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 Puzzling Flattening of Carbon Emissions and the Problem of Global Growth

by Kurt Cobb

Editor’s Note: the below was originally published by Resource Insights.

Kurt CobbLast week we learned that maybe, just maybe, global carbon emissions were flat in 2014 even though the global economy supposedly grew by 3 percent. As Brad Plumer of Vox (whose work I greatly respect) points out, carbon emissions have moved up almost in lockstep with economic growth for the entire industrial age except during recessions and one year of growth 40 years ago.

This is why I use “supposedly” when referring to the global economic growth number. It’s because there is another obvious and plausible explanation for the flat carbon emissions, namely, that the global economy did not grow by the stated percentage, that it may have grown only a fraction of that amount or not at all.

Economic measures are constantly being revised, and I think it is very likely that the global economic growth number for 2014 will be revised downward. Probably not to zero, but downward nonetheless. It’s also possible that estimates of carbon emissions are too low. Plumer cites “notoriously unreliable” Chinese emission numbers as one reason to be skeptical.

But, even if 2014 turns out to be a year of growth without rising emissions, we shouldn’t get particularly exercised. Nor should we be particularly excited if it continues for a time. This is because the only trend that will actually address climate change is a RAPID DECLINE in worldwide emissions (as Plumer rightly points out).

Plumer makes one very telling statement in this regard:

If we ever hope to stop global warming, we’ll have to sever that relationship [of economic growth to emissions] — and figure out how to have economic growth while reducing emissions. (Alternatively, we could halt economic growth, but no one wants that.)

“Alternatively, we could halt economic growth, but no one wants that.” Two questions arise from this observation: Is it true that “no one wants that”? Who specifically wants economic growth to continue and why?

The answer to the first question is no; there is, in fact, a small minority of people advocating an end to growth. Herman Daly, former World Bank senior economist, is the acknowledged dean of the steady state economy movement. In a September 2005 Scientific American piece, “Economics in A Full World,” he outlined his case for why there is little room for economic growth and why growth in recent decades has been uneconomic, that is, the cost of such growth has outweighed the benefits.

There are also the deep ecologists who value other species on the planet as much as our own, a view which implies not only an end to economic growth but a serious rollback of industrial civilization. Perhaps Derrick Jensen is the best known of the deep ecologists whose views about how to achieve the proper role for humans on planet Earth varies greatly.

Given that there are people who want to halt or even reverse economic growth, we must now ask the second question: Who wants growth and why?

If we follow Herman Daly’s logic, we have long since passed the point of economic growth and now have “uneconomic growth,” growth that imposes costs greater than the growth is worth: social costs in terms of inequality and environmental costs that undermine the long-term sustainability of human society.

So, who benefits from such growth? We now have a name for this group, the one percent. Those with the highest incomes and greatest financial wealth continue to benefit from such growth since they can both reap disproportionate rewards from it and insulate themselves from the costs associated with it–leaving others to bear them.

When Plumer says that no one wants economic growth to end, what he is unwittingly saying is that the power elite in the world does not want to face the grand implication of a steady state economy–namely, that lower-income groups cannot be assured of a better material existence through economic growth and so such betterment would, of necessity, have to come from the redistribution of wealth.

As long as the chimera of perpetual growth can be sold to the masses, no one will have to deal with the thorny issue of redistribution as the primary method for the economic betterment of the middle and lower classes.

And yet, growth ended for many people around the globe in 2008. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), if you earn the median wage in Kenya, your real income has declined 26 percent from 2008 through 2013. For Greece, the decline has been 24 percent. For prosperous Singapore and Japan the number is minus 1 percent. Egyptian real median income declined 10 percent; the United Kingdom declined 7 percent; Iceland and Italy, 6 percent; Taiwan, 5 percent; Spain and the Netherlands, 3 percent; Ireland, 2 percent; Austria, Luxembourg and the Philippines, all hovered around zero percent growth.

Of course, some prospered. Median wages in Romania, Panama, Paraguay, Norway, Jordan, Poland, Vietnam and Morocco all rose more than 10 percent from 2008 onward. There were standouts: The Brazilian median wage grew by 21 percent; Thailand by 26 percent; China by 74 percent; Mongolia by 75 percent. Ukrainian workers enjoyed a media wage increase of 43 percent through 2013 though it is likely that much of that has since been wiped out by the war and currency crisis there. In the United States, the median wage registered a one percent increase according to the ILO, though homegrown analysis suggests a decline.

The metaphorical tide of economic growth that is supposed to lift all boats is lifting far fewer people much more selectively than before.

On the other hand, if you possess substantial financial assets, you have prospered quite nicely as financial markets post daily records in the face of ever more precarious economic growth numbers around the world. But, only a small portion of the world’s people have any financial assets at all. The fate of a large number of the others has been stagnant or falling incomes or unemployment in an increasingly uncertain world.

Whether economic growth for all the world’s people will return is an open question. The system by which we’ve governed the world economy, a system dependent on central banking, central government spending, the build-up of huge and unsustainable debt, and the ever more rapid depletion of fossil fuels and other resources is showing its decrepitude.

Six years of pedal-to-the-metal monetary policy and government deficit spending have barely nudged world growth forward while levitating financial markets to unsustainable levels (and thereby exacerbating inequality). Such policies in the past would have had the world economy quickly overheating with central bankers responding by hoisting interest rates sky high to rein in inflation and financial excesses.

Instead, the economy remains so weak that the U.S. Federal Reserve had to reassure the world that despite language in its recent public statement that would indicate an imminent increase in interest rates for the first time in 10 years (that’s not a typo), the central bank really wouldn’t be raising them anytime soon after all.

So, maybe flat carbon emissions are actually telling us something “no one” wants to hear: that economic growth has faltered or even halted for a large portion of the world’s people and that we are going to have to deal with the consequences of that until we design a new system that can either grow for the benefit of everyone–a difficult proposition–or that can sustainably, equitably and successfully manage a steady state economy–an even more difficult proposition.

Kurt Cobb is an authorspeaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Review of Collision Course (Endless Growth on a Finite Planet)

Kerryn Higgs, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2014

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyThis informative book is about the rise of economic growth to the status of the number one goal of nations; the short-lived challenge to that dogma from the book The Limits to Growth (1972); the solidity of the Limits position as confirmed by subsequent data and the analyses of others; the intellectual poverty and dishonesty of the growth economists’ reaction against the Limits argument; and how it nevertheless happened that through modern public relations and well-financed ideological think tanks, the intellectually weaker growth arguments prevailed. Higgs focuses on the US story, but with informative parallels from her native Australia.

