Monday, December 21, 2015

Growth Madness

This may be the most unintentionally hilarious line from any story I've read this year:
Most notably, the group of economists is much more convinced than the general American public that immediate and bold action on climate change is necessary—and essential—to secure continued economic growth.
Economists: Buckle Up, Climate Change Is Going to Be a Rough Ride (Slate)

So, we need to take action on limiting our destruction of the biosphere to...wait for it....keep growth going!

If we don't halt climate change soon, we might not be able to grow!

I have no words. I mean, what can I say to make that more ridiculous?

It reminds me of the debates around inequality. Never mind the social justice aspect, never mind that just about every social malady known to man is higher in more unequal societies. No, the reason we need to deal with inequality is that it may harm growth! In other words, growth is not a means to an end, it is the end, and the only one that matters.

What will benefit people more, more growth or a more equitable society?

You can see why so many of us believe the growth mania is so ridiculous. And of course it has no end point.

Here's an example of growth madness: China's workforce could rise rather than fall (Marginal Revolution). The fall in the workforce of the billion-plus nation of China is causing economists around the world great consternation. What will we do without all the cheap labor? We'd have to move all the factories again, and that would cost money! But this post says not to worry. If China just decides to remove the possibility of retiring, we could drive more old people into the workforce and problem solved! Or we could just drive more women into the workforce, too:
Official pension ages in urban areas are 50 for blue-collar women, 55 for white-collar women and 60 for men.  Those could be raised by the government thereby boosting the labor force...if China adopted measures to retain older workers in the labor force, its working population would barely fall at all until at least the mid-2030s...With more women working, China in 2040 might have a labor force as large as it has today.  If the retirement issue and the gender issue are both solved, China’s labor force in 2040 likely will be 10 percent higher than it is today.
So we can send women and old people into the workforce to fix our "problem" of a workforce that needs to grow forever and ever. Tell me, what is the point of a country getting richer if more and more people have to work longer and harder?

It's ironic that the Chinese are supposedly Neoliberalism's great "lifted out of poverty" success story, yet they are already having to delay retirement even as they supposedly get richer? WTF? In fact, without China, global inequality would have been broadly constant over the past 25 years, and in effect its 2011 level would have been higher than in 1988! (source). So what is the benefit again? What is the point of getting richer if we have to work longer and need two incomes where one used to suffice? Why is nobody asking that? It seems a growing economy leads to more work, not less.

And we're talking about a country where existing growth has turned the air literally toxic to breathe:

Beijing grinds to halt as second ever 'red alert' issued over severe smog (Guardian)

China's grim history of industrial accidents (BBC)

But without growth, will we lose the social progress made over the past few hundred years? Maybe so.
Whatever the ethical merits of the case, the proposition of no growth has absolutely no chance to succeed. For all the many hundreds of years humanity survived without growth, modern civilization could not. The trade-offs that are the daily stuff of market-based economies simply could not work in a zero-sum world.
“It would be a nonstarter to have zero growth within a given country in terms of creating conflict between groups,” Professor Greenstone told me. “If one were to take this further and make it international, it feels like an even bigger stretch.”
Let’s examine what our fossil-fueled growth has provided us. It has delivered gains in living standards in even the poorest regions of the world.
But that’s only the beginning. Economic development was indispensable to end slavery. It was a critical precondition for the empowerment of women.
Indeed, democracy would not have survived without it. As Martin Wolf, the Financial Times commentator has noted, the option for everybody to become better off — where one person’s gain needn’t require another’s loss — was critical for the development and spread of the consensual politics that underpin democratic rule.
Zero growth gave us Genghis Khan and the Middle Ages, conquest and subjugation. It fostered an order in which the only mechanism to get ahead was to plunder one’s neighbor. Economic growth opened up a much better alternative: trade.
The Oxford economist Max Roser has some revealing charts that show the deadliness of war across the ages. It was a real killer in the era of no growth. Up to half of all deaths among hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists and other ancient cultures were caused by conflict.
The bloody 20th century — stage for two world wars, the Holocaust and other war-based genocides — still doesn’t even come close.
Naomi Klein, a champion of the leftward fringe newly converted to the environmental cause, gleefully proposes climate change as an opportunity to put an end to capitalism. Were she right, I doubt it would bring about the workers’ utopia she appears to yearn for. In a world economy that does not grow, the powerless and vulnerable are the most likely to lose. Imagine “Blade Runner,” “Mad Max” and “The Hunger Games” brought to real life.
The good news is that taking action against climate change need do no such thing. It will not be easy, but we can glimpse technological paths that will allow civilization to keep growing and afford the world economy a positive-sum future.
More than how to stop growth, the main question brought out by climate change is how to fully develop and deploy sustainable energy technologies — in a nutshell, to help the world’s poor, and everybody else, onto a path to progress that doesn’t rely on burning buried carbon.
Imagining a World Without Growth (New York Times)

Of course, trade doesn't create wealth, it just transfers it around. It's the harnessing of fossil fuels that has done that. Trade had been going on for thousands of years before growth went exponential. It never prevented collapse. And notice the scare tactics - grow or end up in a Mad Max scenario. Well, endless growth seems to be heading that way anyway:

The Ominous Story of Syria's Climate Refugees (Scientific American)

So if I understand this right, we need to keep growing so the world's growing populations don't turn on each other in a zero-sum competition for resources. But to make sure that we keep growing we need to add more and more people so that growth doesn't stop. Circular reasoning?

