Fascinating. I had no idea about most of this.
I was encouraged to visit Bhutan with a group of friends last month but I couldn’t, the massive carbon footprint in flying there was doing my head in.
I encouraged them not to go for that reason, they all went. That’s why there’s no reduction in CO2 emissions :( Implicatory denial. I can’t even convince supposedly “concered” people to reduce thier emisions footprint.
It is a good project. However Bhutan has some special conditions. It still has the forests to conserve and it has available hydro power even for enough for export.
It also has the not so rare distinction of being on of the countries that Trumplethinskin cannot pronounce. In a security briefing prior to the Asia-Pacific summit, upon seeing it on the map, he pronounced it “Button.” Neighboring Nepal was pronounced “Nipple.” And this man has access to the football.
But can he manage to remember that he has access? And if not, will anyone on his staff actually remind him? :-)
I haven’t had time to listen to it all yet but I did notice he said his country was balancing “economic growth” with other more important things, including “environmental sustainability”. Maybe he didn’t mean “growth” (and I’ll learn more when I listen to the whole talk) since economic growth is not compatible with sustainability.
Economics is hardly my area but can’t productivity gains–e.g., greater efficiency, shifting to less destructive energy generation, etc.–lead to growth without necessarily degrading sustainability?
That is, if, for example, the present situation were that we generate 10 units of power at a cost of 5 units of environmental destruction that has to be paid for at some time by someone and society learns (a) to produce 12 units of energy at a cost of 3 units of harm and (b) to use those 12 units, say, 10% more efficiently would that not count as “economic growth with sustainability”?
I am totally ignorant here and am asking not asserting.
I believe you are correct, in principle at least. (My economics background is pretty scanty, too.)
And Mike’s dictum should, IMO, read “indefinitely sustained economic growth is not compatible with sustainability.” As Ray/Snarkrates has pointed out in the past, building out a clean energy infrastructure will means lots of economic growth in the coming decades. Which is good, because we are a long way from getting our heads around what zero economic growth would really mean, and how to achieve it in a relatively equitable way.
Moreover (and relatedly) Bhutan has, as the talk notes, a very small economy, and a low per capita income. So they do indeed want economic growth–just not growth that would decrease “gross national happiness”–a metric they invented, and which is discussed in the talk.
GDP is (at least ideally) the value of all goods and services. You can make it grow in a variety of ways:
1) Produce more.
2) Produce better–higher value product or lower input of labor and resources, which can then be directed to other productive activities.
3) Include more in the definition of goods and services–including parental/elder care, housework, black/grey market activities…
Of these only 1) results in increased consumption. Item 2) could actually result in lower consumption and greater sustainability. Even 1) need not be unsustainable. For instance, mining asteroids could inject a bonanza of scarce materials and thereby remove bottlenecks to greater technological advance.
What really matters for growth is the efficiency–resources in (including labor) vs. value out. Economics is not simple. It does not lend itself to simple statements such as “economic growth is not compatible with sustainability”.
I’m not sure you’ve managed a good example (because 5 units of environmental destruction plus 3 units of environmental destruction equals 8 units of environmental destruction, so more damage has been done) though, in principle, efficiencies can reduce the growth in resources needed for economic growth but a reduced growth in resource consumption is not a decrease. In practice, economic growth will increase the environmental damage. There are, of course, limits to efficiencies, too.
Mind you environmental damage will continue even without economic growth, since perfect recycling is never possible (and even that takes energy which has to to come from infrastructure which requires resource extraction).
As snarkrates mentioned, we could fiddle the figures or ensure the monetary value of goods and services rises without increasing the volumes, though, in practice, that alone won’t be possible indefinitely as real value has to discount inflation and I don’t think it’s ever been done for an extended period.
As Doc Snow hinted at, short term growth might be possible without increasing environmental damage but the point is moot as governments the world over want continuing growth (they even use the oxymoron “sustainable growth”) and for those thinking that it’s the only way to raise people out of poverty, read the New Scientist special edition from a decade ago (something like “how the economy is killing the planet”) for evidence that the trickle down theory or the “rising tide lifts all boats” theory is nonsense.
