Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sustainability and quality

I had a moment of illumination this morning, which I'm putting down "on paper" on my blog here, mostly because this blog has turned into, among other things, a kind of combination of academic lab notebook and writing journal for me. When I want to see what I was working on six months ago, or look for an old thread to pick up, this is where I tend to go these days.

I don't have time for too much in the way of serious academics any more. The pressures of the kind of constant day-to-day teaching we do at a college like ours, especially in the sustainability arena, the speed and pace of the state of Maine's push towards renewable power and the resultant demand for information, the business of running a small farm, and finally being part of an extended family spread over this continent and a small island archipelago 3,000 miles away, all these make it unlikely that I'll have time to perform serious research or writing in the next few years.

Perhaps my time to write will come, but I tend to doubt it.

But that doesn't mean to say I haven't stopped thinking about serious ideas. If I get a moment of quiet time, in the shop, or the garden, I do tend to cogitate. Without the discipline of hard science writing, I tend to personalize too much, and so all my best thinking is mixed up with what I do and who I am. I'm not sure that is as much of a problem as the scientists, social scientists, and philosophers who were my mentors would have made it out to be.

We all have to get by somehow, physically and mentally. In the Internet age this kind of thought-and-life blogging might be one way we do so.

Anyway, this is what I've been thinking about in my personal thought-and-life system recently, as I split wood on the farm or my students and I raise anemometers:

A major problem is the theory of sustainability is the missing macroeconomics. The foundation of current macroeconomics is the Marshall/Keynes macroeconomic synthesis, Keyne's General Theory, which we could call the growth theorem, whereby the policy of almost all countries on the planet is to maintain economic growth. Kenneth Arrow called this an "impossibility theorem." Sustainability is a challenge to this otherwise ubiquitous thinking, but few of the enthusiastic and blithe spirits who've climbed onto the sustainability bandwagon of ideas lately have actually thought very hard about what kind of macroeconomics they want to substitute for growth systems.

Macroeconomics is hard. Bandwagons are easy.

You see, real sustainability, if we ever got to it, would actually be a very dangerous and revolutionary idea from the perspective of the owners of capital, and I'm surprised that the backlash so far seems confined to climate skeptics pronouncing prospects of economic doom on the Internet. If we really embraced a sustainable future, we'd have to abolish huge parts of capitalism as we know it. In the 1920s or 1930s, such revolution in ideas caused mayhem in US streets and led to WWII and the Cold War, as the whole world argued out whether mass man or the individual was to rule in the marketplace of ideas.

I lived through, and acted out parts in this great pageant, in the latter quarter of last century, and although I'm prone to nostalgia, I don't particularly want to live through it again.

But 1984 has come and gone. I remember it, if at all, as a good year for mountain-climbing. That was the year Corporal Womersley of the Queens own Royal Air Force Mountain Rescue Service took a group of officer cadets up Store Skagastølstind in Norway, summiting with Dave Balharry, a guy who's now an important Scottish community planner and naturalist. I can't believe I got paid for that.

Good times. I had a lot more wind then. These days I have wind turbines. I like constants, like the wind.

Society has moved on, too, from the era of robber-baron capital. Most established, mature folk own capital in America or Britain today, in the form of their houses and their retirement schemes. We depend on it in particularly desperate form for our residences and our retirement years. There's no letter I open more quickly than the ones from TIAA CREF with the quarterly numbers, and no bill around here gets paid before the mortgage bill gets paid.

Like most Americans and Brits, and in fact like most sustainability thinkers, if we were to admit the truth, I can't afford to be a revolutionary. There was a time, before I went to graduate school, but after I got out of the military, when I wanted to remake society, but it was literally a sophomoric period. By the time I was a senior, I'd put away such childish things and was looking forward to a real job after graduate school.

Only the young are free of capital cares and woes. And as we saw from the recent recession, losing growth in capital is terrifying for ordinary people. We lose our jobs, our houses, our retirement, our lives, and no-one wants that. But we're caught in a trap, as the old song goes, or we can't get off the treadmill.

The very term sustainability implies stasis, or a "steady state," and the foundational book in sustainability economics was Herman Daly's 1977 Steady State Economics.

Stasis is never that good for living things, and later Herman developed the ideas, primarily in For the Common Good (with John Cobb) and Beyond Growth to include concepts of development, which these authors drew from their deep backgrounds as religious and social thinkers.