And this is the guiding philosophy of the planet! No wonder we're doomed.

Growth is going to come to halt one way or another. The only question is how we prepare for it and what the outcomes will be.

It’s time to move beyond growth for growth’s sake (Aeon)


  1. “Zero growth gave us Genghis Khan and the Middle Ages, conquest and subjugation. It fostered an order in which the only mechanism to get ahead was to plunder one’s neighbor.”

    See, that right there is the fucking thing I can't wrap my mind around. Why the hell does anyone want to get ahead? What is The Grand Prize that goes to the “winner”? If one has what he needs to live, and his neighbour does too, then why can't they just enjoy their life? Must get ahead, must get more, MOOORE! I don't know, are people in general really that insatiable? Is it intrinsic to biology, to life itself, or what?! Jeez, I'm pissed off.

    1. That's our culture. A sort of Calvinist, social Darwinist, red in tooth and claw ideology. We, with extremely few exceptions, have been stewed in it from birth.

      I was born in southern California, and raised in Hawaii, the only place I know of that actually admires southern California. It was an extremely harsh, no quarter given culture, in fact to hell with quarters, lol, it was mean down to pennies! If I ended up literally a penny short at the store, I had to walk home and find a penny somehow.

      I have always thought it was a fucked up way to live, but then I'm sure WWII vets thought war was pretty fucked up while bullets were flying overhead, but it didn't stop them from fighting.

      I remember once, I'd escaped Hawaii and was eating in a diner in southern California and this Mexican dude didn't have any money on him to pay for his mealand somehow though the could cash his pay check, which he did have with him, there at the restaurant and thus pay. Well, the management wasn't having any of that and called the cops over the $15 or so the guy owed him! So, I got up and paid the guys bill, I didn't care if he's a wetback, what an awful way to get treated.

      I told some internet friends about this adventure and got chewed up one side and down the other, for this evil act of kindness.

    2. It's only once I moved up here to the bay area that I learned you can be nice to people and get away with it, at least most of the time. Back in Hawaii, if, lets say, I paid for a hotel room for a homeless person. If the homeless person was a fellow white, the hotel would not take them in, and would call the cops. If the homeless person was not white, they'd tell me to fuck off, they won't accept help from a white person, and the hotel would call the cops and tell them I'd stolen the money I was going to use to pay for the room.

      In southern California its not that hard on whites but if you help people you get chewed out by your friends, and things in general are extremely competitive. Traffic, dickering at the swap meet, competing for a job, etc.

      Up here its a lot more laid back.


    4. No good deed goes unpunished, does it?

      Alex, kudos to you for helping that man.

  2. Wonderful article, and I agree that the whole premise of ending climate change in order to more growth is utter nonsense.

    One thing when that economist said that hunter-gatherers and other ancients were at one another's throats. From what I understand, that's not really true. Back in ancient times when cultures were based on the worship of the Goddess, there really was no conflict like that. They seemed to live well without fighting or 'growth.' There were no chieftains or any of that silliness, and the burial grounds showed no special favor in either sizes or ornamentation. It was later on when patriarchy took over that people like Genghis Khan were born, and conquest and 'growth' became a made up necessity.

    Anyway, I think the notion that fighting climate change in order to continue growth is simply a symptom of the madness that has taken over people's heads as we near the end of civilization. We have high school students get into fights with cafeteria workers because they don't have Mac-n-Cheese on the menu, people sleeping in tents in front of stores and movie theaters in order to buy the latest gadget or to see the new Star Wars movie, and women driving into crowds on the streets of Las Vegas intentionally. As the end nears, things will unravel, intellectually, violently, and otherwise.

    1. There is dispute over your version of what prehistory was like, with some anthropologists seeing it more like this authors, red in tooth and claw and all that. It's an important question, because if humanity has had a significant number of peaceable, egalitarian cultures, then that proves we're capable of it. My guess is that early tribes varied--and that we're in the pickle we're in now because the peaceable groups inevitably gave way to their aggressive, expansionist neighbors.

    2. The Hopi are an example of a peaceful culture. There are many others. I've been up in Hopi country and they look almost like they might have ancestors from the Chinese who explored up into that area about the time of Colombus.

  3. I'm not sure this piece really reflects consensual reality. This person sounds like a rather extreme authoritarian to me--the basis of that right-wing worldview is the assumption that we are all essentially selfish, able to care a little about our families and friends but not at all about anyone else, and that a rigid structure of law and order is necessary to keep us from each other's throats.
    Obviously, even if "green growth" were possible and not a ticket to even faster climate change, we would soon bang up against other limits. Endless growth is no more possible for the human population or the human economy than for bacteria in a petri dish.

  4. "Teach a parrot the terms 'supply and demand' and you've got an economist." ~ Thomas Carlyle


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