Category Archives: Steady State Economics

A Storyline of Global Collapse

In referring in my title here to “A Failed System” I do not of course mean that capitalism as a system is in any sense at an end. Rather I mean by “failed system” a global economic and social order that increasingly exhibits a fatal contradiction between reality and reason—to the point, in our time, where it threatens not only human welfare but also the continuation of most sentient forms of life on the planet. Three critical contradictions make up the contemporary world crisis emanating from capitalist development: (1) the current Great Financial Crisis and stagnation/depression; (2) the growing threat of planetary ecological collapse; and (3) the emergence of global imperial instability associated with shifting world hegemony and the struggle for resources

If you’re looking for the deep underlying narratives that can help bring clarity to the current unsettled state of our world, then this essay by John Foster is an excellent starting point.  Be forewarned that this is not an easy read and somewhat technical in it’s historical summary of economic theory, however if deeper understanding is your goal, reading this essay is well worth the effort.

Avoiding Societal, Economic, and Ecological Collapse

“A society has collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity.” – The Collapse of Complex Societies – Joseph Tainter

“Any society that displays broad increases in most measures of capital production coupled with signs of serious depletion of key resources is a potential candidate for catabolic collapse.” – The Long Descent – John Michael Greer

“By collapse, I mean a drastic decrease in human population size and/or political/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area, for an extended time.” – Collapse- How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed – Jared Diamond

“When irrupting populations surpass … available carrying capacity, the ensuing crash [collapse] may occur by different means among humans, animals, or plants …these differences do not affect the basic principle:  die-off is the sequel to overshoot [of carrying capacity].” – Overshoot – The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change – William Catton

“Collapse is not an attractive future.  The rapid decline of population and economy to levels that can be supported by the natural systems of the globe will no doubt be accompanied by failing health, conflict, ecological devastation, and gross inequalities.” – Limits to Growth – The 30 Year Update – Meadows, et al

Peak Oil, near economic meltdown, species loss, growing food insecurity, rising sea levels, jobless recoveries, decades long stagnant wages – is the United States and the industrialized world heading toward collapse? — has it already begun?  Can we avoid our own ecological suicide and and abandon the folly of infinite growth on a finite planet?  This post attempts to catalog different theories of collapse and various solutions proffered for it’s avoidance.

Theories of Collapse – Anthropological, Ecological, and Sociological

That civilizations rise and fall is historically (Rome, the Mayan, Easter Island, the Anasazi, etc.) evident.  The question for today’s global industrialized society is why.   Can we collectively see our own collapse on the horizon, and can it be avoided?

Joseph Tainter gives us a view of societal collapse based on a theory of diminishing marginal returns in complexity.  According to Tainter societies invest in complexity (agriculture, government bureaucracy, militarism, monetary and market systems, infrastructure, etc.) as a solution to problems.  Initially those investments have a high return and the society flourishes, but as that society grows and it and it’s problems (most of which are self induced) becomes more complex, the marginal returns on those investments fall and eventually turn negative.  As returns turn negative, and problems and stresses (resource limits, environmental degradation, competing societies, etc.) continue or emerge, the society is no longer able to cope and eventually succumbs to collapse.  The resulting collapse leads to a decline in complexity and after much turmoil and suffering, the eventual return of positive marginal returns.  In effect, Tainter’s theory of “peak complexity” leaves us in a kind of catch 22 in which we are hard wired to seek solutions which doom us to endless cycles of success and failure.

Tainter's Model of Complexity and the Law of Marginal Returns

In his book the The Long Descent, John Michael Greer builds on Tainter’s work with a model based on perspectives from human ecology. His theory of catabolic collapse is based on the interplay of the core elements of resources, capital, waste, and production.  In a human society where new capital derived from production C(p) is equal to or greater than the sum of the waste from production W(p) and the  waste from capital W(c) [called maintenance production M(p)] and the replenishment rate of resources r(R) is greater than the depletion rate of resources d(R) is sustainable.  However, a human society whose new capital from production is less than maintenance production [W(p) + W(c)] and whose depletion rate of resources d(R) is greater than it’s replenishment rate r(R) of resources, is subject to catabolic collapse.  According to Greer, catabolic collapse is a self-reinforcing process in which C(p) approaches zero and the lion’s share of a societies capital is converted to waste.

Jared Diamond (Collapse) sees societal collapse as the result of an unintentional ecological suicide (eco-cide) in which  growing consumption and population eventually push up against natural ecological limits.  As a society strains the limits of it’s natural resources, it either causes a decline (deforestation, top soil erosion, etc.) in the carrying capacity of the those resources, or by operating on the edge without any margin of safety succumbs to a drought or other stress the societies organic carrying capacity.

