Tag: Growth

Politics, Climate Change – Impacts and the IPCC

Climate Change – Impacts and the apolitical nature of reports.

 

The IPCC on the 2nd November 2014 issued a press release: ‘Concluding instalment of the Fifth Assessment Report: Climate change threatens irreversible and dangerous impacts, but options exist to limit its effects’.

 

 

Their first statement is:
“Human influence on the climate system is clear and growing, with impacts observed on all continents. If left unchecked, climate change will increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems. However, options are available to adapt to climate change and implementing stringent mitigations activities can ensure that the impacts of climate change remain within a manageable range, creating a brighter and more sustainable future” (p1).

 

This much we know from the 5th assessment report, but this release is not about bringing anything new to the table, it is a synthesis of the 3 working group reports published earlier in 2014.

 

The IPCC feel that progress for human development can still be made if there is the will to do it based on the knowledge brought forward by the thousands of scientists. In this they are placing faith in the ‘Translational model’ of science and policy (Wynne 2010). The ‘Translational’ model assumes that what all policy makers need, and by inference the public, is an understanding of the science to enact change.

 

However this does not work because as Mike Hulme points out, climate change is an ‘idea’ and not a scientific ‘fact’ for many people. Hulme (2009) and Wynne (2010) argue that what is at issue is not the propositional claims of climate science, but the conditional and epistemic nature of all science which then relates to the complex and often politicised relationship between science and policy; see also Carlisle (2001) in health inequalities and Pielke’s ‘iron law’ of climate policy (2010). Science ‘produces’ knowledge but it is conditional, i.e. always open to be refuted and it uses propositions, not certainty, in its statements. In reality, we accept as fact science’s propositions as the evidence stacks up and refutations achieve less success – who doubts the laws of gravity, a heliocentric cosmos, or aerodynamics?

 

Politicised uncertainty applies especially to environmental science, which Douglas discussed as far back as 1970. Goldenburg (2010), Ward (2012), Klein (2014) and Marshall (2014) outline the work of the Heartland Institute, the Cato institute, influential politicians and Tea Party members in regard to attempts to refute climate science.

 

The IPCC point out current impacts on the least developed countries and argue for adaption through cooperative responses. They also argue that adaptation is not enough and that reduction in emissions is still required. However, the report is written within the frame of reference of growth based capitalism, the language of adaption and mitigation is used within this growth paradigm. In other words, the argument is that capitalism requires collective action to change what it does, but not a root and branch reform of the process itself.

 

The time scale for capitalism to correct its market failures is now measured in decades:

 

“We have little time before the window of opportunity to stay within 2 degrees C of warming closes. To keep a good chance of staying below 2C, and at manageable costs, our emissions should drop by 40 to 70 percent globally between 2010 and 2050, falling to zero or below by 2100. We have that opportunity, and the choice is in our hands.” (p2).

 

A counter to this is the fossil fuel lobby and industries which continue to get billions of dollars in subsidies to extract fossil fuels. One measure has this subsidy at between $544 billion and $2 trillion. So while we have scientists telling us we must reduce emissions on one side, we have a very powerful vested interests and billions of dollars invested in continuing that extraction. Populations however must expect rises in energy prices if these subsidies are cut. This pertains if we do not also address wealth and income redistribution. For example In June 2014 Indonesia increased petrol prices by 44% to cut its annual subsidy bill of $20 billion. These sorts of increases hit the poor disproportionally while it is the rich who use cars more and thus benefit from subsidies. This could be addressed using tax transfers and other redistributive measures but redistribution is not on the agenda in many countries.

 

It perhaps is not the role of the IPCC to delve into politics, however we must make those links because the science can only take us so far. The broader arguments are cultural, moral and political and we must decide which to go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carlisle, S. (2001) Inequalities in Health: contested explanations, shifting discourses and ambiguous polices. Critical Public Health 11 (3)

 

Douglas, M. (1970) Environments at Risk. Times Literary Supplement. 23 (4th June): 124-7

 

Goldenburg, S. (2012) Climate Scientist Peter Gleick admits he leaked Heartland Institute documents. The Guardian. 21st February. [online] http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/feb/21/peter-gleick-admits-leaked-heartland-institute-documents

 

Hulme, M. (2009) Why we disagree about Climate Change. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.

 

Pielke, R. (2010) The Climate Fix in Borofsky , Y. (2010) YaleE360: Pielke’s “Iron law” of Climate Policy [online] http://thebreakthrough.org/blog/2010/10/yalee360_pielkes_iron_law_of_c.shtml

 

Ward, B. (2012) Heartland Institute leak exposes strategies of climate attack machine. The Guardian. 21st February. [online] http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/feb/21/heartland-institute-leak-climate-attack?intcmp=239

 

Wynne, B. (2010) Strange Weather, Again: Climate Science as Political Art. Theory Culture and Society. 27 (2-13): 289-305

 

Climate Change, Health and Capitalism

Climate Change, Health and Capitalism The debate on climate change and health in the context of Ecological public health: A necessary corrective to Costello et al’s ‘biggest global health threat’, or co-opted apologists for the neoliberal hegemony?

Abstract

The threat posed to global health by climate change has been widely discussed internationally. The United Kingdom public health community seem to have accepted this as fact and have called for urgent action on climate change, often through state interventionist mitigation strategies and the adoption of a risk discourse. Putting aside the climate change deniers’ arguments, there are critics of this position who seem to accept climate change as a fact but argue that the market and/or economic development should address the issue. Their view is that carbon reduction (mitigation) is a distraction, may be costly and is ineffective. They argue that what is required is more economic development and progress even if that means a warmer world. Both positions however accept the fact of growth based capitalism and thus fail to critique neoliberal market driven capitalism or posit an alternative political economy that eschews growth. Ecological public health, however, appears to be a way forward in addressing not only social determinants of health but also the political and ecological determinants. This might allow us to consider not just public health but also planetary health and health threats that arise from growth based capitalism.

 

Keywords Ecological Public health, climate change; risk discourse; capitalism; neoliberalism;

The health impacts of climate change have been much discussed internationally1,2,3,4  however there is some disagreement about the magnitude of those effects, when they will occur and what the right course of action is. Underpinning those disagreements is a tacit and sometimes uncritical acceptance of the fundamental structure of the political economy of growth capitalism – neoliberalism5 , with the differences being around whether climate change requires more immediate public policy and health professionalintervention6 or whether capitalism will address the health issues though economic development. In other words, both use the frame of reference of capitalism to argue for either more market freedom or statist intervention based in a risk discourse. This paper seeks to outline the arguments over the health effects of climate change while rooting that discourse within wider often background taken for granted political economy. Two writers, Indur Goklany and Daniel Ben Ami will be used to represent the critical camp in riposte to Costello et al’s 2009 UCL-Lancet paper on climate change and health. While the focus is on climate change, other factors such as biodiversity loss, chemical pollution, ozone depletion, ocean acidification, all threaten the ecological systems we depend on7. These issues are also associated with our current growth based economic structures.  The ecological public health discourse will not be discussed at length here, but might provide a newer perspective linking global political structures, critiques of growth based capitalism and public health.

The Climate change ‘debate’

 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 5th Assessment Report (AR5)8 argues that scientists are 95% certain that humans are the ‘dominant cause’ of global warming since the 1950’s9,10 . Despite this, there is continuing doubt, denial and a focus on uncertainty,11,12,13,14,15   that Climate Change is human induced and that it requires radical shifts in public policy.   This doubt sits in opposition to many in the medical16and public health domain17. The World Health Organisation18,19  accepts IPCC assessments and considers climate change to be a ‘significant and emerging threat’ to public healthwhile previously ranking it very low down in a table of health threats20,21. In the United Kingdom, Costello22 et al argue that climate change is a major potential public health threat that does require major changes such as action on carbon emissions. In addition, Barton and Grant’s health map23 has in its outer ring ‘Climate Stability, Biodiversity and Global Ecosystems’ as key determinants of health and supports the WHO view that alongside the social determinants of health, health threats arise from large scale environmental hazards such as climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion, biodiversity losses, changes in water systems, land degradation, urbanisation and pressures on food production. WHO24  argues:   “Appreciation of this scale and type of influence on human health requires a new perspective which focuses on ecosystems and on the recognition that the foundations of long-term good health in populations rely in great part on the continued stability and functioning of the biosphere’s life-supporting systems”.

