Joe Bish, who engineers Population Media’s highly useful daily posts on subjects such as population growth, family planning shortages, environmental problems and religious intransigence has just offered Paul Ehrlich’s latest post on endless growth, a subject which needs constant repeating (ala Dave Gardner and others), but still have not penetrated the minds of many major economists. His introductory wording is so perfect and Ehrlich’s recitation so obvious, I will not change a word.
There is not a great deal to add to the following essay, written by Paul Ehrlich and posted to the blog of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (MAHB). In it, Dr. Ehrlich takes several iconic and growth-addicted economists out to where they belong — the whipping post.
As current events show us, there are strains of human thought and ideology that simply defy categorization into anything resembling intelligent — even when expressed by ostensibly well-heeled and influential individuals.
To think, for example, that anybody — let alone a former Director of the United States National Economic Council — could disgorge such statements as “The idea that we should put limits on growth because of some natural limit is a profound error, and one that, were it ever to prove influential, would have staggering social costs,” is not only a sign of the times, but perfectly incomprehensible.
Virtually every economist rejects the concept of limiting growth – by which they normally mean growth in GDP. As Larry Summers, famous as a major cause of the recent U.S. financial disaster, once stated, “The idea that we should put limits on growth because of some natural limit is a profound error, and one that, were it ever to prove influential, would have staggering social costs.” More typical of the intellectual contributions of mainstream economics, John Makin of the American Enterprise Institute recently asserted that “There is no magic bullet for stimulating long-term growth, which depends largely on persistent technological change and population growth.” Long-term growth is, of course, a “bullet,” but lethal, not “magic,” being fired directly into the heart of civilization. Even most smart economists, for example Paul Krugman, cannot get over the notion that growth is necessary to solve human problems. As Krugman said recently, ” Oh, and politics: between the non-disaster of Obamacare…and the prospect of a decent rate of economic growth, the midterm elections may not go the way many on the right currently expect.” Krugman recently spent time on TV talking about how to get growth without bubbles, opining, among other things, that Japan’s growth had slowed because of its demographic situation (Japan is one of a handful of overdeveloped nations whose populations, blessedly, have begun to shrink). He is thoroughly hooked on growth, most recently advocating reducing inequality (a good idea) to promote growth (a very bad idea). And Robert Reich recently stated that income inequality is “the enemy of economic growth,” (since it limits the power of the middle class to buy more junk). Economists like Reich and Krugman are wisely concerned with the pain people suffer through poverty and joblessness, which even in a nation as rich as the United States can still lead to clinical depression, hunger, illness, and even death. It is diagnostic of their growthmania that economic growth is inevitably their solution to the problems of maldistribution of resources – alternative approaches such as a shorter work week (an historic solution to the problem of job shortage), redistribution (except by changes in marginal tax rates), and (in the longer term) steps to limit family size are never considered.
This endemic growthmania creates love of the disease and fear of the cure. Old-time economist Robert Gordon of Northwestern University projects (and laments) a dramatic decline in growth. As he wrote, “We began with the tantalizing (and frightening) suggestion… that per-capita real GDP growth could slow down to a rate of a mere 0.2 percent by 2100.” This horrifying slowing of growth would be, according to Gordon, because of “faltering innovation,”  without considering the obvious environmental/resource factors that make it likely growth will be reversed long before 2100. Of course, if economists could (or would) take into account the ongoing depreciation of the planet’s natural capital, I think it is likely that economic growth has already halted, along with (as economists ironically have demonstrated) the growth of human satisfaction. Depreciation of natural capital is the main reason that growth of GDP often leads to a decrease in human well-being – of both current and future generations.
Ironically, economists are also helping to generate what Marxists would call a “false consciousness” even in the numerate public about the role of individuals, the distribution of wealth and power, and what is likely to happen to those distributions in the future. They themselves see the basic system as sound, individuals as “free,” and believe everyone will be richer in the future. It is ironic because the major constraints on growth in wealth today were largely unknown to Marx, Engels, and others of their time; but their writings lead me to suspect they would know better and be ecological economists if they were alive today.
How does one explain that economists, many of whom have knowledge of mathematics, consider that 3% per annum is a “healthy” or “decent” economic growth rate? After all, a simple calculation shows that if the U.S. (or any other) economy grew at 3% for about 23 years, it would double in size. In less than 150 years the economy would be 100 times as big. Picture the drought situation in California or the air pollution in Beijing with a doubling of economic activity occurring in only 23 years. Then picture a doubling again and again every couple of decades. Is this the future we want for our children and grandchildren?
