Sunday, March 23, 2008

Growth can't last forever.

The Problem of Growth
Posted by jeffvail on March 21, 2008 - 11:00am
Topic: Environment/Sustainability

...This article proposes an alternative vision: instead of trying to create continual, technological stop-gaps to the demands of growth, we must address the problem of growth head on. Infinite growth is impossible in a finite world--a great deal of economic growth may be possible without a growth in resource consumption, but eventually the notion of perpetual growth is predicated on perpetual increase in resource consumption...

...My approach to the problem of growth is to stop trying to address its symptoms—overpopulation, pollution, global warming, peak oil—and attempt instead to identify and address the underlying source of the problem...This essay isn't about how to find more oil, how to recover more oil, or how to use energy in general more efficiently so that we can keep on growing. It is an opinion piece, not a data-driven scientific paper. It is about living well, now and in the future, individually and collectively, without growth...

...there is serious moral hazard in the continuation of growth on a finite planet as it serves merely to push that problem on to our children or grandchildren. Growth cannot continue infinitely on a finite planet. This must seem obvious to many people, but I emphasize the point because we tend to overlook or ignore its significance: the basis of our civilization is fundamentally unsustainable.

...This is also problematic because the further we are able to inflate this bubble beyond a level that is sustainable indefinitely, the farther we must ultimately fall to return to a sustainable world...

...Take, for example, a modern American suburbanite. Her list of dependencies is virtually unending: food, fuel for heat, fuel for transport, electricity, clothing, medical care, just to name a few. She has no meaningful level of self-sufficiency—without participation in hierarchy she would not survive. This relationship is hierarchal because she is subservient to the broader economy—she may have negotiating power with regard to what job she performs at what compensation for what firm, but she does not have negotiating power on the fundamental issue of participating in the market economy on its terms. She must participate to gain access to her fundamental needs—she is dependent (consider also Robert Anton Wilson's notion of money in civilization as "bio-surival tickets")...

That is, she must turn outside her immediate community to obtain what she needs. Eliminate this dependency in favor of our community's self-sufficiency, and the situation changes drastically. My guest-post for UOJ talks about how this can be done in more detail.

...In an era of globalization, increased communications connectivity, and (despite the rising costs of energy) an ever increasing global trade network, this marginalization is accelerating at breakneck speed. Is your job something that can be done online from India? How about in person by an illegal immigrant? Because there are people with doctorates willing to work for ¼ what you make if you’re in a knowledge field, and people with high tolerance for mind-numbing, back-breaking labor willing to work hard for $5/hour or less right next door (or for $2/day overseas). If this doesn’t apply to you, you’re one of the lucky few (and, if I might add, you should be working to get yourself to into just such a position). Maybe they don’t know how to outsource your function yet, but trust me, someone is working on it. Participation in the market on its terms means that the market is trying to find a way to make your function cheaper...

Meaning your wages will continue to decline in both absolute terms and buying power as long as the Robber Barons have control of your economic future - as long as our community is not self-sufficient, that is exactly the case with no end in sight.

...Why this is Important:

Virtually everyone is dependent on participation in hierarchal systems to meet their basic needs, of one type or another. This dependency forces participation, and drives the perpetual growth—and therefore the ultimate unsustainability—of hierarchy. If growth is the problem, then it is necessary to identify the root cause of that problem so that we may treat the problem itself, and not merely a set of symptoms. In our analysis, we have seen in Part 1 that hierarchies must grow, and now in this installment that human dependency is what sustains these hierarchies. Dependency, then, is the root cause of the problem of growth.

Eliminating dependency eliminates the problem. We must build communities, and quickly, that are self-sufficient, local, and involve all able-bodied adults. Continuing to have vast numbers of young men being parasites off of others is not sustainable.

...Achieving Minimal Self-Sufficiency:

The first principle of rhizome is that individual nodes—whether that is family units or communities of varying sizes—must be minimally self-sufficient. “Minimally self-sufficient” means the ability to consistently and reliably provide for anything so important that you would be willing to subject yourself to the terms of the hierarchal system in order to get it: food, shelter, heat, medical care, entertainment, etc. It doesn’t mean zero trade, asceticism, or “isolationism,” but rather the ability to engage in trade and interaction with the broader system when, and only when, it is advantageous to do so...

Exactly. Right now our resources are being drained from us to outside our community at an alarming rate. That needs to change - fast!

...This principle of minimal self-sufficiency empowers the individual family or community, while allowing the continuation of trade, value-added exchange, and full interaction with the outside world....

