scarcity." Observing the manifest failure of the market economy to deliver on the issue, I wonder if the problem of substitution (for oil) is simply unachievable, or perhaps you've not dedicated enough of your scarce time to it? "no conception of the purpose of economic science. " No conception of the existence more like! The basis of science is hypothesis & controlled experiment: I fail to see how human society can be the object of such an approach.
@Nick, I find your comments rather puzzling but at least they attempt to be constructive. The evidence that you cite regarding wellbeing and income is debated and the debate is not going your way but I accept there are other opinions. whether enforced equality would bring about greater wellbeing is an entirely different matter, of course. But, let's get down to the fundamentals of economics. Economics is not like other sciences. It is not about a few thousand economists sitting down and finding the best way to replace oil; the first thing we have to recognise is the limitations of our knowledge: that is the main argument against central planning and in favour of economic freedom. Following from this, we need an economic system that best deals with the problem of scarcity. It is a matter of scientific prediction beyond the domain of economics whether (say) oil will run out. The economists contribution is to examine what is the best economic system to deal with this problem of scarcity - the market economy or central planning (whether planning for a steady state or planning to develop new technology like Bush and Obama). None of your fellow commentors have even begun to address that issue. Either platitudes are restated (we cannnot have rear infinite life on a finite planet) or abuse is thrown at Kristian. There is a serious debate here. Is a free economy or a centrally controlled economy better for dealing with the problem of scarcity (and does it improve wellbeing and so on...)?
@Philip. "be constructive" certainly. There are firm beliefs on both sides of the debate but it is critical to engage in it (indeed has been ever since the Club of Rome report on limits to growth in 1972). "Is a free economy or a centrally controlled economy better for dealing with the problem of scarcity" I think you're falling into the same political divide as so many bloggers do: the answer is neither, this is not a problem that can be solved it is a predicament to which we can only try to find a least-worse outcome. And while separation of political ideology from the economics debate is necessary, I wonder to what extent the financial system should be brought into question here, because financiers seem to be calling the shots despite my assertion (above) that the incumbent system of loaning money into existence with usury is essentially a ponzi scheme, doomed to fail from first principles.
We cannot find an economic system that deals with the' problem of scarcity' without addressing soaring population growth and consumption : to point this out is not to indulge in platitudes but to state an obvious but widely denied fact. I worry that much free market ideology is actually sliding into dogma with the result that opposing points of view cannot be properly accommodated, hence my recent experience when the author of another blog described SSE theory as :'economically illiterate garbage'. The whole growth-based paradigm is based on Ponziistics, it seems to me. Population growth is outstripping resources, regardless of ideological objections and consumption cannot continue as if there no tomorrow to worry about.
we can certainly bring the financial system into question. I do not have a problem with interest or fractional reserve banking. However, I do have a big problem with government underwriting of financial institutions which is like to seriously distort their activities. Economics (at least Austrian free market economics) certainly looks for least worst outcomes because it assumes human inperfection as the starting point for its justification of a free economy. From theory and evidence the conclusion that we settle on is that a free economy underpinned by private property is the best way to deal with scarcity and all other economic problems - this is not ideology. There is no getting round the need to make choices about policy. In such a free economy people are free to choose alternative "simple" lifestyles and persuade others of their merit if they wish. There may be exceptions and difficult cases (such as carbon dioxide output) because one cannot easily have property rights in the atmosphere and free market economists argue about how best to deal with these difficult cases (and whether government action makes things better or worse). I am not falling into a political divide as if by accident.
