Home » Posts tagged 'feasta'

Tag Archives: feasta

Olduvai
Click on image to purchase

Olduvai III: Catacylsm
Click on image to purchase

Post categories

Economics and the environment

Economics and the environment

This is the text, including slides, from a talk given on October 28 2020 during an online event organised by University College Cork’s Economics and Environmental Societies. (I didn’t follow the text word for word during the talk, but it covered the same ground)

Thank you very much, I’m delighted to be able to participate in this discussion.

My name is Caroline Whyte, I have a background in ecological economics and I do research and help with communications for a think tank called Feasta: the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability.

Feasta, as some of you may know, is the Irish word for ‘in the future’. We have our administrative headquarters in at the ecovillage in Cloughjordan, and we’re in the Environmental Pillar of Irish environmental NGOs and in Stop Climate Chaos Ireland, but our focus is actually quite global and we have international membership. I’ll be explaining a bit more about Feasta later.

If I’m asked about the role economics plays in the environment and sustainability, my answer would be ‘what kind of economics are you talking about’ because there are a lot of different schools of thought within economics. You could be forgiven for not knowing that though, because there’s one particular school of thought that’s become quite dominant in university courses and in think tanks, political advisory groups, the media and so on – you could call it Neoclassical economics.

I find this approach to economies – particularly standard macroeconomic theory – quite problematic in many ways for the environment and for society and I’ll explain why in a minute. I’d argue that there needs to be a much broader range of economic thinking in universities, in the media, in advisory groups, all over really, if the economy is going to be able to adapt itself properly to our environment…

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Aggregate green growth is a mirage: we need to take a more scientific approach to societal wellbeing

Aggregate green growth is a mirage: we need to take a more scientific approach to societal wellbeing

In the spring of 2020, the new Irish government announced its desire to develop new measures of well-being and progress in Ireland. The idea was given some prominence in the Programme for Government, ‘Our Shared Future’.

This is exactly the kind of initiative that we in Feasta have been advocating for the past 20-odd years. It’s also in line with an encouraging international trend of governments seeking to reorientate their economies towards well-being, and fits in nicely with the thinking of the global Wellbeing Economy Alliance (of which Feasta is a member).

A recent publication by Fine Gael, ‘Measuring Wellbeing’, refers to this Irish government initiative and makes a case for expanding “the range of economic, social and policy indicators that we use in government”. It lays out a draft outline for developing a wide range of metrics for measuring well-being, along the lines of the OECD’s Wellbeing Framework, and implementing them into State budgeting decisions. There is much in there to agree with.

Unfortunately, however, there is a serious problem with one of the most basic assumptions that is made in the Fine Gael paper. Unless this problem is examined and properly addressed, all the improved measurements in the world won’t be able to improve societal well-being in Ireland.

The problem relates to GDP growth. GDP growth is considered by the paper’s author to be “a critical means to the end of progressing society”.

This is a highly problematic assumption.

The authors take care to point out many of the well-known shortcomings of GDP growth as a measure of progress. So the issue here is not whether or not GDP growth is an unreliable measure of progress; it looks as though we can (almost) all agree on that, these days.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Bringing disaster preparedness into resilience politics

Bringing disaster preparedness into resilience politics

Introduction

Most discussion of “sustainability” for the last 30 years has been about how to ensure that what we do today is not at the expense of future generations. This is supposed to be so that future generations are safe from the damage done when current generations over-exploit the planet and ruin their future.

That was the theory but the overuse of the planet’s resources happened anyway. Growth got priority and future generations will pay for the planet’s consumer class and the idiocy of its economic priesthood. Ecological footprint analysis tells us that humanity (or rather the rich part of the humanity) has been consuming natural resources as if there were 1.7 planets. This overshoot, the inappropriate growth promoted by mainstream economists may end up sending future generations into earlier graves. They have a right to be angry. Humans born now will inherit an exhausted planet with an increasing number and intensity of disasters. [1]

According to a recent UN report, damage has increased over the last 40 years:

“Between 1980 and 1999, 4,212 disasters were linked to natural hazards worldwide claiming approximately 1.19 million lives and affecting 3.25 billion people resulting in approximately US$1.63 trillion in economic losses.”

That was twenty years ago and it has got worse.

