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