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