 

It is this call for a ‘new perspective on ecosystems’ that indicates why there is a backlash, one that underpins critiques of the link between climate change, environmental issues and human health. Many of those critical are libertarian, anti-state conservatives defending the neoliberal hegemony of free market dogma which ‘new perspectives’ may threaten.  For example, Stakaityte25 argues:   “Free market proponents are quick to point out that the whole climate change issue has been used to stifle freedom and to expand the nanny state – and they are right. If the climate is changing, and if humans really are responsible, the market will adapt”.

 

The WHO call for a ‘new perspective’ however is not a radical critique of neoliberal capitalism or a call for its replacement by other political economies. It sits within an overarching acceptance that growth25 capitalism is the only economic model, and that only its particular current form requires changing, for example by investments in green technologies.   Critical discourse over such an important issue is crucial. Argument should proceed over matters of empirical facts, within discourses of risk and an understanding of scientific uncertainty27 .  Attention also should turn to philosophical positions on political economy in which the dominant neoliberal hegemony28,29 attempts to build and maintain a sceptical view30,31  in the media on climate change and on alternative, including no growth, economic models32,33,34  because neoliberalism is antithetical to ‘nanny state’ intervention implicit in public health ‘upstream’ analysis.

 

Health Impacts of climate change and the policy response.

