Lack of Environment

A blog on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems

Archive for the ‘Herman Daly’ Category

From the Treaty of Rome to the Tragedy of the Commons

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This post has been prompted by recent comments on an old post on another blog. That blog is Learning from Dogs, and the old post – dating from December 2011 – was about the financial crisis in Greece… Yes, it really has been going on that long!

For reasons I cannot now recall, I was not impressed by the humorous nature of the original post – entitled ‘Financial bailouts explained!’ – preferring instead to focus on the seriousness of the crisis.

However, a recent response to my original comment – no doubt prompted by the events of the last week or so – led me to try and clarify my opposition to the idea of a European superstate.

What we now refer to as the European Union (EU) was formerly the European Communities (EC) and, originally, the European Economic Community (EEC). This was formed by the Treaty of Rome in 1958. Originally envisaged as a way to prevent the resurgence of extreme nationalism, it is interesting to note that concerns about the erosion of national sovereignty appeared very early in the EEC’s history:

“Through the 1960s, tensions began to show, with France seeking to limit supranational power.” — Wikipedia

Anyway, in attempting to justify my opposition to the idea, I suggested that a European superstate was not necessary to prevent another war in Europe; offering the Battle of Waterloo as evidence (because it was followed by 99 years of peace in Europe). However, upon further reflection, I realised that this does not validate my argument… and so began a train of thought that led me back to Garrett Hardin’s ‘Tragedy of the Commons’.

The ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ is an essay written by Hardin, which was published in an academic journal in 1968 (a link to which is provided below). In this essay, Hardin used a medieval analogy – of the over-grazing of land held in common ownership – to warn of the dire consequences of unbridled self-interest on an over-populated planet with finite resources.

What now follows, therefore, is that train of thought, which all started with The Treaty of Rome:

To be honest, my reference to Waterloo is probably a logical fallacy… and peace in Europe since WW2 is probably due, in large part, to the Treaty of Rome that created the EEC. However, it is not the only reason; others would include the dominance of the US and USSR during the Cold War era.

Like many others, I am in favour of European co-operation and free-trade (etc) but not in favour of political and fiscal union of widely divergent economies. Despite this, I think Europe-wide legislation is a good thing when it comes to tackling environmental issues such as the over-fishing of our seas, global warming and ocean acidification – all of which are consequences of treating the Earth like ‘a business in liquidation’ (Herman E. Daly).

Given that the EU has an admirable record in promoting climate change mitigation, some may find it odd that I would oppose the construction of a European superstate. However, I think it is entirely reasonable to make a special case for global environmental issues that do not respect national boundaries. As Isaac Asimov once said, “It is important that the World get together to face the problems which attack us as a unit.”

The problem is that, because our survival as a species is endangered by global warming (etc), humanity is now self-harming. Furthermore, until libertarians stop denying the nature of reality, we will continue down the road to what Garrett Hardin called ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ (1968). As with the problem of global over-population, so it is with global warming: Libertarians everywhere need to acknowledge the reality of the problem and, therefore, recognise that it is in the best interests of every individual that we all exercise self-restraint.

Clearly, it would be good if the Treaty of Rome can be used to help prevent the Tragedy of the Commons. However, what concerns me is that free trade is used as a ‘Trojan Horse’ to enrich those who already have far more than their fair share of the Earth’s finite resources:

“The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is a comprehensive free trade and investment treaty currently being negotiated – in secret – between the European Union and the USA. As officials from both sides acknowledge, the main goal of TTIP is to remove regulatory ‘barriers’ which restrict the potential profits to be made by transnational corporations on both sides of the Atlantic.

“Yet these ‘barriers’ are in reality some of our most prized social standards and environmental regulations, such as labour rights, food safety rules (including restrictions on GMOs), regulations on the use of toxic chemicals, digital privacy laws and even new banking safeguards introduced to prevent a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis.” — War on Want

If you are a European citizen, I hope you will register (or have registered) your opposition to TTIP by signing one (but only one) of the many petitions on the Internet. One of these can be reached via the above link to the War on Want website.

Now is no time for climate change scepticism

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This graph, as compiled by Dr Ed Hawkins (Reading University/Met Office), featured in an article by Damian Carrington, on the Guardian website yesterday, which highlighted the fact that:
2014 will be the warmest year in Central England for over 300 years (since records began)
(From where the above image has been copied.)

