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COP24: climate protesters must get radical and challenge economic growth

What do we want … when do we want it? Now. Etienne Laurent/EPA

At the COP24 conference in Poland, countries are aiming to finalise the implementation plan for the 2015 Paris Agreement. The task has extra gravity in the wake of the recent IPCC report declaring that we have just 12 years to take the action needed to limit global warming to that infamous 1.5ᵒC target.

Although the conference itself is open to selected state representatives only, many see the week as an opportunity to influence and define the climate action agenda for the coming year, with protests planned outside the conference halls.

A crucial role of environmental activists is to shift the public discourse around climate change and to put pressure on state representatives to act boldly. COP24 offers a rare platform on which to drive a step change in the position of governments on climate change.

However, many environmental movements in Europe are not offering the critical analysis and radical narratives needed to achieve a halt to climate change.

Growing pains

By now most people agree that greenhouse gas emissions (including CO₂) are the proximate driver of climate change, and that climate change is not only a future problem, but is already causing significant environmental and social problems across the world. Further, the trend in global CO₂ emissions still appears to be increasing, driven largely by consumption in advanced and emerging economies.

Economic growth measures the increase in the amount of goods and services produced by an economy over time, and it has historically been tightly coupled to CO₂ emissions. Decoupling these two factors is not impossible, and indeed many leading academics argue that the power of human ingenuity will solve the climate crisis. However, this is certainly unlikely in the timescales needed to tackle climate change in a just and equitable way.

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Stability without Growth: Keynes in an Age of Climate Breakdown

What do Keynesian Democrats think about the movement for post-growth and de-growth economics? Dean Baker, a senior economist at the Center for Economic Policy Research in Washington, DC, has given us some insight into this question. In a recent blog post, republished by Counterpunch, he takes aim at two articles that I wrote for Foreign Policy in which I argue that it is not feasible to reduce our emissions and resource use in line with planetary boundaries while at the same time pursuing exponential GDP growth.

Baker agrees — thankfully — that we need to dramatically reduce emissions and resource use to prevent ecological collapse. But he thinks that this is entirely compatible with continued GDP growth.

Let’s imagine, he says, that a new government imposes massive taxes on greenhouse gas emissions and resource extraction while at the same time increasing spending on clean technologies, with subsidies for electric vehicles and mass transit systems. Baker believes that this will shift patterns of consumption toward goods that are less emissions and resource intensive. People will spend their money on movies and plays, for example, or on gyms and nice restaurants and new computer software. So GDP will continue growing forever while emissions and resource use declines.

It sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? I, for one, would embrace such an outcome. After all, if growth was green, why would anyone have a problem with it? Baker makes the mistake of believing that degrowthers are focused on reducing GDP. We are not. Like him, we want to reduce material throughput. But we accept that doing so will probably mean that GDP will not continue to grow, and we argue that this needn’t be a catastrophe — on the contrary, it can be managed in a way that improves people’s well-being.


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Degrowth as a concrete utopia

Degrowth as a concrete utopia

Economic growth can’t reduce inequalities; it merely postpones confronting exploitation. Español

“My Visit to the Mountain Homestead.” Credit: Flickr/Eli Duke. CC BY 2.0.

The emergence of interest in degrowth can be traced back to the 1st International Degrowth Conference organized in Paris in 2008. At this conference, degrowth was defined as a “voluntary transition towards a just, participatory, and ecologically sustainable society,” so challenging the dogma of economic growth. Another five international conferences were organized between 2010 and 2018, with the latest in Malmo in August.

This year also saw the publication of Giorgos Kallis’ landmark book Degrowth,which opens with three bold statements. First, the global economy should slow down to avert the destruction of Earth’s life support systems, because a higher rate of production and consumption will run parallel to higher rates of damage to the environment. Hence, we should extract, produce and consume less, and we should do it all differently. Since growth-based economies collapse without growth we have to establish a radically different economic system and way of living in order to prosper in the future.

Second, economic growth is no longer desirable. An increasing share of GDP growth is devoted to ‘defensive expenditure,’ meaning the costs people face as a result of environmental externalities such as pollution. Hence, growth (at least in rich countries) has become “un-economic:” its benefits no longer exceed its costs.

Third, growth is always based on exploitation, because it is driven by investment that, in turn, depends on surplus. If capitalists or governments paid for the real value of work then they would have no surplus and there would be no growth. Hence, growth cannot reduce inequalities; it merely postpones confronting exploitation.

The growth paradigm.

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An economy that does not grow?

