Sunday, February 27, 2011

Some principles of Sustainability Thought and Deed

The (new) title of this blog is Sustainability Thought and Deed. This deserves a little elaboration, and some specification, so readers know what I mean. This particular post, with these elaborations and specifications, will be linked by a sidebar to the right so it's easily accessible to new readers.

Sustainability might be defined as the capacity to endure. To my mind, when we're discussing the human economy, sustainability means the ability to support human life at some desirable standard of living into the near and distant future, while maintaining key processes of the biosphere and the continued evolution of other than human life. Key ideas include energy systems that run on sun, not fossil fuel, that help stabilize the climate; agricultural systems that run efficiently on naturally cycled nutrients instead of using fossil energy to cycle nutrients; and a economic system that aims to maximize a more nuanced idea of human development, something like "gross national happiness" instead of gross domestic product.

There is no single agreed-upon set of policies for sustainability, nor is there a consensus on what kind of economic thinking is most likely to foster sustainability. The emerging discipline of ecological economics offers some possible avenues for an economics of sustainability, based largely on the work of Nicholas Georgescu Roegen and Herman Daly and the International Society for Ecological Economics. But this is not a well-known or widely taught set of ideas.

I've been thinking about sustainability for many years now, since at least 1985, when I left the UK's Royal Air Force in protest against the policies of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. In particular at the time I was concerned about Reagan's placement of intermediate and short range nuclear missiles on British soil, but not controlled by British authorities. I was also concerned about Thatcher's economic policy, particularly the outrageous attacks she ordered on northern and mining communities. Those difficult days were the beginning of my development as a political economist, even though it was several years before I entered the academy to formally study the issues.

These days, as a relatively senior academic whose job it is to teach about and study the emerging clean energy economy, I've developed a set of ideas I use regularly in teaching, research and consulting. They don't amount to a cohesive economic theory. They're more pragmatic than that.

I tend to think of them as a set of hard-learned principles and facts about the way the human economy works. Some are my own, others learned from others.

1) The human economy is a wholly contained subset of human society which itself is a subset of the biosphere. This means that a) the ultimate scale of the economy is constrained by the ultimate scale of the biosphere, and b) the economy exists to serve society, not the other way around. Economic theories that expect and/or prescribe a permanent condition of economic growth are therefore false. This would include both conservative (classical and neoclassical) and progressive (Keynesian and Neo-Keynesian) economics as currently taught and practiced by Anglo-American academic and political economists. All of these kinds of economics are growth theories. The planetary economy can't grow forever (unless space travel to colonize other planets becomes feasible). Also, because the purpose of the economy is to serve society, society has an intrinsic right to control and structure the economy so that the proper amounts and types of service are provided. This means, in particular, that Laissez Faire or classical economics is false when it argues for removal of all controls from economic activity. (These ideas are distilled from the work of Georgescu Roegen, Herman Daly, and Karl Polanyi.)

2) Human society is dangerously threatened by two particular, linked manifestations of unsustainable economic growth at present. One is the current energy crisis, particularly the depletion of oil reserves. The other is the onset of anthropogenic climate change. These two dynamic forces are currently acting together on a third area, food production, such that a very immediate human ecological problem already exists in food scarcity and high food prices. Other problems emerging as a result of climate change include the failure of certain ecological regions with respect to subsistence food and housing security. Problems of food and housing security manifest themselves differently in different eco-regions hit by different extreme weather patterns exacerbated by climate change, but in general they add to conflict between humans. These ideas and facts can be corroborated by any reasonable, non-biased reading of the international news. Climate change, including extreme weather, can be confidently expected to worsen over the next few decades, and even in the next five years as a recent sunspot cycle minima becomes a maxima. Current high oil prices are more a manifestation of recent unrest in the middle east than of scarcity, but in recent years, since about 2005, demand has risen while supply has not.

3) Despite the emerging problems detailed in 2) above, and the availability of a set of ideas to explain them economically detailed in 1) above, the great majority of people in the world today do not identify current events such as the recent Pakistani floods, or increasing food and energy prices, as events explicable by ecological economic factors. Instead most people who have time and leisure to think about it continue to explain what is happening using one or the other conventional form of economics. In particular in the United States and the United Kingdom, the ideas of neo-classical and neo-Keynesian economics compete politically, using their two-party political systems as a vehicle for this competition. Other ideas are successfully driven to the fringe. The ideas of ecological economists have very little impact on the world.

4) Although I studied under Daly and remain a member of ISSEE, I'm not sure I want ecological economics to become a powerful force in the world, not right away at least. I think the time when the overall human population could begin to think about restricting economic growth is not yet ripe. And were the great democracies of the west to begin at this point to restrict their own growth, the result might be simply that the west abdicates economic, and thus political and military power, to non-democratic regimes, particularly China.

This would not be a good thing.

I'm no great advocate for western or American exceptialism, nor the Samuel Huntingdon Clash of Civilizations thesis, but it seems to me more or less self-evident that some fairly large parts of the rest of the world would spin yet further out of control towards state failure, or further threaten the west's relative freedom, were the western democracies to stop growing economically right away, and by doing so reduce our military capability in some key dimensions. Key threats to democracy emanate from the Islamic regions, from Russia, and from China.

