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We are all Madoffs
September 1, 2009 7:12 AM   Subscribe

David P. Barash argues that our addiction to economic growth is a Madoff/Ponzi scheme.
posted by mareli (75 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
I have felt this way for a long time. Starting from when I was a litle kid listening to my dad bloviate at the dinner table about "growth" and "value" as if they were synonymous. It's one of the main reasons I had to drop my major in Finance/Economics.
posted by autodidact at 7:24 AM on September 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


And yet, if you asked a large number of people if they would rather have maximum economic growth or maximum economic stability....

Of course, nobody asks.
posted by rokusan at 7:25 AM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is pretty much just a SLOE of an anti-consumerist/capitalist argument that is neither original or new beyond the Madoff gloss being put on it. Take out Madoff from the article, and this same thing has been written ad nauseum over the last 200 years by anti-capitalists.
posted by dios at 7:28 AM on September 1, 2009 [6 favorites]


Derrick Jensen:

Premise One: Civilization is not and can never be sustainable. This is especially true for industrial civilization.

Premise Six: Civilization is not redeemable. This culture will not undergo any sort of voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living. If we do not put a halt to it, civilization will continue to immiserate the vast majority of humans and to degrade the planet until it (civilization, and probably the planet) collapses. The effects of this degradation will continue to harm humans and nonhumans for a very long time.

Premise Eight: : Any economic or social system that does not benefit the natural communities on which it is based is unsustainable, immoral, and stupid.

posted by Joe Beese at 7:30 AM on September 1, 2009


Take out Madoff from the article, and this same thing has been written ad nauseum over the last 200 years by anti-capitalists.

I don't think this is quite the dismissal you hope it to be.
posted by hermitosis at 7:31 AM on September 1, 2009 [22 favorites]


What's a polite way to say "Well, Duh!"? Growth for growth's sake is fundamentally unsustainable and economic systems that depend on it are also unsustainable. IE: Modern capitialism is fucked and the hammer is coming down sooner rather than later. The shift is going to be painful and as paradigm shifting as the invention of the plow.

I'm totally dumbfounded by people, especially business people, who seem to expect companies to grow continuously. If your company has been making widgets for a hundred years and you've managed to conrner the market on widgets growth is essentially impossible short of finding a new market to exploit. However once there are no more new markets growth will stop. There is only so much world wide consumption available.

Of course it's hardly a business only problem, the entire housing bubble was directly attributable to the semi-mass delusion that "real estate always goes up" and that people need to "buy now or be priced out forever".

And it comes up in the housing rent or buy debate where some on the anti-own side think on average they can rent for cheaper than than what it costs the landlord to own the property because the landlord can make it up on the back end by selling the investment.
posted by Mitheral at 7:31 AM on September 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


As we have all read, Ponzi schemes are also called pyramid schemes: A relatively small number of initial investors (the pointy tip of the pyramid) get paid off by money received from an ever-larger number of subsequent investors, who can, in turn, only profit if there are yet more investors.

I know I'm being pedantic here because Ponzi schemes are just being used as a metaphor, but Ponzi schemes are significantly different from pyramid schemes. The early investors in a Ponzi scheme do not "profit" from the later investors, but rather they get paid back a percentage of their (and everyone else's) investment every year. The trick in a Ponzi scheme is that most people just leave their money in the account and never take it out, so nobody notices that the total money that the Ponzi scheme operator has is far less than the sum of the balances of the individual accounts. The inevitable result is that at some point everyone loses confidence in the scheme and tries to withdraw their money at the same time similar to a bank run, and it turns out that there's no money left. Ponzi schemes are extremely difficult to maintain over time because of this, which is why Madoff was such an anomaly.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:31 AM on September 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


The planet is finite. Growth cannot be sustained ad infinitum, not with population, oil production, corporate bottom lines, how many Big Macs we can scarf down, homes we can own, or cars we can park in our driveways.

It would be nice if we stopped acting like cancer. Likelihood? Nah. Kill the host, then colonize each other!
posted by adipocere at 7:34 AM on September 1, 2009


So this uppance, it's coming you say?
posted by rusty at 7:36 AM on September 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


Also, Rev. Malthus did this better 200 years ago.
posted by dios at 7:36 AM on September 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


We are all Madoff stars?
posted by oulipian at 7:38 AM on September 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


Take out Madoff from the article, and this same thing has been written ad nauseum over the last 200 years by anti-capitalists.

[...]

Also, Rev. Malthus did this better 200 years ago.

200 years of this, and yet you are unable to provide even a hint at a rebuttal... so I guess you believe it entirely? If it's true, surely this needs to be shouted from the rooftops...?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 7:42 AM on September 1, 2009


Dios does have a point. Malthusian doomerism has been around a long time. After 200 years, does it really need much rebuttal? For proponents, the end is still just around the corner. And always will be.
posted by 2N2222 at 7:49 AM on September 1, 2009


If it's true, surely this needs to be shouted from the rooftops...?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:42 AM on September 1


Maybe. Just not sure that un-original restatements of well-established arguments make good Metafilter posts. But feel free to climb on your rooftop at your house and be a full-throated Malthusian.
posted by dios at 7:51 AM on September 1, 2009


You mean our grandchildren can't have an economic future? That's what I live for. Right?

Seriously, what can I do about it? For one thing you could go to the 29th annual E. F. Schumacher lecture series on October 17th.
posted by Xurando at 7:58 AM on September 1, 2009


Humans are pretty good at managing scarcity. Sure, there's only 10,000 years or so of observable trends, but so far what essential basic resource have we actually run out of?
posted by chavenet at 7:59 AM on September 1, 2009


The article seems to me a hopelessly confused argument towards a conclusion that may well be true.

First, economic growth doesn't depend purely on an ever-expanding population. Here's a couple of graphs of GDP per capita for America and Japan. Even with a constant population, we could still have an expanding economy.

Second, this guy doesn't seem to have a coherent economic theory of value. Marx's view was that value comes purely from labour. This guy seems to think that value comes purely from raw materials and energy. Modern economists tend think of value as anything that people perceive to have value, which infuriates non-economists who insist it must be something real and universal, goddamit.

