Contradictory beliefs

by Chris Bertram on September 22, 2011

It isn’t a good thing to have contradictory beliefs. Since I’ve notice what appear to be such beliefs in myself recently, I thought I’d share, both because I guess that there are others out there who also have them, and in the hope that Crooked Timber’s community of readers can tell either that I should discard some of them (on grounds of falsity) or that I’m wrong to think them contradictory. So here goes.

Belief 1: As a keen reader of Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong (yes, really), our own John Quiggin and other left-leaning econobloggers, I believe that most Western economies need a stimulus to growth, that austerity will be counterproductive, and that without growth the debt burden will worsen and the jobs crisis will get deeper.

Belief 2: As someone concerned about the environment, I believe that growth, as most people understand it, is unsustainable at anything like recent rates. Sure, more efficient technologies can reduce the environmental impacts of each unit of consumption, but unless we halt or limit growth severely, we’ll continue to do serious damage. There are some possibilities for switching to less damaging technologies or changing consumption patterns away from goods whose production causes serious damage, but the transition times are likely to be long and the environmental crisis is urgent.

Belief 3: Some parts of the world are just too poor to eschew growth. People in those parts of the world need more stuff just to lift them out of absolute poverty. It is morally urgent to lift everyone above the threshold where they can live decent lives. If anyone should get to grow their consumption absolutely, it needs to be those people, not us.

Belief 4: The relative (and sometimes absolute) poverty that some citizens of wealthy countries suffer from is abhorrent, and is inconsistent with the status equality that ought to hold among fellow-citizens of democratic nations. We ought to lift those people out of poverty.

If I were to attempt a reconciliation, I’d say that this suggests zero or negative growth in material consumption for the wealthier countries but a massive programme of wealth redistribution among citizens at something like the current level of national income, coupled with a commitment to channel further technological progress into (a) more free time (and some job sharing) or a shift in the mix of activity towards non-damaging services, like education (b) switching to green technologies (c) assistance to other nations below the poverty threshold. All of those things need mechanisms of course if they’re to happen — and I’m a bit light on those if I’m honest, outside of the obvious tax-and-transfer. What we don’t need is more in the way of “incentives” to already-rich supposed “wealth creators” and the like. What we certainly don’t need is a strategy that purports to assist the worst off in the wealthiest countries by boosting economic activity without regard to the type of activity it is, in the hope that this gives people jobs and, you know, rising tides, trickling down and all that rigmarole. The trouble is that Belief 1, which I instinctively get behind when listening to the austerity-mongers, is basically the same old tune that the right-wing of social democracy has been humming all these years. It is just about the only thing that will fly for the left politically in a time of fear, joblessness and falling living standards, but it seems particularly hard to hold onto if you take Belief 2 seriously.



Pete 09.22.11 at 10:39 am

If you’re concerned about (total wealth)/(total population), and it appears that there may be external physical limits on increasing total wealth due to global warming and/or peak oil, there’s another variable that nobody likes to go near.


Kevin Donoghue 09.22.11 at 10:44 am

“…growth, as most people understand it, is unsustainable at anything like recent rates.”

True, I think, in that most people do think of growth as the increased production of manufactured goods. However if people are working on cleaning up the environment or providing medical services that’s included in the GNP figures. So the upshot is that you do want growth, but a very different composition of output. There’s no contradiction there, but it’s going to be an uphill struggle to achieve it.


ajay 09.22.11 at 10:55 am

2 is exactly what I was going to say: the error, if that’s not too strong a word, is assuming that growth = increasing consumption of non-replaceable, environmentally necessary resources. “growth, as most people understand it, is unsustainable at anything like recent rates” and in the form it has taken in much of recent history.


Kevin Donoghue 09.22.11 at 11:00 am

BTW I should note you already addressed my point, but I think you’re unfair to yourself here: “All of those things need mechanisms of course if they’re to happen—and I’m a bit light on those if I’m honest, outside of the obvious tax-and-transfer.”

Tax-and-transfer is not only obvious; I think it’s dead right. There’s no reason to involve civil servants in deciding the detail of how to allocate resources. There are a lot of things that can go wrong in markets, but by and large, if you tax polluters and subsidise worthwhile goods, you will get less pollution and more worthwhile goods. It’s a long time since I noticed real choking smog in the city centre, even though the number of cars is way up from what it was.


soru 09.22.11 at 11:07 am

The point is that ‘growth’ is a bad, or misleading, aggregation. It bundles together a mixture of desirable and undesirable things that really don’t have all that much in common other than the way they are measured.

On the other hand ‘recession’, the interruption of growth for confidence-related economic reasons, is a reasonable aggregation, containing almost entirely undesirable things. In particular, the environmental impacts are almost certain to be bad: Google ‘shale gas blackpool’. Cheap energy is _nasty_.

I suppose the analogy would be if medical science didn’t quite understand the difference between growing up, obesity or cancer, and so was trying to make decisions entirely on the basis of a chart of body mass.

A child will be naturally growing as long as they have not reached their adult weight. And there is going to be growth as long as there is progress in science, new things discovered or invented. Which may happen some day, but would need straw man authoritarian measure to stop before then.

It is just that noone knows what an adult economy looks like yet, so it is pretty challenging to distinguish between the equivalent of childhood obesity, and a healthy growing child.


The Raven 09.22.11 at 11:10 am

Part of your problem is Malthusian: there are too damn many hominids for the ways of life hominids are happiest in.

Also, economic growth is not the same as intensified consumption of resources, or even intensified manufacturing. I have never been sure what economic growth means and think it would be a really interesting question for economists to answer, if there is not already an answer somewhere. It was a simpler question to answer in the 19th century, when economic growth meant the expansion of the industrial economy, but in the first world that process is done.


Chris Bertram 09.22.11 at 11:18 am

Ok just so as we don’t get distracted by everyone making the same point, let me direct attention to a few words in the OP:

“or a shift in the mix of activity towards non-damaging services”

“What we certainly don’t need is a strategy that purports to assist the worst off in the wealthiest countries by boosting economic activity _without regard to the type of activity it is_ .”

So I get (and got) the point that growth is about activity rather than the production of physical stuff. However, it has, historically been associated, _inter alia_ with the consumption of more stuff that has to be produced somewhere. And boosting activity by policy that focuses on macro variables doesn’t display the necessary environmental focus on which activity gets boosted. So you need to be more dirigiste in some way.


Matt McIrvin 09.22.11 at 11:26 am

I have considered (and rejected, but definitely considered) the possibility that the right thing to do is to support right-wing economics precisely because it is mistaken, and will hold down carbon emissions by plunging the first-tier developed economies into a permanent depression. Government austerity programs and parasitic wealth-hoarding are the best mechanisms we know for keeping people poor and holding down general consumption, even if, as I said in another thread, it’s like losing weight by getting a tapeworm.

(But I doubt this approach is sustainable. For one thing, it involves promoting a sort of Platonic noble lie indefinitely. Holding contradictory beliefs is bad but holding actively mendacious positions is probably worse. For another, the noble lie would have to be propagated to developing countries as they get richer. Right-wing politicians seem determined to ease environmental regulations by some combination of sympathy for business and sheer ressentiment, so it’s not clear that the benefits would even accrue long-term in the best case. And ultimately it’s a question of values; to me the main point of helping the environment is to reduce human suffering; helping it mainly through suffering is perverse.)


wallace von bladet 09.22.11 at 11:29 am

It isn’t a good thing to have contradictory beliefs.

I am in two minds about this, like a blackbird that has been cut in half with an axe.


Aaron Boyden 09.22.11 at 11:40 am

As others have more or less suggested, more wealth seems to be correlated with more willingness to put up with environmental regulations (or less willingness to put up with environmnental damage). That doesn’t mean that one should seek economic growth and expect everything else to take care of itself, of course; it’s surely important to keep advocating and working for more environmental regulations. But it’s probably wrong to see growth-seeking measures of the type you mention in belief 1 as inherently counter-productive from an environmental perspective. So I agree with those who think the problem is that your belief 2 is oversimplified.


Joe 09.22.11 at 11:41 am

What you describe are the inherent contradictions of capitalism. These are some of the big-picture issues that mainstream economists never satisfactorily address, but that shape the fundamental conditions of our world.

A number of Marxian scholars, on the other hand, have thought long and hard about the presumptions of infinite growth, environmental degradation through production, global trade imbalances, and gross economic inequality. If you can get past the association with big bad Marx, folks like David Harvey or Richard Wolff have some terrific things to say about these very issues.

Bloggers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your admiration for Krugman!


philofra 09.22.11 at 11:45 am

I think you are being more than contradictory with yourself. You are tying yourself up in knots with your multiple positions.


Tim Worstall 09.22.11 at 11:46 am

There’s not as much of a conflict as you seem to think between generating more wealth so that the poor become rich and the environmental limits to that more growth.

GDP is “the value of goods and services produced” and as Herman Daly (to use a very green economist) points out, there’s no hard and fast limit to how much value we can add even if there is to the level of physical resources we can use. This is his steady state economy: we limit those resources we use but we still have economic growth from the advance of technology allowing us to continue to add value.

Not hugely dissimilar from Teddy Goldsmith’s old idea of a “stock” economy rather than a flow one. Recycle everything, don’t abstract new resources, just keep reusing old ones.

This sort of thing is happening slowly: my favourite example is iron ore and steel. Yes, we’re still digging up mountains to make more iron and steel. But not so much in the advanced economies any more. It’s a general assumption that no one will ever build a blast furnace in a rich country again (you must have a blast furnace to make iron from ore). We’ve simply got a large enough stock of iron and steel around that we can just continually recycle it. Developing countries don’t as yet but they’ll get there eventually.

