Monday, April 27, 2015

Jeffrey Sachs on growth

Sachs' remarks on growth are a mix of good and bad in need of differentiation, hence this postscript. Let's start with the climate quote at the end of the last post. Good is Sachs' recognition that "markets alone ... will not carry us to safety." But bad about Economics for a Crowded Planet is that there is no serious engagement with economic growth as a problem. Sachs is an old-school developmentalist--development is good, growth is better, and even a mature technology-based economy should not spell the end of growth. Indeed, long-term economic growth, nudged along by government intervention in markets, remains the ultimate invariant goal for him (cf. 211-212).

This conclusion is contradicted by research from the likes of Assadourian, Alperovitz, Costanza, Daly, and other ecological economists. According to the critics, systemic change is unavoidable, while Sachs, and the establishment that celebrates his work, contend that political and technological change alone will suffice. Both sides agree that change is needed. But the critics insist there must be a paradigm shift, while Sachs hopes we can get by with tweaking the system a bit. I fear the planetary boundaries will dash this hope. So the reason why Sachs ranks last on the list is that he fails to recognize the need to get out of the economic-growth paradigm.

At the same time--hence the need for differentiation--he does clearly recognize the need to get out of the demographic growth paradigm. "Completing the Demographic Transition," chapter 8 of Crowded Planet, makes a frank case that population growth is for losers, that zero growth is the way to go, and that the worries over the costs of an aging population, with fewer workers and more retirees, are overblown (cf. 201). The presumed costs are exaggerated:
First, with slower population growth or even outright decline, society will not ned to invest in major infrastructure (roads, power, and the like) merely to keep up with poplation growth. This marks an enormous social saving. Second, it is likely that retirement ages will rise, probably with more flexible work times. We are, mercifully, not only living longer but living better, with more healthy life years. (201-202)
His critique of demographic growth is also ballsy: the section "The Bush Administration's War on Family Planning" (197ff.) doesn't mince words, and neither does the opening of the chapter. About the cuts in direct U.S. funding of family planning services in developmental aid, Sachs writes,
It's hard to think of a single more misguided policy; it runs directly against American interests in the reduction of conflict and terror, as well as against the support of economic development and environmental sustainability more generally." (181). 
Here's why:
The evidence ... is that a youth bulge significantly raises the likelihood of civil conflict, presumably by raising the ratio of those who would engage in violence relative to those who would mediate disputes. Most directly, unemployed young men become prime fodder for militias, raiding parties, terrorist groups, and armies. ... Three kinds of demographic stressors are related tothe likelihood of civil conflict: the youth bulge, the shortage of arable land per capita, and the rapid growth of urban areas. All, of course, are lreated to the persistence of high total fertility rates. (198-199)
Here and the preceding chapter, Sachs points to a phenomenon that has become a pattern: whereas the United States "played a major role in Bucharest [the first major intergovernmental conference on population in 1974], urging the widespread adoption of bold population programs" (179), American leadership collapsed with the rise of the religious right, whose disproportionate political might stymied any further American initiatives.

Obviously, the religious right would take offense at the peer-reviewed evidence Sachs presents and the logical conclusion he draws. Therein lies the problem: the shift to the right after 1980 yielded in the American Disenlightenment. Enlightenment, in its modern, western sense, refers to the respect for facts, the authority of the sciences, and the value of universal human rights. Disenlightenment, in the wake of the Reagan Revolution, meant a turn away from fact-based policies, contempt for scientific counsel, and embrace of values of the religious right.

On such values, in the context of female empowerment and the education of girls, Sachs makes a remark so terse it would make Nietzsche proud:
The cultural assumptions ... have developed under a set of demographic conditions ... that are no longer applicable. (187)
Ouch. That's the other reason, next to his gifted information-compression, why such an otherwise conventional thinker like Sachs still makes the list. A transformation of values is in the making because the material conditions that shaped the conservative value-set don't apply anymore. Rightwing values, from the political ('the manifest destiny-doctrine') to the social (the 'virtue of selfishness'-doctrine) to the religious (the monotheistic doctrines), all arose in a cultural context of a lack of material boundaries. But today, we're at the limit, and the challenge is to turn this into an opportunity for cultural evolution.

