October 19, 2009


Who Pays For Lunch?

“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.

October 04, 2009

Copenhagen, Again.

"Progress toward high industrialized world emissions cuts remains disappointing during these talks. We're not seeing real advances there," Yvo de Boer, the head of the U.N. Climate Change Secretariat, told reporters.

That just about sums up all the progress or disappointment at the on going pre Copenhagen discussions taking place at Bangkok, Thailand. The discussions are scheduled to end on October 9, 2009 and are being attended by delegates from 180 different countries who are attempting to nail down a global agreement to cut carbon emissions that will be finalized at Copenhagen. Unfortunately , the differences between the developed world and the developing world are just as wide as they have ever been. Even the targets for the developed world seem to be way out of reach.

Such an outcome should not be surprising to all of those who are familiar with the logic behind the “Tragedy of the Commons”. Each country wants to decrease the cost of its own targets hoping that somebody else will pick up the slack. When each country attempts to lower its own cost by shifting it to another country then the earth suffers because the global targets will be missed and only ruin will result.

The US position has posed the greatest challenge to the participants so far. "Not knowing what the United States is going to be able to bring to Copenhagen really makes it very difficult for other countries in that Kyoto discussion to increase the level of ambition of their numbers," said John Ashe, a senior diplomat who chairs a key U.N. group negotiating expanded Kyoto commitments. So far it does not look very promising for the developed world to agree on the up to 40% carbon emissions cut by 2020 from the 1990 levels that scientists deem to be essential.

To make things even more complicated the developing nations refuse to accept anything less than a 40% cut by the developed world in addition to financial transfers that do not appear to be forthcoming. As you can see both sides are playing a game of chicken when the health of the entire planet is at stake.