An Iphone may be considered more valuable than a 22-inch CRT television. A DVD with a good movie on it may be considered more valuable than a DVD with randomized data on it. If so, it's possible for an economy to grow by increasing that kind of value, without consuming more physical resources.

Or, it may not be possible. It could be that our insatiable desire for massive physical goods will annihilate the environment. It could be that per-capita growth will eventually tail off or fall into reverse. It could be that population growth will lead us into a Malthusian catastrophe. But this article doesn't really demonstrate that.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 8:02 AM on September 1, 2009 [5 favorites]


More than 1 billion people have inadequate access to water.

Make of this what you like. Seems relevant to me.
posted by Joe Beese at 8:04 AM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


A rebuttal: Growth in an economic sense is tied to productivity. Any economic model that successfully describes the world's economic growth in the observable past requires that productivity is tied to knowledge and technology, as well as population and resources. As long as knowledge or technology improve there will be growth. Those claiming "Growth" is unsustainable are claiming that even if we reach a steady state population, continued technological development is also unsustainable. It is the ultimate anti-intellectual movement.
posted by FuManchu at 8:06 AM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


There is a chief difference, even to my really non-educated brain, between Malthus' core message and Barash's article. Malthus was arguing that population controls be put in place in order to keep the system from being overwhelmed. He saw the problems as not chiefly one of the economic model, per se, and more as one of birth rate expanding indefinitely. Barash is speaking nearly entirely about the consumer lifestyle and its basic business tenet of "if you're not growing, you're dying" as leading directly to growth which takes nothing into account aside from its own selfish ends.

Perhaps the argument is not sustainable, perhaps the argument is 200 years old, but the rules of the game have changed a lot since Malthus' day, and the way business is practiced seems to have a fundamentally different flavor now than it did even 30 years ago. It may be an old message, but it is one which has been drowned out over the decades and perhaps needs to be made public again.

If it were possible to belittle and silence old messages, I can think of a multitude of better ones to start that process with than "hey, ya know, if we keep doing this, we're going to use it all up." Even the fish in the sea are depleting, so maybe someone was right all those years ago.
posted by hippybear at 8:06 AM on September 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


Ronald Wright's A Short History of Progress makes a similar argument as this essay. He uses the example of past civilizations, especially the Mayans, to show that collapse has happened before and can happen again, usually when we run out of resources. To say, "well, it's 200 years later and the naysayers have always been wrong" is sort of like saying "I ain't dead yet, suckers."
posted by Brodiggitty at 8:11 AM on September 1, 2009 [4 favorites]


It may be an old message, but it is one which has been drowned out over the decades and perhaps needs to be made public again.

Yes, we've completely forgotten this message as it has been presented to us time and again for the last couple of centuries. I mean really, who has time to read Rousseau or Marx anymore, what with all the day trading and big box retailing going on?
posted by Pollomacho at 8:12 AM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


"There is only so much world wide consumption available."

Yes… but: If you look at the standard of living gap between even the average citizen of the Global North compared to one in the Global South, it's clear that there's a huge appetite that has yet to be filled. You can argue that this expansion of consumerism isn't environmentally sustainable, but that's not going to dissuade a Chinese citizen from wanting a car. Therefore, there's even more growth potential in both providing the goods we have now to people who want them, and providing higher quality goods to them and hopefully removing some of the environmental costs. It would still fuck the planet to give every person in India a Prius, but less than a Taurus.

In fact, it's pretty easy to argue that the best hope of economic salvation that the West has is in raising the overall standards and capital of developing nations to provide both expanded markets and eliminate the competitive advantage that poor environmental and labor standards afford developing nations.

This is also one of those quick litmus tests to see if you're dealing with an ideologue or idiot regarding global development—do they immediately argue that bringing developing nations up to developed status is a bad idea? Usually this accompanies some sort of statement about the immorality of our own progress, which depends on the idea that progress, goods and wealth are inherently bad, rather than the disparity in their distribution.

Two more thoughts: First, while Porfirio Diaz was a bastard and deserved revolution, one of his late reforms was the establishment and rapid modernization of manufacturing in Mexico under the philosophy of Fordism, the idea being that if Mexicans made products for Mexicans, their wages would allow them to buy those products, setting up a virtuous circle. In this time of global commerce, that's less applicable, but looking at the development work that China is doing in, say, sub-Saharan Africa, that philosophy is still bearing fruit. What the left should be doing, especially the unions, is working to expand and globalize rather than fight for more protectionism.

Second, the hypothetical widget maker who has saturated the market should have a fair amount of capital built up, and thus be able to grow into new industries as demand for widgets falls. After all, the processes for making widgets are not too far from those for making doodads, thingimajigs or whatsits, all of which are vitally needed in Framistan, Gloobolia and Chuckland.
posted by klangklangston at 8:14 AM on September 1, 2009 [4 favorites]


Humans are pretty good at managing scarcity. Sure, there's only 10,000 years or so of observable trends, but so far what essential basic resource have we actually run out of?
posted by chavenet at 7:59 AM on September 1 [+] [!]

Really? I thought we liked to hunt animals to extinction, pollute our water sources and then move to a new place where there are hopefully new water sources to use up, plant crops until the land they are planted in is useless for further cultivation, and generally treat the world like it is a neverending supply of stuff for me me me me me me!

This was fine, even up until a few thousand years ago because there were only 300 million people in the whole world. THE WHOLE WORLD.

Now that we are approaching nearly 7 billion people, the issue becomes a matter of gradually running out of new, unpoluted water supplies to use, viable crop land to grow our food, and the decimation of resources through our produce produce produce culture. And yes, maybe this "run out" isn't just around the corner like doomsday-ists say it is, but shouldn't we plan for it BEFORE it is a matter of life and death?
posted by whimsicalnymph at 8:16 AM on September 1, 2009 [6 favorites]


Malthusian doomerism has been around a long time. After 200 years, does it really need much rebuttal? For proponents, the end is still just around the corner. And always will be.

