Great read, with food for thought for Cosmos.
Excellent interview. Most especially because of the following question and answer, which most people are not yet willing to address.
" NPQ: Can you expand on the current economy’s growth imperative, and how that’s become a problem given environmental constraints?
DR: Well, the growth imperative was embedded in our economy once we made it illegal for anyone to use anything other than interest-bearing central currency. So, kings in the early Renaissance outlawed market monies and local currencies and non-growth-based exchange mechanisms, and said everyone had to use coin of the realm, which was borrowed at interest. And the way the math works is, if every dollar that you borrow or every unit of money that you borrow has to be paid back with interest, then you need the economy to grow in order to keep paying back more money to the lenders. So, that’s why we’re stuck in this growth trap.
And the problem with the growth trap is, we’re living on a planet with finite resources. I know there are many opinions on this, but I do think that our planet and the atmosphere are rather fixed. And when you have a growth-based economy, it not only needs to grow but also needs to accelerate its rate of growth, because 2 percent of a zillion-dollar planet is more than 2 percent of a million-dollar planet."
Welcome, and thanks for plucking out that quote. I’m pretty sure I fully agree with you on the need to break the growth trap. I am also interested in alternative and complementary currency systems, such as mutual credit, which do not issue from fiat-based debt.
However, regarding the ‘finitude’ of the planet, I recently came across a counter-point, which seems worth sharing, even if I haven’t made up my mind which ‘side’ on the ‘hard limits vs. flexible constraints’ debate I agree with.
Perhaps there is a perspective that reconciles these views…
Nice to interact with you once again. This is an issue I’ve spent a lot of time on. My 2015 paper for ITC was in large measure dealing with this theme of limits to growth on a finite planet (the paper can be found at either Integral Leadership Review, or at Academia.edu, i.e.(PDF) Patterns for Navigating the Transition to a World in Energy Descent | David MacLeod - Academia.edu ).
I’m familiar with the line of thinking (“Ecomodernism”) coming from Ted Nordhaus and the Breakthrough Institute. I know there are some in the Integral community who look favorably on them. I carefully read their manifesto and the first book on the death of environmentalism, and although there is some good food for thought, I felt they really ignored some very important foundational ideas, and displayed a lack of deep understanding of the role of energy in making both ecology and economy possible.
Some remedial reading I would strongly recommend for good foundational understanding would be Howard Odum’s classic introduction to Energy, Ecology, and Economics (http://www.mnforsustain.org/energy_ecology_economics_odum_ht_1973.htm), followed by David Holmgren’s article on Energy and Permaculture (http://www.permacultureactivist.net/articles/holmgren.htm). Holmgren, the co-originator of Permaculture, summarizes the profound influence of Odum on his development of Permaculture, and presents the info in a very practical way. I think the two articles will explain why Nordhaus’s claim that “For decades, each increment of economic growth in developed economies has brought lower resource and energy use than the last” is false. Resource and energy use has not declined in developed countries, it’s merely been outsourced (we need to understand the concept of embodied energy).
From there we could get into other issues, such as Albert Bartlett’s presentation on the exponential function and how it relates to growth projections (Arithmetic, Population, and Energy: The Most IMPORTANT Video You'll Ever See (part 1 of 8) - YouTube ). I think there are legitimate criticisms that can be made about the work of Paul Ehrlich, but the Club of Rome reports and several editions of the classic book “Limits to Growth” have, in my opinion, been proven to be extremely accurate.
Finally, because I haven’t yet shared enough links, I enjoyed reading this recent post by Sam Bliss, who shares his story about arguing for Degrowth at a recent Ecomodernist conference. Defending degrowth at ecomodernism’s home – ENTITLE blog – a collaborative writing project on Political Ecology
Richard Heinberg has a new essay that responds to the Ted Nordhaus essay linked above. Like me, Heinberg raises the issue of energy - “With lots of cheap energy, we were able to extract raw materials faster and in greater quantities, transport them further, and transform them through industrial processes into a breathtaking array of goods — including fertilizers, pesticides, and antibiotics, all of which tended to reduce human death rates… And we did these things in a way that was not remotely sustainable. By harvesting renewable resources faster than they could regrow, by using non-renewable resources that could not be recycled, and by choking environments with industrial wastes, we were borrowing from future generations and from other species.”