However, the article also highlights many other pertinent facts, such as:
— The whole world has had a warm year and global data, released later on Wednesday, is likely to indicate a new record.
— The likely record warmth in 2014 would end a period of relatively slow rises in global surface temperatures (which has been portrayed by climate sceptics as a halt in global warming).
— Greenhouse gases, however, continue to trap heat with over 90% of it being absorbed by the oceans.

In addition to all of this, it is worth noting that NASA has calculated that global average monthly temperatures have now been above their 20th Century average values in every month since 1985.  There is, therefore, no longer any excuse (other than ideological blindness) for being sceptical about either climate change or the reality that what is now happening is primarily caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

Given the accelerating effect of all the positive feedback mechanisms we can now see (i.e. such as the melting of terrestrial ice and the release of methane from thawing permafrost), there is no longer any excuse (other than what Herman E. Daly called “growthmania”) for delaying the rapid phase-out of fossil fuel use in every context where this is now technologically possible.

In most contexts, humanity has alternatives to fossil fuels. What we seem to lack is an industrial elite willing to admit that burning all the Earth’s fossil fuels (simply because they are there) is likely to wipe out a significant proportion of all life on the planet (because climate change is now accelerating faster than many species can adapt to it).

Above all, now that historically-rare weather events of all kinds (i.e. hot, cold, wet and dry) are occurring every year, we need to stop talking about “natural climate variability” and start talking about “unnatural climate change” (and what we are all going to do about it before it is too late).

Is it too much to hope that our supposed world ‘leaders’, currently meeting at the UN’s COP20 summit in Peru, will actually stop listening to industrial propaganda (that there is no need for radical policy change); and start acting on the implications of the scientific consensus (that there is an urgent need for radical policy change)…?

See also:
A summary of the ‘Climate Departure’ research of Mora et al. (11 October 2013).

Climate change is here and now (31 March 2014).

Best wish for Christmas and New Year

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Normal service (whatever that may be) will resume here in January.

Written by Martin Lack

23 December 2012 at 00:02

Do we lack solutions (or just willpower)?

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Do we lack solutions to our environmental problems or merely the will to implement them?

As I hope this blog has made clear over the last 12 months, our environmental problems are not the product of an over-active imagination; the result of a predisposition to being a doomsayer; or the fictional preamble to an insidious plan for worldwide authoritarian government – they are real.

They are also all inevitable consequences of the number of humans on the planet and the rate at which we are consuming, polluting, and/or destroying the Earth’s finite resources.  In short, all our environmental problems are long-predicted Limits to Growth phenomena.

Even with only a rudimentary understanding of the basic Laws of Physics, this ought to be self-evident and incontestable.  However, there are many people – either very wealthy or obsessed with becoming wealthy – who do not want to accept this reality.  This led former World Bank economist Herman E Daly to conclude:

“Anyone who asserts the existence of limits is soon presented with a whole litany of things that someone once said could never be done but subsequently were done… but [c]ontinuing to study economies only in terms of the [exchange value of money] is like studying organisms only in terms of the circulatory system, without ever mentioning the digestive tract.”

Bearing all this in mind, I think a very important thing happened last week, which I hope will be a turning point in the long battle to rouse the bulk of humanity from its catatonic state of reality denial – in that one of the UK Government’s most senior scientific advisors has said that it is no longer realistic to think we can limit the rise in global average temperatures being caused by human activity to less than 2 Celsius:  Professor Watson is a highly respected and world renown scientist on climate change policy and is currently Chief Scientist at the Department for Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and a former Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  I really hope that this will be a game-changer; it certainly deserves to be:  For the first time ever (that I can recall), the BBC publicised what he said as genuine news; with no attempt to provide a false balance with the opinions of those who claim nothing unusual is happening.

David Roberts has recently drawn attention to the probability that the prevailing view that unconventional hydrocarbons (oil shale gas in particular) represent the solution to our energy problems is a form of collective hypnosis.  However, having recently finished reading parts 6 to 9 of Schalk Cloete’s 9-part series on the probability of an impending economic collapse, I think Professor Watson is right to say that our leaders lack the political will to change course.   This is because, as Schalk shows – with typical crystal clarity – we are all (whether we like it or not) so deeply enmeshed in the Ponzi Scheme of Globalised Capitalism that it will be impossible to deconstruct it as fast as is now required.