Wait a minute here. Aren't you guys really conflating two really distinct kinds of claims that really belong to two distinct problem domains? Malthus was concerned with the sustainability of human population growth given finite natural resources, right? That's a completely different kind of problem than the soundness or sustainability of universally growth-oriented economics. Of course there are limits to the growth potential of certain markets, and there could be negative consequences to ignoring that reality. You can only produce and sell so many widgets to so many people within a given span of time before nobody needs any more widgets. It's called market saturation. It's not Malthusian doom-saying. Sure the issue of natural resources and sustainable population growth are part of it, too, but to just throw all of these different kinds of issues indiscriminately into the same bucket seems feeble-minded.

Also, WTF? Is there a statute of limit on the possibility of population collapse? Last I heard, major population collapse events have been observed in nature over the course of thousands, or even millions of years, too. This line of rebuttal ("If Malthus was right, how come we're still here 200 years later?") isn't much different than arguing "If it were possible for a large asteroid to strike earth and wipe out most major life forms, why hasn't that happened in the last 200 years?"
posted by saulgoodman at 8:16 AM on September 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


There is a chief difference, even to my really non-educated brain, between Malthus' core message and Barash's article.

Marx would disagree with you.
posted by dios at 8:19 AM on September 1, 2009


(heh. sorry. too slow on the draw. about a half-dozen other comments made my points better for me.)
posted by saulgoodman at 8:19 AM on September 1, 2009


Aren't you guys really conflating two really distinct kinds of claims that really belong to two distinct problem domains? Malthus was concerned with the sustainability of human population growth given finite natural resources, right? That's a completely different kind of problem than the soundness or sustainability of universally growth-oriented economics

Not at all. To say that Malthus was only talking about breeding is a gross misunderstanding of the argument Malthus was engaged in and what the thrust of his position was.
posted by dios at 8:20 AM on September 1, 2009


This is also one of those quick litmus tests to see if you're dealing with an ideologue or idiot regarding global development—do they immediately argue that bringing developing nations up to developed status is a bad idea? Usually this accompanies some sort of statement about the immorality of our own progress, which depends on the idea that progress, goods and wealth are inherently bad, rather than the disparity in their distribution.

Well, that's a logical fallacy. Most who would argue against achieving parity in the distribution of progress would go on to insist that it is not that progress is inherently bad, but rather that our system of progress has never taken into account the actual cost of that progress, and instead focused on the short-term immediate increase in wealth over a broader, systemic view of the implications of the creation of that wealth. Dismissing those who think more deeply about the true cost of consumer-driven capitalism as simply believing "progress is evil" does a disservice to both them and yourself.
posted by hippybear at 8:23 AM on September 1, 2009 [4 favorites]


Regarding Jensen and civilization, I really don't know what to do with an argument condemning civilization, and all of the non-civilized ways of acting on such a conviction scare me (not that I actually think the people making those arguments are inclined to that kind of violence).

Regarding growth: yeah, the widget maker can expand into new markets. Or, alternatively, quality of life could be a measure of success rather than economic expansion.

I would be really pleased if the labor saving innovations of the last couple of centuries actually could somehow reduce the amount of work we do. Humans flourish when we have the time and energy for idle speculation, flights of fancy, and strange hobbies. If a majority of us work in the service industry, why can't we just all work a 10 hour week and use that extra time to brew our own coffee? As far as I understand, this is impossible with a free market. The market needs poverty and unemployment in order to have a usable labor pool.
posted by idiopath at 8:26 AM on September 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


Malthus was right. The residents of Easter Island pretty much proved it, at least to my satisfaction. They had no boat-tech, so they were stuck on an island with a growing population and dwindling resources. When the resources ran down, the population died off. Our own Easter Island is now the planet itself, and we too lack (spacefaring) 'boat-tech', and we too are facing dwindling resources. The only differences are: 1) our island is much larger; and 2) our population is much larger. When we run dry of resources (fresh water being one), the die-off will be correspondingly worse. If we're lucky, global warming effects, pollution and diseases will kill off many of us before we turn on each other from lack of resources.

Is this dismal fate avoidable? I don't know. Probably it is, in theory. In practice? I'm not so sure.
posted by jamstigator at 8:29 AM on September 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


After 200 years, does it really need much rebuttal? For proponents, the end is still just around the corner. And always will be.

So far so good, he said, as he fell past the twentieth floor...
posted by flabdablet at 8:36 AM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Incidentally, we are, as a species, beginning to remind me a lot of the Moties in Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's fantastic novel 'The Mote In God's Eye'. The Moties had population and resource problems on their planet and never developed the technology to escape their solar system, so they were doomed to a boom-and-bust cycle of breeding, overpopulation, war, and rebuilding on the corpse of the previous civilization, over and over again, century after century. If we don't make a leap off of this planet before we run out of resources or descend into anarchy, I could easily see us falling into that same vicious cycle.
posted by jamstigator at 8:39 AM on September 1, 2009


we too lack (spacefaring) 'boat-tech'

...and even if we did manage to build some, there is no way we could build enough of it for seven billion of us to use, and we don't have enough destinations either.

This planet is it. We're stuck with it, and on it, and the sooner we start recognizing that we are parts of it rather than in charge of it, the sooner sanity might prevail.
posted by flabdablet at 8:40 AM on September 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


"Well, that's a logical fallacy. Most who would argue against achieving parity in the distribution of progress would go on to insist that it is not that progress is inherently bad, but rather that our system of progress has never taken into account the actual cost of that progress, and instead focused on the short-term immediate increase in wealth over a broader, systemic view of the implications of the creation of that wealth. Dismissing those who think more deeply about the true cost of consumer-driven capitalism as simply believing "progress is evil" does a disservice to both them and yourself."

No, it's not. Despite the characterization of yourself as holding the noble position of "think[ing] more deeply about the true cost of consumer-driven capitalism," you're making several mistakes. First is arguing that the means of distributing the material goods must follow the same paths as those in Western countries, thereby wreaking environmental or social damage. The amount of progress made on sustainable agriculture in the last 50 years is huge, and developing nations can and should benefit from the scientific advances that our capital has bought us. Given that, it's insulting to pretend that you have some sort of monopoly on deep thought regarding capitalism. Second off, there are a great many goods that cause long-term environmental damage that your position would, if taken literally, deny developing nations. Computers are vile for the environment, yet we're both using them. It's obnoxiously paternalistic to say, sure, yeah, we have them, but they're so terrible that none of you poor darkies should make them because, dontcha know, they're just not worth the cost. Here, recycle my old 486.