Monday, April 20, 2015

rank 5: Jeffrey Sachs

The top five intepreters with authoritative command or Deutungshoheit are all prolific authors, with many, many publications under their belts. For the sake of brevity I'll limit myself to one book per author. The environmental economist Jeffrey Sachs, number five, is the most conventional of the interpreters on the list. He has an Ivy League pedigree. He has been extraordinarily successful in the academic establishment. He is held in high esteem not only by progressives and environmentalists, but also among the middle-of-the-road folks. Sachs teaches at Columbia, where he holds the chair for Sustainable Development and serves as the director of the Earth Institute.

One reason he makes the list is because of his exemplary 'compression' of  information. If one had time to read only one of his books, then Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet (London: Penguin 2009) should be it, in my opinion. Its fourteen chapters are 'Common challenges, common wealth,' 'Our crowded planet,' 'The anthropocene,' 'Global solutions to climate change,' 'Securing our water needs,' 'A home for all species,' 'Global population dynamics,' 'Completing the demographic transition,' 'The strategy of economic development,' 'Ending poverty traps,' 'Economic security in a changing world,' 'Rethinking foreign policy,' 'Achieving global goals,' and 'The power of one'. The goals Sachs refers to are the Millennium Goals of the United Nations.

Already the first chapter (p. 3-15) is a brilliant exercise in a total-field image. It powerfully compresses information. Normally, squeezing the facts down to their quintessential meaning risks resulting in trivialities and commonplaces, but the times we're living in are so interesting that Sachs can pull it all together and remain compellingly eloquent. For example, the opening sentence reads:
  • The twenty-first century will overturn many of our basic assumptions about economic life. (p.3)
In the remainder, the following 'fact-squeezes' elaborate the opening statement:
  • The defining challenge of the twenty-first century will be to face the reality that humanity shares a common fate on a crowded planet. (p.3)
  • Our global society will flourish or perish according to our ability to find common ground across the world on a set of shared objectives and on the practical means to achieve them. (4)
  • The forging of nationwide commitments was [by 2015, this should probably be replaced by 'is'] hardest in societies like the United States, which are divided by race, religion, ethnicity, class, and the native born versus the immigrants. (5)
  • The world can certainly save itself, but only if we recognize accurately the dangers that humanity confronts together. (5)
  • Human pressures on the Earth's ecosystems and climate, unless mitigated substantially, will cause dangerous climate change, massive species extinctions, and the destruction of vital life-support functions. (6)
Later in the chapter, he pits the historic Peace Address (June 1963) by President Kennedy against "the Bush administration's unilateralism" (p. 11). In the middle of his speech, JFK remarks:
So, let us not be blind to our differences--but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal.
Contrast this with Sachs' characterization of the Bush administration (loc. cit.):
The Bush's administration's unilateralism ... has deep roots in one facet of American foreign policy [i.e., "the reckless unilateralism of the CIA-sponsored invasion of Cuba," p. 10], but its crudeness and violence are unprecedented. Like the earlier excesses during the Cold War, the Bush administration's excesses are rooted in a perverse belief system in which American goodness can and must be defended against foreign evil by violent, covert, and dishonest means. Both the Cold War' and today's war against Islamic fundamentalism are born of a messianism that sees the world in black and white, and lacks the basic insight that all parts of the world, including the Islamic world, inhabit the same planet and breathe the same air. Indeed, as deeply ecologically stressed parts of the world, the Islamic drylands of the Sahel of Africa (just south of the Sahara), the Middle East, and Central Asia have a greater stake in international cooperation on the environmental challenges and extreme poverty than just about any other part of the world. Yet the United States has completely failed to recognize our common links with these regions, and instead has carried on an utterly destructive war on peoples and societies that we barely understand.
This is spot on. In 2006, my university dismantled the environmental studies department for ideological reasons and encouraged the green junior faculty to find employment elsewhere. As an academic, I went through this period and remember how close to fascism it veered. Most of my colleagues were not gutsy. Although the Bush-Cheney nightmare has passed, and although Obama ended the two wars the Republicans wilfully started, the failure of recognition of common links with the Islamic region--Sachs claim--still rings true. America remained too divided to conduct a war crimes trial and bring the warmongers and torturers to justice. The creation of the Africa command under Obama's watch, the drone war, and the expansion of semi-covert US military activities in the Sahel and environs have only intensified the fundamentalism there. In the chapter on foreign policy, Sachs writes (p. 271):
The United States is on the wrong track in foreign policy and is thereby endangering itself and the world. ... Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has failed to play a leadership role in global poverty, environmental and climate policy, energy policy, and global population change.
Regulatory capture by oil corporations prevents US leadership in climate and energy policy. Market dogmatism breeds social stratification and prevents leadership in global poverty eradication. Evangelical Christianity, with its doctrine of sexuality serving procreation in the sacrament of a heterosexual two-people marriage, prevents leadership in global population change.