An economy that does not grow?

cover of S Lange, Macroeconomcs Without Growth - click for the publisher linkThere is now plenty of evidence that economic growth is highly problematic for human welfare and survival. The evidence comes from three domains. 1) The ecological: continual growth uses up the resources that supply and the sinks that take the waste from human activity globally. 2) The social: economic growth does not correlate well with human welfare and its supposed benefits, rather than being shared, become ever more concentrated at the top of the wealth and income pyramid. 3) The economic: economic systems that rely on perpetual growth are inherently unstable, and meet internal and external constraints (or contradictions) that undermine them.

While it may be clear that the wager on endless growth is a bad one, a more difficult question arises: “what would be the characteristics of an economy that does not grow?”.

In his book “Macroeconomics Without Growth1” Steffen Lange attempts to construct a framework for answering this question, rooted in the three main approaches to theorising the economy, hence the subtitle: “Sustainable Economies in Neoclassical, Keynesian and Marxian Theories”. The book is a valuable contribution to the theory and practice of degrowth and provides a solid grounding for interventions in the policy arena, including those by political parties that seek to construct a coherent alternative, rather than a mishmash wish list of proposals. A strength of the book is its rigorous, formal analysis of the main theoretical approaches and what they say about the preconditions for growth, and the possibilities of zero growth.

As such the book extends to 583 pages, and the detail, with recourse to mathematical formulae to capture the various models and sub-models, will mean that many will not read it. The aim of this essay review, then, is to summarise the book, emphasising the synthesis reached by Lange, and suggesting a few issues that arise.

In search of the macroeconomics of post-growth.

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Beware Fireworks As Italy’s Budget Resubmission Deadline Looms

With stocks in Europe attempting a modest relief rally after yesterday’s sharp selloff, traders remain on edge over political developments as today is the deadline for Italy’s cabinet to resubmit their budget proposal after the EC requested a new fiscal plan. Virtually nobody expects any material changes, especially with Il Sole reporting this morning that Italy will maintain its 2019 deficit target at 2.4% of GDP and could alter the 2019 GDP growth rate of 1.5%

When looking at next steps, Deutsche Bank economists yesterday concluded that as contagion has been relatively limited for now, the commission will continue to adopt a tough stance on Italy, and it now seems inevitable they will recommend an Excessive Deficit Procedure (EDP) in the next few weeks.

And speaking of Deutsche Bank, the German lender’s Head of Research and Chief Economist David Folkerts-Landau penned a hard hitting  Financial Times op-ed on the Italian situation, whose argument is that Europe must cut a grand bargain with Italy and that another costly sovereign debt crisis is inevitable unless the confrontational approach of the EC gives way to greater co-operation. According to Landau, Italy has actually been a frugal member of the single currency with a cumulative primary surplus every year outside of the GFC. However, these surpluses have simply helped finance the interest on the legacy debt and debt/GDP has still climbed. Meanwhile, the associated spending cuts and austerity required to run a primary surplus have lowered the standard of living for the population and led us to the political situation we find ourselves at today. What is his proposal?

The only viable option left is to reduce Italy’s debt service payments. This would create room to increase spending to modernise its economy without increasing the deficit and debt.

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Global GDP Still Propped Up By A Massive Amount Of Debt

Global GDP Still Propped Up By A Massive Amount Of Debt

While the government agencies and economists continue to publish strong GDP figures, they seem to overlook how much debt it took to produce that growth.  Or should I say, the “supposed growth.”  The days of adding one dollar of debt to get one dollar of GDP growth have been long gone for more than 40 years.  And, as global debt has increased, it has forced governments to lower interest rates.

Yes, it’s really that simple.  I get a good chuckle when I hear analysts talk about rising interest rates to 10-15%.  If the U.S. Government interest rate on the Treasury Bonds increased to just 5%, Uncle Sam would be paying over a trillion dollars a year just to service the debt.  So, no… we aren’t going to see 10-15% rates again.

Well, we could… but, most of the global debt would have to collapse or be forgiven.  Unfortunately, if global debt vaporizes or is forgiven, then the entire economy collapses as well.  We must remember, GDP growth is also driven by oil production growth.  There is no way in HADES that the oil industry can fund future production with 10-15% interest rates.  IT JUST AIN’T GONNA HAPPEN.

Why?  If it weren’t for the Fed dropping rates down to nearly zero, the Great U.S. Shale Oil Ponzi Scheme and the six million barrels per day of unprofitable shale oil production would have been a pipe dream.  I can assure you that the shale oil industry could not fund operations or service their debt with 10-15% interest rates.

