Friday, January 29, 2016

The Only Thing Worse Than Human Extinction is Economic Recession

Did this title get your attention? I hope so. I intended for it to be provocatively absurd for reasons that will become apparent by the end of the post. I also intended for it to call attention to a fundamental assumption that seems to undergird the thinking of even some of the most intelligent individuals with regard to economic growth and climate change mitigation. Namely, that growth in overall consumption can and in fact must continue, and that we merely have to transition away from fossil fuel use in order to halt and begin to remediate the effects of carbon dioxide on the global climate.
A tin can perfectly positioned to be kicked down the road.

Alright, I’ve already said a mouthful. Please allow me to take a step back and unpack what I just stated by sketching out some basic parameters and a couple of definitions:
  1. Our world population is projected to grow at about three quarters of a percent per year between now and the year 2050, at which time the earth is expected to be home to some 9.7 billion people. United Nations
  2. The U.S. population is projected to grow slightly faster than the global rate to about 438 million by the year 2050. Most of that growth is expected to come from new immigrants and their offspring. Pew Research Center
  3. Globally aggregated GDP growth in recent decades has for the most part bounced around in the range of 2-3% per year. World Bank
  4. For all practical purposes we can consider “healthy” U.S.GDP growth to be in that same 2-3% per year range. This is the rate of growth that is generally considered optimal in order to balance inflation and employment.
  5. An economic recession is defined as two consecutive quarters of GDP contraction.
  6. A depression is a recession lasting two years or more.

Anyone old enough to be reading this likely has vivid recollections of what it felt like during the so-called Great Recession of the previous decade. There was grave uncertainty then as to whether the nation and the world would slip into another depression which, given the realities of our nuclear armed, militia-riddled, drug cartel-influenced, post-9/11 world, likely prompted visions of a very dystopian future. Indeed, the requirement of stable GDP growth is taken to be almost as indispensable for us modern humans as are the requirements of air, water, food, and shelter. Without it, economic chaos and social unrest are feared to almost certainly follow.

Ah, but something has to fuel this growing world economy on which we’ve come to rely. Whether it’s fossil fuels, alternative energy, or nuclear power, we need something. And we need more than just a replacement of the amount of energy used today; we need an ever-increasing supply of it!

Now, some economists will tell you that economic growth is not inextricably tied to growth in energy use at all. They will argue that the right combination of efficiency gains, innovation, and specialization can produce an ever-growing economy without necessarily requiring an ever-increasing supply of energy. Having said that, however, I must also say that I can’t help but think of such pronouncements as belonging to the realm of hubris, belief, and wishful thinking. It doesn’t take much digging to find more sober and scientifically based assessments of this proposition. See, for instance, Energetic Limits to Economic Growth (Bioscience, Volume 61, issue 1), Can Economic Growth Last? (a nice blog post by U of C, San Diego physicist, Tom Murphy), or Economists Are Blind to the Limits of Growth (an op-ed piece by Bloomberg View columnist and physicist, Mark Buchanan). Ah, but we’ve seen sober scientific analysis displaced by wishful thinking before…

We humans have gotten ourselves – and the entire planet – into quite a pickle, haven’t we? We’ve got exponential population growth. We’ve got a world economic system perched precariously in unstable equilibrium – propped up on a foundation of steady growth in consumption above and beyond that which is commensurate with our increasing population. We’ve got built-in expectations that everyone’s standard of living will continue to rise. We’ve got a thirst for energy that just can’t be quenched. AND…, on top of all of these constraints…, we’ve somehow got to find a way to start reducing our total carbon dioxide emissions.

So it is that some of the top climate scientists of our time – Dr. Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution, Dr. Kerry Emanuel of MIT, Dr. James Hansen of Columbia University, and Dr. Tom Wigley of the National Center for Atmospheric Research – signed on to a letter advocating nuclear energy as an appropriately scalable solution to the prescient demand for huge amounts of energy. You can find a copy of the letter on the New York Times blog, Dot Earth, by Andrew Revkin.

The letter is addressed “To those influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear power.” I’ve pulled out some of the highlights:
[W]e are writing to urge you to advocate the development and deployment of safer nuclear energy systems. We appreciate your organization’s concern about global warming, and your advocacy of renewable energy. But continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change….
Global demand for energy is growing rapidly and must continue to grow to provide the needs of developing economies. At the same time, the need to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions is becoming ever clearer….
While it may be theoretically possible to stabilize the climate without nuclear power, in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power….