As to how we get from here to that desired position quickly, yes, something of a problem. We want technology to advance as fast as possible, we want total factor productivity to advance as fast as possible. They’re really the same statement, that we want to be able to add more value to those scarce resources as fast as we can.

As Krugman has observed (pointing out that the Soviet system managed no tfp growth at all by some estimates, growth all came from using more resources, while 20 th cent. “western” growth was largely tfp advances) that means that we almost certainly want a market economy (and Baumol is insistent on this point as well) and the more you want to restrict the use of those scarce resources then the more you want to interfere to make sure of the use of those scarce resources.

Which (not a Krugman point) would probably mean taxing use of such resources. Pigou Taxes: as with a carbon tax for example (say, Hansen’s idea that you tax carbon at the well or minehead).

But there’s no hard and fast contradiction between the two goals: protecting the environment and aiding the poor in becoming rich. Because it isn’t necessarily consumption of scarce resources which creates the welath, it’s the ading value to them which does, something which is determined by the level of technology available.


Matt McIrvin 09.22.11 at 11:51 am

To get serious for once: On the point of shifting the type of activity, one thing mitigating the contradiction a little is that, at least in the US, consumption-of-manufactured-stuff is probably the type of consumption least affected by the crunch in employment and wages. It’s to the point that it’s the first thing people point to when they’re trying to argue that no Americans are really poor: look, you can get a DVD player at Walmart for 24 bucks, etc.

On the other hand, the most expensive thing, rising out of reach of the lower classes, is the service of credentialed experts, like doctors and professors; these services aren’t particularly carbon-intensive things.

So I’d say a more dirigiste approach would be to concentrate on helping the general public access these expert services, which probably ultimately includes keeping the compensation for them from flying too far into outer space.

As a second thought along these lines, I’ve often thought that you can turn the problem on its head. One form that Chris’s contradiction takes is that environmentalists like consumption taxes because they disincentivize harmful practices, but left economists hate them because they’re regressive. All right, then, suppose we formulate the attack this way: reduce income inequality by other means, say taking money from the rich to fund generous social services, and then it makes it easier to reduce harmful types of consumption through consumption taxes. People will go for some shared sacrifice if they think it’s really shared. (If I recall correctly, the tax structure is actually less progressive in some European social democracies than it is the US.)


Z 09.22.11 at 11:53 am

I share these beliefs, and I don’t think they are really contradictory: the way out seems to me to ensure that stimulus plans are geared towards reducing inequalities. However, I am, like you, very depressed by the fact that no credible political force in the world is explicitly crafting its political program based on this analysis. The best we have is 1, with lip-service paid to 2,3,4.


Alex 09.22.11 at 12:03 pm

The point is that ‘growth’ is a bad, or misleading, aggregation. It bundles together a mixture of desirable and undesirable things that really don’t have all that much in common other than the way they are measured. On the other hand ‘recession’, the interruption of growth for confidence-related economic reasons, is a reasonable aggregation, containing almost entirely undesirable things

This is a good point. Similarly, life is a mixture of desirable and undesirable things, but it is usually preferable to death.

It’s also interesting that GDP as a metric was invented as part of the operationalisation of Keynesian economics – the reason why it arguably measures nothing more or less than the absence or presence of depression is that it was designed specifically as a metric to tell us if we were booming or busting. The first exercise in policymaking using GDP was, IIRC, the UK’s budget for 1941-1942. That’s what it was designed to do. If you are trying to tell if you are happy by reference to it, of course you’ll be wrong, just as trying to determine beauty by reference to an air-speed indicator is a gross category error.


Dirk 09.22.11 at 12:17 pm

Interesting post! I think, the Western world has been at this point before. When the end of WWII came closer, three of the four issues you have raised were on the agenda of those constructing the Post-War institutions. The Bretton Woods conference established international solutions, while Keynesian economics and the welfare state provided a solution for the domestic problem. Here is how I see the Western world reacted to the challenges of the Great Depression.

#1 fiscal policies to keep growth rates up: Keynesian economics delivered the argument that fiscal spending could close the output gap, and I will come back to the question how these funds should be spend below at #4

#2 environmental damage: was not an urgent issue back then, although economists dealt with these questions even in the 19th century and earlier. Jevons on the coal question provides some thoughts. Nevertheless, this problem was not recognized back then.

#3 some people are poor and they should expand consumption: this was a problem recognized as well in the 1940s, and the main answers were the Bretton Woods System and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), which became (part of) the World Bank (Group) later. The idea was to restrict international capital flows and instead direct the capital flows by inter-government lending. Fixed exchange rates were drawn up to guarantee that debtors could not inflate their debt away. This was achieved by anchoring the US dollar on gold and all other currencies on the US dollar. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) was then established as a guardian of this system.

Somehow, this system helped industrial countries to reconstruct, but failed to spur growth rates in developing economies. Debt crises in the 1980s and later on in developing countries together with the success of under-consumption strategies of export-led development like that of China put the development-by-foreign debt strategy in an intellectually challenging position.

#4 some people in developed countries are very poor: the welfare states delivered the answer to the question on what to spend government money on. Health insurance, education, infrastructure were pro-poor programs, while progressive taxation attacked the problem from the other side.

Now for the interactions of these issues. I think that you can develop policies that tackle these issues in a coherent way. First of all, equality and growth go together, as many researchers have found (among them, the or Wilkinson and Pickett in “The Spirit Level”). No trade of there. If you do your growth accounting right, you can also make this compatible with #2. Given some inputs, growth is still possible. While you cannot rely anymore on extensive growth (more inputs), you can still get intensive growth (more output per unit of input). #1 should not be incompatible to any of the other three.

One more thought to share: did the post-WWII institutions fail because of some inherent inconsistencies in #1 to #4? I don’t think so. Keynesian policies “failed” with the event of stagflation, which had more to do with rising oil prices and external shocks than with, say, unsustainable government debt. And hey, monetarism took over and failed miserably to guide policy (“Yes, but which monetary aggregate? They all move differently!” – maybe Paul Volcker, maybe in 1980).

#3 failed when, as a result of Volcker and monetarism, interest rates where raised by the Fed in a way that did not allow Latin American economies to repay their foreign debts. Since then, current account surplusses (and capital account surplusses) were the preferred way of development, followed by many countries. Some in South-East-Asia returned to allow a rise in foreign debt, and in 1997 understood their mistake. After that, countries like China started to keep their exchange rates undervalued.

#4 This, I believe, is harder to explain. Why is the welfare state under pressure? The financial crisis has revealed that financial pressures cannot have been the reason, at least not in the US. With the t-bond yield low as it is the US could go on borrowing large sums at low interest rates for a long, very long time it seems. Japan shows the same. Perhaps here it is policies that have influenced the issue more than anywhere else. It seems to me that many US citizens prefer to live in a world where winners win by a lot and losers (and their offspring) get to subsist on a very meagre diet. George W. Bush, when China started buying t-bonds by the 100s of billions, let the income taxes of the very rich come down. This is policy more than “economic forces”.


Henri Vieuxtemps 09.22.11 at 12:18 pm

So, where’s the contradiction? Flatten the distribution, produce enough for everyone, too much for no one. And this may, in fact, end up being a negative growth.


Dirk 09.22.11 at 12:19 pm

Sorry, I messed up the link in my post above. It points to research by the IMF on equality and efficiency.


Hektor Bim 09.22.11 at 12:26 pm

There is a tried and true method for reducing birth rates and population growth, if that is what one is worried about. Feminism!

Recognizing women as possessing individual autonomy as persons pretty much guarantees that the birth rate will be below replacement. Implemented as government policy worldwide, one would see declining world population, based on the results from the places where it has been implemented. It is also the moral and correct thing to do anyway.

So something the world should be doing anyway for moral reasons is also the simplest solution to any concerns we might have about population growth.


Argyris Alti 09.22.11 at 12:26 pm

I think your description of ‘boosting activity by policy that focuses on macro variables’ is slightly off too. When Krugman and co propose fiscal policy, they also assume a channel through which this policy will work. For example, infrastructure building. If the stimulus was developing clean energy sources or measures that reduce energy intensity there’s nothing unsustainable about it. I don’t think there’s a way to boost macro variables without adopting some specific micro measures and what should those be and their consequences are very much up to debate.


ajay 09.22.11 at 12:45 pm

Recognizing women as possessing individual autonomy as persons pretty much guarantees that the birth rate will be below replacement. Implemented as government policy worldwide, one would see declining world population, based on the results from the places where it has been implemented.

…Which means you could have economic growth per head of population – which, let’s face it, is the only sort of economic growth it’s worth having anyway – without overall growth in consumption. At least for a while. And “for a while” is all we need to worry about. Related: the fact that Japan’s decade of inactivity is very largely a demographic thing rather than representing stasis at the level of individual workers.


ajay 09.22.11 at 12:55 pm

Recognizing women as possessing individual autonomy as persons pretty much guarantees that the birth rate will be below replacement.

Not sure about this. being a universal law rather than a temporary loose association. Yes, in general, more feminism = lower total fertility rates. Women in Niger have lots. Women in France have fewer.
But if you look at Europe, then the places with the best records on women’s issues aren’t the places with the lowest TFRs; Italy has a lower TFR than Sweden (1.39 vs 1.67), maybe because it’s more difficult being a mother in Italy than in Sweden (you get better childcare etc in Sweden). Though, of course, both are still below replacement level.

There are a lot of factors at play here, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a U-shaped curve here, much as there is with environmental damage. If you’re really non-feminist, the women all have to stay barefoot and pregnant all the time. If you’re kinda-feminist, the women get pills and jobs and they start having fewer kids because having kids is a lot of work and not very well rewarded, plus you still have to do the housework and look after granny. But maybe if you’re really feminist then women start having (slightly) more kids again because having kids is less of a struggle.