And then there's climate change. Here's the opening passage of chapter 4 "Global Solutions to Climate Change," p. 83, written in 2008. Consider how much truth-value it has gained since then:
In recent years the Earth's climate has been buffeted by extremes. ... A consensu exist among scientists that these changes are human-induced, or anthropogenic. Anthropogenic climate change is the greatest of all environmental risks, since large-scale cliamte change would disrupt every ecosystem and impose catastrophic hardships on many parts of the world. The risks are growing markedly as we delay launching strong measures in response. The reason for hope is that powerful technologies will likely be available to enable us to mitigate the climate shocks at a very modest cost, much lower than the costs of inaction. But these technological opportunities will be small consolation if we keep closing our eyes to the dangers. Markets alone, on a business-as-usual path, will not carry us to safety.
The 'powerful technologies' are now implemented in the German Energiewende, so the future's here. In chapter 2, there's another perfect one-sentence 'compression' of the climate challenge:
Climate change will render large parts of the world unfit for agriculture unless we are able to mitigate the man-made climate trends as well as adapt successfully to them. (p. 29)
(Contined in next post)

Monday, April 13, 2015


What do you do in a postmodern age when a zillion opinions weaves a tapestry of voices threatening to drown out what's important? Well, you reassert the truth! Truth is the voice with the strongest evidence, the plainest facts, and the clearest logic. It is this perspective that rules over the others.

A German neologism comes to mind: it's Deutungshoheit; that's 'interpretation' (Deutung) plus 'highness' (Hoheit), as in 'your royal highness,' 'majesty,' or, figuratively speaking 'authority'. Deutungshoheit is the one perspective that rises above the tapestry, like the one ring to bind them all. It may not necessarily settle all the issues but essentially frames the debate.

The survey of big-picture perspectives that started with a systems-approach to sustainability and continued with the State of the World reports should be completed with the most authoritative readers of the crisis, with those interpreters who have Deutungshoheit. They're not necessarily climatologists, since holistic interpretation of information in the data fog depends on the art of synthesis more than on the rigors of analysis, and synthesis is an expertise all of its own. In the English-speaking world, Lester R. Brown would probably make the top of almost any such lists, or range very high on them, and he certainly tops mine. He's called an 'environmental analyst,' but this reflects a shortcoming of the English language--everybody understands what an analyst is, but the more appropriate word 'synthesist' remains obscure in this culture of cognition. Blame the Scottish Enlightenment. Anyway, Lester Brown is number one.

Next up are the eminent biologist and myrmecologist (ant-specialist) Edward O. Wilson. Places three and four of the Deutungshoheit list go to two social critics: Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein. On place five is the superb environmental economist Jeffrey B. Sachs. There's no place six, but honorable mention goes to the critic of surburbia, Jim Kunstler.

