Sunday, October 18, 2009

TANSTAAFL


“There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” has been traced to the late nineteenth century when saloons in the US offered free lunch for their paying customers. Obviously the idea has since become a corner stone of economics by emphasizing that whenever we make a choice then we have to sacrifice something else in exchange. The same principle governs all activities in the scientific world that is governed by the entropic nature of the universe. We can never produce something out of nothing.
It is unfortunate, in light of the above, that so many thinkers, institutions and organizations have chosen to remedy what is arguably the greatest challenge to civilization; environmental degradation; by advocating policies that are not guided by that most basic of ideas. Sustainability, an inevitable phenomenon of an increasingly complex systems, is being promoted by each and every government in the world, by the United Nations and all its agencies and many think tanks and educational institutions of higher learning through arguments and models that seek more economic growth when it is very clear that sustainability came to the forefront; as an existential issue; as a result of the destructive activities of economic growth. Major concerns about sustainability, the ability to continue the current scale of operations into the future demands that we adopt a radically different methodology rather than the current paradigm that glorifies economic growth and unfettered markets. As the proverb says "If you always do what you've always done, then you'll always get what you always got." Business as usual will only result in severe shortages and unthinkable environmental degradation.
Kenneth Boulding, the preeminent economist is reputed to have said: “Only mad men and economists believe that infinite growth is possible in a finite world”. He actually went further as to characterize that kind of irresponsible behavior as a “cowboy economy” when he suggested that we need to think of the delicate balance of a “spaceship” earth. A society without limits is a fiction.
This idea of the absolute need for limits to growth has been adopted by many thinkers in all sorts of fields, physics, anthropology, biology, ecology, philosophy and economics just to name a few. But the most effective proposition has been the one made by Herman Daly who revived the old idea of the classical economists in general and that of J. S. Mill in particular, namely steady state economics. This notion has become the foundation for all environmental visions that seek to steer human activity in such a way as to avoid the imminent collapse that we are heading towards. How far are we from the abyss is debatable but many of the models such as the Club of Rome, global ecological footprint, Pimentel estimates of the limits to the size of global population or the Energy Return on Investment (EROI) speak in terms of decades and not centuries.
Add to the above the bleak Environmental assessment of the group of 1300 scientists assembled by the UN, the dreadful outlook of James Hansen of NASA about the severity of the upcoming climate change in addition to the dire predictions of James Lovelock who has been described as “one of the environmental movement’s most influential figures” and one cannot help but be bewildered when we hear the politicians suggest more growth when it was growth that created the problem in the first place. When would we understand that more of the same is a recipe for disaster and that sustainability is not compatible with economic growth. It is simply one or the other.
Under the best of circumstances growth can be justified as a means to an end but it is pure madness when growth becomes an end in itself as it has become in the developed world. Why is it so difficult to connect the dots and conclude that since pollution is a by product of economic activity and since economic growth demands a greater scale of human activity then economic growth is the cause of environmental degradation. Maybe when all is said and done Homo sapiens (wise humans) we are not.
The world is at a critical proverbial fork in the road. We can either change direction and hope that we can avoid the abyss or we can pretend that there is a free lunch and we can have it all, economic growth and sustainability in a finite world. The choice is very clear, either follow the principles and the models that show unmistakably he absolute need for a radical change in the whole architecture or continue the pretense that we can have our cake and eat it too. Lipstick on a pig just won’t cut it.

6 comments:

Syed Mohsin said...

I think that it is hard for people to connect the dot between infinite growth, and the world being a finite place, is because they think that natural resources are renewable and that energy cannot be created or destroyed; meaning that energy returns to the earth. While, all this is true, resources also need ample time to replenish itself. The idea of how much time should be allowed, to let a resource replenish, is still clouded with confusion. Sometimes the thought is abandoned all together, for the sake of the profit motive; that drives our economy. Modern technology has only increased the confusion about "replenishing time" by making it only quicker, or easier to extract the earth's resources.

Caroline Craig said...

This week I sat in on Timothy Geithner speaking at the Buttonwood Gathering (a big "fixing finance" conference hosted by The Economist at Pace NYC). I got really excited when the host asked him- what is there to be done about people's doubts in capitalism. I was devastatingly disappointed by his same-old same-old response of "we need to restore confidence in the system." Several other times I thought someone was going to ask about capitalism's environmental impacts but was let down (they only took a few questions from the audience of businesspeople and none from students). No one ever thinks that we should move on to a new system. They're so scared of what could possibly happen, the implications of making such a suggestion, that they wear blinders and keep pressing forward into the hole that we're in.
I also attended the Public Advocate Forum which featured, of the candidates running for the position, Maura DeLuca of the Socialist Workers Party. Though she was a bit repetitive, she was refreshingly outspoken about how all our problems result from capitalism. She echoed the things that seem so commonsensical in our classes. I'm not quite sure she really had the answers but it was intriguing enough to have me sit and listen for an hour. As people laughed at some of her answers, it was not hard to tell that her party does not have much of a shot in this or any election.

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