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The pandemic as the end of consumerism. Everything that’s happening is happening because it had to happen

The pandemic as the end of consumerism. Everything that’s happening is happening because it had to happen

 These Medieval ladies look like fashion models. With their splendid dresses in silk brocade, they are displaying their wealth in an age, the 14th century, in which Europe was enjoying a period of economic growth and prosperity. They couldn’t have imagined that, one century later, Europe would plunge into the terrible age of witch hunts that would put women back to their place of child-making tools. It is the way history works, it never plans, it always reacts, sometimes ruthlessly. And all that happens had a reason to happen (above, miniature by Giovanni da Como, ca.1380)

Can you tell me of at least one case in history where a society perceived a serious threat looming in the future and took action on it on the basis of data and rational arguments? With the best of goodwill, I can’t. Societies react to threats using a primeval stimulus-reaction that may be aggressive or defensive, but that’s almost never rational.

Curiously, our society, that we call sometimes “The West,” was the first in history to have a chance to do something rational to avoid the destiny awaiting it much before the threat was clearly visible. It was in 1972 when the newly developed digital computers were coupled with a powerful analytical tool, “system dynamics.” The result was the study called “The Limits to Growth” that foresaw how the gradual depletion of natural resources coupled with increasing pollution (that today we call “climate change”) would cause the whole Western economic system to collapse at some moment during the first half of the 21st century. The study also suggested rational solutions to avoid collapse: reduce consumption, stop population growth, manage pollution, and the like.

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

 “The Necessary Alternative to Growth is Degrowth”

A Review of Degrowth by Giorgos Kallis (2018)

In Europe, “degrowth” is actually a movement, while in the US it is barely mentionable in polite society. To question “growth” would be the death knell for any serious politician. So what’s going on here? We live in the same world and face the same reality of “limits-to-growth” – a very popular concept in the US 50 years ago.

Well, since Earth Day, 1970, there has been a lot of “water under the bridge”, to be sure, but more to the point “oil in the pipeline”, especially in petro-states like the US. We may not be as dependent on oil as the other two big petro-states – the Saudis and the Russians – but it still skews our politics and our culture far more than most people realize. But Europe is not so well endowed with fossil fuels. That’s exactly the point of reading the European scholar Giorgos Kallis on degrowth. He’s not sidelined for painting a more sober view of the 21st century:

“Either we find a way to stop those who are plundering the earth and share the limited planet that we have, or we will enter a New Dark Age of humanity… There will never be enough until we share what there is… Degrowth marks a ruthless critique of the dogma of economic growth”.

Note the utopian element, which Kallis readily acknowledges: It’s not just about long-term economic contraction – that we must learn to live within our planetary means. That will happen one way or another anyway. He calls us to do all we can to avoid both catastrophe and plutocracy – the brutal dog-eat-dog and win-lose scenarios. Think of his solution as “resilience” plus “sharing”. And forget about the fiction of “green growth”.

…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…

The Economic Superorganism: Excerpt

For the last 200 years, increasing global energy consumption has translated to increasing global GHG emissions. While this might not be the case in the future, how do we consider the conflict between our instincts to react to immediate circumstances (i.e., consume more energy now, grow the economy now) and the political will to choose a different path based upon a future goal (i.e., limit human-caused climate change)? As Daniel Dennett asks in Freedom Evolves:

Where does the oomph come from to overrule our own instincts? Tradition would say it comes from some psychic force called willpower, but this just names the phenomenon and postpones explanation. How is “willpower” implemented in our brains?64—Daniel Dennett (2003)

Psychologists and economists use the term discount rate to describe how people make decisions, within our brains, when there are multiple options that present benefits at different points in time. Do I want one dollar now or two dollars ten years from now? Largely driven by natural selection and perhaps some idea similar to the maximum power principle, humans tend to have “steep” discount rates indicating that we tend to select rewards that come sooner rather than later.

Dennett uses the story of Ulysses and the Sirens in Homer’s The Odyssey to demonstrate the link between willpower and the idea of the discount rate. The goddess Circe warns Ulysses that during his journey home, he will sail past the Island of the Sirens. The Sirens appear to have exquisite beauty and a sweet song that lures sailors to their shores. But on approach, the sailboats crash on the rocks, and the sailors remain on the island, unwilling to leave as they listen to the song of the Sirens until they wither and die.