Indur Goklany and Daniel Ben Ami respectively are noted writers on the topic and both are in the sceptical camp regarding what to do about climate change. Both however appear to accept the fact of climate change, they just don’t agree with the focus on carbon reduction targets.   For the health community that makes decisions on what the main threats to health are, there is a need to carefully weigh up the evidence for threats to population health in the short, medium and long term, or what Goklany calls the ‘foreseeable future’ defined as 2085-2100. This means addressing Goklany’s argument, especially, on the ranking of health threats and Ben Ami’s argument on progress. For Goklany the health threats this century are not from climate change, nor will they be. For Ben Ami, the answer lies in any case of more progress based on economic growth and development.   In this there is some support from the latest IPCC report 35 (p3)  which states   “the present worldwide burden of ill health from climate change is relatively small compared with other stressors and is not well quantified”.   The report also states that rapid economic development will reduce health impacts on the poorest and least healthy groups, with further falls in mortality rates.  In addition, they argue36 (p4), alongside poverty alleviation and disaster preparedness, the most effective adaptation measures are:   “basic public health measures such as the provision of clean water, sanitation and essential healthcare”.   A key point is that climate change and extreme weather events affects the poor disproportionally and that37 (p3)   “until mid century climate change will act mainly by exacerbating health problems that already exist”   So there is an emphasis on economic development and poverty alleviation by the IPCC, thereby accepting the basic tenets of growth capitalism, alongside mitigation and adaptation, to deliver them.   However, McCoy38  et al points out that by 2100,  ‘business usual’ emissions growth will see increases in levels of CO2 in the atmosphere giving a 50:50 chance that global mean temperatures will rise by more than 4 degrees, which they argue  is   “incompatible with an organised global community”.   However, they stop short of a critique of the political economy of growth capitalism that drives C02 emissions39,40,41.   Both Goklany and Ben-Ami’s faith in human progress is based on inductive reasoning, ignores the key statistical problem of exponential growth on a finite planet, and may be over confident that limits have been correctly identified or can be overcome. Goklany might turn out to be empirically correct that in the ‘foreseeable future’, climate change will not be the major threat to public health, however this line of reasoning might support the denial of climate change in particular and obscures the requirement of addressing the sustainability of current economic structures. It also sidesteps addressing the language and discourse of risk42,43 which includes considering that human action should not be based on total certainty but on the assessment of the probabilities of high and low impact events. However, the position taken by both writers is that humanity needs more capitalist economic and technological development even if that results in a warmer world.   Goklany44 argues that humanity, in developing and using fossil fuels, both freed itself from the vagaries of nature’s provision and also has saved nature from humanity’s need to turn more of it into cropland. The inference from this argument is that we ought to continue to use fossil fuels to further human progress and to save nature from ourselves. Increasing global GDP, i.e. a wealthier world, would also be better equipped to deal with future global warming issues45.   Daniel Ben-Ami46 forwards this argument. He points out that we are living longer and healthier lives than ever before thanks to economic development and growth. Therefore, inductively, we need more growth. Humanity should strive to achieve more in terms of economic development so that everyone should have access to a Ferrari if they want it.   Those who suggest climate change is a health threat do not address this economic and development argument head on.  There may be implicit acceptance of the current economic models of development. Instead there is a focus on the magnitude of climate change per se as a health threat rather than the economic structures which may drive climate change and other unsustainable practices such as deforestation.       Costello v Goklany.   In 2009 Costello et al 47(p1693)  argued that ‘climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century’ . Goklany48,49 in the same year replied and argued that climate change is not the number one threat to humanity, and questioned whether it is the defining challenge of our age. Goklany50  pointed out that climate change was ranked only 21st out of 24 global health threats. Goklany’s rebuttal data comes from the World Health Organisation51 ‘World Health Report 2002’ and the Comparative Quantification of Health Risks 200452and he used results from “Fast Track Assessments” (FTAs) of the global impacts of global warming53,54 .   Costello, Maslin and Montgomery 55  in reply to Goklany argued that     “The ranking of climate change at 21st out of 24 risk factors was made at a time when global temperature rise was only 0·74°C, and when the effects of climate change on the other risk factors was unclear”   …and they claimed that there has since been substantial changes in our understanding of climate change risks. They cite two papersshowing that about 1 trillion tonnes56 is probably the cumulative limit for all carbon emissions if we wish to stay within the 2°C “safety” limit57, and that, without action, we shall exceed this limit before 2050.  They also cite a paper by Schneider58 who raised the prospect of worst case scenarios: warming at 3°C gives a 90% probability that Greenland will melt, raising sea levels by many metres, and that on present evidence and trends there is a 5—17% chance that temperatures will go up by 6·4°C by 2100. They argue that this a risk threshold, way beyond which people would buy insurance.   Goklany59  in 2012,  argued Costello et al made their claim about climate change in 2009 without a comparative analysis of the magnitude, severity and manageability of a range of health threats at that time and therefore ranking it as the No 1 threat is untenable.  His position in 2012 is that the 2 degree target is irrelevant in any case and he seems happy to accept a 4 degree rise.   The 2013 IPCC report AR560, while accepting a pause in warming over recent years, argues that climate change is a continuing very serious issue and now post dates this difference in Goklany and Costello’s arguments which are based on data from 1999 to 2009. The report makes it clear that even if greenhouse gas emissions are stopped right now climate change will persists for many centuries, much of it will be irreversible characterised by impacts such as sea level rises and argues that the last time the world was 2 degrees warmer, sea levels were 5 -10 metres higher.   On what to do, Goklany61 (p69)  argued in 2009 that   “Societal resources devoted to curb carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions will be unavailable for other…more urgent tasks including vector control, developing safer water supplies or installing sanitation facilities in developing countries….”   However this sets up a false dichotomy. The decision to spend on carbon reduction is not an either/or one. There are myriad spending decisions being made, and those choices are made from a raft of competing priorities. One could equally argue that resources devoted to nuclear armaments and other military spending is unavailable also for these other urgent tasks. So to focus on emissions reduction as the spending that diverts funds away from addressing other pressing health issues is a biased view. Goklany could argue for an end to subsidies for the fossil fuel and nuclear industries, reductions in military spending, changing the international tax regimes to access wealth deposited in offshore accounts, or the introduction of a Tobin tax on financial transactions. These are admittedly biased positions and may be seen to be too left wing, and ideologically incompatible with current growth capitalism and neoliberal hegemony62.   Whether funding spent on carbon reduction actually works in terms of human welfare and is less expensive than alternatives, is a valid question but has to be seen in a wider political discourse about spending decisions. His points regarding the need for poverty reduction via sustainable economic development and advancing our adaptive capacity would possibly bring broad agreement. In any case some63 consider that it is too late for mitigation and that adaptation to a warmer world is now needed. Goklany64  uses the term ‘focused adaptation’ meaning taking advantage of the positive benefits of warming. If sea levels are to rise by 5-10 metres this is beyond the foreseeable future and so we should focus on economic growth and development to adapt to those future scenarios rather than wasting time resources and energy on emission curbs. However, this seems somewhat an anthropocentric view taking in little regard for biodiversity loss and ocean acidification, both of which are also threats to human health.   Ben Ami and Goklany put faith instead in ‘secular technological change’. This believes that   1) Existing technologies will become cheaper or more cost effective. 2) New technologies that are even more cost effective will become available.   They may well be correct. They argue the potential health threats may be addressed through human ingenuity based on economic progress and economic progress is best served by accepting the IPCC worse case scenario which would result in greater per capita GDP and thus release capital for adaptation (figure 1).   Goklany argues that if humanity has a choice, it ought to strive for the developmental path corresponding to the richest IPCC scenario (A1FI  – 4 degrees C above 1990 by 2085), notwithstanding any associated global warming, because this increases adaptive capacity and poverty would be eliminated. Other health risks that rank higher than global warming are also associated with poverty and would thus also be eliminated. Poverty related diseases contribute to mortality and morbidity 70 to 80% more than warming. Mitigative capacity would be increased, therefore health improves with economic and technological development, and development encourages the ‘environmental transition’.   This is a very risky strategy which future generations will have to judge the merits of. There is gathering evidence beyond climate change suggesting that humanity is already transgressing other environmental limits65, transgressions which will not support a ‘safe operating space’ in the new era, the ‘anthropocene66,67 .   Risk Discourse.   Goklany68 argued in 2012   “This paper does not address hypothesized low-probability but potentially high consequence outcomes such as a shutdown of the thermohaline circulation or the melting of the Greenland and Antarctica Ice Sheets, which have been deemed unlikely to occur in the foreseeable future by both the IPCC and the US Global Change Research Program, among others”,   …although the IPCC69(p22) has since written that it is     “very unlikely that the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (part of the global thermohaline) will undergo abrupt transition or collapse…however, a collapse beyond the 21st century…cannot be excluded”.   Goklany, in not addressing these risks, appears to dismiss the need for ‘risk discourse’ to frame public debate relying on ‘kicking into the long grass’ serious future consequences of climate change.   ‘Risk’ is already an essential part of everyone’s experience, including in the world of insurance, health and investment. It is not uncommon for people to insure against low probability but high impact events, e.g. house fires, and for the long term, e.g. pensions. It is thus arguable that the thermohaline shutdown and ice sheets melts may well be just the sort of low probability but high impact events that humanity ought to be insuring against and taking measures to prevent through carbon emissions reductions. Painter70 suggests therefore that elements of risk discourse would provide a better frame for debate than disaster and uncertainty frames, which are both more prevalent in news media.   Space precludes an examination of the concept of exponential growth and the requirement to produce resources to meet the needs of potentially 9-10 billion people by 2050. Costello et al’s position seems to be that climate change will stress ecosystems before we have time to adapt and that both direct and indirect affects will adversely impact on global health. They are not so sanguine about our ability to live within our limits.         Goklany is correct to point out that currently health threats arise from poverty and underdevelopment. In this assessment he is in accord with the WHO social determinants of health approach and the IPCC AR5 WGII71.  Costello et al have not dismissed this and public health experts would probably accept a similar position. A focus on the social determinants of health and the political determinants of health72 needs to run alongside mitigation or else the good work could be undone by a low probability, according to Goklany,  but high impact event such as the melting of the Arctic Ice. They differ on when climate change will be a health threat and importantly on how to address it. Goklany and Ben Ami appear to be on the market driven economic development model as the answer whereas Costello et al argue for more immediate state and public intervention in addressing climate change. All however do not critique the fundamental neoliberal growth economic model or call for alternative economic ‘no growth’ or circular models73,74. There is little doubt that we are running an experiment with the climate, there is agreement that this will impact on global health but the dominant discourse of political economy seems to be either more or less tweaking with capitalist growth models rather than a sustained examination of alternatives.There are voices, now however, pointing public health in another direction. Horton et al75 call for a new social movement in a ‘manifesto from public to planetary health’, to support collective action on Public Health, introducing the concept of ‘planetary’, rather than just ‘public’ health.  As with Lang and Rayner’s76  discussion of Ecological public health, there is a strong focus on the unsustainability of current consumption. Interestingly,  an overt political statement is introduced in the ‘manifesto’: “We have created an unjust global economic system that favours a small wealthy elite over the many who have so little”77 p847. They attack the idea of progress, and thus implicitly growth based neoliberalism, for deepening this ecological crisis and for being socially unjust. The call is for an urgent transformation in values and practices based on recognizing our interdependence and interconnectedness, and a new vision of democratic action and cooperation.  A principle of ‘planetism’ is invoked which requires us to conserve and sustain ecosystems upon which we rely.Finally they suggest that public health and medicine can be independent voices of conscience who along with ’empowered communities’ can confront entrenched interests. In the same vein, Ottersen et al78 are explicitly political on the links between health inequity, globalisation and the current system of global governance, including the actions of ‘powerful global actors’ and while they do not use the term ‘growth based capitalism’ or ‘neoliberalism’, the tone of the report makes it quite clear that there is a need to address global governance and an analysis of power. The domains of Public Health, Medicine and Nursing may be insufficiently politically aware of the scale of the issues, and the sheer force and dynamics of capitalism79, that impacts on human health. This might be due to the (necessary?) ‘ahistoric’ and ‘apolitical’ education of health care professionals, resulting in a lack of a sociological or political imagination underpinned by a critical theory of capitalism. However, adopting the perspective of Ecological Public Health or seeing the world through a ‘sustainability lens’80 might move more health practitioners and policy makers into critique and action on current economic and political structures that result in health inequities, and indeed, if some are to be believed, that threaten western civilisation81,82.

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Figure 1: net GDP per capita, 1990-2200 for 4 IPCC scenarios. The warmest is A1FI (4 degrees C) and the coolest is B1 (2.1 degrees C)       Author’s statement

Funding: none

Competing Interests: None declared

Ethical approval: Not required. This is a review paper.

 

“NOTICE: this is the author’s version of a work that was accepted for publication in Public Health. Changes resulting from the publishing process, such as peer review, editing, corrections, structural formatting, and other quality control mechanisms may not be reflected in this document. Changes may have been made to this work since it was submitted for publication. A definitive version was subsequently published in PUBLICATION, [VOL#, ISSUE#, (DATE)] DOI

Planetary and Public Health – its in our hands ?

From public to planetary health: a manifesto.

The Lancet (Horton et al, 2014) has just published  a manifesto for transforming public health.

You can read the full one page easy to read manifesto here.

This is a call for a social movement at all levels, from individual to the global, to support collective action for public health. Public Health has been widely defined in this manifesto and draws upon the ideas of Barton and Grant’s health map which has climate change, biodiversity and global ecosystems as the outer ring of the determinants of health.

The current definitions of public health, for example from the Faculty of Public Health,  draw upon Acheson’s 1998 definition “The science and art of promoting and protecting health and well-being, preventing ill-health and prolonging life through the organised efforts of society”.  However this definition may now be outdated as there is no mention of environmental or ecological determinants of health and no express action on planetary health at all.