So yeah, I tend to dismiss critics that neither offer positive solutions nor acknowledge their own vast privilege and hypocrisy. That doesn't mean that I'm dismissing people who think deeply about the true cost of consumerism, but rather dismiss quite a few people who think they are but are really just mouthing pieties to justify their entitlement.
posted by klangklangston at 8:42 AM on September 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


So yeah, I tend to dismiss critics that neither offer positive solutions nor acknowledge their own vast privilege and hypocrisy. That doesn't mean that I'm dismissing people who think deeply about the true cost of consumerism, but rather dismiss quite a few people who think they are but are really just mouthing pieties to justify their entitlement.

Wow. That got really nasty for no reason, and did nothing to further the discussion at all.
posted by hippybear at 8:47 AM on September 1, 2009


Seriously, klangklangston, your implication that I have some sense of cultural paternalism over "the darkies" was really uncalled for, and downright offensive. You are correct, I don't have any good solutions to offer, but neither do you. But standing there and calling someone a racist because they disagree without about something is really not cool.

If you have a real point to make, make it. But insulting and accusing are not good ways to deal here, and you know it. Or was THAT your point, that anyone who is recoiling with horror in the face of the ecological impact of the lifestyle we see practiced all around us is somehow white supremacist who wants to keep "the darkies" down?
posted by hippybear at 8:54 AM on September 1, 2009


I'm sorry, I completely fail to understand the so-called "rebuttals".

Our economy depends on us consuming, that means producing and discarding, an exponentially growing quantity of physical things.

No amount of words can conceal that fact that we must run out of the materials to produce these things. Something will have to give; perhaps we can redefine consumption away from material things; but we cannot continue along the path we are on for very much longer. In a century, we'll be out of oil, copper, platinum, tantalum - and in many places, we'll be out of drinkable water (heck, I'd be surprised if Nevada and California weren't in a permanent drought emergency within the next 10 years).

Something has to give. Perhaps some deus ex machina in the form of a miracle technology will appear - but please remember that mankind's current technologies all seem to depend on practically unlimited resources to even operate.

(No, the space program is not the answer. The cost of moving a kilo of mass in and out of Earth's gravitational well will be prohibitively expensive for a very long time... and we don't have that much time...)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:00 AM on September 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


If we don't make a leap off of this planet before we run out of resources

Thus you note that Earth is a closed, limited system.

Going off planet allows for the expansion of the 'system' man can draw from, thus allowing for more growth like the use of stored photons in the form of coal and oil has allowed for far more growth than would have existed on the 'regular' amount of photons.

Malthus gets proven correct all the time in closed systems. Its too bad that for the "Malthus is wrong" people to be shown the error of their thinking there will have to be much human suffering...and even then they'll never admit that they were wrong.
posted by rough ashlar at 9:11 AM on September 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


Here, recycle my old 486.

Even that isn't as simple as it might seem.

One of the most disturbing things Puckett points out is happening behind closed doors. Women literally cooking circuit boards to salvage the computer chips, which have trace amounts of gold.

“All these old mother boards and other types of circuit boards are being cooked day in and day out, mostly by women, sitting there, breathing the lead tin solders. It’s just quite devastating,” Puckett says.


Moreover, where will developing countries turn to for their cheap labor pools? It seems that global capitalism requires some body of people to be willing to work for comparatively low wages. If the whole world wants to become developed, where will the cheap labor come from?
posted by Monsters at 9:11 AM on September 1, 2009


What isn't sustainable for sure is the national debt burden as a percentage of GDP.
After the World Wars in the 20th century, national debt was largely owned by Americans in the form of bonds (fueling that consumer culture had a purpose). Not so today. Yet the American government has invested our funds in AIG, the auto industry and would like to radically transform the healthcare system.

Over the long term, markets do grow, humans do innovate, Yankee ingenuity, etc.
posted by njbradburn at 9:13 AM on September 1, 2009


Under the capitalist "growth" system, it is impossible to run out of resources. Livable space, energy and raw materials are cheaper today than they were 5, 10, 100, or 1000 years ago.

"Ehrlich and his colleagues picked five metals that they thought would undergo big price rises: chromium, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten. Then, on paper, they bought $200 worth of each, for a total bet of $1,000, using the prices on September 29, 1980, as an index. They designated September 29, 1990, 10 years hence, as the payoff date. If the inflation-adjusted prices of the various metals rose in the interim, Simon would pay Ehrlich the combined difference; if the prices fell, Ehrlich et alia would pay Simon.

Then they sat back and waited.

Between 1980 and 1990, the world's population grew by more than 800 million, the largest increase in one decade in all of history. But by September 1990, without a single exception, the price of each of Ehrlich's selected metals had fallen, and in some cases had dropped through the floor. Chrome, which had sold for $3.90 a pound in 1980, was down to $3.70 in 1990. Tin, which was $8.72 a pound in 1980, was down to $3.88 a decade later.

Which is how it came to pass that in October 1990, Paul Ehrlich mailed Julian Simon a check for $576.07. "
posted by otto42 at 9:19 AM on September 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


The major oversight in the article was that of differentiating or defining resources and pollution. Not all resources are finite, some are re-grown at a sustainable rate. Some pollution is absorbed by natural systems and turned into nutrients. Problems arise when you take faster than the resource can be replaced, or generate more than can be processed.

Also overlooked were recycling-focused industries, as well as efforts for composting, which decrease the creation of generic "rubbish" and create a new raw material flow. These industries that are now more attractive, given the marketing interest in "going green" and various laws and standards that are pushing municipalities (at least in the US) to reduce the sheer amount of material that goes into land fills or incinerators. These facilities have been around for a while, but the level interest in recycled materials has increased in recent times. More efficient machines and products will replace the less efficient ones, and could be made from recycled stuff. I have hope for future technologies that harvest trash dumps.

Furthermore, there are Alternatives to GDP for measuring improvements. Maybe these will come to the forefront as there is an increased focus on decreasing resource dependency, but I doubt it.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:20 AM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Bill Hicks had it right - we're viruses with shoes.