The explanation for economic blindness, I’m afraid, lies primarily in educational systems that pump out graduates, including economists with doctorates, who are usually utterly clueless about how the world (or the economic system) actually works. It is crystal clear that few understand that the growth-oriented economic system thrives on the heedless rape of natural capital and generates gross inequities (recall that much of western prosperity was built on a foundation of slavery). They fail to recognize the importance of natural capital, and when they do they are vastly overoptimistic about the chances of technological change offsetting its losses. They can’t imagine that the present economic system, dependent on continuous growth in population and consumption, is doomed.
The critical economic questions today are simply: “is there a humane, equitable, and well-being-providing substitute for physical growth and, if so, how can we transition to it?” Indeed, when thinking about the needed total revision of the present economic systems, one must again (shudder) refer to Marx and his concept of alienation. How is it possible for most people not to view themselves as cogs in a giant production machine, and how can we return a sense of pride and association with the results of one’s labors?
Economics may be the discipline that has the most to contribute to avoiding a collapse of civilization. It’s a great pity that most economists are growthmaniacs — very much part of the problem rather than the solution.
Now let’s hasten back to the future and understand that economists are simply one tribal group who don’t get the implications for Planet Earth of endless growth. Every interest group around the world has this problem. And major among them are religious and ethnic tribes that are squarely to be aligned with the above mentioned economists, often labeled with the adage “very seldom right, but never in doubt”.
Hopping into bed with such religious worthies as Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell, who founded Liberty University in 1971 in Lynchburg, Virginia. Jerry Falwell, Jr. is now president and chancellor of the university, so the gene has been passed.
And while we all had high hopes for Pope Francis to reform and reposition the Catholic Church on issues such as choice, contraception and elevating women to be female priests, his statements to date are not encouraging.
What all tribal zealots of any description fail to foresee and acknowledge are the limits to growth which are inexplicably there for our small planet. The late Garrett Hardin understood this fact better than anyone I have known in my life time.
A web site dedicated to his work can be found at http://www.garretthardinsociety.org/. Its heading notes that:
The Garrett Hardin Society is dedicated to the preservation of the writings and ideas of Garrett James Hardin. A common thread throughout his work is an interest in bioethics. Trained as an ecologist and microbiologist and a Professor of Human Ecology at the University of California for more than thirty years, he is best known for his 1968 essay, The Tragedy of the Commons.
The site further tells us that
Humankind is embedded in a finite biological setting. Garrett Hardin’s writings enable us to responsibly assess our surroundings to optimize the quality of life for present and future generations. By perpetuating Dr. Hardin’s writings, the Garrett Hardin Society will provide a meaningful framework to discuss ecological, economic, demographic, and ethical issues.
My wife and I had the honor of being associated with this remarkable man for some years. His books with titles such as “Stalking the Wild Taboo”. His personal hand written notes to us are treasured parts of our memorabilia.
Some of his quotes, emanating from his many books and papers can be found here.
Some people talk a good game, but Garrett and his wife, Jane, with whom my wife and I had lunch at their home shortly before their deaths, were brave and realistic in facing their declining health and their fervor not to make their exits painful and unnecessary.
Garrett Hardin, 88, Ecologist Who Warned About Excesses, Dies
By STUART LAVIETES
Published: October 28, 2003
Garrett Hardin, an ecologist and author who warned of the dangers of overpopulation and whose concept of the “tragedy of the commons” brought attention to the damage that innocent actions by individuals can inflict on the environment, died at his home in Santa Barbara, Calif., on Sept. 14. He was 88.
He and his wife, Jane, 81, committed suicide, said their son David.
Dr. Hardin, who suffered from a heart disorder, and his wife, who had Lou Gehrig’s disease, were members of End-of-Life Choices, formerly known as the Hemlock Society.
An emeritus professor of biology and environmental studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Dr. Hardin introduced “the tragedy of the commons” in an essay published in 1968 in Science magazine. Examining the overgrazing of 19th-century community pastures, or commons, the article showed how depletion of a vital resource was brought about by those who continually increased the size of their herds out of self-interest.
Can one offer a more selfless and blessed “religious” position than this humanist couple who understood what no tribal group I know about espouses, leaving as good conditions for life on Earth for future generations as possible. One cannot find a more selfless or braver position. Such irony when one compares the utterly unproven supposition that Jesus gave his life so we would be cleansed of our sins. The Hardins, in their simple, unselfish decision have one upted the entire hoard of religious sects by their true act of dedication to a better future for humanity on Mother Earth.
Garrett Hardin on the Tragedy of the Commons
Garrett Hardin on Overpopulation and Carrying Capacity
An Interview with Dominant Animal author Paul Ehrlich
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