“In the period 2000 to 2019, there were 7,348 major recorded disaster events claiming 1.23 million lives, affecting 4.2 billion people (many on more than one occasion) resulting in approximately US$2.97 trillion in global economic losses. This is a sharp increase over the previous twenty years.” [2]

On current trends it will get worse again. We should not give up the campaigning against further overshoot but we now need to combine this fight with steps in communities to prepare for the disasters that are now baked in – because the growth fanatics cannot take in the dangers of rushing over planetary tipping points. We are facing climate crisis, biodiversity collapse, public health crises and economic turmoil that are already upon us.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Keystone attitudes and policies of enough

Keystone attitudes and policies of enough


In the previous blog post, I asserted that states and international governance bodies need to make systemic or upstream interventions to foster stability and security in economy and society. where they have high leverage potential. Then, governance needs to continue to respond intelligently to what arises. 

In Enough is Plenty, I conceptualised some of the high-leverage interventions as ‘keystones’ or keystone policies. I examined Carbon Caps with Sharing built in, such as Cap and Share ; structural support for Intelligent Agriculture;  Basic Income; and Land-Value Taxes

These policies are not the only ones that could be implemented, but they would be good place to start and are all do-able immediately in our present context. Others, such as the implementation of non-debt money systems, require a bigger stretch of the imagination for most people. The principles or attitudes behind these keystone policy frameworks are stability, sufficiency for all, equity, and an emphasis on the health of the whole system; these should be the primary goal of all governments, lawmakers and citizens when advocating or implementing policies.

Healthy ecological systems always have keystone species. Biologists take the idea of the keystone from architecture, where the keystone is the tapered stone at the top of an arch. Without it, the whole arch would collapse. In the natural world, certain species function as keystones in their ecosystems. For instance, alligators in the Florida Everglades create ‘gator holes’ which fill up with water and provide a habitat for a diversity of smaller creatures. If the alligators disappear, then all those smaller creatures also die out. Green cover crops are keystone species for soil health, and soil in turn sustains all food production. We need keystone policies that are underpinned by a vision of a rich social, personal and economic habitat for people.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The school of economics as a suicide academy?

The school of economics as a suicide academy?


“Anyone who thinks that economic growth can continue for ever on a finite planet is either a madman or an economist.” Kenneth Boulding

The Limits to Growth Study of 1972

In 1972 economists became embroiled in a controversy with a group of systems scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and declared themselves the winners. It became the conventional wisdom that the economists won the argument. This complacent judgement now turns out to be premature.

The systems scientists had been commissioned by a group called the Club of Rome to research the impact of economic growth on the ecological system. Their book, published in 1972, was titled “The Limits to Economic Growth”. It argued that two things would set a constraint on the economic growth process – an accumulation of pollution and wastes and the depletion of resources. The damage from pollution – for example from greenhouse gases – would require the diversion of increasing amounts of resources to mitigate and adapt to increasing difficulties. At the same time depletion – eg of fossil fuels, oil, gas, minerals and biological resources – would mean that harder and costlier to access resources would have to be accessed as time went by and that would raise costs and choke off growth too. (1)

Crucially the LtG authors did not say that the Limits to Growth (LtG) constraints would be immediate – their modelling, done with early computer technology, dated the end of growth, followed by a period of involuntary contraction, in and after the first two decades of the 21st century. Quelle surprise – in recent years mainstream economists have been puzzling over what they call “secular stagnation”.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Speed and localism

Speed and localism

This is an extract from Patrick Noble’s new book, Reclaiming Commons, which can be ordered online here.

SPEED

What of fossil-powered speed – the borrowed muscular lives of fossilised years? Do we forget ourselves in consequence?

What of two people walking side by side? They are more or less equal until they step into what money can buy – a car; an aeroplane…

What happens when the energy required for cars and aeroplanes exceeds available energy – that is, exceeds what is possible? Is that a partial recipe for equality?

But does that speed lead to a forgetting, not only of human speed, but of all human qualities?
What of the time between destinations – both the space/time and the space? Does shrunken time, also shrink space and so the richness of a life?

What of the purchased fancy of traveling between places, without the revelatory truth of the places in between?

If the places in between are a nuisance to be transcended by those millions of purchased photosynthetic years, is our knowledge not impoverished and our imagination stunted? Certainly, our chosen purchases must crowd out what is unpredictable, sacramental, revelatory, beautiful and true.
Listen, as we slow to walking pace, so the great mass of life comes around us in the ways we’ve evolved to live – in obstacles, delights, gradients, weathers, sights, sounds, scent… As we slow, revelation accelerates. That is, as we slow, what is human accelerates and swells. Also, what is possible, accelerates and swells.