William Catton (Overshoot) takes a global, ecological and very contemporary view based on human carrying capacity.  Catton see’s humanity much like the yeast in a vat of crushed grapes, wildly consuming the sugar content of the mash until the sugar is depleted or the yeast succumbs to by-products of that consumption (alcohol).  In our case, the “sugar” is millions of years of solar energy converted by photosynthesis and geology into apparently vast stores of fossil fuel.  Catton asserts that fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, coal) combined with technology, amounts to nothing more than a “phantom” carrying capacity, and when these nonrenewable and energy dense natural resources reach their peak extraction rates and begin to decline, today’s industrial and global society will suffer a catastrophic collapse.  The following chart overlays global population with my estimate of the Earth’s organic (relying only on renewable resources) carrying capacity. The difference between the global population and the organic carrying capacity is Catton’s Phantom Carrying Capacity (labeled as Trust Fund Carrying Capacity).  If Catton’s theory is correct, some 5-billion lives hang by the thread of these depleting fossil fuel resources.

Phantom (Trust Fund) Carrying Capacity

Avoiding Collapse – Possible Solutions

“A framing premise of this paper is that the sustainability dilemma is not merely an ecological or technical or economic crisis as is usually assumed, but rather it is a crisis rooted in fundamental human nature. More specifically, it is a crisis of human evolutionary success – indeed, we have reached the point where our success is killing us!” – Is Humanity Fatally Successful? – William Rees

Limits to Growth, The Thirty Year Update – A Systems Theory Approach

In The Limits to Growth – The 30-Year Update, the authors describe the results of a systems theory model [World3] that was used to generate “broad sweep” future scenarios using the following key global metrics:

  • natural resources
  • food
  • population
  • pollution
  • industrial output
  • life expectancy
  • consumer goods per person
  • food per person
  • services per person
  • human welfare index
  • human ecological footprint

Nearly every scenario modeled by the authors lead to an overshoot of the earth’s carrying capacity resulting in a collapse in population and human welfare.  Only one scenario’s underlying assumptions were successful in avoiding collapse and only if the assumptions used for the basis of the model were implemented in time.  The three critical assumptions in that scenario included:

  1. All couples limit their family size to 2 children and have access to effective birth control technologies
  2. A fixed goal of industrial output per capita (i.e. a steady-state economy)
  3. The development  and investment in powerful technologies for pollution abatement, land yield enhancement, land protection and nonrenewable resources (assuming 20 years for full implementation)

When this model was run with a start date of 2002:

“The population leveled off at less than 8 billion people, who remained at their desired standard of living throughout the century.  Their life expectancy is high…per capita services grow to 50% above year 2000 levels.  By the end of the century there is sufficient food for everyone.  Pollution peaks and falls before it causes irreversible damage.  Nonrenewable resources deplete so slowly that nearly 50% of the original endowment is still present in 2100.”

To see the effect of start date on the scenario the author’s ran the same model with start dates of 1982 and 2022.  As you would expect the 1982 model results in a lower ultimate population, improved life expectancy, and a higher standard of living.  However, if action is delayed until 2022, resource and pollution problems reach an unmanageable level and it is too late to avoid decline and collapse.

However grim the outlook, at it’s writing, the authors held out hope that collapse could be averted.  Factoring in a margin for error in the model and the passing of eight years, one might conclude that we now have anywhere from zero to less than two decades before we pass a point of no return.

Post Carbon Institute – The New Real Deal
In the New Real Deal, the Post Carbon Institute outlines a plan to transition the industrial world to a post fossil fuel economy.  To be fair this is not a prescription to avoid collapse but more of a plan to minimize the impact of the inevitable industrial decline due to the depletion of fossil fuels.  The key elements of the plan include:

  1. Make a massive and immediate shift to renewable energy
  2. Electrify the transportation system
  3. Rebuild the electricity grid
  4. De-carbonize and relocalize the food system
  5. Retrofit the building stock for energy efficiency and energy production

The focus of this comprehensive post carbon plan is consistent with the third assumption of The Limits to Growth scenario discussed above.

From a Failed Growth Economy to a Steady-State Economy — Herman Daly – An Economic Policy Approach to Avoiding Collapse
At the bi-annual conference of The United States Society for Ecological Economics in June of 2009, Herman Daly was honored for his many contributions to the field of ecological economics.  During his acceptance speech, in which he vilified the religion of growth hardwired into mainstream economic thought, he offered ten policy proposals directed at transitioning us to a sustainable steady-state economy and by implication, saving us from our own “ecological suicide”.

