Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Three Blind Mice I : Krugman, Romm and Roberts Run the Wheel Round and Round

Dave Roberts, of Grist fame, recently wrote a piece disputing that we can know whether transitioning to a “clean” economy cheaply and easily is possible, calling out Krugman (economist aka voodoo practitioner) and Romm (stuffed shirt writer dude) for essentially saying how cheap and easy it would be.

Surely one of the three must be right, or closer to the truth, right? Sure. Dave, you win the Glaucoma Prize for being the Not-Quite-Blind Mouse! But I still hear that wheel spinning. Hmmm… what have we here? We have three VIP dudes talking climate. Why am I not ecstatic? You see, it’s kind of like...

three guys with an STD discussing the merits of prostitution and how to improve it so they can keep getting their STDs. (Let’s say Dave is merely “at risk” for fairness’ sake.)

You see, you can’t “fix” prostitution. It will always exist. There will always be at least a small number that actually choose to do it, but most will be some degree of forced, coerced or desperate. And the Johns and Johnettes, well... People really, really, really like sex and really, really, really like money. And economics is the same. Sex sells. When was the last time you saw an ad that told you something truly useful about a product instead of a guy or gal draped all over it half naked? It's the wheel I hear whirring, whirring, whirring. I hope you will, too, in time.

Just as prostitution cannot, will not, be ended because we wish it, and cannot, will not ever be healthy for the vast majority, economics is the same. Economics cannot be fixed because the flaws that it is based on are inherent. Money, power, desperation, force, greed, desire, all feed economic thought and, especially, economic actions. But it gets worse. While prostitution may exist because of the same basic drives, wants and needs, in many healthy communities where needs are met, there often is no prostitution, even if it is more because of social pressure than anything else. That is, I am contradicting myself: We can have communities without prostitution. That’s a step up from economics: It is impossible for neo-classical economics to produce a sustainable society. Besides, prostitution fills a basic drive. Economics creates the illusion of doing so. Better a prostitute than an economist, if you ask me. Far more honest a profession.

Oh, no I di’int! Oh, yes I did! I just went there. You need to, too, ‘cause if you don’t, we’re all pretty well screwed. (It's OK, you can smile. It was unintentional.)

Economics exists to perpetuate a process of wealth creation and accretion, and nothing more. Oh, sure, you have a pure scientist or two, but read the stuff! It's crackpot! Here's the biggest lie: Current economic thinking can define and guide the creation of sustainable systems.

Because elephants beget mices.

No, the principles of current economics cannot create a sustainable system when they have zero principles of sustainable systems within their number. Elephants to do not beget roses. Never will. For example, endless substitution. Economics never even addresses that there absolutely must be a final substitution beyond which all stops. Sustainable design begins with, so, how much shit we got? What can be done with it? How can we help it make more, faster, while recreating itself endlessly?

These two things are not the same. Elephants don't beget mices.

Economics, it turns out, isn’t based on science, but on philosophy. It uses lots of numbers, sure, and we all know *math* is science, so economics must be, too, right? Sure, so long as you accept that because a soap box derby racer has wheels and a steering wheel it’s a viable commuter vehicle. No, putting on the clothes of respectable science doesn’t make economics a science. What matters are the underlying assumptions. Economics is actually based on human behavior. Markets are not machines, they are aggregations of people. Economics is assumptions about what people do and why. What economics doesn’t do is consider the physical world. Economics must be based in resources to be a viable basis for understanding our world or it’s just a variant of psychology/sociology. But economics isn’t. While there are economists espousing this essential position, even there they do not begin and end with ecology, they merely include it. At least these mice aren’t blind! Merely myopic! And hanging out in the Red Light District of economic fallacy and fantasy.

All the while that wheel keeps spinning, spinning, spinning, but going nowhere. In his piece, Sir Grist writes the following graph,
Take, for instance, Paul Krugman, who crows, in a column called “Salvation Gets Cheap,” that “even under the most ambitious goals the [IPCC] assessment considers, the estimated reduction in economic growth would basically amount to a rounding error, around 0.06 percent per year.” Joe Romm touts the same number in “Climate Panel Stunner: Avoiding Climate Catastrophe Is Super Cheap — But Only If We Act Now.
then fires this shot across their respective bows:
…the idea that aggressive climate mitigation is going to shave precisely 0.06 percent off GDP growth is utterly fantastical.