In a capitalist system, it’s hard to see everyone being happy with a no-growth economy but it really is the minimum we need to put a brake on the environmental destruction we see. For sustainability, even that isn’t good enough, but baby steps….
I listened to the whole talk. I was very impressed, by comparison with much of the rest of the world and, in particular, developed nations. If the world had as small a footprint as Bhutan, then we wouldn’t have an Earth Day. But it wouldn’t be sustainable, though could continue for much longer before hitting serious limits.
Sadly, the talker did say “economic growth is important”, so confirming my earlier understanding. And his notion of carbon negative does not use consumption based accounting. Their extensive use of dams also destroys ecologies and their constitutional guarantee of 60% forest cover is well down on what they have now, so perhaps giving a green light to deforestation with the aim of growing the economy (speculation on my part but allowed for in their constitution).
So, fantastic compared to the norm but perhaps not quite as good as it’s made out? Great if the rest of the world had the same lifestyles and constitutions but that is not at all likely.
First, growth is not an an exclusive characteristic of capitalism. EVERY economic system requires a degree of economic growth for it to prosper. In systems lacking economic growth over long periods of time tend to become more unequal and more stratified–think feudal estates.
Second, I did not cite merely one way in which GDP can grow. I cited 3. The only one you evidently read was not my emphasis, although we can see an interesting application of it with the cannabis legalization. A formerly black sector of the economy is now generating tax revenue.
Of more importance is growth engendered by developments in technology and or efficiency. These can actually increase production while decreasing labor and resource consumption. Think additive manufacturing (e.g. 3D printing).
I think we have a lot of thinking about economics that falls under the Dilbert Principle (Anything you don’t understand must be simple.). Economics ain’t simple, and we are trying to develop a new economic system that is sustainable. It may be capitalist. It may be socialist. It may be none of the above or all of the above. We don’t know. It doesn’t exist yet.
I didn’t say growth was an exclusive characteristic of capitalism. You say systems lacking economic growth for a long time become more unequal. I don’t think that is true at all (look at the present inequality) but it is completely irrelevant to the points I was making about growth and environmental degradation.
Yes you said growth could happen in three ways and I covered two of them, with the first you mentioned being obvious and clearly detrimental to the health of the planet. Again, efficiencies have limits but growth will always end up consuming resources at an ever greater rate, even if there are short term reductions.
Most of the environmental destruction that we have wrought has been before climate change started to kick in. Our way of life will ensure that continues, regardless of whether we manage to mitigate our emissions of GHGs and the drive for growth is key to that destruction.
If you look at China, they emphasize growth–in fact, they need 6-8% growth just for their unemployment rate to stay constant. If you look at the former Soviet Union–growth again. Hell, even North Korea has said that one of the reasons why they are considering a detente with the South and the US is that their economy isn’t growing. Venezuela–growth again. Zimbabwe…yup, growth. When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa, every woman who sold bananas in the market wanted to sell more bananas–that’s growth. So, how, pray, is growth purely a capitalist issue?
Snarkrates, I don’t know where you got the impression that I claimed growth was exclusively a capitalist issue though I don’t think any of your examples would counter such a claim, if it was made, which it wasn’t
I think that there is a prevalent misframing of sustainability. It is that the criterion for sustainability should be the strictest one, i.e., that one can keep doing ‘economic activity x’ practically (or worse, literally) forever, else ‘activity x’ is “not sustainable.” But that is, IMHO, unreasonable. Humanity has a history of technological and cultural change and development extending, probably, back prior to our ‘anatomically modern’ physiognomy. Which is to say, it’s pretty unlikely that we would ever, under any imaginable scenario, remain culturally and technologically static, whether or not a given set of norms were adjudged ‘sustainable.’
Now, I know no-one is saying we should do that–not even our friend Killian over at RC. But that is nevertheless the scenario that the above ‘misframing’ (as I would term it) would prevent. Why frame policy to achieve a goal that’s not the one aimed at? What we do want to do is not to screw up our society, and still less the environment upon which it is utterly dependent.
