Another question for Tim Worstall*
* Author of Chasing Rainbows: Economic Myths, Environmental Facts (2010)
On 30 September, Tim Worstall responded to my highlighting his (albeit potentially unwitting) involvement in the production of Andrew Montford’s Hockey Stick Illusion book. In so doing, Tim has made clear that he accepts that climate change “is happening, it’s a problem, it’s anthropogenic and we ought to do something about it”. This very clear statement was very welcome; and stands in stark contrast with my attempt to summarise his position without actually having read his Chasing Rainbows book from cover-to-cover! This may well have been unwise, but I do think I got it mainly right: My ambiguous and misleading remark that Tim is “ideologically opposed to market intervention” does not sit well alongside that in my next sentence that he believes “we need more globalisation and freer markets”. However, the latter would appear to be correct.
Leaving aside some initial confusion over my references to Greek mythology, the main thing we seemed to disagree on was interpreting the writings of former World Bank economist Herman Daly who, as I have highlighted elsewhere, is famous for saying things like “the Earth may be developing but it is not growing!” and has therefore spent much of his life advancing the idea of a steady-state economy (also known as ecological economics). However, Tim’s response to this was that many people misinterpret Daly and that “we can have GDP growth… just not greater resource use” and that “…growth will be constrained by the advance of technology“. Furthermore, in response to my suggestion that the interplay between unit efficiency and the scale of production is such that resource consumption will always accelerate (I was thinking of our use of motor cars), Tim suggested that, in developed economies at least, recycling will prevent perpetual growth in resource depletion (he was thinking of our re-use of metals). This difference of opinion is, I think, a neat summary of the potential for Ecological Modernisation to fail to dematerialise our economies and decouple environmental degradation from economic growth. However, aren’t we all missing the point that the ‘elephant in the room’ is in fact growth itself?
I believe Daly was very clear on this point. For example, he said “[w]ith continued growth in production, the economic subsystem must eventually overwhelm the capacity of the global ecosystem to sustain it“. Therefore, whereas Tim says that this does not exclude growth in the total value of goods and services (TFP or GDP growth?), as recently as 2004, Daly quoted Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as having said, “Society must cease to look upon ‘progress’ as something desirable. Eternal ‘progress’ is a nonsensical myth. What must be implemented is a not a steadily expanding economy but a zero growth economy; a stable economy”. So, Tim, can we resolve this apparent contradiction?
Since you mention energy and the Sun, Daly is also fond of quoting Sir Arthur Eddington, who once said, “But if your theory is found to be against the Second Law of Thermodynamics, I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation”. Since energy can neither be created or destroyed (merely turned from useful forms such as fossil fuel to less useful forms such as heat), is it not significant that, as of 27 September, humanity has demanded a level of services from nature equivalent to what the planet can provide for all of 2012?
Whilst we may be currently pursuing red-herrings such as wind farms (instead of tidal power), as a species, our current energy usage is quite literally unsustainable (and our numbers are still growing). Entropy is slowly converting useful energy into less-useful energy. Humanity is therefore overdrawn at its Ecosystem bank account. End of story. Surely?