Sunday, January 14, 2018

Protagoras and the Anthropocene: Can man still be the measure of all things?

The ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras is famous for his saying that man is the measure of all things. Though we don't know much about Protagoras or his written work except for quotations appearing in other ancient works, the general view is that Protagoras was the father of moral relativism in philosophy.

The Protagoras's complete statement has been translated as follows: "Of all things the measure is man, of the things that are, that [or "how"] they are, and of things that are not, that [or "how"] they are not." It is unlikely that Protagoras believed that physical truths about the natural world such as the freezing point of water depended on one's personal standpoint.

But under Protagoras's tutelage in matters of values, we are left only with the measuring instrument called "man" (or more inclusively "humans"). In the age of the Anthropocene—that still-not-official geologic age in which humans are designated as the most potent geologic force on the planet—those issues thought to relate solely to the lives of humans do NOT, it turns out, relate simply to humans.

While we may choose to celebrate the material progress of humankind, we do so heedless of the wider costs to the stability of the biosphere. Those who focus only on measures that exclusively relate to what we regard as human well-being miss the broader picture and mislead their audience. (They often say "the world" is getting better when they mean certain measures of human well-being are moving in a direction we regard as good.)

But, human civilization thrives under very specific environmental conditions, namely the ones experienced since the end of the last ice age. That age, the Holocene, has been marked by a moderately warm and stable climate which made possible agriculture and the concomitant rise of cities.

General advances for humans such as rising incomes (and thus consumption) and better access to health services are unalloyed positives only if the continuously degrading indices of biospheric stability are ignored. Two concepts, planetary boundaries and tipping points, inform us about the risks.

Planetary boundaries identified by the Stockholm Resilience Centre number nine and include such things as climate change, ocean acidification, ozone depletion, and biodiversity, called "biosphere integrity." The Centre reports that humans have passed four of the nine boundaries: "climate change, loss of biosphere integrity, land-system change, altered biogeochemical cycles (phosphorus and nitrogen)."

The word "boundaries" implies that with the right actions we could cross back over them and thus return to a safe zone. (In practical terms this would mean moving back into a zone of lower risk.)

Tipping points, however, imply a journey to the land of no return. Researchers reporting on the planetary boundaries believe that in the areas of climate and biosphere integrity, the planet is in danger of moving toward a new irreversible state, "a much less hospitable state, damaging efforts to reduce poverty and leading to a deterioration of human well-being in many parts of the world, including wealthy countries."

I am reminded of the man falling from a 100-story building who, when asked at the 50th floor by someone near a window how he's doing, replies, "Fine so far." Tipping points seem unimportant or even nonexistent until you reach them. Conceivably, human well-being could on average continue to increase for many indicators for years to come, only to be dramatically reversed when planetary tipping points kick in.

The mathematical way of talking about this is that tipping points can represent a kind of step function or nonlinear response on a graph. Much of the sanguine talk of continued human progress is premised on the absence of sudden nonlinear turns or step functions in the graphs of the key indicators of planetary health. The data to date give us little reason to expect gradual change for all indicators or to believe that we can adapt successfully to all the changes we face if we don't alter our current course.

It is not surprising that humans look to themselves as arbiters of what's important in the life and processes of the biosphere. Humans, like every other species, seek their own survival and well-being first. But our overreliance on humans as the measure of all things is the very posture which has put us on the road to potentially catastrophic changes in climate and other planetary systems, changes that threaten our very survival.

The time has come to put away man as the measure of all things and look to much broader measures for an assessment of our well-being and the well-being of all those systems upon which ours depends.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Hawaii's existential choice: Tourism, food and survival

Hawaiians used to feed themselves quite easily on this island paradise. With the arrival of Europeans and Americans came European and American ideas about plantation agriculture. Hawaii became a producer of coffee, sugar, pineapple, papaya, rice and other plantation crops.

While destroying Hawaii's diverse food system, the growers created a prosperous agricultural trading economy with mainland markets as customers. But competition from low-cost producers elsewhere has more recently devastated that economy. The last remaining sugar plantation closed in 2016.

The decline of the previously large sugar and pineapple industries now make Hawaii much more dependent on tourism as a source of income. Tourists are Hawaii's largest industry. They spent $15.6 billion in 2016 on vacations there representing about 18.5 percent of the total economy. That certainly underestimates their importance as many additional support services are needed to maintain the businesses that service the tourists.