Each of the top five, from Brown to Sachs, consistently articulates commanding and well-informed viewpoints of the crisis. Also, each of them represents a primarily empirical viewpoint that's accordingly outside philosophy. But I think that the empirical cannot be marginal to the project of climate philosophy. Climate philosophy aspires to wisdom grounded in biospherical reality, which requires a de facto reliance on substantive interpretations of empirical information. So these viewpoints, albeit empirical, belong to the climate-philosophical groundwork. Each of them is laced with a good does of criticism. The critiques are quite different in each approach, but they're all driven by the same moral commitment, which is also part of the foundation of climate philosophy: the value of life; that is, the value of collective existential flourishing. Confronted with the way things are, it is other things that trump flourishing, and these other things boil down to capitalistic profiteering, market forces unleashed, and the drive for ever more expansion, development, and growth--all in the name of 'economic rationality'.

It doesn't take a philosopher to adopt an ethos of humanism and biophilia, to apply its values to the socio-economic matrix, and to articulate its biospherical implications. This ethos is the point of contact of interpreters with Deutungshoheit and climate philosophy. The synthesizers and climate philosophy accordingly relate in two ways, by a shared set of values, and by the former grounding the latter. A philosophical orientation in the crisis must proceed from the wisdom of the classics as much as from a grounding in facts. This empirical groundwork finds completion with synthesizers of information and critics of the status quo. In the next post I'll say more about my top five list of Deutungshoheit-interpretations. For now I close with the honorable mention: James H. Kunstler.

Jim Kunstler is, in many ways, an artist. He majored in theatre before turning to architecture and design and eventually becoming a writer. His 1994 The Geography of Nowhere is a superb indictment of American suburbia. Suburbia represents a flawed design, and the flaws are infrastructural inefficiency and anthropological soullessness. The former matters to the energy wastefulness of the suburban lifestyle, which, as Kunstler rightly recognizes, constitutes a structural vulnerability in the coming austerity. The latter is the result of the solipsism, autism, lonelines, and narcissism that define the radically individualistic and paradoxically uniform lifestyle of American suburbia. Kunstler pits suburban soullessness against what the Wikipedia entry on him calls his "small town ethos". Both flaws matter as indications of a vastly larger maladaptation whose biospherical symptom is the climate crisis. Unsettling about this maladaptation is that it is worst in the very society that stood for progress in the past century. What does this imply for a transformation to a sustainable future? And where will this leave the United States?

This cultural maladaptation moves front and center in Kunstler's fabulous 2005 The Long Emergency. Its subtitle nearly says it all: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Convergent Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century (New York: Grove, 2006). Here's a quote (p. 187):
Under the banner of free-market globalism, the chief side effect of oligarchical corporatism making its money piles bigger was the systematic destruction of local economies and therefore local communities. Thus, the richest nation in the world in the early twenty-first century had becoming an amazing panorama of ruined towns and cities with broken institutions and demoralized populations--surrounded by Wal-Marts and Target stores.
Kunstler's perspective meshes with the 2014 State of the World theme of failing governance due to regulatory capture by corporate interests. Kristin Shrader-Frechette, in What Will Work: Fighting Climate Change with Renewable Energy, Not Nuclear Power (2011), raises an important question about the context of energy (and manages to use the word 'leadership' three times in the same breath, p. 246):
Why has the US allowed other nations--such as China, Denmark, and Germany--to make massive profits from their global leadership in renewable energy, while the US continues to lose this leadership by subsidizing outmoded technologies, like fission and petroleum, that provide no future economic leadership and no sustainable power?
Kunstler considers such questions rhetorical and doesn't mince any words in his conclusions. Here's a sample:
America's moment of being kicked to the curb by other nations is at hand.
This is fun but may be too rash an inference. The problem with Kunstler's intellectual angle can be summed up in one word: pessimism. Calling this a problem, on a blog called 'blistered orb,' whose former subtitle was 'notes on the coming Darwin award," may sound ludicrous, but let me explain. Of course there's ample reason to feel gloomy about the climate crisis. That's why it's called a crisis! But emphasizing the gravity of the situation we're in is not quite the same as being a pessimist. In Kunstler's case, this pessimism is of a political, cultural, and ethnic sort. It is of the sort that defines a conservative. Although he's far from being a Republican, Kunstler is like a Republican in his nostalgia for the 'good old times' of mostly white rural America. Against this I wish to pit a progressive attitude. Progressives, in the ideological, leftwing sense, are optimists by default. One doesn't have to go into the details of historical materialism, but the basic idea, in Marx, Engels, and elsewhere, is that it's no great loss that the past has passed, that the present is better anytime, and that the future holds the promise for even further improvements. Hence 'progress'. Kunstler is what they call a doomster instead.