In saying this, I would not want anyone to think of me as an anarchist – or even an anti-Capitalist – I consider myself to be merely a pragmatist and a realist.  Indeed, as Schalk eventually demonstrates (in posts 8 and 9 of the series), there are simple solutions but no easy way to see how our political leaders will allow them to be implemented (because turkeys will never vote for Christmas).  Despite this, we really must all stop being so compartmentalised in our thinking.  Our economic and environmental problems are so intertwined it is not possible to solve any of them in isolation.  A holistic problem requires a holistic solution.  Arthur Mol, an early proponent of the concept of Ecological Modernisation, circumscribed the problem perfectly when he suggested that “a structural design fault of modernity” is causing “the institutionalised destruction of nature.”  (For more on this subject, please see my Can modernisation ever be ecological? – Part 1 (24 September 2011)).

As Professor Watson notes, our leaders appear to lack the political will to change the system; and (as I have suggested) the analogy of turkeys not voting for Christmas may explain why this is the case.  However, what are the solutions and why will they be so hard to implement?  Well, even though Schalk’s discussion is focussed on the impending collapse of globalised economics, the solutions he proposes apply equally well to the environmental collapse that we have also brought upon ourselves:

Solutions to our problems
In his Healing the System post (part 8 of 9 in the Collapse series), Schalk posits four necessary changes required to the way the World currently operates:
— Minimise our use of products and services that consume non-renewable resources.
— Eliminate the massive inefficiencies of the globalised economics that drive this over-consumption.
— Pay off our all our ludicrous debts and re-establish individual financial resilience.
— Reduce over consumption in developed countries and excessive population growth in developing countries.

I know this is in danger of sounding like a Utopian dream to eliminate poverty and suffering; and establish World peace… but – as Learning from Dogs has recently reminded all those that will listen – David Roberts has a point; either we do something about all of this or we’re screwed.

Obstacles to implementation
In his Practical Challenges post (the final part in the Collapse series), Schalk highlights the following difficulties:
— Reducing consumption of non-renewable resources will require an entire culture shift to convince 100s of millions of people that consuming things does not make us happy.
— Restoring system efficiency will require the money to be spent on things that benefit society as a whole rather than an elite who are already very wealthy (turkeys and Christmas problem again).
— Reducing overall indebtedness will also require the dismantling of systems of power and control; power that has corrupted people, companies and entire governments (ditto).
— Reducing over-consumption (i.e. implementing austerity) is not easy at a time when people are obsessed with consumption and in the Age of Entitlement.  In the meantime, although reducing population growth in developing countries through the education and emancipation of women is genuine work in progress, it is taking a long time; and time is a luxury we do not have.

Change the World begins at home
Echoing another recent post on Learning from Dogs, if we want to change the World; we must start by changing our own behaviour.  This is the conclusion Schalk reaches too:

Honestly, the only practical solution I can see is a peaceful grassroots revolution of concerned individuals changing their lifestyles and talking to their friends…  People simply need to wake up to this blindingly obvious fact and start incorporating it in their day-to-day consumption patterns…  The One in a Billion project has been especially designed to make such individual action as easy and rewarding as at all possible.  I am fully convinced that gradually implementing these sustainable lifestyle choices is the single most important thing that any one of the richest billion individuals on planet Earth can be doing right now.

I may have linked and/or dipped into it repeatedly above but, as it is so beautifully constructed, scripted and presented, I really would recommend reading Schalk’s entire series of posts from their beginning.  So, if you have not already done so, start here.

Unsustainable development on a grand scale

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It was reported on the BBC News today that China’s growth has slowed from 8.1% to 7.6% over the last three months. Big deal. What does this matter? Either way, it is completely unsustainable!.

I am afraid this prompted another rant from me (albeit subject to a 400-character limit):

“Even at 7% p.a. this would result in a doubling of China’s economy in 10 years. That means a probable doubling of its consumption of the Earth’s resources. In what sense can this ever be considered sustainable? Quantitative growth is not – nor can it ever be – the answer. What the Earth needs is Qualitative development. Economists and politicians need to stop lying to themselves and us.”

The former World Bank economist, Herman E Daly (yes him again), once lamented that: “Anyone who asserts the existence of limits is soon presented with a whole litany of things that someone once said could never be done but subsequently were done”; but insisted that “Continuing to study economies only in terms of the [exchange value of money] is like studying organisms only in terms of the circulatory system, without ever mentioning the digestive tract.”

