(cbaltico.edu.mx. Date unknown. Dolphin drowned in fishing net. World trade organisations are adept at enforcing economic hegemony, even over countries as large as the U.S.A).

Fatal Flaws

Section
9. Support New, Environmentally-Aware, Economic Systems
Page
9.5

Despite the almost heroic efforts of Pearce and others to improve the capitalist system, to make it properly account for the environment, and to separate its destructive ways from its standard operation, there remains an irredeemable futility at the heart of these attempts that just won’t go away. This ‘futility’ can be broken down into three main parts:

(Popular Science Monthly. 1877. Sketch of William Jevons).

i) Material Limits and Sustainability Sophistry

Material limits are explored in detail in Section 3.3. To summarise: “The Second Law of Thermodynamics establishes that as energy is transferred or transformed (‘used’), more and more of it is wasted. Entropy increases and less is available to us for ‘work’, products, food, etc…In other words, we can reduce the ‘waste’, but cannot eliminate it, and if we are determined continually to grow, then after an initial period of efficiency gains, we will hit physical limits, and the relationship between growth and consumption/environmental degradation will return closer to a 1:1 ratio.”

Drives for material and energy efficiency are laudable, and gains have been and can be made, but there is a limit. The energy required per unit of economic output has declined by about a third in the last 30 years1, and the ‘carbon intensity’ (CO2 emissions per dollar of economic output) has decreased by around a quarter in the same time. This is excellent, but the major gains are always the first, and then the curves begin to flatten as material limits are neared and the laws of thermodynamics refuse to be overridden. Ward et. al. demonstrated this clearly for energy demand and material extraction2 (see 3.3).

Ward et. al. go on to say that gains presented beyond these limits are the result of what I call ‘sustainability sophistry’, but they, perhaps more diplomatically, call an ‘illusion’. They say this usually takes three forms:

(a) Apparent substitution: where one resource or problem is seen to be ‘solved’ by substitution with another resource or process ‘without problems’. A classic example of this is the seeming acceptance of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, which keeps much of the forest and clearing accounts for the UN, of treeplanting/reforestation as a ‘like-for-like’ substitute for deforestation/habitat loss (see 7.2 and 7.3). Because of this, certain countries engaging in massive deforestation show up on their graphs, tables and maps as actually increasing their habitat and forest cover, when of course, they are doing nothing of the sort;

(b) The second mechanism – financialisation of components of GDP and increasing money flows without a significant rise in material or energy use – can be seen in activities like the commodification and economic colonisation of education. Undoubtedly, these components of so-called tertiary economies are less energy-intense and environmentally destructive than classic ‘primary’ activities, such as logging or mining, but they still have a considerable environmental footprint through housing, travel, transport, construction, heating/cooling, food, etc. and so forth;

(c) The third mechanism – displacement – is a technique whereby the unattractive polluting or toxic elements of resource processing or disposal are displaced in time or space elsewhere. A good example is the exporting of raw materials to China where processing and manufacturing require the most energy and release the majority of pollutants, but the country of origin is left to appear ‘squeaky clean’, even if it often imports these very goods back again. As to time displacement, there can be few better examples than nuclear waste from reactors where the worst level of spent-fuel waste is dangerous for 6 million years; apparently, this is for the people of the distant future to deal with.

(d). The fourth mechanism is my addition – sophistry of numbers and language. The standard technique re numbers is to divide impacts per capita so that effects appear to be reduced by a large population, or as a population grows, whereas, of course, the total impact is almost always increasing as population is growing faster than ‘impact reductions’ are being achieved. This technique is applied everywhere from the emissions pollution of cars (swamped by the vast increase in the number of cars worldwide), to GHG emissions per person, which is informative for equity concerns, but meaningless for total environmental impact because, of course, that figure needs to be multiplied by population. Re language, the dreadful overuse and abuse of the term ‘sustainability’ has been examined in Section 3.2, and there is a propensity in certain quarters to apply absolute terms, such as ‘de-coupling’, to relative situations, so that an improvement in efficiency, or a decrease in environmental impact, but nowhere near an elimination of same, is termed ‘de-coupling’. This is like being ‘partly unique’ or ‘slightly pregnant’.

ii) The Jevons Paradox

It is deeply ironic that the one of the founders of neoclassical economics is also responsible for uncovering one of capitalism’s great flaws, though whether he saw it as a flaw for the environment is not clear.