@ Nick Watts 1. Living a frugal life I also live what I would call a "frugal life" but one has to wonder exactly what you mean by this? My understanding would be carefully managing my expenditure in order to achieve my desired ends as best as (I believe) I can. For me this means delaying consumption, and enjoyment, until a (much) later date. This is simply a statement of rational human behaviour. However, the term "frugal" is also used to denote asceticism and other ways of living that do not always seem to be rational to me. The fundamental virtue of my position is that, although I disapprove of such lifestyle choices in the sense that I think they are irrational, I do not try to stop anybody from adopting them. Of course, when somebody is convinced that another's lifestyle is hurting them (and their children) it becomes impossible for them to tolerate even parsimony that they do not perceive as being compatible with their own values. I think many of the posters here would feel totally indifferent to the fact that I walk 6 miles a day to work rather than catching the bus in order to save £40 a month, rather than trying to "save the planet". Indeed, a lot of my current behaviour could be explained by reference to the latter though that is emphatically not my motive. 2. GDP With reference to what you are saying about Kristian’s GDP figures being inflated by “excess” or “non-existent” profits, I feel you may be placing far too much emphasis on how much impact they would have here even if they could. I could be wrong here (my formal training has not been in economics) but when we are talking about GDP we are not talking about “money”, we are talking about total real wealth for a given region and time. We measure it in terms of money so that we can understand it. We are really talking about things like property, factories, plant (and I assume IP and other intangibles). When we think about this in terms of productive potential we can see that we can achieve much more with the same resources today than we could in the past. We get more work done because we get the same work done at a faster rate. Today I do the same work in a day as at least three people thirty years ago because I can utilise a cheap laptop and printer to do multiple tasks more efficiently and with less waste. I realise there are environmental “costs” associated with the industries and research necessary to achieve that laptop in the first place, but consider the saving I make every time I send an email rather than printing off a letter, putting it in an envelope, maybe using pins and other stationery and postage. Also consider the man hours saved that could be used elsewhere, producing cheap food or clothing for example? 3. You said “Aside from the huge economic incentive to do so, they were blessed with the entrepreneurial and technological means to achieve it.” This really needs to be broken down into at least two parts: (i) Don’t forget that threats are also an incentive, i.e. the threat represented by every other actual and potential competing firm in the market. If they can make a more efficient product, that is going to alter the way that the market is structured in the long run. Look at the efficiency of the internal combusition engine, even before government regulation. (ii) Concerning Americans being “blessed” with the relevant entrepreneurial and technological means, this is just plain wrong. America is in a relatively advanced state and so can find cleaner and more efficient ways of satisfying the same desires and needs. But even this position would be nothing whatsoever compared with the position they would be in fifty years from now if allowed to grow. It is an integral part of economic growth that better solutions are found to problems through a process of trial and error that cannot be conceived of fully in advance. The most promising avenues may turn out to be fruitless and research in a completely different area may yield the most beneficial results in the long run. 4. You said “We have a financial system based on banks creating money by usury.” I completely disagree with what you have said concerning ursury (and I assume you therefore have never taken out a mortgage or used finance and that you will pay for your childrens’ university educations in full without loans) but that isn’t even that bottom of the matter. You seem to imply that the driving force of the economy is the financial sector which creates wealth (money, as you call it). This is not true. The role the financial sector plays is primarily in creating opportunities for the real economy to grow (through loans, capital markets etc.), it is not the driving force itself. Despite all of this I would adopt your motive and method of saving the planet if you could convince me of two things: (i) that it needs to be saved; and (ii) that I need to adopt your lifestyle in order to best effect this.