  1. Use a Cap-Auction-Trade system for basic resources – Caps would limit biophysical scale by quotas on depletion or pollution, whichever is more limiting. Auctioning the quotas would capture scarcity rents for equitable redistribution. Trade would allow efficient allocation to highest uses. This policy has the advantage of transparency. It would limit  the amount and rate of depletion and pollution that the economy can be allowed to impose on the ecosystem. Caps are quotas or limits to the throughput of basic resources, especially fossil fuels. The quota would typically be applied at the input end because depletion is more spatially concentrated than pollution and hence easier to monitor. The resulting higher price of basic resources would promote more economical use at each upstream stage of production.
  2. Institute Ecological Tax Reform (as an alternative or supplement to cap-auction-trade)
    Shift the tax base from a tax on value added (labor and capital)  to a tax on “that to which value is added”, namely the entropic throughput of resources extracted from nature (depletion), and returned to nature (pollution). This internalizes external costs as well as raises revenue more equitably. It prices the scarce but previously un-priced contribution of nature. The value added by labor and capital is something we want to encourage, so stop taxing it. Depletion and pollution are things we want to discourage, so tax them.
  3. Limit the Range of Inequality in Income (establish a minimum income and a maximum income)
    Without aggregate growth poverty reduction requires redistribution. Complete equality is unfair; unlimited inequality is unfair. Seek fair limits to the range of inequality. The civil service, the military, and the university manage with a range of inequality of a factor of 15 or 20. Corporate America has a range of 500 or more. Many industrial nations are below 25. Could we not limit the range to, say, 100, and see how it works? People who have reached the limit could either work for nothing at the margin if they enjoy their work, or devote their extra time to hobbies or public service. The demand left unmet by those at the top will be filled by those who are below the maximum. A sense of community necessary for democracy is hard to maintain across the vast income differences current in the US. Rich and poor separated by a factor of 500 become almost different species. The main justification for such differences has been that they stimulate growth, which will one day make everyone rich. This may have had superficial plausibility in an empty (resource abundant) world, but in our full world (resource limited) it is a fairy tale.
  4. Free up the Length of the Working Day, Week, and Year
    Allow greater freedom for part-time or personal work. Full-time external employment for all is hard (impossible) to provide without growth. Other industrial countries have much longer vacations and maternity leaves than the US.  For the Classical Economists (versus today’s neo-classical economists) the length of the working day was a key variable by which the worker balanced the marginal disutility of labor with the marginal utility of income and of leisure so as to maximize enjoyment of life. Under industrialism the length of the working day became a parameter rather than a variable. We need to make it more of a variable subject to choice by the worker. And we should stop biasing the labor–leisure choice by advertising to stimulate more consumption and more labor to pay for it. Advertising should no longer be treated as a tax deductible ordinary expense of production.
  5. Re-regulate International Commerce
    Move away from free trade, free capital mobility and globalization, and adopt compensating tariffs not to protect inefficient firms, but to protect efficient national policies of cost internalization from standards-lowering competition. We cannot integrate with the global economy and at the same time have higher wages, environmental standards, and social safety nets greater than the rest of the world. Trade and capital mobility must be balanced and fair, not deregulated or “free”.
  6. Reduce and amend the authority of the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and the World Trade Organization
    Transition to something like Keynes’ original plan for a multilateral payments clearing union, charging penalty rates on surplus as well as deficit balances. This arrangement would seek balance on current account, and avoid large foreign debts and capital account transfers. For example, under Keynes’ plan the US would pay a penalty charge to the clearing union for its large deficit with the rest of the world, and China would also pay a similar penalty for its surplus. Both sides of the imbalance would be pressured to balance their current accounts by financial penalties, and if need be by exchange rate adjustments relative to the clearing account unit, called the bancor by Keynes. The bancor would serve as world reserve currency, a privilege that should not be enjoyed by any national currency. The IMF preaches free trade based on comparative advantage, and has done so for a long time. More recently the IMF-WB-WTO have started preaching the gospel of globalization, which, in addition to free trade, means free capital mobility internationally. The classical comparative advantage argument, however, explicitly assumes international capital immobility! When confronted with this contradiction the IMF waves its hands, suggests that you might be a xenophobe, and changes the subject. The IMF-WB-WTO contradict themselves in service to the interests of transnational corporations. International capital mobility, coupled with free trade, allows corporations to escape from national regulation in the public interest, playing one nation off against another. Since there is no global government they are in effect uncontrolled. The nearest thing we have to a global government (IMF-WB-WTO) has shown no interest in regulating transnational capital for the common good.
  7. Move to 100% Reserve Requirements instead of Fractional Reserve Banking.
    This would put control of the money supply in hands of the government rather than private banks, which would no longer be able to create money out of nothing and lend it at interest. All quasi-bank financial institutions should be brought under this rule, regulated as commercial banks subject to 100% reserve requirements. Banks would earn their profit by financial intermediation only, lending savers’ money for them (charging a loan rate higher than the rate paid to savings account depositors) and providing checking, safekeeping, and other services. With 100% reserves every dollar loaned would be a dollar previously saved, re-establishing the classical balance between abstinence and investment. The government can pay its expenses by issuing more non interest-bearing fiat money to make up for the eliminated bank-created, interest-bearing money. However, it can only do this up to a strict limit imposed by inflation. If the government issues more money than the public wants to hold, the public will trade it for goods, driving the price level up. As soon as the price index begins to rise the government must print less and/or tax more. Thus a policy of maintaining a constant price index would govern the internal value of the dollar.
  8. Stop treating the Scarce as if it were Non-scarce, but also stop treating the Non-scarce as if it were Scarce.
    Enclose the remaining commons of rival natural capital (e.g. atmosphere, electromagnetic spectrum, public lands) in public trusts, and price it by a cap-auction–trade system, or by taxes, while freeing from private enclosure and prices the non-rival commonwealth of knowledge and information. Knowledge, unlike throughput, is not divided in the sharing, but multiplied. Once knowledge exists, the opportunity cost of sharing it is zero and its allocative price should be zero. International development aid should more and more take the form of freely and actively shared knowledge, along with small grants, and less and less the form of large interest-bearing loans. Sharing knowledge costs little, does not create un-repayable debts, and it increases the productivity of the truly rival and scarce factors of production. Existing knowledge is the most important input to the production of new knowledge, and keeping it artificially scarce and expensive is perverse. Patent monopolies (aka “intellectual property rights”) should be given for fewer “inventions”, and for fewer years. Costs of production of new knowledge should, more and more, be publicly financed and then the knowledge freely shared.
  9. Stabilize Population
    Work toward a balance in which births plus in- migrants equals deaths plus out-migrants. This is controversial and difficult, but as a start contraception should be made available for voluntary use everywhere.  Support voluntary family planning, and enforcement of reasonable immigration laws, democratically enacted in spite of the cheap labor lobby.
  10. Reform how we measure and manage national well-being
    Separate GDP into a cost account and a benefits account. Compare them at the margin, stop throughput growth when marginal costs equal or exceed marginal benefits. In addition to this objective approach, recognize the importance of the subjective studies that show that, beyond a threshold, further GDP growth does not increase self-evaluated happiness. Beyond a level already reached in many countries GDP growth delivers no more happiness, but continues to generate resource depletion and pollution. At a minimum we must not just assume that GDP growth is “economic growth”, but prove it. And start by trying to refute the mountain of contrary evidence.

