Saturday, October 29, 2011

Half World

My projections of world consumption of ecological resources suggest that in 1961 the amount of economic activity per unit of consumption was at its historical minimum, translating into $1,425 per hectare in 2009 dollars. In 1980, when humanity was consuming all of the ecological resources produced by Nature (instead of that and the producers themselves, as we are now), a hectare was worth $2,288 and increasing. That number is now $4,123, and is expected to reach a maximum of $4,890 in 2029 when consumption, economic activity, and population also peak.

If it takes a minimum ecological footprint of 1.5 hectares per person to maintain a functioning society, then we could theoretically reduce average consumption to 56% of its current value. We would then be collectively consuming only 88% of what Nature can produce, with the extra as a reasonable amount for the producers to consume (as well as a margin for error). Economic activity, measured as Gross World Product (GWP), would be 26% of its present value if the historical relationship between consumption and GWP held, which would be 48% of current per-capita GWP.

Based on national ecological footprint data from the Global Footprint Network, an estimated 41% of the world's population consumed less than 1.5 hectares in 2007 (the world average was 2.7). In a fair world, their consumption would need to be increased at the expense of those of us with a surplus. Also in a fair world, population would stay constant along with consumption; the cost of increasing per-capita consumption for a few would unfortunately be taken in lives from others.

Of course, the real world is much more complex than this discussion assumes. For example, ecological resources are not evenly distributed around the world; it will take resources to either move resources where they're needed, or move people where the resources are. Pollution already in the atmosphere and water threaten to reduce the total amount of resources available, which would force part of the world's population below the minimum consumption threshold even in the best case. Obviously, I've ignored the huge political, social, and economic barriers to such a monumental redistribution of wealth, which will likely make the other complications moot.

As individuals, we can at least try to improve the situation. We can work on cutting our consumption as much as possible (starting with half), using the rest to pay off debt and then finding ways to get it to the people consuming less than the minimum. Our sources of income will need to migrate from resource-intensive (and especially extractive) activities to those that increase Nature's production. This will have an added benefit of reducing additional pollution and giving other species a chance to process the waste we've already dumped. For those of us who loathe the greedy actions of enthusiastic planet-killing sociopaths such as Wall Street bankers and leaders of the fossil fuel industry, our elimination of debt and unwillingness to purchase their products -- now and in the future -- will reduce the capital they have to do more damage. With any luck, what we do will have a cumulative effect large enough to make a significant difference, but at least we'll be able to sleep better at night with somewhat clearer consciences.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Peak Economy

In a recent comment about the 99% Movement (a.k.a. Occupy Wall Street), I introduced what I think is a fundamental problem with our economy. We have demonstrated a willingness and ability to assign arbitrary economic value to configurations of matter and energy as well as non-physical (virtual) things such as intellectual property and debt. The most “successful” people in our economy – those who can effectively consume whatever they want – are best at manipulating the value, manifested as demand, for the things (whether physical or virtual) whose supply they control. The ability to exchange virtual things of arbitrary value for physical commodities that are inherently limited, either in supply or access to them, poses the threat of potentially exhausting the physical commodities, leaving virtual ones which cannot by themselves contribute to people's basic survival.

For much of the last 50 years, Gross World Product (GWP), a measure of world economic activity, has grown faster than the world's consumption of ecological resources (total ecological footprint). GWP is now about 1.8 times what it was in 1980, when humanity was consuming as much ecological resources as the Earth could provide on a renewable basis, while consumption is nearly 1.6 times its 1980 value (population is 1.5). When we were consuming all of the “production” of the natural world, the value of the economy presumably embodied all of that consumption; simplistically, the GWP was equal to its value. GWP tracks with consumption in a predictable way, suggesting that the difference since then is due to value added to the resources we consume, that is, the creation of virtual commodities.

Generally, both GWP and consumption have been slowing down (consumption since 1960, GWP since 1989), yet the annual rate of GWP growth has fluctuated wildly, likely in response to the movement of virtual wealth. The recent fluctuations in the GWP growth rate are not unusually large, but they are unusual in that they've briefly gone negative, causing major economic and social upheaval, due mainly to how far from peak growth we have gotten.

If my projections are accurate, the average rate will continue steadily, inexorably, downward, though there may be more fluctuations. GWP, along with consumption and population, will reach a maximum (zero growth) by 2029, when consumption approaches the habitability limit, and take another 42 years to drop to zero. At the peak, GWP will be about 3.7 times its value in 1980, about twice what it would have been if it had kept pace with consumption and consumption reached the habitability limit. Put another way: The world economy will reach its maximum when the value of virtual commodities is the same as the value of physical commodities, where our consumption is at the limit where the remaining other species can just keep the planet habitable and survive.