Philip, "economics is not like other sciences" because economics is not a science. It is a social science. The reliance on mathematical modelling notwithstanding, a social science is not a sound basis on which to orient an entire society's (or for that matter, world's) paradigm. The fact that economics has managed to sell itself as a science does not make it so. To quote Abraham Lincoln: "How many legs does a dog have? Four. If you call the tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have? Four." Furthermore, I can only shrug at your reductive, binary polarisation of market possibilities into "free" or "centrally controlled". Not only are those simply two of a number of possibilities, but the Orwellian pretzel into which you form the terms ignores the very concept of what a society is and whom it is supposed to benefit. Your choice of the phrase "enforced equality" is curious, to say the least. I would merely point out that there is a difference between allowing a battered wife a turn at beating her husband and simply stopping the brute from injuring her to begin with. I'm sure the husband would have pretty strong sentiments against being stopped or in fact beaten himself, especially if every time he hit his wife, she coughed up a gold coin. Which freedom is more conducive to the social interest, that the husband be allowed his coin even if in the process he beats his wife, or that the wife be free from beating at the cost of her husband's financial gain? To run with the metaphor, your straw man argument is that if Steady Staters are against wife-beating, then they are against marriage. With all the central planning necessary to stop the beating, you suggest, marriage would also be discarded. In fact, goes your logic, as long as the wife keeps coughing up the coin, it is wrong to stop the husband from beating her to extract it, since that coin does so much good once the poor woman has spat it out. Why do the Steady Staters hate good and marriage and husbands when clearly none of those things are bad? How can they say that all husbands must suffer because of the brutality of a few? Who could be so misled? I fear that I have arthritis from contorting to follow your logic. Needless to say, legislating against spousal battery does nothing to undermine the sanctity of marriage. If a husband feels that not being allowed to beat his wife limits his options and means he cannot conduct his marriage with the freedom he desires, he needs therapy, not freedom. Any husband that does not engage in battery is not somehow left less free, the wives of the world are protected under the law from excesses that should be avoided and the world continues to turn. "we need an economic system that best deals with the problem of scarcity." - I couldn't possibly agree more. "It is a matter of scientific prediction beyond the domain of economics whether (say) oil will run out." - Actually, the very fact that you refer to oil as running out shows that you don't understand the issue of peak oil. I'm afraid that in this instance you have brought a knife to a gunfight. As to your call for a serious debate, it echoes my own. Name the date and the venue and I'll bring the beer. We might need to stock up on fire extinguishers lest all your straw catch fire, though. Make sure to invite Augustine Heuchler too.
@Nick Watts: "I live a frugal life, both to demonstrate to myself and others that it can be done [...] It also brings spiritual rewards of its own". Terrific if this lifestyle choice works so well for you. But why do you want the government to "persuade" others to live like you? Everybody is free to try and emulate your lifestyle already, and see whether it works for them. Just as it is good to have competition between different beer brands, it is good to have competing conceptions of the 'good life'. It would be quite bad if the government started favouring one beer brand through selective subsidies and/or regulation, wouldn't it? "it is necessary to understand the negative correlation (beyond an income level that has met basic needs) between wealth and happiness." That's just empirically wrong. Look here: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_sAacAghf6h0/S-_2vEQg_7I/AAAAAAAAAR0/2hP97R_zoU... And I don't think climate change is a problem at all. The generations which will be affected will be a lot wealthier and technologically sophisticated than we are. They will easily be able to cope with its consequences, and probably laugh about how hysterical their ancestors were about what will be a negligible problem for them. @Rob Dietz and Anonymous: Nobody is denying that you can simultaneously have a growing economy and all sorts of social problems (e.g. youth unemployment). But the fact that economic growth does not automatically solve all social problems does not imply that abolishing economic growth will solve them. What it shows, instead, is that we also need to sort out our labour market institutions, welfare system, and a host of other things. Just look around, this blog is full of pieces addressing all these concerns. Whether you agree with the answers is of course a different matter. @Mike Freedman: "Wasn't it St. Augustine who said 'Give me chastity and give me constancy, but do not give it yet'? I believe the German word for that is 'Heuchelei'." A page-long comment, and not a single word addressing the piece above. The German word for that is "Platzverschwendung". @Cole Thompson Not at all. Extrapolating is what the extraterrestrial who lands at a beach during the onset of a flood does. He calculates that if water levels continue to rise at the rate he observes, then within two days the nearby village will be flooded, in three months the whole country will be, and in two years the whole planet. The opposite approach is to look at the mechanism behind what we observe, because that's what will tell you that the flood will only last for a few hours. Approaching markets with the logic of the extraterrestrial will almost always produce catastrophic predictions. Markets are dynamic; they are in disequilibrium all the time. And yet where property rights are firmly established (and in cases like fishery, they are clearly not!), we do not usually observe sudden shortages and disasters. Why not? Are we just lucky, "temporarily"? Or is there a reason? More on the rest later.