Daly concedes that these policy prescriptions are radical, but also offers that they are amenable to gradual application.  The question is whether we have the luxury of time.  If the Limits to Growth model is anywhere near correct we have no more than about twenty years and that assumes that we start a coordinated and global effort immediately.  If we take climate change as a example of our ability to take action on a global scale, it has been more than 20 years since we first recognized the problem and we have yet to forge and began to implement an integrated global plan of action.

Given that the prescriptions to avoid or mitigate collapse offered by the authors of the Limits to Growth, the Post Carbon Institute’s New Real Deal, and Daly’s Steady State Economy are orders of magnitude more disruptive and contentious as those proposed to combat climate change, the prospects for any meaningful and timely action are near zero.

In all likelihood, change will only come in the face of crisis as we begin  to stair step down the uncertain and painful face of collapse.  By then we will have crossed the threshold from the possibility of averting collapse over to the unstable ground of mitigating the effects of the fall.  The signs that growth is no longer economic and that we have entered Tainter’s zone of negative marginal returns are all around us.  Couple that with resource depletion rates that exceed replenishment rates and we have met Greer’s criteria for Catabolic Collapse.  Add Peak Oil to the mix and we are in the early stages of the collapse of Catton’s “Phantom Carrying Capacity”.

Even in the context of crisis and decline, all the “solutions” discussed in this post are still  valid, however their value will diminish with the passing of time as resources and capital become increasing dear, our choices begin to narrow, and vested interests continue the fight to retain advantages that are destined to slip away.

Whether our future turns in the direction of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the more hopeful but still difficult direction of Howard Kunstler’s World Made by Hand, or a more sustainable future anchored in renewable energy, re-localized agriculture, with higher levels of satisfaction, and with much lower levels of consumption will depend on the choices that we make.

Truth Telling

“All of humanity is in peril, if each one of us does not dare, now and henceforth, always to tell only the truth and all the truth, and do so promptly – right now.” – Buckminster Fuller

How many times have I been told, “Keep it positive! Emphasize solutions!” Yet I can’t tell you how often I’ve sat down with an activist whose latest policy paper is all about solutions, and in heart-to-heart conversation they reveal that they don’t really think our species has much of a chance of avoiding major catastrophe, maybe even extinction.  It’s a tough balance. If you tell the truth to a fault, you don’t get invited to policy seminars, and politicians avoid you like the plague. If you sugar coat the message, you have to live with the knowledge that the vast majority of people on our planet have almost no awareness of what is about to happen to them, and you aren’t telling them.Trying to Save the World – Richard Heinberg

I started posting to this blog in March of 2007.  It’s been as much a journey as a journal and my posts have been the cairns left on the trail of my search for meaning and truth.  The direction of my search has been open-ended, non-directional, and often both troubling and unexpected.  I changed the name of the blog from “The Sustainable Home” to “Sustainable Dwelling” as my vision expanded and my subject matter broadened in scope and reach.

