Sunday, March 8, 2015

Growth Bites Back

It's smog, not the Great Wall, that can be seen from space.
One of the simplest tenets of skeptics of growth and technology is that growth always has costs, and after a while, the costs of increased growth outweigh the benefits. This fact is so simple and so profound, you would think people, even those mesmerized by modern technologist propaganda, would have an easy time getting it.

Those of my readers who peruse the Archdruid Report regularly (and I suspect that's most of you) are aware that the recent subject has been that of externalities. I wrote about that subject back here, and my point was that economists always treat externalities as minor exceptions that can safely be ignored in most cases, whereas in reality, in a complex, mass-production economy, there is virtually no transaction which does not include significant externalities. Thus economics once again uses a sleight of hand to assume an economy that has no connection to the real world in which we actually live.

I did take exception to the idea that technology can be defined as that which increases externalities. The fact that technology does often do this in practice is not in question, but I do not think it is a workable description of technology in general. That is, technology does not behave this way by necessity, rather I argue (as he does, really) that it is our economic system which promotes the dumping of externalities on the wider society rather than simply the use of technology per se. It's nice to see that Ran had some of the same objections (March 4).

But the externalities issue is important as two very prominent recent stories show. Both came out at the same time, and both show the extent to which our intensification of technology is having unintended and unacceptable consequences.

The first is a study which got some attention - chemicals which we are now dependent upon disrupt the hormones in our bodies costing billions of dollars:
Common chemicals that disrupt human hormones could be costing more than €150bn ($165.4bn; £108.5bn) a year in damage to human health in Europe, a series of studies claims. The data suggests the high economic impact of chemicals in pesticides, plastics and flame retardants. The team, led by New York University, said the estimates were conservative. However, experts cautioned the findings were "informed speculation" and called for more detailed research. The data was presented at the annual meeting of the Endocrinology Society.
Hormone-disrupting chemicals ‘cost billions’ (BBC)

99 Percent Certainty Hormone-Altering Chemicals Cause Serious Health Problems (Disinfo)

I like this comment:
I read an article somewhere the other day about a certain chemical that had been found in a particular food product. One of the first people to pipe up on the comment thread was someone who claimed that the amount of the chemical found was inconsequential, etc. They had various numbers they offered to demonstrate that point. I just kept thinking about all of these inconsequential amounts of chemicals of various kinds, combined in unpredictable ways under a variety of conditions in various foods, and how that had to add up to something potentially very harmful.

And then, of course they'll make you out to be some sort of environmental flaketivist, ignorant of the crucial role of chemicals in all of life, plus WATER! I didn't bother to reply, because damn, some things should just be readily apparent. I could only wonder if that person's greater level of ignorance was part of a job description, or simply due to the blindness that can be induced by the pursuit of a particular discipline, be it scientific in nature or otherwise.
That's interesting because apparently "leftists" and "flaketivists" (great term) are the only ones concerned about, I don't know, having a healthy, disease-free body! Red-blooded Sarah Palin Americans just ingest chemicals all day long like real, patriotic Americans without worrying about getting cancer like those sissy libruls. Time for some coal-rolling!

The other is the air-quality documentary that is taking China by storm: Under the Dome. I was surprised the government even allowed it to be made and released. It looks like the leadership is having second thoughts - it has now been pulled from online. I think the reaction was more than they bargained for.

Now, here's my guess. Recent headlines are that the Chinese leadership is finally trying to rein in growth to more acceptable (and realistic) levels. This is a tricky balancing act, because growth is how the leadership has bought off its people for so long under miserable conditions (cancer villages, FoxConn, "anthills', etc.). When that slows, you could have potential unemployment and unrest. This documentary gives the leadership an excuse to say, "yes, growth is slowing, but that's a good thing. It's the only way to start to clean up the environment." By framing it as a tradeoff between continued growth versus, well, breathable air, the leadership can claim lower growth as a good thing for most people. And to accomplish that, it helps to point out just how bad the environment actually is. This gives them the perfect excuse to hide behind as they rein stuff in. As the article above quotes an official as saying, "Deep-seated problems in the country’s economic development are becoming more obvious. The difficulties we are facing this year could be bigger than last year. The new year is a crucial year for deepening all-round reforms." See: China Will Need A Series Of Miracles To Sustain Growth (BI) and Why China Needs Such Rapid GDP Growth: More Jobs (Bloomberg)

But all this points to the fact that the costs of growth are getting higher and higher. Things, like, well, cancer and disease. But then again, cancer and disease cause growth - and not just of tumors, but of hospitals and doctors and pharmaceuticals. So it's all good right? As Edward Abbey said, growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.
Even when inequality and pollution problems are described, they are considered separate from the growth process—as “side effects” of growth rather than issues that detract from the extent of growth itself. Headlines read, “China Blocks Access to Air Pollution Data,” “China Declares War on Pollution,” or “China’s Wealth Disparity Erupts in Protest.” It could, however, be argued that such destructive types of growth both take away from “good” growth and dampen positive growth in the long-run, so we should read about growth and its associated externalities within the same context. This is clearest in the case of pollution, where natural resources are destroyed and rendered unusable to future generations.

For example, China is home to many “cancer villages” along the Huaihe River, into which toxic factory effluents are emitted. This has reduced production costs in the leather and paper industries while poisoning a source of drinking and irrigation water. The pollution of the river not accounted for in the cost of production of leather and paper goods, and future health care costs and resource destruction costs are not accounted for either (except that “defensive expenditures” like health care or environmental cleanup costs will add to future GDP!). Yet the GDP growth rendered by production processes along the Huaihe River is part of what has been considered China’s stellar “post-reform” economic performance.

A better representation of China’s growth would include social and pollution costs. These costs would detract from GDP itself by incorporating negative externalities. Years ago, China attempted to account for environmental costs in GDP using a measure called Green GDP. However, after taking into account pollution costs, GDP was substantially reduced; this proved politically unfeasible and the practice was ended. If inequality were similarly accounted for within growth statistics, China’s GDP would also decline. If prices reflected the social and environmental costs of Chinese goods, producers and consumers would think twice before supporting this type of production regime.
Is All Growth Good? The Case of China (Naked Capitalism)

One fifth of China's farmland polluted (Guardian)

China’s Suicide Rate Among the Highest in the World (Freakonomics)

Is Work Killing You? In China, Workers Die at Their Desks (Bloomberg)

Could Diabetes Derail China? (Bloomberg)

1 comment:

  1. Learn the difference between rein and reign. Please.


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