Conservative pessimism doesn't fit into a progressive outlook--the only outlook compatible with environmentalism. There's also a racial and generational pessimism in his perspective. Kunstler shows little understanding of the sensibilities, energies, and creativity in non-white America. He doesn't get Afroamericans, Latinos, Asian-Americans and other minorities. He echoes rightwing sentiments in his repeated complaints about the lack of culture in Afroamericans, without giving any thought about the legal, material, and economic factors for the blight of Afroamerican communities. In this he sounds like a typical American rightwinger: the lack of the 'proper' values is to blame, but the lack of social security and the lack of equality before the law never catch his attention.

He doesn't get young people either (he only complains about their fashion and tattoos, which is simply beside the point). Befitting a cultural conservative, he doesn't get LGBTQ either. These are three limitations in his interpretive synthesis, and they're significant, for they show Kunstler still thinking inside the box. He's a great wordsmith, and The Long Emergency is a visionary piece of work, but in some sense he's the intellectual version of a cranky old white man. Too much pessimism, too little hope. Contra Kunstler, I say there's hope, and it lies with alternatives, the very ones he dismisses--the young, the non-WASP, and the non-breeders. This is why Kunstler fails to make the list. Yet his earlier critique of suburbia, his indictment of the automobile- and carbon-based infrastructure, and his lucid exposition of the links of American oil to misguided policies deserve an honorable mention.

Monday, April 06, 2015

state of the world II

Among the studies that evoke 'total-field' images in the State of the World-collection, two essays stand out in the 2014 volume: (1) the "Foreword" by David Orr and (2) "Failing Governance, Unsustainable Planet" by Michael Renner and Tom Prugh. Both max out at ten on the awesome-meter. Timely is their contention that resolving the eco-crisis requires a critique of the political economy. Naomi Klein points her finger at the free market ideology as the root of unsustainability, and she's right; it really is "Capitalism vs. the Climate," as the subtitle of her 2014 book has it, and indeed, This Changes Everything, as the  title goes. The two 2014 SotW studies supply data in support of this claim. For philosophy, this changes everything too, since the upshot of these data is that climate change is not just a moral problem, and that a climate ethics, while valuable in its own right, inevitably falls short. An appropriate philosophical response must be more comprehensive: it must transcend ethics and engage with epistemology, phenomenology, and progressive and comparative approaches. The crisis is a a structural problem of the economic foundation of global culture, demanding a structural solution. Cognitively, such a solution will only come into view when we look at the events more holistically and synthetically. In philosophy, the crisis changes everything in that wisdom transforms from an ancient aspiration and lofty ideal into mundane survival gear. And the free market ideology is just not wise.