As tourism has grown, land used for agriculture has declined by 68 percent since 1980. Some of the former plantation operators have turned themselves into land development companies to take advantage of the tourism and real estate boom.

The result is that Hawaii—a lush, fertile group of islands with the ability to grow crops year round—now imports 90 percent of its food.

Importing food is not a problem in and of itself. It turns out that some of the world's top food importing nations such as China, the United States and Germany are also top food exporters. They choose to specialize in what they grow most efficiently and export some of it, while importing foodstuffs which other countries are more efficient at growing by reason of climate, soil, water availability, labor costs and other factors. For countries such as China, the United States and Germany, disruptions in food imports might represent a mere inconvenience. Americans might feel deprived without bananas at their morning table, but they would have the option  of choosing apples, pears or other fruit instead.

Hawaii could make policy that would encourage more food growing. But such policies are likely to raise the cost of government through agricultural subsidies. If Hawaii were an independent country, it could impose import duties on certain agricultural products in order to encourage local production of them.

But subsidies and other available measures—unless they are focused on building a diverse agriculture—might simply bring Hawaii back toward a plantation economy, not an economy that could actually feed the people of Hawaii. Here Hawaii faces two problems. A census done by Hawaii's still then independent government in 1850 put the population at around 84,000. The 2010 census showed a population of more than 1.3 million according to Hawaiian state census information.

Using current agricultural lands, it would be difficult to feed a population that has grown more than 10 times (let alone the tourists who add another 220,000 people daily to the population)—even if crops were broadly diversified. In all likelihood much more land would have to be put under cultivation and many more people would have to be engaged in growing food in residential vegetable gardens, truck farms and large polyculture farm operations.

The second problem is that so long as the tourists keep coming, there is little impetus to reverse the trend in Hawaiian agriculture. The assumption is that the tourists will simply keep coming and coming forever. The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States and the deep recession of 2008 and 2009 taught Hawaiians that there will be significant disruptions in tourist traffic, but that that traffic will always come back. Have they learned the right lesson?

Other importers of food aren't so fortunate as Hawaii which even in the worst situation would receive aid from the U.S. federal government. Countries such as Afghanistan, Myanmar, Niger, and Yemen, in fact, 34 countries in all "are unable to produce their own food due to water and land limitations."

For many in these countries getting their daily sustenance is a life and death struggle. The modern global economy has forced countries to specialize. This works well for those properly positioned with the appropriate infrastructure and skilled workforce. Without these many countries simply become sources of raw commodities for the factories and mills of advanced countries—and that's if those developing countries are lucky enough to have such an endowment.

Some day Hawaii may have to contemplate what it will do without tourism or at least less of it. For that matter, it may have to contemplate what it will do without the heavy U.S. military presence which represents the second largest part of the Hawaiian economy.

Specialization has its advantages. But it can also bring frightening vulnerabilities. A whole city of beautiful hotel rooms means little if few people come to stay in them. Hedging against such a day may just be too painful for Hawaiians to contemplate—which is the very reason they should start thinking about it right now.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Happy New Year -- Taking a holiday break

I'm taking a short break from posting this week. I expect to post again on Sunday, January 7.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Is Washington tacitly operating under a new monetary theory?

In 2002 when soon-to-be-dismissed U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill warned then Vice President Dick Cheney that the Bush administration's tax cuts would drive up deficits and threaten the health of the economy, Cheney famously answered: "You know, Paul, Reagan proved deficits don’t matter."

In the wake of the recently approved federal tax cut,voices concerned about the damage that deficits will do are rising again.

What's curious is that since Cheney's rebuke of O'Neill, growing federal government deficits seem not of have mattered. In fact, the largest deficits ever boosted the economy after the 2008-09 recession, exceeding $1 trillion annually for four years.

All of this suggests that the federal government has for a long time been operating under an unspoken monetary theory, namely, that government spending does not need to be backed by revenues and that the debt issued to fill the gap between spending and revenues will have little effect now or in the future.

But isn't there some level of federal debt which would cripple the federal government and the U.S. economy?  A common metric for measuring this debt is the ratio of federal debt to annual gross domestic product (GDP). When one looks at a graph of this, the growth in debt seems perilous, rising from a low of around 30 percent of GDP in the early 1980s to more than 100 percent of GDP today.

Seemingly more perilous is the rapid growth in Japanese government debt. That debt has soared from a low of around 40 percent of GDP in 1990 to almost 200 percent of GDP now. Yet, the oft-prophesied demise of Japanese government finance has not occurred.

