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.
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
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:
- abandon growth
- abandon the idea that the system is fair, and pursue explicit exploitation of less developed countries
- 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:
- On what basis are you confident that the problem you acknowledge remains far in the future?
- How would people of the future detect that the problem is impending soon enough to deal with it?
- 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.
: 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