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

Pausing the game of growth

I feel personally guilty for the pandemic. At the beginning of March, I published my PhD dissertation “The Political Economy of Degrowth”, whose introduction ended with the following words: “Let me invite you into a wild thought experiment. Imagine that in one year, it will all stop. In precisely 365 days, the economy will come to a halt. Imagine the economy gone and all of us frozen in social time, suspended between the past and the future. A societal time is up.”

I may have been wrong about forecast (not a surprise, I was trained as an economist), but my thought experiment has never felt as real as in the three months I spent under total lockdown in France. In the first quarter of 2020, French GDP decreased by 5.8%. This is the steepest fall since the beginning of national accounting back in 1949, almost four times as large as the one experienced during the first quarter of 2009 in the midst of the financial crisis. During the lockdown, 12 million private sector workers were put in technical unemployment, almost half of the working population. This is big. Economy-wise, it was the equivalent of turning off the light.

Left at home (unemployed), I found myself reflecting on this exceptional event and what it means for the future. This is what I came up with: the economy is a bit like a game. There are players, rules, objectives, and, ultimately, winners and losers. In today’s economy (let’s call it capitalism for short), points are counted in money and the goal of the game is to gather as many of them as possible.

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

A life on our planet – review

A life on our planet – review

I watched David Attenborough’s film A life on our planet the other evening. The first, and largest, part of the movie was very well made. Perhaps not much new, but very well presented and with excellent footage and narrative. Some images are very strong, even brutal, such as a lonely orangutan sitting on a tree trunk in a devastated landscape. I think most viewers got the message: this has to change! And let me underline that this is a film worth watching.

Because the film is so compelling and Attenborough such a sympathetic person, viewers may accept all of its statements and arguments. This would, however, be a mistake in my opinion.

I totally agree with Attenborough that human population needs to stabilize. And it is true that, as far as we know today, birth rates falls when countries get richer (or vice versa). The problem is that lower population growth in one country is associated with increasing total resource use rather than the opposite. At least in the short term and with current consumption patterns, there is no relief for nature from lower population growth.What I missed in the first part was a lack of analysis of the underlying drivers causing the threatening sixth mass extinction. This is also reflected in shortcomings of the much shorter and optimistic second part of the film. The processes and technologies he claims will save the wilderness and human civilization are renewable energy, intensive farming methods, diet transformation, rewilding and reduced population growth.

His claim that renewable energy will make energy everywhere more affordable (than now) is wishful thinking with no evidence in reality.

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

Analysis shows how the Greens have changed the language of economic debate in New Zealand

When Health Minister Chris Hipkins recently quipped that the Green Party is “to some extent the conscience of the Labour Party” he was not simply referring to polls suggesting Labour may need the Greens’ support to form a government.

Hipkins was also suggesting Green policies help keep Labour honest on environmental and social issues. So, what difference has the Green Party really made to New Zealand’s political debate?

Drawing on a study of 57 million words spoken in parliament between 2003 and 2016, our analysis shows the presence of a Green party has changed the political conversation on economics and environment.

In the recent Newshub leaders’ debate, both Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins agreed that “growing the economy” was the best way to respond to the economic crisis driven by COVID-19.

Their responses varied only on traditional left-right lines. Ardern argued that raising incomes and investing in training would grow the economy. Collins suggested economic growth should be advanced by increasing consumer spending through temporary tax cuts.

By contrast, Green parties in New Zealand and elsewhere have long questioned the impact of relentless growth on the natural resources of a finite planet. Green thinking is informed by ecological economics, which aims to achieve more sustainable forms of collective prosperity that meet social needs within the planet’s limits.

man and woman shaking hands
‘Labour’s conscience’: Jacinda Ardern and James Shaw sign the confidence and supply agreement that brought the Greens into coalition in 2017. GettyImages

The language of economic growth

The impact of this radically different view can be observed in New Zealand parliamentary debates. When MPs from National and Labour used the word “economy” they commonly talked about it in the context of “growth” (“grow”/“growing”/“growth”).