Higgs documents the cogency of the Limits position and how the business as usual projection of the World Model has for over thirty years fit the data better than any standard economic model. She also exposes how the economists resorted to ridicule and arrogance as a substitute for reasoned refutation in their response to Limits. This story is well known to me because I was a participant in the debate. I can testify that Higgs’ retelling is accurate and insightful. It is also refreshing to me that MIT Press published her book. This indicates the welcome likelihood that some anonymous member of the MIT department of economics no longer has a veto over the decisions of the MIT Press.*

Collision CourseWhat to me was new and challenging was Higgs’ detailed historical consideration of the following question: given that the Limits position is fundamentally correct, and that the growth economists’ “refutation” is based on ignorance, vested interests, and dishonesty, how did it come to pass that the economists’ erroneous position prevailed over the much more cogent and scientifically based Limits position? That it has done so can hardly be doubted, even if one still hopes for better in the future. For those of us who believe in the persuasive power of reasoned argument, this fact, and Higgs’ explanation of it, is a real kick in the head. Nor does it bode well for democracy. How did it happen? Can we learn from it? Can we recover from it?

The starting point for Higgs’ explanation is the classic 1928 work, Propaganda, by Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, and pioneer in public relations. Bernays wrote:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country . . . It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind, who harness old social forces and contrive new ways to bind and guide the world.

Propaganda becomes advertising, which becomes public relations identifying “the greater good” as defined and propagated by well-endowed “public interest” think tanks. According to Higgs, soon-to-be Associate Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, Jr.’s 1971 memorandum to the US Chamber of Commerce gave strategy and operational structure to Bernays’ philosophy. It led to the establishment of think tanks with the explicit purpose of defending “free-market capitalism” against labor unions, welfare legislation, and taxes on business. This docket was extended to include combating environmentalism and any questioning of the primacy of economic growth that would only “confuse” the masses. This opposition was already being put in place by the 1972 publication of Limits.

Democracy presupposes a citizenry capable of thinking for themselves rather than being misled by propaganda. But with the average family now holding two full-time jobs that are often uncertain, plus raising kids, there is little time for keeping informed and understanding increasingly complex economic issues. The appeal of easy ready-made answers lends force to Bernays’ cynical view of democracy as the art of manipulating the opinions of the masses.

In addition to the business PR opposition, there was the fierce opposition of academic economists who were religiously committed to the “Keynesian-Neoclassical growth synthesis.” The Limits argument had to be opposed because if it were true, then very many very important economists would have been very wrong about a very important issue for a very long time. So Limits faced the united opposition of business interests represented by the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the propagandistic think tanks, and the academic economists. In the face of such concerted opposition, it is remarkable that Limits, by virtue of logical argument based on scientific premises, managed to get the significant hearing that it temporarily did. But it has not prevailed against the overwhelming growth coalition.

One of the verbal PR tricks is to use the word “free” as in “free market” and “free trade,” instead of the more precise word “deregulated.” The deregulated market, with deregulated global trade and deregulated finance, is destroying the freedom of the vast majority to attain a sufficient income for a decent life. Higgs shows how income and wealth have been enormously concentrated by the growth economy, and chides the Left, with which she is usually sympathetic, for being stubbornly slow to recognize the costs of growth, and for persisting in the belief that the “bigger pie theory” is the best hope for the working class.

The anti-Limits PR apparatus is so strong now that it even dares to oppose science in order to defend growth. This is most evident today in the denial of climate change and the attack on climate scientists financed by the fossil fuel industry. This strategy of “sowing and selling doubt” was previously used with some success by the tobacco industry. The American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, The Club for Growth, the Heartland Institute, etc. can be counted on to conduct “independent” studies that reach conclusions supporting deregulated international trade, deregulated finance, repeal of environmental and welfare legislation, etc., all in the name of growth.

Even the public policy schools in universities, which have been relatively independent and objective, are now often staffed by joint appointments with these moneyed think tanks. This I have observed from having taught in a school of public policy for fifteen years. Economics departments, where I also have long experience, have become almost irrelevant, as Joan Robinson put it some time ago, having “run off to hide in thickets of algebra, leaving the important questions to journalists,” –who by default then get their information from the think tanks. And of course the corporate media are only too happy to eat what they are freely fed.

At least the Limits debate aroused economists from their dogmatic slumber enough to make a few ad hominem counter-attacks in self-defense. But they are too self-confident to see the need for actual thought, and have gone back to sleep. Higgs’ book is a wake-up call, but offers little on specifically what policies to adopt once awake. Maybe that will be the subject of a future effort–first things first, she might well say.

A short review cannot do justice to such an excellent and detailed book. In conclusion I want to return to the point that Higgs’ explanation of the ascendancy of the weaker anti-Limits position constitutes a kick in the head for those of us who believe in the persuasive power of reasoned argument. Higgs’ book itself is a reasoned argument. She has clearly not given up on persuasion. But she reminds those of us who have a tendency to forget, that reason and honesty must confront power and corruption, not just honest error. Even correcting the honest error requires a substantial paradigm shift–a change from the pre-analytic vision of the economy as the whole with nature as a part, to the recognition that the economy is the part. The economy is an open subsystem of the enveloping ecosphere that is finite, non-growing, materially closed, and entropic. Reason and truth will ultimately prevail, but Higgs makes it clear that it will take longer and be a more costly fight than many of us have imagined.

 

*For details the interested reader may see H. Daly, Beyond Growth, fn. 5 on p. 225.

A New Economy Will Help Save Rivers and Fisheries

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderGlobalization and cheater economics have been destroying the world’s great rivers and their fisheries. Most people know about the devastation of rivers from water pollution, but not as many are aware of the significant impacts of big dams, river engineering, and real estate development in and on top of rivers. These activities can seriously damage fisheries and impair the natural functions of riverine ecosystems. A true-cost, steady state economy would, for the most part, avoid the continuing tragic dismantlement of rivers and fisheries.

The following three activities are causing major harm to rivers and fisheries, but would not occur in a true-cost, steady state economy.

Coal Ash Cesspools

The mining and burning of coal have come under enormous scrutiny because of the air pollution, water pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions they cause. There is another major but relatively unknown water pollution threat from coal burning, in addition to the smoke plume at the power plant–coal fly ash pits. After coal is burned at a power plant to generate electricity, the ash residue (which can contain serious toxins such as mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, etc.) is dumped into unlined ponds or pits near the power plant. These toxic cesspools, as they should be called, cause contamination of surface water, well water, and adjacent lands.

In February of 2014, one of Duke Energy’s dozens of coal ash cesspools malfunctioned, sending toxic sludge 70 miles down the Dan River in North Carolina and into Virginia. Six years earlier (December, 2008) a coal ash cesspool operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority broke, sending even greater quantities of toxic water and sludge into a tributary of the Tennessee River.

Independent testing of coal ash cesspools reveals a Pandora’s Box of toxins, findings that generally contradict assertions by utilities that things are okay. This growing issue amounts to a deadly in-your-face utility circus, flouting the law and flaunting the political power of utilities over state legislatures.