Most shale oil companies are paying on average between 4-5% interest to service their debt.  If the companies’ interest rates double or triple, then it would make it extremely difficult to service the shale industry debt that is estimated to be $280-$300 billion.

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Is The Long-Anticipated Crash Now Upon Us?


Is The Long-Anticipated Crash Now Upon Us?

Is this the market’s breaking point?

I admit: I’m a permabear.

This is no surprise to those who know and have followed me over the years. But I’m publicly proclaiming my ‘bearishness’ because doing so might open up a needed and long overdue dialog.

Here’s my fundamental position:  Infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible. 

Cutting to the chase, this is why I predict a major crash/collapse across stocks, bonds and real estate is on the way.

The recent market weakness seen over the past two weeks is nothing compared to what’s in store.  As we’ve been carefully chronicling, bubbles burst from ‘the outside in’, starting at the weaker places at the periphery before progressing to the center.

Emerging market equities are now down -26% from their January highs and -18% year-to-date.  China’s stocks market is down -32%, even with substantial intervention by the government to prop things up.

The periphery has been weakening all year, and the contagion has now spead worldwide.

Taken as a whole, global equities have shed some $13 trillion of market capitalization for a -15% decline:

The rot has spread to the core with surprising speed. Now even the formerly bullet-proof US equity markets are stumbling.

The S&P 500 is now negative on the year:

It’s been obvious for a long time to those who have watched The Crash Course that endless growth is simply not possible. Not for a bacteria colony in a petrie dish, not for an economy, not for any species on the planet. Eventually, when finite resources are involved, limits matter.

But the vast majority of society pretends as if this isn’t true.

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IEA: Expensive Energy Is Threatening Economic Growth

IEA: Expensive Energy Is Threatening Economic Growth

oil jack

Expensive energy is back and it is threatening global economic growth, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said in its Oil Market Report on Friday, joining other organizations like the International Monetary (IMF) and OPEC that also expressed this week concerns about mounting challenges to economic and oil demand growth.

Brent Crude prices have been holding above $80 a barrel, while pipeline constraints have caused WTI Crude prices to lag somewhat, the IEA said in its report, but noted that “Nonetheless, our position is that expensive energy is back, with oil, gas and coal trading at multi-year highs, and it poses a threat to economic growth.”

Emerging economies are grappling not only with higher energy prices, but they are also seeing their currencies depreciate against the U.S. dollar, which increases the threat of economic growth slowing down, the IEA said.

Earlier this week, the IMF slightly downgraded its projection for global growth for this year and next—at 3.7 percent, growth is now expected 0.2 percentage point lower than IMF’s forecast from April this year. The key reasons for the downgrade included trade disputes, geopolitical tensions, and a weaker outlook for emerging economies due to higher oil import bills, among other factors, according to the IMF.

On Thursday, OPEC revised down its oil demand growth estimates for this year and next—a third downward revision in three months—citing potential headwinds to global economic growth ranging from trade disputes to weakening finances in emerging markets and geopolitical challenges. OPEC revised down its global oil demand growth to 1.54 million bpd this year, down by 80,000 bpd from the estimate in the September report. The cartel now sees global oil demand growth next year at 1.36 million bpd, down by around 50,000 bpd from last month’s assessment, to reflect expectations for lower economic growth for Turkey, Brazil, and Argentina.

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While economic growth continues we’ll never kick our fossil fuels habit

We’re getting there, aren’t we? We’re making the transition towards an all-electric future. We can now leave fossil fuels in the ground and thwart climate breakdown. Or so you might imagine, if you follow the technology news.

So how come oil production, for the first time in history, is about to hit 100m barrels a day? How come the oil industry expects demand to climb until the 2030s? How is it that in Germany, whose energy transition (Energiewende) was supposed to be a model for the world, protesters are being beaten up by police as they try to defend the 12,000-year-old Hambacher forest from an opencast mine extracting lignite – the dirtiest form of coal? Why have investments in Canadian tar sands – the dirtiest source of oil – doubled in a year?

The answer is, growth. There may be more electric vehicles on the world’s roads, but there are also more internal combustion engines. There be more bicycles, but there are also more planes. It doesn’t matter how many good things we do: preventing climate breakdown means ceasing to do bad things. Given that economic growth, in nations that are already rich enough to meet the needs of all, requires an increase in pointless consumption, it is hard to see how it can ever be decoupled from the assault on the living planet.

When a low-carbon industry expands within a growing economy, the money it generates stimulates high-carbon industry. Anyone who works in this field knows environmental entrepreneurs, eco-consultants and green business managers who use their earnings to pay for holidays in distant parts of the world and the flights required to get there.