5) In time, we might move to ecological economics. If we recognize the key constraint of western military security and the problem of growth at the same time, we could move forward. The west might choose to make alliances -- the Europeans, the Indians, the African and South American and other democracies. With those alliances and careful trade policies we might eventually succeed in incentivizing democracy in China and improving it in Russia. That and a few other tweaks and a lot of "jaw-jaw" and patience might get us a majority democratic world. At that point, if as I suspect, a democratic China and Russia are no longer any threat, and actively assisting us in containing the more oppressive forms of Islamic theocracy, we might then begin to move towards a steady state.

6) Of course, in the meantime we have to make moves to reduce the most extreme carrying capacity problems -- climate change, food security, related problems like energy. They add to our difficulties supporting democracy. But I don't think we can concentrate on these steady state problems to the exclusion of security concerns, if it means letting a undemocratic power, of combination thereof, become stronger than the combined power of the democracies.

7) Generally, taking this into account, I tend to see the whole future of the west and human freedom hinging on western powers' success in deploying the next generation of energy technology, and in the development of a climate-secure agricultural system on lands within, or controlled by, western democracies.

If we can master solar, wind and advanced biofuel as primary energy sources, provide several, even redundant choices for storage and base load, including ideas such as solid oxide fuel cells and modular nuclear power plants, if we can electrify say 60 % of transportation in the next 30 years, and if we can begin to reduce dependency on fossil fuel-drive nutrient cycles that are currently used in place of solar-driven nutrient cycles in agriculture, we'll have a chance to get control of our own energy and food supply and of the climate, and our children and grandchildren might then stand a chance of growing up in a more peaceful world where the level of conflict is winding down and there is time and room to think about steady state theories and "gross domestic happiness." A key point in this will be the year 2050, when the planet's human population is projected to maximize at 9.5 billion. After then, a steady state economic consensus might be plausible.

Getting this level of energy and food security in a world in which the climate is already changing will require government intervention, particularly to develop and deploy key technologies. It may even require that some problems, if not industries, become nationalized. Luckily, the economic multipliers that result from green energy development will be more internal to western economies than those that result from importing oil, and so such policies will be self-reinforcing. However, at least some of the income generated will need to be spent on reshaping western military power, particularly British and American military power, to meet new kinds of threats.

This is clearly not an ecological economic manifesto. It's more a kind of green Keynesianism, and in fact owes much to the kinds of expedients that Keynes often used, most notably in his 1940 pamphlet How to Pay for the War.

(To which small book I might owe my existence as a person and a thinker. At the very least, without it I would perhaps be speaking German.)

And as can be seen, any radicalism I may have is also tempered by US and British patriotism. Although this will seem strange to some readers, I continue to believe that these two countries, preferably working together, remain for various reasons the last best hope for human freedom.

Detractors might argued that this point of view in fact capitulates to capitalism, and perpetuates the "violence inherent in the system."

Of course, of all economists, I have least to gain from placating capitalists. But I am willing to concede that we need them for some time yet. Adam Smith's invisible hand will be driven by energy scarcity to solve some of these problems for us.

We might study this particular Keynesian quote:

"The time for all this is not yet. For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to everyone that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight."

In other words, to place these old ideas in this new context, we will probably need to rely on the profit motive and private enterprise, directed by occasional government encouragement and/or discouragement, to develop the new energy economy and the energy efficient new agriculture we will need.

In the meantime, I think ecological economics should be more widely taught. As I mentioned, I remain a member of USSEE.

I really think this is the key to the problem: thinking about steady state futures, moving towards them, but making sure our actions are constrained by the need to respond to threats to freedom and democracy. Eventually, we will all grow up, economically speaking, and realize that we can do without even these expedients.

A good place to start would be by improving our own democracies, and particularly in reducing the influence of moneyed elites.

But that's another thread.

Enough sustainability thought. What about deed?

Well, in general I practice as much sustainable production as seems feasible and reasonable on our own farm, growing large amounts of food and fiber and fuel with small amounts of fossil fuel inputs, while at Unity College I train students in the replacement of unsustainable energy systems with sustainable ones.

In particular we work a lot on cost analysis and other number-crunching of energy efficiency and renewable energy development, and related accounting problems in climate emissions, a useful set of tools to know, particularly if, as I suggest above, the primary way that energy systems will change over the next few decades is through private enterprise.

We also study renewable energy system design, as well as building energy systems. Unity College is a leader in hyper-efficient building design.

For my own research, I work on analysis of community-owned wind power projects, using anemometry and GIS wind mapping. I was lucky enough to have been given an exceptionally useful engineering training as a young man in the RAF, and I use that nearly every day in this renewable energy work, and encourage my students to be practical as well as thoughtful young people. Sometimes, for fun, or with students, I design and build solar power systems or wind turbines. I also enjoy practical problems in household weatherization and energy efficiency, as well as building projects using local and recycled materials. To the best of my ability I engage students in these activities, although my ability to do this is hampered by the ridiculous nature of modern education which somehow assumes that young people can learn something useful in a fifty-minute class. I dislike this aspect of modern education and do my best to subvert it regularly with building projects and field trips.