...Finally, institutions should be devolutionary rather than accrete hierarchy. One example of this is the Jubilee system—rather than allow debt or excess property beyond what an individual can use, accumulate, and pass on to following generations--a system that inevitably leads to class divisions and a de facto aristocracy--some ancient cultures would periodically absolve all debt and start fresh, or redistribute land in a one-family-one-farm manner...

Now all we have to do is get rid of the Rabbinic "work-arounds" that they have developed to allow them to defy Hashem's Sabbath years and Jubilees so that people's debts are actually canceled like they're supposed to be!

Rhizome begins at the personal level, with a conscious attempt to understand anthropological processes, to build minimal self-sufficiency, and to engage in “small-worlds” networks...

Finally, beyond minimal self sufficiency, the individual node should have the capability to produce some surplus for exchange because this allows access to additional quality-of-life creating products and services beyond what a single node can realistically provide entirely for itself. This is the point where minimal self-sufficiency doesn’t require isolationism. It is neither possible nor desirable for an individual or family node to provide absolutely everything desired for an optimal quality of life. While minimal self-sufficiency is essential, it is not essential to produce independently every food product, every tool, every type of entertainment, every service that you will want. Once minimal self-sufficiency is achieved, the ability to exchange a surplus product on a discretionary basis allows the individual node to access the myriad of wants—but not needs—that improve quality of life...

Each family interacts with the other families of their Jewish community, so that between them all every possible items if made, grown, and sold. Individual Jewish communities can then interact with other Jewish communities - and so on. All the resources and funds stay within the community as much as possible, and sufficient funds brought in from outside buyers to cover outside expenses - such as taxes, which must be sent outside the community. As long as resources in = resources out, there is equilibrium and self-sufficiency. But if we keep bleeding red ink - if we continue spending most of our money outside our communities (in wal-marts, for example) we're just enriching their CEOs and their children and not our own. Those resources are lost forever and with employment prospects in the outside world getting worse and paying less, these shortfalls cannot be made up.

We are gleefully impoverishing ourselves for cheap plastic junk made in China.

...Rhizome isn’t an all or nothing proposition—it is possible, and probably both necessary and desirable, to take incremental, consistent steps toward rhizome. Learn how to do more with less. Work to consciously integrate the principles of rhizome into every aspect of your daily life—think about your choices in consumption, then make medium and long-term plans to take bigger steps towards the full realization of rhizome.

And, perhaps most of all, rhizome does not demand, or even endorse, a “bunker mentality.” The single greatest step that an individual can take toward rhizome is to become an active participant in the creation of rhizome in the immediate, local community.

You have to consciously choose to buy locally made products, to support real locally owned and operated businesses and farms. You can to consciously allocate your resources so that they stay, as much as possible, in our own community.

...The results-based focus of the community is essentially the same as the individual, because the community consists of individuals who recognize the ability of the community to help them build resiliency and self-sufficiency in the provision of their basic needs, as well as the ability to access a broader network beyond the community...

...Finally, every community must address the problem of free riders. Some people will want to benefit from the community without contributing anything at all. In most cases, normative pressures will suffice, and this is especially true of rhizome, where there isn’t a grand redistributive scheme that facilitates some people to leach indefinitely off the collected surplus. Still, the problem will arise, and there will always be a need and a place for charity, within rhizome and elsewhere. The most important factor in determining who is worthy of charity and who is a free-rider is the conscious articulation of the requirements for membership: the community gains strength by helping up its least self-sufficient members, but it should do so by helping them to fish, rather than repeatedly just giving them fish to eat. Rhizome communities need not be heartless—in fact, they shouldn’t be heartless, not just on moral grounds, but on selfish grounds of building a more resilient community—but they should exert normative pressures to demand participation roughly commensurate with capability....


Now lets' get to it.


Garnel Ironheart said...

> Infinite growth is impossible in a finite world--a great deal of economic growth may be possible without a growth in resource consumption,

No, it's quite possible for 2 reasons:
1) Technology is constantly developing new ways to expand and get better uses out of existing resources. Time was we were burning coal to make electricity. Now many places have gone nuclear and there's investment in hydro and wind sources. Time was you could fit half an album on a piece of vinyl the size of a dinner plate. Now you can put 100 of them on one side of a DVD. Never discount human ingenuity.

2) The population in most developed areas is falling which means that although the population in developing areas is rising, they aren't consuming the high end resources as fast as the developed areaas aren't using them anymore.

There is hope for the future.

Ahavah said...

