The Tautology and Its Weaknesses

A given economic growth rate can be sustainable only if the average impact per unit wealth declines at an equal or greater rate.

I argue that this is certainly true if one grants that a sustainable behavior must be sustainable indefinitely.

Shortly after coming to this pretty firm conclusion and wondering how smug to feel about it, I realized that it’s just a consequence of the old I = PAT tautology, due to Ehrlich and Holdren (yes that Holdren). Tidal pointed out the same before I got round to making the connection.

I’ll continue to argue, though, that it’s both a striking consequence and a useful one. Anyone talking about both returning growth to the economy and about sustainability needs to take this constraint into account. This includes President Obama. If you think about returning to sustained 3 % annual growth rates you are talking about some very massive changes in the consituents of the economy.

Pointing to the constraint does not guarantee that there is a way to achieve it. There are many reasons to expect negative growth in the largest economies in the future after all. We don’t even know if unsustainable growth can really be reconstituted. If we have really begun the long decline, it is probably a bit sooner than might have been necessary were it not for the great outburst of irresponsibility in the financial sector of late.

What the constraint does guarantee is that we will not be able to revive growth at full steam without a very substantial virtual tax implied by accounting for what has until now been treated as external, and shunted to later generations. We are no longer in a position to shunt things to later generations. We are the later generation that those awful people who were right about the environment warned our parents about.

I’m not claiming some secret key to answer all our problems. I’m suggesting only that those desperate to avoid challenging the growth paradigm have a very steep and narrow path ahead. I’m noticing that this includes our otherwise enormously admirable leader. I hope President Obama or someone around him has some secret recipe to make these ingredients work together, but I think instead that nobody has faced up to the constraints properly.

So I’m proposing we be as optimistic as possible, and also be sort of mathematically oriented. Proving that growing impact is unsustainable is easy. Detaching our institutions and traditions from growing wealth appears very difficult. But is it impossible? We can take the mathematician’s approach and assume a solution exists, and try to examine the properties that follow from the constraints we have set in search of a final contradiction.

So consider some of the responses to my previous article in this vein.

Let’s first tip our hats in the direction of the stuff that John Mashey wants us to take into account: the fact that whatever we do, energy is going to get more expensive. This surely makes many things more difficult, but I don’t see that it makes a sort of numerical growth in wealth more difficult. On the contrary, it would appear in some odd paradoxical way to help! We want more wealth per unit of energy and we will automatically get less energy per unit of wealth. Isn’t that the same thing, really? Well, no, not exactly, because it means all else equal that real wealth tends to decline, but suppose all esle is not equal. If there’s some other sort of low-impact wealth that compensates, the combination actually pulls in the right direction. I am scratching my head about this one, too, but not everything works the way intuition says it does.

The question, though, is what that other source of wealth might be.

Another interesting comment comes from Dave Gardner of Growthbusters :

I like your notion that perhaps we can all be delusionally happy if we are simply given more Monopoly play money and it has no connection to more resource depletion or environmental degradation! You may be onto something.

I think this takes it just a hair too far. I don’t think the currency can be entirely delusional, although one might argue that it is already play money in some circles.

(For the love of God, why doesn’t Microsoft just take its money home and shut down its production of worthless garbage so everyone can migrate to a sensible platform? What drives their intense drive to prevent us from having useful tools? It’s not because they are literally hungry, is it?)

No, the currency has to convey real advantages. Maybe very few people will fly, but the people with more of it will still be able to take luxury liners to fine hotels, eat the little bit of sushi that is left, and so on. The real question remains what is it that has been growing all along? The concept of aggregate wealth seems to me to evaporate the closer one looks at it. It does seem that the changes in the rules of the game might not have to be all that large.

Bart Verheggen offers a challenge from a different direction.

But in the current financial crisis, didn’t the fact that money is already to a great extent decoupled from material items contribute to the problem? Didn’t the (risky) dealing with money as hot air, without a link to a real product or service, play a role in the current financial crisis?

This came at me rather unexpectedly, but I have to admit there is a point. The fact is that our system failed because of its abstraction from real processes. This perhaps ties in with the Monopoly Money issue that Dave raised. But I am not arguing for devaluing real processes. I am arguing for increasing their valuation. Food and energy in particular will become relatively more expensive in proportion to finished products; indeed this is what is likely to happen anyway.