Utilities are doing what would never be allowed in a true-cost economy: they are externalizing the costs of dealing with fly ash from burning coal. Were they to include the health and pollution damages, the costs of coal would skyrocket and its use would be rapidly phased out.

Giant Dams

The economic evidence over the last 70 years against large dams has been assembled by economists at Oxford University (UK). They found, on average, large dam projects in developing countries exceed their construction cost budget by 90%, and often take over 10 years to complete.

Tonle Sap Lake Fish - Shankar S

Fish from Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake, one of the most fertile inland fisheries in the world, are facing threats from dams in the nearby Mekong River. Photo Credit: Shankar S

In addition, most mega-hydrodams omit genuine cost-accounting for their sometimes enormous adverse environmental and social impacts. For example, the public tends to think of hydroelectric power as a clean source of energy, not realizing that dams may be responsible for over 20% of the human-caused methane emissions. (Methane is a 20-30 times more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.) In Asia, the Mekong River contains the world’s largest inland fishery and provides livelihood for an estimated 60 million people. Large dams are planned across the mainstem of the river that would destroy the fish migrations of more than 200 species. One proponent of these dams said, “don’t worry, the people can just buy their fish from a fish farm once the river fish disappear.”

Again, a true-cost economy does not condone the blatant failure to include all the costs. See my February 2015 blog “Crossroads on Global Infrastructure” for more details on large infrastructure projects.

River Engineering and Response to Weather Disasters

In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, New York and New Jersey received about $60 billion in relief and assistance. Instead of avoiding more development in top hazard zones, a burst of building permit applications has been made for more activities in and on top of the Hudson River, all in a number one hazard zone. A lot of this real estate development on piers would harm crucial habitat for over 100 fish, plant, and animal species. The proposals include such reckless propositions as an amphitheater and trees on an artificial “island” in the river. This is not free-enterprise development, but subsidized activity that eventually will necessitate a taxpayer “emergency relief bill” following the next hurricane or superstorm. We will never reach a sustainable economy if we have to keep spending hundreds of billions of dollars globally, bailing out new real estate development where it never should have been.

Real estate developments in and on top of rivers, armor-plating shorelines to enable more construction right on the coast, proliferating coal ash cesspools, and building mega-dams all have something in common. They can damage fishery habitats, disrupt fish migrations, and impair the healthy functioning of rivers in the US and worldwide. A true-cost economy recognizes that healthy rivers and flourishing fisheries are vital economic assets for cities and towns, and has principles that prevent their evisceration. The current globalized economy does not.

Adjusting the Fifth to a Finite Planet, Part II

by Eric Zencey

Editor’s Note: This is the second piece of a two-part post. You can read Part 1 here.

Eric ZenceyAmong the avenues by which Takings case law could be adapted to the reality of a finite planet are these three:

One: Change the default by changing the definition of what constitutes a reasonable investment expectation. It is no longer reasonable for an individual to expect to profit from using property in ways that would destroy or diminish the property’s ability to provide ecosystem services to the public at large. Instead of the general public having to pay property owners the going market rate for land burdened by regulation–a rate that reflects the most intensive economic use of the land that can be imagined by infinite-growth-believing, financial-risk-taking optimists–land owners would have to compensate the general public when their acts diminish the flow of ecosystems services.

Two: Change the default by promulgating the notion of an ecological servitude. All property that abuts navigable waters in the U.S. is held under a navigational servitude: the public’s interest in maintaining navigable waters trumps the interests of waterfront property owners. As Justice Jackson put it in United States v. Willow River Power Co., “Rights, property or otherwise, which are absolute against all the world are certainly rare, and water rights are not among them.” Given the legitimate authority of government to pursue the public interest in establishing and maintaining navigable waters, he said, “private interest [in the disposition of waterfront property] must give way to a superior right, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that, as against [the public interest represented through] the Government, such private interest is not a right at all.”

Under current interpretations of the servitude, when public authority exercises its power over navigation in ways that affect the interests of property owners, the public may not be required to pay compensation under the Takings Clause. Land abutting navigable waters has always been subject to this servitude, so the exercise of it does not necessarily constitute a taking or an unforeseeable loss for the property owner.

The notion of an ecological servitude would be constructed by analogy: the paramount interest the public has in maintaining the ecosystems on which civilization depends would supersede whatever particular interests individuals hold in parcels of property. Just as allowing uncontested trespass for a number of years establishes a presumptive public right of way, the public’s enjoyment of ecosystem services has long since established a presumptive right to the continued enjoyment of them. An ecological servitude would acknowledge this. A few cases decided on this ground would give undeniable constructive notice to property owners–a notice already implicit in legislation like the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act–that the bundle of rights conveyed to them by title is subject to this limitation.

“Ecological servitude” is not yet a common phrase in legal circles. This should change as various strands of thought and action cohere around the concept, and as scholars discover that it is implicit in much common law and environmental legislation. A variety of groups and organizations (including the state of Louisiana) talk of conservation easements producing, in sum, a conservation servitude on particular parcels of land. An NGO in Costa Rica allows that it created the first ecological servitude in Central America in 1992.

Wetlands - Lisa Jacobs

Preserving the ecosystems that support civilization should not be financially prohibitive. Photo Credit: Lisa Jacobs

Three: Acknowledge that value in land is created as an externality of decisions made by others, and compensate accordingly. Under this approach, an environmental regulation might still offer grounds for a Takings claim, but the notion of what amounts to “just compensation” would be radically altered. Take the case that led the Court to decide that a demand for off-site compensatory restoration constitutes a taking. Developer Coy Koontz owned 15 acres near Orlando, mostly wetlands, and sought a permit to develop the land by filling some of it. He objected to the permit condition that he must pay for compensatory wetlands restoration elsewhere, refused the permit and brought suit. In a remarkable extension of Takings law, the court decided by a narrow majority that Koontz had suffered a taking even though wetlands filling permits are not granted automatically and even though he had not in fact had any property or money taken from him. What the St. Johns River Water Management District proposed to take from him was nothing more substantial than his expectation of getting a larger profit than he could get if he had to pay for mitigation. But why, exactly, could he expect any profit at all for developing and then selling his land? In central Florida as elsewhere, land values are mostly the result of decisions made by others–population growth and in-migration into the area, construction of nearby infrastructure including roads and schools and water service, and proximity to cultural developments that make the area an attractive place to live for some people. These are all decisions in which Koontz had no, or only a very minor, role. If much of the value of a piece of property is not a result of the owner’s efforts, but is a social creation, why should a private owner be compensated when part of that socially created value is retrieved by the public through regulation in pursuit of a legitimate public interest?

