We Need an Ecological Civilization Before It’s Too Late

12 10 2018

Jeremy LentJeremy Lent is author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, which investigates how different cultures have made sense of the universe and how their underlying values have changed the course of history. He is founder of the nonprofit Liology Institute, dedicated to fostering a sustainable worldview. For more information visit jeremylent.com.

 

In the face of climate breakdown and ecological overshoot, alluring promises of “green growth” are no more than magical thinking. We need to restructure the fundamentals of our global cultural/economic system to cultivate an “ecological civilization”: one that prioritizes the health of living systems over short-term wealth production. 

We’ve now been warned by the world’s leading climate scientists that we have just twelve years to limit climate catastrophe. The UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has put the world on notice that going from a 1.5° to 2.0° C rise in temperature above preindustrial levels would have disastrous consequences across the board, with unprecedented flooding, drought, ocean devastation, and famine.

Oxfam_East_Africa_-_A_mass_grave_for_children_in_Dadaab
A global crisis of famine and mass starvation looms unless we can turn around the trajectory of our civilization

Meanwhile, the world’s current policies have us on track for more than 3° increase by the end of this century, and climate scientists publish dire warnings that amplifying feedbacks could make things far worse than even these projections, and thus place at risk the very continuation of our civilization. We need, according to the IPCC, “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” But what exactly does that mean?

Last month, at the Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS) in San Francisco, luminaries such as Governor Jerry Brown, Michael Bloomberg, and Al Gore gave their version of what’s needed with an ambitious report entitled “Unlocking the Inclusive Growth Story of the 21st Century by the New Climate Economy.” It trumpets a New Growth Agenda: through enlightened strategic initiatives, they claim, it’s possible to transition to a low-carbon economy that could generate millions more jobs, raise trillions of dollars for green investment, and lead to higher global GDP growth.

But these buoyant projections by mainstream leaders, while overwhelmingly preferable to the Republican Party’s malfeasance, are utterly insufficient to respond to the crisis facing our civilization. In promising that the current system can fix itself with a few adjustments, they are turning a blind eye to the fundamental drivers propelling civilization toward collapse. By offering false hope, they deflect attention from the profound structural changes that our global economic system must make if we hope to bequeath a flourishing society to future generations.

Ecological overshoot

That’s because even the climate emergency is merely a harbinger of other existential threats looming over humanity as a result of ecological overshoot—the fact that we’re depleting the earth’s natural resources at a faster rate than they can be replenished. As long as government policies emphasize growing GDP as a national priority, and as long as transnational corporations relentlessly pursue greater shareholder returns by ransacking the earth, we will continue accelerating toward global catastrophe.

Currently, our civilization is running at 40% above its sustainable capacity. We’re rapidly depleting the earth’s forestsanimalsinsectsfishfreshwater, even the topsoil we require to grow our crops. We’ve already transgressed three of the nine planetary boundaries that define humanity’s safe operating space, and yet global GDP is expected to more than doubleby mid-century, with potentially irreversible and devastating consequences. By 2050, it’s estimated, there will be more plastic in the world’s oceans than fish. Last year, over fifteen thousand scientists from 184 countries issued an ominous warning to humanity that time is running out: “Soon it will be too late,” they wrote, “to shift course away from our failing trajectory.”

plastic in the ocean
By 2050, there is projected to be more plastic than fish in the ocean.

Techno-optimists, including many of the GCAS dignitaries, like to dismiss these warnings with talk of “green growth”—essentially decoupling GDP growth from increased use of resources. While that would be a laudable goal, a number of studies have shown that it’s simply not feasible. Even the most wildly aggressive assumptions for greater efficiency would still result in consuming global resources at double the sustainable capacity by mid-century.

A desperate situation indeed, but one that need not lead to despair. In fact, there is a scenario where we can turn around this rush to the precipice and redirect humanity to a thriving future on a regenerated earth. It would, however, require us to rethink some of the sacrosanct beliefs of our modern world, beginning with the unquestioning reliance on perpetual economic growth within a global capitalist system directed by transnational corporations driven exclusively by the need to increase shareholder value for their investors.

In short, we need to change the basis of our global civilization. We must move from a civilization based on wealth production to one based on the health of living systems: an ecological civilization.

An ecological civilization

The crucial idea behind an ecological civilization is that our society needs to change at a level far deeper than most people realize. It’s not just a matter of investing in renewables, eating less meat, and driving an electric car. The intrinsic framework of our global social and economic organization needs to be transformed. And this will only happen when enough people recognize the destructive nature of our current mainstream culture and reject it for one that is life-affirming—embracing values that emphasize growth in the quality of life rather than in the consumption of goods and services.

A change of such magnitude would be an epochal event. There have been only two occasions in history when radical dislocations led to a transformation of virtually every aspect of the human experience: the Agricultural Revolution that began about twelve thousand years ago, and the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century. If our civilization is to survive and prosper through the looming crises of this century, we will need a transformation of our values, goals, and collective behavior on a similar scale.