Therefore this manifesto is an implicit call to redefine what public health means. Currently you can read the FPH’s approach to public health and fail to consider issues around climate change, biodiversity loss or the crossing of planetary boundaries which delineate a ‘safe operating space for humanity‘. This needs changing.

The main points within this manifesto  include a definition of ‘planetary’ , rather than ‘public’ health which they argue is an “attitude towards life and a philosophy for living… emphasising people not diseases, and equity not the creation of unjust societies”.  There is a strong focus in the manifesto on the unsustainability of current consumption patterns of living, based on the harms this has on planetary systems. They argue “overconsumption…will cause the collapse of civilisation”. Jared Diamond is worth a read on the collapse of civilisations,  and this argument is in line with his analysis.

Interestingly, an overt political statement is introduced: “We have created an unjust global economic system that favours a small wealthy elite over the many who have so little”. They attack the idea of progress, and of neoliberalism  including ‘transnational forces”, for deepening this ecological crisis and for being socially unjust. There is also a hint of the ‘democratic deficit‘ in which trust between the public and political leaders is breaking down.

The call is for an urgent transformation in values and practices based on recognizing our interdependence and interconnectedness, a new vision of democratic action and cooperation.  A principle of ‘planetism’ is invoked which requires us to conserve and sustain ecosystems upon which we rely.

Finally they suggest that public health and medicine can be independent voices of conscience who along with ’empowered communities’ can confront entrenched interests.

So far so good, and in a one page document the detail is necessarily missing.  The principles outlined in this manifesto and the analysis focusing on neoliberalism and ‘entrenched interests’ point us in a direction. However, there is now a need for a map.

I am not convinced that public health, medicine and certainly not nursing, is sufficiently politically aware of the scale of the issue and the sheer force and dynamic of capitalism to even begin constructing the map. That may be an unfair criticism because the education of health care professionals is ‘ahistoric’ and ‘apolitical’ by nature,  they simply lack a sociological or political imagination underpinned by a critical theory of capitalism. And for good reasons.

However, if doctors and nurses are to engage with this manifesto and to debate and argue for an alternative world view, then there is an urgent need to understand the forces railed against them. This manifesto rightly points out the political nature of the issue and the authors no doubt have a clear idea what they mean, however I doubt very much if the majority of healthcare professionals really understand, or even perhaps care about,  the concept of neoliberalism.

In the UK we will be having an election in 2015, in which we will be offered similar versions of the system that is causing the mess. There will be little in the way of mainstream reporting or argument on radical alternatives to consumption or finance capitalism. Indeed parties will be arguing over who can best manage the system.  The only exception will be the Green party who are a fringe party, in terms of votes.

As an example of the scale of the problem, consider Bill McKibbens’  ‘three numbers‘ argument: 2 for two degrees, the threshold beyond which we should fear to tread; 565 gigatons of CO2 we might be able to put into the atmosphere and have some hope of staying below or around 2 degrees; 2795 gigatons which is the amount of carbon in current reserves, but is the the amount of carbon we are planning to burn!  Further, the wealth of investors is tied up in this number and would evaporate like petrol in a hot day should we globally decide that this reserve should stay in the ground. This is an example of an entrenched interest backed by neoliberal politics which is antithetical to global and governmental regulations. The current TTIP negotiations which is trying to establish a free trade area between the US and the EU,  possibly exemplifies the powerlessness of states in the face of lawsuits by corporations if George Monbiot is correct. TTIP is a public health issue and forms part of the backdrop to this manifesto.

I welcome this manifesto, and would urge public health bodies to become overtly political in their statements about public health, perhaps revisiting Acheson and redefining public health to include planetary health.

Following that observation, a new publication published in February 2014, appears to address the politics in an overt way. The Lancet – University of Oslo Commission on Global Governance for Health argues in a document called ‘The political origins of health inequity: prospects for change’ : “Although the health sector has a crucial role in addressing health inequalities, its efforts often come into conflict with powerful global actors in pursuit of other interests such as protection of national security, safeguarding of sovereignty, or economic goals.”

This then sets up political determinants of health which sit alongside the social determinants of health. Whether it goes as far as critiquing the underlying dynamic of various forms of capitalism remains to be seen.

Making our own histories – we can change things if we want to and are free to.

Musing on the freedom to act in society, and on the nature of capitalism and its pernicious effects upon us, it might do to consider that we are free to change and we are not free to change. Capitalism at once exists and acts and feels like a cage while at the same time does not exist and is also only a product of our own imaginations and our social relationships that we have chosen to engage in. This matters because real lives are affected by the decisions that others in positions of power take, and they take these decisions as if capitalism is immutable, all pervading, inevitable…as a fact of life. This then justifies the use of batons, tear gas and surveillance drones in civil society and in putting down protest, and it justifies fixing the legal, financial and political framework so that big money fulfills big money’s needs.

In response to a recent email exchange I engaged in, a suggestion was made to me that there is a tendency to ‘objectify’ capitalism in many discussions – to make it seem indeed like a cage – a thing that has its own almost material existence and ‘essence’. This means that we may talk about capitalism as if it has objective existence and also a fixed nature. Capitalism is, in Emile Durkheim’s phrase, ‘sui generis’ – ‘of its own kind’. This derives from thinking that capitalist society over time replaces individuals with others, yet the ‘essence’ of society will not necessarily change. Over the course of a few decades, many individuals die and are replaced, however, the society retains its distinctive character. It is a thing of itself existing independently of individuals. An entire society that is built in this manner has its own ‘essence’. It has this ‘essence’ before any individual currently living in it is born, and is therefore “independent of any individual” existing almost as an ‘objective fact.’ We acknowledge this objective existence when we use such phrases as “Society today is worse/better than it was back in the day when…”

Some commentators might use different labels for capitalism. For example ‘casino capitalism‘ or ‘responsible capitalism‘ which reflects thier differing understandings of what capitalist society might be like. This tendency to label and to treat it as an objective fact, however, may overlook the fact that capitalism, like any ism, is dynamic and on the move. Historically that has been true: we have seen mercantile capitalism, industrial capitalism, post industrial or financial capitalism. Nonetheless and however it has been labelled, we must remember that capitalism is not an ‘objective fact’, although it can certainly feel that way especially to those who feel the full force of economic decisions made in far away board rooms.

Capitalism is a dynamic ever changing social system which finds expression and manifestation in human social relationships. The ‘objectivity’ of capitalism is a chimera; we may reify it and miss the essential nature of human decision making and social relationships that underpins it. Susan Strange argued “economists simply do not understand how the global economy works” due to a poor understanding of power and an over-reliance on abstract economic models. In other words, economist are apt to treat capitalism and the working of markets based on a false premise: that there is a objective system that can be understood theoretically using mathematics and a theory of self interested utility maximising rational actors, the ‘homo economicus’ of JS Mill and Adam Smith. To be fair to Smith he tempered this view in his Theory of Moral Sentiments.

What economists often miss is that what we are talking about here is a set of human relationships characterised by an imbalance of power.

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past” (Marx). What have ‘we’ been given and transmitted from the past? Anti capitalist sentiment such as some of us in the sustainability or others in the Transition Towns movements express, are confronting Big Oil, and a cluster of high carbon social systems (John Urry) which are based on certain capitalist relations of production. ‘We’ ignore capitalist class relations at our peril. ‘We’ may confront power elites who have made, and are trying to continue to make, history in their own image: how that history will pan out depends on our collective and individual responses to Power, e.g. the Military-Industrial-Security complex, the World Bank, IMF, OECD, G8, Davos, Bilderberg (?), EU and other Regional blocs, the Trioka, the Corporate Class Executive and the Political Power Elite. We, e.g. ‘anti-capitalists’ or the Transition Towns or Environmentalists, are trying to remake history; history as we please, but within a certain socio-political context and power play not of our choosing. We do not have ‘self selected circumstances’ and that is what makes capitalism feel like a cage. Ask yourself: who has the guns?