Credit Herman Daly and Joshua Farley with asking the question in their introductory Ecological Economics textbook: “Are individuals entitled to wealth created by society . . . or should this wealth belong to society as a whole?” A reasonable answer to that question would have the effect of diminishing considerably what constitutes “just compensation” under the Takings clause–a result that makes ecosystem-preserving public action less expensive, and thereby puts the continuation of civilization within easier reach of a public treasury that will become increasingly straitened as the era of high-EROI fossil fuel comes to an end.

*****

No matter what we do we’ll eventually have an ecologically sustainable civilization with a steady state economy, one that’s in dynamic balance with its host ecosystems. That’s because by definition an unsustainable system doesn’t last. We can make the transition haphazardly, through crisis, catastrophe, and collapse, at much cost in human pain and suffering, or we can anticipate the necessary changes and give ourselves a better, less brutal path forward. To find that path we’ll have to identify and correct infinite-planet suppositions wherever they are embedded in our system. Fifth Amendment Takings case law is one such place. Preserving the ecosystems that support civilization should not be financially prohibitive. Current Takings law says it should, and that’s why it needs to change.

Adjusting the Fifth to a Finite Planet, Part 1

by Eric Zencey

Eric ZenceyInfinite-Planet Thinking is deeply embedded in our political economy. It’s there in the expectation that investments will pay off at a continually compounding rate. It’s there in the unquestioned consensus among elected officials that economic growth is always good–that it can’t possibly ever be uneconomic growth, costing us more in lost natural and social capital than we gain from additional consumption. It’s there in expressions of concern that some key indicator–housing purchases or starts, car sales, or purchases of other durables–has failed to rise from year to year or quarter to quarter. In a steady state, sustainable economy suited to the planet we actually inhabit, indicators like those wouldn’t rise continually. (Most would fall considerably before leveling off, because policy would promote durability and repairability, and manufacturers would be given incentives to use modular construction that would allow regular updating of only those components that need it.) Automobile sales would decline steadily, because a sustainable civilization would invest in mass transit and rapid inter-city rail, turning the private automobile into a major expense that most of us would willingly do without.

One less-obvious place that infinite planet thinking clashes with reality is in American Constitutional law, particularly the case law that has amplified one particular clause of the Fifth Amendment: the clause that forbids government from taking private property for public use without “just compensation.”

*****

The harms that the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause was intended to prevent were familiar to American colonists, as Britain had forced them to bear the costs of war (French and Indian, the Revolution itself) by quartering troops in private homes and by seizing without payment horses, wagons, farm produce, and silage. For a century and a half after the ratification of the Constitution, the Takings Clause was construed to apply only to that kind of physical invasion of property or a taking of title. Thus, in 1915, when the City of Los Angeles expanded its boundaries and enclosed an existing brickyard that was then held to be in violation of nuisance laws and attendant zoning regulations, no compensation was due to the owner whose operations had been summarily shut down (Hadachek v. Sebastian). No physical encroachment, no loss of title, no taking.

That interpretation was overturned in 1922, in Pennsylvania Coal v. Mahon, in which the Supreme Court held that a regulatory change could constitute a taking if the regulations go “too far” in limiting uses of the property.

How far is too far?

The court had difficulty saying. Over time, one sturdy guide emerged: following its decisions in Penn Central Transportation Co. v. New York City (1978) and Kaiser Aetna v. United States (1979), and using language first proposed in a 1967 law review article, the court is most likely to find that a regulatory taking has occurred if a property owner has reasonable, investment-backed expectations to develop the property in ways that new regulation forbids, and no other avenue of development or use is likely to provide a similar return.

A full-scale review and critique of Takings case law from a steady state, finite planet perspective would be useful, but no scholar has yet done such thing. Among the trends visible in Takings case law is this one: in a crowded world that lacks ecological resilience, some acts that would otherwise pass for private become decidedly public in their character and consequence. Thus, a person who plants ornamental cedar trees can see them condemned as public nuisances, and cut without compensation, if they carry a form of tree disease fatal to nearby apple orchards (Miller v. Schoene, 1928). A property owner who wants to fill in a wetland to build a house finds that he can’t–and that he should have known that when he bought the property (Claridge v. New Hampshire Wetlands Board, 1984). Whether a man can build houses on land he owns becomes a matter of public interest if the land happens to be environmentally sensitive barrier island, newly protected by coastal zoning laws (Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, 1992). And whether the owner of an auto parts store can expand her building is not simply a private decision if the addition would encroach on greenspace the town plan identifies as both a future bikeway and an environmentally useful drainage swale (Dolan v. City of Tigard, 1994).

Wetland sm - Glass_House

We need to reset the Fifth Amendment’s default to hold that a taking occurs when property owners deprive their fellow citizens of ecosystem services. Photo Credit: Glass_House

The problem: under current interpretations of the Takings Clause, ecologically wise decisions about wetlands, barrier islands, and drainage swales require financial compensation to landowners affected by them, making preservation of ecosystem services prohibitively expensive. In Lucas and Dolan, the public was required to compensate the landowner at market prices for preventing the socially undesirable construction. A spate of hurricanes has shown how valuable barrier-island ecosystem services can be. If the public has to buy those services back, parcel by parcel, at market prices, suffering the billion-dollar property losses brought by storms begins to look like the least-cost option.

This perverse situation follows logically from the infinite-planet assumptions that lie behind our Anglo-Saxon tradition of property law. An infinite planet has ecosystem services galore–so much that loss of services from any single ecosystem leaves “enough, and as good” remaining. The words are English philosopher John Locke’s, who held that individuals have a right to take from the commons only if their taking meets this proviso. But Locke went on to argue that once money is invented, private appropriation for sale to others leads to economic growth, which can go on forever, releasing us from this limit. “He, that incloses Land and has a greater plenty of the conveniencys of life from ten acres, than he could have from an hundred left to Nature, may truly be said, to give ninety acres to Mankind.”

Locke is all too obviously an infinite planet thinker. Our property law, built on his precepts, finds that a taking occurs when public authority preserves environmental values from private development. We need to reset the Fifth Amendment’s default and run it the other way, to hold that a taking occurs when property owners deprive their fellow citizens of ecosystem services. Anyone who proposes to develop a plot of land should be required to show that the loss of ecosystem services to the public will be insignificant–that the proposed act meets Locke’s original criterion. If it doesn’t, the property owner should be required to pay the cost of mitigation, or of ecosystem restoration elsewhere, or of providing equivalent services from built capital.

Unfortunately, this is just the line of development the Roberts court foreclosed in its 2013 decision in Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District, the latest in the Court’s infinite-planet Takings tradition. (As Donella Meadows once wryly noted, if you want to know where the leverage points are in a complex system, look for where the system’s power is pushing hard in exactly the wrong direction.)