Sandwichman 09.22.11 at 12:59 pm

The difference between a recession and a steady state, or even “de-growth”, economy is that one is an accident and the other is a design. It’s the difference between skating and slipping on the ice. When I had a car and depended on it to get to work and shop, my life would be disrupted if the car broke down. I haven’t owned a car for two decades now and my life revolves smoothly around walking, biking and transit [plug: my daughter, Amy Walker’s new book On Bicycles has just been published by New World Library].

I have the very odd opinion that what we need is a spurt of a very specific kind of growth for maybe a decade or two before easing off into a steady state or low growth scenario. This would be transition-to-a-new-economy growth and couldn’t be accomplished by traditional (Krugman, de Long, et. al.) fiscal stimulus or quantitative monetary easing. Since the late 1970s, the rich countries have been “enjoying” what Stefano Bartolini has termed “Negative Externality Growth,” which means that we’ve been spending more fixing the social and environmental messes we’ve been making and making even more messes in the process.

What we haven’t been doing is promoting the arts, culture and education at anything near the level we could afford to. Education has increasingly been yoked to “marketable job skills” training, whatever that means with narrower and narrower career opportunities for graduates.

The reasons for this huge misallocation are what I see as a deficient understanding of things that are commonly known as “market failure” and its complement “government failure”. In Economics of Welfare (1920), Cecil Pigou identified what have come to be known as “externalities” and argued that the resulting market failures constituted a prima facie case for government intervention. Probably due to a lack of comprehension of Latin among subsequent economists, the Pigovian tradition overlooked the fact that the adjective prima facie may have been meant by Pigou as an equivocation not an intensifier.

Forty years later, Ronald Coase presented a counter-argument that, in the absence of transaction costs and with full assignment of property rights, an efficient allocation of resources would be worked out through negotiation. That is to say “there is no market failure”. Of course, the fine print was in the transaction costs. There’s no such thing as “in the absence of transaction costs.” That’s like saying commodities would be free in the absence of labor costs. Whoop de doo!

Coase’s insight, though, brings to light something more important, though: market failure s all about transaction costs. And the term externality is a misnomer. Transaction costs are the very heart and soul of economic production and exchange.

You can’t escape transaction costs. BUT you can reduce them OR you can increase them. Wait a minute! Why would anyone want to increase transaction costs? The short answer is because that’s where the scope for claiming profit and rent resides. The long answer has to engage the political opportunities for shifting transaction costs, so that they are apportioned as “social costs”.

War, for example, is a tremendously effective way to inflate transaction costs and profit opportunities exponentially while fobbing them off as social and environmental costs.


Kevin Donoghue 09.22.11 at 1:04 pm


You get the point and yet somehow you don’t get it. You know there’s no contradiction in your beliefs, yet you seem to see one. Why bring the historical pattern of production into it? At one time the market economy was mostly about trading silks and spices for slaves and wool. Laws against slavery and child labour would have been considered impossibly utopian. I can’t see that we are so very far away from a world in which the really big components of GNP are education, medical services and entertainment.

Now to get from here to there we certainly need “to be more dirigiste in some way” but why should that way be any harder than abolishing slavery was? Admittedly that required some very bloody battles. If your concern is that the Kochs of this world won’t go down without a terrific fight then I quite agree. Getting the needed legislation, taxes and subsidies into place may eventually turn out to be politically impossible. But that doesn’t mean your beliefs are contradictory. Or did you just mean that as a figure of speech?


Sandwichman 09.22.11 at 1:14 pm

“So you need to be more dirigiste in some way.”

Not necessarily. The traditional back and forth has been “market vs. state”. Market failure? We need more government intervention. Government failure? Free the markets! Horseshit.

What the market/state merry-go-round dichotomy conveniently ignores is the commons. The commons is a distinct and every bit as venerable and viable an institution as the market or the state — maybe more so. This is not to say that the commons is a panacea. But the enclosure of the commons was the crime of the millennium.


Sandwichman 09.22.11 at 1:16 pm

BTW, the way you reduce transaction costs is by expanding the commons.


Henri Vieuxtemps 09.22.11 at 1:17 pm

I’m all for feminism, but I suspect low birth rates are better correlated with reliability and strength of the social safety net.


Chris Bertram 09.22.11 at 1:24 pm

You are quite right, Kevin, that there exist propositions corresponding to each belief I enumerated such that those beliefs are not contradictory. That doesn’t mean that the overwhelming likely real-world form of each will stand in such a benign relationship with the others.

My strong impression (as a non-economist) is that (many) economists are prone to respond to the kinds of environmental concerns I’ve discussed by a wave of the hand and the assertion that because

not-necessarily P, therefore P
it is possible that P, therefore P

But just because it is possible for growth to take non-damaging forms or that it is not necessary for it to take damaging ones, it doesn’t follow that it will. I’d like to take comfort in your thought that this won’t be any harder than abolishing slavery. The movement to abolish the slave trade began in the 1780s in England, and Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation (hardly the end of matters) was 1863. If that’s the kind of timescale we’re looking at, we’re screwed.


ajay 09.22.11 at 1:26 pm

I suspect low birth rates are better correlated with reliability and strength of the social safety net.

I can see the argument – traditionally you have kids to look after you in your old age – but it’s not the only thing that’s happening and it’s not true in all cases. Tunisia has a lower TFR than the US, for example. Moldova (Moldova!) is well below Sweden.


Watson Ladd 09.22.11 at 1:28 pm

Sandwitchman, wtf. Sheep may safely graze again, but that does about nothing for anything not four legged. Also the commons was part of what we today would call the state, constrained as it was by punishment.

Joe, a socialist economy would still have to decide what to do about the fact that billions of people need to have consumer goods.

Henri, enough is how much? I can think of an infinity of fun, rewarding things to do with k$ and an infinity of beneficial things with M$. (SI prefixes). You assume people are saited. I just think they aren’t being creative enough if they are.


ajay 09.22.11 at 1:28 pm

The movement to abolish the slave trade began in the 1780s in England, and Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation (hardly the end of matters) was 1863. If that’s the kind of timescale we’re looking at, we’re screwed.

Well, depends when you think the start point is. The environmental movement started 40-50 years ago…


Kevin Donoghue 09.22.11 at 1:36 pm

My best guess is that indeed we are screwed, though not so much as lots of other species.

Re the feminism point, ISTR Amartya Sen pointing out that in poor countries where funds intended to benefit children are given to their mothers rather than their fathers, the kids generally fare better. Not very flattering to fathers but there you go.


Sandwichman 09.22.11 at 1:38 pm

Watson Ladd, sheep? wtf? Read Elinor Ostrom for starters. Don’t be such an ignoramus.


Rich Puchalsky 09.22.11 at 1:42 pm

In part this is a problem of differing time scales, of the form seen more clearly in people who say we need global warming to counter an ice age. Global warming is happening on a much shorter time-scale than an ice age would. Similarly, getting out of the Lesser Depression — which is also the quickest way or helping poor people in Western countries — should happen on a much shorter time-scale than rebalancing the world towards sustainability.

But mostly the problem is that these aren’t really market problems. Something I wrote on Infrastructuralism, for instance, argues implicitly that the whole concept of “growth” as market-determined is the wrong way to think about it.


Simon 09.22.11 at 1:50 pm

@ Sandwhichmann, CB and others. Can you say what you believe clearly and simply? You want a top down government to halt growth and distribute resources according to what they think people need because you think people have enough. IE, a totalitarian state. Lets not mince words.


Sandwichman 09.22.11 at 1:55 pm

Simon, Let’s not mince words. Go fuck yourself.


Sandwichman 09.22.11 at 1:57 pm

Simon, My bad… I forgot the “you fascist pig” part.


soru 09.22.11 at 2:02 pm

The movement to abolish the slave trade began in the 1780s in England, and Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation (hardly the end of matters) was 1863.

I think the relevant point is that if you ran history backwards, getting to the point of the abolition of slavery would have taken considerably longer.

Decrease GDP rather than increase it, and you have to drop back below Roman or Babylonian levels before it becomes economically unsustainable to maintain slaves (or, to be more accurate, for slaves to maintain owners).

I don’t know exactly how much you would have to damage the economy before it became infeasible to organise the extraction of oil shale. But it would be a lot, certainly way below the point where ‘professor’ is a job description.

On the other hand, voluntary abstention from such things gets easier the richer everyone is. Which doesn’t mean it will happen, merely that it becomes possible.


Simon 09.22.11 at 2:04 pm

@ Sandwichman. Sorry if I struck a nerve. But am I wrong? You had a very long original post and the only conclusion I could reach at the bottom was what I posted.


Hektor Bim 09.22.11 at 2:37 pm


Yes, Sweden’s birth rate is higher than Italy’s. But it is still below replacement. France and Ireland have higher birth rates, but I don’t think most people would seriously argue that those places are bastions of feminism. (Women couldn’t even vote in France until 1945, for instance.)