An ecological civilization would be based on the core principles that sustain living systems coexisting stably in natural ecologies. Insights into how ecologies self-organize offer a model for how we could organize human society in ways that could permit sustainable abundance. Organisms prosper when they develop multiple symbiotic relationships, wherein each party to a relationship both takes and gives reciprocally. In an ecology, energy flows are balanced and one species’ waste matter becomes nourishment for another. Entities within an ecology scale fractally, with microsystems existing as integral parts of larger systems to form a coherent whole. In a well-functioning ecosystem, each organism thrives by optimizing for its own existence within a network of relationships that enhances the common good. The inherent resilience caused by these dynamics means that—without human disruption—ecosystems can maintain their integrity for many thousands, and sometimes millions, of years.

nature-beautiful-view-in-china
An ecological civilization would be based on the principles that sustain all living systems

In practice, transitioning to an ecological civilization would mean restructuring some of the fundamental institutions driving our current civilization to destruction. In place of an economy based on perpetual growth in GDP, it would institute one that emphasized quality of life, using alternative measures such as a Genuine Progress Indicator to gauge success. Economic systems would be based on respect for individual dignity and fairly rewarding each person’s contribution to the greater good, while ensuring that nutritional, housing, healthcare, and educational needs were fully met for everyone. Transnational corporations would be fundamentally reorganized and made accountable to the communities they purportedly serve, to optimize human and environmental wellbeing rather than shareholder profits. Locally owned cooperatives would become the default organizational structure. Food systems would be designed to emphasize local production using state-of-the-art agroecologypractices in place of fossil fuel-based fertilizer and pesticides, while manufacturing would prioritize circular flows where efficient re-use of waste products is built into the process from the outset.

In an ecological civilization, the local community would be the basic building block of society. Face-to-face interaction would regain ascendance as a crucial part of human flourishing, and each community’s relationship with others would be based on principles of mutual respect, learning, and reciprocity. Technological innovation would still be encouraged, but would be prized for its effectiveness in enhancing the vitality of living systems rather than minting billionaires. The driving principle of enterprise would be that we are all interconnected in the web of life—and long-term human prosperity is therefore founded on a healthy Earth.

Cultivating a flourishing future

While this vision may seem a distant dream to those who are transfixed by the daily frenzy of current events, innumerable pioneering organizations around the world are already planting the seeds for this cultural metamorphosis.

In China, President Xi Jinping has declared an ecological civilization to be a central part of his long-term vision for the country. In Bolivia and Ecuador, the related values of buen vivir and sumak kawsay (“good living’) are written into the constitution, and in Africa the concept of ubuntu (“I am because we are”) is a widely-discussed principle of human relations. In Europe, hundreds of scientists, politicians, and policy-makers recently co-authored a call for the EU to plan for a sustainable future in which human and ecological wellbeing is prioritized over GDP.

Examples of large-scale thriving cooperatives, such as Mondragon in Spain, demonstrate that it’s possible for companies to provide effectively for human needs without utilizing a shareholder-based profit model. Think tanks such as The Next System ProjectThe Global Citizens Initiative, and the P2P Foundation are laying down parameters for the political, economic, and social organization of an ecological civilization. Meanwhile, visionary authors such as Kate Raworth and David Korten have written extensively on how to reframe the way we think about our economic and political path forward.

As the mainstream juggernaut drives our current civilization inexorably toward breaking point, it’s easy to dismiss these steps toward a new form of civilization as too insignificant to make a difference. However, as the current system begins to break down in the coming years, increasing numbers of people around the world will come to realize that a fundamentally different alternative is needed. Whether they turn to movements based on prejudice and fear or join in a vision for a better future for humanity depends, to a large extent, on the ideas available to them.

One way or another, humanity is headed for the third great transformation in its history: either in the form of global collapse or a metamorphosis to a new foundation for sustainable flourishing. An ecological civilization offers a path forward that may be the only true hope for our descendants to thrive on Earth into the distant future.

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MASS IMMIGRATION IS A MASS ENVIRONMENTAL KILLER

28 09 2018

ianlowe

Ian Lowe

Professor Ian Lowe

August 9, 2018

“If we go on increasing the population at the current rate, we’ll go on damaging our environment at an ever increasing rate…”

Back in March, Dr Jonathan Sobels – a senior research fellow at the University of South Australia and the author of a key 2010 report prepared for the Department of Immigration entitled Long-term physical implications of net overseas migration: Australia in 2050 – (356 pages) gave a brilliant incisive interview on ABC’s Radio National warning of a huge reduction in Australian living standards if the federal government continues with its mass immigration ‘Big Australia’ policy:

“You end up with, in absolute terms, more pollution. You end up with more impacts on people’s personal time spent commuting, for example. You end up with less choice in even simple things…

And we are coming up towards physical limitations within our physical, built and natural environments that will lead to compromises in the quality of our life…
Not only are the dams not filling, but the ground water supplies are not filling. The only option you have open to you is water efficiency use and whacking up desal plants. But if your population keeps increasing at the rates we have seen in recent times, you won’t be able to afford putting up billion dollar desal plants, which also have their environmental impacts…

I think we have a problem with this notion of growth being the panacea to all our policy problems. Ultimately, growth in a finite environment becomes impossible. It’s a lazy policy prescription that says ‘oh, let’s have more people’ to drive the economy because essentially the growth in productivity over the last 30 years is a product of increasing population.

