Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy
Regular Contributors:  Herman Daly, Brian Czech, Brent Blackwelder, James Magnus-Johnston, and Eric Zencey. Guest authors by invitation.

The Daly-Correa Tax: Background and Explanation

by Herman Daly

Under the heading, “Oil nations asked to consider carbon tax on exports,” John Vidal writes in The Guardian:

The Ecuadorean president, Rafael Correa, proposed a carbon tax at a summit of Arab and South American countries in October in Peru which included the heads of state and energy ministers of nine of Opec’s 12 countries. The Guardian understands the proposal was taken seriously and not dismissed out of hand. The idea was first mooted in 2001 by former World Bank senior economist Herman Daly — leading it to be dubbed the “Daly-Correa tax” — and will be further discussed by Opec countries at the UN climate talks which open on Monday in Doha.

Whether or not it will be discussed at Doha, I think it is worthwhile to explain the idea as it was presented to an OPEC Conference in Vienna in 2001. It elicited little interest on that occasion, but in 2007 was in large part adopted by President Rafael Correa of Ecuador, after being presented to him and his minister of planning, Fander Falconi, by ecological economist Professor Joan Martinez-Alier. Below is the relevant part of my speech at the OPEC conference.*

How might OPEC fit into the emerging vision of sustainable development? Permit me to speculate.

Sources of petroleum throughput derive from private or public (national) property; sinks are in an open access regime and treated as a free good. Therefore, rents are collected on source scarcity, but not on sink scarcity. Different countries or jurisdictions collect scarcity rents in different ways. In the U.S., for example, Alaska has a social collection and sharing of source rents, institutionalized in the Alaska Permanent Fund whose annual earnings are distributed equally to all citizens of Alaska. Other states in the U.S. allow private ownership of sources and private appropriation of source rents.

New institutions are being designed to take the sink function out of the open access regime and recognize its scarcity (Kyoto). Tradable rights to emit carbon dioxide, requiring first the collective fixing of scale and distribution of total emission rights, are actively being discussed. Ownership of the new scarce asset (emission rights) could be distributed in the first instance to the state, which would then redistribute the asset by gift or auctioned lease.

Ideally sink capacity would be defined as a separate asset with its own market. This would require a big change in institutions. Assuming it were done, the source and sink markets for petroleum throughput, though separate, would be highly interdependent. Sink limits would certainly reduce the demand for the source, and vice versa. The distribution of total scarcity rent on the petroleum throughput between source and sink functions would seem to be determined by the relative scarcity of these two functions, even with separate markets. Alternatively, sink scarcity rent could also be captured by a monopoly on the source side, or source scarcity rent could also be captured by a monopoly on the sink side.

To give an analogy, municipal governments, in charging for water, frequently price the source function (water supply) separately from the sink function (sewerage), thus charging different prices for inflow and outflow services related to the same throughput of water. In deciding their water usage, consumers take both prices into account. To them it is as if there were one price for water, the sum of the input and output charges. Likewise the petroleum throughput charge would be the sum of the price of a barrel of crude oil input from the source and the price of carbon dioxide output to the sink from burning a barrel of petroleum. One could consolidate the two charges and levy them at either end, since they are but two ends of the same throughput. This would be a matter of convenience. Since depletion of sources is a much more spatially concentrated activity than pollution of sinks, it would seem that the advantage lies with levying the total source and sink charge at the source end. This is especially so since the sink has traditionally been treated as an open access free good, and changing that requires larger institutional rearrangements than would a sink-based surcharge on the source price. OPEC, given sufficient monopoly power over the source, would be well positioned to function as an efficient collector of sink rents for the world community.

Could it also serve as a global fiduciary for ethically distributing those rents in the interests of sustainable development, especially for the poor? OPEC, assuming it could increase its degree of monopoly of the source, may be in a position to preempt the function of the failing Kyoto accord by incorporating sink rents (and even externalities) into prices at the source end of the petroleum throughput.

Of course OPEC does not have a monopoly on petroleum, much less on fossil fuels. It does not, even indirectly, control non-petroleum sources of carbon dioxide. So it would be easy to overestimate OPEC’s monopoly power, and the scheme suggested here does require an increase in its monopoly power. However, modern mass consumption nations such as the U.S. apparently do not have the discipline to internalize either externalities or scarcity rents into the price of petroleum. Exclusion of developing countries from the Kyoto accord, while understandable on grounds of historical fairness, undermines the prospects for accomplishing the goal of the treaty, namely limitation of global greenhouse gas emissions to a sustainable level. OPEC, assuming it had sufficient monopoly power, might be able to provide this discipline for both North and South.

The South, as well as the North, would have to face the discipline of higher petroleum prices in the name of efficiency, but would, in the name of fairness receive a disproportionate share of the sink rents. There would be a net flow of sink rents from North to South. The size of those rents would depend on OPEC’s degree of monopoly power. The distribution of the rents would be in large part decided by OPEC — a large ethical responsibility which many would be unwilling to cede to OPEC, and which OPEC itself may not want. The obvious alternative to such a global fiduciary authority, however, has already failed. The inability to reach an agreement on international distribution of carbon dioxide emission rights was the rock on which Kyoto foundered. It is hard to see how such an agreement could be reached, either as a first step toward emissions trading, or as a fixed non-tradable allocation.

It is in OPEC’s self-interest to preempt the emergence of a separate market for sink capacity, which could surely lower source demand and prices. While this gives OPEC a motivation, it also calls into question the legitimacy of the motivation as pure monopolistic exploitation. A legitimating compromise, as indicated above, would be for OPEC to behave as a self-interested monopolist on the source side, but as a global fiduciary on the sink side — that is, as an efficient collector and ethical distributor of scarcity rents from pricing the sink function. OPEC countries own petroleum deposits, but not the atmosphere. OPEC has a right to its source rents, but no exclusive right to sink rents. However, it may well have the power to charge and redistribute sink rents as a global fiduciary — exactly what Kyoto wants to do, but lacks the power to do. In addition to effecting this transfer, the expanded role of OPEC as global fiduciary might increase the willingness of other petroleum producers (e.g., Norway) to join OPEC, thus increasing its monopoly power and ability to function as here envisioned. In addition, the fiduciary role might provide ethical reasons for OPEC members to adhere to the cartel, when tempted by short-term profit opportunities to cheat.

Actually the existing OPEC Development Fund is already a step in this direction. Expansion of this fund into a global fiduciary institution for collecting and distributing sink rents, as well as the existing source rent contributions generously made by OPEC countries, is what is envisaged in this suggestion.

Just how total rents are determined and divided between source scarcity and sink scarcity is a technical problem that economists have not tackled because they have not framed the problem this way. Economists have focused on capturing source rents through property rights, and then internalizing the external sink costs of pollution through taxes. Only recently has there emerged a theoretical discussion of property rights in atmospheric sink capacity — whether these should be public or private, the extent to which trade in such rights should be allowed, and so on. As an initial rule of thumb we might assume that, since the sink side is now the more limiting function, it should be accorded half or more of the total throughput scarcity rents. In other words, sink rents should be at least as much as source rents.

Sink rents would go to an expanded OPEC Development Fund dedicated entirely to global sustainable development in poor countries (especially investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency). Source rents would continue to accrue to the country that owns the deposits, and presumably be devoted to national sustainable development. The focus here is on a new public service function for OPEC of efficiently collecting and ethically distributing sink rents in the interest of global sustainable development. Where Kyoto has failed, OPEC might succeed as a stronger power base on which to build the fiduciary role — a power base that sidesteps the inability of nations to agree on the distribution of carbon dioxide emission rights among themselves.