Development is usually good for living things. Permanent growth, it's been said, is the ideology of the carcinoma.

(I'm sometimes a lazy academic and I don't remember who said that, but you can Google it if you need to.)

When I studied under Dr. Daly in the late 1990s, I heard him say several times that the key to a sustainable future would be found once someone (he didn't know who, and admitted it wasn't him) had worked out a sustainable macroeconomic theory. He implied that the growth theorem synthesis would remain in place until this problem was solved. And I agree. He didn't say "should" stay in place, but I generally add that small word too. Call me a conservative. Regardless about how badly I feel about the unsustainable way our current economy is growing, particularly with climate change and biodiversity loss, I don't want to be that guy who screwed with the economy and caused hardship for billions of people.

Luckily, I'm not an influential economist so this is unlikely to happen. But we should always remember what Keynes said about economic "scribblers:"

"The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back."

So the fate that awaits the first few sustainability macroeconomists, if they are in the least successful, is likely to be perpetual infamy, at least among conservatives and holders of capital, if, as is very likely, they haven't first worked out all the angles before some politician implements their ideas.

We're working out some of these angles right now, as we debate competing ideas for caps on climate emissions. Cap and trade, cap and dividend, UOCP (utility-only carbon price), what-you-will, they all have one thing in common: they're the first large-scale limits on material throughput in the economy. The first steady state regulations. Up to now we've only limited throughput of some toxic materials, DDT or dioxin, et al. Carbon is different, categorically and in effect. A carbon limit is a real limit to growth, economy-wide, world-wide if China and India play ball. The rhetoric of the climate-and-green-job hawks reveals they don't know this, or don't know it yet. But it is.

The camels nose of physical steady state thinking inside the tent of macroeconomic growth theory. Much will follow, although I won't live to see it. But you can't fight the Laws of Thermodynamics, and so society must restrict throughput if humans are to maintain populations below carrying capacity.

We'll have to adopt carbon emissions restrictions because the changing climate will make us do so. And this will be a terrible shock for holders of capital everywhere. I don't care about the robber barons, if any are left. (I tend to imagine that faceless corporate boards are more influential in reality than capitalist celebs.) But, like every mature participant in the global economy, I will need a house and a pension for my retirement. A terrible and desperate choice awaits us all, the whole middle class of the western and even the booming eastern world. Will my TIAA annuities keep coming if we reach a tipping point? I doubt it very much.

We live in interesting times.

Another thread of ideas I've been working with for a while might offer a way out of the dilemma, but I'm not really sure how to package them yet, and may never be sure.

Long ago I read Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It was a big mistake. I was seventeen, Leading Aircraftsman Womersley, and on my way from basic training to my RAF engine fitter's course at Number One Technical Training School, RAF Halton, now sadly a shadow of its former self.

Zen had a cheerful purple cover (purple always a good color for a serious work of philosophy) showing a nice spanner (not a wrench) emerging from the lotus, and it was on sale at the WH Smith bookstore on the platform at London's Paddington Station, then, pre-Thatcher, still a warren of union-controlled ridiculousness. Perhaps knowing I was in for an uncertain journey, I paid my two-pounds something. And really, that was the end of my career as an RAF engineer before it even really began. Without that book I'd probably still be in the service or retired, a Warrant Officer of engineering perhaps, bristling with NCO virility and mustaches, Kipling-esque, in charge of a whole combat squadron of Tornados in some sandy airport somewhere very hot and dry.

(It's a major fault of my personal and admittedly self-contradictory brand of little-Englander romanticism that I find it comforting that British senior NCOs still bristle in the world's deserts, over a hundred years since Gunga Din. Although My Boy Jack is probably closer to the truth.)

You see, the book got me started on thinking. My education, up to that point, as a young man tracked through the socialist technical training system, was about doing, not thinking. I was good at physics, maths, chemistry, metalwork and even technical drawing. But I hadn't been taught to think, not by the system.

Anyway, long story short, got done with the RAF only six years later. Didn't take so long to conclude that Pirsig was right, really. Bummed around the world's eco-communes and green radical groups a bit, two-three years. BA, MS, PhD, twelve years or so. Twenty year's on, an official thinker.

The four bullet-point version.

(I'm still rather more comfortable with doing than thinking. Although I "is" one, or at least resemble one, sort of officially, I retain the enlisted man's eternal suspicion of the thinker -- the wet-behind-the-ears green officer with an idea. And I much prefer coveralls to a suit.)