Our productivity per se hasn’t necessarily gone anywhere in the last 20 years despite technological development. We need to consider how we can actually structure our economy so that growth is not the aim. But in fact creating living spaces and economies that people can sustain over a longer period…

I believe that [the number for net migration] is the place where we should begin. All our issues to do with infrastructure stem from the number of people we have. If we are going to have a discussion about infrastructure, we first need to discuss how many people but also, most importantly, where they are located before we start planning what we want to do in terms of infrastructure…

I’m baffled on why we don’t have politicians with either the information or the political capital to talk about how many people can live in certain places. 80% of the immigration into Australia post WW2 has been into 20% of the local government areas, principally Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. Those are the places where the Commonwealth needs to be active in terms of ‘can we sustain the continuation of that intake’. Or, is there a way that we can ameliorate the pressure on these major cities in terms of where we encourage people to live…

I’m a little bit skeptical and sanguine about the political will of the Government and either side to actually engage people into what are difficult and contentious discussions. And it’s really quite a shame that we don’t see leadership in terms of establishing the vision of what Australia could be and then working back from that vision in terms of setting policy”.

This was an excellent interview from a genuine expert that clearly understands the key issues surrounding the immigration debate.

Dr Sobels’ 2010 report is also well worth reading and covers the above issues in much

sobels

Dr Jonathon Sobels

greater detail. One can only wonder why this report was completely ignored by the Immigration Department and federal government.

On Tuesday, Professor Ian Lowe – emeritus professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University, former President of the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), and author of the excellent book Bigger or Better?: Australia’s Population Debate – also gave an incisive interview on ABC Radio warning of the deleterious impacts of Australia’s mass immigration ‘Big Australia’ policy on Australia’s environment and living standards:

“The population in the last decade increased much faster than the most alarming of the ABS projections… Our population is increasing by one million every two-and-a-half years, and that’s causing the pressures people are seeing in the large cities…

No species can increase without limit in a closed system… My view is that we should have a coherent policy that aims to stabilise it [population] at a level that we can sustainably support, rather than have it increase until we see significant problems…
The more rapidly the population increases, the harder it is to provide the services that people expect. And I think the problem that the governments are facing is that people in particularly Sydney and Melbourne, and to a lesser extent Brisbane and Perth, quite accurately see that their quality of life is going backwards because the infrastructure hasn’t been expanded at the same rate as the population, so the roads are more crowded, the public transport is less adequate, it’s harder to get the recreational services that people want…

The population increase is putting the demands on infrastructure that we just don’t have the resources to provide. So a rational government would not simply say “bigger is better”, assuming the population growth is an unmitigated benefit. They should be reflecting on the fact that people don’t just judge their quality of life by how much money is in their pocket. They also judge it by how clean the air is, how easy they can get around, how easy their kids can get into school, and so on…

[15 million people] is about the level that could be sustainably supported at our current lifestyle. There’s no doubt that you can cram more people in, except that they will have to accept a lower standard of living and lower level of services.

The first national report on the State of the Environment more than 20 years ago said that we are not living sustainably, that we had 5 serious problems. And they are all more or less proportional to how many of us there are, and the material standard in which we live. And since then, every year the population has got larger. And every year on average our consumption per person has increased. So we are putting compounding pressure on natural systems. And we are seeing it in losing our biodiversity, the pressures on the coastal zone, rapidly increasing climate change, and so on. If we go on increasing the population at the current rate, we’ll go on damaging our environment at an ever increasing rate…

A population policy would have two components. One would be that we’d set the migration level based on the principle that we want to stabilise the population at a level that would be sustainably supported. And that wouldn’t mean pulling up the drawbridge, but it would mean lower levels of migration than we have at the moment”.

It’s a crying shame that environmental experts like Dr Sobels and Dr Lowe are completely ignored in the population debate in favour of paid shills from the ‘growth lobby’.





Efficiency, the Jevons Paradox, and the limits to economic growth

15 09 2018

I’ve discovered a new blog which very much aligns with this one. In his own “about” section, Darrin Qualman describes himself as “a long-term thinker, a civilizational critic, a researcher and data analyst, and an avid observer of the big picture.”

I recommend anyone following this blog to check him out, his blog is full of interesting graphs……

I’ve been thinking about efficiency.  Efficiency talk is everywhere.  Car buyers can purchase ever more fuel-efficient cars.  LED lightbulbs achieve unprecedented efficiencies in turning electricity into visible light.  Solar panels are more efficient each year.  Farmers are urged toward fertilizer-use efficiency.  And our Energy Star appliances are the most efficient ever, as are the furnaces and air conditioners in many homes.