It's not that difficult to figure out that, in the context of a planet covered with humans, that the notion of indefinite growth is simply unsustainable. There's a useful analogy in medicine - unrestrained growth, in terms of cells, is called cancer. It eventually kills the host body. Will we kill the planet? Unlikely. Will we kill off ourselves? Seems inevitable, unless we evolve pretty darned quick, or get off the planet.
posted by dbiedny at 9:22 AM on September 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


Space has some answers, if we'd just invest in that direction. There are several near earth asteroids. Put up fifty Long March rockets loaded with solar sails, attach the sails to one of the asteroids, and slowly compress its orbit until Earth's gravity well permanently captures it. Slow, but relatively cheap. One of the NEAs I was reading about has around 25 million metric tons of nickel and iron, plus 10,000 tons of gold and 100,000 tons of platinum. Costs little energy to drop it DOWN the gravity well (throw chunks into landlocked lakes, or shape them into aerodynamic shapes then float them down, whatever). And no need to carry that stuff up out of our gravity well -- it's already there. We could capture one of these asteroids within two or three decades if we wanted to do it (e.g. if somebody wanted to spend the moolah on it). Once there, 25 million tons of iron and nickel would be enough material to start building large habitable structures in orbit. Enough for 7 billion people? Of course not. But ya gotta start somewhere.

Of course, the easy way out of our dilemma is to cut down on the population of homo sapiens, voluntarily, before Mother Nature takes matters into her own hands and does it for us. My significant other and I decided not to have children. We have some regrets about that too, probably a result of millions of years of human evolution telling us we SHOULD reproduce. Intellectually, I'm happy about the choice we made. But a primal part of me says, aw hell, what difference would a couple more people make? But that's the problem: *everyone* says that, and then breeds, and before you know it, we have seven billion people screaming for resources as the world cooks around them.
posted by jamstigator at 9:23 AM on September 1, 2009 [4 favorites]


So yeah, I tend to dismiss critics that neither offer positive solutions nor acknowledge their own vast privilege and hypocrisy.

Positive solutions to what? Despite the declarations of what can go wrong, there's not much indication that things are in fact going irreparably wrong.

Something has to give. Perhaps some deus ex machina in the form of a miracle technology will appear - but please remember that mankind's current technologies all seem to depend on practically unlimited resources to even operate.

What makes you think that mankind's current technologies will remain the only technologies?

This brand of doomerism is predicated on the idea that neither people, nor the tools they use, will ever change. So, certainly, if humanity relied on dodo for the bulk of the food source and refused to change, then wanton slaughter of dodos would lead to dire consequences. But people are not typically like that. The fact that the planet is more populous than ever, with increasing levels of prosperity spreading even to regions that never knew such a thing seems to indicate that people are typically unlike that.

I suspect "miracle technology" will appear. After all, it always does. That it will seem miraculous by today's standards, and that we cannot imagine what it will be only makes us as human as our ancestors.
posted by 2N2222 at 9:26 AM on September 1, 2009


Under the capitalist "growth" system, it is impossible to run out of resources. Livable space, energy and raw materials are cheaper today than they were 5, 10, 100, or 1000 years ago.

Are you saying things that are cheap are infinite in supply? I don't get it.
posted by R_Nebblesworth at 9:28 AM on September 1, 2009


jamstigator: "Space has some answers."

Wendell Berry somewhere makes the point that we would only end up exploiting then exhausting any off-Earth resources we found.

Exhibit A.
posted by Joe Beese at 9:44 AM on September 1, 2009


Wendell Berry somewhere makes the point that we would only end up exploiting then exhausting any off-Earth resources we found.

wallace berry misses the point that the solar system and the universe are a hell of a lot bigger than the planet

we could have been well on our way to a solution to this problem by now if we had only had the vision to keep up our space program - for those who say it is impossible, i think it's a lot easier than trying to manage a "slow collapse" of our global civilization into something steady-state and sustainable, which would be the only decent alternative - something like that would need everyone's cooperation and willingness to sacrifice and i'm sure not seeing that in my daily newspaper ...
posted by pyramid termite at 9:59 AM on September 1, 2009


"Seriously, klangklangston, your implication that I have some sense of cultural paternalism over "the darkies" was really uncalled for, and downright offensive. You are correct, I don't have any good solutions to offer, but neither do you. But standing there and calling someone a racist because they disagree without about something is really not cool.

If you have a real point to make, make it. But insulting and accusing are not good ways to deal here, and you know it. Or was THAT your point, that anyone who is recoiling with horror in the face of the ecological impact of the lifestyle we see practiced all around us is somehow white supremacist who wants to keep "the darkies" down?
"

You're right, I was needlessly insulting. I apologize. However, the attitude that the achievements of the Global North should not be shared with the Global South due to environmental or social concerns has the effect of denying vast swaths of the world the ability to make their own choices and control their own destinies. I find that a pretty frequent and insulting philosophy amongst leftists.

Further, regarding solutions—that's why I should have left the "darkies" line out, because you missed where I talked about, in broad strokes, different development paths that don't mirror the Global North's industrial revolution. You missed where I mentioned advances in sustainable agriculture, or how unionized labor should strive to internationalize and globalize. Those are solutions to some of the worst abuses.
posted by klangklangston at 10:03 AM on September 1, 2009


"I suspect "miracle technology" will appear. After all, it always does. "

Hope is not a plan.
posted by atchafalaya at 10:03 AM on September 1, 2009 [5 favorites]


Metafilter: this same thing has been written ad nauseum over the last 200 years by anti-capitalists.
posted by philip-random at 10:06 AM on September 1, 2009


These kinds of discussions, IMO, are always too bedeviled by intellectual sloppiness, over-generalization, and rhetorical posturing dressed up as argument to be constructive. All they ever seem to produce are a kind of foul-tasting, interdisciplinary goulash whose ingredients are the grisliest, ripest scraps of the soft-sciences: Economics gets cooked to a soggy pulp in the same pot with environmental science, ethics, and sociology, and the end result is a dish that tastes awful and makes everyone sick to their stomachs.