For an example of circumstances being shaped by the powerful, note how successful the right wing press has been in sowing the seeds of doubt in the population about climate change,  and also for blaming the poor for their position while supporting austerity in the midst of one the greatest transfers of wealth from poor to uber rich (the 0.01%) we have seen, and the movement of private bank debt to sovereign public debt. There is ample evidence that the neoliberal agenda, which unites many of groups mentioned above, are antithetical to a ‘no growth economy’ and to social democracy.  In the West, there is only one game in town: growth based on neoliberal economics.

There are countervailing voices, e.g. Paul Hawken’s ‘Blessed Unrest’,  but some are increasingly despairing, Will Hutton articulates this well.

The post financial crash shifts of 2008 are playing out, but we don’t know in 10 years what this will look like. So far however, report after report shows the wealthy elite entrenching their power and wealth* while the occupy ‘movement’, the indignados, the precariat, come under increasing demonisation, e.g. skivers v strivers, surveillance and crack downs, using para militiary type tactics. The monolith of Capitalism stands while we crash against it.

Capitalist social relationships are backed by ideology and often force. Some argue it is the best of a bad lot, and that like democracy it is the worse system we have except for all the others, that it is the only game in town. Marx himself marvelled at its ability to produce abundance. However, is this really the best we can do? Is this really the best world in the best of all possible worlds? Growth capitalism, and there is no other sort, is leading us towards ecological disaster, while the social determinants of health result in inequalities in health whereby millions die prematurely and needlessly because of our socio-political arrangements.  Many of us bluster and blog and rage and rant and protest, some of us quietly get on with living differently, remaking our social relationships as best we can.

We are free but everywhere we are in chains.

 

*the richest 1,000 persons, just 0.003% of the adult population, increased their wealth over the last three years by £155bn. That is enough for themselves alone to pay off the entire current UK budget deficit and still leave them with £30bn to spare.

Growth and Doubling and the competition for resources

Growth, doubling and the competition for resources

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Daniel Ben-Ami has written a good book challenging those of a green persuasion and those he calls ‘growth sceptics’ “Ferrari’s for all” is the title. Well worth a read. I believe there are flaws however mainly around the failure to address CO2 emissions related to growth and an almost panglossian belief in human ingenuity and progress. The key message is that economic growth and development has delivered huge advantages for humanity (let’s put aside the worlds’ poor for a moment) and is a precondition for dealing with the challenges that lie ahead.

However this is inductive logic, basing future predictions on past patterns. Whatever the historical record shows in the past, it may not be replicated in the future. In addition, growth itself may contain the seeds of its own destruction. See for example some counter arguments on growth: http://blogcritics.org/politics/article/growth-isnt-possible-nef-report/page-3/

To quote from the article: ‘But the key problem concerns the doubling time. Suppose an economy grows by 3%. It will double in capacity in 23 years, but it will consume as much in that time as in all previous doubling periods put together. For that reason, either there has to be a massive expansion of available resources, or the growth model becomes unsustainable.  Read more: http://blogcritics.org/politics/article/growth-isnt-possible-nef-report/#ixzz1AA1WdTPe

However the political realities are that the main parties in the UK (and the US) are wedded to the idea of capital accumulation based on market competition as an economic imperative and is the only model for economic activity: they believe that growth relieves poverty, they believe that what is good for business is good for society, free markets tend towards equilibrium and that competition leads to fairness. China and India are following their own models – not quite the same but still based on capital growth while ignoring the doubling principle.

So growth is probably here to stay until the physical realities and the ensuing struggle for resources (China uses 30% of the earth’s copper according to a BBC newsnight report) intervene.

Now why should any of this bother a healthcare professional?

How much is enough?

Robert and Edward Skidelsky, father and son, address the question ‘How much is enough’, in their recently published book (2012). Robert Skidelsky, professor of political economy, and Edward, lecturer in philosophy, wish to suggest what might the elements of a ‘good life’ accepting that this indeed can be known. Following on from this they suggest that the goals of economic policy should be directed to foster the good life, if we can know what that is, rather then directed towards encouraging mindless GDP growth for growth’s sake. They do this through briefly exploring the work of the renowned economist John Maynard Keynes and through examining the long traditions of philosophical thought. They critique current economic thinking, measurements of happiness and examine some weaknesses of environmentalism.

Underpinning their argument throughout is the notion that wealth is not the ends of a good life, it is merely a means, and not the only or exclusive means at that. In addition to this failure to identify what the ends of economic policy should be, current economics and culture conflates needs and wants thus failing to make the distinction between the two. Policies aimed at the relentless pursuit of money, are then counterproductive because they fail to direct us into asking when we have enough and what a good life is.

Wealth is not what they would classify as a ‘basic good, and is not automatically an element of ‘the good life’. This might seem counterintuitive and goes against the grain of a ‘euromillions lottery, celebrity-obsessed, consumerist culture’. However, many already know that the ‘love of money is the root of evil’ even if they often fall victim to its lures.

 

The argument is of course highly relevant in cultures which have elevated money making and economic growth as ends in themselves. The results of so doing are environmental damage, social division and a diminution of human flourishing, or as Skidelsky and Skidelsky say eudaimonia’.

They leave it until chapter 6 to outline what they consider are the ‘elements of the good life’, which they say could apply across cultures and across time.

So what are these elements (the basic goods) and how do they go about deciding what they should be? Accepting that the choice of these goods could be arbitrary, they argue for inclusion criteria to prevent this. There are thus 4 inclusion criteria to use to choose the ‘basic goods’.

1.    Universality. Basic goods apply across time, cultures, and not just from a localised, time-bound definition of them.

2.    Finality. They are goods in themselves and not a means to an end. Keep asking the ‘what is it for’ question. Money, what is it for? To buy food. Food, what is it for? For life. Life, what is it for? Well, life is not ‘for’ anything, it is not a means to an end, it is an end.

3.    Sui Generis. That means it exists on its own and is not part of anything else. So, ‘freedom from cancer’ is part of larger whole, the good of ‘health’ generally.

4.    Indispensable. Anyone who lacks a basic good can be deemed to have suffered serious harm or loss. Another way is to think of basic goods as needs.

In establishing these criteria of sufficiency, the task is to treat a ‘good’ as basic only if its lack constitutes serious harm or loss, for it is “…only such goods whose possession could be thought to constitute ‘enough’ ” (p153).

In choosing these basic goods they acknowledge that there is fuzziness, room for argument and overlap, but in such matters as this they argue for “honest roughness is better than spurious precision”. (p 154).

The seven basic goods:

1.    Health.

2.    Security.

3.    Respect.

4.    Personality.

5.    Harmony with nature.

6.    Friendship.

7.    Leisure.

Of course each of these need defining and argument, but maybe that is the point. However tempting it may be to descend into a hermeneutic vortex of relativist definition seeking, and as much fun as that might be in academic discourse, this list could be used as a basis for some universal agreement about how much is enough for a ‘good life’. An interesting exercise would be to gather people of faith and those of no faith to discuss the criteria and the seven basic goods. This would highlight subjective definitions of what for example ‘respect’ means. The list itself is difficult to argue with, who does not want health and security?

Herein lies a problem and that is ‘Politics’. The political class, the capitalist class, have yet to show any signs of social solidarity and thus a desire for the development of these basic goods. The marketisation of society, the commodification of all things, continues apace while the main political parties bow down to the God of growth. The Skidelskys resurrect  Keynes who thought that capitalism was a necessary if nasty route to prosperity and well being. He thought increased GDP would provide ‘enough’ and would usher in a shorter 15 hour working week. Yet despite increased national wealth we are now working longer hours. It is however the spirit of Hayek and the triumph of neoliberal free market ideology which has been unleashed upon Western economies. Hayek would want governments to go even further in their attempts to wither away the State. However without a strong civil society and a strong state, the 7 basic goods have no chance of being realized. They are just too vague and do not serve the interests of capital which requires the increase of profit, driven by competitive advantage.