Although any exercise of monopoly power is frequently lamented by economists, the early American economist John Ise had a different view in the case of natural resources: “Preposterous as it may seem at first blush, it is probably true that, even if all the timber in the United States, or all the oil, or gas, or anthracite, were owned by an absolute monopoly, entirely free of public control, prices to consumers would be fixed lower than the long-run interests of the public would justify.” Ise was referring only to the source function. The emerging scarcity of the sinks adds strength to his view. The reasonableness of Ise’s view is enhanced when we remember that for a market to reflect the true price, all interested parties must be allowed to bid. In the case of natural resources the largest interested party, future generations, cannot bid. Neither can our fellow non-human creatures, with whom we also share God’s creation, now and in the future, bid in markets to preserve their habitats. Therefore resource prices are almost certainly going to be too low, and anything that would raise the price, including monopoly, can claim some justification. Nor did Ise believe that the resource monopolist had a right to keep the entire rent, even though the rent should be charged in the interest of the future.

The measurement of the two different rents presents conceptual problems. The source rents are in the nature of user cost — the opportunity cost of non-availability in the future of a non-renewable resource used up today. Assuming that atmospheric absorptive capacity is a renewable resource, the sink rent would be the price of the previously free service when the supply of that service is limited to a sustainable level. If we assume separate markets in both source and sink functions we would theoretically have a market price determined for each function. Since the functions are related as the two ends of the same throughput, the source and sink markets would be quite closely interdependent. The separate markets could be competitive or monopolistic, and differing market power would largely determine the division of total throughput rent between the source and sink functions. For example, if, following a Kyoto agreement, the total supply of sink permits were to be determined by a global monopoly, that monopoly would be in a stronger position to capture total throughput rent on petroleum than would a weak cartel that controls the source. OPEC is surely aware of this.

What might the WTO and the World Bank think of such a suggestion? Since these two institutions are well represented at this conference, this question is more than just rhetorical. So far the WTO and the World Bank have been dedicated to the ideology of globalization — free trade, free capital mobility, and maximum cheapness of resources in the interest of GDP growth for the world as a whole, including mass-consumption societies. In their view maximum competition among oil-exporting countries resulting in a low price for petroleum is the goal. Trickle down from growth for the rich will, it is hoped, someday reach the poor. I suspect the free-trading globalizers consider themselves morally superior to the OPEC monopolists. But which alternative is worse:

  1. Price- and standards-lowering competition in the interest of maximizing mass consumption by oil-importing countries by minimizing the internalization of environmental and social costs with consequent destruction of the atmosphere, and ruination of local self-reliance by a cheap-energy transport subsidy to the forces of global economic integration, or
  2. Monopoly restraints on the global overuse of both a basic resource and a basic life-support service of the environment, with automatic protection of local production and self-reliance provided by higher (full-cost) energy and transport prices, and with sink rents redistributed to the poor?

Monopoly restraint results not only in conservation and reduced pollution, but also in a price incentive to develop new petroleum-saving, and sink-enhancing, technologies, as well as renewable energy substitutes. Unfortunately there would also be an incentive to use non-petroleum fossil fuels such as coal, which would be a very negative effect from the point of view of controlling carbon dioxide. Independent national legislation limiting emissions from coal (and natural gas) may well be a necessary complement.

Ideally most of us would prefer a genuine international agreement to limit fossil fuel throughput, rather than a monopoly-based restriction imposed as a discipline by a minority of countries only on petroleum. But the Western high consumers, especially the U.S. as resoundingly reconfirmed in its recent election, have conclusively demonstrated their inability to accept any restrictions that might reduce their GDP growth rates, even in the likely event that GDP growth has itself become uneconomic. The conceptual clarity and moral resources are simply lacking in the leadership of these countries. Perhaps the leadership reflects the citizenry. But perhaps not. The global corporate “growth forever” ideology is pushed by the corporate-owned media, and rehearsed by corporate-financed candidates in quadrennial television-dominated elections.

A lack of moral clarity and leadership in the mass-consumption societies does not necessarily imply the presence of these virtues in the OPEC countries. Do there exist sufficient clarity, morality, restraint, and leadership in the OPEC countries to undertake this fiduciary function of being an efficient collector and an ethical distributor of sink scarcity rents? As argued above, there is surely an element of self-interest for OPEC, but to gain general support OPEC would have to take on a fiduciary trusteeship role that would go far beyond its interests as a profit-maximizing cartel. But a strong moral position might be just what OPEC needs to gain the legitimacy necessary to increase and solidify its power as a cartel. Could such a plan, put forward by OPEC, provide a stronger power base for the goals that Kyoto tried and failed to institutionalize? Might the WTO and World Bank recognize that sustainable development is a more basic value than free trade, and lend their support? I do not know. Maybe the whole idea is just a utopian speculation. But given the post-Kyoto state of disarray and the paucity of policy suggestions, I do believe that it is worth initiating a discussion of this possibility.

If sustainability is to be more than an empty word we have to evolve mechanisms for constraining throughput flows within environmental source and sink capacities. Petroleum is the logical place to begin. And OPEC is the major institution in a position to influence the global throughput of petroleum.

* “Sustainable Development and OPEC,” Chapter 15 in Herman E. Daly, Ecological Economics and Sustainable Development, Edward Elgar Publishers, Cheltenham, UK, 2007.

Efficiency and Entrepreneurship: Key Ingredients for Infinite Growth

by Milton Mountebank

Editor’s note: In order to present a “fair and balanced” point of view, the Daly News occasionally invites Dr. Mountebank (the award-winning economist and originator of infinite planet theory) to write an editorial.

Limits-to-growth ideology often bullies its way into what would otherwise be an astute dialogue about how to grow the economy. It’s easy to understand why. Some people deny the power of perpetual economic growth because of facts like these:

  • There is a finite pool of raw materials and energy resources on the planet;
  • The atmosphere is filling up with carbon dioxide, disrupting the planet’s climate;
  • Billions of people are struggling to get by on less than $2 per day;
  • Natural habitats and the species that inhabit them are disappearing at increasing rates;
  • The world’s oceans contain four hundred dead zones.
  • Debt loads in nations around the world are spiraling out of control.

The ignorant masses who don’t understand infinite planet theory tend to wallow unnecessarily in the muddy bogs of these facts. Even worse, in the hands of certain wrong-headed scoundrels, these facts can be aligned into an enticing argument against the economic imperative of perpetual growth. The counterintuitive heart of infinite planet theory is that ever-increasing efficiency can turn that which seems finite into a limitless reservoir of consumer products. Efficiency enables us to grow the economy forever, to fulfill any consumptive desire that may occur to us, and to keep the flow of products skyrocketing to infinity and beyond.

To illustrate this magical ability of efficiency, consider a case study from the malodorous field of solid waste disposal. Carl Grifter is a genuine garbage entrepreneur. After the financial meltdown and home foreclosure frenzy of 2008 and 2009, Grifter noticed that his local government couldn’t bring in enough revenue to pay the bills. Some people would view such a situation as cause for alarm, but not Grifter. He says, “While other people were out occupying the public squares and wasting their time on protests, I was busy cornering the garbage market.” In a wave of privatization in which the county sold off its public services to corporations, Grifter got in on the ground floor by purchasing the landfill at what he calls “a deep discount.”