P O'Neill 09.22.11 at 2:54 pm

One thing I don’t see addressed from the OP is the role of the debt burden. Part of the potentially contradictory belief is that we’ll need more GDP to make debt burdens sustainable. That prompts the question: where did the debt burden come from? Maybe there is a latent demand for leisure, but the fact is that even when measurable sources of income declined (e.g. productivity growth and tax capacity), people kept consuming and debt burdens (either private or public) rose. If there is hope that we are reorienting consumption and work patterns away from market activities, this debt (both its level and its tendency to increase) will have to be dealt with.


kharris 09.22.11 at 2:55 pm

“The trouble is that Belief 1, which I instinctively get behind when listening to the austerity-mongers,…”

OK, let’s just make sure we keep our normative apart from our positive, here. “Belief 1” is correct in a positive sense. Austerity-mongers dishonestly claim that it is not true in a positive sense. One is correct to point out the truth. The normative argument is that we “should” grow, and that austerity will stifle growth. You may not believe this normative proposition, even if you believe – rightly – the positive proposition that austerity does not lead to growth.


kharris 09.22.11 at 3:00 pm

What would a Walker know about bicycles?


between4walls 09.22.11 at 3:03 pm

@Simon. Yes, you’re wrong.
A totalitarian state involves a lot of things beyond what you said (for example, suppression of free elections, no free speech, attempts by the government to incorporate the social and recreational aspects of your life into yourself).
Also, wanting the government to halt growth has nothing to do with totalitarianism. Nazi Germany was quite keen on economic growth if I remember correctly, what with taking power in a time of high unemployment and wanting to get ready for war.


kharris 09.22.11 at 3:05 pm

The notion that we can have growth without excessive resource extraction, that we can recycle the massive base of already-extracted resources and still live at a modern standard, is pretty iffy. The agricultural revolution is all well and good, and might by itself have proven Malthus wrong, but the industrial revolution and its successors are what have made us materially wealthy, as well as well-fed. The industrial revolution and its successors have relied overwhelmingly on the release of energy stored in the environment. We can certainly reduce the energy intensity of our activities – we already have, despite a tremendous propaganda effort to tell us doing so is silly and bad and impossible and job-killing – but if all of humanity is going to enjoy material prosperity at anything like the level known in the G20, the pace of natural resource consumption to produce energy will continue to rise.


between4walls 09.22.11 at 3:06 pm

“incorporate the social and recreational aspects of your life into itself” is what I meant. Not “yourself”. Sorry.


Joe 09.22.11 at 3:15 pm

“Joe, a socialist economy would still have to decide what to do about the fact that billions of people need to have consumer goods.”

Absolutely. It would need to confront that problem and figure out what to do.

But it wouldn’t pretend that these contradictions could somehow work themselves out while maintaining a relatively free-market form of capitalism.

I’m all for government environmental regulations, but I do not live in a fantasy world where capitalist production can continue to grow exponentially while such necessary regulations are in place. The regulations are necessary, and if the political will ever exists to enact them, they will cause a crisis in capitalism, since capitalism requires resource depletion as a consequence of its internal logic.

We would at that point need to give up our demand for continued exponential productive growth, take the decision-making capacity out of the hands of capitalists, and actually think through the ways to balance the meeting of consumer needs with a sustainable environment.


matsig 09.22.11 at 3:22 pm

ajay and Hektor Bim,

France might not be a bastion of feminism, but they do have one of the best childcare-systems in Europe, if not the world, and as I understand it, childcare is by far the most important part of the welfare state when it comes to influencing women’s choices regarding how many children they have (or at what age they have them, which amounts to pretty much the same thing).


Aulus Gellius 09.22.11 at 3:22 pm

I think people are missing the end of number 2 in CB’s original post: “There are some possibilities for switching to less damaging technologies or changing consumption patterns away from goods whose production causes serious damage, but the transition times are likely to be long and the environmental crisis is urgent.

So we can come up with long-term reconciliations of the issues (reusing materials, lower population, etc.), but that leaves some difficult questions about what to do for now. Like, to what extent do we favor growth-increasing policies, knowing that in the immediate future (at least!) this will increase the rate of environmental destruction, as opposed to fighting such policies until they can be implemented more conscientiously, which seems to involve a sort of holding people’s livelihoods for ransom, insisting that they cannot be raised out of poverty until we can find a safe way to do it?


Sandwichman 09.22.11 at 3:27 pm

“Part of the potentially contradictory belief is that we’ll need more GDP to make debt burdens sustainable.”

Yes. We absolutely need more GDP growth to make the debt burden sustainable. The question then becomes to what extent can debt-fueled GDP growth be sustained if the GDP-intensity of deficit financing deteriorates? It’s the quality of spending that counts, not just the quantity. Tax cuts are generally low quality in terms of job creation. Useful infrastructure spending is higher quality with the important disclaimer that what is “useful” depends on what your normative goals are. Interstate highways and bridges may be nifty investments for an Ike-era fossil-fueled suburban Shangri-La but not so hot for post-carbon Eco-topia. “Shovel ready” has got to be one the most unintendedly ironic metaphors ever. Hey, spin department, how about this for a catchphrase: “Let’s buggy-whip the recovery”?

Here’s two ideas for non-anachronistic economic stimulus: “Getting Serious About Unemployment?: How About the Denison Effect?” and “Infrastructure has another meaning, too.”

The first post reflected on Edward F. Denison’s 1960s estimate that roughly one-tenth of economic growth between 1909 and 1957 was the consequence of increased productivity from decreased hours of work. The second post cited and linked to a wonderful essay by Arlene Goldbard advocating a social and cultural infrastructure program similar to what the Roosevelt New Deal implemented.


Marwan 09.22.11 at 3:33 pm

I these are all fully consistent with a radical intertemporal rawlsianism that includes future generations in the welfare function along with the poor. Behind the veil, we want to maintain a decent standard of living across people (global and national equality), time-periods and states of the world (get us out of this darn recession), and generations (protect the environment). yeah maximizing this involves trade-offs, but the overall principle is sound.


Brett 09.22.11 at 3:39 pm


The industrial revolution and its successors have relied overwhelmingly on the release of energy stored in the environment. We can certainly reduce the energy intensity of our activities – we already have, despite a tremendous propaganda effort to tell us doing so is silly and bad and impossible and job-killing – but if all of humanity is going to enjoy material prosperity at anything like the level known in the G20, the pace of natural resource consumption to produce energy will continue to rise.

That really depends on how specifically you define “material prosperity like the level in the G20”. Energy comes in a multitude of forms, and does not necessarily involve the continued extraction of limited energy resources (I assume you meant “petroleum, coal, and gas”) to create it and distribute it. We could run a First World-level economy almost entirely on solar, wind, hydro power, and nuclear power (with the waste from the nuke plants re-cycled through breeder reactors over and over).


brian 09.22.11 at 4:01 pm

I hold nearly the same beliefs plus a #5: the ability to believe contradictory things is a feature, not a bug, of the human brain.


The Raven 09.22.11 at 4:03 pm

Chris, have you never heard of environmental economics? This is a subject that is being studied, though it is not yet at the center of economic thought. A quick Google on “environmental economics” brings up scads of links, including a peer-reviewed journal.


hartal 09.22.11 at 4:24 pm

But the left Keynesian program would likely not be successful; nor is it politically possible given the power disadvantages built into electoral or parliamentary politics (the dependence of politicians on the wealthy; the reluctance to alienate capital in anyway in a globalized economy; and in the US the threat of the filibuster and the racism of a big part of the electorate convinced that the government spending mostly benefits “them”, blacks and illegal aliens).
So, given that this downturn will only go from bad to worse, there is actually no pragmatic reason not to talk about a radically different future.
James Gustave Speth has begun to imagine one.


piglet 09.22.11 at 4:25 pm

The Raven 55: One has to wonder, are there really people who think professionally about these issues who have never read a word of Herman Daly, or is it just that giving credit to Daly is not considered acceptable in polite company.

Btw, “Contradictory beliefs” is quite a misnomer. Bertram is describing a difficult problem subject to many constraints, a problem nowadays widely known under the label sustainability. It’s not contradictory to believe that sustainability is a difficult problem subject to many constraints. It is not contradictory to believe that social constraints are important as well as physical constraints although we need to avoid the illusion that objective physical constraints can somehow be overcome socially.

The problem however is Bertram’s imprecise use of the term growth. It is not contradictory at all to believe that we need job growth and also that we need to reduce humanity’s environmental footprint. It may be difficult to achieve but by no means impossible. And we need to think harder about why it is (or seems) so difficult – I believe that difficulty is a failure of our economic system, not some inherent feature of economics per se.


someguy 09.22.11 at 4:26 pm

Take current reality as more or less a given.

Define who has what income level now.

Look at what the carbon emissions are now for their current levels.

Define at what income level you want them to be.

Look at what the carbon emissions would be for the new level.

How much more are the carbon emission per year? Call it A.

Messy and rough but fairly doable.

Calculate the current carbon emission path for those whose incomes do not need to grow.

Cap growth. Put a figure on how this reduces carbon emissions. The number should probably be no higher than the average growth rate for those countries.

How much less are carbon emission per year? Call it B.

Compare A and B. I think this would be a useful metric to determine what contradicts with what. I think B will swamp A.

I think that probably means that 2 and 3 contradict.

Hope that the possibilities for new technologies is higher than you think.


Henri Vieuxtemps 09.22.11 at 4:35 pm

It is not contradictory at all to believe that we need job growth and also that we need to reduce humanity’s environmental footprint.

Now, why would you need job growth? Job ain’t nothing but work. What you need is a sufficient amount of goods and services; the less work it takes to produce them the better.


Sandwichman 09.22.11 at 4:35 pm

C’mon, piglet, the “imprecise use of the term growth” is hardly an innovation that can be attributed to Chris Bertram! The term “economic growth” is inherently imprecise. The field of growth economics was spawned and is sustained on nurturing that imprecision. It would not be difficult at all, economically, to have job growth while reducing humanity’s environmental footprint. The difficulty is political, as you say, a failure of our economic system… and of our economics. It is, moreover, an ethical and a scientific failing. The science is there, but the economists we have don’t want to look at it.


Chris Bertram 09.22.11 at 4:36 pm

_Chris, have you never heard of environmental economics? _

Strangely enough, I have, and I’m in the middle of Tim Jackson’s _Prosperity without Growth_ at the moment. I’ll be sure to attach a full bibliography to all my CT posts in the future so that condescending commenters can spare themselves the trouble of remarks like yours.