As a result of one my posts, I was asked to make a presentation this summer to the International Association of Public Participation about making sustainable decisions in the context of the four pillars of sustainability.  In preparation, I was compelled to look back on my journey and ask if I really “knew” anything.  Would I be able to humbly “tell the truth” or fail and spew forth some grossly ego-contaminated version of pseudo truth?  As a result,  this blog has been mostly silent as I struggled to  resolve and make peace with what I’ve written and what I’ve learned, including my readings of others who have walked a similar path.

Much like the journey of this blog, the process of preparing the presentation became it’s own journey and I began to question the mythical foundations of humanity and how they shape our actions and beliefs.  How simple things like canvas shopping bags, electric cars, buying local, and recycling give us a false and comforting sense of “going green” that masks the imminent peril of our ecological overshoot.

In the end, my presentation – my humble attempt at the truth, would attempt to ask and answer two questions:

  1. Can humanity achieve a sustainable balance within our closed ecosystem, or have we reached the point where that vision is just another example of the hubris of human exceptionalism?
  2. Is it time to switch our focus from sustainability to one of resilience in the face of societal collapse and industrial decline?

I’ve posted a copy of the presentation including the speaker notes on SlideShare.net.  You can find it here.

Is a warning about the future a prediction of doom or a call to follow a different path?

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Adam Smith and a Steady-State Economy

The world we have created is a product of our thinking, it cannot be changed without changing our thinking. – Albert Einstein

Properly functioning markets allocate resources efficiently, but they cannot determine the sustainable scale; that can be achieved only by government policy. – Herman Daly

Human beings are the strangest of creatures. We make observations about our surroundings or about our behaviors, these observations become cast into theory, and then these same theories feedback to shape both our behavior and our surroundings.

In 1776, Adam Smith made some ground breaking observations about economic behavior and published An Inquiry into the Nature of Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Smith would argue that individuals, working in unfettered freedom for their own self interest, would collectively and via an “invisible hand” provide for the greatest common good. His work would provide the foundation for much of today’s economic theory and would father the concept of the “free market”.

Adam’s work coincided with the birth our nation, and it is ironic, but not surprising that this Scottish moral philosopher, would become the patron saint of Wall Street. For many, the belief in the invisible hand of an unfettered free market would take on religious overtones and it would become the dominant sub-text in our American political discourse.

Theories about our world only survive until a new observation fractures the old beliefs and takes us forward to a new way of seeing. Caught up in our current ways of seeing the world, we find it hard to believe that what we believe today might be the equivalent of thinking that the “world is flat”. It has been over 200 years since Adam Smith fathered the science of economics and mainstream economic theory has evolved into a highly regarded science wrapped in the respectability of sophisticated and complex mathematics. However, emerging resource limitations and ecological observations are beginning to cause fractures in the old belief system. An belief system that blindly assumed that the world economy operates on an infinite resource base with infinite waste sinks, and that infinite economic growth is a self evident truth.

The gapping hole in mainstream economic theory is scale. In other words, the size of the economy relative to the closed ecosystem on which it relies for resources and waste sinks. This means that there are limits to growth, and that to live within those limits, the economy needs to find an optimum or steady-state condition. However, free markets and their invisible hand are blind to these limits and will continue to grow out of self interest until the invisible hand of the underlying ecosystem adjusts out of its own self interest. Unless we collectively wake up to this gapping hole in our world view, this adjustment will be both painful and harsh. Think massive population die-off and a pre-industrial standard of living.

The market cannot determine a sustainable scale for our economy. Because it is based on individual self interest, the free market’s inevitable path is one of ecological overshoot and catastrophic collapse. Government is the only economic player capable of acting in our common interest and of setting a sustainable economic scale. Unfortunately we are hard wired to discount the future and the government is …. well …. us. So short of a major mind altering crisis, it is unlikely that we will hear any our politicians call for an end to growth. It is more likely that the end of our belief in the goodness and rightness of growth will be imposed on us by peak oil. Many observers agree that oil production, as measured by flows, has already plateaued. The market forces of demand destruction have initially maintained a fragile supply-demand equilibrium, but its only a matter of time before oil consumption becomes completely supply driven and economic growth is stopped and then reversed.