I’d advocate that the standard for practical sustainability would involve 1) minimizing environmental damage, whether it be pollution or the physical destruction of habitats; 2) attainment of a zero energy growth society at some reasonable level of energy consumption; 3) attainment of zero population growth, probably at a considerably lower global population than the current total; and 4) the careful use of natural resources, particularly non-renewable ones.
Note that in regard to point #4 I don’t think that there is a necessity to avoid the use of non-renewable resources if their use does not infringe on condition #1 above, and if the realities that those resources cannot be relied upon indefinitely are recognized and planned for. (I’d suggest further that such planning should leave contingency reserves–ie., that we rarely or never draw down the resource completely.)
If the strictest definition is not used then what should “sustainable” mean? The dictionary definitions I’ve looked at don’t mention a period. To me, this means “indefinitely” though the determination of whether something can be maintained indefinitely might change depending on the environment (e.g. what might be sustainable given a certain solar input might be unsustainable if solar insolation reduces. I’m not sure why it’s “unreasonable” other than it makes it tough to live sustainably. If we’re doing something we know cannot be sustained indefinitely, then shouldn’t we try to alter that behaviour to one that is sustainable?
I agree that “it’s pretty unlikely that we would ever, under any imaginable scenario, remain culturally and technologically static, whether or not a given set of norms were adjudged ‘sustainable.’” Of course, change can happen in a way we like or a way we don’t like.
If our goal is not to screw up the environment, then that is how we should frame our policies. Although definitely desirable, not screwing up our society should be secondary to that.
“Minimizing environmental damage” is a must but who defines “minimizing?”
Atttainment of zero growth in energy use is also a must but who defines the “reasonable level” of energy consumption? I also agree with zero population growth at a considerably lower level of population but it’s hard to see how that is achieved without screwing up societies (for various reasons). On your point 4 about natural resources, our aim should be no non-renewable resources, though a very tiny rate of consumption could be as close to sustainable as we can get, particularly if full recycling is achieved. Mining destroys habitats, so it’s hard to see how it can continue if we want sustainability. I don’t really get your point about contingency resources as the name implies we may need to use them in the future, which could then contravene the rule for not completely drawing down resources – if contingency reserves are even used, then there is no contingency for later generations.
The best effort at defining sustainability, that I’ve seen, is Richard Heinberg’s Five Axioms of Sustainability. I think the wording could be improved a little but, to me, they boil down to “don’t consume any resource at a rate higher than its renewal rate and don’t damage the environment in that consumption”. Contravening that line means that the behaviour must end at some point (either because the resource is too depleted or that the environment is too damaged to support a functioning ecosystem).
Mike, point by point:
If we’re doing something we know cannot be sustained indefinitely, then shouldn’t we try to alter that behaviour to one that is sustainable?
Yes. But what ‘sustainable’ is may change over time, and we may need to take actions that are not sustainable in order to position ourselves for actions that are. The danger in an absolutist position on ‘eternal sustainability’ is that the permanent becomes the enemy of the possible. For instance, RC’s “Killian” argues against renewable energy because he sees it as unnecessary given that the truly ‘sustainable’ solution to our dilemma is simplification.
Agreed. That’s why I put those goals in that order; I thought the prioritization was implicitly fairly clear.
Atttainment of zero growth in energy use is also a must but who defines the “reasonable level” of energy consumption?
Practically, whoever has the power; ideally, everybody, informed by a robust societal epistemology. (Which is a fancy way of saying, “a society that has good skills at discerning practical truth,” including respect for science.)
I also agree with zero population growth at a considerably lower level of population but it’s hard to see how that is achieved without screwing up societies (for various reasons).
My perspective is that not screwing up societies is a lot easier with lower population than with overpopulation. If we can maintain democracy, if we can maintain human rights especially including women’s rights, if we can maintain public health and modern medecine–and all of this presupposes that we can maintain education!–then we maintain conditions in which population will tend toward replacement levels (or slightly below). If we don’t, we may well revert to our historic pattern of high fertility.
Mining destroys habitats, so it’s hard to see how it can continue if we want sustainability.
It doesn’t have to, and a lot of the problem is scale. And habitats can come back, depending on scale and the nature of the damage.
This is a big topic, but do you really want to live with Stone Age technology? And if so, how many people do you think you can get to vote for such a future? To my mind, this issue as much as any points up the mischief that ‘absolutist sustainability’ leads to.