Let's define the problem more narrowly: What are the benefits and trade-offs strictly in economic terms for pro-growth economics? But first, what do we even mean by "pro-growth economics" anyway?

To me, if an economy grows at the same pace as a population, that's not growth. That's economic equilibrium. And to consider this purely in economic terms, overlook for now the fact that even economic equilibrium as I've defined it might be unsustainable if the rate of population growth is.

To further define the term, I offer as an alternative to pro-growth economics--for simplicity's sake, let's call it the "Starbucks Model"--the "Mom and Pop Shop" model. In the Mom and Pop Shop model, the goal isn't to maximize the revenue growth of an enterprise indefinitely. It's to grow the enterprise to a self-sustaining level and then to maintain it at those levels indefinitely, leaving room for other enterprises to emerge to meet any additional demand due to population growth. It was once quite common for Mom and Pop Shops to operate with these relatively modest ambitions, because being a shop owner was often viewed as an end in itself. No one considered such business models examples of anti-capitalism.

I had an aunt and uncle who ran a small, successful town barbershop most of their lives, and they had no desire whatsoever to become the next Cost Cutters, or to open up branch locations all across the Northwest Florida region. My uncle saw himself as a barber by trade, and his barbershop was not a speculative business venture: it was his primary means of practicing his chosen trade for a living.

Now, to my way of looking at it, those are really the two different economic orientations we should be comparing and weighing the costs and benefits of. Which makes more sense and provides the most sustainable, long-term economic benefits, the Starbucks model or the Mom and Pop Shop model? Or some rational proportion of both? And why? Personally, I think muddling a discussion of these narrower questions up into some kind of distracting and inherently futile discussion of the grand-unified-economic-field theory of capitalism versus anti-capitalism versus Mother Earth really does more harm than good.

I think it's better to take on these issues from the narrower, economic angle, because I think the better case can be made there, ultimately leading to similar conclusions, but with sounder, economically-defensible arguments. Barash's arguments here (while, unfortunately, I can't completely dismiss his conclusions) just leave me with a belly ache.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:12 AM on September 1, 2009 [6 favorites]


"I'm sorry, I completely fail to understand the so-called "rebuttals".

Our economy depends on us consuming, that means producing and discarding, an exponentially growing quantity of physical things.
"

That's because you're starting with a bunch of wrong premises.

First off, our economy doesn't depend on us consuming (which doesn't mean producing and discarding) an "exponentially growing" quantity of physical things.

Our economy, and by this I mean globally, depends on us ADDING VALUE to a larger and larger number of things, where VALUE is a fairly subjective and abstract term. If I'm hungry, my hammer has no direct value to me. If a man has a bunch of coconuts but no way to open them, they are of no direct value. But if I trade him the use of my hammer for some of his coconuts, we can both eat, and we can both be effective stewards of the coconut trees and the waste produced. But despite nothing being added to the system, we've added value. The production is sustainable, but value is added. And as people pointed out prior, there are a lot of ways to add value to something without changing the physical output—we're doing it right now, adding value to MetaFilter. You can get into an elaborate derail about whether this growth requires more physical resources, but with a little imagination, it's easy to see that it doesn't have to past a certain infrastructure investment (hydroelectricity, etc.).

Further, consumption doesn't have to mean producing and discarding things—it simply does because it's cheaper to get raw materials than to reprocess used materials.

The wonderful thing about capitalism—and lest the stupids surge here, let me say that I'm not an ideologue and realize that there are many things for which capitalism is ill-suited—is that it's a responsive system with pretty obvious mechanisms in the simplest forms. When gas prices rise, SUV sales go down. When resources get scarce, their price goes up to reflect that.

Finally, for all the bloviation about limited systems, people seem to misunderstand how truly huge the system is. Sure, yeah, we can run out of energy entirely—it's not infinite. But for that to happen, the core of the earth would have to stop spinning and the sun would have to go out. And expecting people to forgo pleasure now to preserve an extra ten minutes fifty thousand years from now is stupid. In the long run, we're all dead.
posted by klangklangston at 10:21 AM on September 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


... and on the twenty-ninth day the lilies of the pond did look about themselves and say, "Verily, we have grown without restraint for the prior four weeks, and we still see quite a bit more pond left to cover."
posted by adipocere at 10:27 AM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


In the long run, we're all dead.

Not if we can ensure the continuity of human survival long enough into the future that science can find a way to bring us back from the dead, dammit! Don't you damn economists try to tell me what is or isn't possible!

/not kidding
posted by saulgoodman at 10:27 AM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


It could be that if SUVs had a price tag which took into account the cost of what their poor emissions standards did to the atmosphere, as well as carried within the purchase price the cost of their end-of-life recycling requirements, they would never be sold in the first place.

Also, is it logical to say we should all eat as much sushi as possible now because in 10 years there will not be any tuna left? Or does that seem like a mindset which fulfills its own prophesy and should maybe be changed to ensure that tuna will exist for a while beyond that?
posted by hippybear at 10:30 AM on September 1, 2009


what essential basic resource have we actually run out of?

Love, sweet love. It's the only thing that there's just too little of.
posted by rusty at 10:50 AM on September 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


