Sunday, November 14, 2010

the hairy conundrum

--climate happenings are at the data bank--

The world economy is fragile but recovering. The US economy is troubled, not recovering. Asia-Pacific leaders met in India, Korea, and Japan in the past week, pledging, as the NYT notes, “to rectify global economic imbalances and move toward creating a regional free-trade zone.” President Obama was criticized for “failing to finalize a free-trade pact with South Korea.”

About a month ago The Economist devoted an issue to economic growth, or rather, to the lack thereof, called “The Quest for Growth.” On the cover (see above) is a guy straining to push a few hairs out of his pate. Underneath it says, grow, dammit, grow! The IMF published its semi-annual World Economic Outlook in October, Recovery, Risk, and Rebalancing. Of course “recovery” refers to the fact that stalled growth sickens the economy. Of course economies are sick when they don't grow, healthy when they do; ‘health’ and ‘growth’ are synonyms. (An oncologist would beg to differ, but economics ain't medicine.) As the foreword (p. 15) by O. Blanchard makes clear, “unless advanced economies can count on stronger private demand, both domestic and foreign, they will find it difficult to achieve fiscal consolidation. And worries about sovereign risk can easily derail growth.”

Everyone is affected. I’m no exception. The position I hold at the University of South Florida since 1995 was created as a line to meet new needs in the Philosophy Department and the Environmental Science & Policy program. Philosophy was expanding and had to have someone in German thought, especially Kant; Environmental Studies (ESP) was planned as a department and needed builders and teachers.

That I have a job is the direct result of Florida’s boom years. That close friends are out of jobs now is the direct result of the boom having come to an end. Right now Philosophy is doing fine, because it’s close to the core of the educational mission of the university, and because it’s supportive of the signature area of the university, sustainability. But as a state university, the school depends on funds that the state of Florida gets through taxes, whose amount depends on how business is doing. With business slow and unemployment high, fewer people pay fewer taxes; this translates into less money for educating the next generation. So … grow, dammit, grow!

As the core statement of the Institute of Growth Studies (Giessen, 2008) puts it, “continuous growth is seen as the benchmark for any successful economic policy and is therefore the most urgent objective for any government that wants to stay in office. While politicians, interest-groups, and think-tanks fiercely debate the conditions under which this goal can be achieved most effectively, there is hardly any dispute about the necessity to meet it. The reason for this is very simple: without economic growth unemployment rises, social secularity systems are not sustainable and funding education and research becomes difficult.”

On the side of the Earth system, the need NOT to grow is also imperative. The world population grew from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 6 billion in 2000 (in 2010, the world population is close to 6.9 billion). The world economy grew even faster. Chapter 5 of the IMF's World Economic Outlook (May 2000) is a summary of ‘the world economy in the twentieth century’. The authors state (p. 150-151), “the total amount of goods and services produced in the twentieth century is estimated to have exceeded the cumulative total output over the preceding recorded human history … Between the years 1900 and 2000 world GDP at constant prices has increased about 19-fold, corresponding to an average annual rate of growth of 3 percent."

Because of this fourfold increase of our numbers and nineteen-fold increase of the market, we are hurtling from the Holocene into the Anthropocene. The first price of growth is the greatest extinction of species the Earth has seen for the past sixty-five million years. But because of this double human increase in numbers and wealth, pressure on resources has grown excessive. We have crossed the sustainable-yield thresholds of pretty much all the resources we use. So the other price we pay is that we’re running out of good stuff.

Our pressure on nature pushes the Earth System away from of its current optimal state. We are impairing the dampening mechanisms or negative feedbacks that keep the system in balance. Thus the third and lethal price of growth is climate change. As Lovelock succinctly put it in his most recent book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia (Basic Books, 2009), 156, “Global heating would not have happened but for the rapid expansion in numbers and wealth of humanity.”

Lovelock has mixed feelings (p. 85), “to become carbon neutral, to put on sandals and a hair shirt and follow the green puritans”. But what else can we do? (The sister site, blisterdata, has suggestions right on top.) The problem is a conflict of economy and Earth, and in this conflict neither side yields. We are pushing climate out of whack. All the multinationals financing the GOP denial machine cannot change this fact. It’s physics. At the same time we're committed to growth, because if we don’t grow, we won’t have jobs. Global civilization renounced the vision of communism and is stuck with the market. And markets must grow. But the fact that seven billion people on the planet seem to embrace McDonalds and dismiss Karl Marx fails to assuage the Marxist suspicion that capitalism risks collapse through its inner contradictions. Unfortunately Gaia votes communist.

At this point in time it sure looks as if capitalism lacks the flexibility to evolve to a stable system. There doesn’t seem to be a snowball’s chance in hell for the political will to re-engineer our economies accordingly. We need jobs, no? Grow, dammit, grow! And at this point in time it seems inconceivable how the economic stagnation that would be required by biospherical balance could ever amount to social stability—just as it seems inconceivable how economic downsizing, demanded by a sustainable world, could ever amount to collective prosperity. And yet conceiving of the inconceivable is what we need to do. For if we don’t, the future will simply be the meeting of an irresistible force with an immovable object.

It’s physics. We have work to do. Seventy-three months left.

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