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 http://www.dieoff.org 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


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The Lawnmower Problem

OK, never mind, for the moment, if lawns are a good idea. Let’s consider lawnmowers.

If you have a typical American house, you have a typical lawn in front of it, a lawn that is in need of occasional trimming. Unless you contract out for lawn services, you almost certainly own a lawnmower too. Most likely it has a cheesy, loud, polluting little engine.
You only use this for an hour every other week, or 1/336 of the time. OK, you don’t want people mowing lawns at night, so say 1/168 of the available daylight time. So you and your 167 nearest neighbors own 168 times too many lawnmowers. If you could coordinate your lawnmowing, you would need to spend 1/168 as much on a lawnmower. Similar calculations apply to every other household tool you own that you don’t use intensively in your work or your principal hobbies.
OK, it’s a slight exaggeration for various reasons, but there is no reason 50 people couldn’t share a really good lawnmower except for logistics. Less intensive tool sharing is already happening informally in more civilized neighborhoods on local mailing lists. (“Has anybody got one of those really tall pruning shears?”) Sure enough, people are trying to build web tools to facilitate more effective sharing. ( H/T @timoreilly )
Though it strikes me as possibly overkill, and that perhaps a local mailing list would be more fun, this sort of thing may move the process of substituting relationship for stuff forward.
Now consider that this would reduce the demand for lawnmowers by 98% over the long term, and create a vast oversupply in the short run.
This is part of the trend to substitution of information for materials. Knowing where to borrow a lawnmower is actually better than owning a lawnmower: it saves you some storage. Substituting information for materials decreases impact on the environment; the impact from the manufacture of 49 lawnmowers in this case.
It will also greatly reduce employment in the manufacture of nasty little two- four-stroke engines. According to almost all economists and almost all politicians, this is a bad thing. Obama has as his first priority re-employing all the people who until recently were diligently employed creating, servicing and financing a huge housing glut. The public agrees. They are wrong.
Economists would argue in theory that if a web site or more reliance on mailing lists or even old fashioned community “bulletin boards” (corkboards and thumbtacks) can replace 98% of lawnmowers with a few pennies worth of information exchange, this amounts to creating value.
But it’s value that’s very hard to capture: the people putting up the web site will invest a few hundred hours of effort but not much else, and will probably get by on advertising revenues. The vast bulk of the return goes to the people who don’t have to get new lawnmowers. So in practice, wealth is moved from the money economy back to the informal economy.
GDP goes down. Employment goes down. Collective well-being goes up a little bit but individual well-being of people who make and market little two-^H^H^H^H four-stroke engines goes down. Crisis is declared.
Yet this is exactly the opposite of the behavior that got us into trouble in the first place: the replacement of community with commerce. Isn’t this the sort of “decline” we should be encouraging?
Of course it is no pleasure to lose your main income stream, especially when your savings are crumbling too. The response to this shouldn’t be to “revive” the economy, especially the manufacturing sector which has obviously overproduced. The response should be to make it less of threat to be unemployed: public health care, decent housing and food standards provided for everybody. Losing income should not be an existential threat. Calm, underemployed people can be a huge source for creativity and restoration of the social fabric. Desperate underfed people can’t.
The answer to past overproduction can’t be to bring back the good old days of overproduction.
Don’t work too hard to keep your job. Apply your extra efforts to find out how you can contribute to the informal economy.
Don’t replace your lawnmower. Meet your neighbors.
Relaxation is progress. Take advantage of the Great Unwinding, and unwind.

Via @timoreilly, here’s a discussion of the very topic at hand.