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The Biggest Risk In Today’s Oil Markets

The Biggest Risk In Today’s Oil Markets


The oil market is “tightening up,” but the Trump administration could still spoil oil prices if its aggressive trade war against China drags down economic growth.

The U.S. stepped up the trade conflict with China on Monday when the Trump administration announced $200 billion in tariffs on Chinese imports. The move had been expected for weeks but trade proponents had hoped that the administration would ultimately shelve the idea when push came to shove.

Not only did Trump move forward with punitive tariffs on China, but he also hinted that another $267 billion in tariffs are under consideration.

The trade war could hit the oil and gas markets in several ways. First, the back-and-forth escalation of tariffs could drag down economic growth. The first round of tariffs, which hit $50 billion in Chinese goods, targeted a relatively narrow set of products. But the latest $200 billion in tariffs will raise the cost for a wide array of consumer goods in the U.S., which could slow the economy. Specific industries that are affected by the tariffs will see more concentrated damage.

Second, oil and gas are likely to be specifically affected by the trade war, which wasn’t the case in the previous rounds of tariffs. China announced $60 billion in retaliatory measures on Tuesday, which included a 10 percent tariff on imported LNG from the United States.

The problem with the trade fight is that once the tariffs are in place, there is pressure on both sides not to back down. That doesn’t bode well to a swift resolution of this conflict.

Over the longer-term, the tariff upends the economics of building new LNG export terminals in the United States. China has emerged as the main driver of LNG demand growth, and any new export terminal located anywhere around the world likely has China at the center of its calculations.

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Bad Money


Bad Money

Our debt-based fiat money system poses an existential threat

We’re all going to have to be a lot more resilient in the future.

The “long emergency“, as James Howard Kunstler puts it, is now upon us.

If ever there was a wake-up call from Mother Nature, it’s been the weather events over the past 12 months.

Last year, the triplet Hurricanes Harvey, Maria, and Irma resulted in thousands of deaths (mainly in Puerto Rico) and tens of $billions in destruction.

This year has seen a rash of 120° F (50° C) summer days, droughts, current monster storms like Typhoon Mangkhut and Hurricane Florence — as well as numerous 100/500/1,000-year floods spread across the globe.

And that’s just so far.

It remains nearly impossible to connect climate change directly to any particular weather event. But taken together, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to dismiss the scientific claim that the quantity of heat trapped in the earth’s weather systems impacts the amount of water that now falls (or refuses to fall) from the sky and the high-temperature heat waves that now shatter records with such regularity that once-rare extreme conditions are now becoming routine.

Our “new normal” is quickly diverging from the natural conditions most of us have grown up with. Permafrost isn’t “permanent ” anymore — it melts. The Arctic now can be ice-free. In a growing number of regions in the US, you can leave a screenless window open on an August evening (with the lights on!), and remain unmolested by the swarms of insects that used to prowl the night.

All of these symptoms are connected by a root cause: our society’s relentless addiction to growth. And while we do our best here at PeakProsperity.com to continually raise awareness of this existential threat, the rest of the media completely ignores it.

meltdown? That’s splashed everwhere…

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ECB To Cut Euro Area Growth Outlook In Latest Global Slowdown Warning

One week ago, Bank of America’s CIO Michael Hartnett predicted that Europe will be the “missing link” for the emerging market crisis to spread to the rest of the developed world and “morph into a global deleveraging event.”

But where would the crack appear: after all, until recently European economic data had been surprisingly strong… if not so much in the past few days, because after emerging into the green, the Citi Eurozone economic surprise index appears to have rolled over, and returned back into negative territory.

Then, as if to confirm that Europe was finally starting to groan under the weight of EM turmoil, overnight Bloomberg reported that the ECB was set to revise its forecasts lower for euro-area economic growth during its press conference on Thursday “as global trade tensions damp external demand, according to officials familiar with the latest projections.”

According to Bloomberg’s sources, the main nations dragging on demand were the U.K. and Turkey, though the U.S. outlook is still positive.

In June, the ECB predicted economic growth would slow from 2.1 percent this year to 1.7 percent in 2020, with inflation averaging 1.7 percent in all three years covered in the forecast.

The growing pessimistic outlook comes at an “awkward time” for the Governing Council, just as it prepares to wind back stimulus, though the adjustments probably aren’t big enough to derail those plans yet, unless of course the EM turmoil continues and results in even more German foreign factory order weakness.