For one thing, as I’ve said before, the economic models from which IPCC and others draw these numbers are just this side of wild guesses, based on assumptions about economic growth, resource prices, and technological development decades in the future.
Dave d’Grist (I tease, but I like Dave’s work… but like popping him upside his head, too, for not understanding the subject fully) is correct when he says models are guesses. Duh. Any forward-looking discussion is. But his real point is that Blinder Mice 1 and 2 put a huge amount of faith in things that are 1. based on abstractions, 2. are guesses, and 3. have zero connection to the true underlying issue: Resources and their consumption. Actually, #3 is my point. Dave is guilty of this, also. Note he doesn't say they should not do this or economics should not be trusted, he says the models are too unreliable to justify the other two mice trusting them so much. And Dave fails on #3 as badly as the other two.

Economics, once it bothers to consider the real world at all, dismisses it with a concept that does not work in your home or mine: Endless substitution. Yup, they just erase the issue of  resources from the ledger. So, the *basis* of every productive and consumptive act we engage in is completely dismissed as even mattering. Let’s try this endless substitution thingy, though.

I’m out of steak, but there’s hamburger. So far, so good. Except in economics your $5 steak is equal to your $1 hamburger. Home, not restaurant! Try that with your check book! Still, I guess since we ate, it’s OK. Ah, but eventually the hamburger goes, too. Ah, tofu! Tofu steakburger! Dang! Now we ran out of tofu! Err… OK, we can make a heavy biscuit shaped like a steak and smother it in meatless gravy! Yay!

See where this is going? Such people believe this crap!

And even The Grister accepts this insanity. But we need to clarify the insanity. So far all we know is economics ignore resources because they think steak is tofu. Corollary might be oil equals bio-fuels. Same problem. Oil has far more energy than bio-fuels and is far more fungible. Currently, takes around 1 barrel of oil to get ten out of the ground. Tar sands? Maybe 1 barrel to get 3, which is below the estimated rate to maintain our current economic model. Oops.

Oil is used in some form or degree in 95% of everything we produce. Go ahead. Look around. Now imagine either not having 95% of everything, or finding substitutes for some portion of 95% of everything. Now go get a broom and dustpan and pick your brain up off the floor. Five second rule if you want to apply endless substitution and recycle it.

Endless substitution is bull. Thus, the fact the planet is *finite* can no longer be ignored. Ipso facto, that every *economic* decision, and every decision, period, is an ecological decision also can no longer be ignored. Pause with me as we watch that wheel come to a stop and our Three Blind Mice sweep up what’s left of their brains.

Poor mices.

We are now ready to understand what has just happened. Rather than sitting on our brains and pretending that the crap we make up in those ego-inflated brains is more important than the real world from which literally everything around us comes, we must now accept that every discussion of Climate Change starts not with economics, but Ecology. (Our mice may never recover.) Logically, economics exists only as a subset of Ecology, not as a (voodoo) science above and beyond the ecology.

There are people who understand this. In the ‘70’s Mollison and Holmgren suggested designing our human systems based on ecological systems made some degree of sense. More prosaically, the Limits to Growth study, and its update a few years back, set out a set of possible scenarios, the worst of which we are tracking perfectly thus far. They looked at pollution, population, resource consumption, etc., and concluded we’d have used too much of many things and begin destabilizing. That scenario leads to collapse of our current system around mid-century. I don’t mean an economic slowdown, I mean society falling apart. And there are more. Many more. BTW, the Limits to Growth study didn't include Climate Change, so things are that much worse than seemed then.