If no equivalent mitigation or replacement is possible, and if there is a reasonable, science-backed expectation that loss of those particular ecosystem services would diminish human wellbeing, then the public has legitimate authority to prevent the destruction of those services without providing compensation. To argue differently is to argue that title to property conveys the right to hold civilization hostage. It’s to argue that if the public wants to secure the blessings of ecosystems to future generations, they’ll have to pony up and buy their children’s future from private owners, parcel by parcel, at current market rates.

That’s not only unrealistic and intergenerationally unjust, it risks the loss of civilization in order to protect the property interests of individuals within that civilization. That’s a very odd thing to do.

Next: three paths forward.

When Growth Trumps Freedom: the Chill in Canada Comes from our Government, not the Weather

by James Magnus-Johnston

[it] smells like the biggest bait and switch this country has ever seen”

Wes Regan, Vancouver Observer

Johnston_photoWith the introduction of Canada’s so-called “secret police” bill, there is increasing concern the rights of the oil patch will trump the rights of ordinary citizens in a new and chilling way–through the kinds of fear tactics you’d sooner expect in Soviet Russia than a western liberal democracy.

Sound like exaggeration? Please prove me wrong.

Bill C-51 would give Canadian national security and intelligence forces the right to monitor ordinary citizens, and even detain them for up to seven days at a time if they are perceived to “interfere with the economic or financial stability of Canada or with the country’s critical infrastructure.” This includes what the government has branded the “anti-petroleum” movement, whose participants have been labelled ‘extremists’ by the Prime Minister and Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). The legislation would subject environmental activists to increased surveillance and intimidation under the guise of preventing terrorism. I wonder how, exactly, a government with strong ties to the oil patch will define ‘economic or financial stability.’

The truly chilling development as a result of Bill C-51 is that a citizen doesn’t have to actually organize a demonstration to trigger the use of new powers. Under this legislation, the agency simply has to suspect that you might do something that interferes with ‘critical infrastructure’ in order to monitor you or pay you a visit.

By stifling free speech and democratic engagement, this effort demonstrates just how far some will go in order to cling to an aging growth-at-all-costs narrative–absurdly pitting human beings against one another and against the planet itself. At worst, this is carbon-fuelled neoliberal fanaticism disguised as pragmatic politics, given that the oil sands contribute about 2% to Canada’s GDP.

I’m not bothered by the notion of confronting terrorism, if that were indeed the explicit purpose of Bill C-51. To confront a problem as complex as terrorism, new techniques need to be adopted to monitor communication activities. But strong monitoring requires strong and transparent oversight, particularly if environmental activists can so casually be described as ‘deliberate threats,’ if not terrorists. And while the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms should prevail in the courts, it’s the lack of oversight that has former legislators and judiciary officials concerned that the courts won’t be able to intervene quickly enough if the security officials go too far.

CSPS Quiz

This screenshot comes from the Facebook page of Andrew Weaver, MLA for Oak Bay-Gordon Head, and was originally captured from the Government of Canada’s new online training course entitled ‘Security Awareness,’ which is being offered by the Canada School of Public Service.

In a show of virtually unprecedented solidarity, a handful of former prime ministers, solicitors general, and Supreme Court justices published a joint statement in a national newspaper last week. They believe this bill represents a decline into underhanded abuse and excessive state intrusion. Already, Canada’s tax agency has been used to spy on Canadian environmental organizations and citizens in what is apparently a coordinated effort between oil companies, the National Energy Board, the RCMP, and Canadian Security Intelligence Services (CSIS). One editorial describes the changes in tax laws as a “dishonourable attack meant to intimidate environmental groups.” These incremental changes have prompted Edward Snowden and Ralph Nader to chime in and issue their own warnings.

Do our elected officials believe it’s acceptable to stifle dissent in a democracy through the use of fear? Are they actually as afraid of extremists who behead others as they are of environmentalists who challenge old conceptions of economic justice? Or is Prime Minister Harper, trained by the University of Calgary as a neoclassical economist, so beholden to the narrative of carbon-intensive growth, that he believes it should undermine the bedrock of a just society–our freedoms and right to self-expression? A functioning democracy requires dissent so citizens can hold their leaders accountable when they go too far.

I hope this is all simply a sick intimidation exercise, because if Bill C-51 actually represents the erosion of our fundamental freedoms in the name of carbon-intensive growth, this could very well signal the beginning of a dark time. Peaceful resistance to burning fossil fuels cannot be futile.

I should clarify that I’m not just embodying the voice of the left wing fringe in Canada. In fact, I happen to believe the principles of a steady state economy–an economy that is truly economically stable–is fully coherent with traditional ‘conservative’ values. Former conservative Prime Minister Joe Clark is one of the leading voices cautioning against allowing national security services to administer justice without proper oversight. As he mentioned, the problem is that secret police services perform “in the shadows,” and can destroy lives by allowing suspicion to run rampant before the appropriate checks and balances can be applied in the courts. C-51, he argues, could be more damaging than no bill at all.

The only thing that would be more disturbing than the idea that our government believes these actions are just, is the prospect that Canadians might be too afraid and passive to challenge this bill. Perhaps we adore our oppressors more than we ought to. And by oppressors, I’m not just referring to the authors and supporters of C-51. I’m talking about our own propensity to consume and accumulate ad nausem, amusing ourselves to death as our civil liberties are eroded in plain sight.

So let’s hope all this talk of secret police is indeed exaggerated. While some environmentalists may feel afraid and needlessly manipulated, others will speak out and shame Canada on the international stage. If this whole charade becomes too absurd, some of us may even consider moving to Denmark, or Germany, where more sophisticated governments have chosen to confront a challenging future with foresight rather than intimidation.

Or more optimistically, maybe we can see this as a promising step on the road to real change. Arthur Schopenhauer said that “all truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” Perhaps we have arrived at stage two, with the government playing the role of the violent opposition. If so, I look forward to stage three–acceptance–being right around the corner.

Potential New Allies in the Effort to Achieve a Sustainable True Cost Economy

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderThose who want a true cost, steady state economy need some new, powerful allies. We need allies that stretch across the political spectrum, from liberal to conservative. We need allies that can speak from a values perspective to bring moral considerations to bear on the discussion.

Neither the environmental movement nor the progressive movement possesses enough political strength to overcome the most powerful economic interests in the world. These potent interests include the oil and coal industries, banks, agribusiness, mining and chemical companies, Wall Street, etc. Congress will not act on big economic changes because too many members depend on election money from these very same economic interests.

Faith-based communities could play an important role because they can reach across the conservative-liberal spectrum, have member congregations that convene on a weekly basis, and can speak with a moral voice that moves people to action. Such an approach may work well with the growing number focused on serious environmental problems because the root cause of many of such problems is the system of cheater economics that dominates today’s economy.