Sandwichman 09.22.11 at 4:38 pm

“the less work it takes to produce them the better”

Yes indeed but why only have a few people performing all the less work? Why not have everyone performing just a bit of it?


Henri Vieuxtemps 09.22.11 at 4:42 pm

Why not have everyone performing just a bit of it?

Absolutely. Although if someone pining for jobs will volunteer to do my share, I probably won’t mind. For a while, anyway.


Simon 09.22.11 at 4:50 pm

@ Henri “Now, why would you need job growth? Job ain’t nothing but work. What you need is a sufficient amount of goods and services; the less work it takes to produce them the better.”

This is exactly the problem. Most individuals don’t want others deciding what is a “sufficient amount of goods and services”, as that is a command economy. This is why there is so much backlash against the left, people want, in Milton Friedman’s words, to be “free to choose.” How do you propose to resolve this.


Henri Vieuxtemps 09.22.11 at 4:57 pm

That is not “a command economy”. There is a definition of “command economy”, and that is not it.


bianca steele 09.22.11 at 5:03 pm

The problem is that our option is not static output and more redistribution. It’s static output and fewer workers, followed by lower-paid workers, followed by longer hours, followed by fewer workers paid less than their job description should be, based on what they’re doing, to manage fewer lower-paid workers working longer hours offshore, and eventually no workers or managers and only lower-paid workers working longer hours offshore–and upper-middle class crowdsourcing volunteers with trust funds, but here I’m descending into cynicism. (Where is Rich P. anyway?) This is entirely compatible with those beliefs or principles, because somehow the two scenarios turn out to look the same.

And how can France not be a bastion of feminism? All our best, most progressive feminist theorists are from France since 1980 or thereabouts!


bianca steele 09.22.11 at 5:05 pm

Sorry, bad link. Here.


Tom Bach 09.22.11 at 5:05 pm

Thanks for the posts and the Walker cite.


Bruce Wilder 09.22.11 at 5:33 pm

The weakness of the Keynesian program is its non-specific, open-endedness. People naturally want to ask, spend on what? and when does the deficit-spending end? (and then what?) These are reasonable questions. There’s a sense, within the abstract insights of Keynes’ analysis, in which it doesn’t matter what the money is spent on, as the objective is reflating the economy’s circular flow to a level of full-employment. But, in actual politics, those details cannot be abstracted away; they must be met.

The tragedy of era is that the answers to the question of what do we focus Keynesian spending on, is not difficult or mysterious. The U.S. economy, and the leading European economies, and the Japanese economy for a long time, are severely handicapped by structural problems and dysfunctional financial systems, and face looming challenges from global warming, peak oil and ecological collapse. Our political systems stand around paralyzed by their devotion to rentier interests, and the Left remains largely silent, barely able to rise above a faint endorsement of neo-liberal pablum.

With all due respect to those gentlemen (seriously), if Reagan Administration veteran Paul Krugman and self-proclaimed Eisenhower Republican Brad DeLong are your idea of “left-leaning”, your “left” is seriously palsied. They are preservationists, at a time, when preservation is simply not a viable option. We cannot preserve our dysfunctional financial system side-by-side with a prosperous economy. We cannot preserve our fossil fuel economy. We cannot preserve the global ecology, without radical change.

U.S. politics is dominated by the rentiers of finance and oil. We need to end that. They are the enemy. Bring them low, make them poor. That will be a good beginning.

I wouldn’t worry too much about “job growth”. The abstraction is confusing, in any case. There’s a lot of work to do, if we are to change the energy basis of the developed world’s economy, and to head off a smoky sojurn thru fossil fuels for the developing world. In the U.S. we need to completely replace the systems for powering transportation and structural heating by 2050. Completely. We need to invest in systems that use considerably less energy as well. We need a rail transporation system that reaches 80% of the population, passengers and goods. That means building a lot of rail, and relocating a lot of residential and business structures.

We might, indeed, seriously consider the welfare-enhancing effects of reducing wasted effort in a Red Queen’s race. More than half of Americans are employed in organizations of more than 100 employees, and most of those are engaged in various forms — not of “production” — but of salesmanship. Maybe, we could tax advertising, and dial down on the salesmanship, without reducing actually needed material consumption much at all. Watch less television. Spend more time on caring for our own, over-programmed children.

None of this is going to happen, as long as the U.S. and, by extension, the world, is ruled by greedy, corrupt, near-sighted oilmen and financiers. The economy and institutional system put in place in the American New Deal and the international order of post-WWII have played out to the endpoint of entropic collapse. It’s over. Gone. Post-post-post. Politically, we need a revolution and a vision for the future.


piglet 09.22.11 at 5:42 pm

“C’mon, piglet, the “imprecise use of the term growth” is hardly an innovation that can be attributed to Chris Bertram!”

Of course not, and I didn’t attribute it to him.

CB: “I’ll be sure to attach a full bibliography to all my CT posts in the future so that condescending commenters can spare themselves the trouble of remarks like yours.”

When somebody muses about a topic about which a huge body of literature exists without indicating familiarity with that literature, it is not condescending to point that out. And I can’t speak for The Raven but my point is not to say “if you haven’t read the book, you shouldn’t write about this”. My point is that it matters how questions are framed. There is a reason why mainstream economists prefer to ignore Daly and ecological economics and I would wish that progressives were at least willing to acknowledge that there are people who have thought long and hard and critically about growth and they might have something to contribute to the debate.

Henri: “Now, why would you need job growth? Job ain’t nothing but work.”
I actually don’t see job growth as synonymous with “more work”. I’m in favor of shorter work hours. But you have a point in that focusing on job growth is too narrow. We should really focus on decent living standards for everybody.


Sandwichman 09.22.11 at 5:52 pm

What Bruce said. And that’s not “totalitarianism.” It’s physics.


TheF79 09.22.11 at 5:52 pm

Actually, I think the Ecological Economics field would be a better place to look at how people have thought about the OP’s dilemma. Ecological Economists (like Daly) tend to be subtantially more heterodox than environmental economists (like myself) and have written a lot on the ecological limits of growth and such. Most environmental economists would argue that the way to resolve issue #1 and #2 is to get the prices right (make people pay the full social cost of their use/damage of the environment) so we get the right “kind” of growth, while most ecological economists would say that the price system is so out of whack that simply tinkering with taxes and cap and trade is likely to be insufficient. Btw I like that my research field is noted as something “on the Googles,” with a journal too!


Sam 09.22.11 at 6:00 pm

You should discard belief number 4, or at lease modify your statement of it in a signficant way.

1) The relative (and sometimes absolute) poverty that some citizens of wealthy countries suffer from is abhorrent: This is not a belief. It is an emotional reaction.

2) The relative (and sometimes absolute) poverty that some citizens of wealthy countries suffer from is inconsistent with status equality: This is tautological. It amounts to saying that since some people have or get less than others, they are comparativlely unequal in what they have or get.

3) Status equality ought to hold among fellow-citizens of democratic nations: You ought to discard this belief. What ought to hold among demcratic fellow-citizens is a presumption of equality for persons in terms of treatment, except in cases where special reasons militate against such treatment. What ought not to hold is your belief in comparative status equality outcomes. There is no philosophical basis for such a belief nor is there a pragmatic mechanism to deliver such outcomes.

4) Hence, lifing people from poverty is moot on this basis (which is not to say there could not be other compelling reasons to do so.


Chris Bertram 09.22.11 at 9:35 pm

Sam, the point is that an excess of material inequality undermines political equality, that’s what I was driving at there.

piglet: the point of the post wasn’t to lecture to people or the pontificate, but to engage in conversation and learn from others on a topic about which I’m thinking. I happy to get recommendations about what to read.


mclaren 09.22.11 at 10:12 pm

The obvious solution would appear to involve drastically reducing the world population. This can be done catastrophically, by standing back and doing nothing as the Third World experiences a Malthusian die-off as a result of Peak Oil and droughts/plagues/floods/famines caused by global warming… Or it can be done non-violently, with a massive program of contraception among people with high birth rates, all of whom happen to live in the Third World.

Isn’t it intriguing how no one ever seems to mention a massive global contraception program?

The single biggest bang for the buck in reducing greenhouse gasses comes from reducing population. Yet everyone yaks endlessly about cap-and-trade and never mentioned global contraception.


The Raven 09.22.11 at 10:37 pm

“Isn’t it intriguing how no one ever seems to mention a massive global contraception program?”

Maybe because it would be tyrannical?

The best single thing which could be done for the global population would be to educate women worldwide and I have been talking about it for over a decade.


The Raven 09.22.11 at 11:01 pm

Chris, my apologies. I didn’t see any references at all, and my remark was an honest expression of surprise.

Thank you, Piglet.

It is clear to me that the question of how to establish a green macro-economy is one of the central questions of the 21st and 22nd centuries, and maintaining that economy once established is going to be part of the work of human societies for the foreseeable future after. I am not by any stretch of the imagination well-read in green economics literature and I would be interested in any citations of proposed solutions to this problem.

From my dilettante’s perspective I have been saying for some time that some austerities appear to be necessary in this area. If one may imagine the earth’s environmental resources as in some sense a store of value than humans have overdrawn that store and humans are going to have to make great efforts to replenish that store.

About a year ago, I wrote a blog post that covers some of this from a very high level. I am surprised, rereading it, at how much of it has economic relevance.