But let’s back up a bit. Why the frack is Climate Change being discussed separately from resources if every decision is ultimately an ecological decision? Good galdarned question. Part of it we’ve already discussed: Economics can fix every shortage, which we know to be hubris, at best. The extension of understanding this is false is that it must also mean we *will* run out of things. Worse, we can use even truly, naturally renewable things up so fast that we either destroy the source or they cannot possibly meet our collective needs.

Water, anyone? Planet’s 70% water, yet water shortages all over the globe because we either are using it too fast (declining aquifers, river flows, lakes, reservoirs) or have poisoned it with things like fossil fuels-derived pollutants, er, fertilizers. Water is endlessly recyclable, and it's all over the planet! But we have used the *available* potable water so quickly we are drying aquifers and poisoning systems far faster than nature can replenish them. So we have built purification plants of various kinds. And the situation continues to rapidly worsen.

If we can't keep endless water flowing at rates we can survive on... ummm...

But none of that is THE point. THE point is this: Climate Change is the result of over-consumption of resources. Sure, you understand there’s too much CO2. Sure you understand efficiency can reduce this. Sure you think you can conserve energy. But I didn’t say misuse of fossil fuels, I said misuse of resources. Plural. Peak Oil is perhaps one you’ve heard of, but there is a long list of non-renewable resources also at, near, or past peak. Phosphorus, the P in every farmer’s and gardener’s NPK, is expected to run out around the end of this century. Not peak, but be *all used up.* When we are expected to have 2 – 5 billion more people on the planet. 12 billion people with no phosphorus? We could crash back to prehistoric numbers. 

All because economists think steaks are tofu.

Don't despair, though! We can farm regeneratively and actually build soil instead of depleting it, and phosphorus. But we aren't. Well, most aren't. This is one of the few areas where everyday peeps are listening and asking for organic foods. What you peeps haven't quite figured out yet is that gardening/farming will need to become a daily part of most people's lives because regenerative farming/gardening mot only can sequester carbon and helps create a localized economy (more on this some other time), keeps chemicals like phosphorous and nitrogen from killing our oceans when they run off into them, but preserves resources, or more accurately keeps them stored for later, better use - and keeps them from being used now..... which is less consumption.... which is less growth.... which is less carbon... which is.... moving toward simplicity.

The times they are a' changin'... Why aren't we changing faster, fast enough? 1. You haven't figured out yet just how much the times are a' gonna change, 2. you love your stuff, and are far too comfortable, 3. ask Monsanto, 4. ask the Big Oil and their congressional call boys and girls, and... and... and...

Mostly, you just don't believe it can all go to hell. But it can, it is, it will.

Oh, and “renewable” energy, all those windmills and stuff we are supposed to transition to according to our Three Blind Mice? Rare Earth metals are also a limited resource. Very limited.

Thought experiment: 9 – 12 billion people at, say, European living standards. This would actually mean massively increased consumption for around 5.5 billion people, plus all the new ones still to come. We are already using resources at a rate sustainable only with 1.5 Earths. We’d need 5 Earths or so to have 9 billion or more live like Europeans, and they use 50% of the energy we Americans use.

So…. say we transition to renewables at current consumption (read: lifestyle) rates. Then multiply by 3x, minimum, so it’s fair for all. Wonderful. Happy yeast! (More yeast in a moment.) Now, replace all that infrastructure every thirty to fifty years, forever. Yes, forever. What? You think that substitution crap kicks back in for some unknown future generation? Sorry, no. Tech? Same resource problem. Perhaps it extends some stuff a bit, but it's irrelevant given we are already over-consuming.

We have a problem! Mouse brains clean-up, aisle three! Yeast spillage, aisle four!

About those yeast…

Why else? We discount the future. We have a very difficult time, collectively, giving much of a damn about future generations. On top of this there is "Holy Technology, Batman. Tech will save us!" Except it hasn't. We work as hard, for less, as we did in 1970. Actually we work more: Women are far more involved in working outside the home now. Real wages for you and me? Up 4%, total, since 1970. Total. But our productivity is significantly higher. Thanks, bosses!!! We work ever harder, create more for you and you give us Absolutely Nothing.

