Fantasy Economics and the Sustainable Society Revolution

“Macroeconomic theory in our text books conveniently behaves as if the ecosystem does not exist all the while consuming products and services from the ecosystem which fuels economic growth.”
Mark Anielski

“Despite evidence that the ecology does in fact exhibit constraints in accordance with the laws of physics, we continue down a ruinous path too afraid, paralysed, or unable to acknowledge the truth since such a revelation would put in question all we have pursued since the Industrial
Revolution. This would mean that the pursuit of increased wealth and prosperity by current generations will impose a high price on future generations.”

Mark Anielski

In a perfect Adam Smith world, markets are supposed to efficiently set prices based on relative supply and demand. In the real world, a host of other factors can effect price. Federal and local governments add sales and other taxes. Governments impose tariffs and import duties. Cartels increase and decrease supply to achieve political or financial objectives. Central banks increase the money supply, improving “liquidity” while fostering monetary and price inflation

However, prices for many goods also reflect a fantasy economics that assumes an infinite supply of non-renewable raw materials and zero costs associated with the consumption and disposal of goods. For example, the economic activity associated with an asbestos plant and economic activity to clean up the resulting super-fund site are both counted as positive contributions to our GNP

Crude oil is another great example. Non renewable resources like oil follow a bell shaped supply curve. During the easy to find and extract “up” side of bell curve, supply out-strips demand and prices are low. In most minds supply and reserves are thought to infinite and no thought is given to conservation. Think of Hummers, NASCAR, and SUV’s as the symbols for this side of bell curve. Indirect costs like pollution, suburban sprawl, energy insecurity, and climate change are NOT factored into the price, but are paid none the less through higher healthcare costs, lower productivity, taxes, military adventures, and “natural” disasters

As we reach the top of the bell curve as in the case of oil today, demand is approaching the limits of supply and prices have increased rapidly. According to the IEA, supply reached an all time production in May of 2006 of 86.11-million barrels per day in July 2006 and in 2007 the price of crude oil has increased by about 70% to over $95 per barrel as we draw down the developed world’s stockpiles. And yet even these prices do not reflect the true costs of depleting this non-renewable resource

As we roll over the top of the oil production bell curve sometime around 2010, supply will decline and at some point after conservation and replacement technologies fail to close the gap, a painful path of “demand destruction” will become our only option to balance the supply-demand equation. The economic recession caused by this demand destruction will be just another hidden cost of the economic fantasy of “unlimited” non-renewable resources

What does all this have to do with “The Sustainable Home Blog”? Is this just a self-indulgent rant, rambling for the sake rambling? The reason I keep returning to the topics of economic theory and peak oil is that they have everything to do with limits and reason for sustainable building

The green building movement is already big business and we may have reached a tipping point in 2007, where more than 50% of the key decision makers in the business world of building have reached the conclusion that the movement has legs and that a decades long bull market for all things green is an opportunity worth pursuing. What is the source of this apparent demand for these new green products and buildings? Is it global warming, rising energy costs, insurance claims from sick building syndrome, or the urge to “do good”? I think it’s all of these reasons and more, but “going green” is still more fashion than necessity, and collectively, it has not entered our consciousness that there are limits to growth in a closed ecosystem and that our current path of “development” threatens our very survival

That’s all about to change. The ecosystem has been sending us warning signals (the effects of air and water pollution, species loss, climate change, fisheries collapse, etc.) for decades, but because these signals didn’t have a direct individual impact on the majority of world’s inhabitants, we have continued on a path of unsustainable global development modeled after the American standard of living and consumption. As we push up against the geological limits of peak oil(~2010), peak natural gas(~2015), peak coal(~2025), and peak uranium(~2025), the cheap energy that’s been driving development since the beginning of the industrial revolution will will no longer be either cheap or abundant and we will come face to face with our own unsustainable reality. No combination of known technologies will even come close to filling the gap left by these declining non-renewable energy sources and it will take decades for us to recognize the natural limits to growth of our ecosystem and transition to a steady-state and sustainable economy.

As we enter this period of sustained crisis, it will quickly become evident that the only reasonable standard for building design will be a standard of net zero energy consumption. Because we lack information, initially this will be part science and part intuition based on on passive heating and cooling lessons from the past. Eventually we will come to know the embodied energy of every building material and make many decisions based on the EROIE (energy return on investment of the energy embodied) of building products like insulation, low-e glazing, PV panels, and wind turbines. Houses will become smaller and change shape as energy trumps fashion and becomes the primary design factor. A whole new industry will emerge to help homeowners convert over 100-million thinly insulated, poorly constructed homes into some semblance of energy efficiency. Pattern’s of development and zoning laws will change as the age of automobile comes to a close. Populations will shift and migrate as the end of cheap air-conditioning makes living in many parts of the country less desirable. Home landscaping will change from ornamental to edible, and gray water irrigation will become commonplace as the energy costs to move and purify water change our attitudes about this precious natural resource. Local materials will dominate construction and the age of imported Italian granite countertops will come to an end.

We might look back and call this the sustainable society revolution. A revolution where in we deconstruct, modify, and replace much of what we thought and built during the industrial revolution. In a very real sense, its already started and we’re just seeing the first signs.

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One response to “Fantasy Economics and the Sustainable Society Revolution

  1. This is very scary.

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