Heinberg concludes his essay as follows:
" Devise your own scorecard. What warning signs would you expect to see if we humans were pressing at the limits of global carrying capacity? Resource depletion? Check. Pollution? Check. Dying oceans? Check. Human populations subjected to increasing stress? Double check.
Here’s one more that we probably should be paying more attention to: Wild terrestrial mammals now represent just 4.2 percent of terrestrial mammalian biomass, the balance — 95.8 percent — being livestock and humans. Maybe we could make some inroads on that remaining 4.2 percent, but it’s pretty clear from this single statistic that we humans have already commandeered most of the biosphere.
Optimism is essential; it draws us toward the best possible futures. But when it turns into wishful thinking, it can blind us to the consequences of our present actions. In the worst potential case, the results could be collectively suicidal."
Thanks for all the links, David. I read your piece, as well as Heinberg’s and Bliss’, and skimmed the others, which deserve a deeper read. As of the moment, I can’t say I know exactly where I stand on the “degrowth vs. decouple” debate—a lot of it seems to depend on advanced measurements and modeling from environmental science on which I’m not up to speed.
On the face of it, I accept the concept of “carrying capacity,” though it also seems clear that the amount of energy that we have access to could and should be virtually unlimited. (I am not a fan of nuclear, but imagine breakthroughs that could make it safe, or make solar cheap and widespread, etc.) However, this doesn’t address the other issues of environmental degradation (the animal biomass and extinction numbers are bad enough), and probably would exacerbate them without major changes to how we do business.
Which brings us back to the original point about growth economies. The money system is so fundamental to our civilization, I don’t see how we get to a new one without some sort of collapse or epic crisis. I am interested in alternative economics, alternative systems, for this very reason. On the other hand, I know it’s argued that economic growth could be achieved in ecological ways basically by opening up new markets in virtual space—i.e., the Internet. Meanwhile, a universal basic income could address the inherent precarity of living in a debt-based fiat currency system. Etc.
These are probably eco-modern ideas. I think Bliss’ point about the ‘intelligentsia’ making degrowth a cultural issue is a good one. The one thing we don’t question as a culture is the idea of infinite growth. The ‘pulse’ of modern industrial society will not last forever. But the pattern dynamics also suggests there could be new pulses. If we had a more integral understanding of ‘energy’ we could design economies that work with the natural flux of available resources. Which gets us to the permaculture idea…but I’ll stop there.
Thanks Marco. Yes, there could be new pulses. Let’s hope so. Gebser spoke of “what we might call the pulse or breath rhythm inherent in the mutations [of consciousness] when considered as a whole.” In another place he wrote of “the inescapable destiny of ascent and decline.”
We don’t know what technologies will be available in the coming years, but I believe there is evidence for the following points:
- The technologies we embrace are not necessarily always good (i.e. fracking, nuclear)
- If we had unlimited energy, we most likely would use a lot more than we do (Odum’s maximum power principle) to continue to grow our economies and kill our planet
*We should not plan our future based on unknown breakthroughs that might make nuclear safe and solar cheap and widespread (there’s an old saw that says “cold fusion is 30 years out, and always will be”)
*We need to develop a broader literacy around energy quantity vs. energy quality. Odum, again, taught about the concept of Transformity, where we take a large quantity of one type of energy, to make a smaller quantity of another type, but that other type is of a higher quality. This is seen, for example, in the transformation of coal into electricity, or crude oil into transportation fuels. Or even the energy costs of raising a human and giving them a good education - we have a lot of high quality embedded energy in our brains. And hopefully in the rest of our body via good spiritual practice. Let’s use available energy wisely!
In my view, alternative economics should be informed by the ecological economics pioneered by folks like Nicolas Georgesku-Roegen and Herman Daly. I’m a big fan of the little known Gebserian integral economist Peter Pogany, as well as the more well-known Elinor Ostrom.