Okay, you’ve got the gist. Now let me break it down a little bit further, adding commentary as I do:
[O]pposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change.
What’s interesting is that there are a number of variables to the climate change equation which these scientists seem to be taking as constant, or nearly so. Population, consumption, and energy needs will continue to grow, it is assumed; the only choice we have available to us is what energy source(s) we will rely on. But why isn’t opposition to discussing the attainment of zero population growth considered a threat to humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change? Why isn’t opposition to decreasing global per capita consumption considered a threat to humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change? Why isn’t opposition to decreasing our global average per capita energy usage considered a threat to humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change? 
Global demand for energy is growing rapidly and must continue to grow to provide the needs of developing economies.
Notice the implicit assumption here. The ability to provide energy for the needs of developing economies will not be offset by reductions in energy use by developed (overdeveloped?) countries; it will be in addition to the growing energy needs of even the developed countries.
While it may be theoretically possible to stabilize the climate without nuclear power, in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power.
Notice the implicit assumptions regarding the nature of the “real” world and what is considered to be credible. In the “real” world we just keep reproducing like mice in a cage until we overrun the earth’s capacity. Arriving at zero population growth (ZPG) is not considered credible. In the “real” world we behave like addicts who need more and more and more “stuff” in order to be content. That we might actually be able to live in contentment is not considered credible. In the “real” world we could never imagine voluntarily scaling back our own consumption so that others with a lower standard of living might be able to live in improved circumstances. In other words, it is not credible that we would begin to look at our fellow human beings as family and behave accordingly. Can you picture sitting down for a Thanksgiving gathering wherein some of you feast on the lion’s share of the food and drink even as your brother or mother or cousin goes hungry? No, we don’t treat family that way.

In actuality, I totally get where Caldeira, Emanuel, Hansen, and Wigley are coming from. Discussion of reining in population growth is often considered a “non-starter” – a conversation that by its very nature is seen as likely to impinge on one of our most cherished freedoms, the freedom to choose the size of our family. Talk of limiting consumption, likewise, is considered anathema to our cherished way of life. Furthermore, the possibility of a healthy economy that is stable and without GDP growth would seem to fly in the face of everything we believe in and value about our capitalist system: that it is good, that it is just, that it is our engine of progress, and that it is the means by which we solve our problems. We would never embrace the concept of a Command Economy or a Planned Economy here in the West.

Yes, it might seem that Caldeira, et al. are merely pointing out a reality that should be obvious to those who are thinking clearly and rationally. Rather than allowing ourselves to be ruled by a knee-jerk, anti-nuclear response, why don’t we just roll up our sleeves and get down to the business of making nuclear power as safe as it can be? But isn’t this nuclear “solution” really just kicking the can down the road to such time as we’ve totally overrun the carrying capacity of this finite earth? Aren’t we once again relying on technology to solve one problem even as it leads to the creation of other problems that we don’t know how to solve? Aren’t we merely forestalling the great reckoning at which time we will have to cobble together an economy that is static and sustainable?

By the way, I’m a Buddhist. We Buddhists are familiar with how our conditioning, our karma, can trap us in patterns of thinking and being that cause suffering to ourselves and others. Isn’t it bizarre that we allow so many survival options to be taken off the table by prematurely declaring them to lack credibility, or to be unworkable in the so-called “real” world?  And so I return to my provocatively absurd title, and I add a few others:
The Only Thing Worse Than Human Extinction is Economic Recession.
The Only Thing Worse Than Human Extinction is Reining in Consumption.
The Only Thing Worse Than Human Extinction is Living in a Socialist Economy.
The Only Thing Worse Than Human Extinction is Reining in Population Growth.
The Only Thing Worse Than Human Extinction is Being Content With What We Have.
The Only Thing Worse Than Human Extinction is Having To Change Our Way Of Life.

If you are interested in exploring how you might begin living a more sustainable lifestyle, please check out the following posts:

Image of an empty tin can by Sun Ladder via:

Copyright 2016 by Mark Robert Frank

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Getting Real On Climate Change Mitigation

It’s a brand new year, but many of our old problems remain – climate change being one of them. To be sure, progress has been made toward the recognition and measurement of the problem. But we’re still a long, long way from having a clear picture of its full extent, let alone a solution.