During the 1970s and 1980s, some of us worked with churches on various environmental concerns. These efforts have been expanding and today, the environment is a common topic among the faithful. For example, consider the mission statement of Interfaith Power & Light, established over a decade ago by Reverend Sally Bingham:

The very existence of life–life that religious people are called to protect–is jeopardized by our continued dependency on fossil fuels for energy. Every major religion has a mandate to care for Creation. We were given natural resources to sustain us, but we were also given the responsibility to act as good stewards and preserve life for future generations.

Interfaith Power & Light has engaged hundreds of congregations, has affiliates in 38 states, educated thousands of people of faith about the moral mandate to address global warming, and helped pass California’s landmark climate and clean energy laws. Christian environmentalists such as Matthew and Nancy Sleeth have formed an educational group, Blessed Earth, to equip faith-based communities to become better stewards of the earth and have written books about the duty of caring for creation, including Almost Amish; The Gospel According to the Earth; and Go Green, Save Green. To illustrate this point, I present a sample of five defects in today’s unsustainable economy, followed by the kind of response faith-based communities could make.

  • Defect: Assigning future generations close to zero value and obsessively focusing on the quarterly return. Rapacious commercial logging, for instance, can wipe out forests that are needed to sustain future generations with water, fuel, fish, and wildlife.

    Moral Response: We care about future generations and have a responsibility to care for the environment and not leave a polluted earth for our children and grandchildren.

  • Defect: Pushing for massive expansion of the consumer economy. Today’s economy is involved in a relentless drive to sell a never-ending array of consumer goods.

    Moral Response: Most denominations preach against excessive materialism. (“Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth where moss and rust doth corrupt and where thieves break through and steal.” Matthew 6:19)

  • Mt Top Removal - James Holloway

    Faith-based communities can become powerful allies in the fight to stop growth at all costs, including the once forested Kentucky mountains. Photo Credit: James Holloway

    Defect: Offering economic justifications for extraordinary environmental destruction, such as mountain-top coal removal mining.

    Moral Response: Such practices are an attack on the earth and cause serious harm to local residents–their health, their water supply, and their homes, leaving the once biologically forested mountains of West Virginia with a Martian landscape.

  • Defect: Permitting enormous pollution externalities to be shoved off on fellow competitors and on the public. Today’s economy tolerates cheater economics in which products do not reflect the real ecological costs of their manufacture and usage.

    Moral Response: We are charged with loving our neighbors, not poisoning them. Prices of consumer goods should reflect the damages being done to obtain the raw materials and energy used in their production and in their usage or consumption.

  • Defect: Counting population growth as an asset when in most places it is a liability that pushes localities as well as states to exceed the carrying capacity of their environment. None of the great challenges to the health of the earth’s life-support systems are made easier by having more people. World population today exceeds 7 billion and is headed to between 9 and 11 billion by 2050. The tax code in many places encourages more population growth and the global economy depends on a growing supply of cheap labor.

    Moral Response: While there is a large rift among religious denominations over the question of abortion, the population question is directly addressed in Chapter 1 of Genesis. The blessing “be fruitful and multiply” is first given to every kind of animal, including crawling things, then to humans. Thus, humans must take their blessing in the context of the previous blessings by God and live so that the earth is flourishing with many kinds of life.

In summary, those who seek a true cost, steady state economy should work with faith-based communities to discuss how the crucial linkage between serious problems like climate disruption and new economic policies to achieve a sustainable economy fit into their work.

By raising objections to cheater economics, to pollution externalities, and to phony benefit-cost analyses used to justify grotesque environmental practices (such as tar sands oil and mountain top removal), faith-based communities will make a difference. These coummunities can speak with moral authority about caring for future generations, about caring for God’s creation, and about loving one’s neighbors–not polluting them.

Note: Brent Blackwelder received a Ph.D. in moral philosophy from the University of Maryland in 1975 and was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Virginia Theological Seminary in May of 2014.

Who Moved Obama’s Win-Win Cheese?

by Brian Czech

BrianCzechWhether or not you like President Obama or his policy preferences, you have to acknowledge his consistency. Even those with “zero regard” for the president confess, “At least Obama is consistent.”

But not consistently. There is one issue, at least, on which he hasn’t held still, moving in and out like an octopus in a sunken ship. That issue is the relationship between economic growth and environmental protection. Based on his state of the union address, his current tack is a mixture of avoidance and vague allusion.

Yet Obama’s inconsistency on this issue is nothing to be hypercritical of. In fact, given this recent turn, we might even say, “At least Obama is inconsistent.” As odd as that may sound, it’s better to be inconsistent when you were, at one time, dangerously wrong.

Obama’s rhetoric on the issue has basically been through three phases, which can be categorized and paraphrased as:

  • Integrity phase. “Economic growth is ultimately not sustainable, and that’s becoming more apparent. We need a new economic model that protects the environment, like a steady state economy.” This was the pre-presidential, relatively innocent phase, a distinctive feature of the original Obamanomics.
  • Win-win phase. “There is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.” Obama ventured onto this slippery slope of win-win rhetoric during the run-up to his re-election.
  • Avoidance phase. “Economic growth is my top priority, and let me elaborate on that… (Oh and by the way, we also have to protect the planet.)” In the state of the union address, this notion of protecting the planet was limited to climate change mitigation, and even this was kept in a separate compartment from growing the economy. No more win-win, growth and environmental protection. In fact, Obama used the word “environment” exactly zero times.

The progression from Obamanomics to the win-win rhetoric, while cynical, was predictable, but what happened next? What caused the President to retreat from win-win, nearly all the way back to a position of environmental irrelevance? After all, win-win has held a central spot on the Politician Bingo card for as long as baby boomers and younger can remember. Furthermore, the shining example of win-win since the late 1980s has been the marriage of economic growth to environmental protection. The wedding of these opposites allowed presidential candidates, from left to right, to appeal to pro-growth and pro-environment interests simultaneously. It didn’t matter that it was a scientifically fallacious shotgun wedding. It worked at the political altar.

Bingo Card

So what happened? Did Obama move his own win-win cheese, or did some speechwriter move it for him? It’s not like we have a trail – say a money trail – that’s easy to follow. With a lot of issues it’s easy to backtrack a politician from his or her mouth all the way back to Big Money. It might be big gun money generating rhetoric like “a good guy with a gun in every school,” or big tobacco money puppeteering, “I believe tobacco is not addictive.” No matter how wrong, such well-endowed rhetoric sticks around long after everybody understands how fallacious it is. Eventually, though, it either goes away or becomes an icon of ridicule.

Yet Obama’s dropping of the win-win rhetoric is different, because there is no money to be had from doing so. Big Money, even its better side in the grant-awarding foundations, will have nothing to do with talk about stabilizing the size of the economy or even slowing the rate of growth. In fact, Little Money doesn’t want much to do with it either. This explains the plethora of organizations promoting various notions of a “new” economy or a “green” economy without coming clean on the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection. They’re all chasing the money to keep their boats afloat.