Skidelsky, R., and Skidelsky, E. (2012) How much is enough? The love of money, and the case for the good life. Allen Lane, London.

Ferrari’s for all? Why this may be wishful thinking.

 A critique of ‘Ferrari’s for All – In defence of economic progress.’  By Daniel Ben-Ami (2010)

 

Introduction

As the name indicates, this book is a justification for further economic growth and progress. It is based on the idea that humanity is apart from nature (human exceptualism) and is capable of enormous technical, cultural and progressive ingenuity. Humanity should strive to achieve more in terms of economic development so that everyone should have access to a Ferrari (if they want it). It is a counter to what he terms ‘growth scepticism’, i.e. the “tendency to undermine economic progress by indirect means” (p3). What follows is a critique of the arguments around economic growth v limits put forward in part two of the book. It will argue that Ben-Ami’s faith in human progress is based on inductive reasoning, ignores a key statistical problem, and is over confident that limits (on energy supply for example) can be overcome. His faith in growth is thus based on wishful thinking and a confidence in the statistical analysis of a few commentators (notably Bjorn Lomborg). However, the notions of ‘scarcity’ and ‘limits’ are themselves problematic and need further exploring.

This is a book in two parts. The first deals with ‘growth scepticism’, which he argues has become a pervasive discourse in culture and politics as part of a ‘general mood of social pessimism…from the 1970’s onwards’ (p7). Growth scepticism is the ‘tendency to see economic growth and popular prosperity as problematic’ (p11). It may have several elements: a deep ambivalence on the part of ‘the elite’ to economic growth and progress; it may be expressed in terms of ‘limits’ (natural, social and moral); it may be a humanistic critique of materialism. Related concepts are ‘Affluenza’ (James 2007) whereby ‘consumption makes us mentally ill’ and ‘sustainability’ which focuses on environmental degradation and resource use (Spedding 1996). The second part is the counter argument to growth sceptics. 

Growth

First we need to deal with what is meant by ‘growth’.  Economists often refer to growth as growing ‘value’ (often measured in GDP terms). Environmentalists may focus on growth as growing the ‘quantity of stuff’. They are two quite different things which may or may not be related. House price value is an example of value growth without an increase in the quantity of stuff. A third use of growth is that of population growth. Ben-Ami appears to be making the case for growing GDP (value) and for growing ‘stuff’ while accepting rising levels of population growth for the next 30 years. So what follows refers to all meanings. Limits to growth include both the material and energy that are extracted from the Earth, and the capacity of the planet to absorb the pollutants that are generated as those materials and energy are used. Streams of material and energy flow from the planetary sources through the economic system to the planetary sinks where wastes and pollutants end up. There are limits, however, to the rates at which sources can produce these materials and energy without harm to people, the economy, or the earth’s processes of regeneration and regulation. Ben-Ami argues that limits can be overcome by human ingenuity based on economic development as a precondition for this ingenuity and creativity.

 

 

Progress and Nature

A core theme within the book is the Enlightenment idea of progress, with Frances Bacon’s entreaty to understand nature in order to better control it: 

‘Human knowledge and human power meet in one; for where the cause is not known the effect cannot be produced. Nature to be commanded must be obeyed; and that which in contemplation is as the cause is in operation as the rule (Bacon 1620)’.

Barton Perry (2011) thus adds “Observe nature in order that you may use nature, thus converting it into the habitation, instrument, and treasure of man. Here is the supreme maxim of our modern world, and the chief ground of its peculiar confidence and hopefulness”.

This thought is a corrective to the naturalistic fallacy which conflates the ‘is’ with the ‘ought’,  the ‘natural is’ with what ‘ought to be’, often indulged in by those (often ‘greens’) who use the words such as ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ in advertising their products. Arsenic is a ‘natural’ product and Human faeces can be described as ‘organic’.  Humanity has progressed by recognising that nature has to be tamed to ensure natural processes, elements and other species do not destroy us. The natural (Hobbesian) world is not necessarily a good template for human society. Thus Ben-Ami argues: “Environment: subjugate nature” (p123).

Humans are apart from nature and have demonstrated their continuing mastery over it. This is both true (to a degree) empirically and is also a value statement. Whether we should continue to control is a value position, whether this is hubris also remains to be seen. Nature has a knack of reminding humanity who is in control. As a value statement other commentators  may wish a little less control and a little more conservation. 

Growth is good

In his introduction, Ben-Ami states “Here is the good news. Over the medium and longer term…seven billion (people) are living longer, healthier and more prosperous lives than at any time in history” (p 1). He argues that infant mortality is down in many countries (see Gapminder.org for Hans Rosling’s statistical evidence on this sort of improvement), technology advances at astonishing rates, the average age for chronic disease increases, working hours are down, we are better educated and better connected than ever. This is down to human ingenuity, the pursuit of progress and growth. Ben-Ami acknowledges that the world is far from perfect, he is not wearing rose tinted spectacles, and much of what he states may well be factually correct and for many of us in rich countries at least is demonstrably correct.

Despite some (albeit gross) setbacks – e.g. nazism, the threat of nuclear annihilation, the continuing social inequalities – humanity has made enormous progress especially since the industrial revolution. The best way to address the challenges is to go for economic growth which encourages affluence. This is the “precondition for resolving challenges..rather than their cause” (p3).

The main points argued are:

  Growth 1: Humanity has gained enormously from economic growth.

  Growth 2: is correlated with technological and scientific progress.

  Growth 3:  can put humanity in a stronger position to deal with population and environmental challenges as it provides more resources combined with human ingenuity.

  Growth 4: Economic Inequality in itself is not an argument against growth. An answer is to raise the living standards of everyone so that poor countries should experience economic transformation such as that enjoyed by rich countries.

Limits

The growth sceptic case is based on limits which Ben-Ami argues:

  Limits 1: What appear to be fixed natural limits can be overcome. nature is to be subjugated, more control is needed not less.

  Limits 2: ‘Scarcity of resource’ and ‘overpopulation’ are myths.

  Limits 3: Moral limits are not imposed by affluence and materialism: The pursuit of happiness ought to be linked with progress, affluence is worth pursuing to achieve more happiness and does not make us ill. Sustainability is inherently conservative and privileges the elite.

Addressing limit 3 is for another paper. In ‘Chapter 6: Better than ever: Growth benefits humanity’. Ben-Ami points out that in 1800 the average life expectancy was 30 years, by 2000 it was 67 and rising. This is based on economic growth as a precondition for this progress. To refute his thesis it is not necessary to gainsay the facts. Let’s accept that growth arguments 1, 2, and 3 above are valid: humanity has gained, science and technology go hand in hand with economic development and thus humanity becomes better equipped to deal with the challenges. The historical record and current technological and scientific advances testify to these facts. Growth argument 4 is a political not an environmental argument, but may be subject to the limits he refutes for growth arguments 1, 2 and 3. In other words if there are limits, the political arguments for inequalities will be put in jeopardy as the populations struggle for scarcity within changing climates.

Inductive logic

Ben-Ami’s argument and statistics may be grounded in current and past reality. However, drawing from past patterns and history to suggest a future pattern is inductive logic and may be a very poor predictor. Inductive logic leads to inferences which are based on past patterns and observations, it is a kind of thinking (e.g. growth is good) that draws conclusions from a finite collection of specific observations (growth has been good). The premises of an inductive argument indicate some degree of support (inductive probability) for the conclusion but cannot confirm it. For example, “All swans are white” is an inference based on observations of thousands of white swans. Inductive logic is seductive because it encourages us to think that what has been, what is being observed, what is, will always be. Taleb (2005) quotes David Hume to illustrate the problem of induction “No amount of observations of white swans can allow the inference that all swans are white, but the observation of a single black swan is sufficient to refute that conclusion” (p117). Just because humans have been successful based on growth in the past does not mean that they will be so in the future. There may well be a human ‘black swan’ waiting to be discovered.

