The Limits of Efficiency

A few months ago I wrote about the myth of decoupling – how you cannot separate economic growth from environmental impact. I touched on a topic in that post that is critical to the argument against continued economic growth: the limits of efficiency and the physical constraints of thermodynamics on the economy. That post received a lot of good feedback, as well as a few requests to talk about efficiency limits in more detail.

Neoclassical Arguments Defy Natural Laws

Gravity is a basic law of our existence. To hear someone claim that gravity is a myth would be astounding. A large group of people believing such a claim would be even more ridiculous (sounds like climate change deniers, actually). Yet, anyone trumpeting infinite economic growth does just that: makes a claim that violates basic laws of nature.

You might be asking yourself how I can make such an accusation when we are obviously still growing as an economy. Well, sure we are, but this is actually uneconomic growth, false growth, and debt-driven growth. All that debt is expanding while our natural resources do not – which spells C-O-L-L-A-P-S-E, if you’re curious.

The most common argument for economic growth continuing indefinitely without undermining the environment is “technological progress.” This really means technological efficiency, or our ability to do more with less and less. Neoclassical economists, policy makers, politicians, and even the average citizen today all believe technology will save us in the end. The thought is that we’ll move to an “information economy” or to a “space economy” and produce growth by using less resources.

The basic claim is we will continue to make leaps in technological progress that will maintain economic growth at the same level of ecological impact (resource use, waste, etc). We can make more today with less material per unit and less energy per unit than we could two decades ago. However, as a pointed out in my earlier post, this relative decoupling is weak in comparison to the growth of the economy as a whole. That is besides the point. The matter at hand is efficiency.

We can get better and better at production only to a certain point. Efficiency cannot improve infinitely, therefore the economy cannot rely on it for infinite growth. Period.

Continue reading “The Limits of Efficiency”

Obama Announces Degrowth, Wins Republican Support

President Obama Speaks On Health Care In Portland, Maine
"We Must Forge A Sustainable Nation For All"

In a surprising turn of events, President Barack Obama announced in a press conference today that economic growth could no longer continue as we know it. As a prominent New York magazine quoted, “the press room went silent and after a tension-filled moment, erupted in applause!”

As numerous environmental groups, ecological economists, and people with common sense have been trying for decades to gain political ground on the issue, a left-field bipartisan bill was drafted late last night and rushed through both the House and Senate. News of the conflict between growing the economy and maintaining an environment that can sustain human life was a shock to many in congress. However, conscience and prudence won the day, prompting late-night legislative sessions.

Tomorrow President Obama will sign into law the American Development and Reorientation Act, a comprehensive bill that will overhaul the financial sector, incorporate well-being into national accounts, end fossil fuel subsidies, tax pollution, cap greenhouse gas emissions, remove rights of person-hood from corporations, and provide minimum incomes and cap gaps in wealth – all to provide a more stable and just economic system that focuses on developing our society instead of expanding the size of our economy.

As the President said during the conference,

“By recommitting ourselves to the founding ideals of this great nation, focusing on our possibilities and liberating ourselves from failed ideas and institutions, together we can create a stronger, better nation that secures a fulfilling life for every person and honors the premise of the Declaration of Independence that every individual is endowed with an unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

This amazing turn-about in public policy not only represents the needs of the America people, but ensures a long, prosperous future for our society on this planet. This will go down in history as the first major (gigantic) step towards a sustainable world for all! Well done, Mr President!

**Happy April 1st everyone!**

Capitalism, Socialism and Communism

Okay, I am tired of these terms being used improperly. The last two are thrown around by politicos like they’re handing out free candy. Usually socialism is used by someone (we all know who) to label something they want to attack without using an actual argument or facts to support their opinion (also called bullshit).

Let’s quickly review the actual definitions of these three types of systems:

Capitalism: An economic system that allows private ownership of production. That’s it, that’s all capitalism actually entails – not low taxes, or private health care, or small government. Capitalism is simply a system that does not have government control of production (the government doesn’t own the factories, the companies – well, outside of car companies now – or the processes to produce products. Period). Capitalism refers to a type of economy, not a necessarily a type of government (“Social democracies” in Europe are still capitalistic countries, as the government does not control production).

Socialism: An economic system that advocates either public or direct worker ownership and administration of production and allocation of resources. Socialism removes production and wage labor as commodities, maximizing the “use value” instead of the “exchange value” – that is to say, real wealth versus phantom wealth. In a socialist economy the worker owns the production means and rights to resources.

Communism: An economic and social structure that advocates complete public ownership of production and allocation of resources. Communism is by far the most intertwined with political control of classes, wages, and policies to eliminate poverty or wealth gaps. Communism is considered more of a political expansion of the economic system of socialism and has been in the past portrayed as an attempt to create a Marxism utopia through government (ironic, as true Marxism would have no government).