Great big cut-and-paste ahoy, with Giovanni Arrighi arguing that among 'the master economists of the past,' Adam Smith may well be 'one of the most widely referred to and most rarely read' an 'along with Marx, he is certainly one of the most misunderstood.' One of the three myths surrounding his legacy is 'that he was a theorist and advocate of capitalism as an engine of 'endless' economic expansion':
...Smith was no more a theorist and advocate of capitalism as an engine of "endless'' economic expansion than he was a theorist and advocate of "self-regulating'' markets. Contrary to widespread opinion, the idea that over time the accumulation of capital tends to drive down the rate of profit, eventually bringing economic expansion to an end, is not Marx's idea but Smith's. As we shall see in Chapter 3, Marx's own version of the "law'' of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall is in fact aimed at demonstrating that Smith's version is overly pessimistic about the long-term potential of capitalist development.
In Smith's version of the "law,'' the tendency of the rate of profit to fall is the outcome of the increase in competition that inevitably accompanies the accumulation of an increasing mass of capital within established spheres of production and channels of trade.
As capitals increase in any country, the profits which can be made by employing them necessarily diminish. It becomes gradually more and more difficult to find within the country a profitable method of employing any new capital. There arises in consequence a competition between different capitals, the owner of one endeavoring to get possession of that employment which is occupied by another. . . . [To this end, he] must not only sell what he deals in somewhat cheaper, but in order to get it to sell, he must sometimes too buy it dearer . . . [T]he profits which can be made by the use of a capital are in this manner diminished, as it were, at both ends.
The opening up of new spheres of production and channels of trade can temporarily counter the tendency. But if there is freedom of entry (Smith's "perfect liberty'') the tendency inevitably resumes under the impact of renewed competition.
The establishment of any new manufacture, of any new branch of commerce, or of any new practice in agriculture, is always a speculation, from which the projector promises himself extraordinary profits. These profits sometimes are very great, and sometimes, more frequently, perhaps are quite otherwise; but in general they bear no regular proportion to those of other old trades in the neighborhood. If the project succeeds, they are commonly at first very high. When the trade or practice becomes thoroughly established and well known, the competition reduces them to the level of other trades.
This general level to which profits are reduced may be high or low depending on whether merchants and manufacturers are in a position to restrict entry into their spheres of operation through private agreements or through governmental regulation. If they are not in a position to do so, profits will fall as low as it is considered "tolerable'' in view of the risks involved in the employment of capital in trade and production. But, if they can restrict entry and keep the market undersupplied, profits will be significantly higher than their tolerable level. In the first case, the expansion of trade and production comes to an end because of low profits; in the second case, it is brought to an end by the inclination of merchants and manufacturers to keep the level of profits as high as possible. Either way, the economic process does not spontaneously generate any tendency to overcome the limits imposed on further economic growth by the fall in the rate of profit...
...For Smith, in other words, a fundamental task of governments is to ensure that capitalists compete with one another in reducing profits to the bare minimum necessary to compensate for the risks of investing resources in trade and production.
'The Historical Sociology of Adam Smith', Chapter 3 of Giovanni Arrighi's Adam Smith in Beijing
posted by Abiezer at 10:53 AM on September 1, 2009 [4 favorites]


Chapter 2, even. Arse.
posted by Abiezer at 10:53 AM on September 1, 2009


klangklangston -
I think the failure of your argument, or at least the point that a lot of so-called anti-capitalists are trying to make is that _unfettered_ growth is the problem. The idea being that the "invisible hand" is invisible because it's not there. With out management and measurement of the resources and scales, there isn't any limit on the waste caused by any economic system. Almost all economic data is 3 to 6 months after the fact. The main reason we don't know if we are done with the recession yet or not is because the only way we have of measuring it is to compile data and process it which takes a lot of time, and the results are not final until 3 to 6 months after the fact. This is fine for theory and has sort of worked in practice as a way of charting past performance, but does nothing for future expansion or finding stasis. Thus, the growth, bang, bust, growth, bang bust, history of world economics. Sure, each time we are in a growth period, we get even bigger than the last, but that also means we bust even bigger every time the cycle repeats itself. Sustainable growth requires constant and intelligent management.

An example I heard a few years ago was this simple idea: You are an investor in a fishery that has 2 modes in which you can operate. Go for the maximum profit (added value = earnings) over the short term, say 2 years, with a 50% return on investment. After you exhaust it, it's wasted and will never recover. Or, go for maximum sustainability, but limit "growth" (i.e. added value), with the possibility of doubling the original investment over 10 years. In todays markets and the way our economies are managed, the "smart" investor would want the first option, meaning to get the maximum added value out of the fishery, then take those resources gained and invest into something else, instead of relying on smart management to always supply a long term value. This situation is repeated over and over again in the way that Wall Street investors (and day-traders, can't forget them) pick and chose stocks, and so you have a myriad of industries that _should_ be sustainable which aren't because of an unmanaged and rapacious drive to gain maximum value over the short term, instead of getting a long term benefit and added value from an investment. And businesses that rely on their stock price for capital also suffer from having to perform to this standard, thus leading to excessive waste, drive for the lowest wages possible from workers while having higher and higher productivity, causing the system to be strained to a breaking point where there will eventually be nothing left to add value to, because there will not be any industries left with functional resources if they are treated as disposable means to create more capital, instead of what they are, physical resources that have a ceiling of where you can sustainably grow. And this affects every industry, not just fisheries, which are (supposedly) renewable.

Yes, the system is truly huge. It is also massively interconnected, and reliant upon certain basic resources, the most valuable being our ability to recognize patterns and to try and set up systems to maintain sustainable management of growth, not wild and unchecked growth. Growth is not just constructive. When it outpaces the sustainable model, it becomes self-destructive. This is the doom that Malthus preached, and if you don't heed it, you are the only one you can blame when you jump off that cliff with everyone else.
posted by daq at 10:54 AM on September 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


"It could be that if SUVs had a price tag which took into account the cost of what their poor emissions standards did to the atmosphere, as well as carried within the purchase price the cost of their end-of-life recycling requirements, they would never be sold in the first place."

Right, a social regulation of production to reflect true costs does make things more sustainable, though I'd say that there are a fair number of people for whom SUVs are a good investment despite increased environmental costs. So no, they'd be sold, and they'd be as profitable per unit, but wouldn't sell as many so would be less profitable as lines. In places like Michigan, there's a fairly sizable movement for redevelopment to include "true cost" concerns for things like draining wetlands, but unfortunately, coming up with a mechanism for enforcement and valuation is difficult. But it's more difficult when people try to start with the proposition that any new growth is de facto bad, or that no wetlands should ever be drained, which is just as stupid (but not as powerful) as the lobby that says that the government should absorb these costs in the interest of aiding growth and business.
posted by klangklangston at 11:16 AM on September 1, 2009


I'm pretty sure I saw Bernie Madoff this morning, riding a mountain bike at the corner of Mission and New Montgomery. At least he was wearing a helmet.
posted by mrgrimm at 12:32 PM on September 1, 2009


Sure, there's only 10,000 years or so of observable trends, but so far what essential basic resource have we actually run out of?

