February 12, 2013

Meanwhile, Back in the Biosphere

Writing about columnists at the New York Times (and I blame Bob Somerby and his superb line, "We are where we are because of these people" for the digression) is certainly amusing and diverting, but it's not really consistent with the Mission Statement of this blog.  Although there is no such Mission Statement.  If there were, however, the Mission would relate to the very title of the blog and to the analytical method and style of thinking of Henry David Thoreau, who anticipated most if not all of the problems that Industrial Civilization would face as the age of specialization advanced, as humans became cogs in an economic machine, and as we pushed the ecological limits of the world to the point of our own extinction.  I mean, it's all right there in the pages of Walden.

 What I find fascinating about my own years of life is that my span happened to overlap the transition from borderline sustainability of Homo sapiens as a primate (not Papal, the ape kind) to clear unsustainability.  I mean, it was bound to happen sooner or later, given the technological proclivities and aptitudes of this ape form which is, as Craig Dilworth wrote, Too Smart for Our Own Good.  If humans had the intelligence and rugged, natural "lifestyle" of chimpanzees or gorillas, for example, you might expect to find about 100 million of us roaming the surface of the Earth.  We would, at this level, be pushing the limits of the environment's ability to sustain our numbers, and natural cycles (droughts, diseases) would periodically cause a die-off of our numbers down to some equilibrium point.  Or we might, as the Norway rats did in the crowding experiment near the beginning of Professor Dilworth's book, utilize certain adaptive instincts to control our own numbers (some of which the Republican Right would find sacrilegious).

We're at this point because of the exponential growth function of population (as Paul Erlich tried to warn us) and the technological breakthroughs giving rise to what Dilworth calls the Vicious Circle Principle (VCP): faced with limits imposed by our burgeoning numbers, we devise breakthroughs (the Green Revolution in agriculture, for example) which allow us, temporarily, to go on multiplying and pushing the ecosphere to a new crisis point.

The last couple of books I've read on the subject of modern civilization at the crossroads were by Jeff Rubin, a Canadian economist:  Why Your World Is About to Get A Whole Lot Smaller and The Big Flatline.  Both are mainly about the limiting effects of expensive and increasingly scarce petroleum, a "master resource."  Petroleum is intimately connected, for example, to the ongoing success of the Green Revolution.  Oil shortages and a related problem, global warming,  are both growth-limiting factors as we move forward.  For example, despite a massive fall-off in petroleum usage in the United States over the last several years (a lot of it related to decreases in miles driven), the prices of West Texas Intermediate and Brent Crude oil remain stubbornly high, confounding the usual supply and demand analysis.  The growth of GDP in the American economy (and elsewhere) is inextricably related to the price of petroleum on the world market.  Simply put, the price is now too high to allow growth, and what appears to be "growth" since 2008 occurs only because the United States (a) borrows 40% of what the federal government spends, yet nonetheless (b) GDP includes government spending.  This is a way of saying that the American economy, net of borrowing from the future, has been contracting for the last 5 years.

This is what I don't see reflected in the analysis of "New York Times" columnists.  The presumption underlying the call for deficit spending, borrowing and printing money is that the American economy will revert to its "trend line."  This is necessary to make all of these monetary games work out, of course, because debt is an exponential function (Dmitry Orlov does a wonderful job with a parable on this very subject in his post today at cluborlov.com).  As we pile on debt with payable interest (even with the very low interest rates of the ZIRP environment), the accruing interest also generates interest and outruns any growth except growth which is no longer attainable, given resource and environmental constraints.  Stated another way, economists such as Paul Krugman (regardless of his beneficial motives) are arguing that historical "cycles" will once again assert themselves despite the underlying changed circumstances which make such reversion to a previous trend line impossible.

Meanwhile, the "globalized economy" has engendered a race by the developing nations (such as Brazil, Russia, Indian and China) to attain the level of (former) affluence enjoyed in America.  China, for example, has become the world's number one market for new automobiles.  It is bringing on-line a new coal-fired electrical generating plant about every five days, and yet its energy use per capita is only about one-tenth of the American usage.  I don't think their energy usage is ever going to match the American standard, because energy is a zero-sum game on a finite planet, and the climate implications will not allow it.  Even James Inhofe would admit he was wrong about the "hoax" of global warming before we reached that point.

So what will we actually do?  Probably react to events in a perpetual pattern of crisis-mode, is my guess.  Promise technological fixes to bail us out one more time, in the spirit of the Vicious Circle Principle.  I suppose we could sustain the world's population of 7 billion using solar and wind power (which are both forms of solar power) supplemented by the dregs of fossil fuels at levels safe (and available) to use.  But the question the "deep ecologists" ask is:  at what level could humans be sustained using only natural cycles?  That's the missing part.  Probably not at a level where Paul Krugman could appear on "This Week" every week and pronounce on the state of the "recovery."  Another "thought experiment" we might pose for ourselves is this: gorillas essentially survive on solar power.  Would planet Earth support 7 billion of them?  You might say no, because they're not as smart as we are.  Which takes you into a labyrinth you might call Vicious Circle Reasoning.

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