The 2013 volume contains two texts that are equally exemplary in their synthesis of information. The one is a theoretical argument for ecological economics and a disavowal of both the current economic model and the shallow, too-timid 'green economy: (3) "Building a Sustainable and Desirable Economy-in-Society-in-Nature" by Robert Costanza, Gar Aplerovitz, Herman Daly, Juliet Schor and many other leading environmental economists. The other is a bold and lucid essay that concludes the volume, entitled with a deliberately misleading question: (4) "Is It Too Late?" by the fabulous Sci-Fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson. Just consider this quote (print edition p. 377):
We never hear the current global system described as scientific capitalism. Maybe this is because the phrase sounds a bit oxymoronic, these two power centers being vaguely understood to be at cross-purposes. In fact, modern history could be understood as a struggle betweeen these conjoined twins for primary control of humanity's affairs. One view of their fight could portray capitalism as attempting to buy science's efforts and direct them to reinforce capitalist ownership, while science could be seen as attempting to reduce human suffering, repair damage, and dismantle injustice, all by its particular method of discovering and manipulating the world. ... We could say that capitalism is the residual of the feudal system while science is what we named the emergent next system long before we recognized it as the post-capitalism it has been from its very beginning.
In the 2012 volume, (5) "The Path to Degrowth in Overdeveloped Countries," by Eric Assadourian, is another total-field study. It ends with the following outlook (print ed. p. 37):
In the end, whether societal leaders accept it or not, the natural limits of Earth--brought into view by increasing numbers of a population of 7 billion striving to live as consumers--will shatter the myth of continued growth, most likely due to dramatic changes to the planet's systems. Thus degrowth is part of humanity's future. Will people pursue this agenda proactively? Or will Earth and its limits drive the contraction of the global economy?
In the 2011 volume, (6) "The Climate Crisis on our Plates," by Anna Lappe, is a succinct summary of the looming geopolitics of food insecurity. One terse conclusion (print ed. 95) is this:
If we are to continue to feed the planet--and feed it well--in the face of global climate chaos, we should be radically rethinking the industrial food system. We can start with what is on our plates.
Dealing with "the connection between productivity, hours, and ecological footprint," as a section title runs, the study (7) "Sustainable Work Schedules for All," by Juliet Schor, in the 2010 volume, is another heuristic step towards a comprehensive outlook. Challenging the high-gear pursuit of material affluence, the alternative suggested here is downshifting, and a word to remember, in this context, is time affluence. How this matters comes out in the 2009 volume aptly titled "Into a Warming World". For the purposes of a seminar in climate philosophy, the whole volume is useful, not only in terms of its individual studies, but also in terms of the terminology compiled and defined--an indispensable lexical tool for philosophers wishing to work and research in an interdisciplinary context. This tool is "Climate Change Reference Guide and Glossary" by Alice McKeown and Gary Gardner. The study, though, that connects the 2010 and 2009 volumes, is (8) "Shifting Values in Response to Climate Change," by Tim Kasser. A take-home quote (p. 124) from Kasser's essay is itself a quotation, from D. Rosnick's and M. Weisbrot's Are Shorter Work Hours Good for the Environment? A Comparison of U.S. and European Energy Consumption (Washington, DC: Center for Economic Policy and Research, 2006), p. 1:
If, by 2050, the world works as many hours as do Americans it could consume 15-30 percent more energy than it would following Europe. The additional carbon emissions could result in 1 to 2 degrees Celsius in extra global warming.
In this sense, climate change is ultimately a structural-cultural problem in need of a structural-cultural solution. Unless it will be forthcoming, we'd be dealing with what Christopher Flavin and Robert Engelman call, in their keynote essay of the 2009 volume, (9) "The Perfect Storm".

If I could add one more essay, to make it an even ten, from all the SotW volumes to date (excepting the just published 2015 volume), then I'd select (10) "The Acceleration of History," by Lester R. Brown, from the 1996 volume. The title is meant in reply to Francis Fukuyama's misguided Hegelian hope, so fashionable with the neocons at the turn of the millennium, that the so-called "free world" of free markets constitutes "The End of History". Oops, dude didn't factor in market failure of climate change! Brown's essay, by contrast, opens with a remark that, 20 years later, is truer then ever (p. 3):
The pace of change in our world is speeding up, accelerating to the point where it threatens to overwhelm the management capacity of political leaders.