Monday, July 9, 2012

Ecology of Collapse

A group of left-leaning scientists are calling for a great pull back in world economic activity.  I say left-leaning, because arguments that start from a point of "fairness" generally lean toward requiring a disproportionate effort within the ranks of the community.  In this case there is not a redistribution of income or assets, but an unequal pullback in production - with the Western economies being the ones with the most to belt tightening.

Stan Cox, Aljazeerah editorial, 21 June 2012 (hat tip NC)
The ecological limits that science has warned us about for decades are coming into view, and it's now possible to see how little room remains for growth. According to calculations by Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba, the human economy has already reduced the total weight of plant biomass on the Earth's surface by 45 per cent. About 25 per cent of each year's total plant growth, and a similar proportion of all fresh water flowing on the Earth's surface, is already being taken for human use. And if you could put all of our livestock and other domestic animals on a giant scale, they would weigh 25 times as much as the Earth's entire dwindling population of wild. 
Note that Smil is not part of the group, they are just using his numbers.
In their view an intentional pullback could be managed far better than the erratic recessions we already are suffering through, and that the pain would be balanced by some gains for the average folk.
The idea that an economy can manage sufficiency for all, even while shrinking, provides little comfort to economists, politicians, and corporate boards. They would greet any suggestion of growth reversal with dire warnings of stagnation. But, of course, chronic stagnation and unemployment have already become all-too-familiar features of the world economy. And ironically, at the root of that stagnation is not a lack of productivity but rather the same phenomenon that has fostered ecological crisis: overproduction.
I presume this overproduction includes the big screen TV's that some of us watched the Super Bowl on last year.  So I am suspicious that everyone outside the 1% is going to be as happy with the recommended changes as they think.  But if there is a cut back in available resources, the amount of cutback by an individual who is living on $2 a day, is going to be a lot smaller.  Granted, even at $2 a day, you can be made to be suffer, but outside of dying, only so much of the pullback will come from the poor. 

A lot of people also look to technology "fixes" to continue our economic growth.   My reluctance to follow a pull pack scenario is I am sure a combination of inertia-bias and self-interest, but rationalized by the need to keep a viable economic surplus and investment mechanism to explore technological solutions.  But with the population supposedly peaking out at 10 billion people (Pakistan is not cooperating.), it seems a bit fanciful to guarantee that that is the road to success.

In pre-industrial societies, the various groups within the "elite" fight over the dwindling surplus.  It is usually this fighting, rather than a surge of protests from the poor, that brings on social collapses.  So leaving aside the reaction of the 1% that they comment on, if you are reading this post, you likely tie in somewhere to the elite culture.  If you don't like the current deal you have within that elite structure - well, that's how the fighting gets started. Remember, as we discussed this last 4th of July, the period leading up to 1776 was a time of economic recession, and demographic tumult.

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