The Great Relaxation Revisited

I have tried to make the case that an economic slowdown properly handled can be a good thing on balance, even though it will be certainly stressful in the short run for people who are unprepared for it. I proposed repackaging the whole business, dropping the depressing words “depression” and “recession” in favor of “relaxation”, on the presumption that the level of activity in the most advanced economies is already excessive.

There’s a pair of related articles that recently appeared on the Oil Drum by Nate Hagens The first, called “It’s the Ecology, Stupid” (aargh, why didn’t I think of that one!) Hagens summarizes the situation elegantly:

Our current socio-ecological regime is founded on a worldview that emerged during a period—the early Industrial Revolution—when the world was still relatively empty of humans and their built infrastructure (33). Natural resources were abundant, social settlements were sparser, and inadequate access to infrastructure and consumer goods represented the main limit on improvements to human well-being. This set of circumstances has been called an ‘‘empty’’ world (34). In an empty world, it made sense to ignore relatively abundant ecosystem goods and services, and to favor the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few so that it could be invested and focus solely on increasing the consumption of market goods and services, which were relatively scarce. If wealth had to be concentrated in the hands of the few where it would be invested to fuel future growth, rather than distributed to the many where it would be consumed at the cost of growth, this was a sacrifice the present had to make for the future.

Our current worldview of what is desirable and what is possible was obviously forged in this empty world context. For example, ‘‘recession,’’ our word for economic decline, is defined as two or more consecutive quarters in which the GDP does not grow. Unending physical growth of the economy is only possible within a system unconstrained by any biophysical limits. Our current institutional and technical approach is also an extension of a long-term trend of adaptation to an empty world. Western society has increasingly favored the institutions that promote the private sector over the public sector, capital accumulation by the few over asset building by the many (35, 36), and finance over the production of real goods and services.

Our current [worldview is] failing to meet our needs in a changing world. Anthropogenic climate change, peak oil, biodiversity loss, rising food prices, pandemics, ozone depletion, pollution, and the loss of other life-sustaining ecosystem services all pose serious threats to civilization. These crises can be traced back to one, albeit complex problem: we have failed to adapt our current socioecological regime from an empty world to a full world. The aspects of our regime that no longer serve us in a full world can be grouped under two interrelated themes: a belief in unlimited growth, and a growing and unsustainable complexity.

In fact, I wish I had written pretty much the whole thing.

the task is huge and will take a concerted and sustained effort if we hope to make the transition a relatively smooth one. It will require a whole systems approach at multiple scales in space and time. It will require integrated, systems-level redesign of our entire socio-ecological regime, focused explicitly and directly on the goal of sustainable quality of life rather than the proxy of unlimited material growth. It must acknowledge physical limits, the nature of complex systems, a realistic view of human behavior and well-being, the critical role of natural and social capital, and the irreducible uncertainty surrounding these issues. It is also important to recognize, however,that a transition will occur in any case, and that it will almost certainly be driven by crises. Whether these crises lead to decline or collapse followed by ultimate rebuilding, or to a relatively smooth transition depends on our ability to anticipate the required changes and to develop new institutions that are better adapted to those conditions.

Hagen’s followup is to call attention to an article by Jay Hanson that most people, myself included, would find excessive. Like the Unabomber tract, there are interesting ideas buried in the madness and it’s not unworthy of your attention, though I would like to make clear that I don’t think it’s remotely ethically sound and so it’s fortunate that it’s impractical as well.

But I did like the idea that we should replace “avarice” with “sloth” as the key vice of our age. “Lazy is good” needs to be our motto. “Shoddy is better than nothing”. Or how about “Less fear, more beer.” In times of shortage, laziness is immoral. In times of glut and surplus, ambition is immoral. It’s the common good that requires us to scale back our ambitions.

Jay Hanson (no relation to Jim Hansen, presumably) has been talking doom at for some time. Like most peak-oilers he is infected with a truly wretched sense of design as well as a sort of apocalyptic vocabulary, but he makes more sense than you might want to admit.

On a related note I finally had a chance to actually confront an economist today about some of this stuff. She had given a talk to the Ethical Society of Austin about the roots of the economic crisis; you know, credit swaps, excessive mortgages, and all. The word “resources” never appeared.

Of course, I, member in good standing of the Virtual Club of Rome, raised the issue of limits to growth. The response was telling. It was nonsensical to talk about limits, since they were so abstract and obviously so far into the future. Substitutability. Outer space. Technology. Bla bla bla. This was all to be expected and all eventually came up.

But the strangest comment was the first one: “Why would you want to limit growth?” As if the laws of physics represented a political position! Talk about “head-slappingly false”.

I think the tautology is pretty obvious, but it’s outside the box for economists. I mentioned it to her and she seemed to hear it, but she didn’t find it germane to her interests or as providing a realistic constraint to her models and theories.

We are just not talking their language. It’s like trying to bring the hockey rule of the blue line into a conversation on swine flu.