On average, National MPs said “growth” once every four mentions of “economy”. Labour MPs said “growth” once every six mentions.

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

Economy vs. environment: York Region seeking a process to develop Greenbelt lands

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Economy vs. environment: York Region seeking a process to develop Greenbelt lands

Newmarket mayor says public should be consulted after environmentalists sound alarm

York Region councillors voted Thursday to ask the province to open up parts of the Greenbelt to developers — but a vocal few are saying the public should have been consulted first.

At a committee of the whole meeting Oct. 8, regional councillors and mayors debated a resolution asking the province to “unlock” protected land along the 400-series highways to allow for employment growth.

In the days before the scheduled vote, environmental activists sounded the alarm, blasting the region for “attacking the Greenbelt.”

Environmental Defence Executive Director Tim Gray warned that caving to pressure from developers and land speculators would set a dangerous precedent.

The region has been asking to develop the 400-series land for years and asked staff to prepare a report examining benefits.

Iain Lovatt, mayor of Whitchurch-Stouffville, led the charge, calling the activists’ accusations “utterly false and offensive.”

All municipalities “support, cherish and celebrate” the protected lands, but it’s been a polarizing issue and it’s time to address it head-on, he said.

“I believe there’s a fine balance that needs to be found between local municipal financial viability and managing the burden on local taxpayers while maintaining the importance and improving the Greenbelt.”

It’s an especially important issue for Whitchurch Stouffville, with 95 per cent of land protected under the Oak Ridges Moraine and most employment land in the south of the region, he said.

His town is targeting three areas along the 404 — at Stouffville Road, Aurora Road and Davis Drive — for employment, he said.

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

What If Preventing Collapse Isn’t Profitable?

What If Preventing Collapse Isn’t Profitable?

The real downside of the green-profit narrative has been that it created the assumption in many people’s minds that the solution to climate change and other environmental dilemmas is technical, and that policy makers and industrialists will implement it for us, so that the way we live doesn’t need to change in any fundamental way. That’s never been true.

Smoky skies from the northern California wildfires casts a reddish color in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. (Photo: Ray Chavez/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images)

Smoky skies from the northern California wildfires casts a reddish color in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. (Photo: Ray Chavez/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images)

The notion that modern industrial civilization is fundamentally unsustainable and is therefore likely to collapse at some point is not a new one. Even before the Limits to Growth report of 1972, many ecologists were concerned that our continual expansion of population and consumption, based on the ever-increasing rate at which we burn finite supplies of fossil fuels, would eventually lead to crises of resource depletion and pollution (including climate change) as well as catastrophic loss of wild nature. Dystopian outcomes would inevitably follow.

This apprehension led environmentalists to strategize ways to avert collapse. The obvious solution was, in large measure, to persuade policy makers to curtail growth in population and consumption, while mandating a phase-out of fossil fuels. But convincing political and business leaders to do these things proved difficult-to-impossible.

It’s time to ask: is there something fundamentally wrong with the eco-opportunity message?”

The folks in charge used the following arguments to justify their refusal to act.

Population Growth: The choice of whether or not to reproduce is a basic human right, said the authorities. Seeking to interfere with that right also violates religious freedoms. Besides, population growth helps economic growth (see “Economic Growth,” below).

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

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh IV

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Tulum, Mexico (1986) Photo by author

My comment on an article in The Tyee about our federal government’s latest throne speech by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (https://thetyee.ca/Analysis/2020/09/24/Throne-Speech-Stew/).

_____

The idea that a sovereign nation can never run into trouble financially because it can create its own currency is certainly the dominant narrative amongst government and ‘mainstream’ economists/bankers. After all, who benefits the most from this storyline?

But is it in fact true?

Scratching below the surface of this ‘experiment’ suggests it is not.

If printing one’s own money were a panacea, then nations like Venezuela, Zimbabwe, or the German Weimar Republic (and countless other nations throughout history) would never have experienced the hyperinflation that they have. They would be the richest nations ever to have existed.

One could counter that this is because they had to use their debased currency to import goods. True, but if one is debauching one’s currency through exponential ‘printing’, then this may be true for any nation dependent upon imports, which almost every nation is in our globalised, industrial world.