Although it’s worth pausing to applaud such a fine example of entrepreneurship, we need to save the real ovation for Grifter’s efficiency innovations. After acquiring the landfill, he undertook a profitability analysis and classified five key processes that affect landfill operations:

  1. Advertisers induce demand for cheap, plastic products.
  2. Factory workers in China produce the needed supply of doodads and gizmos, pack them onto immense cargo ships, and export them to America.
  3. American consumers transfer cartloads of plastic schlock from the colossal aisles of Walmart, Target, and Costco to the colossal holds of their SUVs and the colossal garages of their colossal homes.
  4. Within one year’s time, consumers discard the remains of their original purchases.
  5. Enormous fleets of garbage trucks gather the plastic refuse and deliver it to the landfill where it will break down over the next several geologic epochs.

It’s tough to be more efficient than this!

Any economist can tell you that efficiency is a measure of how quickly and how cheaply a desired outcome can be achieved. Obviously, the more efficient a business, an industry, or an entire economy is, the better off we all are. Grifter combed through these five processes trying to find room for improving efficiency. He says, “It was real tough going. You can’t get any more efficient than those giant cargo ships. And look at how efficient Americans already are at transporting plastic crap to their homes. I was stumped.”

Grifter could have given up at that point. He concedes that at times, he even started to believe that maybe there were limits to efficiency and growth. But you can’t hold down the spirit of a devout growthist for long. He went back to square one and wrote down a simple equation for his business model:

More refuse = more revenue = more profit.

The desired outcome for a landfill business is to import as much refuse as fast as possible. Once Grifter fully understood this fact, he saw the golden pathway to efficiency: cut out the middleman. He says, “What’s the point of waiting an entire year for consumer products to come through the gates of my landfill? I contacted the factories and shipping guys in China and arranged to have the goods delivered straight from the ships.” Now Grifter’s fleet of garbage trucks meets the cargo ships on the docks and delivers products straight to the landfill. He adds, “It’s pretty much the same process as before, but I expedite things and make a killing!”

It’s a win-win-win situation. The first win: Grifter’s corporation earns higher profits, paving the way for growth and job creation. Projecting corporate growth out five years shows that 78 percent of adults in the county will soon be working at the landfill. The second win: with these products flowing straight to the landfill, advertisers and consumers can focus their attention on other useless and superfluous products — a surefire way to establish new branches on the tree of economic growth.

The third win should appease the environmental doomsayers clamoring about the limits to growth. There’s a clear environmental advantage to Grifter’s improvement. For starters, consider the carbon footprint reductions given the shorter travel distance that products take from factory to landfill. And as Grifter notes, “It’s a lot easier to bury the products in our landfill when they’re still in the packaging — there are less pieces of plastic to fold under the dirt, so we can save a lot of energy.”

“Look here,” he says as he points to a table with two identical boxes on top. “These are brand new Salad Shooters.” A big smile marks Grifter’s face as he takes one of them out of its box, picks up a hammer, and shatters the Salad Shooter into a pile of jagged pieces. “Which one of these do you think is easier to bury?”

Grifter’s corporation is a shining beacon of light for where the economy needs to go. Greater efficiency must be our mantra. Just as more efficient power plants and car engines have solved the so-called “problem” of greenhouse gas emissions, so will greater efficiency in the broader economy overcome any so-called “limits to growth.”

Dr. Mountebank is the John Q. Beelzebub Professor of Economics at Fantasia University.

Where Infinite Growth Meets Biophysical Limit

by Eric Zencey

Eric Zencey is the author of the recently released book The Other Road to Serfdom and the Path to Sustainable Democracy. This essay is adapted from Zencey’s forthcoming history of Vermont’s environmental movement, Greening Vermont: The Search for a Sustainable State, which he co-authored with Elizabeth Courtney.

To achieve a sustainable, steady-state economy, we’re going to have to limit matter-and-energy throughput in the economy to what the planet can sustainably give to us and what it can sustainably absorb from us. Against that physical limit, though, the economy continually exerts pressure: it’s structured for continual expansion of its matter-and-energy throughput, as we are encouraged to want, to seek, to produce and to own more and more and more. What we need are adaptive mechanisms that can reconcile the two.

One such policy adaptation is in place but hasn’t been fully developed or conscientiously applied.

The Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1972 instituted a national cleanup of the nation’s waterways, which had too long been treated as an open-access sink into which anyone could freely dump wastes and pollutants. Under the CWA, wastewater treatment facilities were built or upgraded and point source discharges — those coming from a single facility — were regulated and controlled. Water bodies that were considered dead in 1972 made remarkable recoveries.

Even so, by 2002 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had categorized over 20,000 bodies of water (more than 40% of all those it assessed) as “impaired” — too polluted to be used for their “designated beneficial uses.” Clearly, if water quality was to be fully restored, more needed to be done.

The main problem was and continues to be “non-point” discharges — the diffuse pollution that is carried into waterways by runoff from land. Anything that is put on land can and will find its way into our waterways. The most problematic pollutants vary from basin to basin. Some of the most troublesome: the oil, gasoline, and road salt that find their way into our soils, streets, and parking lots as we use automobiles; untreated animal waste, including the burdens produced in some areas by farm animals and in others by pets; and fertilizers and pesticides, used by suburbanites to feed their lawns and by farmers to increase their yields in order to feed us.

The CWA outlined the manner in which non-point pollution was to be judged and limited: states were to identify impaired bodies of water and then set water quality standards for them. EPA rules written in 1985 and 1992 offered further guidance: states were to identify the pollutants that cause the impairment, and for each of those pollutants they were to identify the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) that the body of water could absorb without being impaired. Their work would be reported to and reviewed by the EPA. How TMDLs would be enforced — how the scarce capacity of waterbodies to absorb effluents would be rationed — was left to state discretion.

Behind the notion of TMDL is sound, steady-state thinking: the capacity of bodies of water to absorb pollutants isn’t infinite, and the limits need to be discovered and respected.

Implementation and enforcement of the new rules wasn’t immediate. Some states, faced with significant expense, declined to comply with the law. Some sued to have the EPA do the job. The scientific work has been slow going. Between 1996 and 2003, a total of 7,327 TMDLs were approved nationwide, representing just 17% of the 42,193 bodies of water listed as impaired.

In Vermont, the issue of TMDLs came to a head in 1999, and experience there may be a guide to promoting the implementation of this finite-planet idea elsewhere. The controversy began with an application from Lowe’s, Inc. to build a store in South Burlington. The company received the necessary stormwater permits from the state in July of 2001, despite the fact that the store and its parking lot would force acres of runoff into Potash Brook, an impaired waterway. The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) immediately appealed the permit decision. The appeal said that under the CWA, additional pollutants could not be discharged into the brook unless a mitigation and cleanup strategy were in place — a strategy that would require determination of the appropriate TMDLs, which hadn’t been prepared.

There were no TMDLs for Potash Brook for a simple reason: despite its carefully protected (and generally well-deserved) image as an environmentally aware state, Vermont hadn’t calculated any TMDLs at all. Meanwhile, well over 1,000 state-issued stormwater discharge permits had expired and were up for review. The Conservation Law Foundation had brought to light a major problem in the way that Vermont was managing its water resources and had revealed that the state was violating laws established under the Clean Water Act. “Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources,” said Chris Kilian, the CLF’s Natural Resources Project Director, “can no longer turn a blind eye to our serious water pollution problems. Rubber-stamping permits that will add more pollution is not acceptable.”

CLF appeals of the Lowe’s decision were pending when the two sides announced a settlement in May 2006. Lowe’s agreed to implement higher cleanup standards than the state had required. Measures included stormwater retention ponds and filtration systems for runoff not only for Lowe’s 12-acre site, but the entire commercial plaza of which the new store was a part. Taken together these remedies were designed to eliminate all impact on Potash Brook. As part of the agreement, Lowe’s agreed to monitor stream conditions both upstream and downstream of its discharge, to ensure that the “zero harm” standard would be met.