Another problem is raised by my intervening posting about the vast wealth of the internet and the complete lack of sensible models to pay for it. “Too cheap to meter” turns out to be a problem. We used to believe that our material pursuits would be replaced by artistic and intellectual ones. In a sense that is entirely true for me. I hardly care at all where or how I live as long as I have a decent internet connection and a few good friends. (I’m an extreme case being childless, but the principle holds to a lesser extent for families too.) But as a producer as well as a consumer of exactly the sort of intellectual and artistic content that was supposed to be the salvation of the future dematerialized civilization, I find myself in a strange economy, one where the currency of attention can’t easily be exchanged for, say, shoes. Admittedly I could get into endless pissing matches with famous denialists, but after all, I do have some standards. I’d rather just work at Wal-Mart.

Maybe I can follow in The New Yorker’s footprints and sell Tobis’s Tautology T-shirts. (I have seen someone selling T-shirts with the slogan “There is No Planet B” which I wish I had thought of.)

Maybe this is teh whole story, though: we will just need to adjust to a radical rearrangement of pricing structures. But this brings me back to my basic confusion about economics. As the “basket” of goods we choose changes, the “value” of the “currency” in which we measure our “wealth” becomes less determinate. So what, exactly, is it that is supposed to be growing? Can we keep that something growing while decreasing absolute impact?

But what is the something? Bart ponders along these lines:

Could a redefinition of the growth parameter (GDP) help? More car accidents raises GDP, but decreases the average wellbeing. If impacts, also those that are distant in time or place, are included within the growth parameter, then the picture of growth would quickly look very different. The genuine progress indicator (GPI) and other initiatives along similar lines could perhaps serve as an example.

To which the Texas answer is a squint and a “y’all aren’t from ’round these parts, are ya?” Around here we spend money, not GDP.

I think it’s the individual and institutional incentives that matter, not the collective metrics. But we do have to play around with them and stop letting them have their way with us.

It’s interesting. So far my answer to the question framed by the tautology is “maybe”. I haven’t convinced myself that we absolutely need to let go of something very much like growth. I freely admit to being uncomfortable with macroeconomics. Unfortunately, it’s not just my own grasp of the subject that I find wanting, though. I doubt everyone else’s as well. That said, I think the present company will be able to recognize cogent analysis and we will all appreciate any further consideration of these ideas.

Image from the T-Shirt sales at the New Yorker. Please do buy something from them and keep their lawyers at bay so I can keep the cartoon up.

Great Harvest on Twitter Today!

The most time-consuming find is this one: Montreal bagels! I have no choice but to try recipe and report. Cursed internet! via


  • @johndcook Radiohead/Brubek mashup:
  • RT @thegreengrok Obama has relaunched a Bush climate initiative by convening 17 biggest economies for a meeting
  • RT @AlexSteffen “Climate deniers spin geoengineering as answer” article . Fine article at .
  • @abhishektiwari Liked “Scientific Blogging: Ignore It and Be Ignored?”
  • @TEDchris Today’s fascinating #TED talk on brain plasticity is gaining ground at digg. Will you help?
  • @timoreilly Excellent: Google book search settlement deadline extended to Sept 4.
  • @abhishektiwari Liked “Check out this great post about science blogging by Jean-Claude Bradley “Is it becoming dangerous NOT to…”
  • @LizNeeley Now I love fish (species, not food) but this NYT article on fishless lakes is very cool. RT @conservationmag –
  • @ianbicking RT @mudstuffing Huge Mexican Clay Stamps made from tires…. (via @potteryblog)
  • @grist How this little piggy got the flu? RT @tomphilpott: My update on possible Smithfield/swine flu link: #swineflu
  • @LizNeeley Great essay on Two Cultures: need to align science/gov/literary intellectual camps. RT @2020science via @sciandthecity –
  • @radar Ignite Seattle (and elsewhere) Tomorrow, 4/29
  • @timoreilly The Economist makes sense on why electric bikes may be better than electric cars. (via Saul Griffith in email)

Too much! This is what I call wealth, and yet nobody will even let me pay for it.

Anyway, do follow me on Twitter…

Malthusian in Theory but not in Practice?