I don’t really get your point about contingency resources as the name implies we may need to use them in the future, which could then contravene the rule for not completely drawing down resources – if contingency reserves are even used, then there is no contingency for later generations.
My point is simply that if you are going to run out of something necessary, it’s generally best to stop using it before the tank is completely dry. The point is truest with regard to renewable resources, whereas we were talking about non-renewable ones–‘eating the seed corn,’ etc. But even with non-renewable ones, leaving a reserve is, IMO, a good idea, because, well, contingencies are by definition not completely knowable in advance.
It’s certainly true that at some point, if the need gets dire enough, one might use the reserve, and it’s true that one might choose poorly in that regard. But them’s the breaks; this universe doesn’t afford guarantees any more than it affords infinite resources.
Last point: I like your description after Heinberg, but I note that there are many disputes lurking in that innocent phrase “don’t damage the environment in that consumption.” Even Stone Age people altered their environments in significant ways; as Elizabeth Kolbert says in “Sixth Extinction”, it’s kind of what people do.
For example, does a garden constitute ‘damage’? Probably not many would say ‘yes,’ but perhaps a few would. That’s an extreme example, to be sure, but there are many less extreme ones that would remain in play (or heated debate.)
And if ‘weeds’ could talk… I well remember hoeing milkweed plants on my uncle’s farm when I was a child; they were viewed as just a troublesome weed. Now people are deliberately planting them for monarch butterfly habitat. There is, of course, an evident difference between hoeing them, and applying Roundup. There will be many such lines to be drawn.
Sustainable may be judged over time periods a bit longer than a second, day or month, maybe even more than a year so, yes, some behaviour may be unsustainable but be acceptable over the longer term, if it is short lived. In regard to the right level of energy use, well regardless of who is in power there will be a limit to the level that is sustainable and so a level greater than that would not be. Heinberg goes into these things a bit more deeply but there are ways we might objectively measure it though that level may well change over time. But, yeah, a respect for science (or, generally, for objective facts) is a must.
Lower populations makes the problem easier to manage but my point was that getting to significantly lower levels of population might itself destabilise the society (one might imagine the ways in which population is lowered and some would be more destabilising than others). Simply lowering the birth rate has its own problems.
I’m not sure how mining would not destroy habitat. Yes, it’s easy to see that lower levels of mining would not be as bad as huge scale mining (e.g. mountain top removal at one extreme) but it’s hard to see how any meaningful level could be done without adding to our environmental woes. It’s also unsustainable (and as the easy stuff is exhausted, which it already has been, the scale has to increase for the same level of resource extraction).
No, I don’t really want to live with Stone Age technology but, all along, my argument has nothing to do with what people want but with how our behaviours are affecting our planet and are detrimental to all species, including ours. You said, “My point is simply that if you are going to run out of something necessary, it’s generally best to stop using it before the tank is completely dry.” and I would counter that if you can stop using it then it isn’t necessary. Leaving something for contingencies is fine but future generations had better learn to live without that resource, if they want to leave it until some dire situation that makes the resource a necessity for survival.
Yes, defining “damage” can be difficult. I don’t have all the answers, nor does anyone else, but we should be turning our attention to these issues before nature forces our hand (largely though the damage we’ve already done). Sadly, I see no sign that the subject of sustainability has really got into mainstream thinking (even the UN’s sustainable development goals include a goal of economic growth). This is a really depressing topic but I try to do what I can, though it’s far too little.
Mike, thanks for a stimulating conversation. I appreciate it, as it takes me down avenues of thought that I’d probably never traverse on my own. The only additional comment I’ll make now is to say your point–that “if you can stop using it then it isn’t necessary”– was well-made. I was careless in my formulation there, and can only plead that ‘necessary’ is probably a slipperier concept in practice than one would think!
Doc, I appreciate the thoughts and I’m so glad that someone is engaging so rationally with this topic enabling me to examine and modify my views. So often, raising such issues attracts a fairly predictable response which doesn’t further the discussion at all.
OT, strictly, but a graphic reminder for US readers and friends thereof:
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