By definition Malthus will be right....sometime. If population growth is maintained at current levels there will be 1 human per square metre of land in 300 years and the mass of humans will equal that of earth in 700. Neither will happen. Despite fanciful calculations about energy consumption per capita, gross energy consumption grows every year. Jevons paradox ensures that is the case. The problem now is that energy consumption cannot grow. There are no substitutes that can scale in both volume and time and so our energy dilemma threatens the entire world order. I have no idea how it will unfold or what will happen. BAU growth is finished and the chaos in the Middle East is just another pointer to what is happening. It does require one to ditch old stereotypes and to think more broadly. Read some work from other economists: Daly, Rubin and Charles Hall all spring to mind.
Most of the SSE people here seem to keep on about how 'the world is finite'. However this is not the only planet out there, are lots of resources in the solar system which will probably become economical to access in the next century. Plus as others have already said energy and know how can overcome most potential shortages (I think it was a Larry Niven story which said 'any chemical reaction can be reversed with enough energy, anyone remember the episode of James' May's Big idea with the guys in Arizona using solar power to pull CO2 out of the air, and produce gasoline). I'm siding with the optimists on this one
Population Armageddon nears By Donald Collins Sunday, February 27, 2011 http://pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/opinion/print_724692.html My wife Sally and I attended a Washington luncheon on Feb. 19 in the offices of Population Services International (PSI) to hear the views of Richard Ottaway, a member of the British Parliament. He presented a litany of troubling statistics about population growth and its effect on the world's welfare. Ottaway heads a valuable parliamentary committee that gives the overpopulation question strong visibility in Britain. His interest was instigated, in part, by two distinguished family planning professionals -- Martha Campbell, head of Venture Strategies at the University of California, Berkeley, and her husband, Dr. D. Malcolm Potts, U.C. Berkeley's international family planning professor. Another participant, PSI founder Philip Harvey, discussed decades of progress in providing family planning globally. Harvey, now president of contraception marketer DKT International, felt we advocates often have been too hard on ourselves for not doing better, given these efforts have lowered births per woman worldwide. Nonetheless, as Ottaway noted, a population increase from 2 billion in 1930 to almost 7 billion today means that there are more net new humans currently being added daily to our planet (about 219,000 net new humans) than when birth control PILL was first FDA-approved in 1960 (100,000-plus net more people). This demographic reality virtually ensures another 2 billion to 3 billion people will be added to the total number in this century because of the increased numbers of young people entering their reproductive years. Why has this glaring fact gained such little notice by too many world leaders? Richard Benedick, former U.S. ambassador for population affairs in the State Department in the 1980s, noted that because of the failure of world leaders to act decisively on population growth, it will require a major global-level catastrophe to provide an effective wake-up call about curbing population growth. Upheavals already are occurring regularly. While unemployment and lack of food in Egypt are cited as major causes of unrest, population growth is not often cited enough as the root cause. Benedick predicted that our planet now has moved very close to that global tipping point where any number of various disasters could trigger a catastrophic crisis affecting us all. The triggers for such a future are multiple. Food seems to be a major main reason for the current ripple of Middle East rioting. These worldwide pressures lead Benedick to opine that the tipping point to Armageddon might well be soon. Obviously, such predictions are uncertain and shouldn't stop serious agencies such as PSI from avidly pursuing their family planning goals, even though our own House of Representatives has been recently overstocked with neo-Neanderthals who fail to connect the dots on denying women access to contraception and this looming crisis. Defunding Planned Parenthood is akin to denying that sex never produces results unwanted by women. A trip last November to Cambodia revealed that medical pills are now being widely offered to women who wish to terminate their early pregnancies so they do not have to go to clinics for surgical removals. These products give women unprecedented fertility control. None of the great work by Phil Harvey's DKT and others, including PSI, should stop. Now new options for permanent infertility are in the pipeline. Indeed, everything that can be done now should be urgently pursued, not cut from the federal budget for strictly ideological and political reasons. But the hour is late and these efforts might not be in time to avert the tragedies that await our plundered planet. Donald Collins,co-chair of the National Advisory Board of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, is a freelance writer living in Washington, DC.