So I asked for an explanation of how a policy of indefinite economic growth could be feasible.
I have a half-answer myself, if we enforce that real-world impact per dollar declines faster than the number of dollars increase, we can have indefinite growth in dollars. The endless growth in dollars may be so hard-wired into everything we do that this otherwise silly approach may be needed so as not to violate out institutional imperatives.
Is it possible? I don’t know. Is there any chance this idea will be taken up in earnest? I don’t know. I’d be very happy if I could start a conversation about it.
But absent this half-baked idea of a rate of decreasing impact per unit of wealth directly tied through policy to the rate global growth of wealth, I can’t imagine us continuing to pursue growth while avoiding a catastrophe.
An interesting alternative was proposed in the comments to that posting by Paul Schick:

Oh, maybe that isn’t so hard. Exponential growth of material things forever is surely impossible in this universe. But then again, on current physical theory, forever itself is of no practical interest or importance, because forever seems destined to contain at most, insentient photons, neutrinos, and/or whatever of quasi-infinite wavelength.

The practical question for a politician or anyone else is whether growth really needs to slow down or stop in any time-frame of practical interest, i.e. now. The obvious answer to that is “no”, until some force majeure intervenes in a manner that is widely perceived as decisive. After all, all sorts of people have been raising every conceivable manner of scare and alarum from time immemorial, so we’ve heard it all before ad nauseam. Yawn.

Keep in mind that nothing clearly out of the ordinary, or even important in that sense, has yet happened except within computer simulations. More people are still living longer than ever before even in some of the more awful places. Oh, maybe there are vague hints emanating from the cycling of ice shelves thousands of miles beyond the back end of beyond, but those are almost as abstract and remote as, say, Barnard’s Star.

This is a coherent position and at least worthy of consideration.

Whether it is to be taken seriously is a quantitative, not a qualitative matter. The idea that the whole world has never been overtaken by Malthusian crises is true enough, but one can also argue after falling 27000 feet from an airplane at 30000 feet without a parachute that the episode has been proven harmless, since 90% of the fall has happened without any sign of discomfort. Which model to take seriously has to be a matter of knowledge, not of faith. The historical argument is further weakened by the fact that individual isolated locales have indeed suffered Malthusian catastrophes in the past, as documented in Jared Diamond’s excellent book Collapse.
Note that Obama is not arguing for growth in Mozambique or Nicaragua: he is arguing for growth in the USA. These days, everyone seems to forget the essentially explicit promise (and to be fair, one not entirely unfulfilled) made to the third world during and after the collapse of communism: support the capitalist fabric, participate in the GATT, and you too will eventually reap the benefits of capitalist creativity. There is no level of wealth which we in the west can attain that you in other lands cannot also attain was the promise. Eventually, following in the footsteps of Japan and Taiwan, you will become equal partners/friendly competitors on the happy global stage of friendly competition and endless happy growth.
So let us begin by proposing what no successful American politician would dare to admit was acceptable: a long-term growth rate, starting from the date of the Lehman Brothers collapse, of zero, essentially forever, or to make matters easier for people with a non-mathematical perspective to grasp, for a thousand years. Again, for the purposes of the present argument, this is not a proposal, it is a hypothetical. Consider it a