If the CWA can continue to encode finite-planet assumptions through its call for discovery of TMDLs of pollutants in the country’s bodies of water, and if those limits can be enforced through state action or by citizen lawsuits, one key element of a steady-state economy will be in place.

But it’s not going to be easy to reach that point. TMDLs remain a controversial and difficult topic, as might be expected of a regulatory device that operates at the intersection of human ambition and biophysical limit. And the state-by-state foundation of the law may hamper its effectiveness. For instance, of the fifty water bodies in Vermont that are officially classified as impaired because of acidification, the source of the pollutant — acid raid — is well beyond the power of the state to control. And much non-point-source water pollution in Vermont has its origin in agricultural practices, which Vermont legislators and regulators are loathe to tackle. As the strong base of the state’s economy and as a prime preserver of the working landscape, farming provides all Vermonters with many benefits, and the environmental movement is unanimous in wanting to see a healthy agricultural economy in the state. But farming practices are responsible for 38% of the phosphate pollution that leads to regular algae blooms in Lake Champlain (making it the second largest category, after urbanization at 46%). The blooms can be toxic to wildlife, humans, and domestic pets, and they prevent recreational use of the parts of the lake that are affected. If Vermont is to achieve its water quality goals, it will have to enforce TMDLs for all waters that drain into its lakes, even if those limits require changes in agricultural practice. By 2012, Vermont had established TMDLs for roughly 60% of the waters that had been identified as needing them.

The concept of TMDLs can be extended to other sinks and pollutants. A TMDL could be set for diesel exhaust from trucks, limiting the amount to what a particular airshed can absorb without ill effect. Paired with a similar understanding of the limits of source services — like the maximum sustainable yield figures that can be calculated for forests and fisheries — TMDLs point to one way of achieving a balance between human activity and planetary systems.

The research necessary to determine a TMDL is costly, and comes at a time when public budgets are already being strained (by, among other causes, a declining energy return on investment for oil that means more and more of our economy’s energy is dedicated to getting that energy). If we don’t like the expense of government regulation, if it looks like we can’t afford all that governmental overhead, then we’ve basically got three choices: retreat into an infinite-planet state of denial and let our economy destroy our habitat; require private enterprise to fund the necessary research as part of the cost of doing business on what is undeniably a finite planet; or find ways (like a carbon tax or other uptake and throughput taxes) to meter inputs sufficiently to bring economic activity well within biophysical limit, thereby making the regulatory burden and research expense of TMDL enforcement less needed.

Climate Change Trumps Terrorism as Threat to National Security

by Brent Blackwelder

Climate destabilization eclipses all other security threats to human civilization except for a major nuclear war. But the current global economy gives no signals to investors and consumers about the profound implications of climate destabilization on water cycles, agriculture, and humanity’s ability to grow food for seven billion people.

The latest weather disaster, the monster Hurricane Sandy, demonstrated that changing environmental conditions pose a huge threat to U.S. security and stability. In the aftermath of the storm, thousands of people in New York and New Jersey face grim conditions, with $50 billion in damages, over 20,000 homeless, and some dying of hypothermia.

The American public, however, has been conditioned to think of national security in terms of terrorist threats. The Washington Post’s veteran Pentagon reporter Greg Jaffe makes the case that the world has never been safer, if security is to be measured by acts of human sabotage and terrorism. Jaffe asserts that according to “most relevant statistics, the United States — and the world — have never been safer… global terrorism has barely touched most Americans in the decade since Sept. 11, 2001.”

Jaffe appropriately criticizes presidential candidates and other politicians for exaggerating the national security threat from terrorism because they want to “cast themselves as potential saviors in an increasingly dangerous world.” During this time, he notes, more U.S. citizens have been crushed to death by furniture and televisions falling on them than have been killed in terrorist attacks (Washington Post 11/4/12).

Despite the way politicians are talking about national security, the reality is that over the past twenty years, national security has become more closely tied to environmental factors such as energy, water, food, and climate disruption. President Clinton’s State Department made the formal acknowledgment that deteriorating environmental conditions can cause conflicts and constitute threats to stability.

Hurricane Sandy comes ashore.

Rampaging global weather disasters pose serious challenges to governments around the world. According to Swiss Re, the world’s largest reinsurance company, twenty to forty percent of losses from disasters are uninsured. The company says economic losses from climate-related disasters are substantial and rising. One news release states, “Over the last 40 years global insured losses from climate-related disasters have jumped from an annual USD 5 billion to approximately USD 60 billion.” Another news release says that “without further investments in adaptation, climate risks could cost nations up to 19% of their GDP by 2030, with developing countries the most vulnerable.”

To address the root causes we must move from our current global system of cheater economics and casino economics to a true-cost economy. In a true-cost sustainable economy, the climate-disrupting effects of coal and oil would be factored into their prices, and prices would rise beyond most people’s idea of affordability. Ironically, the current method for calculating national economic well-being (GDP), counts the billions spent on fixing storm damages as a plus.

In the presidential debates Romney and Obama competed to see who could be more supportive of oil and gas and who would accelerate the movement of tar sands oil from Canada the fastest. It was as if they were saying, “Let’s see who can generate the most greenhouse gases the fastest and create even more gigantic storms and weather disruptions.”

The extraction of tar sands oil is devastating the homes of native people in Canada and creating a wasteland scene reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno. Utilization of such a filthy fuel on the scale now being advocated means “game over for the climate,” according to NASA climate scientist James Hansen.

At least the victorious President Obama stressed that he wanted more renewable energy, whereas Romney opposed wind power, belittled concerns about climate destabilization, and joked about rising sea levels. Now is the time to demand that Obama fulfills the clean-energy promise he made in his first term. Along the way, we might even alleviate some threats to national security that are already on our shores.

Who Will Get This Economy Going? No One

by Dave Gardner

“We’ve got to get this economy going again!” Unless your cave lacks wifi, cable or satellite, you’ve heard this once or twice in the last four seconds.

Job creation and economic growth dominate the November election in the U.S. — perhaps more than any election in history. Campaign ads for local, state and national candidates all promise jobs. The presidential election this year has become a referendum on who can breathe new life into our economy.

News Flash: Neither presidential candidate will succeed.

What if our unexamined assumptions about the need and possibility of perpetual economic growth are wrong? What if robust economic growth is our civilization’s way of driving off a cliff? What if the planet is incapable of supporting continued increase in global economic throughput?

We’ll excuse almost anything if it happens in the name of jobs. At last count the U.S. Congress had passed 247 anti-environmental measures in its current term. The Republican Party wants to throw environmental regulations overboard because they throttle back the unfettered growth we must have. Across the aisle, many who normally exhibit a stronger environmental ethic are joining the massacre, so strong is the mandate to grow the economy and create jobs. Few, if any, are apologizing for sacrificing environmental protection on the altar of economic growth.

Our Democratic president, who four years ago promised to stop the rise of the oceans and heal the planet, is now approving drilling in the Arctic, promoting hydraulic fracturing, and bragging about his support for fossil fuel exploration in national debates. Climate change has not even been on the table this election year.

Social critic Noam Chomsky observes: “The two major parties both propose that the colossal machine of everyday life in America can not only run indefinitely, but continue expanding, and include ever more member people who trade ever more schwag. All that is required, they say, is twiddling the settings of the machine, to get it back to running smoothly as it did in the good old days before the mystifying crash of 2008. They disagree slightly on which dials to twiddle.”