The implication of all this talk and technology is that efficiency can play a large role in solving our environmental problems.  Citizens are encouraged to adopt a positive, uncritical, and unsophisticated view of efficiency: we’ll just make things more efficient and that will enable us to reduce resource use, waste, and emissions, to solve our problems, and to pave the way for “green growth” and “sustainable development.”

But there’s something wrong with this efficiency solution: it’s not working.  The current environmental multi-crisis (depletion, extinction, climate destabilization, ocean acidification, plastics pollution, etc.) is not occurring as a result of some failure to achieve large efficiency gains.  The opposite.  It is occurring after a century of stupendous and transformative gains.  Indeed, the efficiencies of most civilizational processes (e.g., hydroelectric power generation, electrical heating and lighting, nitrogen fertilizer synthesis, etc.) have increased by so much that they are now nearing their absolute limits—their thermodynamic maxima.  For example, engineers have made the large electric motors that power factories and mines exquisitely efficient; those motors turn 90 to 97 percent of the energy in electricity into usable shaft power.  We have maximized efficiencies in many areas, and yet our environmental problems are also at a maximum.  What gives?

There are many reasons why efficiency is not delivering the benefits and solutions we’ve been led to expect.  One is the “Jevons Paradox.”  That Paradox predicts that, as the efficiencies of energy converters increase—as cars, planes, or lightbulbs become more efficient—the cost of using these vehicles, products, and technologies falls, and those falling costs spur increases in use that often overwhelm any resource-conservation gains we might reap from increasing efficiencies.  Jevons tells us that energy efficiency often leads to more energy use, not less.  If our cars are very fuel efficient and our operating costs therefore low, we may drive more, more people may drive, and our cities may sprawl outward so that we must drive further to work and shop.  We get more miles per gallon, or per dollar, so we drive more miles and use more gallons.  The Jevons Paradox is a very important concept to know if you’re trying to understand our world and analyze our situation.

The graph above helps illustrate the Jevons Paradox.  It shows the cost of a unit of artificial light (one hour of illumination equivalent to a modern 100 Watt incandescent lightbulb) in England over the past 700 years.  The currency units are British Pounds, adjusted for inflation.  The dramatic decline in costs reflects equally dramatic increases in efficiency.

Adjusted for inflation, lighting in the UK was more than 100 times more affordable in 2000 than in 1900 and 3,000 time more affordable than in 1800.  Stated another way, because electrical power plants have become more efficient (and thus electricity has become cheaper), and because new lighting technologies have become more efficient and produce more usable light per unit of energy, an hour’s pay for the average worker today buys about 100 times more artificial light than it did a century ago and 3,000 time more than two centuries ago.

But does all this efficiency mean that we’re using less energy for lighting?  No.  Falling costs have spurred huge increases in demand and use.  For example, the average UK resident in the year 2000 consumed 75 times more artificial light than did his or her ancestor in 1900 and more than 6,000 times more than in 1800 (Fouquet and Pearson).  Much of this increase was in the form of outdoor lighting of streets and buildings.  Jevons was right: large increases in efficiency have meant large decreases in costs and large increases in lighting demand and energy consumption.

Another example of the Jevons Paradox is provided by passenger planes.  Between 1960 and 2016, the per-seat fuel efficiency of jet airliners tripled or quadrupled (IPCC).  This, in turn, helped lower the cost of flying by more than 60%.  A combination of lower airfares, increasing incomes, and a growing population has driven a 50-fold increase in global annual air travel since 1960—from 0.14 trillion passenger-kilometres per year to nearly 7 trillion (see here for more on the exponential growth in air travel).  Airliners have become three or four times more fuel efficient, yet we’re now burning seventeen times more fuel.  William Stanley Jevons was right.

One final point about efficiency.  “Efficiency” talk serves an important role in our society and economy: it licenses growth.  The idea of efficiency allows most people to believe that we can double and quadruple the size of the global economy and still reduce energy use and waste production and resource depletion.  Efficiency is one of our civilization’s most important licensing myths.  The concept of efficiency-without-limit has been deployed to green-light the project of growth-without-end.





Why Growth Can’t Be Green

14 09 2018

jason hickelBy Dr Jason Hickel, an anthropologist, author, and a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

Warnings about ecological breakdown have become ubiquitous. Over the past few years, major newspapers, including the Guardian and the New York Times, have carried alarming stories on soil depletion, deforestation, and the collapse of fish stocks and insect populations. These crises are being driven by global economic growth, and its accompanying consumption, which is destroying the Earth’s biosphere and blowing past key planetary boundaries that scientists say must be respected to avoid triggering collapse.

Many policymakers have responded by pushing for what has come to be called “green growth.” All we need to do, they argue, is invest in more efficient technology and introduce the right incentives, and we’ll be able to keep growing while simultaneously reducing our impact on the natural world, which is already at an unsustainable level. In technical terms, the goal is to achieve “absolute decoupling” of GDP from the total use of natural resources, according to the U.N. definition.