As for successful civilisations, no doubt the Romans, Babylonians and Easter Islanders thought the same of theirs until their own black swans emerged. The fact that a civilisation demonstrated a degree of mastery over its environment and enjoyed affluence is no measure of its continued success. Time frames are important especially as humans are poor at judging it. A successful civilisation of 200 years may seem to be so from the point of view of a human lifetime. An analysis over a 2000 year time frame may prove it otherwise. The time to judge whether the carbon based Western industrial revolution is a success is not 2010, we may need to come back to that judgment in 2050-2100. Climate change may be a black swan. Ben-Ami’s theory cannot be verified by reference to the current facts, the stacking up of empirical data does not confer certainty. Science itself operates within uncertainty.

To be fair Ben-Ami does not claim any certainty for human progress.  Ben-Ami accepts this logic: ‘it is not possible to predict with any degree of accuracy exactly how history will unfold’ (p 96). What carries him forward is faith in human ingenuity and progress leading to the building of resilient societies. He argues “the environmentalists case (on limits to resources and population) is refuted by the historical record” (p127) but he does not follow this through. We may wish to accept that the record has shown that limits to resources and population growth have not been the problems envisaged by some in the 20th century, but this does not mean they will not be so in the 21st. 

We have to ask whether our incredible ingenuity will be able to meet the increasing demands made upon our resources. For example, can we provide the energy needed (at western consumption levels) for 9 billion by 2050? Population estimates are that it will peak at around 8-9 billion by 2050 (UN 2007) and may fall after that. Whether GDP can continue to increase in line with population levels remains to be seen. Hamilton (2003 and 2010), Jackson (2010), Meadows et al (1972, 2004), Pielke (2010) and Simms et al (2010) outline the challenges.

A statistical challenge to growth

The first challenge is a statistical one, i.e. one devoid of value or judgment, it is the numerical expression of exponential growth.  For more than a century, the world has been experiencing exponential growth in a number of areas, including population and industrial production.  In 1650, the world’s population had a doubling time of 240 years. By 1900, the doubling time was 100 years. In 1972 when The Limits to Growth was first published (Meadows et al 1972), there were under 4 billion people in the world. Today, there are more than 6 billion. An important concept is that of doubling time: A quantity, growing according to a pure exponential growth equation, doubles in a constant time period. There is a simple relationship between the % rate of growth and the time it will take that quantity to double:

            Growth Rate  (% per year)        Approximate Doubling Times  (years)

                        0.1                                                                        720

                        0.5                                                                        144

                        1.0                                                                        72

                        2.0                                                                        36

                        3.0                                                                        24

                        4.0                                                                        18

                        5.0                                                                        14

                        6.0                                                                        12

                        7.0                                                                        10

                        10.0                                                                        7

 

If the world economy grows at 3% we will have doubled capacity in 24 years. Growth from a small base can show this exponential feature. For example China’s economy grew at nearly 10% in the third quarter of 2010 (Trading Economics 2011) which means at this rate it will double GDP in 7 years!  Its demand for copper (for example) may double in 7 years (without substitution or efficiencies in copper use). There is only so much copper in the world, so where is the limit? Mining for copper will also be affected by the technical developments, and socio-political choices made across the globe and so its scarcity will be determined by various political and cultural factors. Overarching these decisions, exponential growth cannot occur in finite systems…there are limits. China’s growth rate of 10% each quarter is not being sustained. Ben-Ami does not discuss this statistical relationship or its implications for growth and resources. Let’s look at energy needs.

Energy and Growth

Pielke (2010) argues that ‘the world needs more energy’ (p62). He uses the concept of the ‘quad’ to estimate the needs. ‘Quad’ stands for 1 quadrillion (1,000,000,000,000,000) British thermal units (Btu). A Btu is the amount of energy required to heat one pound of water by one degree F. Pielke illustrates this by comparing it to power plant generated electricity.  One quad is equivalent to 11 gigawatts (GW) over one year. 11 GWs is the amount produced by 15 typical power plants (each generating 750 megawatts). The USA consumes about 100 quads of energy each year (Pielke 2010 p63), the equivalent of the output of 150 power plants (1 quad produced by 15 power plants).

The USA uses 100 quads and can generate the energy to do so. Countries such as Afghanistan will of course (currently) use far less than 100 quads per year. For us to provide ‘ferraris for all’ Afghanistan will need to move towards the USA’s (per capita) quad consumption level. Even ignoring the fact that even in the USA this level of energy consumption exists in the context of gross inequities, can they do it?  

The US Energy Information Agency (EIA) estimated that the world would consume in 2030 678 quads of energy based on a GDP growth rate of 1.5% per year. If 15 power plants produce 1 quad then 678 quads would require 10,170 power stations. Estimates for actual global GDP growth is twice that amount (20,340 power stations). If demand were to increase by 2% pa to 2030 the world would need 755 quads. Ben-Ami wants growth, predicated upon growing energy demand. This calls for increased energy efficiency and/or supply to meet demand.  To reach 775 quads on current levels of energy efficiency would require 3,700 new power plants. That is one new power plant every day for the next 10 years at current levels of energy intensity.

Energy and carbon Intensity

Energy intensity is the amount of energy required for a unit of economic activity (measured as GDP). Thus it is a standard for energy use per unit of productivity. Carbon intensity refers to the carbon produced for each unit of productivity. Since carbon emissions and energy consumption are currently so strongly coupled, the two terms can effectively be viewed as roughly analogous (Simms et al 2010). A GDP rise suggests more units of production (and services) each using an amount of energy and producing carbon emissions.  If we are concerned at all about CO2 emissions and carbon intensity and we wish to reduce them then the ‘Kaya identity’ suggests we have 4 ‘tools’ :

1.  reduce population.

2.  reduce GDP.

3.  become more energy efficient.

4.  switch to less carbon intensive sources of energy.

Points 1 and 2 will not be addressed within the next 50 years (Pielke 2010), points 3 and 4 are enormous technological challenges (Simms et al 2010, Jackson 2010). If the world economy grows at 3% the current energy supply will have to double in 24 years unless we become more energy efficient and less energy intensive. Ideally we would want to reduce the amount of energy needed for each unit of GDP (reducing energy intensity). It is a given, Pielke argues, that population will rise, as will policies directed towards GDP growth (as advocated by Ben-Ami). Therefore we will need to increase diversification of supply and become vastly more efficient (with less energy intensity). Simms and Johnson (2010) argue “many of the technologies that make up the global energy system are mature technologies and their current efficiencies are at or almost at their practical maximum” (p103). Pielke argues (p75) that energy intensity has reduced. If 1980 = 1 then 2006 = 0.7. What is required is a projection of the ability to reduce this even further to reduce the need to generate and thus we fall into unknown territory. If Simms et al (2010) are correct, we may have already seen the majority of efficiency (and thus intensity gains) already.

Ben-Ami does not address these issues and thus ignores the fact that with a rising population and rising GDP the need to address energy efficiency and carbon intensity of supply becomes even more acute. Therefore the burden on human ingenuity and progress to deliver this without increasing CO2 emissions is intense. Pielke argues (p79) “the bottom line is that to stabilize (C02) at low levels will require advances in the decarbonising of the economy beyond that observed over the past decade and even the past century”. However If we require a new power plant every day for the next 10 years and these power plants use fossil fuels this is indeed a challenge. Ben-Ami may of course be unconcerned about CO2 emissions in the dash for growth hoping that technological advances will deliver both a reduction in CO2 and energy efficiency (reductions in energy intensity and carbon intensity).

We could of course argue that Pielke and Simms et al are also using inductive logic, basing calculations from the historical record. It may still be possible to increase the advances required so that we outperform the last century and the last decade. The jury is out, but Ben-Ami supplies no figures or estimates on this issue either. He does supply hope in human nature.