What the United States and Japan share in this regard is that each issues its own sovereign currency. That means both could theoretically retire their entire government debt in one day by issuing sufficient currency to buy up all the outstanding bonds. (A smarter way would be to do this very gradually without announcing it. In the alternative, the legislature could pass a law requiring government bondholders to sell their bonds back to government at a pre-determined price—something bondholders would certainly dislike since the price is likely to favor the government.)

What this tells us is that any government that issues its own currency will never run out of money to pay back bondholders. That's, in part, why there is no panic among Japanese and American owners of government debt. What the above further tells us is a bit more shocking: Such governments don't even need to issue debt to finance their operations.

And, so long as a government doesn't issue more currency than the economy can produce goods and services for, it won't create price inflation (defined as too much money chasing too few goods).*

The only reason for governments which control their own currency to levy taxes then is to create demand for that currency. If someone has to pay taxes in the government-issued currency, he or she will want to receive at least some payment in that currency. As it turns out, so will everyone else. As a result it becomes simply more convenient if everyone adopts the country's sovereign currency as their unit of account and medium of exchange.

All of what I've just described fits neatly into what is called Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), the premises of which are so deceptively simple that it is hard for people to believe them. But Japan and the United States seem already to be operating under that theory save for one act—the act of issuing copious amounts of government debt, something that is entirely unnecessary under MMT.

The idea that governments which issue their own sovereign currency must rely on private credit—mostly from wealthy citizens—to finance themselves is an illusion. But it's an illusion that the monied class hopes no one will see through. For if the public does see through it, government debt—which is used like a weapon to promote cuts in social spending—would cease to frighten anyone (and may be gradually eliminated). That means spending policy would become much more flexible than previously imagined.

So, it turns out that Dick Cheney was right—but not for reasons which he and the new rentier class would ever be willing to admit, namely, that the government doesn't need loans from rich people or loans of any kind. Bondholders therefore can't really hold the government hostage. Realizing this and acting on it would seriously diminish the influence of the rich in the halls of power and make a realignment of spending priorities possible.

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*This is an important check on the creation of money. A complete discussion of this would require a separate piece covering the physical limits the economy faces with regard to resources (especially energy), climate and infrastructure.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Do we have the wrong model of human nature?

Are we wrong to believe that competitiveness must and always will be the central animating principle of human action? Media studies scholar Michael Karlberg thinks so. In fact, he believes that another animating principle, mutualism, is both central to human interaction and necessary to aid human society in meeting the myriad challenges it faces regarding climate change, inequality, governance, education and many other issues.

I saw Karlberg speak recently at a private gathering in Washington, D.C. He is measured in his tone, clear in his delivery and compelling in his logic. He poses the following question: If nearly all of our institutions are premised on competition (commerce, politics, education, recreation and many others), is it any wonder that our competitive instincts are honed and expanded while our cooperative ones atrophy?

Karlberg is not naive enough to believe that all this can be changed overnight. But he does make a convincing case that competitiveness is as much a problem emanating from social institutions that inculcate and incentivize competition as it is a problem of human nature.

The way forward, he asserts, is to build new institutions that emphasize cooperation; it's a sizable task, but one which has already begun as he explains at the end of a TEDx talk which he gave in 2012. However utopian this goal may seem, Karlberg reminds us that the current "culture of contest," as he styles it, has given us the existential threat of climate change spawned by endless economic growth and consumption. In fact, the "culture of contest" is creating a series of social and ecological challenges so profound that unless we change that culture we may drive ourselves toward extinction.

Not surprisingly, the competitive view of human nature is dominant in how we conduct international relations. In another presentation I saw recently international lawyer and scholar Sovaida Maani Ewing asserted that international relations based on national self-interest merely results in a world that lurches from crisis to crisis. Ewing, who runs the Center for Peace & Global Governance, suggested that long-term stability in international relations will only come from agreements based on shared principles. That sounds very much like a move away from the "culture of contest."

Karlberg and Ewing clearly have a contrarian and more hopeful view of human nature than we are used to. Is there evidence that they are right?  Is it possible that what makes humans happy isn't consumerism and competition, but sufficiency and cooperative relations?  Quite possibly the answer is yes according to a recent piece in The New Yorker magazine which summarizes the main arguments of scholar James C. Scott's new book, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States.

Scott, it seems, doesn't buy into the putative superiority of modern governance and social organization over more "primitive" forms. He is, however, not a mere primitivist for he cites new understandings and evidence of the earliest settlements. According to the New Yorker piece Scott believes the agricultural revolution was "for most of the people living through it, a disaster" resulting in poorer health, rising inequality, slavery and other ills.