This will likely result in a kind of economic armageddon. However, the vested individual interests of the free market will continue to fight the notion of a steady-state economy until we hit some kind of alcoholic bottom. That’s unfortunate, because a steady-state economy scaled to our planet’s ecosystem may not be able to grow quantitatively, but it can grow qualitatively. In other words, rather than more stuff, we could produce better stuff. We could measure gross domestic happiness instead of gross domestic product. We could aspire to a true standard of living rather than today’s GDP driven standard of consumption. Think more time, less hassle and stress, and a healthier population.

In the world of housing, a sustainable, steady-state economy means the end of low density single family housing. It means smaller, multi-family housing. Dwelling patterns will evolve to be more tribal than individual. Think urban village versus suburban wasteland. It means a healthier walkable lifestyle. It means healthful indoor air quality, and buildings that are self sufficient in energy. Since our mono-cultured, industrial food system is unsustainable, expect food to be grown locally and our children to relearn its source and value.

It will be a world in which the common interest finds parity with the individual interest. A world on which Adam Smith, the moral philosopher, would smile.

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A Ponzi Scheme Wrapped in a Three Piece Suit of Respectability

“Once you sit down and draw a little picture of the economy as a subset of the larger ecosystem, then you’re halfway home as far as ecological economics is concerned. That’s why people resist doing that. That means you would have to say well, there are limits, we’re not going to be able to grow forever. That means the economy must have some optimal scale relative to the larger system. That means you don’t grow beyond the optimum.
How do we stop growing? What do we do?
These are very threatening questions.”
Dr. Herman Daly, Former World Bank economist and author of Ecological Economics

Fantasy Economics

I’m an architect and engineer by training, so when I began to write seriously about sustainability, I had no idea that the storyline would begin with a discussion of economic theory. Yet when one asks the question of what is sustainable or not sustainable relative to housing you are very quickly tossed into the stormy seas of “growth” and “limits”, and the conflict between neo-classical and ecological economics.

When it comes to our mainstream economic theory, it seems that we are not much removed from our ancestors who thought the earth was flat or at the center of the universe. The neo-classical economics currently taught in all of our major universities dominates both our world view and governmental policy making. Developed in a time of abundant natural resources, it assumes that non-renewable natural resources are infinite and ignores the environmental costs of their production and consumption. It is an economic theory that worships at the church of growth and blindly disregards it’s own existence within a closed ecosystem. Much like the 16th century catholic church that believed that the earth was the center of the universe, neo-classical economics believes it is the tail that wags the ecosystem. Herman Daly, the father of ecological economics, likens the current situation to a chain-letter swindle or ponzi scheme in which “The current beneficiaries of the swindle, those at the beginning of the chain, try hard to keep up the illusion among those doubters at the end who are beginning to wonder if there are really sufficient resources in the world for the game to continue very much longer.” This ponzi scheme would eventually play itself out in the U.S. housing sector in the form of energy guzzling McMansions, and mind numbing suburban sprawl.
The American Church of Growth
The concept of growth in America would be enshrined in our national psyche when Thomas Jefferson penned the words “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” into our declaration of independence. As the country migrated west, growth and development would take on a patina of virtue and goodness and become the religion of the land. Our pursuit of happiness would not always be as pure as the words of Jefferson, and our migration west would be equal parts courage, individual initiative, greed, and genocide. As we moved west we would both take and rape, arrogantly taking land from the native population and casually raping the environment of it’s natural resources.
The discovery of oil and the invention of the automobile would eventually morph our cities and towns into massive developments comprised of weak centers surrounded by a web of suburban wasteland anchored by multi-lane highways as each generation tapped into our balance sheet of natural resources in a mad pursuit of growth and prosperity. The happiness we sought in the rapid growth and development of our built environment would not be defined by Jefferson’s liberty, but by long commutes, road rage, pathological consumption, crushing debt, an epidemic of obesity and national dependancy on anti-depressants.
The impact of neo-classical economics on housing would and continues to be profound and pervasive. This ponzi scheme wrapped in a three piece suit of respectability would provide the hidden intellectual foundation for growing home sizes, suburban sprawl, and countless “cost benefit” studies that would shape the regulations that formed the basis of our inadequate energy codes. However we are now approaching an ecological tipping point and the current generation will find themselves the recipient of the scheme’s inevitable collapse.
Ecosystems self-correct with Unbiased Indifference
Ecosystems are naturally self-correcting and treat all populations that overreach with equal and unbiased indifference. It matters not whether the population is human, animal, plant, insect or microbe, any population that exceeds its natural carrying capacity is either forced to reduce its numbers or its level of consumption. The 2002 Limits to Growth report estimates that human “growth and development” has already exceeded the earth’s carrying capacity by more than 20% and it is evident that the earth’s ecosystem has already begun the process of adjustment and rebalancing. The economic theory and policy decisions that brought us to our current state will be quietly trumped by the natural processes that we have ignored.
The signs and warnings of this natural rebalancing are everywhere. Climate change, rapid species extinction, fisheries collapse, depleted aquifers, loss of arable land, $100/barrel oil, and monthly heating costs that equal mortgage payments are all evidence of natural limits in action. As the world’s largest per-capita consumer of natural resources, the U.S. has become the poster nation for ecological overreach and collapse. As a result we currently face an especially painful and traumatic transition to a more sustainable future.
“Future generations are always free to make themselves miserable or content with whatever we give them. We do not owe the future their happiness, but we do owe them an intact resource base.”
Dr. Herman Daly