Why else? We are Beyond History. Growth (substitution, tech) can and will go on forever simply because it has for so long. It's a lie. We have recessions and depressions. But, yes, since the end of the Middle Ages, say 1200 AD, it's been an overall upward trend. 900 years of growth! Gosh, must be permanent!

Not so much. Any number of more isolated civilizations have risen and fallen over that same time, always with resource and/or climate issues. And many rose and fell before that, too. History is littered with fallen civilizations. And they virtually always try to get over their problems with more, more, more. Then they have nothing. Then they die.

But mostly, we just can't conceive of failure. We can't imagine actually being human. We put people on the moon, for goodness' sake. We own Nature, physics be damned. And, give up my lifestyle? It's my RIGHT as an American!!!!

Except, no.

Dr Al Bartlett thinks you and I might be dummer than yeest. So far, he’s right. Imagine a jar. The world is the sugar in the jar. We are the yeast. Assume there is enough sugar for one hour.It's 11:00. At what time have the yeast eaten half the food? 1 minute before 12? Twelve? 12:01? 12:37? Hmmm? Bet you guessed 12:30. Half the time, half the food.

Nope. Organisms grow to fill the food supply. This is why all natural systems see a saw-toothed population chart. A few too many, they eat too much, some die. A smaller population eats less, the food supply recovers, they balance for a while, then there are too many eaters, food supply falls, eaters die. In a closed system, eventually everything dies as the food is completely consumed. (I’m sure you’ve flushed a forgotten goldfish or two.)

It’s a question of exponents. Any constant rate of growth, or average rate of growth, is exponential. Let’s take that old shampoo commercial, tell two friends who tell two friends who tell two friends, etc. 1 x 2 = 4 > 8 > 16 > 32 > 64 > 128 > 256 > 512 > 1,024 >2,048 > 4,096 > 8,192 > 16,384 > 32,768 > 65,356 > 131,072 > 262,144 > 524,288 >  1,048,576... How many of you have even 16 true friends? After 21 days... Food supplies are similarly limited when doubling is occurring.

The yeast double like this. Notice every doubling is GREATER than all that came before, being more than half of all that’s been consumed ever. For simplicity, let’s say it’s exactly double. Working backwards from 12:00 o’clock, what time do we have half the sugar left, my fellow yeast?

Yup, 11:59. 11-flippin-50-fricken-9. But we have an hour to prepare!

DO we? OK, what time do we still have ¾ of the sugar? 11:58. 7/8? 11:57. 15/16? 11:56. Four minutes before The End of All Yeast, it looks like we have food forever. No wonder our Three Blind Mice think it’s all about economics instead of resources. No wonder you, my little yeasties, think resources will go on forever.

The truth is, we humans have been doubling consumption and population very, very quickly.
Make that timeline equal to one hour and you see what I mean. Charts of resource consumption take the same shape.

“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”
Albert A. Bartlett
(This whole bit was lifted from Dr. Al.)

Sorry for burying the lede. (I’m lying.) This simple little observation explains why we have used half the world’s recoverable oil, have water shortages globally and will be out of phosphorus by the end of this century. And it’s why we have Climate Change.

In case you missed it, we appear to be sitting at less than one minute before 12:00. Enjoy your meal.

If we had understood our resource base from the beginning, or even 30 years ago, collectively, we would have acted very differently. Of course that assumes we aren’t collectively sui-genocidal, of which I am not yet convinced. Instead, we pumped huge amounts of oil, gas and coal into the air as CO2 and methane (natural gas) thinking they were inexhaustible. Had we thought them exhaustible and thought, gee, if we’ve been around 200,000 years or so and want to still be around in 200,000 years or so, maybe, just maybe, we should slow this little mouse wheel down and do some careful planning, things would be different. Of course, we also thought we couldn't alter the atmosphere so much as to threaten our own survival. (Scientists have known this for more than a hundred years.)

Atmospheric CO2 was only around 315 or 320 ppm in 1950. Population was 2.5 billion in 1950. It’s 7.1 billion today. C02 is 400 ppm. This is not coincidental, it is causal. We had 1 billion in 1804. ONE. C02 was around 280 ppm, which was normal for a warm interglacial period. In 3 million years and around 30 or so glacial/interglacial cycles it never went above about 300 ppm.