Will the ironies ever cease?

Yet there are two things – both extremely powerful – that clarify the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, loud and clear. One is science; the other is common sense.

The science is sound and sufficient, but it’s not like the libraries are overflowing with it because, again, there’s little money available for such research. Therefore this type of research–ecological macroeconomics we might call it–tends to be swamped out by Big-Monied, “neoclassical” economics with its fallacious theories of perpetual growth. But ecological macroeconomics is there for the reading: theoretical and empirical detail about the trade-off between economic growth and biodiversity conservation, a stable climate, and ecological integrity in general. And we know that Obama’s science advisor, John Holdren, has a background in the environmental impacts of economic growth.

So Obama’s relinquishing of the win-win rhetoric probably stems from a mixture of scientific awareness, plain old common sense, and perhaps a sense of pride. Obama recognizes that, with a short two years of presidency remaining, his legacy is ever more on the line. It would be a shame to end up like President Clinton, for example, who is haunted by the inconvenient irony of his own unmitigated and relentless win-win rhetoric that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.”

Whatever the explanation may be, let’s hope Obama sticks with phase 3, or even comes full circle to phase 1, the more innocent Obamanomics with its recognition that economic growth is unsustainable and increasingly harmful in a century already slated for extinctions, climate change, water supply shocks and the like, all in proportion to our obsession with increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate, otherwise known as economic growth.

Let’s also hope he starts using the word “environment” again, prominently and eloquently. This is the 21st century: the environment should be a central feature when assessing and discussing the state of the union. Let’s even hope Obama starts re-connecting the two issues–environment and economy–but this time so publics and policy makers on both sides of the aisle get used to dealing frankly with the trade-off. Only then can we hope for policies that protect the environment, sustain the economy, re-secure the United States, and help to stabilize the international community.

Oil and Real Estate Bubbles in Canada: What Goes up Won’t so Smoothly Come Down

by James Magnus-Johnston

Johnston_photoFive years ago, I noted how unsustainable Canadian economic growth is fuelled by debt, which is leveraged to increase the prices–and ‘profitability’–of assets like oil holdings and real estate. It might as well be called “phantom growth,” because it’s bound to disappear in due course. When prices are high, the debt-based Ponzi scheme functions; when prices sustain lows, the scheme unravels. With Canada’s oil and real estate sectors both apparently slowing down, will it lead to a ‘Minsky moment?’

Economist Hyman Minsky studied financial instability as a result of debt accumulation, and his work was largely ignored by mainstream economists. He noted that debt-heavy capitalist economies exhibit inflations and deflations that tend to spin out of control–inflation feeds inflation and deflation feeds deflation. The ‘Minsky moment’ is the moment where our financial system begins to experience deflationary stress due to price shifts. Historically, government interventions to contain debt spirals were not terribly competent, and–other factors notwithstanding–the sheer volume of debt that has been leveraged makes the global economy poised for contraction. Canada’s recent dependence upon asset inflation makes it particularly vulnerable.

Where has all the Money Come From?

Debt has been leveraged in several investment streams, including derivatives, securities, and ordinary debt. After 2008, international quantitative easing–essentially the creation of money from nothing–has partly facilitated further investment in unconventional and costly oil production methods. As long as international prices and investment levels remain high, it is feasible for unconventional oil to achieve a return on the huge amounts of money and energy required to get it out of the ground. But the longer oil prices remain low, the longer investors will be exposed to defaults.

Investors include ordinary folks by virtue of our holdings in pension funds and RRSPs. Laricina Energy has defaulted on financing extended by Canada’s largest pension fund, the public Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board. We can likely expect defaults to international investors as well, which should create upward pressure on interest rates as investors try to cover exposure to losses.

Photo Credit: Robert Fairchild

These debt-fuelled investments likely won’t come down as smoothly as they went up. Photo Credit: Robert Fairchild

Optimism in the resource extraction industry–despite its disproportionately small role in creating jobs for Canadians–has fostered optimism in other parts of the economy, including real estate. One Canadian commentator remarked that the causes for slowdown in the two sectors are “completely unconnected.” They’re quite well-connected when you notice that in both areas, investors are ‘conservatively’ lending their money to what they think are sure bets, with the expectation of certain returns. In both cases, debt has been leveraged systemically to push prices higher.

Deutshe Bank has proclaimed that Canada is the most overvalued real estate market in the world, by as much as 63%. Canada’s current Bank Governor, Stephen Poloz (who is subject to ‘home country bias’) concedes that the market is overvalued, but by only 30% in his estimate–if only prices were quite so objective! As defaults in other sectors of the economy put upward pressure on interest rates, investment slows. Sure bets become bad bets, and real estate ‘growth’ will evaporate, too.

Debt and the Growth Imperative

Growth–even when it’s illusory or damaging–is an imperative in debt-heavy economies because the economy must expand by at least the rate of interest; if this doesn’t happen, the risk of default is potentially catastrophic. As Richard Douthwaite writes, the choice is between growth and collapse in a debt-based banking system due to the contagion of default–not growth and stability. In order to feed the growth imperative, we’ve normalized the practice of using debt to gamble on unsound high-return investments. In a saner banking system that didn’t require growth at the rate of interest, deflation might be cause for relief among millennials who have been priced out of the real estate market, or among those who have general concerns about the long-term consequences of unconventional oil production.

But in an overgrown lending system that feeds phantom growth, what goes up doesn’t so smoothly come down. After a string of defaults in the unconventional oil sector, credit would tighten, oil prices would react with further unpredictable volatility, and the banking system could require either the kind of government bailout we saw in 2008, or a ‘bail-in,’ where bondholders would cover some of the losses by providing equity for the bank. Canadians have likely forgotten by now that the federal government passed legislation in 2013 that allows banks to take money from bondholders.

Most importunately, unsustainable debt drives the expansion of the physical economy as a self-reinforcing (‘positive’) feedback, despite the fact that we’re pushing up against the planet’s physical limits. Debt is the engine of growth which drives climate change and rapid biodiversity loss.

The Steady State Solution to Overleveraging

It’s insane to require growth just to pay for the invented convention of ‘interest,’ which is at odds with basic physics and the fundamental geochemistry of the planet. But that’s how we roll these days. We celebrate the overexuberant rise in home values, all too willing to count this rise as positive GDP growth. We encourage spending money on products faster than it’s earned, and the debt-backed economy commands us to repeat this inherently unstable practice until the bubbles burst and the financial system collapses.

If we’re staring down the barrel of another inevitable financial crisis due to the fact that instability is built right into the system, why don’t we try doing things a little differently next time? When confronted with another need for a bail-out, rather than “priming the pump” and resurrecting a dead financial system, governments should gradually reduce the ability of banks to leverage so much. Maybe we could even begin to invest in more meaningful things, like small businesses that re-localize and de-carbonize the economy.