Using virtual wealth to purchase all the physical wealth would be at least theoretically possible at the peak. Since virtual wealth declines after the peak, it's conceivable that such a possibility may be acted upon, driving the population down in the process as more and more people can't meet their physical needs from this and the resulting competition. Needless to say, this is a future we want to avoid.

In the commentary that introduced this concern, I suggested that we could begin dealing with it by more closely matching our economy to physical constraints. This is not a new idea; ecologically-minded economists have been making the case for a long time that we should account for the value of products and services that other species provide, viewing our economy as part of a larger system that includes the rest of Nature. I'm taking a bit of a short cut by assigning economic value to the ecological footprint (again, the basis of my “consumption” numbers). I'm also suggesting that we at least decouple virtual wealth from physical wealth (consumption) enough that people can retain enough physical wealth to survive and maintain a functioning society while keeping the overall amount low enough so we never get too close to the habitability limit.

Perhaps we could start by limiting the GWP to a value between what it was in 1980 and what it was at peak growth, in 1989 (27.2T to 39.9T in 2009 U.S. dollars). We would need to reshape the way we live so that everyone could meet their basic needs on 54% to 68% of the average current per capita economic activity, and preferably less than half. As unrealistic as this appears, it at least frames the scale of the problem we need to solve, and the sooner we can start figuring out how to do so with the minimum hardship, the better.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Conservatively Successful

If I were still a conservative, here is what I might be thinking...

We walk around with our smart phones, music players, and computer pads when we're not attending meetings with our personal computers primed to share our electronic creations with others while we drone on about abstractions aimed at manipulating the lives of others to achieve the half-conceived goals of our masters. Work in this artificial world allows us to keep a lifestyle that depends on increasing the amount and power of our abstractions at the expense of the physical world outside, where creatures and increasing numbers of people are forced to eke out a much harder living, and die younger from the pollution and decreasing resources we leave them with.

Although we are far from being the masters of the universe, we imagine someday being the next best thing. Competition is the key. Beat out more people, just like we pass cars on the highway, and we might have a shot at the top, or at least being very comfortable until we die at a very old age. Increasingly, we find ourselves out of work for months at a time, and must hustle to ingratiate ourselves with the masters or their minions, competing even from home for a chance of getting back into the game. Our high-tech tools keep us prepared for our inevitable re-entry, with fresh skills and the all-important appearance of success.

Rumors and a growing stream of finely filtered news suggest that our world may be teetering on the brink of collapse, but the consistency of our immediate environment belies this option, along with the outrageous, almost science fiction quality of the information. The polished promises of a better life, buttressed by realistic stories and multimedia descriptions, are much more believable than the apocalyptic predictions using complex, scientific reasoning that numbs our minds while trying to scare us into radically changing the world that gives our lives meaning. Still, the weather, the spiking prices of everything from fuel to food, and the increasing dissonance with reality that we feel when we hear our leaders speak, all contribute to the sense that we better not totally dismiss those scary suggestions.

Maybe we'll come out near the top if everything else goes to hell. It may be our only hope of survival. We have an obligation to try, don't we? Isn't that what life is all about? The alternative is to be a loser, like those other people, and that's totally unacceptable. They lost because they didn't hang on, or took more responsibility than they should have – responsibility for others, or the impact they had on others -- not just for their own success, personal responsibility, which is what really matters. If you care about other people, except your friends, family, others like you, and of course the masters of the universe, then you're doing the world a great disservice. At least, that's what Fox, Rush, and the real economic experts tell us.

Some suggest that if people and species die because of our actions, that makes us murderers. If we accept that everyone and everything is connected, then we are potentially all murderers. That can't be true, can it? They must be wrong, if we are to maintain our innocence or at least our perception of it. If we accept that our unwillingness to accept more than personal responsibility, our drive to the top, is causing most of the problems we hear about, then the guilt may be too much to bear. No, clearly they are wrong.

God clearly favors the rich and powerful, no matter what their faults. Therefore, it follows that they can't be wrong about the important things. Aside from the occasional lottery winner, liberal movie star, and trust fund baby who didn't get the right genes, the masters of the universe got to be the masters because they proved themselves worthy.