Ultimately, it seems there are people who have tremendous faith in technology who don’t really understand or care about the principles of thermodynamics. I suspect if you could catch Jeffrey Sachs in an unguarded moment he might admit to getting it. Other than the ecological / environmental economics fringes, though, you will have a hard time finding another economist who cares very much about the earth as a physical system, not even the most down-to-earth ones, like Stiglitz or DeLong or Krugman.

The most mind-boggling thing was that the economist I was talking to thought our problems were because politicians weren’t paying enough attention to economists. It’s really like these people live on a different planet.

Image from The Non-Consumer Advocate from a related article called “In Defense of Non-Productivity

Plauger’s Law and Small Glacial Lakes

I rotate the quotation at the top of the blog sometimes. For the reference of future readers it currently reads:

“My definition of an expert in any field is a person who knows enough about what’s really going on to be scared.”

— P. J. Plauger

This Sunday’s presentation at the Ethical Society of Austin presented a laundry list of environmental contaminants without really providing any sense of scale or stratgey for prioritization. I found it difficult to agree with the speaker’s approach, which seemed rooted in a generalized fear of contamination. On discussion of the presentation with Irene, it occurred to me that perhaps we become most expert in the things that worry us most, which would provide an alternative and more sanguine view of Plauger’s observation.

Here is one of my earliest and most vivid memories. As a small boy I had been trained not to pee in swimming pools. I was swimming in beautiful little Lac Paquin (pictured) with my father, and told him I needed to find a bathroom, fully aware that a difficult half mile walk was ahead of me. (Aside: Much of the movie “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” takes place by a fictitious instance of one of the many similar tiny lakes in this immediate vicinity. I spent literally hundreds of weekends of my childhood there. Note: plenty of nature. No farming in view. Perhaps an unusual experience.) My father told me not to worry, that Lac Paquin was much larger than a swimming pool, and that I ought to just go ahead. Which I did with much relief.

But I’ve always wanted a clear delineation between what is wrong and what is okay. This explanation of what was and wasn’t appropriate as a matter of scale absolutely fascinated me. It didn’t seem entirely satisfactory. I wondered what size of pool it was OK to pee in, and eventually about how many people could pee in a lake the size of Lac Paquin, and how it could be okay for one person and not for lots of people, and so on.

How could something be so clearly OK in some circumstances and so clearly not OK in others, even if the dividing line between them was so unclear? And how could we know where the line is? Here I am today essentially asking the same questions!

My concern for the environment then is rooted in a sort of rabbinical hairsplitting rather than in a contamination phobia or a resentment of power that dominates the motivation of most activists. Though religious orthodoxy holds no appeal for me, a desire for a consistent set of ethical constraints seems absolutely primal. I see the impossibility of altogether avoiding pissing, but just the same I don’t want to damage the world. As far as I can tell, in an underpopulated and preindustrial world, such problems are trivial, but as the world becomes more populated and more technically potent, somehow at some point the problem crosses the fuzzy line from lake to swimming pool, and a whole new set of moral imperatives suddenly kicks in.

I think this way of looking at things may be more common among earth scientists than among biologists for whom biophilia may be a very intense experience, and a tragic one given its near-absence in most modern people. Such biologist-environmentalists simply see biodiversity as a dominating moral precept. I’m not really in that bunch, myself, though I have enough biophilia to sympathize.

Unfortunately a set of moral constraints for a small world that is adequate would seem to be complex and tightly coupled. To absorb such a morality into essentially all of our various cultures and social mechanisms would be hard enough even if we could agree on a mutually consistent set. Regardless, it seems to me this transition dominates what we should be thinking about. Is it just me and my own obsessions?


Science, Impartial Honesty, Advocacy, Stridency, Idiocy, Dissembling, Lying Through Your Teeth

Once in a while, I suppose, even lies are necessary. If a person in your surroundings is insane and behaving dangerously it may occasionally make sense to play into their delusion. In my opinion, such cases are extremely rare, although it appears to me that lying to young children about Santa Claus is somehow considered charming. Sorry, Virgina…

In the public sphere, is it ever justifiable to lie? I would say no, never, (not that there aren’t slippery slopes about).

Science, Impartial Honesty, Advocacy, Stridency,
Idiocy, Dissembling, Lying Through Your Teeth

I note in passing that if we accept the above spectrum, it is “idiocy”, which is less malign in intent, that has no adaptive value in any situation. But detecting idiots is not so hard. Our problem is to detect who is lying, and especially who is lying well.

In the extensive discussions about Lomborg, the question is unavoidable. Indeed, it is hard to think of another person so difficult to place on the spectrum! Is he telling the truth as he understands it, or is he dissembling so vigorously that he is not above ignoring evidence, or is he even consciously willing to skew the evidence when it suits him?

This comes up because the latest skeptic to join our crew disagrees with me (surprise!) about the value of the new or at least new -to-me blog Things Break, which hosted a very interesting rebuttal to Lomborg, to which John Mashey chimed in with some very interesting thoughts as usual.

“Bernie” believes this article is off-puttingly “strident”. (See comments here). So in Bernie’s eyes, since Lomborg is (to him) among the most credible of the inactivists, this detracts from Things’ credibility and puts them toward the bleaker end of the truth-lies spectrum.