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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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Definitions of Sustainability and a Steady State World

”…the world’s richest 20 per cent of the population consume 86 per cent of its goods and services, over half its energy and nearly half its meat and fish.”

Given how few buildings architects actually design in this country compared with the EU for example, I’m not sure how relevant the profession is to the topic of sustainability. However, I was curious enough to see what might be the official AIA word on the subject. I found this posting on the internet from the AIA Committee on the Environment.

“The linked domains of sustainability are environmental (natural patterns and flows), economic (financial patterns and equity), and social (human, cultural, and spiritual). Sustainable design is a collaborative process that involves thinking ecologically—studying systems, relationships, and interactions—in order to design in ways that remove rather than contribute stress from systems. The sustainable design process holistically and creatively connects land use and design at the regional level and addresses community design and mobility; site ecology and water use; place-based energy generation, performance, and security; materials and construction; light and air; bioclimatic design; and issues of long life and loose fit. True sustainable design is beautiful, humane, socially appropriate, and restorative.”

My first reaction to this lengthy, rambling definition was huh???!!! what the %$#@ does that mean? No wonder I hear quotes like “If it’s not beautiful, it’s not sustainable” from celebrity architects. Definitions like that, however well meaning are a license to do just about anything. So I thought maybe one of the leading schools of architecture would be more helpful and provide a definition with some substance. I found this posting on the Carnegie Mellon School of Architecture’s site.

“Sustainable design is a collective process whereby the built environment achieves new levels of ecological balance through new and retrofit construction, towards the long term viability and humanization of architecture. Focusing on environmental context, sustainable design merges the natural, minimum resource conditioning solutions of the past (daylight, solar heat and natural ventilation) with the innovative technologies of the present, into an integrated “intelligent” system that supports individual control with expert negotiation for resource consciousness. Sustainable design rediscovers the social, environmental and technical values of pedestrian, mixed use communities, fully using existing infrastructures, including “main streets” and small town planning principles, and recapturing indoor-outdoor relationships. Sustainable design avoids the further thinning out of land use, the dislocated placement of buildings and functions. Sustainable design introduces benign, non-polluting materials and assemblies with lower embodied and operating energy requirements, and higher durability and recyclability. Finally, sustainable design offers architecture of long term value through ‘forgiving’ and modifiable building systems, life-cycle instead of least-cost investments, and timeless delight and craftsmanship.”

Again, a long, rambling definition full of academic architectural jargon like “timeless delight”. Is this representative of the sustainable mind candy being fed to the future building designers of america? What about limits? What about carrying capacity? What about the huge energy drain, climate impact, and unsustainable ecological footprint of our existing building stock? Where is the call to action?

Looking for answers, I found the following on the Presidio School of Management’s “Sustainability Dictionary” website. Apparently in the academic world there are three different flavors or “criteria” of sustainability.

Social Criteria:

  • Socially desirable
  • Culturally acceptable
  • Psychologically nurturing

Financial Criteria:

  • Economically sustainable
  • Technologically feasible
  • Operationally viable

Environmental Criteria:

  • Environmentally Robust
  • Generationally Sensitive
  • Capable of continuous learning

Although I can sympathize with architectural profession’s emphasis on social criteria such as beauty and “timeless delight”, I don’t think it serves a world facing climate change and a looming carrying capacity crisis brought on by the “peak” production and supply of oil, gas, and coal. The AIA and Carnegie Mellon definitions allude to “environmental criteria”, but only in vague terms. What is needed is a sustainable building standard that addresses the very real limits to carrying capacity and our obligations to future generations. Unfortunately, LEEDS, Energy Star, or any other “green” standard falls far short of meeting such a standard.

In 1987 the U.N. World Commission on the Environment and Development [commonly known as the Brundtland Commission] set the table for the what has been a 20 year debate on the meaning of sustainability. The classic and oft quoted definition from the commission is:

“Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

This definition is not far removed from the “seventh generation” philosophy of the Native American Iroquois Confederacy, a philosophy that put forth that chiefs should consider the effects of their actions and decisions seven generations into the future. However, as often as I’ve seen the commission’s definition quoted, I rarely see anyone expound on what the commission meant by their simple, elegant definition.

