Post-Growth America

A surprising glimmer of recognition spotted in the major media:

“Look,” said the President, walking across the stage with a microphone in hand, “here’s what no one wants to tell you. Structural changes in our economy, and new competition from countries like China and India, mean that we’re in a different world now. That pattern we once took for granted, in which our incomes basically kept rising across the board, turns out to be something we can’t sustain. Many of you are earning less than your parents did, and the truth is, many of your children will earn less than you do.”

The President paused, watching as the words sank in. “I don’t think denial helps any of us. I know it won’t help us come together to do the things we need to do as a nation to thrive even amid these new realities.”

Don’t worry, you didn’t miss the news; the scene above has not happened yet. Few politicians would say those things even if they believed them to be true, because it would challenge a notion at the heart of the American dream: the idea that the kids will earn more than we do.

There’s a third worrisome attitude traceable to our faith that the kids will earn more than we do. This is the imprudent conviction that we can live beyond our means, because somehow we’ll earn enough later to deal with any problems. This outlook represents a dramatic shift from earlier American thinking, as the sociologist Daniel Bell noted in 1976. “Twentieth-century capitalism wrought a … startling sociological transformation,” he wrote, “the shift from production to consumption as the fulcrum of capitalism.” Both as individuals and as a society, we’ve been gambling on better days tomorrow to make good on unsustainable borrowing today.

Such is the toll of a Dead Idea.

This is from Matt Miller, editor at Fortune, raised in Greenwich CT and Rye Town NY, BA economics magna cum laude Brown, LLD Columbia Law School, member Council on Foreign Relations. In other words, to the extent that there’s still an “Establishment”, he’s in it. You heard it there second.


Tierney vs Holdren

NYTimes science reporter John Tierney goes after Obama appointee John Holdren, about whom I have written admiringly of late, with both guns a-blazin’.

Along the way he expresses concern for how Lomborg gets treated in certain circles and has a kind word to throw in for Roger Jr.. It’s sticky stuff, not as easily dismissed as the usual denialist tripe, as I have argued before. This stuff is badly wrong, but it needs to be handled with care.

Update: Three guesses what Joe Romm thinks.

Obama on Science

More grownup talk:

Whether it’s the science to slow global warming; the technology to protect our troops and confront bioterror and weapons of mass destruction; the research to find life-saving cures; or the innovations to remake our industries and create twenty-first century jobs—today, more than ever before, science holds the key to our survival as a planet and our security and prosperity as a nation. It is time we once again put science at the top of our agenda and worked to restore America’s place as the world leader in science and technology.

Because the truth is that promoting science isn’t just about providing resources—it’s about protecting free and open inquiry. It’s about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology. It’s about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it’s inconvenient—especially when it’s inconvenient. Because the highest purpose of science is the search for knowledge, truth and a greater understanding of the world around us

Like my friend J says, he better not f’ing blow it. Don’t you want to hear Palin’s take on this issue?

Grownups in Town

It’s so very nice to see grownups in the executive branch; any hope that the legislative will follow suit?

The choices of Holdren and Chu show every likelihood that the incoming administration wants to put the carbon problem on the front burner. This is great news!

But they have so much else to do what with the “economy” of the US and to some extent of the whole world being shown to be based on utter lunacy over the last twenty years. Oh and that little thing about the two bollixed wars… OK, I’m not saying anything you haven’t heard…

The referenced Dot Earth article doesn’t dwell so much on John Holdren, whom we discussed here recently. Rather it branches sort of peculiarly into a very good discussion with Gary Yohe, from Yale’s e360 site.

Anyway I am glad this way of thinking has finally made its way into the Times:

Uncertainly is ubiquitous. There are some fundamental conclusions that we now know: that the planet is warming; that humans are the cause of it. We’ve seen the climate signal and changes in global mean temperature… But there’s some uncertainty that simply will not be resolved in a timely fashion. Yet once you adopt a risk-management perspective, then uncertainty becomes a reason to do something rather than a reason not to do something. And people who argue against doing anything then have to guarantee that humans aren’t changing the climate. They can’t do that, so they can’t argue against enacting some climate policy. At the same time, though, uncertainty is something we need to recognize will be persistent. We have to learn how to make decisions under uncertainty.