Pielke also argues that energy is necessary for development but is also a cost. In 2008 direct fuel costs 8% of world GDP (based on $60 a barrel for oil). The money needed to buy oil cannot be used for education, health or housing. Pielke may not be a growth sceptic but he demonstrates the scale of the energy problem indicating that there are limits based on policy decisions around de-carbonising the economy. 

Limits – Ecosystems and Climate change

Jackson (2009) is firmly within the growth sceptic camp. He argues current business as usual growth economics cannot continue because we have finite resources and that ecosystems are collapsing under the pressure of rising consumption (which also adds little to human happiness). He largely bases his arguments on the cases put forward by such as Meadows et al (1972 and 2004), McKibben (2007), the Millennium Ecosystem Assessments (2011) and Stern (2007). He argues “it is …estimated 60% of…ecosystems services have been degraded or over used since the mid 20th century” (p13). An ecosystem service is nature’s provision of food, water, climate regulation and waste disposal (MEA 2005). Ben-Ami has a problem with this idea. His point is that this leaves humanity out of the picture (p149), that nature does not provide, it is human labour that turns nature into food for example. This seems to miss the point, for without nature in the first place humans would have nothing to work with.

Jackson also makes much of the need to decarbonise the economy to deal with climate change. As argued above, as population and GDP grows so does carbon emissions. If we wish to reduce CO2 emissions (to those recommended by the IPCC) we have to reduce the carbon intensity of the economy. Ben-Ami makes little of CO2 emissions and growth assuming (hoping?) we can decarbonise the economy quickly enough (to reduce carbon intensity). Choat (2010) argues that a “standard feature of more mainstream economists’ efforts to take climate change seriously is an effort to show that it is, while not easy, manageable for us to make the transition from our current carbonised economy to a much less carbon-intensive one, which could otherwise carry on much as before”.

Commenting on Jackson, Choat (2010) states that, in 2007, a global population of 6.6 billion had an average income level of $5,900, with a carbon intensity of 760 grams of CO2 per dollar. This produced 30 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions.

The IPCC’s target for 2050 is 4 billion tonnes of CO2per annum. In order to reach that, assuming a population of 9 billion and per capita income growth of 1.4 per cent a year (the same as between 1990 and 2007), we get the following equation: 4 billion tonnes of of CO2 = 9 billion X around $10,700 income X a carbon intensity of round 36 grams per dollar. That’s a 21-fold improvement on 2007 levels of intensity. Whether we can achieve this is the question. Pielke and Jackson appear to be skeptical that we can achieve this

Therefore carbon emission targets are setting tough limits to GDP growth at current levels of both energy intensity and carbon intensity.

However, Ben-Ami is not convinced on carbon reduction or resource scarcity. He argues that the environment has improved as societies become richer and populations rise (Goklany 2006 and Lomborg 2001) and that we can solve climate change issues by more development not less.  He accepts the argument that resources are not becoming depleted and pollution is less of a problem, rejecting reports such as the Millennium Ecosystems Assessments.  For example, on pages 127 -132 he cites Lomborg’s ‘The Skeptical Environmentalist’ (TSE) to suggest 3 ways in which we deal with resource scarcity:

  existing resources are being used more efficiently.

  new supplies can be found.

  substitute resources can be used.

One key resource is Oil. Lomborg (2001 p128) argues that using the 3 mechanisms above (for example exploiting Canadian tar sands) that we have enough oil for 5000 years. Simms et al (2010) of course argue that we are entering an era of peak oil.

Ben-Ami also argues that humans are not only passive consumers of resources, we are also active producers who are able to find solutions. In sum, his point is that human ingenuity and creativity will find new ways, limits can be overcome and economic development is a precondition for this process. History ‘demonstrates’ this and shows that economic growth drives efficiencies and cleaner environments as argued by Kuznets (1955). However, Kuznets’s work is not without its critics (Yandle et al 2000). 

A problem is that economic growth and progress may well have been preconditions for prosperity but they may still also hold within themselves the seeds of their own destruction (black swans) which will only come to fruition as circumstances and time unfolds. History cannot be used to predict the future. Ben-Ami implicitly accepts this in his attack on the limits arguments. He has to show that limits do not exist, that they are not intrinsic to halting growth on a finite planet i.e. that limits are not the seeds of growth’s destruction. However, there are few statistics other than that of Lomborg’s work in the book to demonstrate that resources are not finite. Whether Lomborg’s statistical analysis is correct or whether the growth sceptics’ analysis of the empirical data on energy supply and resources are correct, is a key question. Lomborg’s work has itself caused a great deal of controversy both in terms of its analysis and whether it should have been published at all (Pielke and Rayner 2004). Ben-Ami’s key ideas rest on faith on human progress and uncritically accepting Lomborg’s analysis over other data (such as that produced by Rockstrom et al 2009). Pielke and Rayner (2004) suggest that the controversy over TSE illustrates how politics, values and science get intertwined in debate, they refer to it as “a political controversy over values masquerading as a scientific dispute… the debate over TSE tells us that, for the time being, the notion that science is the appropriate context for public disputes over issues that are ultimately disagreements over values remains firmly entrenched” (p356).

 

Other work not attended to by Ben-Ami include the debate around business models which are being questioned in any case by such organisations as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD 2011) and The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB 2010) study.

 

Scarcity

It is tempting to frame the above debate solely around the dichotomy: ‘Growth v Limits’ as if the question of resource allocation can be addressed simply by quantitative analysis (e.g. is there enough oil?). Mehta (2010) argues that the notion of ‘scarcity’ itself (another way of addressing limits to resources) is problematic. First there seems to be a universal acceptance of scarcity (especially across three domains of water, food and energy) which needs challenging. Mehta argues “…scarcity is not merely a natural phenomenon that can be isolated from planning models, allocation politics, policy choices, market forces, and local power, social and gender dynamics” (p2). In other words, resource allocation, their finiteness and how they get allocated is part of a larger whole; a matrix of social, political and economic dimensions within which powerful players set agendas and material flows. To really understand this complexity, one needs to draw from various perspectives on access to resources such as those from political ecology, marxism and feminism. Focusing on the technical questions on the assessment of resources will miss the cultural, historical and political dimensions. What is required is the ‘sociological imagination’ (Wright Mills 1959) that links the myriad personal experiences within their historical contexts. So, for example, a personal concern over petrol prices and carbon emissions has to be located within the policy decisions and social meanings of personal travel and politics of oil extraction. Oil is only a scarce and expensive resource because of the socio-political context in which it is embedded. Mehta thus suggests that water “..is simultaneously a natural element (H2O), essential for the ecological cycle, a spiritual resource…at holy river banks and oceans, a commodity which can be mined, bottled, sold and traded and a life giving element without which human survival is not possible”. (p3)

Therefore, Ben-Ami and the growth sceptics stand on various ideologies, philosophies and socio-political considerations which need exploring in detail as well as exploring the quantities.

Conclusion

It is not necessary to be anti growth per se and much of Ben-Ami’s argument may be valid in the past. However, there is an empirical question for the future that can be partly answered by quantitative measurement.  Do we have enough water, energy, food etc, to support the projected 9 billion people on the planet at current levels of western consumption patterns? Has the planet enough viable ecosystem services to deal with our waste products? Do industrial processes pollute to the extent that we are putting our futures at risk?  These questions can only be answered by research and continued study. They will also be affected by policy decisions (for example on population growth). Growth for its own sake has to be questioned. A sustainable economy would be interested in qualitative development, not always physical expansion (‘more stuff’). It would use material growth as a considered tool, not a perpetual mandate. We need to discriminate among the different kinds and purposes of growth. Questions need to addressed such as what the growth is for, who would benefit, what it would cost, how long it would last, and whether the earth has enough resources and the capacity to deal with waste (sinks) to allow for growth.

 

 

 

 

References

 

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