I seldom read long blog comments, so I wonder if anyone will read this one, but I will repost some bits here:

I do have a few thoughts on the matter, but it must be stressed that putting any ideas into effect will involve wrenching economic and political change. We need, I suppose, a spiritual transformation that will make the necessary changes acceptable and how to achieve that I have no idea; globally we are in such a horrible state of paralysis that it is hard to get many of us to accept even minor change. That said, here’s a very short list of steps we might take, if we could agree to undertake them:

1. Take powerful symbolic steps … 2. Start a well-funded crash research program to find out what we need … 3. Educate women worldwide; distribute contraceptive technology widely … 4. Phase out all ecologically destructive subsidies as quickly as possible … 5. Financially, treat forested land–and all wild ecosystems–as what it in fact is: valuable … 6. implement emissions trading schemes and keep working on them until all the major chemical cycles of air and water are balanced … 7. Use as much solar energy for heating and cooling as possible

I have tried in these recommendations to hew to market and vote; they are still going to be terribly difficult to implement, amounting to the sudden imposition of a great many new taxes and regulations and establishing a whole new class of rights. Still, considering that the alternatives are the collapse of human civilization or globe-spanning tyranny, it is time to start.


Sandwichman 09.22.11 at 11:09 pm

“Isn’t it intriguing how no one ever seems to mention a massive global contraception program?”

Maybe “a massive global contraception program” is a bit of a stretch. People DO indeed talk about the need for limiting population growth. It would be refreshing if, on the one hand, it wasn’t such a taboo subject and on the other people didn’t present it as a panacea. Raven is right, though. The one proven “contraception program” is education and emancipation of women, which is worth doing anyway and is not coercive.


Glen Tomkins 09.23.11 at 1:45 am

Beliefs #1 and #2 become less incompatible if economic growth switches more from goods to services, and within goods, to sustainably produceable goods.

Belief#1 does indeed involve support of the consumer society, a society of ever-greater consumption, because it involves, if not demand-side fundamentalism, at least demand-side emphasisism. But that consumption need not be, shouldn’t be even if we did not face an environmental crisis, in ever greater consumption of the same sort of goods that were the first fruits of growth earlier in the Industrial Age. I don’t need twice as much steel to live twice as well, but I would like to have twice as much or more of health care, and in that health care, I would like to have as much possible of people getting a history, doing a physical exam and thinking about what’s wrong with me so that any use of steel products on my body that isn’t absolutely necessary can be avoided.

And yet, people unthinkingly use the prospect of health care making up >20% of GDP as if this would be some catastrophe, rather than exactly what we want and should expect. People blanch at the idea of precisely the retrenchment in food production we need — less “efficiency”, less centralization, higher employment, less use of chemicals — for better food and a better environment, precisely because they think in terms of production, in supply-side terms. “Oh my god, the economy can’t keep up with demand now, how will it be able to under conditions less conducive to efficient creation of a large supply of crap food!” I say, it’s a wonderful prospect for a restructured economy that we will need more farmers earning more to give us better food, because they will generate the new demand we need to replace that lost when we stop having people producing goods that that are bad for the environment.

People worried about the population explosion that was going to doom us, and that prospect is still a reason to encourage growth in the developing world, because what we found, of course, was that lowering the death rate is followed rapidly by lowered birth rates to match, or even overshoot. The consumer society similarly can and will retrench away from particular forms of production that are poisonous. Of course this won’t happen as quickly or easily if we continue to subsidize older, stupid forms of production that demand is already moving away from. We’ld have more local, small, farm operations already if we didn’t shield the economy from the true costs of the mad project of shipping produce from California or Oaxaca to my table in Virginia. We can have every man a king, but not King Ludwigs. That’s not an undesirable limitation.

Similarly, in reference to #3, nations developing today do not need to, and should not even in the absence of environmental limitations, take the same path to developenent that the US and Europe pursued. Much of what we did was stupid and unnecessary, we went too far towards high production “efficiency” on many fronts (e.g., food production), and even those destructive developements that were necessary for the first nations to industrialize, would often not be necessary to nations that get to do this later in history. Many forms of production, the worst processes, are obsolete, not the best solution from any idea of efficiency, because cheaper and less destructive processes are now available. Of course we can do better with the mistakes of the past to guide us, and new technology to enable less destructive workarounds for the inherently destructive processes that have to be undertaken.


Zora 09.23.11 at 1:45 am

Reduce population via lottery. Prizes large and small for women who have NOT given birth in a given period (including the period between registering for the lottery and announcing the winners). This would reward women who have refrained from reproduction and be a strong incentive to practice contraception between registration and the drawing of the lucky numbers. Not coercive, not necessarily that expensive. However, grand prize should be large enough that a woman could use it to start a small business or go to school.


polyorchnid octopunch 09.23.11 at 3:48 am

There is one thing which I’ve noticed in this discussion, which is a (I’d imagine unconscious) confusion between energy and technology. All the technology in the world isn’t going to help you if you don’t have the energy to run it. And sadly, the idea that renewables is going to be able to replace us burning millions of years of stored sunshine in the form of petroleum is unlikely, to say the least. There are some good TED talks about this; one in particular I’m thinking about was by a guy who runs a wind energy company out of California, who ran through the physics involved, and shows quite conclusively that there’s no way they will be able to replace the amount of stored sunshine we’re happily burning away. I mean, sure, we can cover the entire earth with solar panels… but it still only gets us about ten or fifteen percent of the way there, and will have some particularly nasty effects on food production. Even if we fully exploited all forms of renewables (solar, geothermal, tidal, wind) we’re still only about halfway to our current consumption level.

Personally, I’m a bit of a pessimist about a lot of this stuff. I think that we’re headed for a big convulsive population reduction, with the people that make it through to the other side going back to a largely agrarian/hunter-gatherer labour-intensive lifestyle. I’m mostly currently working to be able to disengage from these systems (basically, not have debt), and then to try to lay my hands on some land on which I can get water, grow food, and build a house that won’t require a lot of energy to keep going. That’s not to say that I’m going to go off the grid; what it does mean is that I want to be in a place and situation where when the grid goes off, it won’t mean my (and my children’s) death by starvation.

My personal choice for when the inflection point hits is when the Ghawar oil field stops pumping oil and starts pumping dirty seawater. That’s when the panic’s going to hit in a big big way, and I don’t think that the resolution of that panic’s going to be pretty. All this is without even discussing what’s going to go down at the world warms up; I fully expect that the North American interior is going to become a desert by the end of this century… and I also expect that will only be the beginning of the problems that are coming down that particular pipe.


Matt Austern 09.23.11 at 5:07 am

Solar power at the earth’s surface is on the order of 1 kW/m^2. Total world power consumption is on the order of 15 TW. If you assume 10% efficiency from photovoltaic panels, then the land area you need is 15 TW * 10 / (1 kW/m^2) = 1.5e11 m^2, or 150000 km^2.

That’s a big chunk of land — it’s a square almost 400 km on a side — but it’s nowhere close to covering “the entire earth with solar panels”. The circumference of the earth is about 40000 km, so the surface area is about 500,000,000 km^2. We’re talking about covering something like 0.03% of the earth’s surface in solar panels. Is that likely to have bad environmental effects? I imagine that locally it might, if all those panels really were clumped together in one place, but it’s hard for me to imagine that we’d get a major change in the planetary energy balance from using 0.003% of the planet’s total solar power for electricity.

Mind you, I don’t think we’re going to do this. But that’s not because it would take too much land area or because the idea is impossible for some simple matter of geometry or the like. I think we probably won’t do it because it would cost a lot (let’s call it $5/watt, which means on the order of $75 trillion to convert the world completely to photovoltaics), and I don’t think our society is willing to spend that much money.


ajay 09.23.11 at 10:11 am

82: I think if you were buying solar panels by the square mile you might get a bit of a discount and solar panels are less than $3 a watt right now. The problem is going to be raw materials, more likely.

Also, don’t forget that we’re going to have to build that 15 TW of generating capacity over the next 25 years whatever happens. We built it – actually a bit less, more like 10 TW – over the last 25 years or so. Because we’ll need to replace existing power stations as they come to the end of their lives, and build more on top of that to allow for demand growth. The question is – what do we replace them with?


LeeEsq 09.23.11 at 10:32 am

Chris Bertram, the best way to get around belief 2 is to change why we care about the environment. Rather than promoting environmentalism as a good thing in itself, environmentalism should be linked explicitly to whats good for humanity. Roughly, environmentalism is important because it makes the earth a better place for humans to live in. This would help promote a type of economic growth that leads to hopefully better material lives for humans and avoid things like the voluntary extinction movement.


Chris Bertram 09.23.11 at 10:44 am

Raven: sorry, me being too touchy.

LeeEsq: Aside from it being false that being good for humans is the _only_ reason to care about the environment, I think the problems would still hold even if you thought that.


Barry 09.23.11 at 12:22 pm

polyorchnid octopunch 09.23.11 at 3:48 am

” I mean, sure, we can cover the entire earth with solar panels… but it still only gets us about ten or fifteen percent of the way there, and will have some particularly nasty effects on food production. Even if we fully exploited all forms of renewables (solar, geothermal, tidal, wind) we’re still only about halfway to our current consumption level.”

There is a current thread on Charlie Stross’ blog ( discussing these issuses; everybody here should read it. He was claiming that covering just a significant percentage of rooftops with solar panels would yield massive results.


kharris 09.23.11 at 1:07 pm

@ Brett,

But, but, but…you didn’t address the definition of “material prosperity like the level in the G20”. You addressed energy stored in the environment. That would include nuclear fuels, which you slide over into renewables. But put plutonium anywhere you want, and the problem remains – we have nothing but competing engineering calculations on which to base our views on the sustainability of 1st-world prosperity without high levels of hydrocarbon combustion. All our experience is that high levels of material prosperity are accompanied by high levels of hydrocarbon use. It is certainly worth finding out what sort of society we could have based mostly on renewable energy, but it would be reckless to just assume the more billions can live well than do now without doing more harm than we do now.