Here’s something else, as we speed by our purchasing power, so we impoverish the passage of time. That’s as old as the oldest philosopher.

So, is slower richer in rewards and faster poorer – even though slower is poorer in money and faster richer? Is unnatural speed, not a perfect parable for folly?

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Money: the silent killer

Money: the silent killer

In Sweden, which is famously on the way to becoming cash-free, you can find signs in shop windows that say ‘we don’t take cash because electronic payments are better for the environment’.

Since cash does require a certain amount of resource use for its production process and transportation, and since in general we’re encouraged to go paperless as much as we can, this idea may seem – at first, anyway – to make sense.

And if electronic money truly required only the modest amount of energy that goes into creating bank cards or whichever payment device is being employed, along with a bit more energy for moving the data around in cyberspace, then it would very likely be true.

Swedish business sign saying “a big thank you for your card payments! From 1 February 2017 we will be cash-free. Better for the environment, secure, quick and easy.”

Indeed, a recent study by the Dutch central bank seemed to back up the Swedish store owners’ assumptions. It investigated the ecological footprint generated by cash and compared it to that of electronic payments, and found that cash was the loser.

However, there’s a very important missing variable in the Dutch study: how the money comes into existence in the first place.

With cash, that’s pretty straightforward. The central bank creates cash and it then gets distributed to private banks. (Corresponding deductions are made to their ‘reserve accounts’ at the central bank. Then it’s put into ATMs.) Apart from the up-front ecological costs mentioned above there is nothing else to worry about.

Electronic money, in its current form anyway, is a very different beast. And since it makes up about 97% of money in circulation, it deserves serious attention.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Culture and climate

Culture and climate

My purpose is to show that if cultures are to end further acceleration of the climate change they are causing, then new ways of life must be found, which no longer cause it. Tinkering with improvements to our current ways of life is futile. We must each of us change how we live, or else be changed forever by our own effects.

Such new ways of life could be very much happier than the lives we live today. Philosophers from every age have told us that living on less is a recipe for happiness. In short, we must do without just about everything, which the power of fossil fuels has given us in the last hundred years. From now on, we shall be reliant on – not fossil mass, but biomass and all its diversity. What’s more we cannot burn that biomass and biodiversity, but must do all we can to become a part of the biological cycles, which provide our food, clothing, building materials, but not alas, our fuels. We need optimum biomass and optimum photosynthesis. By optimum, I mean the durable maximum.

The benign, almost infinitely-complex, but self-regulating life-cycles of the Holocene, which have enabled all that we call civilisation, are deflating – the gas of lost lives escaping, like wind from a punctured Earth. Instead of optimum cycles, we tend towards dead linear chaos – that is, the simple causes and effects of fossil-fuelled and bio-fuelled human cultures. The simple mind of Narcissus has inflated as his means of subsistence has withered.

Perversely, in consequence, he considers himself, newly powerful – a geo-engineer; cloud-seeder; genetic sequence-holder; ender of history.

The Anthropocene is not too grand a term. Our oil-powered actions have been monumental.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The Punishment of Nemesis

The Punishment of Nemesis

“Heraclitus, the inventor of the notion of the constant change of things, nevertheless set a limit to this perpetual process. This limit was symbolized by Nemesis, the goddess of moderation and implacable enemy of the immoderate.”

A story that gets repeated over and again – hybris.

Certain stories recur in the history of humanity – and one of the most dramatic and traumatic is that of hybris. Hybris is a drama brought about by actions motivated by excessive pride – for example the overestimation by leaders – and the society or institutions in their charge – of their power.

Such an overestimation leads to actions that have the exact opposite outcome to what is intended. Driven to assertions of a power that is actually more limited than they realised leaders overstep unseen limits. Assertion of power which does not exist to the extent believed reveals weakness. Some kind of fall occurs, bringing misfortune or, indeed catastrophe. It is not just the leader who is dragged into catastrophe – those they lead are too. In the terms of Greek mythology – the leader and the society following him (it usually is a him) is punished by the Goddess Nemesis.

We can see that happening now in the drive for greater geo-political power by Donald Trump – rather than accomodating the USA to inevitable decline, and taking steps to protect the most vulnerable members of society from the consequences of decline, making decline more equitable, Trump believe that he can drive American and global society in the opposite direction.