Giving the most people what they think they want and convincing them that it's worth more than it took for you to make it – that's the true test of success. “God helps those who help themselves,” after all. If someone can't do it as well, or doesn't accept that it's worth doing at all, then they will get what they deserve: poverty. As for those other creatures: they were put here to serve us; if they won't, then they deserve what they get, even if it's extermination. Yes, that's the way of the world, and we have nothing to feel guilty about.

At least that's what we tell ourselves, the true faithful. Yet, for some reason, we're getting smaller in number.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

"Are Scientists Stupid?"

The last place I expected to hear that question was in the clean room of a semiconductor manufacturer, spoken by a technician whose livelihood depended on scientists being a lot smarter than he was. I soon found out that he really meant biologists were stupid for accepting evolution instead of creationism as the best explanation for the complexity of life, especially when it came to humans. That was my first exposure to the possibility that functioning members of modern society could reject, on the basis of faith, hundreds of years of painstaking observation, testing, and thought. As a trained physicist, I easily determined that for their explanation to work, various laws of physics also had to be wrong. Essentially, God was testing people's faith and their intelligence by whether they would find the ways the Universe worked that were consistent with the literal translation of his words as related in the Bible. That scientists had reached the different conclusions after hundreds of years of painstaking research, thought, and testing just proved that they lacked both faith and intelligence.

There is a parallel and oddly similar argument, which I've recently encountered as part of a belief system shared by some people in the sustainability movement. Basically, it says that the complexity of the Universe is so great that it transcends explanation in the terms used by science. Instead, we, like other creatures, already have everything we need to appreciate and be a meaningful part of the Universe, or at least that part of it that supports life. There are a small number of basic patterns in Nature, that we are already intuitively aware of, that allow us, if we want, to use minimal, non-destructive technologies to be an integral, healthy part of our planet's ecosystems. We don't need anything else, and it's pointless – and harmful to the Earth – for us to seek it. The bottom line: scientists are stupid and dangerous.

Science is fundamentally a means of describing and explaining experience in abstract form, an extension of how we humans use language to communicate information about our experiences. The invention of mathematics, writing, and computational tools has enabled science to become both explanatory and predictive, to an extent far beyond what any one mind or group of minds can comprehend. I believe it is this transcendence beyond personal, visceral experience that is at the heart of both the arguments I cited, despite the fact that science and technologies using it have resulted in a progressively more benign environment for at least some of us.

Two basic needs are not being met by the increased power over our personal environments that science, technology, and the leveraging of group effort through economies have enabled. One of those needs is for meaning in life; the other is for the ability of people to meet their basic needs through direct influence. It is no more meaningful to be a consumer and a producer in an economy than it is to be a manifestation of mathematical probabilities in a multiverse of matter and energy. Most of the time we must rely on governments and corporations to provide our safety and sustenance, often from places and using technologies we can never hope to understand or manage.

A deity such as a personal god provides an easy way to, at least in concept, meet both needs: You are special to the creator to the Universe, and because of that, you can convince him to take care of you. Alternatively, you might see yourself as an integral part of that Universe, without whom it wouldn't be the Universe; you have what it takes to survive in Nature because Nature is you – all that's needed is to create a local, more ecologically healthy environment where you can use it. Ironically, pure science does not pretend to be able to define such a subjective thing as life's meaning, nor does it rule out a more personal relationship with one's environment or any other.

When empowered with adequate technology (such as supercomputers), science can do a pretty good job of simulating large systems; and with proper translation into experiential terms, it can give us insights into the impacts of our actions that our minds and bodies are simply not capable of doing anywhere near as accurately. To be responsible, and have any hope of being true to the values that we define for ourselves, we need to match the power of our actions with our knowledge of their consequences, and science currently provides the most reliable way to do that. If we are uncomfortable with this dependence, we must find a way to scale back our influence on the world to a point we no longer need to depend on it. If we want to rely on a deity of dubious existence, we must be willing to reduce our impact on others so we won't hurt them if or when our faith is found to be misplaced (if the deity's existence wasn't dubious, we wouldn't have to depend on faith).

Ironically, science is showing that we must collectively limit our influence over other species or risk driving most of them, and us, extinct. A world closer to the one we evolved in will be a healthier world, but at the expense of much of the power we've spent centuries accruing. As the tools needed to maintain and monitor our artificial environments falter, become unusable, and are replaced with more natural ones, I expect that science will continue to occupy an important niche in human understanding, but in a form much more usable by the majority of people. Perhaps at that point we will all be scientists (most of us something closer to what we now call naturalists), and the question that opened this discussion will never be asked again.