As Herman Daly suggests, increasing the fractional reserve requirement would have the effect of reducing risky lending. He writes,

With 100% reserves every dollar loaned to a borrower would be a dollar previously saved by a depositor (and not available to him during the period of the loan), thereby re-establishing the classical balance between abstinence and investment. With credit limited by saving (abstinence from consumption) there will be less lending and borrowing and it will be done more carefully–no more easy credit to finance the massive purchase of “assets” that are nothing but bets on dodgy debts.

By decreasing the potential to ‘leverage’ assets, the relationship between real savings and investment would be restored, and we wouldn’t be encouraging periodic wild swings in the economy and spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need. After all, when confronted with rapid biodiversity loss, climate change, and other serious planet-wide problems, indulging the whims of a risk-prone banking system seems to me an unnecessary distraction, particularly if what goes up doesn’t so smoothly come down.

A Population Perspective on the Steady State Economy

by Herman Daly

DalyA steady state economy is defined by a constant population and a constant stock of physical capital. In a way it is an extension of the demographer’s model of a stationary population to include non living populations of artifacts, with production rates equal to depreciation rates, as well as birth rates equal to death rates. The basic idea goes back to the classical economists and was most favorably envisioned by John Stuart Mill.

The population problem should be considered from the point of view of all populations–populations of both humans and their things (cars, houses, livestock, crops, cell phones, etc.)–in short, populations of all “dissipative structures” engendered, bred, or built by humans. Both human bodies and artifacts wear out and die. The populations of all organs that support human life, and the enjoyment thereof, require a metabolic throughput to counteract entropy and remain in an organized steady state. All of these organs are capital equipment that support our lives. Endosomatic (within skin) capital–heart, lungs, kidneys–supports our lives quite directly. Exosomatic (outside skin) capital supports our lives indirectly, and consists both of natural capital (e.g., photosynthesizing plants, structures comprising the hydrologic cycle), and manmade capital (e.g., farms, factories, electric grids).

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. What keeps this from being an idiotic activity–depleting and polluting, 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. As John Ruskin said, “there is no wealth but life.”

Ownership of endosomatic organs is equally distributed, while the ownership of exosomatic organs is not, a fact giving rise to social conflict. Control of these external organs may be democratic or dictatorial. Our lungs are of little value without the complementary natural capital of green plants and atmospheric stocks of oxygen. 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. Therefore all life-supporting organs, including natural capital, form a unity with a common function, regardless of whether they are located within the boundary of human skin or outside that boundary.

Our standard of living is traditionally measured by the ratio of manmade capital to human beings–that is, the ratio of one kind of dissipative structure to another kind. Human bodies are made and maintained overwhelmingly from renewable resources, while capital equipment relies heavily on nonrenewable resources as well. 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 collective evolution of the human species is now overwhelmingly centered on exosomatic organs. We fly in airplanes, not with wings of our own. This exosomatic evolution is goal-directed, not random. 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, becomes the de facto purpose, the social glue that keeps things from falling apart. But what happens when growth becomes uneconomic, when it begins to increase environmental and social costs faster than production 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, in order to provide still more growth in the future. Growth is the summum bonum–end of discussion!

In the light of these considerations, let us reconsider 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 average lifetimes to one with high average lifetimes. Statistically such transitions have often been observed as standard of living increases. Many studies have attempted to explain this correlation, 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.

Planned Obsolescence - James Provost

Our products must transform from high production and planned obsolescence to low production and durability. Photo Credit: James Provost

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 GDP-oriented focus on maximizing production flows (birth rates of artifacts) that keeps us in the pre-transition mode, giving rise to low product lifetimes, planned obsolescence, and high resource 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 per unit of stock (longer human and product lifetimes) is desirable in both cases, at least up to some distant limit.

The second thought I would like to add is a question: does the human demographic 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 hoped for. Of course indirect reduction in fertility by automatic correlation with rising standard of living is politically easy, while direct fertility reduction is politically very difficult. But what is politically easy may be environmentally ineffective.

Also, even if a nation follows the demographic transition and achieves a balance between births and deaths, there is still the problem of immigration. In the US, Canada, and Western Europe, for example, nearly all population growth is due to net immigration. A mix of genuine humanitarianism and legitimate refugee needs on the one hand, with class-based cheap labor policies and ethnic politics on the other, has made immigration control politically divisive. If population pressure in pre-transition countries is eased by net emigration, while the benefits of population equilibrium in post-transition countries are erased by growth from net immigration, does that not weaken the basic causes of the demographic transition itself? In the face of increasingly open borders, high fertility seems less likely to be brought down by the automatic demographic transition. True, high-fertility immigrants into low-fertility countries eventually adopt the fertility behavior of the receiving country, but that takes a generation or more.

In a finite world, some populations grow at the expense of others. Homo sapiens and Mechanistra automobilica are now competing for land, water, and sunlight to grow either food or fuel. More nonhuman “bodies” will at some point force a reduction in human bodies. This forced demographic transition is less optimistic than the voluntary one induced by chasing a higher standard of living by engendering fewer dependents. In an empty world we saw the trade-off between products and people as motivated by desire for a higher standard of living. In the full world, that trade-off is forced by competition for limited resources.

The usual counter to such thoughts is that we can improve the efficiency by which resource throughput maintains dissipative structures. 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 the number of births, and neither do I. We have, however, been busy breeding and genetically engineering larger and faster-growing plants and livestock, as well as building larger exosomatic organs, so that we become smaller relative to the other organisms we depend on, although we remain the same size absolutely. So far, in the empty world, the latter dissipative structures have been complementary with populations of human bodies, but in our finite and full world, the relationship has become competitive.

Indeed, if we think of population as the cumulative number of people ever to live over time, instead of those simultaneously living, then many artifact populations have long been 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 tomorrow’s vital use of capturing solar energy (plows, solar collectors, dams, windmills). 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 currently shines on the barren moon.

If our ethical understanding of the value of “sustainability” (longevity with sufficiency) is to “maximize” cumulative lives ever to be lived, subject to a per capita consumption level sufficient for a good life, then we must limit the load we place on the earth at any one time. Fewer people, and lower per capita resource consumption, facilitated by more equitable distribution, mean more (and more abundant) lives for a longer, but not infinite, future. There is no point in maximizing the cumulative number of lives lived in misery, so the qualification “sufficient for a good life” is important, and requires deep rethinking of economics, and a shift of focus from growth to sufficiency, including sufficient habitat for other species. It also requires rethinking of the traditional pro-natalist dogmas of the fundamentalist branches of most religions, including Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. The modern secularist religions of Marxism and Scientism likewise proselytize for the Ecumenical Church of Growthism while ignoring population.