For me at least one thing is clear. There are still too many whose frame of reference or world-view not only tolerates but depends upon the externalization of costs; and they appear not to have yet noticed the serious degradation / alterations of their own environs, much less that of the global biosphere. Nor with it, the unraveling of many threads of the ecosystems with which we're interdependent. So I see little chance of any constructive dialogue with them. At any rate, when the nature of the 'debate" is needlessly constrained into one of false choices among economic systems - a constraint that is itself ignorant of the inter-dependencies of economic systems with others - there can be no real debate. With atmospheric carbon levels where they are and where they are trending; with observed global climate changes fairly closely matching expectations, with population gains on track to outpace energy efficiency gains; with sea level rises already significantly noted in many places (take Newport, Virginia as just a minor example); with global fisheries already significantly depleted and ocean habitats threatened around the globe; it is clear to even the marginally science-literate that infinite growth - certainly of population and consumption- is a logical impossibility. Predicting with any degree of certitude a precise outcome at a precise time - that's certainly not in my power. But call it a case of seeing the glass half-empty, if you like, I take issue with the suggestion that trends are "favorable" for maintaining a status quo, growth-dependent political economy. Of course, it depends on what trends one chooses to observe and which to ignore. But the prevalence of so many negative indicators - at the biosphere level, at the public health level, at the level of human interactions generally, among others - suggests to me that the dominant paradigm isn't "working". At least not if by "working" we mean yielding health conditions for people, their culture and institutions, and the other living species on the planet. The faith in the unlimited ability of technology and the marketplace to solve such issues is so much like a religious certainty that simply will not; can not yield to the facts; no matter how many nor how obvious to others. The very survival of this paradigm depends on its holders' ability to externalize, wall off and ignore such inconvenient realities, just as the political-economic systems they defend have so long and up-till-now neatly externalized such things as pollution, a rapid loss of biodiversity, climate effects, human health impacts and their costs, the human and economic costs of warfare, destabilizing national debts, etc.
Submitted by Mark Pennington on Mon, 28/02/2011 - 12:13. "Brilliant. Let's see if there is an engaged response." I guess not.
@RogerH You say that the worldview of some -presumably you mean the IEA - depends on 'externalising costs'. If you have any familiarity with IEA publications over the years, or many others by academic economists in peer-reviewed journals who subscribe to market/property rights solutions ( the most recent of which would be the 2009 Nobel Laureate, Elinor Ostrom), then you should recognise that they are concerned precisely with devising institutional structures - such as specifying property rights - in order that externalities can be 'internalised'. Many of the resources that are indeed 'running out' such as fisheries are precisely those where there are no private property rights, or shared property rights (such as in a cooperative) and where instead resources are in an 'open access' state. In the case of fisheries there are viable ways of establishing property rights (look at the tradeable quota models in Iceland and New Zealand which have resulted in significant improvement in fish stocks) - but often the possibility of moving towards such solutions has been thwarted by an environmentalist ideology which resists any proposals which smack of 'marketisation'. It is certainly true that there are some environmental problems where market solutions may not be viable - climate change being a case in point - though it is not clear that there is any viable non-market solution to this problem either. It is, however, patent nonsense to imply that people who advocate market solutions are oblivious of the need to internalise costs. Mark Pennington
@RogerH - just to back up anonymous: almost everything you say is the opposite of what IEA authors write about. One of the crucial features about private property is that it internalises costs - I cannot come and knock your house wall down; if I do, I pay. If nobody owns the wall then I can knock it down. Private property provides a domain in which you can operate but also a domain in which others cannot operate. It also provides a framework in which resources can be put to their most efficient use (ie produce at least cost in terms of resources). We expect Elinor Ostrom to be giving our 2012 Hayek lecture by the way. You might argue that property rights solutions to environmental problems cannot easily be achieved in particular circumstances and that, in your judgement, some problems are so urgent and costs imposed on others so great, we have to take a different approach but that is an entirely different line of argument. You can also argue that there are some cases where private property will be exploited in a way that you would prefer not to happen (eg peat bogs being dug up for potting compost). Again, there are property rights solutions to these problems (eg the RSPB could buy negotiate a restrictive covenant). Some of those solutions might be costly (in terms of transactions costs) or give rise to collective action problems but they are worth exploring because of the alternative (the man in Whitehall imposing a regulation) has its downsides too.