Each of these systems has political ramifications in any society that institutes it. However, capitalism and socialism in-and-of themselves are economic systems. More importantly, none of these systems require economic growth. You can easily have privately owned production (flourishing production) without a continual expansion of the entire economy. Each of them are human creations. Economic growth is a human creation!

Any human system will be flawed, but hopefully we learn from our mistakes and get closer and closer to perfecting it. Perhaps this is humanity’s own Zeno paradox. While communism doesn’t work for us and socialism has its flaws, why should we assume that rampant capitalism is the answer? We should question the flaws in our system and work to correct them. A non-growth economy can be communist, socialist, capitalist, or anything else we want it to be – the economy is our creation.

Newsweek: The No-Growth Fantasy

Newsweek recently published an article titled, “The No-Growth Fantasy: Europe’s Attack on Capitalism.” Calling a no-growth economy a fantasy is a bit delusional, I think continued economic growth is the real fantasy here. I just commented on that article, my response is below – expanded past their comment section’s character limit.

“A large part of what was taken as growth was financed by unsustainable bubbles in credit and asset prices.” Most of our growth in the past 50 years has been nothing but bubbles: credit bubbles, housing bubbles, internet bubbles, property bubbles – even a Uranium bubble. We all hate when the bubble pops, why get back on the growth horse and expect different?

You discuss resource depletion as if it can be thinned down to last forever, while we continue to grow the economy (and therefore, the amount of resources needed). Efficiency is key, for sure. However, you can only get so efficient! If we could reach 100% efficiency we’d be able to use the same gallon of gasoline in our cars over and over again forever. Even if you don’t trust those pesky laws of thermodynamics, common sense should tell you this is pure nonsense.

And discussions of “barely tapped potential of genetic engineering and other plant-breeding technologies” envision a future of mutated plants, crowded cities, and soylent green. I don’t know about you, but I do not want to live in a world of genetically engineered food supplements, packed into a tight living space, simply because we didn’t want to think outside of economic growth. Besides, these technologies will have their limits as well, assuming we can make them viable in time, and then what? What’s the next thing we can latch onto in order to keep this hamster wheel spinning?

“Even if the critics are right and growth is going to be harder to attain post-crisis, that’s no reason to give up on it. Just the opposite: all the more reason to spend our energy coming up with the right policies—from education and innovation to entrepreneurship and competition—that will help foster it.” Right, pick something to keep the wheel going because you’re afraid to deal with the transition to a stable, just, sustainable economy? This is cowardice shrouded in a cloak of misplaced optimism.

Continue reading “Newsweek: The No-Growth Fantasy”

Decoupling Demystified

Vinyl Ready Art - Road Signs
Can We Separate GDP Growth And Ecological Limits?

Next time you run into a classically trained economist (happens all the time, right?) start talking with him/her about ecological limits. They might squirm a little, but probably respond as trained: with some zombie-like responses about “decoupling.” What is decoupling? Basically, it’s a concept of being able to continue growing economic output without a corresponding increase in environmental impact.

The overall idea is that improvements in production efficiency allow you to make more with less. Theoretically we can increase our efficiency and make more stuff using the same amount of resources and/or generating the same amount of pollution.

Applying this concept to renewable resources would be incredibly beneficial. We could use wood, for instance, in a more sustainable fashion if we decoupled the economic growth from resource use and did so under the ecological limits of forest regeneration.

As you might have already guessed, there are quite a few flaws with this concept. You might have also noticed that it seems at first glance to have a broad definition. In general, however, there are two types of economic decoupling: relative and absolute. The first type appears to have a cursory chance of working, the latter is fundamentally impossible.

Continue reading “Decoupling Demystified”

Growing the Growth Debate

In an certain ironic sense the “growth” of the growth debate is a bit of an oxymoron, but then again so is “jumbo shrimp.” I am a believer in humanity’s common sense and ability to make progress, even in the face of our own evils and stupidity. It sure seems to me that one could become down-trodden by news of all the degradation of our planet, social bonds, communities, humanity, and equality that result from endless pursuit of material wealth. Yet, it is to our own credit that we realize the err of our ways and make attempts to fix these problems.

There has been an increase in the number of post-growth-ers, de-growth-ers, steady-staters, and general questioning of economic growth in the last year. This might be partially fueled by the global economic recession and the increasing alarm of climate change. I also think it is beginning to fuel itself: our activities to raise awareness are spreading the seeds and we’re starting to see those seeds blossom. This is the early Spring of the Big Growth Debate. I hope to see 2010 as the year we changed the economic discussion on a mainstream level.