The solution that nations have rested upon given this reality is that the central banks collude to all print at relatively the same rate, so currencies don’t fall/rise too drastically compared to their trading partners.

Fine, but what does endless money/credit creation due to the purchasing power of this fiat currency created from thin air?

Previous trials in this approach indicate that it totally debases/debauches the currency, significantly reducing the ‘wealth’ of the people holding/using it because of the inflation that it creates.
Here’s what John Maynard Keynes had to say about this: “By a continuing process of inflation, government can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens.”

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

Is the Green Deal a card shuffle trick?

Is the Green Deal a card shuffle trick?

(NOTE; this is not an analysis of the US New Green Deal, it is about the “green growth” narrative with the European Green Deal as the point of departure.)

The European Green Deal is a ”growth strategy that aims to transform the EU into a fair and prosperous society, with a modern, resource-efficient and competitive economy where there are no net emissions of greenhouse gases in 2050 and where economic growth is decoupled from resource use.”

There are reasons to discuss if the vision of the European Green Deal is desirable: why should it be a goal to be “competitive” or ”modern”? But let’s buy into the narrative and ask: is the vision possible? Is ”green growth” as expressed in the Green Deal or the Sustainable Development Goals even possible?

In a recent paper in New Political Economy, Jason Hickel and Giorgios Kallis do a good job in illuminating many of the discussions and concepts involved in the Green Growth debate. Their overall conclusion is that ”green growth theory – in terms of resource use – lacks empirical support”.  They note three caveats of their own conclusions. First, it is possible that ”it is reasonable to expect that green growth could be accomplished at very low GDP growth rates, i.e. less than 1 per cent per year”. Second, conclusions are based on the existing relationship between GDP and material throughput, but one might argue that it is theoretically possible to break the existing relationship between GDP and material throughput altogether. Third, the aggregate material footprint indicator obscures the possibility of shifting from high-impact resources to low-impact resources. Meanwhile, Hickel and Kallis also point out that material footprints needs to be scaled down significantly from present levels; to be truly green, green growth requires not just any degree of absolute decoupling, but rapid absolute decoupling.

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

“The Focus is ‘Enough’ Rather Than ‘More’”

“The Focus is ‘Enough’ Rather Than ‘More’”

The mainstream economics notion that unfettered growth accompanied by greater consumption and productivity benefits society is false, argues Rob Dietz, Program Director at the Post Carbon Institute. In an interview with getAbstract, he shares his vision of a new economic way forward.

“The Focus is ‘Enough’ Rather Than ‘More’”

getAbstract: In a nutshell, could you give us a short definition of “steady-state economics”?

Rob Dietz: You can think of steady-state economics as a sustainable alternative to mainstream or neoclassical economics, which assumes perpetual growth of production and consumption. So steady-state economics is the study and practice of how to maintain an economy with a stable level of resource consumption and a stable population. Such an economy keeps material and energy use within ecological limits, and the unsustainable (and unrealistic) goal of continuously increasing income and consumption is replaced by the goal of improving quality of life for all. In short, the focus is enough rather than more.

Why do you think adopting a steady-state economic model is the only way to promote widespread prosperity and resource sustainability for future generations? 

I’m not sure it’s the “only” way, but it’s our best bet at this pivotal point in history. Let’s start by establishing working definitions of the terms “widespread prosperity” and “resource sustainability.” Widespread prosperity means that everyone is able to meet his or her basic needs for physical health and sustenance, plus some standard of comfort. No one lives in poverty, and daily life offers opportunities for fulfillment and enjoyment beyond toil just to stay alive.

Related Summary in getAbstract’s Library

Image of: Enough Is Enough

Enough Is Enough

This provocative book challenges many beliefs about the value of unfettered economic growth.

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

Possible Future Trends of CO2 Concentration and Global Temperature

Possible Future Trends of CO2 Concentration and Global Temperature

Wildfire smoke and power line, northern California. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Carbon dioxide gas (CO2) has been accumulating in the atmosphere since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution (~1750), because increasingly voluminous fluxes of that gas have been exhausted from the lands and the oceans, and are beyond the capacity of natural CO2 sinks to absorb completely.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, carbon would cycle through a variety of processes that sustained the continuation of life, death, evolution and rebirth, and that all meshed into one grand balance. That balance is called the Carbon Cycle.