For myself I am definitely a believer in immediate action to minimize the risk of “CAGW” and unsurprisingly I find Lomborg intrinsically implausible. On reflection, as I have tried to explain on this blog on occasion, this is for the same reason that I find Stern implausible, that is, its basis on a theoretical platform (conventional growth-oriented economics) whose axiomatic beliefs are not plausible. Therefore I have little interest in the details of his peculiar arguments.

It’s not that I don’t believe in prioritization. It’s that I don’t believe anything that begins by deprioritizing the stability of the biosphere is based on useful principles.

But does Lomborg believe his argument himself? Is he being impartial and honest? I think it’s hard to say that he’s being entirely scientific, in Feynman’s sense, that is, I doubt he is treating his own opinions with the greatest doubt. But he may yet aspire to impartial honesty. Certainly he is trying very hard to present such an impression.

In other words, it is of legitimate interest to examine not only whether we think Lomborg’s ideas are worthy of consideration, but ultimately when they come up wanting, to consider whether Lomborg himself believes them.

And that is where the question of stridency comes up in “Leebert”‘s comments to Things’ Lomborg article:

“Really, this is nothing but shrill polemics that can only serve to galvanize the faithful on either side of the debate.”

Bernie sees things similarly.

It’s a puzzle, knowing how much weight to give scientific balance in such an obviously ill-balanced debate. Science can’t function without neutrality as well as self-doubt and openness to criticism. But most nonscientists nowadays are used to such crass self-promotion that any expression of even the slightest sliver of doubt is greeted with derision. The moral obligation to steer the planet in a sane direction now that we are driving certainly can compete with the scientific priority.

In the end, I think Eli is right. Different people will react in different ways, and it’s inevitable that a gamut of responses will be displayed. You have to break through the fog however you can. One man’s truth is another man’s stridency.

Of course, we should not go beyond stridency into idiocy or lies. But I think a great deal of our problem comes from the difficulty in distinguishing between them. If you attack an opinion that is merely misguided as if it were malicious, you come off as arrogant, while if you try to cope with an opinion that is malicious as if it were misguided, you can fall prey to all sorts of polemical gamesmanship. These are rocky waters, but it would certainly help to know who is genuinely if misguidedly trying to be helpful and who is just pissing in the pool.

So as a puzzle, have a look at this, the denialist drivel of the month and decide for yourself: idiocy or lies? Let’s play Idiocy Or Lies?

But what does it mean to lie as opposed to spin?

Knowingly using non-facts in support of your position is not mere stridency. Selecting facts that buttress your position and ignoring other facts is a very delicate ethical matter (unless you are an attorney, in which case it is apparently a matter of principle). You can’t say everything you know unless you don’t know very much. You have to choose what you talk about and what you avoid. That’s spin, and for an ethical person spin is a marginal case, sometimes necessary but fraught with dilemmas.
On the other hand, there is brazen misrepresentation of the facts. What I’m trying to do here is call some attention to the difference between selecting facts (morally gray area) and deliberately misinterpreting them (lying). Here’s a fine example.

I’m not an unalloyed Obama fan, but he pretty much nails it in this video. “They know it’s not true.” Look at what the tire guage ploy tried to accomplish. It tried to create a false public perception based on misrepresentation of the nature of a true incident. This went so far as to make it pretty clear that whoever promulgating it must have know it to be false.

People do these things. People are paid to do these things. They lie. They brazenly lie. They try to build their lies on actual facts but they deliberately are trying to present untruths. This is what lying looks like. They say things even though they know those things aren’t true.

Fortunately they fell flat on their faces on this particular one, but don’t forget that they will try again and again and again.

Which brings us back to how to react to lies. If it is stridency to call a lie a “they know it’s not true”, so be it. Perhaps that will put off some people already inclined to be put off. And while the spectrum of honesty and dishonesty has nothing to do with left or right, the really talented and well-paid liars are pretty much on one side of the climate story at present.

If you think someone is lying (or stupid, or some combination) in a way that has consequences for the safety of the world, it’s hard to see what the problem is with stridency or what the alternative to that might be. Those who have bet so much on the wrong horse that they can’t be reached will be angered, but maybe others will notice that there actually is a lot of misinformation about. You just have to say “if this isn’t lying it’s stupidity”. What else could you say? I respectfully disagree? No. At some point the opposition leaves the bounds of the respectable. In such cases it’s necessary to say so.

Perhaps we can make a sport of it. Again, try this site for the first round of “Idiocy or Lies?”. Do you spot the obvious fallacy? If these are not lies, if the author does not understand that the reasoning is invalid, how did the author spend so much time on the article without noticing?

Is it reasonable to say that it is not just wrong, but either stupidly or maliciously wrong or both? It may be pretty strident, but this kind of wrongness calls for some pretty strong criticism.
I’m still not sure about Lomborg. I don’t underestimate the human capacity for self-deception. However, I am not offended by the tone taken by Things Break in taking him down. Your mileage may vary.
Update: Edited somewhat for clarity. See also this prior posting.

Update: A related entry appears on Deltoid. It, with its associated comments, contains some of the best and most useful conversation I have ever seen on a blog. I’m honored to have gotten a link-back from it.