The bigger drama – the hybris of economic growth

But Donald Trump and America’s hybris is actually a sub plot in an even bigger drama – again of hybris. In the bigger drama all the major players in global geo-politics are involved

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The tales of history are a dead-end road

The tales of history are a dead-end road

Culture is what people do. It decays when people stop culturing. Changing a culture means changing what we do. Often, that will need a step by step transition as we negotiate obstacles. Even though we follow some backward meanders, the river may flow on.

But there are some transitionary illusions – convenient untruths, which are not obstacles to be overcome, but dead-end roads to be avoided. In those cases, we must turn back and begin again.

Dead-end roads (or stagnant backwaters) can be paved (or punted) with the best intentions – often because we are focused on singularly-important things, such as energy-use, pesticides, human rights… We applaud solar panels on the buildings of a retail park, or the rising quantity of organic and fairly-traded produce in the super market swamp. But retail parks and super markets were created by and are maintained by fossil fuel. Greening such infrastructures gives them an illusory credence. It satisfies complacent images of social justices, green energy and regenerative farming. But what came with oil must go with oil. However green we strive to make them the retail park and super market remain vast and stagnant backwaters.

We lazily mined those millions of years of sequestered photosynthesis. Now we must live by singular seasons as they pass. The thing about natural limits, is that they have shape – taste, scent, sound, mass, energy, volume, chronology… We can give them meaning, and if we know them truly, they can gain beauty.

Buying organic produce (for instance) in a super market defers a large part of cultural creation to infrastructures, which we cannot see, or taste. Those green market signals are not signs to a better future but delusive advertisements to the virtues of a dead-end road.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The ninety percent and the tithe

The ninety percent and the tithe

I think it likely that 90% of our working time creates what we don’t need and also damages work to preserve what we do need. That is: most of our time is not only wasted but destructive. Of course, I’m speaking of the so-called First World and of the mass of what it does. First World economies could be renamed Last World economies. If First World people want to be constructive – to become Possible World people, then we must shrink our GDP to just that 10%. No government can or will even attempt to achieve that. I cannot think of a single powerful politician (even in the Green Party) who would consider it. Only the household can do it. Politicians may then follow the fashion.

Money-flow through wages and profits follows (or should follow) the same trajectory as energy-flow. Let’s consider that 90% of energy-flow – of what people do – is powered by fossil fuels. So, then we can say that wasted time, destructive time and soul-sapping futility are also directly related to fossil fuels.

Remove fossil fuels and we can easily produce what we need, while also dramatically reducing ecological and economical harm. 90% of our time will be freed to devote to new, regenerative and more appropriate cultural activity. Removing fossil fuels will prove beneficial, not only to climate change, but to the conviviality and durability of culture.

Yes, cultures were often destructive before the use of fossil fuels. Even so, reliance on natural cycles will mean engaging with natural cycles, whereas those millions of years of sequestered photosynthesis lay supine for the plundering by the worst of our opportunistic human nature. Now we may find our better selves. That’s the moral – we may or may not do so. We need moral conversation.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Cursed to live in interesting times

Cursed to live in interesting times

In this article I connect the fall in the growth rate, with its roots in the rising costs of energy extraction and generation, to declining resilience in the economic system. These are in turn related to a more conflict ridden geo-politics. There is an increased vulnerability to shocks which will be catastrophic unless and until there is a new conventional wisdom in society about what is wrong and what has to be done about it. Things would still be hard if we had a better understanding of what is wrong but society would be in a better position to do something about the predicaments that face us all. Unfortunately those with a vested interest in current arrangements are not likely to change their world view any time soon. With their control over an extraordinarily servile mass media there is a grave obstacle to society understanding its predicament and responding appropriately. The global system is entering an extremely dangerous phase for life on the planet.

Growth and stability go together – like balance and momentum on a bike

Let me start by using the metaphor of riding a bicycle. With forward momentum it is possible to balance on a bicycle – as soon as the bike and passenger stops it becomes almost impossible. There is an analogy here for the capitalist economy. If it is growing a capitalist economy will stay economically stable. If it is not growing then, after a time, it automatically becomes unstable. Account books can be balanced, bills paid and debts serviced when individuals, households, companies and government are in surplus because incomes are rising. However a surplus requires growth. In general terms in a contracting system the incomes are more likely to be inadequate to cover outgoings. Some of the costs cannot be paid when revenues do not cover those costs.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

 

The great agricultural resettlement or the next chapter of the fall

The great agricultural resettlement or the next chapter of the fall

Here’s my own picture.