An obvious recent highlight is the success of the United Nations Conference on Climate Change which ended last month in Paris with 193 countries coming to agreement that a problem exists and that its mitigation requires reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. Unfortunately, no legal mandate exists for countries to follow through on commitments made there, so it remains to be seen what actual impact this accord will have. Interested readers might want to check out how merely changing a single word from “shall” to “should” drastically changed this agreement. Nations agreed that they should take action (yeah, they really should) as opposed to allowing themselves to be bound by the legal implications of agreeing that they shall take action. Legally binding or not, the agreement is an important milestone.

There have been other recent milestones vis-à-vis the reduction of carbon emissions. There is the recent adoption of the Clean Power Plan by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – a plan that will result in an appreciable reduction in the burning of coal for electricity production. I just wish that the obvious first step towards complying with the benchmarks of this plan didn’t entail switching to the burning of cheap natural gas made available by our domestic fracking boom. Of course, there is also the scuttling this past year of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Hurrah! Wouldn’t it be great, though, if this decision had hinged on the desire to keep that huge carbon sink intact up there in Alberta, Canada rather than the economic reality (at present) of that expensive tar sand fuel just not making sense when there is cheaper fuel available from elsewhere in the world?

With so much to celebrate regarding the recognition of climate change and what we need to do to mitigate it, why do I have such a jaundiced view of things? You did pick up on that, didn’t you? Well, the fact of the matter is that we’ve blown past the 350 parts per million (ppm) measure that was once considered the point of no return standing between us and global chaos resulting from runaway climate disruption. We’re now looking at a new baseline measure of atmospheric carbon dioxide of 400 ppm.

I wish I could be as positive as my friend, Brian Ettling, whose indomitable spirit should be tapped as an alternative energy source! Brian is a tireless climate communicator, lobbyist, and park ranger who for many years has been trying to get the world to recognize what the entire world now seems to recognize – that climate change is real, it’s caused by human activity, and we can take action to do something about it. Check out Brian's blog and listen to him advocate for a carbon tax on this podcast.

I’ve tried to at least do my fair share with regards to getting this message out. However, I have to admit that I can’t hold a candle to Brian’s positive outlook. You see, of late I’ve felt about the topic of climate change much as I felt when the Iraq War seemed to be marching on endlessly. Namely, that America needed to really deeply feel the horror of war before arriving at the conclusion that enough was enough. I protested at venues in Chicago, Washington D.C., and St. Louis in order to try to keep that war from happening or try to stop it once it began. Finally, though, I simply had to accept that we as a nation needed to experience the negative consequences of our actions prior to ever changing our ways. Similarly, I have felt as though American’s needed to really feel the chaos of climate disruption prior to our ever agreeing to changing our fossil-fuel thirsty ways.

Has that time come? Glacial melting, sea level rise, thawing permafrost, droughts there and flood-inducing rainstorms here, massive hurricanes along the coasts and massive tornadoes sprouting like mushrooms all across the Plains and Midwest – are these enough of a wakeup call to those of us who’ve lived in denial of climate change for so long? If so, I must begin again to add my voice to Brian’s and begin to talk about solutions.

Yes, some form of a carbon tax seems undeniably appropriate and necessary. We’re presently subsidizing the cost of fossil fuel by paying separately for the aforementioned havoc wreaked in the form of property loss and loss of life. If we were to price these externalities into the cost of fossil fuel, we would begin to make more economically informed and appropriate choices as to how to furnish and heat our homes and energize our cars and devices.

And this is where I feel that I have something to add to the conversation. You see, it is my perception that many of those who are 100% certain of the reality of climate change still believe that all we have to do is power everything with clean energy and we’ll be good to go. Rather than our materialistic lifestyle being seen as a fundamental part of the problem, it is merely viewed as needing a tune-up – a carbon tax here, a clean energy breakthrough there, and we will all live happily ever after.

So, to those of you for whom the subject of climate change is finally gaining traction – fantastic! And for those of you who can only reflect upon technological solutions to what is fundamentally a problem of consumption – look deeper! Think about it: If the current standard of living of the average Westerner becomes 50% more carbon efficient even as the number of people actually living that lifestyle doubles, then we are no better off than we are at this moment. If everyone’s carbon footprint is cut in half, but world population doubles, then we are still merely treading water. Remember, we’re at 400 ppm atmospheric carbon dioxide and we need to start bringing that measure DOWN!

It’s a New Year! Let’s take a moment to take stock of past successes; and then let’s begin taking a long, hard look at how we’re living our lives.

If you're interested in exploring how you might begin living a more sustainable lifestyle,
 please check out the following posts:

Image of supercell storm by Topazwoolenwick via:

Copyright 2016 by Mark Robert Frank