13 May 2008

A Plea For Sanity

Our world now faces challenging ecological and environmental problems (peak oil, climate change, energy security, food inflation, loss of biodiversity, wildlife extinctions, overpopulation). From what I have been reading, our government's solutions to these problems are more growth: 1) allow the population to increase to keep us economically competitive; 2) keep the economy growing and strong so that we become richer, and with our riches we can solve these problems.

Excerpts from a speech by PM Lee Hsien Loong at NTUC May Day Rally, 1 May 2008:


So, this is the way to grow our economy, create more jobs and more opportunities and improve the lives of all our workers and when I say all our workers, that means all of them. Not just the highly qualified and educated ones, but all collars, from cleaners and security guards, to technical and professional staff. Not just young workers but all ages, from new job entrants to mid-career and mature workers and not just local workers but all nationalities, from Singaporeans to others who are here, to work here and to help us reach our goals for Singapore.

There are challenges ahead -- the US economy, higher food prices, cost of living, low wage workers and so on -- and there will be more challenges to come. But our approach is working, so we have to persevere and press on, because we are heading in the right direction. Build our tripartite partnerships, educate and train our people, help our industries to innovate, upgrade, build social safety nets to assist needy Singaporeans. Then, however choppy the waters, we can maintain a steady course, sail ahead and secure a brighter future and a better life for all of you and us. Thank you.
I think this is a big mistake. Our leaders don't understand our limits to growth. They do not understand that the neoclassical economic growth model assumptions that we have embraced cannot be sustained with peak oil and a burgeoning world population. If we continue with this growth model, the system will collapse under its own weight.

There is one word that describes our government policies: insane. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Why do I say their policies are insane? Because the cause of our current problems is overgrowth: overpopulation, over-consumption of resources, over-exploitation of planet earth. Will more economic growth solve our problems? If overgrowth is indeed the root cause, then why does the Singapore government continue to insist that "more growth" is the answer to our problems?

Our government needs to consider alternative solutions, and Singaporeans have the right to be aware of such alternatives. The alternative to consider is a Steady State Economy (SSE). I urge our policymakers to consider the SSE as an alternative to a growth economy.

What is a Steady-state economy? It is an economy viewed as a subsystem in dynamic equilibrium with the parent ecosystem/biosphere that sustains it. Quantitative growth is replaced with qualitative development or improvement as the basic goal. (Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications).

This synopsis by Herman Daly is a good explanation of why we need a SSE and how we can go about implementing it. You can read it in full here: http://www.theoildrum.com/node/3941

A failed growth economy and a steady-state economy are not the same thing; they are the very different alternatives we face. The Earth as a whole is approximately a steady state. Neither the surface nor the mass of the earth is growing or shrinking; the inflow of radiant energy to the Earth is equal to the outflow; and material imports from space are roughly equal to exports (both negligible). None of this means that the earth is static—a great deal of qualitative change can happen inside a steady state, and certainly has happened on Earth. The most important change in recent times has been the enormous growth of one subsystem of the Earth, namely the economy, relative to the total system, the ecosphere. This huge shift from an “empty” to a “full” world is truly “something new under the sun” as historian J. R. McNeil calls it in his book of that title. The closer the economy approaches the scale of the whole Earth the more it will have to conform to the physical behavior mode of the Earth. That behavior mode is a steady state—a system that permits qualitative development but not aggregate quantitative growth. Growth is more of the same stuff; development is the same amount of better stuff (or at least different stuff). The remaining natural world no longer is able to provide the sources and sinks for the metabolic throughput necessary to sustain the existing oversized economy—much less a growing one.

Economists have focused too much on the economy’s circulatory system and have neglected to study its digestive tract. Throughput growth means pushing more of the same food through an ever larger digestive tract; development means eating better food and digesting it more thoroughly. Clearly the economy must conform to the rules of a steady state—seek qualitative development, but stop aggregate quantitative growth. GDP increase conflates these two very different things.

We have lived for 200 years in a growth economy. That makes it hard to imagine what a steady-state economy (SSE) would be like, even though for most of our history mankind has lived in an economy in which annual growth was negligible. Some think a SSE would mean freezing in the dark under communist tyranny. Some say that huge improvements in technology (energy efficiency, recycling) are so easy that it will make the adjustment both profitable and fun.

Regardless of whether it will be hard or easy we have to attempt a SSE because we cannot continue growing, and in fact so-called “economic” growth already has become uneconomic. The growth economy is failing. In other words, the quantitative expansion of the economic subsystem increases environmental and social costs faster than production benefits, making us poorer not richer, at least in high consumption countries. Given the laws of diminishing marginal utility and increasing marginal costs this should not have been unexpected. And even new technology sometimes makes it worse. For example, tetraethyl lead provided the benefit of reducing engine knock, but at the cost spreading a toxic heavy metal into the biosphere; chlorofluorocarbons gave us the benefit of a nontoxic propellant and refrigerant, but at the cost of creating a hole in the ozone layer and a resulting increase in ultraviolet radiation. It is hard to know for sure that growth now increases costs faster than benefits since we do not bother to separate costs from benefits in our national accounts. Instead we lump them together as “activity” in the calculation of GDP.

Full article