I am a farmer and that is where my world begins. What is an agriculture? I say it is a culture of cities, towns and villages, bridges, roads, canals, harbours – of trades’ people and the trades, which have been created by the specialised cultivation of fields. The industrial revolution was a revolution within agriculture – germinated by fossil fuels, so that today, nearly every culture on Earth is an agriculture. The farmer has a lot on her shoulders, because the greatest towering city, and all its goings-on, is utterly dependant on her crops – although in my Utopian picture, trades and pleasures of every kind bear their own egalitarian apportionment of the weight, so that the labours of fields gain new springs to their steps.

Farms disrupt natural systems. The more husbandries imitate and integrate with natural systems, so the less they disrupt – but still they will disrupt to some degree. Good husbandry reflects our ordered minds more than the complexities of nature. Nevertheless, it imitates, as best it can, the cyclic behaviours of organisms. The highest crop yield will be achieved by the closest integration. “You never enjoy the world aright, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars”, wrote Thomas Traherne in the Seventeenth Century. To which the farmer pragmatically adds – and shod with soil fauna, shaded with green leaves, watered by clear springs and fed by lives we’ve fed in return.

I must note that true yield is output minus input – massive inputs massively reduce true yield, so that organic methods out-yield all others.

So, in attempting to do the best we can, we choose the least worst farming techniques. This is important to keep our humility and gratitude intact. It is also an important part of discussions on climate change. There have been outrageous claims of carbon sequestration (so-called negative emissions) by a variety of farming techniques, such as grasslands, or organically-managed lands – or regularly-felled woodland, or coppice. But the most these can achieve is a balance and that balance, given the flawed nature of all human practitioners is unlikely. As climate change accelerates and weather grows more unpredictable, so that balance will become still more unlikely.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The real lesson of the Energiewende is that the German economy uses too much energy to be sustainable and needs to degrow…

The real lesson of the Energiewende is that the German economy uses too much energy to be sustainable and needs to degrow…

Implications of a study by Hans Werner Sinn, ifo Institute Munich

For a long time Germany’s attempt to grapple with atomic power, climate change and energy issues through its so called “Energiewende” (Energy Transformation) has been inspirational to many green activists and seen as a process to learn from. The priority given to “clean energy”, to wind and solar in its electrical grid, incentivised by feed in tariffs and favourable prices has taken wind and solar added together to 3.5 % of its energy supply and 16 % of its electrical power generation.

However, there is a long way to go to 100% green energy. 58% of power generation is still by fossil fuels and fossil fuels are still predominant in 78% of energy consumption that is not electrical, for example for transport fuels and non electrical space heating.

No problem, just a matter of time? A lot of activists probably think this but sadly it is not likely to be true. Yes, there are things to learn from Germany’s attempt to make an Energy Transformation. Unfortunately these things are that it will not be easy and it will probably not be possible at all without a considerable reduction in overall energy consumption and/or major new technological breakthroughs in energy storage. Such breakthroughs currently do not look very likely and/or would involve very high costs. Such costs would cripple the German economy in its current form.

This anyway is the conclusion that I draw from a study by one of Germany’s leading economists, Hans Werner Sinn, that appeared in the European Economics Journal, in the summer of 2017.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

How destructive is the middle class?

How destructive is the middle class?

Firstly, I’ve no wish to define people by accidents of birth and then condemn them for the effects of those accidents – by accent, dress, or other filial habits. Whichever class we’ve been born into remains as our original soil. Parenthood, love, loyalty and some behavioural codes, grow from that sacred ground. There’s nothing we can do about our entry into the world, or our remaining gratitude for it. However, as adults (if we accept that rite of passage) we must look about at the wider world – our connections to and our effects within it.

I’d like you to consider that the current middle class is a defended enclosure by those whose income is largely composed of rent. Perhaps as powerful as land enclosure, I ask you to contemplate a modern enclosure – status property. I leave aside the historical middle class – the yeoman, guildsman, bourgeoisie… I think they may have passed away.

The negative effects of land enclosure are copiously documented by well-known economic philosophers, dating back at least as far as the Reformation (Thomas More). The negative effects of what I’ve chosen to call status enclosure, as far as I can tell, are not documented at all. I speculate that status enclosure may be an even greater drain on a community than land enclosure. At any rate they’ve a similar weight in the scales (and scales of injustice).

I propose that the gathering of rent for status is the central process by which we become middle class.

Status enclosure is the means to a monopoly of services. Lawyer, dentist, GP, architect and so on have gained right of enclosure to impose a large rent for their very existence – not for what their labour may provide.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
Click on image to purchase