The best book I've read recently on this particular issue was Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew Crawford. Recommended.

So that's what this blog is about. You can follow the results of these activities regularly here, if you are interested.


Mick said...

An online discussion of these ideas recently ensued on Jo Confino's Guardian webpage. I participated. It was a very good discussion. You can read it all at

Here's what I said:


9 September 2011 8:43AM

Herman Daly, in "Beyond Growth" and other writings, usefully distinguished between growth in biophysical "throughput", ie, matter and energy used in economic production, and growth in economic "service," the ultimate end of economic activity. Throughput growth is not necessarily tied to increased service because of the possibility for more efficient use of resources and/or the possibility for increased psychological welfare from a smaller amount of throughput.

This thought, which for Daly was the product of several decades work on ends and means in the human economy, is one key to unlocking the growth/sustainability problem.

Obviously endless growth in biophysical throughput is not possible on a finite planet -- to believe so is to believe an "impossibility theorem."

We don't yet know what the ultimate carrying capacity is for humans on planet earth, because some of the natural systems that support human life by providing biophysical throughput are complex, with potential threshold effects and "tipping points" that affect outcomes. The climate system is an example.

But a limited amount of increased economic service using the same or a smaller amount of biophysical throughput is possible. Diminishing returns apply. After some point, increasing the kind of efforts you might need to make to succeed at this -- saving energy and recycling materials and making higher quality, longer lasting, more satisfying goods -- would yield smaller and smaller increases in service per unit effort.

Mick said...

And a comment received in response:

9 September 2011 9:59AM


Herman Daly, in "Beyond Growth" and other writings, usefully distinguished between growth in biophysical "throughput", ie, matter and energy used in economic production, and growth in economic "service," the ultimate end of economic activity. Throughput growth is not necessarily tied to increased service because of the possibility for more efficient use of resources and/or the possibility for increased psychological welfare from a smaller amount of throughput.

This thought, which for Daly was the product of several decades work on ends and means in the human economy, is one key to unlocking the growth/sustainability problem.

Obviously endless growth in biophysical throughput is not possible on a finite planet -- to believe so is to believe an "impossibility theorem."

The essential problem I see with this thesis, is that it doesn't take into account what real world human beings would do with the economic returns produced without biophysical throughput. Essentially people seek to make money to spend it. The greater the general wealth, generally the greater the level of consumption. The raison d'etre of making more money is to have more "things".

If we reach a stage where people don't want to use their increasing wealth to consume more resources the problem would be solved anyway. What is more if people no longer wanted to consume more regardless of how much wealth they accumulated, it is difficult to see why they would be driven to increase their wealth. If there was no longer such a need to increase wealth, economic growth would no longer be necessary. It is a circular problem. The important issue is how to effect change, not how it is thought things should be. I know of no historical precedent for idealistic notions about how things should ideally be, actually translating into real behaviour that reflects this idealism.

Mick said...

And my return comment:


You wrote, "I know of no historical precedent for idealistic notions about how things should ideally be, actually translating into real behaviour that reflects this idealism."

I agree that this applies to modern human history. There are, however, clear precedents within some sub-cultures and some small nations, distinct cultural/economic entities which for one reason or another found a way to stay within a steady-state, sustainable pathway. And before industrialization, large parts of Europe ran steady-state systems, although not deliberately. So large communities have done without economic growth in the past.

You're right to suspect that this doesn't help us much today. In effect, we've encountered what I call the "green Keynesian" dilemma. Keynes understood economic growth as well as anyone, was suspicious of its long-term viability, and realized that one day we would have to do without it. But in the short term he was willing to live and operate within a growth paradigm to achieve other ends, such as recovering from the Great Depression or defeating Hitler.

In the current situation we can see for instance that there are economic growth possibilities inherent in renewable energy and energy efficiency deployment. There are also economic multipliers inherent to such more local and regional economic effort -- you can't employ a Venezuelan or a Saudi firm to insulate your attic if you live in Camden Town or Camden, Maine. If greens embrace the growth potential in these initiatives, much as the British government or the White House currently advocate, we will be partly responsible for another round of increased material throughput, but our economies will be more resilient and more people will understand renewable energy and energy efficiency at the end of the process.

My own recommendation is not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good and embrace Green Keynesianism for now. We can't even convince a voting majority of Americans to regulate GHGs, so how will we ever get them to give up on growth? It's just not going to happen, not in my lifetime, unless there's some kind of disastrous climate tipping point, in which case all bets are off in predicting which economic ideologies and political systems survive.

The best we can hope for right now, politically, is a little green growth that helps us reduce emissions.

We'd better hope the climate feedbacks are weaker than expected.

I can guess that Mr. Confino wants to move on from editing these latent comments so if you feel the need to continue these discussions, you can contact me through my blog at