Andy - get back to us on this when NASA can launch a rocket without it crashing. Even without pondering the EROEI of this approach, it is doubtful that we can even seriously consider this given the time frame we are working to, as we have created a massive energy bubble that is going to burst as per Saildog's comment: 'There are no substitutes that can scale in both volume and time and so our energy dilemma threatens the entire world order.' Also recommend reading Ben Elton's book 'Stark - especially the last line.
@ Maggie- it doesn't take a NASA anymore, look up SpaceX, XCOR and Virgin Galactic. As with every new technology price will decrease rapidly with economies of scale. It will probably take something like a space elevator to make large scale importation of resources viable, though what is more likely IMO is heavy industry and energy production will move off world (added bonus in ending industrial waste + pollution problems) As for energy, personally I reckon solar (Ray Kurzweil recons we are 20 years from it being cheaper than fossil fuels and scalable to supplier global needs, see here: http://www.livescience.com/4824-solar-power-rule-20-years-futurists.html), nuke fission, geothermal, tidal etc combined will suffice to keep the lights on. I remember seeing the TV version of Stark years ago; to put it politely I won't take economics advice from a leftist demagogue like Ben Elton
Apologies for the length of the following but complexity is not so easily reduced to slogans. Though I've not been a regular reader of IEA, I'm certainly well aware of the views of both "free marketers" (a misnomer for reasons I'll shortly explain) and "property rightists", as I live not far from the center of the U.S. "property rights" movement... the formerly-Wild American West. Out here, though it is a life-essential for all living beings, water is not considered part of the public commons, but rather a private property, with its own markets. The first people to actually take it out of the rivers and put it to "beneficial" use (i.e. any use other than leaving it in a river for fish habitat, etc.) got to claim it as their property, entitling them to use that amount in perpetuity or to sell it to the highest bidder. Now, once-upon-a-time, that might not have been too much of a problem...because heck, there was still plenty of water left to go around. But it didn't take very long, certainly in bio- or geological time, for populations to grow to a point where they are today. (Pop. growth has averaged 3% / yr for decades where I live.) Given that growth, and the added pressure of profiteering in the water market, most western rivers are threatened, many are now over-appropriated; and some rivers (like the Colorado) dry up and disappear before they hit the border. As a partial result, native species of fish have been mostly extinguished, and each new planned diversion (heavily pushed both by real estate developers and water rights marketeers) pushes the remaining rivers to the brink of ecological ruin. This is not simply philosophical rhetoric but disturbing fact. In reasonable space, I can't possibly discuss the examples with any degree of detail, but one needn't go into those for one to understand that rivers are themselves essential parts of vast and complex ecosystems, with very many "component parts" (to use a reductionist phrase); and many of those "parts" are individually threatened, and the web itself quite stressed. And this doesn't begin to touch on the tricky question of what are considered "non-economic" factors. What's the value (emotional/psychic/spiritual/social) of having a river to sit by, fish to catch (perhaps), etc....compared to having a mostly dry "ditch"? How does the market work for this? Ok, that's just one example of privatization of the public commons, which some seem to advocate. There are numerous others. "But wait", you might say; "...the newly created problem of turning water into a private commodity can be solved by creating private property rights for all the OTHER things that depend on rivers for health (the micro-biota, the fish, the birds, the insects, the flora, etc.) " The reason this won't work (aside from any ethical problems the public might have with this) is that first off, as I implied above, nature "consists of" networks -within networks of vastly complex systems, of which we understand in some cases only small fraction of the "parts". It would be supremely arrogant to suggest we could identify, quantify and appropriately value all of those "parts". And that's just talking about the "resources"...what about all the "sinks"? Will you advocate also then privatizing air? Groundwater? And speaking about groundwater, this touches on another problem. We already treat land as property. What if I build a chemical plant nearby, the tanks leak, unseen, into the soil. Your family, drinks as always from the family well, exercising its property right. Over a few months, the youngest sickens. A neighbor kid develops cancer...then another...then the wife. "Sue them" you say. Yeah, right, I reply. As so many who've been in this situation know, it is not only very expensive, but extremely difficult to prove causal linkage between cancer (or other chronic diseases) and any environmental pollution. The few cases that we have as examples of the victim prevailing are vastly outweighed by the