It sounds like an elegant solution to an otherwise catastrophic problem. There’s just one hitch: New evidence suggests that green growth isn’t the panacea everyone has been hoping for. In fact, it isn’t even possible.

Green growth first became a buzz phrase in 2012 at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro. In the run-up to the conference, the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the U.N. Environment Program all produced reports promoting green growth. Today, it is a core plank of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.

But the promise of green growth turns out to have been based more on wishful thinking than on evidence. In the years since the Rio conference, three major empirical studies have arrived at the same rather troubling conclusion: Even under the best conditions, absolute decoupling of GDP from resource use is not possible on a global scale.

Even under the best conditions, absolute decoupling of GDP from resource use is not possible on a global scale.

A team of scientists led by the German researcher Monika Dittrich first raised doubts in 2012. The group ran a sophisticated computer model that predicted what would happen to global resource use if economic growth continued on its current trajectory, increasing at about 2 to 3 percent per year. It found that human consumption of natural resources (including fish, livestock, forests, metals, minerals, and fossil fuels) would rise from 70 billion metric tons per year in 2012 to 180 billion metric tons per year by 2050. For reference, a sustainable level of resource use is about 50 billion metric tons per year—a boundary we breached back in 2000.

The team then reran the model to see what would happen if every nation on Earth immediately adopted best practice in efficient resource use (an extremely optimistic assumption). The results improved; resource consumption would hit only 93 billion metric tons by 2050. But that is still a lot more than we’re consuming today. Burning through all those resources could hardly be described as absolute decoupling or green growth.

In 2016, a second team of scientists tested a different premise: one in which the world’s nations all agreed to go above and beyond existing best practice. In their best-case scenario, the researchers assumed a tax that would raise the global price of carbon from $50 to $236 per metric ton and imagined technological innovations that would double the efficiency with which we use resources. The results were almost exactly the same as in Dittrich’s study. Under these conditions, if the global economy kept growing by 3 percent each year, we’d still hit about 95 billion metric tons of resource use by 2050. Bottom line: no absolute decoupling.

Finally, last year the U.N. Environment Program—once one of the main cheerleaders of green growth theory—weighed in on the debate. It tested a scenario with carbon priced at a whopping $573 per metric ton, slapped on a resource extraction tax, and assumed rapid technological innovation spurred by strong government support. The result? We hit 132 billion metric tons by 2050. This finding is worse than those of the two previous studies because the researchers accounted for the “rebound effect,” whereby improvements in resource efficiency drive down prices and cause demand to rise—thus canceling out some of the gains.

Study after study shows the same thing. Scientists are beginning to realize that there are physical limits to how efficiently we can use resources. Sure, we might be able to produce cars and iPhones and skyscrapers more efficiently, but we can’t produce them out of thin air. We might shift the economy to services such as education and yoga, but even universities and workout studios require material inputs.

We might shift the economy to services such as education and yoga, but even universities and workout studios require material inputs.

Once we reach the limits of efficiency, pursuing any degree of economic growth drives resource use back up.





America NOT great again…….

31 08 2018

One of the many things I see on TV news material that makes me shout at the screen is economic commentators raving about America’s booming economy……. nothing of the sort is happening. Economies are measured in dollars, and as debt grows exponentially, so does the money supply, and the throughput of money increases, and stupid moronic ‘economists’ whose only job is to make you all believe everything’s doing just fine will make you believe the increasing GDP is both good and a sign of growth…… Here’s an article that debunks all this fake news.

Go to the profile of umair haque

Let’s start at the beginning. The reason that crackpot American theories of economics are wrong is that they presume capitalism is the answer to everything. More jobs? Wages must rise! Hey presto! The economy fixes itself. Supply and demand, my dude — go capitalism!! But wait — what happens if those jobs are, well, not very good ones, because corporations don’t really have to compete, because its made of gigantic monopolies now, not mom-and-pop soda shoppes? If instead of being something more like stable middle class careers, with upward mobility, benefits, retirements, security, stability, meaning, belonging, and so forth, they are something more like jobs only in name — in reality, hollowed out? What happens if all that’s left in a “job” is the chance to work harder and harder every year, for shrinking income, opportunity, savings, a declining quality of life?

That’s exactly what’s happened in America. The “jobs” that are being created are not high quality ones. Like more or less everything else predatory capitalism creates, they are of astonishingly low quality. Not only are they concentrated in low-growth sectors, they’re composed of menial tasks, and they offer dead ends, not paths upwards, outwards, or forwards.

The result is the dismal litany of statistics that, by now, you should know all too well. It’s as alarming as it is astonishing. 80% of American live paycheck to paycheck. 70% have less than $1000 in savingsA third struggle to afford even healthcare, education, and shelter. As a result, America’s seeing what Angus Deaton calls “deaths of despair.” The suicide rate is skyrocketing, and longevity is falling, as people who can’t cope with the trauma appear to be simply giving up on life. It is no mistake to say that capitalism is killing Americans — and yet, Americans are tragically wedded to capitalism.