Politicians are ignoring the cascade of environmental crises, all tied to the huge scale of the human enterprise (population and economy) on the planet:

  • Climate disruption;
  • Species extinctions;
  • Depletion of soil fertility;
  • Collapsing fisheries;
  • Air and water toxification;
  • Fresh water supply crises;
  • Deforestation and desertification.

No question many people are struggling and feeling true pain from this “great recession.” Everyone needs meaningful work, a roof overhead, and a chicken in the pot. Yet throwing our natural world under the bus in an attempt to restore the robust economic growth we knew during the last century is not an intelligent way to secure these things. We ought not burn down the house to keep warm. We must leave for the next generation a world worth inheriting.

What is the business case for destroying the planet?
–Ray Anderson, founder and chair of Interface, Inc.

It’s time to examine the unexamined assumptions, time to re-evaluate our goals, our metrics, and our definitions of success — including what we mean by “progress” and the “American Dream.” They don’t have to mean more stuff. We’ve reached a point where our quest for MORE is detracting from the quality of our lives. It’s time to acknowledge that quality is more important than quantity.

The definition of the American Dream got hijacked.

In my film, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth, Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved, calls our society’s infatuation with economic growth a “fetish.” He has many allies in suggesting that GDP growth is a poor measure of life satisfaction. Former World Bank economist Herman Daly tells us growth has become “uneconomic,” meaning its costs outweigh its benefits.

In an empty world, it was a safe bet that growth was making us richer, but we no longer live in an empty world. We live in a full world.
–Herman Daly, Former World Bank Economist

The evidence is compelling enough to convert smart people who spent much of their professional lives in pursuit of growth. Commentaries are appearing in major financial and global affairs publications questioning the possibility of perpetual growth. Financial gurus — Jeremy Grantham, Paul B. Farrell, Jeff Rubin, and John Fullerton, to name a few — are warning us we are hitting the wall of resource scarcity.

We are experiencing The End of Growth, as energy expert Richard Heinberg describes in his thought-provoking book. It’s a brutal truth we must face. We have hit peak oil, peak food, peak biodiversity and peak water. We had a good run, but the party’s over. The days of 3% annual GDP growth and ever-increasing material wealth are behind us. Stimulus packages, tax cuts, deficit spending, austerity — it doesn’t matter what we try, we cannot repeal the laws of physics.

 Yet the political climate demands that our representatives and candidates avoid telling us the truth. We don’t want to hear the truth. Recent history tells us we can have it all; that is all we’ve known for the past 300 years. Ronald Reagan swept into office telling us we could and would have more.

There are no limits to growth, because there are no limits of human intelligence, imaginations, and wonder.
–Ronald Reagan

Chomsky offers: “Reality knows we have entered a long-term compressive economic contraction; that there is no way we can persist in the current living arrangement; and that the necessary outcome to avoid immense human suffering can be described as the downscaling and re-localizing of everything we do.”

We need a modern-day Martin Luther King, Jr., a true leader with the integrity and courage to tell us the truth, and the charisma to inspire us to follow. We hold these truths to be self-evident:

  • The pie isn’t getting bigger, and over 7 billion of us want a slice.
  • We do not get to be materially richer next year than we are this year.
  • Our children don’t get to have more money and more stuff than we had.
  • That’s okay, because money and stuff are not what really matter in life.

Not one of the candidates on the ballot for U.S. President is telling us this. The most hopeful sign in the political landscape is a write-in campaign for two steady-state economics candidates, Rob Dietz (editor of the Daly News) and Bill Ryerson (CEO of The Population Institute and President of Population Media Center). The centerpiece of their platform is to transition the U.S. to a steady-state economy. Of course, this ticket is a few hundred million dollars shy of being a contender. And it’s a cold political reality that today no candidate can win election on a platform that respects the laws of physics on a finite planet.

Regardless of whom we elect as the next U.S. President, in four years we’ll still be in the great recession. The only difference between the two major candidates is how much damage we’ll have wreaked on the environment in our futile efforts to restore growth, and how much the rich will profit while we waste precious time.

We can live sustainably, practicing the intergenerational golden rule, and — in so doing — live good and happy lives. But this requires us to recognize growth is no longer delivering the goods, and it can’t continue anyway. It requires that we seek not a growing economy, but a healthy economy — one that is not liquidating the planet’s resources. The sooner we do this, the sooner we can enter the next phase of true human progress.

Dave Gardner’s documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth, includes interviews with Brian Czech, Herman Daly, and Peter Victor. The film is being rereleased this week in a special edition. The “Final Cut” is a lean 54 minutes and includes new bonus features, some previously unseen. For more information, visit www.growthbusters.org.

Economic Growth: The Missing Link in Environmental Journalism

by Brian Czech

Environmental journalists are like doctors. Doctors run from patient to patient, harried, dealing with symptoms more than causes. They’re too busy dispensing pills to talk about holistic health. It’s an approach that makes money for the health industry but isn’t so great for public health.

Environmental journalists run from issue to issue, harried, dealing with environmental impacts more than causes. They’re too busy dispensing stories to talk about context. It’s an approach that makes money for the media but isn’t so great for environmental protection.

The analogy isn’t perfect. Environmental journalists don’t have an obligation to protect the environment like doctors are obligated to patient health. But journalists are obligated to tell the truth: the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Here we’re concerned with the “whole” truth, and it’s worth extending the analogy in this direction.

Let’s say the doctor has an overweight patient. The patient was small as a child and developed an obsession with gaining weight. It’s hard to shift mental gears. Fully mature now, this patient’s top goal is growing even more! This has led to all kinds of problems: bad knees, high blood pressure, and sleep apnea to mention a few.

Now imagine the doctor prescribing more pills for each new ailment, never saying a thing about the patient’s obsession with growth. When will the doctor talk about the big picture? The patient is just not getting it on his own. To him, getting even bigger seems like the solution to all problems, not the cause.

Similarly, we have a society — a readership — that considers economic growth the top priority. This unhealthy obsession has led to all kinds of problems: biodiversity loss, climate change, and ocean acidification to name a few. Yet the reader is just not making the connection. Growing GDP seems like the answer to all problems, not the cause.

A code of ethics prevents journalists from advocating policies. It’s “just the facts ma’am.” But environmental journalists would probably be working for the environment if they weren’t writing about it. That’s my guess after attending three of the last five Society of Environmental Journalists conferences, most recently two weeks ago in Lubbock, Texas.

Yet the journalists have been missing the environmental forest for the trees. Try to remember the last article you read about an environmental problem in which economic growth was even mentioned, much less explored with nuance. Can you?

Journalists covering climate negotiations sometimes identify economic growth as the goal in the way of progress. China and India aren’t about to give up on growth now, and for that matter neither is the United States. Our “way of life is not up for negotiation.” But that’s about it for coverage. There’s little exploration of the nuances: of how in a 90% fossil-fueled economy, economic growth means climate change; of how “green” energy can’t substitute for fossil fueling of the economy; of how a stabilized climate amounts to a steady state economy.

And that’s just the context of one environmental problem: climate change. When, in reading about biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, depletion of aquifers, fisheries decline, etc., do we read about the linkage to economic growth? All environmental problems track with GDP growth, and it’s no coincidence. The relationship between economic growth and environmental impact is causal, just as gaining weight is causal of bad knees. Economic growth is an 800-pound gorilla with two arms: population and per capita consumption. It doesn’t happen without environmental impact.

It’s ironic that environmental journalists don’t tap into the big picture of economic growth. After all, generating a buzz is all about connecting with society’s concerns. It’s about relevance. What is more relevant today than economic growth? What is more covered in the broader media? What gets more attention from politicians?