I am heading to DC next Tuesday to attend the New Green Economy Conference, where I will be volunteering and helping out, as well as joining in on some great seminars, breakout sessions, and symposia. I will, of course, be blogging while there, keeping you all in the loop of the fun and games.

While I partake in the furthering the growth debate, I hope you’ll take some time to further your knowledge as well! Here are a few resources for you to check out:

  • Economists start to consider that money can’t buy happiness – a recent article by the Guardian about our metrics of prosperity, alternatives to GDP are becoming a bigger topic nowadays
  • Beyond Growth – a new project put together by Jeremy Williams of the blog Make Wealth History
  • Post Growth – a new project I am working on with some fellow steady staters, still in-process, but getting closer to an official launch.
  • Make Wealth History – Jeremy, as mentioned above, is the blogger behind this work – great stuff on sustainability, related news, book reviews, and sustainable economies.
  • cruxcatalyst – Sharon is the other blogger I am working with on the Post Growth project, her blog is her place to show off and stash great articles and the occasional piece of her own work.

New CASSE Site

Also, just a note – if you haven’t seen it yet, the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy has a brand new website design – check it out! They’re still triple checking the site for bugs, but it looks amazing!

Growthbusters: Hooked on Growth

Dave Gardner, film producer/director/writer, is in the process of completing would could be a monumentally important film in exposing the fallacy of “growth everlasting.” Armed with a camera and donations from regular folks, Dave has traveled the world questioning our growth addiction. He started in his home town of Colorado Springs and has now taken the filming to the national and global arena.

Hooked On Growth: Our Misguided Quest For Prosperity” is still in production and could use your help to finish off the process, please take a moment to make a tax-deductible donation to help fund the film’s release. Here’s a quick blurb from the site about the movie:

“Why is it more important to our society to have GDP growth than clean air? And why do communities seek andsubsidize growth even when it destroys quality of life andincreases taxes?

Our growth-centric system is broken. It’s not providing the happiness or the prosperity we seek. But that’s good news; it means a shift to a sustainable model will not require great sacrifice or pain. A transformation will allow us to be happier and more prosperous…

From Las Vegas to Atlanta, Mexico City to Mumbai, the White House to the Vatican, Hooked on Growthtakes us on a whirlwind tour of growth mania. It’s Wild Kingdom with a twist: the cameras are turned onhumanity as our own survival skills are examined. Hooked on Growth looks into the psychology of denial and crowd behavior. It explores our obsession with community growth and economic growth, and our reluctance to address overpopulation issues head-on. This documentary holds up a mirror, encouraging us to examine the beliefs and behaviors we must leave behind – and the values we need to embrace – in order that our children can survive and thrive.”

View the Trailer here (also below) and join the cause!

Citizen or Consumer? A Year in Reflection

One year ago I started writing out of passion (and some anger). My how things have evolved! This blog has seen 75 posts in the last year, some of them great, some of them alright, some perhaps less so. I have tried my best to write about the issues important to me: a sustainable society, a healthier planet, a ethcial economy, and a more just world.

I have also learned so much about life, happiness, sustainability, and where I want to be in the world. More importantly, I have learned there is quite a large group of people out there feeling the same way, and we are all beginning to see the division between economic growth and true prosperity. What do you think? I would really value your input on ways I could make this blog better, both in function and in form. Please comment on this post or email me!

Since today marks Steady State Revolution‘s one year blogiversary I decided to take a look at the very first post and revise it with some fresh ideas (and hopefully improved writing skill). Here’s the 75th post on the 1-year blogiversary!

Citizen or Consumer?

The US Consumer Unit
The US Consumer Unit

Yesterday was the start of the “Christmas Shopping Season.” Aside from the typical trampling of an elderly person at a Wal-mart, this day signifies the beginning of the American Consumer’s busiest time of the year. Between today and New Years we Americans will increase our waste by 25%.

Each year we start sooner and sooner with our Christmas consumption, this year marketers started preparing for the season around Halloween. The average consumer spends about $1,100 a year on gifts, over $800 worth of which is holiday-related purchases. This means 73% of all our gift-related buying is done in the holiday season. That’s a lot of consumption.

Consumerism accounts for a large cog in the economy. Consumption drives the sales of goods, which is incentive to produce more goods. Producing goods is the basis our growth model. In order to grow the throughput (GDP) of our economy, we must increase the production and consumption cycle. What better way to do so than to make it your intuitive nature to spend? What if we could find a way to move people from identifying as themselves, or their jobs, but instead as what they buy? From this the American Consumer is born.

Continue reading “Citizen or Consumer? A Year in Reflection”