William Jevons was born in 1835, in Liverpool, England, the son of an iron merchant. His early studies included natural history, e.g. botany, and he spent some time in Australia before returning to England to become a student once again, and finally a tutor, and then an academic4.

In keeping with people of the time, he was somewhat of a polymath with wide-ranging interests, but his focus was mathematics – especially statistics – and political economy. He was influenced by and examined the ideas of Bentham and Mill (see sections 3.4 and 1.3.2) and wrestled his whole life with the concepts of utility, marginal utility and various schools of logic ibid..

His work that most interests us in T10 is ‘The Coal Question; An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal Mines’, written in 18653. In it Jevons’ exceptional far-sightedness covered such ‘modern’ topics as “ limits to growthoverpopulation, overshoot, energy return on energy input (EROEI), taxation of energy resources, renewable energy alternatives, and resource peaking”4 . Most pertinently, he observed that:

“It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth”. And

“Whatever, therefore, conduces to increase the efficiency of coal, and to diminish the cost of its use, directly tends to augment the value of the steam-engine, and to enlarge the field of its operations”.3

He was concerned about the exponential increase in coal use, its finite nature, and the error of the argument that improved efficiencies would lead to reduced consumption and longer lifespan. He saw that the opposite was the case.

(The might of industrial Britain was based on coal and the steam engine).

 

(Jevons, W. 1865. Graphs from ‘The Coal Question’. Jevons was far ahead of his time in understanding exponential growth, limits to growth, limits to substitution, and the overriding of efficiency gains).

Whether it was Jevons’ natural history background that allowed him to see the bigger picture re resource depletion and untrammelled growth, or an awareness of the work of Malthus and others, is hard to know, but whatever the origin, his observations are seminal in that they highlight a key fallacy of modern capitalist economies: that their operation leads to ever-increasing efficiency and resource conservation. Instead, no matter what gains are made in the former, they are wiped out by being invested in the latter – more growth – because that is the goal of the system, its unwavering raison d’etre. This ‘pulls the rug out’ from under any pretence of gains for the environment, or indeed, social gains; they are purely to reduce cost and redirect financial gains to more growth. If this happens to benefit some of society, or – temporarily – the environment – that is a byproduct, not the aim.

As Higgs5 explains (see 3.3): “Significant gains in efficiency do not moderate consumption but rather facilitate expansion”, and, “For example, the carbon intensity of production has declined for almost a century, while the rate of carbon emissions has continued to grow exponentially”. Engineer Michael Huesemann notes6, “technological innovation has never been used to stabilize the size of the economy; [its] main role has always been exactly the opposite, namely the enhancement of productivity, consumption, and economic growth”.

For the keen, Jevons’ paper is now available on Google Books and can be read here:

The Coal Question: An Enquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the … – William Stanley Jevons – Google Books . And there is a book on the paradox by Polimeni et. al. that I look forward to reading asap: https://www.walmart.com/ip/The-Jevons-Paradox-and-the-Myth-of-Resource-Efficiency-Improvements/45690290?wmlspartner=wlpa&selectedSellerId=10751 .

 

 

 

iii) It’s for Others to Fix

An oft-heard phrase about the operation of the modern, capitalist, economy, usually in response to some form of criticism, is: “Oh, that’s just business”, or “That’s what business does” and this is usually followed by excuses and annoyance that business/the economy/capitalism should address the problem identified. This, or these, problems are then transferred to the public sphere where governments or agencies or groups are supposed to fix it.

This is disingenuous on two grounds: the capitalist system abhors government intervention, restriction or restraint of any kind and strives continually to eliminate them; and it implies that the economy is a subset of larger, more powerful entities, e.g. religion or government, that can or could ‘correct it’, should it be seen to be delivering sub-optimal results.