The summary continues: "War, slavery, rule by √©lites—all were made easier by another new technology of control: writing."

The same article touches on the Kalahari Bushmen, one of the last large groups of nomadic peoples in the world. What we know of them squares well with Scott's conclusions. The Bushmen do not accumulate surpluses, but live for the day, stopping their foraging when they get what they need to eat. Yet, they are well-fed with stable and felicitous social relations, valuing solidarity over competition and individual achievement.

The piece goes on to quote economist John Maynard Keynes as follows:

When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession—as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life—will be recognized for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease.

We are no closer to realizing today such a world than when Keynes wrote the above words. But here is the key point, according the article: "The study of hunter-gatherers, who live for the day and do not accumulate surpluses, shows that humanity can live more or less as Keynes suggests. It’s just that we’re choosing not to."

And, this brings us back to Michael Karlberg. Karlberg claims that the "culture of contest" is not a necessity so much as an artifact of a flawed, one-sided understanding of human nature. The Kalahari Bushmen provide a window into our human past that suggests Karlberg might very well be right.

What that past tells us is that humans are far more complex than we imagined—that is, they are not merely self-maximizing machines—and far more influenced by the incentives of the system in which they are enmeshed. And this conclusion counsels hope for the project championed by Karlberg and for a world that desperately needs the cooperation which would emerge as a result.


Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break from posting this week. I expect to post again on Sunday, December 17.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Human well-being, economic growth and so-called decoupling

Some people claim that humans—called breatharians—can live on air alone. Others claim we can have economic growth without increasing our resource use, so-called decoupling. Neither claim withstands scrutiny though here I am only going to deal with the second one.

Hidden beneath the claim of decoupling is the assertion that human well-being and economic growth are synonymous. But, human well-being is far from a one-dimensional economic variable linked unalterably to more income and consumption. So, saying that economic growth must at some point come to an end to maintain the habitability of the planet is not the same as saying that human well-being must also stop improving.

On the contrary, a stable society in harmony with the workings of the natural world in a way that maintains the habitability of the biosphere for humans would seem to be an essential characteristic of a society which offers a high degree of well-being to humans. Destroying that habitability through endless economic growth then is contrary to human well-being in the long run.

All of this should seem obvious. But so often the advocates of growth or "sustainable" growth tell us that ending growth would destroy the chance for countless people to attain well-being in our modern industrial world. While that has some truth within the narrow context that measures well-being as a function of economic output, it misses the point above. An uninhabitable world is really, really bad for human well-being.

The answer these advocates say is economic growth decoupled from increased resource use. But as two recent papers suggest, this is an oxymoron.

As "Is Decoupling GDP Growth from Environmental Impact Possible?" explains,while society has been getting gradually more efficient at producing goods and services, we are not anywhere near economic growth without increased resource use. The apparent decoupling in Germany and some other countries is probably due to the following factors:

1) substitution of one resource for another; 2) the financialization of one or more components of GDP that involves increasing monetary flows without a concomitant rise in material and/or energy throughput, and 3) the exporting of environmental impact to another nation or region of the world (i.e. the separation of production and consumption).

Moreover, there are limits to how efficient we can be. Each increment of efficiency becomes more and more expensive, rising steeply and prohibitively as we approach zero increase in resource use for any increment of growth—or as we move toward zero resource use from current levels while achieving the same level of economic output, a no-growth scenario. In short, we are never going to become breatharians.

A second paper suggests that matters are even worse because we are using the wrong measure.  Instead of using output per unit of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), we should be looking at resource use per capita. By that measure resource use has become far less efficient, expanding by 60 percent per person between 1900 and 2009. Of course, the goods and services provided have also expanded greatly. (But here again we would be making a direct and proportional link between human well-being and consumption when well-being is much more complex.)

The authors contrast this finding with one that claims that resource consumption dropped by 63 percent in that period—a claim that is true within the narrow context of output per unit of GDP, a measure of relative impact (relative to money) rather than absolute impact on the planet.

We humans would like to believe that we can achieve a society with all the material benefits we enjoy today widely distributed across the globe—but without the material. We can't do that without destroying the habitability of the planet. What we can do is focus on what really produces human well-being (and not just GDP growth) and make that the locus of our efforts while finding ways to reduce our impact on the planet on an absolute rather than a relative basis.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.