Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Whatever gets you through the night

   Do you believe in magic?
         -John Sebastian

Castles made of sand
fall in the sea, eventually
-Jimi Hendrix

         I think Paul Krugman did us all a favor, by publishing his piece on "Climate Despair".   It has  helped all of us better understand his point of view and  some of the  "axioms" of modern economics.     As I see it Krugman is decent guy, who has many of the hopes that I have.  Like me, he is frustrated with the lack of action on climate change, and with the short sighted attitude taken by politicians , and those who fund them.    However,  his passion to convince people that action is needed, her appears to have wished away some problems.      
       And has has pushed front and center the question that needs to be answered "Is infinite economic growth possible?"  Or alternatively "Are there limits to growth".    
         While I am all in favor of a positive attitude, an unreasonable optimism is actually couterproductive.    As this psychologist noted recently in the New York Times.  "Fantasizing about happy outcomes — about smoothly attaining your wishes — didn’t help. Indeed, it hindered people from realizing their dreams."
    Eric Lindberg has an interesting series on the attitude of liberals (Krugman, Reich and MSNBC) toward limits, and its prescriptions for climate change., which provides a useful historical context in the post war time frame.  Their mantra is "If we could do it then, we can do it now".  But its probably worth asking - Is anything different now?  For instance,  then oil was increadibly cheap, and we the world largest exporter. Now, its expensive and we are an importer.   Now, of course, we have plenty of coal, but we can't use it without screwing up the climate even worse. 
       Of course Krugman sees a way out - efficiency and renewables.     And, of course, to some extent, and over the long run, these could reduce the carbon footprint.  (Although historically it seems that such efforts have been swamped by countervailing influences, such as increased population,  GDP, as well as snapback effects - Jevons).
       But, perhaps more significantly, the neo liberal view is that  infinate growth is not only possible, but desirable.   See e.g.  his 2008 column "Limits to growth and related stuff" .   He appears to thinks that we will eventually "de materialize " the economy, to the point that it will continue to grow, but have no carbon footprint, or perhaps a "negative carbon footprint".   ( When hearing such ideas I can't help thinking of the Kurzwelian singulaity fantasy, of leaving our corporeal bodies and moving into silicon.   For an interesting review of technological predictions see -  The Vaporware of Techno Utopianism.  )
      There have been a flurry of responses posted. (see below) The one I found most compelling comes from a physicist.
"Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, for example, chides natural scientists for thinking of growth as a “crude, physical thing, a matter simply of producing more stuff.” They fail to appreciate, he suggests, that growth is about innovation and deciding which technologies and resources to use.
Allow me to explain why I am one of those scientists who are preoccupied with the physical. Economists are correct in saying that growth doesn't necessarily require more pollution, more carbon pumped into the atmosphere or more deforestation, even though we're getting all of the above today. Humans can learn, and we might figure out how to grow differently in the future, separating the benefits from the environmental costs.
There's just one crucial exception: energy.
Growth inevitably entails doing more stuff of one kind or another, whether it's manufacturing things or transporting people or feeding electricity to Facebook server farms or providing legal services. All this activity requires energy. We are getting more efficient in using it: The available data suggest that the U.S. uses about half as much per dollar of economic output as it did 30 years ago. Still, the total amount of energy we consume increases every year.
Data from more than 200 nations from 1980 to 2003 fit a consistent pattern: On average, energy use increases about 70 percent every time economic output doubles. This is consistent with other things we know from biology. Bigger organisms as a rule use energy more efficiently than small ones do, yet they use more energy overall. The same goes for cities. Efficiencies of scale are never powerful enough to make bigger things use less energy."

       So, who cares?    His heart is in the right place, and he is also in favor of necessary action, such as  "carbon tax".  Why quibble?   
        Here are my concerns.  First, any solution to climate change  (or species extinction, etc)  that involves growth is counterprodcutive.   It is at best a temporary band aid, and ultimately is bound to fail.  But probably more imporatntly,  it  is a continuation of our unrealistic fantasy.   It doesn't help prepare us for the future.  We need to start thinking in terms of "less", and start getting used to it.    I think Richard Heinberg, said it best in an interview "Hubris and Substitution" , saying essentially:   ""Growth is already over.  Its time for people to recognize that and plan accordingly."

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home