Yet at the same time, things have never been better for the ultra rich. They’ve captured more than 100% of gains over the last decade. The stock market is booming — but just 10% of Americans really own stocks, and maybe 1% earn a living from capital income. So, enjoying inequality that now puts classical Rome to shame, the mega rich quite literally have piled up fortunes so incredibly vast, there is literally nowhere left to put all the money — all the yachts, mansions, and lofts have been bought. That is why interest rates are permanently at zero: there is so much money piled up at the top of the economy, there is nowhere left to put it, except the one place it should go, which is right back to the people who need it: the middle class and poor, or if you like, the proletariat and the petite bourgeoisie in Marxist terms.

The result is an economy with an imploded middle class. That might sound trivial, but is crucial. A middle class is one of the defining creations of modernity — and what happens when a society loses its middle class is another defining creation of modernity — fascism. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

Remember Steve St Angelo describing the fracking industry cannibalising itself? Well this guy seems to think the entire US economy is doing this too…..

“Growth” has turned predatory. American economics supposes — because it assumes capitalism is the best solution to everything — that growth is always good. But growth is not always good. Not just because it eats the planet (though it does) — but in this case, for a more immediate reason. Capitalism isn’t just eating the planet. It’s eating democracy, civilization, truth, reality, the future, and you.

Read it all here.





Towards a new operating system……

28 08 2018

Scientists Warn the UN of Capitalism’s Imminent Demise

A climate change-fueled switch away from fossil fuels means the worldwide economy will fundamentally need to change.

Image: Shutterstock

ANOTHER brilliant piece of journalism from Nafeez Ahmed. Originally sighted on MOTHERBOARD….

nafeezCapitalism as we know it is over. So suggests a new report commissioned by a group of scientists appointed by the UN Secretary-General. The main reason? We’re transitioning rapidly to a radically different global economy, due to our increasingly unsustainable exploitation of the planet’s environmental resources.

Climate change and species extinctions are accelerating even as societies are experiencing rising inequalityunemploymentslow economic growthrising debt levels, and impotent governments. Contrary to the way policymakers usually think about these problems, the new report says that these are not really separate crises at all.

Rather, these crises are part of the same fundamental transition to a new era characterized by inefficient fossil fuel production and the escalating costs of climate change. Conventional capitalist economic thinking can no longer explain, predict, or solve the workings of the global economy in this new age, the paper says.

Energy shift

Those are the stark implications of a new scientific background paper prepared by a team of Finnish biophysicists. The team from the BIOS Research Unit in Finland were asked to provide research that would feed into the drafting of the UN Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR), which will be released in 2019.

For the “first time in human history,” the paper says, capitalist economies are “shifting to energy sources that are less energy efficient.” This applies to all forms of energy. Producing usable energy (“exergy”) to keep powering “both basic and non-basic human activities” in industrial civilisation “will require more, not less, effort.”

“Economies have used up the capacity of planetary ecosystems to handle the waste generated by energy and material use”

The amount of energy we can extract, compared to the energy we are using to extract it, is decreasing “across the spectrum—unconventional oils, nuclear and renewables return less energy in generation than conventional oils, whose production has peaked—and societies need to abandon fossil fuels because of their impact on the climate,” the paper states.

The shift to renewables might help solve the climate challenge, but for the foreseeable future will not generate the same levels of energy as cheap, conventional oil.

In the meantime, our hunger for energy is driving what the paper refers to as “sink costs.” The greater our energy and material use, the more waste we generate, and so the greater the environmental costs. Though they can be ignored for a while, eventually those environmental costs translate directly into economic costs as it becomes more difficult to ignore their impacts on our societies.

And the biggest “sink cost,” of course, is climate change:

“Sink costs are also rising; economies have used up the capacity of planetary ecosystems to handle the waste generated by energy and material use. Climate change is the most pronounced sink cost,” the paper states.

The paper’s lead author, Dr. Paavo Järvensivu, is a “biophysical economist”—an emerging type of economist exploring the role of energy and materials in fuelling economic activity.

The BIOS paper suggests that much of the political and economic volatility we have seen in recent years has a root cause in ecological crisis. As the ecological and economic costs of industrial overconsumption continue to rise, the constant economic growth we have become accustomed to is now in jeopardy. That, in turn, has exerted massive strain on our politics.

But the underlying issues are still unacknowledged and unrecognised by most policymakers.

“We live in an era of turmoil and profound change in the energetic and material underpinnings of economies. The era of cheap energy is coming to an end,” the paper says.

Conventional economic models, the Finnish scientists note, “almost completely disregard the energetic and material dimensions of the economy.”

“More expensive energy doesn’t necessarily lead to economic collapse,” Järvensivu told me. “Of course, people won’t have the same consumption opportunities, there’s not enough cheap energy available for that, but they are not automatically led to unemployment and misery either.”

The scientists refer to the pioneering work of systems ecologist Professor Charles Hall of the State University of New York with economist Professor Kent Klitgaard from Wells College. Earlier this year, Hall and Klitgaard released an updated edition of their seminal book, Energy and the Wealth of Nations: An Introduction to BioPhysical Economics.