worst case

simplifying assumption

(see comments)
Now consider the business proposition made to the developing world. Essentially we have promised that they will eventually be in a position to catch up to us. If we make zero of what we continue to call “progress”, the implications are easy enough to visualize. Recall the following from David MacKay’s excellent book “Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air” (available online or in print)
(Actually I wonder about the vertical axis: I believe that should be tons of C as CO2, not tons of CO2. But it’s the proportions that matter for the present argument.)
Now stretch the horizontal bar out to between nine and ten billion, where we hope population growth will stop, and fill the vertical up to the US level. Compare the size of the resulting rectangle to the cumulative size of the rectangles shown constitutes the implicit extra carbon load in a scenario with long term zero growth in the US and global equity. That alone requires something like thirty times the present impact.
So is the factor of thirty available? Can we emit carbon indefinitely at thirty times the present rate? Can we find the carbon to do so? The answer to both questions is quite obviously negative.
Consequently, if economic activity remains closely tied to carbon emissions, either the growth imperative or the equity imperative must be abandoned, and not in the distant future.
The solution, therefore, is to decouple growth from carbon, and given the scope of the changes required and the dawdling in getting started (after all, agreement in principle was reached in 1992, and matters have hardly proceeded in a realistic way since them), with urgency.
Suppose, though, that some Dysonian genius comes up with some carbon eating trees that grow harmlessly and rapidly whenever CO2 concentrations exceed 400 ppmv and survive without net growth at lower concentrations. A deus ex machina, then, to decouple concentrations from emissions. And suppose, meanwhile, that vastly superior oil extraction technologies emerge that can extract net energy from much smaller deposits than is now feasible, offering us an essentially unlimited supply of petroleum. Two dei ex machinae. Are we out of the woods?
No. Even if these two miracles occur, the chart above representing carbon impact is very similar to other impacts and demands:
  • ocean health; not just fisheries loss and ecosystem loss, but possibly per Lovelock other long-term homeostatic mechanisms preserving an equable climate
  • supplies of industrial minerals
  • water supplies and phosphorus for agriculture; soil depletion; declining biodiversity of crops
  • water supplies for industry, especially energy-related uses
  • regional climate change due to local and upwind land and energy use
  • pollution of various sorts
  • increased vulnerability to disease through increased population and mobility; arms race between medical science and infectious agents
All of these problems are arguably manageable individually, but they begin to overlap: a notable event in this increased coupling was the sudden rise in cost of the very cheapest foods as corn began to be diverted in earnest to ethanol production. This is not a one-time event: as the world becomes full the various limits will interact.
And all of this neglects the lack of any international legal protocol to protect individuals or the interests of the future comparable to the GATT which protects existing corporate interests.
And all of it happening already; none of it is in the future.
And all of it is just the product of per capita impact and population.
It really doesn’t seem that the international equity position which requires at least a thirty-fold increase in wealth makes any sense at all.
The alternatives are:
  1. abandon growth
  2. abandon the idea that the system is fair, and pursue explicit exploitation of less developed countries
  3. find some way that impact per unit growth declines rapidly enough, which means, in practice, VERY rapidly
I personally find the second solution absolutely unconscionable. If you don’t, at least consider how vicious and militarized such a world would end up being. It pretty much kills any idea of globalization anyway; so if that part of the economic conventional wisdom holds you still have a very big hole in your theory.
So if 3 is possible we should pursue it. But consider that the long term growth rate of every meaningful impact must be zero. Consequently the only way growth of any quantity is sustainable in a finite space is if impact per unit of global growth of that quantity on all physically constrained subsystems declines at least as rapidly as the quantity increases.
In other words
The only way economic growth can be sustained indefinitely on earth is if every environmental impact per unit growth declines at a rate equal or greater to the rate at which the economy grows.

Is this sustainable growth approach feasible? I don’t know. It would require some new flavors of policy. I’d like to see it explored. As far as I know even this fairly straightforward connection of the economics and sustainability worlds hasn’t been made.
I think the only alternatives are 1) decline of the leading economies or 2) imperialist fascism of the most vicious imaginable sort. Of those choices I prefer decline.
Now Schick’s position doesn’t essentially argue against any of this, except to assert that the problems must be far in the future since none of them has ever bit us yet. This is not the position widely held in the sustainability community. The following graph indicates the present opinion of how close we are to overshoot:
By “high income” they mean contemporary North American standards. By “middle income” I would guess they mean something like the level of Spain or Korea, comfortable and pleasant but much less overt wealth or luxury; obviously the idea is about a third of the impact of the average American. Even this level as average is now argued to be beyond the physical limits of the earth.
Of course, the fact that many people lack a gut feeling for exponential growth with relatively long time constants does mean that many things are estimated to be further in the future than evidence actually indicates. This is a big part of the greenhouse gas problem, after all.
But even people who think the problem is far in the future have an ethical dilemma. So to Paul Schick who suggests that the problem is immensely distant, I propose the following questions:
  1. On what basis are you confident that the problem you acknowledge remains far in the future?
  2. How would people of the future detect that the problem is impending soon enough to deal with it?
  3. What ethics should they apply to the situation if it were detected?

Update: It’s really a tautology, isn’t it?

Some things are obviously true and yet bear repeating, And it fits in a tweet!