Back to Zen. Pirsig posits that the western world has lost quality. Literally. We had it, used it, liked it, built York Minster and atom bombs and the Hoover Dam, then dropped it somewhere in the long grass and haven't seen it for a while. A nagging loss but nonessential.

It will show up one day, sort of rusty, and we can perhaps spray it with WD40 and get another few years out of it.

Where is quality in sustainability macroeconomics?

Now there's an interesting question for a paid thinker. I could really get my teeth into that one, if I'd just slow down from putting up wind turbines and cultivating annual crops: potatoes, tomatoes, and undergraduates.

Pirsig has a whole Metaphysics of Quality, and since he lives right here in Maine somewhere I should go talk to him about it, the way I once traveled from Montana (UMT) to Maryland (UMD) to talk to Herman Daly for six years of my PhD.

Quality is, or should be, closely linked to the theory of value, which is part of any macroeconomics. Quality and value are much the same thing. Value is just one way to measure quality, and the metric doesn't have to be dollars, that "silly old dollar sign", as FDR famously told us one fireside chat (that probably saved my country and permitted my birth as a free thinking Englishman).

Everyone needs a theory of value in their macreconomic system. Marx had a labor theory of value. Friedman gives supremacy to capital. Keynes wanted a circular flow of value between labor, firms, and government.

"What is the sustainability theory of value?" is a subset of the question "what is quality in human life."

Aristotle asked that one, Pirsig reminds us.

Herman Daly would say that physical value (as opposed to metaphysical) in the human economy is created by a physical process by which naturally-occurring materials such as iron ore, crude oil, beef cows, and human labor, are combined in various processes industrially or household based, to make goods. Goods are the primary locus of physical value. This is not completely materialistic. In Daly's thought, goods provide service to humans, which creates a mental value. How much mental value comes per unit good is subjective and prone to manipulation by ad men and mad-men alike. But the basic physics is supreme. We all feel better after a good dinner, a little entertainment, and a decent night's sleep in our own bed. The dinner, the bed, the house the bed sits in, are physical entities with value. The entertainment is a little trickier, but it still has a basis in physical value: TV cameras, electricity, antennae or satellites, and so on. You have to first have physical value in order to add any mental value to it. Mental value cannot supersede physical value and life continue.

Herman advised a modest income of goods as a basis for sustainability. Our current economy tends to have us all seeking something less than modest and perceived solutions from some sustainability advocates, even Herman, smack of communism or at least a green version of nanny-state socialism.

But we're a long way away from actually implementing any more radical sustainable political economy. We'll be lucky if we slow carbon throughput in the economy by 2020. And the way we''ll get there will almost certainly be capitalism, albeit the green Keynesianism we're currently getting from the White House.

(And also, somewhat remarkably, from small "r" republican Maine Senator Susan Collins, in a recent TV appearance on Channel Five news.)

I can live with green Keynesianism for now. It seems to me that it retains individual freedoms that I've come to cherish since moving to America, is somewhat likely to succeed at least partially, and that in any case this or any other macroeconomic theory is unlikely to survive climate change. We have to make our bets and spin the wheel. Obama's green jobs plan will likely reduce emissions. A climate bill would help. That might be all the steady state theory we have time to debate and implement before we reach tipping point. I'll put my chips on green, with the rest of the moderately capitalist western world middle class, and hope for the best.

I'm fairly clear-eyed about what this will likely mean for the climate, though. I'm a good-enough climate scientist to know that. I've seen the data, crunched them myself enough to satisfy myself what will happen. It's a weak solution. We'd better be ready for some hot weather, some severe weather. We will almost certainly destroy the subsistence livelihoods of millions of poor folk, perhaps billions. Climate refugees will combine with terrorists, and the current intra-Islam civil war over modernization (that we insist on mistaking for our own egotistical concept, the so-called War on Terror) will slop over continually into our own cities. Our farmers will have to become ecological whizz-kids to keep up with moving systems and seasons.

And this will all happen because we're too chicken to ask serious questions about capitalism. Because we all depend on it too desperately. I include myself in this.

Yellow, not green.

I think we might make things better for ourselves and a lot of other, browner, people in the next two or three decades, if at the same time as embracing green Keynes (a rather gay thought if ever there was one, that the maestro himself would likely have appreciated), we also embraced a more physical metaphysics of value.