Hall and Klitgaard are highly critical of mainstream capitalist economic theory, which they say has become divorced from some of the most fundamental principles of science. They refer to the concept of ‘Energy Return on Investment’ (EROI) as a key indicator of the shift into a new age of difficult energy. EROI is a simple ratio that measures how much energy we use to extract more energy.

“For the last century, all we had to do was to pump more and more oil out of the ground,” say Hall and Klitgaard. Decades ago, fossil fuels had very high EROI values—a little bit of energy allowed us to extract large amounts of oil, gas and coal.

“We face a form of capitalism that has hardened its focus to short-term profit maximization with little or no apparent interest in social good.”

Earlier in August, billionaire investor Jeremy Grantham—who has a track record of consistently calling financial bubbles—released an update to his April 2013 analysis, ‘The Race of Our Lives.’

The new paper, ‘The Race of Our Lives Revisited,’ provides a bruising indictment of contemporary capitalism’s complicity in the ecological crisis. Grantham’s verdict is that “capitalism and mainstream economics simply cannot deal with these problems,” namely, the systematic depletion of planetary ecosystems and environmental resources:

“The replacement cost of the copper, phosphate, oil, and soil—and so on—that we use is not even considered. If it were, it’s likely that the last 10 or 20 years (for the developed world, anyway) has seen no true profit at all, no increase in income, but the reverse,” he wrote.

Many experts believe we’re moving past capitalism, but they disagree on what the ultimate outcome will be. In his book Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, British economics journalist Paul Mason theorises that information technology is paving the way for the emancipation of labour by reducing the costs of knowledge production—and potentially other kinds of production that will be transformed by AI, blockchain, and so on—to zero. Thus, he says, will emerge a utopian ‘postcapitalist’ age of mass abundance, beyond the price system and rules of capitalism.

It sounds peachy, but Mason completely ignores the colossal, exponentially increasing physical infrastructure for the ‘internet-of-things.’ His digital uprising is projected to consume evermore vast quantities of energy (as much as one-fifth of global electricity by 2025), producing 14 percent of global carbon emissions by 2040.

Toward a new economic operating system

Most observers, then, have no idea of the biophysical realities pointed out in the background paper commissioned by the UN Secretary-General’s IGS—that the driving force of the transition to postcapitalism is the decline of what made ‘endless growth capitalism’ possible in the first place: abundant, cheap energy.

The UN’s Global Sustainable Development Report is being drafted by an independent group of scientists (IGS) appointed by the UN Secretary-General. The IGS is supported by a range of UN agencies including the UN Secretariat, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the UN Environment Programme, the UN Development Programme, the UN Conference on Trade and Development and the World Bank.

The paper, co-authored by Dr Järvensivu with the rest of the BIOS team, was commissioned by the UN’s IGS specifically to feed into the chapter on ‘Transformation: the Economy.’ Invited background documents are used as the basis of the GSDR, but what ends up in the final report will not be known until the final report is released next year.

“No widely applicable economic models have been developed specifically for the upcoming era”

Overall, the paper claims that we have moved into a new, unpredictable and unprecedented space in which the conventional economic toolbox has no answers. As slow economic growth simmers along, central banks have resorted to negative interest rates and buying up huge quantities of public debt to keep our economies rolling. But what happens after these measures are exhausted? Governments and bankers are running out of options.

“It can be safely said that no widely applicable economic models have been developed specifically for the upcoming era,” write the Finnish scientists.

Having identified the gap, they lay out the opportunities for transition.

In this low EROI future, we simply have to accept the hard fact that we will not be able to sustain current levels of economic growth. “Meeting current or growing levels of energy need in the next few decades with low-carbon solutions will be extremely difficult, if not impossible,” the paper finds. The economic transition must involve efforts “to lower total energy use.”

Key areas to achieve this include transport, food, and construction. City planning needs to adapt to the promotion of walking and biking, a shift toward public transport, as well as the electrification of transport. Homes and workplaces will become more connected and localised. Meanwhile, international freight transport and aviation cannot continue to grow at current rates.

As with transport, the global food system will need to be overhauled. Climate change and oil-intensive agriculture have unearthed the dangers of countries becoming dependent on food imports from a few main production areas. A shift toward food self-sufficiency across both poorer and richer countries will be essential. And ultimately, dairy and meat should make way for largely plant-based diets.

The construction industry’s focus on energy-intensive manufacturing, dominated by concrete and steel, should be replaced by alternative materials. The BIOS paper recommends a return to the use of long-lasting wood buildings, which can help to store carbon, but other options such as biochar might be effective too.

But capitalist markets will not be capable of facilitating the required changes – governments will need to step up, and institutions will need to actively shape markets to fit the goals of human survival. Right now, the prospects for this look slim. But the new paper argues that either way, change is coming.

Whether or not the system that emerges still comprises a form of capitalism is ultimately a semantic question. It depends on how you define capitalism.