A given economic growth rate can be sustainable *only* if average impact per unit wealth declines at an equal or greater rate.

Update: I was looking for this infographic for the present article but I was looking in the wrong place. It’s not at WIRED but at New Scientist, here.

Obama doesn’t mess with the Growth Imperative

The Washington Post a few weeks back had a wonderful interview with President Obama. I am sure I am not the only one to be experiencing a tremendous feeling of gratitude and relief to be hearing such coherent and thoughtful answers to difficult questions.

I find one thing troubling though. While Obama speaks of sustainability on more than one occasion, he suggests that “growth” is his core mission. As far as I know, nobody has ever come up with a way to reconcile sustainability and growth.

The one message I want to send to the American people is that on all these fronts my consistent bottom line is how do we make sure that the American people can work, have a decent income, look after their kids, and we can grow the economy. That’s my criteria. I don’t have an ideological agenda in how we’re approaching it.

It would help, perhaps, if one could identify the quantity that one could cause to grow indefinitely in some form other than currency.

I think that sustainable growth, if possible, would be the least socially disruptive idea, hence the most politically accessible. It’s easy to see the appeal to politicians.
But I don’t know what it means, in any sense that is actually possible. I wish somebody would explain it.

Image from

Revkin’s Coin Comes Up Shiny Today

Revkin in the Times today:

“The role of greenhouse gases in climate change is not well understood,” the coalition said in a scientific “backgrounder” provided to lawmakers and journalists through the early 1990s, adding that “scientists differ” on the issue.

But a document filed in a federal lawsuit demonstrates that even as the coalition worked to sway opinion, its own scientific and technical experts were advising that the science backing the role of greenhouse gases in global warming could not be refuted.

“The scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied,” the experts wrote in an internal report compiled for the coalition in 1995.

It is good that the press addresses whom the opposition is. I think that is key. And I suppose that a “smoking gun” like this gives the news media the “newsy” hook to hang stories off. So this is great, and go for it, but it’s really not news to me.

While I am happy that the shiny side came up last time Revkin flipped his coin, and while this is certainly useful, I am a bit bemused, to put it charitably, that anyone is surprised. I certainly recall thinking at the time that it was odd that glossy magazines would print such brazen lies.

What surprises me is that it worked so well. I expected backlashes, apologies and hasty retreats, since the GCC ads were so brazenly misleading, but I saw nothing of the sort.

It’s possible, I think, that the failure of civil society to reject this cynical manipulation of factual information may turn out to be the single most salient historical fact of our time. It certainly deserves a lot more attention than it’s gotten so far, and the sooner the better.

Update: More early reaction: Nick Anthis and Will Bunch. (yet another hat tip to @BoraZ) Bunch is great on this. He quotes George Monbiot via Revkin:

George Monbiot, a British environmental activist and writer, said that by promoting doubt, industry had taken advantage of news media norms requiring neutral coverage of issues, just as the tobacco industry once had.

“They didn’t have to win the argument to succeed,” Mr. Monbiot said, “only to cause as much confusion as possible.”

and concludes:

Except this is one case where the “media norms” may prove catastrophic, maybe not for me but for my children and eventual grandchildren. Several media critics — but most notably journalism guru Jay Rosen from NYU — have been focusing on the dangers of a kind of mindless “he said, she said” journalism that rules inside-the-Beltway reporting, sometimes to trivial effect but sometimes with great consequence, on topics like the financial crisis. But climate change may be the textbook study here.

Journalists have to weigh many things in striving for the truth — but the ultimate mile marker must always be objective facts where they exist, and not a juggling act of talking heads, especially when one of the heads doesn’t even believe its own baloney it’s putting out there.
And this on a newspaper site! Alas, probably too little, too late.

Gunther: "Phony Green Jobs Debate"

Marc Gunther at The Energy Collective pretty much agrees with me on the “green jobs” thing.

Let’s get real: We can’t predict oil prices 12 months out. Last spring, virtually no one anticipated the global financial crisis of last fall. And we are projecting the number of green jobs that will be created or lost on a state-by-state basis by a law that won’t take effect until 2012? Who are we kidding?

