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Sunday, May 24, 2009

What This Is Not

Frogs are excellent at facing reality. If you jump from one lily pad to another, and you don't quite make it, you're in the water. You don't think to yourself: "Hey, this water is sort of like a lily pad, except it's wet, and blue, and I'm drowning." You swim (breast stroke, of course) and get on the lily pad. Then you eat a fly, because, hey, it's been a long morning.

Also good in fruit shakes.

You homo sapiens sapiens, however, seem to be having a problem seeing things as they are. For instance, there's been much talk about whether and how much the current financial crash is or could be like the Great Depression of 1929. Here's a hint:

This is not 1929.

Frogs on the fly line.

The Great Depression happened because of a combination of things. The victors of WW1 tried punishing Germany, and rediscovered the Golden Rule. The Bankers orchestrated a crash, taking their money out first. Playing around with the Gold Standard was in there somewhere. And of course, Herbert Hoover's frocks caused a style panic. In other words, people caused the Great Depression.

Hoover posing as the President's wife.

And what "solved" the Great Depression? People running out and buying washing machines? The New Deal? Improved health from eating 5 cent apples? World War 2? No, it was none of these things. It was this:

Black gold. Texas tea. Bush blood.

It was oil production. By 1930, it was starting to spurt out of the Texas dirt with an EROI of 100:1. Production rose exponentially from that point, allowing the US to kick Nazi butt in WW2, while Hitler scrabbled all over Africa trying to find himself some oil he didn't have to make out of Ruhr coal or gay people. FDR could've spent 12 years doing the hula and the US economy would've still recovered because resource throughput is what drives GDP.

Does this shape look familiar?

Frogs don't live long enough for me to repeat all the great work that Friend o' the Frog Charlie Hall has done establishing this fact, but the sum total is that GDP snakes around the oil production line. Example: Oil goes to $147/barrel, economy crashes. Oil demand crashes, oil price falls, economy shows signs of recovery. Sound familiar? But first, what else this is not:

This is not 1979.

Note, this is NOT the kind of bug you can eat.

The temporary dip in oil production in 1979 was a result of the Iran-Iraq War, also called the America-Wins-Either-Way War, but only by Don Rumsfeld. This was purely a result of politics and too many former oil workers now being busy blowing each other up. It bears no relation to the real, permanent, GLOBAL decline we are about to go into.

Plateau extended slightly by economic crash, but you get the idea.

Absurd? The International Energy Agency doesn't think so. France's national oil company Total doesn't think so. And what happens when oil peaks, besides GDP heading downhill?

This is the scary part.

That's right. The so-called "Green Revolution" that allowed exponential growth in the human population, was mainly based on fossil fuel inputs. So as the oil and gas supplies peak and decline (already in progress), our food supply will decline, and so will the supply of humans. (A double tragedy if you're a cannibal.) So, finally, what else is this not?

This is not 1999.

As in time to party like it's.

We're in the midst of a massive onset of sadness and anxiety. That's just the truth. Things aren't working out the way humans imagined, which is sad, even if you guys didn't imagine very well. We can even sense this out on the pond, especially because the water is full of Prozac, which does make missing the lily pad mildly calming. The tendency will be there to cover up all that upset with alcohol, drugs, sex, exercise, work, or, if you're poor, mud.

The Mud People of Bonnaroo. But they're crying on the inside.

Don't run away from this. Go visit the Peak Shrink and come to grips with it. It's not 1929, 1979, or 1999, but it IS 2009. And there's a lot you can do for yourself, your family, and your community if you start taking care of things right there on your own lily pad. Gotta go. My lunch is buzzing.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Bill Rees on "Uneconomic Growth"

How to Boil a Frog is proud to welcome guest blogger Bill Rees, co-creator of the Ecological Footprint, to the lily pad. We supply the flies, he supplies the wise! In the following post, Bill discusses the recent calls for a steady state or even negative growth economy, vs. the conventional wisdom that growth is the universal solution to our problems.

We have to be clear on what we mean by growth and shrinkage. When I refer to growth and the need for retraction, I am referring to energy and material throughput (resource consumption and pollution production). This is what must decrease if we are to achieve sustainability. For example, we need a 95% decline in fossil carbon use by 2050.

Theoretically, of course, one could have continuous income growth even as total throughput declines. This is the dream of those who claim the economy is 'decoupling from the environment' or 'dematerializing' (or in a more restricted case, 'decarbonizing').

The problem is that there are very few data to support the notion that dematerialization is actually taking place. There is some separation of GDP growth from consumption/pollution in rich countries but much of this disappears when trade-corrected to account for the embodied energy/matter in trade goods and the off-shore migration of energy intensive industries.

Thus, until there is real decoupling, the best way to reduce throughput is through a planned equitable descent.

Even in a planned decline, it is possible to have growth industries and sectors--e.g., as we phase out cars, the construction of rapid-transit vehicles takes off; as we dump carbon-energy technologies, we create a future for renewable alternatives. In short, forward-looking entrepreneurs and investors might still buy into this. (Most resistance to change comes from those with the greatest stake in the status quo).

As ecological economist Herman Daly emphasizes, we should distinguish between development and growth. Development is getting better; growth is simply getting bigger.

If something sucks, there is no point in growing it.

On the other hand, moving forward by shrinking equitably, creating a secure (but smaller) economy for all and a stable ecosphere is clearly development, but it is development without material growth.

Corollary: It is arguable that, globally, throughput growth is actually creating more unaccounted costs than benefits, in which case we are in a period of uneconomic growth. In other words, today's form of growth is counterproductive--it is actually disdevelopment that destroys the ecosphere while increasing inequity.

The problem is that 'we' (the already rich) pretend not to notice because we receive most of the benefits and the poor are suffering the costs. The rich also make the decisions, so uneconomic growth remains the flavour of the era.

There are two approaches to addressing the potential catastrophe on the horizon. Approach 1 anticipates the problem and gets a head start on remediation and adaptation. Approach 2 is more reactive to catastrophe as it unfolds. The assumption of Approach 2 is that we can bring more people on side to cope with change as it occurs. This is post hoc remediation and adaptation.

I am less comfortable with Approach 2 because it invites uncertainty and tipping points, pushing systems to the point of no return while society is unprepared. In other words, I'm not convinced that approach 2 would allow for the accumulation of resilence in the socio-political system.

It makes more sense to me to be proactive.