CH4 (methane/natural gas) is even worse, up nearly 300%!!!

By 1950 we were at 2.5 billion and CO2 was 315. Today we have 7.1 billion and CO2 is 400. You couldn’t make two curves more similar if you tried.

This begs the question, if Climate Change is caused by resource misuse, isn’t the solution resources wisely allocated? How do we keep consuming and expect to stop Climate Change? Efficiency? Nope. We are massively, massively more efficient than in 1800 or 1850, yet resource consumption continues to rise. In fact, we are more efficient year after year, decade after decade, yet consumption keeps rising.

Population trumps efficiency.

What about stabilizing population? Too late. Remember: 1. Already using at the rate of 1.5 Earths, and most of the planet still lives with less than the poorest of American poor. Five Earths for all of us to live like Europeans. Even more to live like Americans. 2. Fossil Fuels are not the only limited resources. Phosphorus and Rare Earth metals, both vital to the “green” revolution won’t survive this century. And there are hundreds of other similar points I could raise.

Still think Climate Change is about economics? It's like saying planetary physics is about astrology. But let's not argue by analogy. Ecology as the basis of all decision-making is not so trivial. It's First Principles thinking, which is where the best problem solving begins. Elon Musk, to engage in an appeal to authority fallacy, recently said,  
I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. We are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing. Slight iterations on a theme.
“First principles” is a physics way of looking at the world. What that really means is that you boil things down to the most fundamental truths and then reason up from there. That takes a lot more mental energy.
Notice Elon didn't start with economics or how it's always been done? He started with, what the frack is a battery and how the frack can we do it better? So, if our planet is dying by our hand, if everything we have has come from that planet, what *must* be the first consideration in every decision we make, period?

The planet. And not what we *want* from it, but what we *need* from it. And, hold on to your brains, before that we have to ask, what *can* the planet provide? That's a First Principle question. We don't look at historical production and extrapolate, we look at what exists in a space. That is our starting point, whether a balcony flower box or a farm or a bio-region. We need to know what is there first. This includes wind, sun, rain. I's called a resource inventory. (It will include human resources (How many people? What are their skills? Their limitations? etc.?) further steps down the line.)

This is what Mollison and Holmgren realized back in the '70's by merely observing. They teased out of the natural systems they observed underlying principles by which natural systems were organized, then listed them as ways for us to apply the same principles to our human systems. They also proposed a process to apply them that started with what Musk would do decades later: Look. Literally observe, but also look differently. What are the resources in this space? The energy? Let's quantify those first so we know what this space *can* do, *can* provide. Only after they asked what the Earth could do in any given space did they suggest asking what they need from it. Only then did they then say we could seek ways to harmonize the two.

Notice there is no discussion of wants? First things first. First Principles first. Body temp, food, water. Cover those first. Anything else is gravy.

But, by applying natural principles to human/natural systems they found they could speed up Nature's ways. Nature + Big Brained Non-Idiot Humans = More. This is not achieved by appropriating Nature, damaging Nature, but by using Nature's own processes to do what nature does faster, more productively. Nature builds soil very, very slowly as detritous, leaves, bird poop, etc., fall to the ground and are reduced. We can speed this up with mulching, composting, etc. Nature's ways, sped up.

As you hopefully were and/or are now aware, the opposite has been true for the entirety of modern human civilizations. We have sought to feed our wants for 10k years, and the result is we're flirting with extinction.

But, using natural to aid Nature, we can create abundance. Not profit, abundance. Not excess, abundance. And from abundance you can then choose to meet some wants so long as you do not fall back into the wants-first trap and start this craziness all over again.

How do we get from a crisis of over-consumption to meeting global needs and eventually abundance rather than excess? Perhaps you've already guessed. Nature's ways. Start with the resources available. Start with needs.


Everybody, off that freaking wheel! Economics is a Dead Man Walking. As are we if we don't get off that wheel.

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