losses... and of course this also presumes that human lives have a precise value. Tell that to the survivors. Furthermore, even if one could reasonably prove a linkage between, say, a disease ( or more abstractly, an economic harm) from a pollutant; history has also shown, that it is also very problematic to prove WHO was responsible, at least in some cases. @Phillip says that: "Private property provides a domain in which you can operate but also a domain in which others cannot operate." This sounds ok...and it works well enough in very limited circumstances (such as in land - at least as determined 2-dimensional land boundaries), but is extremely problematic in very many others in which the domains intersect. I've pointed to a couple, but there are many others. (e.g. What about the space ABOVE your house? What about light pollution or emissions from a neighboring all-night rendering plant? Does your desire for peace and quiet and visibility to the night sky trump theirs? You might say, well, I could move away...but when your house sells for less than others in other more serene environs, after that factory moved in, are you going to sue? What about the "separated estate" issue...whereby the landowner typically does not "own" nor control the space underneath their property's surface. (Because mineral property rights are so valuable, most families could not begin to afford to purchase those along with a house...so they are owned by private companies. By law, they can operate with little constraint to extract those... disrupting your life in many ways in the process. Proving and collecting for damages is almost impossible. So there are many problems in your approach of treating everything as private property. Here are a few in summary: 1. It would smack of the highest form of arrogance to assume that:we could adequately discover all of the "parts" of the environment, fully understand their relationships to each other, enumerate them and adequately quantify their value. This is both a function not only of scientific/technological lacks, but especially of the subjective nature of valuation. (Cod is far more valuable to me because I like it's taste... far more than sardines and small oily fish.) 2. It fails to address the problem that some parts of nature are not "discreet", but fluid, dispersed, etc. 3. It fails to understand that nature's "parts" are also vital aspects of larger, increasingly complex systems and networks; for which assignation of values is all but impossible. (What is the value of natural pollinators? Climatic equilibrium? etc.). 4. For all of the above, and because there is a perverse incentive for doing so, it fails to address the problem of waste 'sinks'. If one can "get away with" dispersing waste or toxic by-products into the environs, many will do so. In these ways, your approach indeed continues to ignore and thereby externalize impacts (costs), failing to adequately capture them in part because we can't fully do it and in part because the system you seem to advocate itself has a bias against doing so. (Why do you think, for example, the U.S. Coal companies are presently engaged in such an active assault on the U.S. EPA and desirous of keeping it from regulating greenhouse gases?) Finally, I reject the fantasy that there exists or ever could in the future exist a truly free market. For better or worse, as we have evolved from clans and tribes to nation states with subdivisions and local governments, government policy has already so skewed the marketplace that it can never be reflective of some utopian ideal of one. For example, in the U.S., public taxes long subsidized coal and other extraction, build highways, subsidize oil directly and indirectly through military adventures, completely skewing (and limiting) transportation choices, land development patterns and far more - creating winners and losers. This is just the first of a long list of potential examples. It is pure libertarian utopianism to suggest that somehow we could get back to some virginal, pre-industrial, pre-civilized state to start over with an entirely free market guided only by somehow market-assigned pricing on everything; as if somehow the profit motive wouldn't always trump protection of the public commons. Furthermore, it is also fantasy to advocate such positions with the presumption that somehow we can simultaneously (or even systematically) change all of the other pieces of the existing poltical-socio-economic framework, to eliminate all the other aspects which do not support such an approach. But all this is digression from the initial impetus of my 1st post- which was about your misguided ridiculing of Steady State Economy enthusiasts- and your presumption of the possibility of unlimited growth. That some of your defenders deny human-caused climate change, and others would suggest limitless growth potential by pointing to the "ultimate escape" - space colonization - as the solution is very indicative of the weakness of your position. Aside from the moral implications of treating Nature as a commodity or of leaving a less-sustainable, less-desirable environment for the future, I won't gamble that: a) we'll find habitable, economically reachable planets in my, my kids' or my grandkids' lifetimes; nor that: b) any such we find will be nearly as livable or appropriate to our kind as the one where we find ourselves.