The environmental journalist’s take on economic growth will sound odd at first. Readers are used to thinking of economic growth as the solution to problems, not the cause. But that’s OK. Readers are like the obese patient intent on gaining weight. When it dawns on them that economic growth is the cause of so many problems, not the solution, their interest will be piqued, and many will develop an appetite for journalism on economic growth and the sustainable alternative, the steady state economy. The whole truth will set them free from the fallacious rhetoric that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.”

Environmental journalists don’t have an obligation to environmental protection. But they do have a unique opportunity. They have the opportunity to raise awareness of the whole truth, however inconvenient, that environmental protection doesn’t square with economic growth.

The Populations Problem

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyThe population problem should be considered from the point of view of all populations — populations of both humans and their artifacts (cars, houses, livestock, cell phones, etc.) — in short, populations of all “dissipative structures” engendered, bred, or built by humans. In other words, the populations of human bodies and of their extensions. Or in yet other words, the populations of all organs that support human life and the enjoyment thereof, both endosomatic (within the skin) and exosomatic (outside the skin) organs.

All of these organs are capital equipment that support our lives. The endosomatic equipment — heart, lungs, kidneys — support our lives quite directly. The exosomatic organs — farms, factories, electric grids, transportation networks — support our lives indirectly. One should also add “natural capital” (e.g., the hydrologic cycle, carbon cycle, etc.) which is exosomatic capital comprised of structures complementary to endosomatic organs, but not made by humans (forests, rivers, soil, atmosphere).

The reason for pluralizing the “population problem” to the populations of all dissipative structures is two-fold. First, all these populations require a metabolic throughput from low-entropy resources extracted from the environment and eventually returned to the environment as high-entropy wastes, encountering both depletion and pollution limits. In a physical sense the final product of the economic activity of converting nature into ourselves and our stuff, and then using up or wearing out what we have made, is waste. Second, what keeps this from being an idiotic activity, grinding up the world into waste, is the fact that all these populations of dissipative structures have the common purpose of supporting the maintenance and enjoyment of life.

What good are endosomatic organs without the support of exosomatic natural capital?

As A. J. Lotka pointed out, ownership of endosomatic organs is equally distributed, while the exosomatic organs are not. Ownership of the latter may be collective or individual, equally or unequally distributed. Control of these external organs may be democratic or dictatorial. Owning one’s own kidneys is not enough to support one’s life if one does not have access to water from rivers, lakes, or rain, either because of scarcity or monopoly ownership of the complementary exosomatic organ. Likewise our lungs are of little value without the complementary natural capital of green plants and atmospheric stocks of oxygen. Therefore all life-supporting organs, including natural capital, form a unity. They have a common function, regardless of whether they are located within the boundary of human skin or outside that boundary. In addition to being united by common purpose, they are also united by their role as dissipative structures. They are all physical structures whose default tendency is to dissipate or fall apart, in accordance with the entropy law.

Our standard of living is roughly measured by the ratio of outside-skin to inside-skin capital — that is, the ratio of human-made artifacts to human bodies, the ratio of one kind of dissipative structure to another kind. Within-skin capital is made and maintained overwhelmingly from renewable resources, while outside-skin capital relies heavily on nonrenewable resources. The rate of evolutionary change of endosomatic organs is exceedingly slow; the rate of change of exosomatic organs has become very rapid. In fact the evolution of human beings is now overwhelmingly centered on exosomatic organs. This evolution is goal-directed, not random, and its driving purpose has become “economic growth,” and that growth has been achieved largely by the depletion of non renewable resources.

Although human evolution is now decidedly purpose-driven we continue to be enthralled by neo-Darwinist aversion to teleology and devotion to random. Economic growth, by promising “more for everyone eventually,” becomes the de facto purpose, the social glue that keeps things from falling apart. What happens when growth becomes uneconomic, increasing costs faster than benefits? How do we know that this is not already the case? If one asks such questions one is told to talk about something else, like space colonies on Mars, or unlimited energy from cold fusion, or geo-engineering, or the wonders of globalization, and to remember that all these glorious purposes require growth now in order to provide still more growth in the future. Growth is good, end of discussion, now shut up!

Let us reconsider in the light of these facts, the idea of demographic transition. By definition this is the transition from a human population maintained by high birth rates equal to high death rates, to one maintained by low birth rates equal to low death rates, and consequently from a population with low life expectancy to one with high life expectancy. Statistically such transitions have been observed as standard of living (ratio of exosomatic to endosomatic capital) increases. Many studies have attempted to explain this fact, and much hope has been invested in it as an automatic cure for overpopulation. “Development is the best contraceptive” is a related slogan, partly based in fact, and partly in wishful thinking.

There are a couple of thoughts I’d like to add to the discussion of demographic transition. The first and most obvious one is that populations of artifacts can undergo an analogous transition from high rates of production and depreciation to low ones. The lower rates will maintain a constant population of longer-lived, more durable artifacts.

Our economy has a growth-oriented focus on maximizing production flows (birth rates of artifacts) that keeps us in the pre-transition mode, giving rise to growing artifact populations, low product lifetimes, high GDP, and high throughput, with consequent environmental destruction. The transition from a high-maintenance throughput to a low one applies to both human and artifact populations independently. From an environmental perspective, lower throughput is desirable in both cases, at least up to some distant limit.

The second thought I would like to add to the discussion of demographic transition is a question: does the human transition, when induced by rising standard of living, as usually assumed, increase or decrease the total load of all dissipative structures on the environment? Specifically, if Indian fertility is to fall to the Swedish level, must Indian per capita possession of artifacts (standard of living) rise to the Swedish level? If so, would this not likely increase the total load of all dissipative structures on the Indian environment, perhaps beyond capacity to sustain the required throughput?

The point of this speculation is to suggest that “solving” the population problem by relying on the demographic transition to lower birth rates could impose a larger burden on the environment rather than the smaller burden that would be the case with direct reduction in fertility. Of course reduction in fertility by automatic correlation with rising standard of living is politically easy, while direct fertility reduction is politically difficult. But what is politically easy may be environmentally destructive.

To put it another way, consider the I = PAT formula. P, population of human bodies, is one set of dissipative structures. A, affluence, or GDP per capita, reflects another set of dissipative structures — cars, buildings, ships, toasters, iPads, cell phones, etc. (not to mention populations of livestock and agricultural plants). In a finite world some populations grow at the expense of others. Cars and humans are now competing for land, water, and sunlight to grow either food or fuel. More nonhuman dissipative structures will at some point force a reduction in other dissipative structures, namely human bodies. This forced demographic transition is less optimistic than the voluntary one induced by chasing a higher standard of living more effectively with fewer dependents. In an empty world we saw the trade-off between artifacts and people as induced by desire for a higher standard of living. In the full world that trade-off seems forced by competition for limited resources.

The usual counter to such thoughts is that we can improve the efficiency by which throughput maintains dissipative structures — technology, T in the formula, measured as throughput per unit of GDP. For example a car that lasts longer and gets better mileage is still a dissipative structure, but with a more efficient metabolism that allows it to live on a lower rate of throughput.

Likewise, human organisms might be genetically redesigned to require less food, air, and water. Indeed smaller people would be the simplest way of increasing metabolic efficiency (measured as number of people maintained by a given resource throughput). To my knowledge no one has yet suggested breeding smaller people as a way to avoid limiting births, but that probably just reflects my ignorance. We have, however, been busy breeding and genetically engineering larger and faster-growing plants and livestock. So far, the latter dissipative structures have been complementary with populations of human bodies, but in a finite and full world, the relationship will soon become competitive.