John Garrett 09.23.11 at 2:53 pm

For me, holding contrary beliefs is a wonderful spice to thinking, and an inevitable part of seeing the breadth and diversity of what’s around us. All summary and conclusion oversimplifies, and behind it, I think, is always diversity and contradiction. For a current example, I’m a Red Sox fan and want the Red Sox in the playoffs, but I root for Tampa Bay and against the Red Sox now because I love the continuing competition — and if it results in a playoff, and the Red Sox lose, I’m OK with it.

John Garrett


piglet 09.23.11 at 2:56 pm

“And yet, people unthinkingly use the prospect of health care making up >20% of GDP as if this would be some catastrophe, rather than exactly what we want and should expect.”

I’m curious to hear why we should want and expect that. Health expenses is my favorite example of why GDP is such a useless indicator. American health spending certainly boosts GDP (somewhere around 1/3 of US GDP growth since 2000 was due to rising health expenses, the figure may now be even higher). But it doesn’t make us better off.

“Beliefs #1 and #2 become less incompatible if economic growth switches more from goods to services”

This assertion is very dubious. Services do have a somewhat lower environmental impact but not that much lower once all inputs are properly accounted for (Sangwon Suh, Are Services Better for Climate Change? Environ. Sci. Technol., 2006, 40 (21), 6555-6560• DOI: 10.1021/es0609351). But even assuming we manage to reduce the environmental impact per unit of GDP (which to some extent we are), that won’t be enough to make continued growth sustainable. The 3% or so exponential growth that mainstream economists posit as “necessary” for maintaining our level of prosperity (watch the Red Queen principle here: we “need to grow” just to “maintain prosperity”), equivalent to a doubling time of 20-30 years, will swamp any efficiency increase that can realistically be expected. Daly used the term “angelic GDP” to mock this fallacy: unless we manage to convert economic growth into purely angelic GDP, i. e. economic activity without any physical effects, it won’t be sustainable.


LeeEsq 09.23.11 at 3:43 pm

Chris: The problem I have with environmentalism that goes beyond what could be termed humanitarian environmentalism (i.e. caring for the environment because it is good for humans) is because it frequently leads to people coming up with solutions to environmental problems that are not implenmentable because they proposed solutions are off putting to most people. This leads to people dismissing environmentalism in general and it helps the forces that would pursue a very negative environmental strategy. A workable environmental strategy has to take materialism and the desired standard of living into account rather than just decry current growth as unsustainble because people would generally rather damn the future than give up what they have now.

Also, I’m a non-Malthusian and never really cared much more population growth control policies. I do not think that the state should engage in any policy to change the birth rate in a positive or negative direction or even stabilize it. The decision on how many children a woman should give birth to is the choice of the woman giving birth and she should not be penalized by the state for having too few or too many children. The only valid way for a state to grow or limit its population is through immigration policy rather than birthrate policies. The number of children born in a given year or ever is not a valid state interest.


LeeEsq 09.23.11 at 3:45 pm

I also want to add that humantiarian environmentalism is more understanble than other reasons for environmentalism by most people. It is easier to get people to recycle, use more environmentally friendly technology, and even undertake impressive projects to deal with global warming if you can get them to understand that it is in their best interests as humans rather than more abstract interests.


Chris Bertram 09.23.11 at 5:13 pm

Lee: whether or not there are reasons to care for the environment beyond its value for humans is, both logically and actually, entirely separable from issue you raise about how (some) people (sometimes) act when they espouse such values.


soru 09.23.11 at 5:36 pm

The 3% or so exponential growth that mainstream economists posit as “necessary” for maintaining our level of prosperity (watch the Red Queen principle here: we “need to grow” just to “maintain prosperity”)

This is backwards. The natural effect of new discoveries, efficiency improvements and increased prosperity elsewhere is to grow the economy by a few percent a year. Failure to respond to that background effect indicates some underlying problem. If you weigh your 5 year old and get the same result as last year, you had better well go see a paediatrician.

Quite likely eventually everything discoverable will be known, everything inventable will have been created, every group of humans on the planet will be part of the developed money economy, and all the second order effects of those things will have been worked through. If so, the consequent growth will naturally stop, just like it does in a healthy teenager.

Or conceivably there could be an indefinite stream of new usable science, up to and including asteroid mining, terraforming, FTL travel, wormholes, parallel dimensions, or whatever exotic things would be necessary to maintain the observed historical trend.

Either way, the main interaction between that process and environmental issues is that greater prosperity leads to greater ability to afford environmental protection. Given constant population, greater prosperity essentially always corresponds to lower true environmental impact (although sometimes it also corresponds to knowing more about that impact, and so it seeming more visible).


piglet 09.23.11 at 7:37 pm

“The natural effect of new discoveries, efficiency improvements and increased prosperity elsewhere is to grow the economy by a few percent a year.”

Oh it’s just natural? Strange choice of words given that nothing in nature has ever been observed to grow exponentially for extended periods of time. Nothing. Ever. And your example is an excellent case study: if the 5 year old fails to grow, there likely is a problem. If he/she still grows as a 30 year old, there likely is a problem.

The rest of your post is just speculation detached from reality. “Given constant population, greater prosperity essentially always corresponds to lower true environmental impact”. Grotesquely wrong.


Herminio Martins 09.23.11 at 9:44 pm

Well, the very recent book PROSPERITY WITHOUT GROWTH may be just the thing to read for a quandary like that.
One can always recall John Stuart Mill on the Stationary State.
Or the writings of Herman Daly.


Hugh Gino Neal 09.23.11 at 11:03 pm

I’m told that when developing countries begin a path of economic growth, they usually become more energy efficient, less polluting, more conserving of resources and so on.

At some point there are diminishing returns on sustainability, however. when an economy growth to a certain size, it will be gin to tax resources, capacity, and negative externalities like air and water pollution will overwhelm whatever gains the economy had made via development.

Thus you needn’t feel conflicted. You can support growth for developing countries — indeed, encourage it. But eventually you must hope that the country doesn’t grow too much or it will become as rapacious as the gargantuan economies of the world.


spyder 09.24.11 at 3:08 am

For me, the most basic contradictory belief is embodied in the act of waking up each day and pushing on ahead. I am old enough to have witnessed the catastrophic collapse of whole ecosystems, dead oceans and fisheries, redwood forests reduced to less than 5% of their original size, the extinction of upwards of 75% of previously existing species, etc. We humans are destroying the earth to use it.

And yet, in spite of knowing that the GOP has set an agenda to help finish the job (including threatening the lives of masses of people), i get up and go through the day. I am, as all of you, acutely aware of our failings and still push on. We talk here of hope, because we refuse to admit our abject failure.


Sandwichman 09.24.11 at 3:18 am

“There is no principle involved on either side. Each particular case must be considered on its merits in all the detail of its concrete circumstance. High-sounding generalities on these matters are irrelevant fireworks. They may have a place in political perorations, but they have none in real life. Accumulation of evidence, the balancing of probabilities, judgment of men, by these alone practical problems in this region can be successfully attacked.” — Cecil Pigou. “State Action and Laisser-faire”


Meredith 09.24.11 at 6:27 am

Coming to this very late, I can’t read all the comments. But I’ll comment myself on this, to disagree (or to agree, depending on your point of view):

“It isn’t a good thing to have contradictory beliefs.”

Yes it is. That is, No, it is a good thing.


soru 09.24.11 at 12:27 pm

The rest of your post is just speculation detached from reality.

Admittedly, by the time I had got to that sentence, I had run out of my allocation of qualifiers and caveats. But I did say per-capita, and while there probably are exceptions, none come to mind. At least other than the point that for any given type of pollution, say nuclear waste, you do need to have the technology to create it in the first place, and I suppose a strong economy likely does help support developing new science.

For example, if there were (somehow) 7 billion hunter-gatherers, they would strip the biosphere like locusts. It is hard to see any land animal larger than the proverbial cockroach surviving, and I wouldn’t bet on them. Whereas even basic farming techniques allow a somewhat larger population without environmental collapse, and rich countries at constant population generally start to see species reintroduced, additional woodland, cleaner rivers, and so on.

Less hypothetically, look at the USA. It used to be prosperous, and was a clear world leader on environment issues. These days, it, I believe uniquely amongst nations not suffering from obvious catastrophe, has declining or stagnant living standards. The reasons for that fact may be contested, as discussed on the thread two before this. This presumably has something to do with it.

But what is uncontested is that it has both higher resource usage, and strong political forces that will act to oppose any reduction in that resource usage. And I don’t see that those two things are particularly likely to be coincidences.


Chris Bertram 09.24.11 at 1:29 pm

soru: there are a number of difficulties with what you write. Whilst it is correct to say that increasingly efficient technologies offer the _promise_ of rising levels of prosperity with declining environmental impacts, a more likely scenario is that we produce more stuff with a lower impact per unit of stuff, but more damage overall (because so many more units). The anecdotal things about wealthier countries seeing habitats improving are the common currency of people like Matt Ridley. However it may be unwise to generalise from the fact that the Thames (for example) is getting cleaner, since this can just be the result of the fact that damaging industrial production is now taking place somewhere else, such as China.


Michael E Sullivan 09.24.11 at 1:35 pm

Chris: tax and transfer has generally worked very well when the right things are taxed and the right people/activities are getting the transfers. A meaningful carbon tax, meaningful pollution taxes, gasoline and oil taxes would (and have, when adopted) do wonders to shift growth onto a lower impact trajectory, even if the money is simply used to reduce other taxes or support general welfare.

Could there possibly be even better policy by adopting some kind of industrial policy favoring green tech? Sure, but that also runs the risk of guessing wrong and supporting the wrong horses, and governments generally have a terrible track record in that regard. Consider that many of our worst problems with regard to the environment are exacerbated by holdover industrial policy from an era when it seemed as though oil fell like manna from heaven and nobody but perhaps a few rogue climatologists had any inkling about climate change.