I am sorry but, apart from saying that it is time the World woke up to reality, I cannot be bothered to say anything else; but I am going to repeat this video:

Not sustainable going forward

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I have something important I want, on behalf of Bill McKibbin’s, to ask you to do today: The idea is that for a 24 hour period—starting at 8AM UTC/GMT today, folks around the world create a Twitterstorm by sending thousands upon thousands of tweets all with the same hashtag: #EndFossilFuelSubsidies.

But first, to get you in the mood, I hope you will read this:

If you ever find yourself in a business meeting playing a game of bull***t bingo, and don’t have the phrase “going forward” on your card, prepare to lose. However, last week, whilst pondering the notion of “sustainable development” (or rather its absence), my attention was caught by someone on TV combining the two into a wonderful sound byte: Apparently, the maintenance of 3 Accident and Emergency hospitals in one County is “not sustainable going forward…” It was then that it hit me! People use this excuse all the time: Whenever, a company wants to make lots of people redundant, end a manufacturing process, close a factory, or liquidate a business… they always cite the fact that any other course of action would be unsustainable. In other words, it would make a loss; it would be uneconomic; because the costs of doing so would be greater than any potential benefit. In short, it would be illogical; it might even be insane!

Leaving aside for a moment that companies seem perfectly capable of sustaining massive losses and yet remain in business (it’s called “being too big to fail” and “getting bailed-out by the taxpayer”), it is important to note that cost-benefit analysis is everywhere; we do it all the time; it is part of everyday life. That being the case, why do we not apply it to life itself?

A multi-disciplinary team of scientists based at the University of California at Berkeley (UCB) have been trying to do just that; and they recently published the findings of their research in the journal Nature. Only an abstract may be viewed online without a subscription (i.e. free of charge). However, thanks to Christine over on, I have been able to read a substantial summary of their work on the UCB website. The opening paragraph reads like this:

A prestigious group of scientists from around the world is warning that population growth, widespread destruction of natural ecosystems, and climate change may be driving Earth toward an irreversible change in the biosphere

The publication of their research findings may well have been deliberately timed to coincide with the G20 and Rio+20 Summits this week; and – if not deliberate – it is very fortuitous. However, one thing it is not is new. This message is at least 200 years old. The Rev Thomas Malthus was the first to point out that, unless food production can keep up with demand, perpetual population growth must ultimately lead to increasing numbers of impoverished and/or starving people. Needless to say, even 200 years ago, this message was not well received by those who had a financial interest in maintaining a happy productive workforce (and saw Malthus as being a dangerous and subversive distraction).

Over the last 50 years, numerous scientists (mostly biologists) have published articles, research findings, and books on the subject – including Garrett Hardin, Paul and Anna Ehrlich, William Ophuls – but the most well known is probably the team of researchers based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), originally led by Dennis Meadows, that produced the first Limits to Growth report in 1972. Unfortunately, like everyone that has gone before – and everyone who has come along since then – they were immediately lambasted on the basis that Malthus had been proved wrong; they were accused of ‘crying “wolf”‘; and/or denounced as doomsayers, anti-progress, anti-Western, Communists, even misanthropic. Not only is it important to remember that the moral of the story of the boy who repeatedly raised the alarm is that the wolf eventually turned up (thanks Christine); it is also important to ask yourself why so many people (who are mainly economists not biologists) seek to dismiss this message?

The former World Bank economist, Herman E Daly (yes him again), once lamented that:
“Anyone who asserts the existence of limits is soon presented with a whole litany of things that someone once said could never be done but subsequently were done”; but insisted that
“Continuing to study economies only in terms of the [exchange value of money] is like studying organisms only in terms of the circulatory system, without ever mentioning the digestive tract.”

I am therefore inclined to think that the reason economists attack biologists who insist that limits to growth are a real threat is this: Attack is the best form of defence. However, denying the reality of limits to growth does not mean that they cease to exist. As it says on my About page:

“The driver of an accelerating car about to hit a brick wall might well say ‘so far so good’ – but that does not mean that the wall is not there!” (John Dryzek, 2005)

Denial is not a river in Egypt; it is an ideologically-prejudiced refusal to accept scientific facts that challenge the entire business model of this Carbon Age (which cannot last forever).