If we were to take a leaf or two out of Zen, and begin to ask ourselves serious questions about things like, "where is God in a wind turbine?"

I'm serious here. Sort of.

Back in the day, in my time in the hallowed cloisters of RAF Halton, I was taught by the monks to find God in the precision reading of a micrometer, in the integrity of the thread on a three-eighths AF- (American Fine) thread bolt, or the uninterrupted flow of an airfoil. These were rather Anglican and foul-mouthed monks in blue suits with stripes on their arms, but they knew their God and he had Power.

He was descended in part from Kipling via "Boom" Trenchard and "Bomber" Harris, and He meant to keep all English (and Scottish and Welsh and Northern Irish but not Irish) children safe in their beds at night by the judicial application of spanners (but not wrenches) to modern but aging jet airplanes.

(The Irish, it was felt by most monks and the "brats" they taught, might benefit from our air supremacy over those shared islands, but they didn't deserve it, since they skipped out on "the war" and sent their crazies over to bomb RAF barracks).

That might be a bit narrow for the whole world to appreciate, but it was true enough at the time, to those narrow-minded blue suited monks, and after all these years of going around to come around, I'm not so sure if it wasn't a small part of a much greater truth about the Cold War in general.

After, all, I get to write whatever I want on this blog, don't I?

Contrast the concreteness of this blue-suit theory of value with that of the mortgage broker at Lehmans, circa 2008. Where is God, and where is value, in a derivative financial instrument that at root is an electronic accounting of the combined debt on a hundred thousand suburban houses "owned" by desperate two-wage families who find themselves paying the electric bill with the credit card one month in two? Especially when one consequence of the massive suburban housing-and-lifestyle complex that is engendered by this flaky debt is massive growth in carbon emissions?

We have to start putting this together here. I think it's time we drifted back to a more physical theory of value. I need to credit Matthew Crawford, here, for some of these ideas, and for adding to my understanding of the metaphysics of quality. Matt is, it seems, another engine fitter turned PhD philosopher, and would probably have managed to survive the blue suited monks too.

We can get there partly by systematically devaluing the spin and propaganda that folks who want to make money out of inflating ideas and their own performance use to get money from us. That would be a start.

Spin, as we found out during the "Great Recession" is unsustainable. Real sustainable value is more concrete.

I don't quite know how to go further, I must admit. Like most westerners these days I worry as much about getting to work and finding the time to do my job properly as I worry about what my job is theoretically supposed to be, which is thinking about the fate of civilization and trying to find ways to renew it.

Like all of us I need the economy to keep running. But I can, we can, all push it in a more concrete direction, where we begin to understand quite well how the judicial application of smaller and smaller amounts of scarce physical throughput can create sustainable flows of service to satisfy real human needs, food, clothing, housing, energy.

As long as we don't let ourselves be misled again by spin and greenwash, we should be able to get somewhere by applying this, hopefully increasingly concrete, understanding of sustainable human economic value.

That's as far as I've gotten.

So for now, I'll have to content myself with the knowledge that God or at least the highest Quality might be present in the fine tolerance required for the ring gears of an super-quiet American-made Northwind 100 wind turbine gearbox, or the smooth flow of the airfoil of the same, or the spreadsheet statistics that show, in green Keynesian fashion, that this turbine will perform well on a hilltop site that just happens to be owned by the people of this State. The turbine will make electricity, a physical good, without making as much carbon, a physical bad, as it would have if we'd made the same electricity using coal.

At about eighty-to-one, actually. One eightieth of the carbon per moving electron. The blue monks would have appreciated the precision with which we can calculate that fact.

That's my current definition of quality, my current theory of value, my macroeconomic basis to proceed. It's a very personal and up-to-the-minute synthesis, subject to change.

I'm no Keynes or Daly, so I doubt I'll ever come up with anything more generalizable.

But what I have so far has meaning for me.

By extension this theory would imply that the most important thing to do right now, taking everything into account, is to simultaneously teach about and implement the renewable energy solution to climate change, using Green Keynesian excuses to get it done, but realizing that all macroeconomics is political economy, and political economy is probably or at least strongly suspect of being ideological cover for what you want to do in the world, and what I most badly want to do with the world around me, is replace dirty energy systems with clean ones as fast as I,

as we,


Now where's that blue suit? The one with the grease stains.

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