I called Russ Roberts, an economist at George Mason University who hosts the fine EconTalk podcast, for some guidance on how to think about green jobs and the economics of climate regulation. “Creating green jobs is easy,” he told me. “We could employ millions of people picking up litter, and we could make them very good-paying jobs if we want. But of course that would make us poorer as a nation. There’s a cost to providing those jobs that would have to be borne by other people in the economy.”

It’s not just the cost of higher taxes that needs to be factored into the equation, he noted. To the degree that the government makes policy that favors, say, vast construction of wind turbines throughout the upper Midwest, the people doing those jobs will be drawn from somewhere else, maybe even from more productive work. If policy leads to the hiring of thousands of contractors to do energy efficiency, the cost of building a new home or renovating your basement may go up because many of the good construction workers are busy.

“As voters and citizens and readers, what we want to think about is the big picture—are we moving in the right direction when it comes to environmental policy?” Roberts says. Put another way, are we spending enough money today to head off the threat of global warming in the future? Because if anyone tells you that we can deal with climate change at no cost, they probably shouldn’t be trusted.

Maybe that’s what bothers me about the green jobs ads. They’re like political campaign ads. They promise something for nothing. They treat the voters like children. They’re emotional and not educational. And they’re not helping to build a movement around climate change.

Other than that, they’re fine.

It is certainly good to have worthwhile projects to employ people doing, while we reconsider how to arrange things so that having a job stays rewarding while not having one gets a lot less punishing. And unless we get very lucky, this carbon thing is going to cost us plenty, no matter how we approach it. But the issue is not jobs. That just reinforces people’s confusion. 

The environment is not a subsidiary of the economy. It is the other way around.
Something called the Sustainable Development Commission in the UK, which appears to have some sort of government charter, issued a report called Prosperity Without Growth which is on the whole a worthwhile read for people unfamiliar with the idea of a steady-state economy. There are lots of good quotes in there that will be showing up here.
It also talks about the confusion in the relationship between “green jobs” and the redesign of the economy. They point out that the natural inclination of politicians is to just treat the “green jobs” thing as an ordinary Keynesian stimulus, to get the economy “back on track”. I believe Prof. Obama is doing an astonishingly good job at this goal, actually, which is unfortunate given that it is the wrong goal.  
The report hits on the awkwardness of the Keynesian strategy at this juncture at several points. For instance, while we see this on p.69:

By early 2009, a strong international consensus had emerged in support of a very simple idea. Economic recovery demands investment. Targeting that investment towards energy security, low carbon infrastructures and ecological protection offers multiple benefits. These benefits include:

  • freeing up resources for household spending and productive investment by reducing energy and material costs
  • reducing our reliance on imports and our exposure to the fragile geopolitics of energy supply
  • providing a much-needed boost to jobs in the expanding ‘environmental industries’ sector
  • making progress towards the demanding carbon emission reduction targets needed to stabilize the global atmosphere
  • protecting valuable ecological assets and imporving the quality of our living environment for generations to come

which is all true and very compelling, but on the other hand, from p. 71:

it is difficult to escape the conclusion that in the longer term, we’re going to need something more than this. Returning the economy to a condition of continual consumption growth is the default assumption of Keynesianism. … the systemic drivers of growth push us relentlessly towards ever more unsutainable resource throughput. A different way of ensuring stability and maintaining employment is essential. 

A great deal depends on how these policies are sold and implemented. Were it not for the financial crisis, it might be better to wait until the public gained a better grip on the issues. There is a real risk that supporters will end up as confused about the fundamental purpose of these initiatives as its opponents. 

Some of us are eager to challenge the structure of society, and specifically of its economics. I myself am not so reckless as to look forward to it. I do understand that it is necessary. I wonder if those advocating “green jobs” while avoiding explaining how serious the underlying issues are might not be doing more harm than good.  If the economy can be rebooted, will people shrug off the idea of sustainability as some nice WPA-like project and get on with business?
Will people ever get the idea that the planet is full, and that consequently the basic idea of the invisible hand is broken? That nothing you do is only your own business anymore? That we’re not on the lonesome prairie, we’re on a leaky boat, and we’d better learn how to get along because there’s no place further west to go? 
I don’t know. Not if we don’t try to explain it, I reckon.
Update: See also John Whitehead on the Environmental Economics blog, who doesn’t think that “green jobs” necessarily will have a net positive impact on employment. 

Image from