Digging into the actual report I found that even 20 years ago the commission was deeply concerned about the impact development and population growth was having on the world’s carrying capacity with respect to several important environmental criteria.

  • Global Warming
  • Ozone Depletion
  • Species Loss
  • Desertification
  • Deforestation
  • Air, water, and soil pollution

In making it’s case for sustainable development, the commission’s report would define carrying capacity as:

“The population that can be supported indefinitely by an ecosystem
without destroying that ecosystem”

Although not generally part of our awareness, it is no secret that various regions and country’s of the world compete for carrying capacity and the so called developed world imports a large portion of it’s own carry capacity at the expense of other country’s and peoples. The commissions report states that:

“The Earth is one but the world is not.
We all depend on one biosphere for sustaining our lives.
Yet each community, each country, strives for survival and prosperity with little regard for its impact on others.
Some consume the Earth’s resources at a rate that would leave little for future generations. Others, many more in number, consume far too little and live with the prospect of hunger, squalor, disease, and early death.”

Carrying capacity is not just a function of population. The actual population that can be supported by the earth’s ecosystem is also a function of the average standard of living or level of consumption of that population. Lower consumption levels allow the support of a larger population, and conversely higher consumption levels will support proportionally less population

Today we find ourselves in a world of 6.6 billion people in which the world’s richest 20 per cent of the population consume 86 per cent of its goods and services, over half its energy and nearly half its meat and fish. Another 1.4 billion people in China and India (nearly 5 times the population of the U.S) are rapidly growing their economies and as they begin to approach the developed world’s level of consumption and energy density, their rising demands on the earth’s carrying capacity is driving up energy, commodity, and food costs around the world. As the world’s collective economic growth rapidly depletes non-renewable resources such as oil, gas, and coal we will soon be faced with a carrying capacity crisis in a post peak world in which countries desperately complete for resources in a limited ecosystem. The commission’s report predicted this condition twenty years ago when it stated that:

“The ultimate limits to global development are perhaps determined by the availability of energy resources and by the biosphere’s capacity to absorb the by-products of energy use. These energy limits may be approached far sooner than the limits imposed by other material resources. First, there are the supply problems: the depletion of oil reserves, the high cost and environmental impact of coal mining, and the hazards of nuclear technology. Second, there are emission problems, most notably acid pollution and carbon dioxide build up leading to global warming.”

Many informed people in and out of government are painfully aware of this impending carrying capacity train wreck. Unfortunately, it is the nature of governments to only respond to an immediate crisis. Another problem, one that the Brundtland Commission omitted from their report, is our almost religious belief in economic growth. Even modest rates of growth mathematically become exponential, so that in the context of a closed ecological system, “sustainable growth” and “sustainable development” are eventually rendered oxymorons. In order to survive, at some point in time we will have to respect our planet’s limits in terms of carrying capacity. This will mean the acceptance of limits to our population size and to our levels of consumption and waste, and the transition to a steady-state economy.

The following definition of steady-state economics is from the Encyclopedia of Earth

The phrase “steady state economy” originated from ecological economics, most notably the work of Herman Daly, but its roots are in classical economics, most notably the “stationary state” by economist John Stuart Mill. The steady-state economy is often discussed in the context of economic growth and the impacts of economic growth on ecological integrity, environmental protection, and economic sustainability. Therefore, use of the phrase “steady-state economy” requires a clear definition of economic growth.

Economic growth is an increase in the production and consumption of goods and services. For distinct economic or political units, economic growth is generally indicated by increasing gross domestic product (GDP). Economic growth entails increasing population times per capita consumption, higher throughput of materials and energy, and a growing ecological footprint.

Theoretically and temporarily, a steady state economy may have a growing population with declining per capita consumption, or vice versa, but neither of these scenarios are sustainable in the long run. Therefore, “steady state economy” connotes constant populations of people (and, therefore, “stocks” of labor) and constant stocks of capital. It also has a constant rate of throughput; i.e., energy and materials used to produce goods and services.

The “growing ecological footprint” of economic growth only becomes problematic as we begin to push up against the limits to carrying capacity. This can occur locally in an “island” economy or globally as we are beginning to experience today. Getting back to architecture and the massive ecological footprint of our building stock, our homes are but a subset of years of unsustainable development that are pushing the limits of carrying capacity. This is especially true when we consider the energy consumption and climate impact of both residential and commercial buildings. My personal definition of sustainable building design is:

Sustainable building design meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs for shelter. In order for our built environment to be supported indefinitely by the earth’s ecosystem without destroying that ecosystem, sustainable building design must be based on a net zero energy standard. A net zero energy standard, in no way constrains designers from creating buildings that are socially desirable, culturally acceptable, and psychologically nurturing.

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