So the point is that climate policy has to adopt a risk-management approach. It involves both adaptation and mitigation. We have to think seriously about how we do mid-course corrections. What is near-term policy? How do you make adjustments? Well, you keep track of how you’re doing relative to the short-term target that you set up. But you also have to worry about whether or not the target was right, and that’s where increased knowledge about the climate system and the economic system come into play. And so every 10 years or so, you have to sit down and say, “Okay what have we learned? Are we doing well compared to the target we set? Is the target right? Is it too high? Is it too low? Should we ramp these things up or ramp these things down?” And those are the essential things that we need to do.

Maybe this kind of sense will somehow find its way into the congress. Paging Sen. Inhofe?

The Financial WTF in Context

Walden Bello has put together a fascinating presentation putting the financial crisis in context.

It’s more leftist in tone than I’d like, and I’m not sure it adequately understands the irrationality of growth addiction, which really is shared by left and right.

Also a couple of the slides are misformatted.

All that said, it does focus on the key role of manufacturing overproduction and excess capacity in the present financial disaster. I think it’s a very helpful and insightful summary and I am definitely adding it to my conceptual arsenal. Maybe you should do likewise?

I stole the wonderful image from the presentation. It’s based on what for all I know is, or at least once was, a heavily advertised bubble bath product called Mr. Bubble.

The Singularity

Unlike a certain breed of AI enthusiasts, when I contemplate the possibility that we are at a singular point in human history, that we may be at a point where past conventional wisdom needs to be actively disregarded, I don’t see it as a moment of new kinds of progress but one of new kinds of peril.

Basically, we are going through a phase transition, between a state where there were few monkeys to one where there are many monkeys. This means the former time where issues are distinct and perhaps have tenuous connections is over; now there is one big tangled problem: how do we keep the monkeys happy while settling them down and training them to live in a more or less zero-sum situation.

Maribo (H/T Stoat) offers us this daunting image to bring home one slice of the problem:

and a recent article in the online Journal PlosOne goes further.

In Ecosystem Overfishing in the Ocean by the Spanish, Canadian and Italian collaboration of Marta Coll, Simone Libralato, Sergi Tudela, Isabel Palomera, and Fabio Pranovi, the overfishing problem is viewed as a bulk biogeochemical process.

Here’s the abstract:

Fisheries catches represent a net export of mass and energy that can no longer be used by trophic levels higher than those fished. Thus, exploitation implies a depletion of secondary production of higher trophic levels (here the production of mass and energy by herbivores and carnivores in the ecosystem) due to the removal of prey. The depletion of secondary production due to the export of biomass and energy through catches was recently formulated as a proxy for evaluating the ecosystem impacts of fishing–i.e., the level of ecosystem overfishing. Here we evaluate the historical and current risk of ecosystem overfishing at a global scale by quantifying the depletion of secondary production using the best available fisheries and ecological data (i.e., catch and primary production). Our results highlight an increasing trend in the number of unsustainable fisheries (i.e., an increase in the risk of ecosystem overfishing) from the 1950s to the 2000s, and illustrate the worldwide geographic expansion of overfishing. These results enable to assess when and where fishing became unsustainable at the ecosystem level. At present, total catch per capita from Large Marine Ecosystems is at least twice the value estimated to ensure fishing at moderate sustainable levels.

In other words:

Fisheries catches represent a net export of mass and energy that can no longer be used by trophic levels higher than those fished. Thus, exploitation implies a depletion of secondary production of higher trophic levels due to the removal of prey. Based on this assumption, a new method was developed to quantify the loss in secondary production (L index) due to the removal of marine organisms through catches (expressed as PPR equivalents) compared to a theoretical unfished situation…

Humans aren’t just overfishing species, we are exporting biomass, degrading it, and pooping it back out into estuaries to first order. We are clear-cutting the whole ocean.

Again, the incentives for individual ship owners to behave this way are clear enough. The question is how to remove those incentives when the catch becomes too large, which it clearly is. I don’t know; cap and trade is hard enough to enforce on nations, never mind on boats. And maybe, since we’re going to acidify the oceans beyond supporting advanced life anyway, it could be argued that we might as well go ahead and send boats to pick out all the nice sushi first.

The sorts of decisions that have to be made to preserve the entire ocean are without precedent. It is a good thing that scientists go out and try to keep us informed as to what is happening. It would be better if there were some way to reward people for coming up with ways to change our collective behavior.

Update: Here’s some perverse incentives for you, in a video clip sent by “tidal”.

Ah, Academe

Interesting discussion on managing PDFs on the NYTimes kicks off some grumbling.