The silver lining: the path of inflation, the primary consideration for monetary policy, remains unchanged… for now.

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Fiscal Stimulus and Economic Growth–Are They Related?

For most experts a key factor that policy makers should be watching is the gap between the actual real output and the potential real output. The potential output is the maximum output that the economy could attain if all the resources are used efficiently.

The gap is labelled as the output gap. In June this year the output gap – expressed in percentage terms – stood at 3.8% against 3.25% in March and 2.75% in June last year.

A strong positive output gap can be of concern because according to experts it can set in motion inflationary pressures. To prevent the possible escalation of inflation, experts tend to recommend tighter monetary and fiscal policies.

Their preferential outcome would be to soften the aggregate demand, which is considered as the key driving factor behind the positive output gap.

However, of greater concern to most experts is a negative output gap, which is associated with a severe recession.

The output gap was in the negative area between November 2008 and June 2013. Note that in June 2009 it had plunged to minus 3.34% (see chart).

Most commentators are of the view that with the emergence of a negative output gap the most effective policy to erase this gap is aggressive fiscal stimulus i.e. the lowering of taxes and increasing government outlays – a policy of large government deficit.

This way of thinking follows the ideas of John Maynard Keynes.

Briefly, Keynes held that one could not have complete trust in a market economy, which is inherently unstable. If left free the market economy could lead to self-destruction.

Hence, there is the need for governments and central banks to manage the economy.

Successful management in the Keynesian framework can be achieved by influencing the overall spending in an economy.

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Defending degrowth at ecomodernism’s home

Defending degrowth at ecomodernism’s home

In June, I was invited to speak at the eight annual Breakthrough Dialogue, an annual invite-only conference where accomplished thinkers debate how to achieve prosperity for humans and nature. The Breakthrough Institute, anecomodernist think-tank, welcomed my presence as a provocateur.

I was to participate in a panel called “Decoupling vs. Degrowth”. My role was the token “degrowther” making my case to a majority “decoupler” crowd. In this context, degrowth is the proposal to intentionally shrink the physical size of wealthy economies, whereas decoupling is the hope that growing economies will at last break free from growing resource use and environmental damage. The former renews environmentalism as a subversive political movement. The latter is firmly post-environmentalist, often associated with support for nuclear energy, industrial agriculture, and artificial technologies. With my mentorGiorgos Kallis, we’ve spent three years working together on a critical analysis of this post-environmentalism that emanates from the Breakthrough Institute and their self-styled ecomodernist friends.

The logo of the 2018 Breakthrough Dialogue, titled “Rising Tides.” Source: The Breakthrough Institute 

The panel and the whole event went well. I think I made a bulletproof case for degrowth. I learned lots about geoengineering, carbon capture, agricultural modernization, and other topics from brilliant thought leaders – whom Noam Chomsky might call the intelligentsia – both through their panel discussions and informal conversations. Talking with journalists and scientists who had never engaged with degrowth before made the Dialogues worthwhile. I expected to feel like a visiting team player in a hostile professional sports arena, but really it was more like being a foreigner who people are interested in but don’t always know how to interact with.

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Can Deflation Undo the Damage of Inflation?

In our various writings, we have suggested that loose monetary policy of the central bank, which amounts to the lowering of interest rates and monetary pumping, gives rise to activities that cannot exist by themselves without the support from this loose monetary policy.

An increase in money supply as a result of an easy monetary stance by the central bank sets an exchange of nothing for something i.e. the diversion of real wealth from wealth generators towards activities that emerge on the back of loose monetary policy. We label various activities that emerge on the back of loose monetary policy as bubble activities. Given that these activities cannot support themselves, they constitute a burden on wealth generators.

It is tempting to suggest that a tighter monetary stance of the central bank could undo the negatives of the previous loose monetary stance i.e. inflationary policy through the removal of bubble activities. In fact, this type of policies carries a label of countercyclical policies.

On this way of thinking, whenever economic activity slows down it should be the duty of the central bank to give it a push, which will place the economy back on the trajectory of an expanding economic growth. The push is done by means of loose monetary policy i.e. the lowering of interest rates and raising the growth rate of money supply.

Conversely, when economic activity is perceived to be “too strong”, then in order to prevent an “overheating” it should be the duty of the central bank to “cool off” economic activity by a tighter monetary stance.

This amounts to raising interest rates and slowing down monetary injections. It is believed that a tighter stance will place the economy on a trajectory of stable non-inflationary growth. On this way of thinking, the economy is perceived to be like a space ship, which occasionally slips from the trajectory of stable economic growth.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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