(Ozpolitic.com.2010)

We know this is nonsense. Margaret Thatcher’s chilling “there is no society” has well and truly come to pass and we live in a world that is, to most, ‘the economy’, and all other spheres of influence and sources of values have been exterminated or reduced to marginal insignificance. The well-known ‘Mickey-Mouse Model’ portrays this, but even it is overly generous in apportioning Mickey’s large ears to the role and importance of Society and Environment; as several have pointed out, it would be far more accurate to use a pig’s head as the model with its tiny ears reflecting Environment and Society. They are wholly held and controlled by ‘the economy’ and any notion that they could bring it to heel, let alone ‘correct’ its workings, is fanciful.

As to the capitalist system accepting or adopting ‘outsider’ measures to, say, better protect the environment, or more equitably distribute resources, it either completely ignores such pleas, or energetically attacks them. Much of Kerryn Higgs’ ‘Collision Course’5 is devoted to tracking the rise of capitalism’s enforcers: think tanks, lobbyists, PR agents, advertisers, institutes, media presenters, ad infinitum. Their full-on “We’re out to kill the f***ers!”7 response to contrary views (see Section 6.1) pretty much sums it up, as does the astonishing case of the refusal of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1991 to accept a ban on tuna fishing that killed dolphins. No lesser entity than the United States of America introduced the ban, but GATT ordered its scrapping, a ruling ‘explained’ and endorsed by the WTO thus5: “If the US arguments were accepted, then any country could ban imports of a product from another country merely (my underline) because the exporting country has different environmental, health and social policies from its own”Note 1. Well, there you have it. So much for environmental concerns, social concerns, let alone democracy and government – all must accept subservience to economic hegemony. (This was brilliantly observed by Michael Leunig in my country in 2009 when he wrote ‘More Greed and More Loneliness’ – see ‘Articles’, Section 1.1.3).

 

 

(cbaltico.edu.mx. Date unknown. Dolphin drowned in fishing net. World trade organisations are adept at enforcing economic hegemony, even over countries as large as the U.S.A).

 

In summary, there is all manner of ways that capitalism can be presented as not damaging the environment: technological, efficiency gains; waste reduction; resource substitution; displacement of problems in time and space and to other spheres of human activity, e.g. government; increasing ‘service’ economies; numerical and verbal sophistry; and the subjugation and silencing of other value systems and critics. Important though all these factors are, above them all is the Jevons Paradox, which, of course, is not really a paradox at all, but an iron-clad consistency: growth is the god, growth is the goal, growth is the purpose, and everything must be sacrificed to this end. This mania, this single-minded hysteria, has inflicted such an asymmetry on the world that we now live in a sort of global ‘Jevons Paradox’ whereby any environmental or social gain is fed back into, or legitimises, more growth, thus wiping it out and rendering it redundant. As long as the overall goal of governments, departments, businesses, regions, councils, towns and groups is ‘growth’, then the very best that anything else can achieve is some buying of time in the hope of a more enlightened future. The more years that pass the less time can be bought, and the less ‘material’ and opportunity there is for the construction of a worthwhile future that celebrates life in its full sense.

 

1 Jackson, T. 2009. Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet. Earthscan, Abingdon, UK.

2 Ward, J. et.al. 2016. Is Decoupling GDP Growth from Environmental Impact Possible? Oct. 14th, Plos One.

3 Jevons, W. 1865. The Coal Question: An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of our Coal Mines. MacMillan and Co., London, U.K.

4 William Stanley Jevons <William Stanley Jevons – Wikipedia> , and <The Coal Question – Wikipedia> .

5 Higgs, K. 2014. Collision Course: Endless Growth on a Finite Planet. The MIT Press, Cambridge, U.S.

6 Huesemann, M. 2003. The Limits of Technological Solutions to Sustainable Development. Clean Technologies and Environmental Policy, 5 (1).

7 Helvarg, D. 1994. The War Against the Greens: The ‘Wise-use’ Movement, the New Right, and Anti-Environmental Violence. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, USA.

Note 1. This has been an ongoing battle between the USA and Mexico for years, with the USA losing all rounds with its refusal to label Mexican tuna as ‘dolphin safe’, but, finally, in 2018, it had a win at the WTO. For more, see Mexico loses 10-year WTO battle over U.S. tuna labeling | Reuters .

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