Indeed, if we think of population as the cumulative number of people ever to live over time, then many artifact populations are already competitive with the human population. That is, more consumption today of terrestrial low entropy in non-vital uses (Cadillacs, rockets, weapons) means less terrestrial low entropy available for capturing solar energy tomorrow (plows, solar collectors, ecosystem regeneration). The solar energy that will still fall on the earth for millions of years after the material structures needed to capture it are dissipated, will be wasted, just like the solar energy that shines on the moon.

There is a limit to how many dissipative structures the ecosphere can sustain — more endosomatic capital must ultimately displace some exosomatic capital and vice versa. Some of our exosomatic capital is critical — for example, that part which can photosynthesize, the green plants. Our endosomatic capital cannot long endure without the critical exosomatic capital of green plants (along with soil and water, and of course sunlight). In sum, demographers’ interest should extend to the populations of all dissipative structures, their metabolic throughputs, and the relations of complementarity and substitutability among them. Economists should analyze the supply, demand, production, and consumption of all these populations within an ecosphere that is finite, non-growing, entropic, and open only to a fixed flow of solar energy. This reflects a paradigm shift from the empty-world vision to the full-world vision — a world full of human-made dissipative structures that both depend upon and displace natural structures. Growth looks very different depending on from which paradigm it is viewed.

Carrying capacity of the ecosystem depends on how many dissipative structures of all kinds have to be carried. Some will say to others, “You can’t have a glass of wine and piece of meat for dinner because I need the grain required by your fine diet to feed my three hungry children.” The answer will be, “You can’t have three children at the expense of my and my one child’s already modest standard of living.” Both have a good point. That conflict will be difficult to resolve, but we are not yet there.

Rather, now some are saying, “You can’t have three houses and fly all over the world twice a year, because I need the resources to feed my eight children.” And the current reply is, “You can’t have eight children at the expense of my small family’s luxurious standard of living.” In the second case neither side elicits much sympathy, and there is great room for compromise to limit both excessive population and per capita consumption. Better to face limits to both human and artifact populations before the terms of the trade-off get too harsh.

Pulling Back the Curtain on Economic Growth’s Magic Act

by Rob Dietz

A good story often includes a touch of magic — just ask Harry Potter or Twilight fans. See if you can spot the magic in the following passage by Charles Wheelan from his book Naked Economics, in which he considers the question, “Who feeds Paris?”:

Somehow the right amount of fresh tuna makes its way from a fishing fleet in the South Pacific to a restaurant on the Rue de Rivoli. A neighborhood fruit vendor has exactly what his customers want every morning — from coffee to fresh papayas — even though those products may come from ten or fifteen different countries. In short, a complex economy involves billions of transactions every day, the vast majority of which happen without any direct government involvement.

Let’s ignore for now that Wheelan’s “right amount” of fresh tuna corresponds to a disappearing fishery (the closure of vast fishing areas in the South Pacific is a story for another time). Wheelan’s argument and the main message of today’s globalized economy is that Twinkies spontaneously sprout on supermarket shelves. Hamburgers originate from the silver stovetops of McDonalds restaurants. Water itself flows from shiny taps, translucent bottles, and fancy vending machines. We don’t need to concern ourselves with trifling matters such as where this stuff comes from or how it arrives. Because of the magic of the market, we only need to know how to get our hands on sufficient cash, credit, or public funds to buy it. In a nutshell, the argument says that all the cheap food, cheap products, and cheap thrills of modern times spring directly from global trade and economic growth.

Is this the guy responsible for perpetual economic growth?
Photo credit: Yang and Yun

To a neutral observer, it certainly can look like magic — like Adam Smith dressed as Merlin, summoning all this visible wealth with his invisible hand. That’s essentially what Wheelan and other economic analysts are saying. Through the magic of free markets, we can produce and consume an ever-increasing amount of stuff (and as a side note, we’ll be rich enough to clean up any associated environmental messes, or at least export them to less enlightened nations).

That’s some trick, but it’s not real magic — it’s just an illusion. If we take a step back and observe what’s happening, we can expose the illusion and see that the market is hiding something up its sleeve: cheap energy. That’s the crowning achievement of a new book called Energy: Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth — it pulls back the curtain on the market’s magic act. With photographs that manage to frighten and inspire at the same time, and with essays that provoke both deep thought and deep concern, Energy clarifies how the economy is able to achieve miracles such as the shipment of papayas to Paris, and it assesses the prospects for keeping the magic going.

Every economic transaction is underwritten by a continuous supply of abundant and cheap energy. This supply “supports the entire scaffolding of civilization.” (p. 8) The complex web of trades and transactions and mass consumption have been made possible by the exploitation of energy-dense fossil fuels. And continued growth of such an economic system requires increasing supplies of energy.

Energy presents facts about the fossil-fueled economy that are well known in several circles but ignored in most:

  • One gallon of gasoline, which costs a few dollars, is so energy-dense that it can push a 3,000-pound vehicle twenty miles.
  • If human labor were used to meet the energy requirements of a typical American lifestyle, more than 100 people (dubbed “energy slaves”) would have to work around the clock for each American.
  • Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, energy use and economic activity have increased in lockstep.
  • Fossil fuels are depletable, and burning them produces serious environmental side effects.

These facts help illuminate the predicament of modern society. We’ve built a set of institutions and a way of life that require continuous economic growth. But such growth is entirely dependent on access to cheap energy. And using more and more cheap energy is digging us into a deeper and deeper hole of spoiled landscapes, unstable climate, and biodiversity loss. But politicians, pundits, and the public have swept this predicament away with the insane assumption that economic growth can go on forever because of things like technological ingenuity, market efficiency, and labor productivity (all of which are dependent on access to cheap energy).

It can be a real downer to contemplate the way humanity has used so many energy resources (resources that were given to us by nature) to dig this hole. But the authors of Energy refuse to wallow at the bottom of the hole. Instead, they construct a ladder with rungs made out of ideas for change — ideas like educating the public to develop widespread energy literacy, conserving both energy resources and natural landscapes, and establishing resilient communities. These rungs offer a hopeful transition to better ways and better days. The hopeful conclusion is that we can figure out how to live the good life in a powered-down economy — an economy that accepts enough as its organizing principle rather than more.

In her lyrical and contemplative afterword, Lisi Krall writes, “Perhaps the real question of progress is not how to forge a new energy frontier, but how to forge a different model of economic organization and purpose, a model that isn’t predicated on never-ending growth and a belief that there are no real biophysical limits.” She believes that it’s time to give the magicians the hook. Luckily Krall and her colleagues in ecological economics, along with the authors of Energy, have been working on an economic model that is based on scientific observation and humility rather than magical thinking and arrogance.

A Practical Proposal to Erase Externalities

by Randy Hayes and Brent Blackwelder

As the global economy grows, it expands into pristine habitats, interferes with critical ecosystems, consumes more resources, and emits more pollutants. Many activities that fall under the banner of economic growth are undercutting the planet’s ecological systems. At the heart of this tragedy are pollution damages that are imposed on society but not factored into company costs. These damages are called externalities because they are externalized by the businesses generating them.

Every day, producers of myriad products impact the biosphere in ways unknown to customers, investors, and policy makers in both host and home countries. By not undertaking the measures necessary to protect ecosystems, these companies avoid responsibility for the damages. And because they have failed to account for the true costs of their businesses, they can sell their products at lower prices than more ecologically responsible companies, gaining an unfair advantage and reaping undeserved profits.