Empathy.
posted by one_bean at 12:58 PM on September 1, 2009


Our economy depends on us consuming, that means producing and discarding, an exponentially growing quantity of physical things.

No amount of words can conceal that fact that we must run out of the materials to produce these things. Something will have to give; perhaps we can redefine consumption away from material things;


Well, a large portion of the market is not in "physical things" - the service industry, the entertainment industry, even to some extent the computer industry since though much of it is physical, the value is in innovation, and lots of payments are made for "virtual" items... An expanding economy isn't all based on making more stuff, but on doing more stuff with the resources we have.

Can that go on forever? Well, nothing lasts forever, but so long as you believe innovation will continue, then there's no reason to suggest that an expanding economy is an especially doomed prospect. All it is based on is new ideas, new technologies, and new ways to make more use of what there is.

Also, it's a different question from whether this is the most fulfilling way for us to live.
posted by mdn at 2:25 PM on September 1, 2009


> Those claiming "Growth" is unsustainable are claiming that even if we reach a steady state population, continued technological development is also unsustainable. It is the ultimate anti-intellectual movement.

If you're referring to proponents of the steady-state economy, then that's not what they claim at all [pdf].

Unless by "continued technological development" you're referring to overcoming physical limits, in which case I reckon you're wrong. There is a minimum amount of energy and materials required to do any sort of activity; the question is whether our current way of life in the developed world is sustainable (and for what level of population), even with eventual tecnhological breakthroughs.
posted by Bangaioh at 2:55 PM on September 1, 2009


I'm surprised no one has yet brought up Dr. Bartlett's lecture on Arithmetic, Population & Energy.
posted by heathkit at 4:33 PM on September 1, 2009


"Sure, there's only 10,000 years or so of observable trends, but so far what essential basic resource have we actually run out of?"

You're kidding right? Off the top of my head: Ivory, whale products, many ocean fish (EG: cod), old growth trees, fresh water in many places (global warming and over consumption will greatly extend the number of people living without adequate fresh water in the next couple of decades), a single miracle antibiotic that killed whatever ever ailed ya- bacteria wise- with a single shot; homesteadable land, American chestnut and chestnuts (though the last was immediately because of meddling not over harvesting). There is a Helium shortage.
posted by Mitheral at 5:30 PM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ivory and whale products are essential basic resources for humanity?

Were you trying to be subtle and include excellent examples of resource substitution?
posted by sien at 6:20 PM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Obviously there is a spectrum, both of essentialness and replacement suitability. Potable water is about as essential as it gets. Ivory and whale bone not so much but in both cases a decent replacement for many applications does not exist. No replacement exists for potable water as far as I know. Whale oil was a renewable source of oil used practically everywhere dino juice is used now. Of course none of these besides the potable water and to a lesser extent fish stocks would be essential to our hunter gather ancestors.

Still; Water. Undebatablely an essential basic resource and one that is in either short or non existent supply in many places around the world that used to support humans because of over harvesting of a renewable resource. For example the river Jordan's flow has been reduced from historic levels of 1.3 billion cubic meters annually to only about 70,000 cubic meters now. Global warming is set to melt the Tibet glaciers and that is going to bring a world of lack of water hurt to billions of people who depend on the food produced with water from those glaciers.

Or let's think about the Ogallala Aquifer. Extractable water from it could be depleted in as little as 25 years at current rates and it's the source for ~30% of the food grown in America.
posted by Mitheral at 9:07 PM on September 1, 2009


So You Just Squandered Billions . . . Take Another Whack at It
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 11:22 PM on September 1, 2009


Potable water? No problem. What we do is we drill a 20 km deep shaft into the bottom of the Mariana Trench, then sink a huge reverse osmosis desal plant in there on the bottom of a humongous drinking straw.

Seawater pressure at the bottom of the Trench (roughly 11km deep) is already about 108MPa, so at the bottom of our shaft we should get about 300MPa. Sea water is about 3% denser than fresh, so the back pressure due to the fresh water output from the plant will be 3% less than the pressure of the sea water at its input, for a net pressure across the RO membrane of about 3% * 300Mpa = 9MPa.

6 - 8MPa of that is enough to drive water through the RO membrane, leaving us with a fountain of potable water rising endlessly from the deep, and all we need to do is surround it with a huge plastic bladder and we've created an endlessly replenished freshwater lake in the middle of the ocean. Any time it starts looking a little depleted, we just bore another massive hole and sink another huge RO plant to boost its extraction rate.

Isn't human ingenuity a wonderful thing?
posted by flabdablet at 1:48 AM on September 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Sure thing, flabdablet. Um... Let us know how that little project is going for ya.
posted by hippybear at 5:53 AM on September 2, 2009


Modern economists tend think of value as anything that people perceive to have value, which infuriates non-economists who insist it must be something real and universal, goddamit.

This makes sense to my puny non-economist's brain - growth isn't bad, it's what we're counting that's all wrong.

If it's not measured, it's an externality: put a value on clean water, and suddenly dumping toxins into a river becomes exceptionally expensive, and cleaning up lakes becomes growth.

This all reminds me of this article (discussed previously on MeFi here).
posted by nometa at 6:38 PM on September 2, 2009


The passage below from the part of your Harper's link, nometa, that talks about some of the limits on quantifiable economic data identified by Kuznet, the guy who helped lay the groundwork for how Uncle Sam now reckons economic health, says it all:
He [Kuznets] also grasped, more broadly, that the quality and importance of a function do not depend upon the amount of money paid for it–or whether any money was paid at all. The care of a mother and father is not inferior to that of a day-care worker just because they do not charge a price for their services. This recognition undercuts a basic assumption behind the GDP–namely, that the contribution of an activity can be gauged solely by its market price.
I've been arguing forever now that the biggest problem in our contemporary understanding of economics is closely related to this: we now seem to think that markets actually set values, when in the past we all recognized intuitively that markets are mechanisms for capturing and reflecting real values in monetary terms. In other words, if a market works right, an apple should cost about what we think it should cost, what most of us would be willing to pay for an apple relative to all the other things we could buy. The more contemporary view seems to be that an apple is worth whatever the market's magical calculator say it is, and if people complain that the price for an apple is wrong, then they just don't understand how markets function.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:20 AM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


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