[p2p-research] The end of growth?

Paul D. Fernhout pdfernhout at kurtz-fernhout.com
Mon Aug 10 23:19:52 CEST 2009

Ryan Lanham wrote:
> Setting aside anyone's pet theories of the universe, economics, social
> relations or the commons as separate questions from the question as to
> whether global economic growth can continue, 

They are completely related questions IHMO.

Milton Friedman had a "pet" theory about economics and markets; see how much 
havoc it has wreaked on the planet.
"Jim Stanford, "Confessions of a Recovering Economist"
"Economics is an addiction.  Every other addiction has a Twelve Step 
program, laced with tough love and blunt self-honesty. Why not a Twelve Step 
program for economists? God knows, we have done enough damage with our 
arrogant, drunken prescriptions. Here's how each and every economist can 
face up to their inner demons, and make their own small contribution to 
setting things right. ... Step 2: Accept that all our efforts to explain the 
world have failed.  The 'market' is the holiest symbol in all of economics. 
It's magically automatic and efficient. And supply always equals demand. The 
whole profession of mainstream, 'neoclassical' economics is dedicated to the 
study of markets and how they can be perfected. The problem, however, is 
that in real life these idealized 'markets' don't explain much at all. 
Powerful non-market forces determine most of what happens in the economy - 
things like tradition, demographics, class, gender and race, geography, and 
institutions. Indeed, what we call the 'market' is itself a complex, 
historically constructed social institution - not some autonomous, inanimate 
forum. Power and position are at least as important to economics, as supply 
and demand. ..."

When people point to solar panels by Nanosolar or other renewable approaches 
that produce electricity for prices comparable to fossil fuel or nuclear 
prices, then it is just silly to say energy is a limit to growth in our society.

When we have fairly straightforward ways now like with cradle-to-cradle 
ideas or other zero emissions ideas, then it is just silly to say pollution 
is a limit to growth for our society.

When well-respected scientists say humans can build habitats in space 
(Freeman Dyson, Gerry O'Neill, many others), and we can point to people 
living in space now (in the International Space Station), then it is just 
silly to say we have material limits to growth as a society.

When even a dysfunctional marketplace for energy can be brought to heel by a 
big government imposing just one tax ($200 per barrel equivalent for fossil 
fuels, with the money given out as a basic income), then it is silly to say 
there is some fundamental limit to economic growth related solely to market 

Now, we may not want to grow for various reasons. When a baby grow, it is 
usually healthy. When an adult grows, it is often cancer. But, that is a 
choice we will make as a society based on our ethics and aesthetics.

> the answer to the growth
> question seems to be...it depends on how much alternative energy comes on
> line and how quickly...unless we are willing to radically alter the climate
> even more than has been done to date.  If growth doesn't continue, then we
> are in for something none of us understand or likely can theorize
> accurately, because it will be largely new (for the modernized technological
> world.)

I mostly agree with this, given a few caveats.

One is that there is not physical reason we can not stop growing; they 
problem is in the mathematical models underpinning current economic 
equations and related social expectations.

Global Climate change is a given. So, I just think it is too late to worry 
much about minor changes to CO2 production rates. Way too late. Sorry. The 
issue now is, how do we equitably pay the costs of relocation or seawalls or 
rebuilding when needed, especially if those costs are spread globally, but 
the benefits of CO2 pollution have been mostly local to a few countries like 
the USA? Granted, in the future, we may reduce CO2 for aesthetic reason or 
practical reasons, but it is not a big deal, sorry, compared to the scale of 
our economy. It is like a 1% or so surcharge on a US$60 trillion annual 
economy to do these things -- trivial as a percentage, even if it is a huge 
amount of money for an individual.

When people can point to active suppression of many of these renewable ideas 
(like one energy company buying and bulldozing a prototype solar home 
decades ago, as I was told of in one case in New Jersey) or when fossil 
fuels companies lobby for an uneven playing field with subsidies going their 
way both by tax preferences and defense related cost born by everyone, or 
when oil companies can afford to buy up all the good engineers off the 
market, then it is silly to say solar and other renewables coupled with 
energy efficiency have any technical limits, given obvious examples that 
they work; there was so much excitement by 1980 before Reagan was elected 
and served the interests of the oil companies to repress alternatives or 
foster the status quo.

While there remain technical issues an a practical basis, when I can point 
to Nanosolar, when I can point to homes is Germany that don't need furnaces, 
when I can point to an International Space Station, when I can point to 
recycling efforts, when anyone can point to alternative visions of economics 
that have worked in the past (gift economies, local peer production), then 
it just seems silly to worry whether alternatives could work. It mainly 
becomes a social issue of transitioning to them.

It is a technical issue only to the extent of making it even easier for the 
social change to happen. Example:
"Getting to 100 social-technical points"
One can think of it this simplified way. Imagine abundance for all takes a
society earning 100 "social-technical" points. :-) These points come from
the multiplication of the "social" points times the "technical" points.
So, 50 * 2 = 100.
Or, 2 * 50 = 100.
or, 10 * 10 = 100.

I'm all for despair on this subject. :-) But despair over the *right* 
things. :-) Despair about the people and the ideologies, not the technology 
or resources. Then, if you are despairing about the people and the stories 
they tell themselves (ideologies), then there is a glimmer of hope in the 
despair, that we can change the stories people tell themselves, like I am 
trying to do above. :-)

--Paul Fernhout

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