The consumption patterns in many product markets would change if the true costs of production were reflected in the prices of the products, or even if customers, investors, and policy makers had better access to accurate information. There are many possible paths to full internalization of these externalities, but there is no clear map of the territory. As the United Nations Environmental Programme puts it, “in the current absence of sufficient and comparable company disclosures on the environmental impacts of operations and supply chains,” it is difficult to puzzle our way out of the dilemma. In fact, it is virtually impossible to achieve a sustainable economy unless something is done about pollution externalities.

A true-cost economy would align our economic system with nature’s life support systems. Biologists teach us that each living system has feedback loops that allow it to adjust and operate within carrying capacity limits. The human economy is no exception, but we’ve short-circuited an important feedback loop by letting companies externalize the costs of their pollution. The time has come to adopt systematic rules that add pollution costs to the prices of goods and services. Such rules would provide critical information that is necessary to keep the scale of the economy within the planet’s carrying capacity. A true-cost system would solve real problems, but how can we put such a system in place?

A small change at SEC headquarters could have big effects.

The mission of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is to protect investors, maintain fair, orderly, and efficient markets, and facilitate capital formation. Although the SEC requires public companies to disclose certain financial information, it does not require them to disclose information about their health and environmental externalities. Changing the requirements could produce widespread positive impacts.

Public companies are responsible for as much as one-third or more of all pollution externalities. By requiring these companies to track and report the costs that they typically externalize, we would not only set a legal precedent, but we would also begin to instigate the much deeper social and cultural changes needed to achieve a true-cost economy. If we can compel the largest and often most intransigent corporations to disclose how they are impacting the planet, truth and honesty can begin to displace “dark costs” and secrecy. With such a cultural shift, we will perhaps no longer be talking about imposing disclosure requirements, but rather enjoying increased cooperation and forthrightness.

In the meantime, the transition to a true-cost economy calls for mandatory, annual disclosure of externalities — ecological impact disclosures — by every company that falls under SEC jurisdiction (effectively all U.S. public companies and some foreign issuers as well). Adoption of ecological impact disclosures can be done by successfully petitioning the SEC, passing federal legislation, or both.

CERES (a prominent nonprofit organization), religious groups, and pension funds have pushed for shareholder resolutions and achieved important successes toward institutionalizing broader disclosures. Other groups have petitioned the SEC to adopt a flexible environmental, social, and governance (ESG) reporting framework, such as that developed by the Global Reporting Initiative. These efforts are worth applauding, but we need a bigger, bolder solution that confronts the magnitude of the problem and paves the way for a sustainable, true-cost economy.

The best route is to empower the SEC to force each public company to provide an annual ecological impact disclosure. Such a disclosure would be more effective than a flexible or voluntary framework — it would require specific data, reported in standard forms. Each reporting company would provide information about its own operations as well as those of other companies in its supply chain. In addition to aggregate, company-wide information, companies would provide site-specific data so that the public can determine where impacts are occurring.

Many investors have been calling for this sort of information to help them make better decisions about where to put their money. But this is precisely the kind of information that has been kept from the public for the past century. Keep an eye on the efforts at Foundation Earth over the next year to remedy this situation.

Randy Hayes is the founder of the Rainforest Action Network. Brent Blackwelder, a regular contributor to the Daly News, is the president emeritus of Friends of the Earth.

More People, Less Unemployment?

by Max Kumerow

Bill Clinton took a welcome step toward reality. In his Democratic Convention speech, he pointed out that cutting taxes on rich people and fighting endless wars increased federal debt, and more of the same would make things even worse. Tax cuts and deregulation during the Bush administration failed to bring prosperity and helped cause the global financial collapse and widespread joblessness.

The Chicago School of economics has been preaching for decades, with lots of money from rich people adding to the volume of their message, that low taxes, small government, and deregulation are the road to nirvana. But the last time we had low taxes on the rich and little regulation was called the Great Depression. Clinton, at least, has come to understand that America made a mistake in believing the fairy tale that “government is the problem, so let’s cut rich people’s taxes.”

Clinton still remains bamboozled, however, by the neoclassical nonsense that sees economic growth as the solution to unemployment. On the Daily Show Clinton offered a demographic path to prosperity. He opined that because most of America’s competitors — Russia, Japan, China, and Europe — have low birth rates and aging populations, we will have a younger workforce with a lower old-age dependency ratio, so growth will solve our unemployment and debt problems.

But the notion that population growth cures unemployment is false, just like the idea that cutting taxes on the rich raises revenue and cuts the deficit. The immigration and higher birth rates that keep the population younger also guarantee a higher young-age dependency ratio and a growing population. In a world constrained by high commodity prices and other symptoms of reaching the limits to growth, a growing population leads to high unemployment, rising cost of living, and falling wages. If a young population leads to prosperity, why aren’t places like Nigeria, Rwanda, and Uganda thriving? Why has China gotten so much richer since starting its “one-child” policy?

The fertility rates in all the Asian tiger economies dropped below the replacement level during the decades when their economic output increased dramatically. Hong Kong and Singapore, places with no natural resources and aging populations, have a higher per capita income than the United States. Hong Kong’s 0.97 children per woman and Singapore’s 1.26 are two of the lowest fertility rates in the world.

Birth rates that low mean each generation inherits twice as much as the one before, and a future economy can have full employment with half as many jobs. Scarcer labor means higher wages. New technology and rising productivity can be used to raise incomes instead of what happens with a growing population (i.e., society treads water as the benefits of increasing productivity are canceled out by more people consuming more resources). Low fertility is the path to high incomes and abundance. High fertility is the path to poverty and scarcity.

America’s ongoing population growth has played a role in causing higher unemployment rates, more difficulty funding education, falling real wages for workers, and the incarceration of two and a half million people. You would think that in a country where oil production has fallen by 40% since 1972, a country responsible for so much of the global climate change problem, where forests have been burning, cities have been wrecked by hurricanes, and crops have been withered by drought, we would have learned that more growth is not the answer to unemployment and budget deficits.

Bill Clinton should read ecological economists like Herman Daly. He should pay attention to systems thinkers such as Donella Meadows and Bill McKibben, and consult Al Gore about our ethical responsibilities to future generations. Growth cannot be the solution to unemployment. If all countries decide to grow their populations and their economies, ice will melt, putting cities under sea level, oil will run out, food prices will rise, wages will fall, and human welfare will be reduced, not increased. We will be poorer and fewer people will be able to find jobs.

Common sense says that continuously increasing population makes it harder to keep everyone employed, not easier. The problem is not too few jobs; it’s too many people. There are already too many people consuming too much and diminishing the earth’s long-run carrying capacity.  Economic growth is running into the wall of limited resources on a finite planet. The trends created by economic growth and population growth include higher carbon emissions and climate change, loss of forests, depleted fisheries, soil erosion, species extinctions, toxic contamination, and the possible negative effects of technologies like fracking and genetically modified foods. The path the world is on — economic and population growth — is just as unsustainable as the subprime mortgage market and trillion-dollar federal deficits and will lead to collapse.

Long-run prosperity on a planet with limited land and water and air requires a transition to a steady state economy — a transition which in turn requires a transition to a smaller global population. The higher fertility rates, immigration, and economic growth that Clinton described as the path to prosperity turn out to be the path to collapse.

Do the arithmetic, starting with this year’s federal deficit, the short crop in the Corn Belt, the number of Americans in jail, and cuts to education budgets. Growth has not been the path to full employment or deficit reduction. If Romney was right about tax cuts, we wouldn’t have a federal debt crisis. If Clinton was right about population growth, we wouldn’t have unemployment. It’s time to try something beyond politics as usual.

Max Kummerow has a Ph.D. in urban and real-estate economics. This semester he is a visiting lecturer at Lincoln University in Canterbury, New Zealand.