“Capitalism, in that situation, is not like ours now,” said Järvensivu. “Economic activity is driven by meaning—maintaining equal possibilities for the good life while lowering emissions dramatically—rather than profit, and the meaning is politically, collectively constructed. Well, I think this is the best conceivable case in terms of modern state and market institutions. It can’t happen without considerable reframing of economic-political thinking, however.”





Solving secondary problems first

10 08 2018

Can you run a self-driving car on a desert island?

Of course not: There are no roads; and there is no fuel for the car.

Why do I mention this?  Because the received narrative around climate change and so-called “peak oil demand” is that new technologies like electric self-driving cars are going to ride to our rescue in the near future.  This is a nice fantasy; but I would draw your attention to the fact that while we still have roads, along with much of our infrastructure they are falling apart through neglect.  Without the enabling infrastructure, the proposed new technologies are going nowhere.

Energy, meanwhile, is a far greater problem.  Globally (remember most of the food we eat and the goods we buy are imported) 86 percent of our energy comes from fossil fuels – down just one percent from 1995.  Renewable energy accounts for nearly 10 percent; but most of this is from hydroelectric dams and wood burning.  The modern renewables – solar, wind, geothermal, wave, tidal, and ocean energy – that so many people imagine are going to save the day account for just 1.5 percent of the energy we use.

Modern renewables are a kind of Schrodinger’s energy because they are simultaneously replacements for (some of) the fossil fuel that we are currently using and the additional energy to power all of the new technologies that are going to save the day.  And rather like the benighted feline in Schrodinger’s experiment, so long as nobody actually looks at the evidence, they can continue to fulfil both roles.

Given the potentially catastrophic consequences of not having sufficient energy to continue growing our economy, it is psychologically discomforting even to ask why energy costs are spiralling upward around the world, and why formerly energy independent countries are resorting to difficult, expensive and environmentally toxic fuel sources like hydraulically fractured shale or strip mined bitumen sands.  This, perhaps, explains why so many people focus their attention on solving second order problems – something psychologists refer to as a “displacement activity.”

An example of this appeared in today’s news in the shape of an Australian attempt to revive hydrogen-powered cars.  In theory, hydrogen (which only exists in compounds in nature) is superior to (far less abundant) lithium ion batteries as a store of energy to power electric vehicles.  Crucially, unlike battery-powered electric vehicles, hydrogen cell electric vehicles do not need to be recharged, but can be refuelled in roughly the same time as it takes to refuel a petroleum vehicle.  And, of course, hydrogen vehicles do not require tax payers and energy consumers to foot the bill for the upgrade of the electricity grid needed for battery-powered cars.

hydrogen car

The drawback with hydrogen is that it is difficult to store.  Because hydrogen is the smallest atom, it can gradually corrode and seep out of any container; especially if it is compressed into liquid form.  It is this problem that the Australian researchers appear to have solved.  Using a new technology, they have been able to store hydrogen as ammonia, and then convert it back to hydrogen to fuel their cars.  As Lexy Hamilton-Smith at ABC News reports:

“For the past decade, researchers have worked on producing ultra-high purity hydrogen using a unique membrane technology.

“The membrane breakthrough will allow hydrogen to be safely transported and used as a mass production energy source.”

Unlike batteries, which have only succeeded imperfectly at replacing lightweight vehicles, hydrogen is already used around the world to power much heavier vehicles:

“Hydrogen powered vehicles, including buses, trucks, trains, forklifts as well as passenger cars are being manufactured by leading automotive companies and deployed worldwide as part of their efforts to decarbonise the transport sector.”

Step back for a moment and you will see that this is, indeed, a displacement activity.  Insofar as humans are currently imagining a far more electrified world, then there is a competition to be won on the best form of energy storage.  And there are good reasons for believing that hydrogen is a more versatile battery than lithium ion (which also has a tendency to burst into flames if not stored properly).  However, this competition is predicated on the highly unlikely possibility of our having a large volume of excess energy in future.

Currently, almost all of the hydrogen we use is obtained by chemically separating it out of natural gas.  Using electrolysis to separate hydrogen out of water is simply too expensive by comparison.  But gas reserves are shrinking (which is why fracking is being promoted) and are already required for agriculture, chemicals, for heating and cooking, and for generating much of the electricity that used to come from coal.  Given the Herculean efforts that were required to install the modern renewables that generate just 1.5 percent of our energy, the idea that these are about to deliver enough excess capacity to allow the production of hydrogen from water is fanciful at best.

And that’s the problem.  Until we can secure a growing energy supply both hydrogen and lithium ion cars are going to end up on a global desert island.  One where there is insufficient power and unrepaired infrastructure.  To make matters worse, climate change dictates that the additional power we need in future cannot come from the fuels that currently provide us with 86 percent of our energy.  And, of course, whatever we end up substituting for fossil fuels will have to provide sufficiently cheap energy that the population doesn’t rise up and produce something a great deal worse than Brexit or Donald Trump.