Most people still burn coal to make electricity - the rest mostly use natural gas, both non-renewable resources. Nuclear is a non-starter. No one is planning to build any more nuclear reactors, and the ones we have are at or near the end of their lifespan. The cost and insurance liability are simply far too high, not to mention that uranium is also a non-renewable resources that is more scarce and more expensive than it used to be. Hydro and wind sources depend on wind and water flows not changing - right now, in the middle of climate change, there's no guarantee of that at all. Not to mention: this past summer, several nuclear reactors out west were "this close" to having to shut down because of drought - not enough water flow in their area to cool the tanks properly. One more summer of drought will see the plants closed.

There is not a single projection anywhere of falling demand for any non-renewable resources. Slowing rates of population growth (not falling population, as you seem to think) does not mean less resources needed - it means more needed. And even the falling rate of population growth in less developed countries will not stop their increased need for resources by any stretch of the imagination - they want a higher standard of living, period.

This should not be hard to grast - the western standard of living requires 20% of the world's population to use 60% of the resources. That simply cannot last. Pretending technology is going to pull BTUs out of the thin blue air is denial, pure and simple.

Technology USES energy - it does not MAKE energy. It can only transform energy that is ALREADY THERE. Once the energy is spent, it's gone forever. We have wasted most of the BTUs of energy stored in the earth in the form of coal, natural gas, and oil. It will never return. Our entire way of life has to realistically adjust to that fact.

Garnel Ironheart said...

> Slowing rates of population growth (not falling population, as you seem to think)

Russia is shrinking by 700000 people a year, the Japanese even faster. Thanks to their 1 child policy and selective female abortion, China will start contracting soon as well. The coming crisis won't be due to energy, it'll be due to too many elderly and not enough young workers to pay for their pensions.

>Pretending technology is going to pull BTUs out of the thin blue air is denial, pure and simple.

No, it's wind power. Or solar power. Anyway, moving on...

Technology USES energy - it does not MAKE energy.

No, technology uses energy to MAKE energy and the better the technology, the better the make/use ratio.

> It can only transform energy that is ALREADY THERE.

If you're using the Einsteinian assumption of e=mc2 then yes, you're correct. But that means with the right methods anything on this planet is a source of energy.

Ahavah said...

No, technology does not MAKE energy - it moves energy from one state to another. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed. It's called the Law of Conservation of Mass and Energy. That was Newton, not Einstein.

"In physics and other sciences, energy (from the Greek ενεργός, energos, "active, working")[1] is a scalar physical quantity that is a property of objects and systems which is conserved by nature. Energy is often defined as the ability to do work.

Several different forms of energy, including kinetic, potential, thermal, gravitational, elastic, electromagnetic, chemical, nuclear, and mass have been defined to explain all known natural phenomena.

Energy is converted from one form to another, but it is never created nor destroyed. This principle, the conservation of energy, was first postulated in the early 19th century, and applies to any isolated system. According to Noether's theorem, the conservation of energy is a consequence of the fact that the laws of physics do not change over time.[2]

Although the total energy of a system does not change with time, its value may depend on the frame of reference. For example, a seated passenger in a moving airplane has zero kinetic energy relative to the airplane, but nonzero kinetic energy relative to the earth."

So yes, you can combust or transform anything - but doing so has to release enough energy to accomplish the "work" needed. Moving a car is a lot of "work" - far more that powering up everything in your house for 30 days, which is why it would cost thousands of dollars to run your car 24/7 for a month but only costs you about a hundred dollars to run your whole house on electricity for that same time period.

There is NOTHING available that will generate enough BTU's to move your car - as I've said before - that is comparable to petroleum. Biofuels are a pipe dream, requiring more petrochemical inputs than they produce in BTUs, not to mention in order to power all the private automobiles out there you'd need to grow biofuel on every square inch of arable land - and you might get hungry after a while.

As the population chart that BBC news produced in the right-hand column shows, China's population is not, has never been, and isn't going to be in decline anytime in the foreseeable future. Ditto India.

People left Russia due to political and corruption problems, not energy problems - the same reason they had so many abortions. They didn't produce less babies, they just killed most of them. If that's your idea of a good thing, then we certainly have nothing in common there.

More to the point, though - If the government changed and more opportunities for a life without corruption became available, they'd be back, and the ones who couldn't leave would stop killing their infants. Pretending that is a permanent state of affairs is not realistic, either.

But what this appears to boil down to is that you somehow believe that you are ENTITLED to use 60% of the world's resources for your standard of living and leave the other 40% to be divided up by the other 90% of the world's population. Since when? Just the opposite - you are morally obligated to reduce your standard of living so that everyone receives a fair share, as is everyone else in North America. Whether or not more energy might possibly theoretically be available through technology some day in the far future is NOT RELEVANT. Those other people have rights and wants and needs RIGHT NOW.