I agree with both points made by a snarky outsider (Acronzy, comment 12):

I will try to put this delicately. Lack of public access to journal pulications , when almost all of the research and support represented by those articles is significantly indebted to tax payer dollars, is simply disgusting. If the New Yorker can archive, index, and provide a search engine for everything it has ever published, so can any journal.

Of course, the existing firewall system for journals is just completely inexcusable, but at least most academics understand that, admittedly without taking ownership of the problem.

Your rather naieve [sic] efforts to “organize” your “on line” research material, would make any relational database designer shiver in his shoes.

When will academia understand how backward it all is? The lack of the most ordinary, elementary, entry-level office skills is just appalling. Not only are the skills and experiences I picked up in the private sector completely unvalued, but I have to put up with the sort of idiocy every day that would quickly get people canned out in the real world.

Not that our actual administrative staff is all bad; some of them (by no means all!) are real gems. It’s the PIs I’m talking about.
Actually UTIG is a real exception since many of the PIs actually run expeditions. If they don’t have management skills, people’s lives are at risk. But I don’t have much to offer the intrepid explorer crowd, unfortunately.
I absolutely adore some of the people I am complaining about. I’d walk twenty miles on hot coals if it suited Ray P’s purposes. Still, both I and the world would be better off if there were more totally mundane information management skills around groups like his. The idea that EndNote or Papers is some great breakthrough in information management is indeed as laughable as Acronzy suggests.
There really is no market for organizing professors.
Irene and I tried to find a niche doing that once. We helped quite a few professors, especially at UW-Madison, but though we were locally famous, getting paid was still a monumental hassle. The universities and grant agencies have no line items for outsourced managerial services, and more than one researcher ended up paying us out of pocket. Our LLC is still an established vendor of consulting services to academics at UW-Madison, but my two academic employers since then have treated my time, including consulting to academic institutions, as irrelevant.
The need is so profound it isn’t perceived at all. When I was a consultant I noted that people who had no interest in management were as bad as customers as people who specialized in management; the latter didn’t need the services but the former couldn’t even perceive their absence. There are managerial structures in universities focused on money, but almost no managerial attention is focused directly on research productivity.
So I am in a frustrating bind, that having lived in such a way as to gain skills that could be of considerable value in a research institution, I have no publication record so I have no obvious way of getting into a position to put them to use.


Anything that can not be sustained eventually stops. Given that our whole way of living is unsustainable, the next question is “when?” The exponential growth of human impact on the planet will eventually cease, and the curve will take some other shape. When will the growth curve break?

(Modest clarification for the mathematically inclined: We do not know what shape the curve will take when the exponential stops growing, but it will be something other than exponential growth. After the point of inflection, the long term average of human impact on earth necessarily must stabilize or decline, possibly with superimposed wobbles and swings of various shapes. At some point in the persistent growth, human impact reaches or exceeds the long term sustainable average. Necessarily something else happens. Now we have to decide what. Arguably that point has been reached, and indeed that is what I believe.)

So, when? To be more specific, is it now? It seems to me that the present economic event is already big enough that it is likely to appear to the eye of the historian of future generations as a notable event. It may well look like the first major disruption of the impact curve rather than just a big glitch that is superimposed on that curve.

If so, if the great inflection is now, it is a drastic mistake to confuse the inflection with a recession. In a recession we should arguably go on doing what we’ve been doing in the past, and somehow we’ll wander out of it. But if this is the inflection, what happens in the future depends sensitively on how we react to it. It is necessary to accept that impact has peaked or soon will peak, not just in greenhouse gases, but altogether.

It is not impossible that clever enough contrivances may decouple “money” from “impact”. What I mean by this is that we somehow change our incentive systems so that people enhancing sustainability profit and those detracting from it pay.

To be sure, there are gestures in this direction, but systematically the incentives are almost universally perverse. There are good historical reasons for the perverse incentives and it will be a very delicate matter to reverse it.

Rewarding sustainability is by far our least disruptive path. Humans don’t change easily, and time is short. If we weren’t in a hurry, I’d consider changing the culture to something less driven by financial incentives, but given our time constraints that idea will not work. I think the most promising escape route is to play around with incentives so people are rewarded for more benign behaviors and penalized otherwise.

This won’t be easy but any alternative I see is much more severe.

Update: Gloomy? Moi? Check this out. H/T Dennis at Samadhisoft.