Neatly tying Roger's complexity discourse with Andy's technotopian vision is the following, published earlier this week: http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2011-03-06/good-complexity-bad-com...
@RogerH If your point was to show that property rights solutions to environmental problems (which most authors of this blog would advocate) are anything but simple and straightforward, then you've achieved it. If your point was to show that market-based solutions don't work and we should enthrust everything to the government, then you haven't. Let me just pick up one of your arguments, as a proxy for all the others (for the sake of brevity): "It would smack of the highest form of arrogance to assume that:we could adequately discover all of the "parts" of the environment, fully understand their relationships to each other, enumerate them and adequately quantify their value. This is both a function not only of scientific/technological lacks, but especially of the subjective nature of valuation. " Don't you see that this is precisely what governments are doing all along? No Western government is so far saying that we should go back to the stone ages, they all try to make trade-offs between environmental conservation on the one hand, and material comfort on the other hand. If a company files an application to open a chemical plant, the governmental institution concerned weighs conflicting objectives and makes choices of the sort that you label "the highest form of arrogance". Job creation and tax revenue on the one hand, environmental degradation and risks on the other hand. ALL the objectives that you come up with (and they are reasonable ones) apply to this process no less. How do you know there won't be unintended consequences on some other part of nature, maybe not detectable for many years? How do you proof that chemical A really causes health condition B? How do you make sure environmental restrictions are really adhered to? I could go one forever but I need to write some other stuff now...
I think Rogers point is that markets cannot manage the commons; and I agree with him. The two most important commons, the air and the oceans, cannot be privatized in any event. Despite the deniers, climate change is one good example of externalised costs that governments cannot or will not manage. It all comes back though to a single issue: population. We as a species are in overshoot, the excess supported by non-renewable energy sources and damage to the biosphere that cannot be substituted for. As any ecologist will readily tell you, the consequence of overshoot is a die back. The only questions really are when and how? The answers to these questions are badly skewed by mans arrogance, stupidity and aggressiveness. War will certainly figure in the die back, maybe even with nuclear weapons.
But, the astronauts have access to the Hubble Telescope to see what people are actually doing on the surface of the planet. How do you think the CIA knows what you are doing each night?
@Kris: Responding to your prior post: "If your point was to show that market-based solutions don't work and we should enthrust everything to the government, then you haven't." .... No, my point wasn't that there aren't workable, market-based solutions to problems...far from it. And I certainly don't advocate the extreme position that everything should be left to government. But as SailDog notes, protection of the commons is one (perhaps the most) important role of government. That's because it at least theoretically or hopefully, embodies the public interest (at least in democracies). Governments are (as all social institutions) of course also imperfect. It's neither the exclusive domain of saints nor sages. In fact though, government imperfections correspond increasingly with the taint from private interests and organized capital; in my observation. As government itself has become increasingly captive of private organized capital (at least in the U.S.), policy has admittedly reflected that. So true protection of the public commons is not really guaranteed simply because it is a function of government policy, as too many examples illustrate. But given both comparative motives and the"free market's" track record on such issues, I'd prefer that the decisions were in the hands of those with at least some public accountability. But let's get back to the original discussion of steady state vs. infinite growth models. One thing that both puzzles and amuses me is how libertarian thinkers do not seem to recognize what is readily apparent from history: that as populations grow, so do the complexities and conflicts of their interactions; and so of course do their institutions (governments). It has never been the case that such growth has not been accompanied by the perceived or actual need for yet more government to manage the inevitable conflicts brought about. We can probably all think of examples in our own lives of this. So if you really value freedom (and who doesn't?) and abhor regulation/restriction - then you surely ought to realize that any politico-economic models based on assumptions of unlimited growth are at least counterproductive, i.e. likely self-defeating over time; in addition to being untenable on ecological grounds. In any case, any such system or model must address in a practical way the fundamental problems already referenced, that of the cascading impacts of heretofore-unaddressed externalities; because they can not be externalized forever. Someone eventually has to address those deferred problems.

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