The explosive growth of human activity, numbers, exosomatic power, economic wealth, military overkill, and hubristic political pretensions, all spring from the access to and profligate use of heat-energy liberated from fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide is the exhaust fume from our Promethean exertions for greater conquests — and wealth.

The carbon dioxide exhausted by our civilization’s generation of heat-energy, and from our massive exploitation of once virgin land areas, is an increasingly destabilizing perturbation of the Carbon Cycle. This perturbation is called Anthropogenic Emissions.

The imbalance of the Carbon Cycle reverberates through the natural world in many ways that are increasingly harmful and dangerous to Planet Earth’s habitability for ourselves and for many other animal and plant species. The central reality of this complex of growing threats to the viability of the Biosphere is called Global Warming.

Carbon dioxide gas traps heat radiated towards space, as infrared radiation from the surface of Planet Earth, reducing our planet’s ability to regulate its temperature by cooling to compensate for the influx of solar light that is absorbed by the lands and the oceans, and stored by them as heat.

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

Blain’s Morning Porridge – 21st August 2020 – John Law’s MMT revisited

 

Blain’s Morning Porridge – 21st August 2020 – John Law’s MMT revisited

“Earlier today apparently a woman rang the BBC and said she had heard that there was a hurricane on the way. Well if you are watching, don’t worry, there isn’t.”

It’s blowing a full hooley out there this morning, which is very bad news for my olive trees as the storm is shaking the ripening fruit off. Shame. It’s the first time our little olive grove has produced what looked likely to become full-sized olives. I was going to add them to Dirty Martinis. Meanwhile, mink farms are being wiped out by coronavirus which is proving 100% fatal to the well-dressed ferrets. Interesting, but what does it mean…?

It’s Friday, which means I am allowed to go off on something of a tangent – so let’s not worry about how long this tech rally continues, the rising tensions in Europe, Apple spending $17bln on stock buybacks, China vs US, or the US election.

What’s got me worried this morning is the headline in the FT: UK Public Debt tops £2 trillion for first time on Covid Spending Boom.

Should we worry or should we not? (Clue: the first one…)

Let me ask the question: how long can governments continue to spend their way out of the Coronavirus crisis? The bills for long-term furlough programmes and sectoral bailouts and support, increased social services as unemployment rises, and the urgent need for health spending are going to come due at some point. Is it going to be a problem, and if yes, how big?

Government debt is rocketing higher – but does it matter? Conventional thinking, based on Reinhart and Rogoff, is when debt/GDP exceeds 77% there will a significant slowdown in growth.

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

What Kind of a World do We Want? (…really?)

What Kind of a World do We Want? (…really?)

Although this question is both enduring and familiar, its present urgency is fully accentuated in a typically brilliant, but viscerally terrifying, exposition by Noam Chomsky on the current frangible condition of the world, and its near-term prognosis. However, I am also reminded of the strapline from the International Permaculture Conference, held in London in 2015, offering the intention and perhaps the means for “Designing the world we want.”

Chomsky never pulls a punch, as he strikes at layer on peeling layer of mendacity and fragility, from a prevailing framework whose groans, under the cumulative stresses of “growth”, should be heard as cries of threatening systemic collapse. The intermeshing quality of the world’s many woes has been conveyed by the term “changing climate” (i.e. climate change per se being just one item on the list), and amid a morass of such magnitude, positives are apt to remain obscured and muffled. Thus acknowledged, there could hardly be a better time than now, for a recasting of the world, having decided how we want it to be, in the broadest context, while there is still sufficient residual integrity to the whole that change might yet be managed, and full collapse is not yet inevitable, or already crumbling out of our hands.

It is no surprise that Covid-19 is a principal feature on the current global stage, and is probably the major focus of our concerns and attentions just now. While we cannot know how exactly everything will pan out, it is likely that the virus will be with us for some time, and we are entering a period of “recalibration” rather than a Post-Covid “back to normal”. Hence, focussing more on local and community resilience increasingly seems to make sense. We will certainly need to share support with our family, neighbours and friends, in the time to come.

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

Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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