I certainly agree that growth at any cost is a bad idea. But it’s much easier both economically and politically to adopt an appropriate program of tax and transfer in a time of full employment than it is today. In a full employment economy, the losers of your tax and transfer policies can mostly find new jobs, and the government can easily afford to pay for unemployment benefits and education/retraining programs for those who can’t.

Progressives should *always* be for full employment as one of our first priorities. The reason it has not been a progressive issue for most of the last 50 years is that we’ve (at least in the US) *had* full employment or pretty close to it as a default outside of recessions until the 00s. Even in the remembered as terrible stagflation years of the 70s, we were in full employment far more often than not, and almost always close to it outside of recessions and their immediate aftermath. If we weren’t, inflation wouldn’t have been such a problem.


soru 09.24.11 at 2:59 pm

this can just be the result of the fact that damaging industrial production is now taking place somewhere else, such as China.

That would be a valid point, were it true that the per-capita environmental impact of the Chinese wasn’t also falling as they increase in prosperity. You can’t hide an overall increase by splitting it amongst a set of different boxes, each decreasing.

Sure it’s masked as the impact changes form, and some of it is lost to history: I don’t think we even know the names of the species in the ecosystems that were wiped out to build the paddy fields. And, now they are no longer cutting edge technology, some people can look at a picture of a paddy field and see something other that a large-scale manufactured monoculture.

And of course, if you discover, through science, some technology with a new form of pollution that is inherently more deadly than it’s predecessors, then you can be in trouble. With the limiting case being a machine that collapses the vacuum state the first time it is turned on. But that would be an argument for banning science, not decreasing prosperity. And in any case you can’t uninvent things already discovered.

The real counterpoint to this argument is that it _is_ rationally consistent to have, at equal environmental impact, a lower number of people, provided you have a correspondingly lower level of prosperity.

You’d have to be some kind of cartoon super-villain to knowingly want that, though.


Megan K 09.24.11 at 3:19 pm

I have so many problems with this piece I don’t know where to start. First off, the idea that poverty = lack of stuff. No way. Poor people in the global north have tiny trailer park homes absolutely filled with stuff but they are still poor and fucked up and depressed and can’t get healthy food because the grocery store is 10 miles away. The stuff that you need is mainly a) a simple but decent place to sleep (note: not equals western style housing. b) healthy food. c) a life that doesn’t suck. If you have those things you are going to be preventing most kinds of illness so your healthcare costs go way down- (also for many people in the global south its ‘development’ that causes say, tooth decay or other health problems like diabetes).

What poor people need is control over their lives and communities. They need to be able to work enough to get basics but not so much they have no time to take care of themselves (neither unemployment nor working so much you become a wage slave). They need creative control to some extent over their workplaces so they don’t go braindead on the job and can actually do useful work that helps society. This applies to the poor in the north as well as the south.

I really think that environmental justice pretty much has it- you fight for social and environmental justice together and that’s the only way to do it. the future DOES NOT look like everyone living in a suburban north american home. The future might ‘look’ more like poverty. But if there is one thing we can learn from anthropology its that people living what appear to be really simple lives can actually be very rich in social relations, complexity, and fulfillment. We should look at how we can get that here as well.

If the adgenda means attacking poor people in the north for how many clothes and tvs and plastic shit they have and telling them how good they have it, then that’s garbage. Having stuff doesn’t mean you have what you need.


Chris Bertram 09.24.11 at 3:21 pm

_were it true that the per-capita environmental impact of the Chinese wasn’t also falling as they increase in prosperity_

Is it? Given that they’re producing for practically everybody it seems unlikely. But if you you have data then I’d be very interested .


Omega Centauri 09.24.11 at 3:34 pm

Chris, I second the comment (I don’t want to search for the number and author) that you don’t have contradictory beliefs, but (partially at least) contradictory metrics of merit. In mathematics/enginering there is a field called optimization which attempts to address these sorts of problems.

Sustainability of a large and affluent population will be difficult to achieve. Energy is actually the easy part, since flows are orders of magnitude greater than needs/wants. Real material stuff, like say iron or phosphorus are far more difficult to sustain. All recycling systems are leaky, and those leaks must be made up for by geological/biological flows of materials, that in many cases may be very slow.

The real nearterm problems are best stated by Bruce Wilder, and concern the capture of our political economic, and most of all, information systems, by a narrowly focused global elite, which by virtue of the rents it wishes to continue to extract from its ownership of certain stores is strongly opposed to progress of the type we all agree is necessary.


Chris Bertram 09.24.11 at 4:33 pm

Thanks Megan, there’s actually a lot I agree with there. I’m not sure why you read me as attacking poor people in the north though. Also I think you misunderstand me as advocating that poor people in the south should have more personal possessions. Perhaps they should, but it was the absolute lack of resources rather than the ownership form that was my concern. Perhaps you’d like to have another go?


soru 09.24.11 at 4:34 pm

For specific short-term figures see:

The net reduction of cultivated land in 2003 was 2.5 million hectares, and the per capita cultivated land decreased from 0.098 hectares in 2002 to 0.095 hectares. A total of 2.2 million hectares of cultivated land were recovered for ecological preservation, of which 2.1 million hectares of cultivated land were returned to forest, 119,500 hectares to grass and 900 hectares to lakes. The main factor for the shrinkage of cultivated land was the recovery of cultivated land for ecological purpose.

Dunno how specifically trustworthy and representative those figures are, but when the evidence and the first-principle argument support each other, I’d at least take them as a default view until someone provides some countervailing data or argument.

The thing to note is reduction in cultivated area is noticeably bigger than the area taken up by factories, which is what you would expect, as a factory worker is generally going to have a lower ecological impact from employment than a farmer, just as an office worker has less than either.

Of course, just because the world is generally moving in the right direction, doesn’t mean that it is guaranteed, or even likely, to get to where it needs to to remedy current problems. We could be screwed, in that the mechanics of one particular pollutant (most likely CO2) turn out to be already so far from a sustainable balance that mere improvement isn’t adequate. As with the hypothetical vacuum-collapsing super-collider, the mere invention of the machine turned out to be sufficient in itself to doom us.

Even if not inevitable, the low-prosperity, low population (constrained by war, or possibly totalitarianism), equal environmental impact scenario _is_ logically coherent. And political failures stalling prosperity growth leading to an anti-environmentalist backlash is hardly a wildly speculative scenario.

So it could happen.


Chris Bertram 09.24.11 at 5:23 pm

soru: your focus on the proportion of land taken by industry or agriculture just seems bizarre to me, especially given the widespread reports of extensive air and water pollution as a consquence of Chinese industrialization. On your account, presumably, this is just an illusion, and things are getting better as people leave the land and work in factories?

See eg


soru 09.24.11 at 6:41 pm

Just trying to compare like with like. Obviously, each type of activity has it’s own characteristic form of environmental impact, so switching activities can change the mix. And that can even be a problem if one type of pollution is more insidious than another. For example, pollution with a delayed or unpredictable effect can have worse consequences, just as a the consequences of a pandemic of a disease with a long incubation period will be less self-limiting.

But all those points remain caveats on a baseline picture, not the picture itself.

In the days of the Great Leap Forward, at least equal environmental damage was being done, with a somewhat smaller population. But almost everyone was too poor or oppressed to care.

Your link shows that is starting to change.


Peter T 09.25.11 at 12:05 pm

From the way Chris frames the issue, the problem is not one of achieving a consistent psychological state, but of choosing between mutually conflicting goals. He – as most of us – would like people everywhere to have better lives, but would also like to preserve the environment on which our common future depends. The problem arises because it seems very likely that these two are incompatible. On a rough calculation, just providing an equal share of current production to all would require GDP in advanced countries to drop by five sixths. And the scientific consensus is that current production needs to drop around 50 per cent to be sustainable. I cannot see any practical political program that could sell even a small drop in current living standards, let alone a drop of this order.

Sure, we can become more efficient, but there are limits to that. And all activities – not just making things – ultimately produce heat (even solar electricity). Even modest rates of growth would make the planet too hot to inhabit within a few centuries:

It’s not just energy – it’s also producing more nitrates than the natural cycle can handle, degrading topsoil, CO2…and so on. And the interactions between these things. See James Hansen et al:

If this is broadly right, you have two choices – spend your time in a honourable, desperate, but probably fruitless attempt to persuade some tens of millions of people to change course, or preserve what small things you can and let the rest go.


piglet 09.25.11 at 3:46 pm

soru, you’ll have to define what you mean by “per-capita environmental impact”. There are a number of credible attempts at measuring that, for example the ecological footprint. None of them that I know of concludes that the US has a lower per-capita environmental impact than China or Kenya or any other developing country except perhaps for outliers like Qatar. GHG emissions: rich countries are clearly the highest emitters per capita. There is no debate on that point whatsoever.

It is unclear what the slight decline in China’s per capita agricultural land use is supposed to prove. China is already using all the arable land it can. With a fixed amount of land and increasing population, of course the per capita land use must decline. Further, China is losing arable land to erosion, degradation, urbanization, etc. To cite that as good news for the environment is rather bizarre.


piglet 09.25.11 at 6:01 pm

Overlooked this: “The main factor for the shrinkage of cultivated land was the recovery of cultivated land for ecological purpose.”

For the reasons given I would be skeptical of that claim. See for example And there is little doubt that the increase in per capita meat consumption, which is a sign of growing affluence, causes an increased environmental impact of growing food.


Exponential 09.26.11 at 6:56 am

Okay I’ll try again. Peter T at 111 pointed to a really interesting blog about exponential growth. For anybody who is interested, I have uploaded some similar materials on slideshare, just click on my name link. Some commenters here might be interested.


piglet 09.28.11 at 4:10 pm

Recent post by George Monbiot worth reading:
Now is the time to start planning for a new economy, not dependent on growth.

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