Like I have said before, the burning of fossil fuels has only become a problem because of the rate at which it is being done. When there were only 1 billion people on Earth chopping down trees and burning them to farm the land and keep warm, anthropogenic CO2 emissions were not a problem; but now that we are digging up fossilised carbon and putting it into the atmosphere 1000 times faster than it can be geologically recycled it is a very big problem indeed. Thus the unnatural climate change we are now causing is a limits to growth phenomenon; and the money that we must now spend to mitigate it and/or adapt (or else be annihilated) is just one of many costs incurred as a result of denying, for the last 40 years, that limits to growth exist.

I therefore make no apologies for again referring to The Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update (2005), wherein the authors repeated their warning that if we put off dealing with limits to growth we are more likely to come up against several of them simultaneously. With regard to the revised computer modelling undertaken, they observed that in most cases the simulations ran out of the “ability to cope” when too much industrial output has to be diverted to solving problems; and concluded: “Growth, and especially exponential growth, is so insidious because it shortens the time for effective action. It loads stress on a system faster and faster, until coping mechanisms that have been adequate with slower rates of change finally begin to fail.” (Meadows et al 2005: 223).

This is exactly the message of the UCB team of researchers. We have reached the point predicted by Meadows et al. Moreover, nowadays it is not just biologists that are admitting that we have reached the point where further delay will not be cost-effective; in fact it could well be deadly.

Above all else, we need a level playing field. That is why we must end the subsidies paid to fossil fuel companies that enable them to keep exploring for hydrocarbons that are becoming ever more costly to extract (whatever happened to cost-benefit analysis?). Therefore, I implore you to join the 24-hour Twitterstorm campaign, starting at 0800hrs UTC/GMT today (Monday 18 June 2012).

Find out more and sign-up at

In search of the Lucky Country

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What and where is the Lucky Country?

What and where is the Lucky Country?

Australia likes to call itself “The Lucky Country” but, today, in the fight to see which so-called Developed Country can turn itself into a Third World Nation the fastest, Australia is facing some stiff competition from Canada.

Whilst the rest of the developed world may be tempted to shake their heads and say, “you short-sighted fools”, can anyone actually point to a country on the planet that is not treating the Earth like a business in liquidation?

I think the luckiest countries in the world are probably Iceland and New Zealand; although people affected by the financial meltdown in Reykjavik or the earthquake in Christchurch may wish to disagree with me. Seriously though, it is countries like these, with a wealth of geothermal energy, that may well stand the best chance of achieving carbon-free energy generation in the near to medium term. However, the rest of us will have to find a way to achieve this goal within the next 20 years, or the Earth may end up losing its Goldilocks Planet status. Sadly this will not just be unlucky. In fact luck will not be part of it at all because it will be a travesty; a lasting testament to human folly. A bit embarrassing really; except there will probably not be anybody here to laugh at (or cry about) our crass stupidity, arrogance, and stubbornness (in the face of numerous warnings).

The truth of the matter is this: We live on a finite planet with finite resources but, despite this fact, every country on Earth is fully committed to Growthmania. No-one is willing or able to conceive of an alternative paradigm. Meanwhile, however, reality continues to make its presence felt – Things that were once not a problem (like disposing of waste into rivers, taking fish from the sea, and polluting the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels) are becoming ever more pressing problems solely as a consequence of the scale at which they are being done.

Continual growth in the GDP of the global economy is not sustainable in perpetuity. Growth cannot be the answer to our global debt crisis; and austerity does not seem to be working either. Why is it that economists are so willing to deny the reality of The Second Law of Thermodynamics and/or the concept of Entropy?

Is it really that surprising that the most intractable arguments put forward by climate change deniers are economic ones? Apart from those that want to dispute the reality of ongoing anthropogenic climate disruption, it is economists that are most clearly habituated to denying reality. However, as climate scientists have been saying since at least the late 1950s, we are conducting an enormous geophysical experiment on the Earth’s atmosphere (despite the fact that we have known for over 150 years what the result would be) and, every time we have checked our maths, the predicted result has not changed that much: Ignoring all the positive feedback mechanisms that could trigger a runaway greenhouse effect, the best estimate for equilibrium temperature rise for a doubling of CO2 from pre-Industrial levels (i.e. up to 560ppm) is still somewhere in excess of 2 Celsius.

However, all the evidence suggest that, given that they are already becoming self-evident, positive feedback mechanisms cannot be ignored; making a rise in global average temperature of between 4 and 6 Celsius much more likely. And, as if to add insult to injury, the greater the rise in temperature caused, the more likely that the runaway greenhouse effect that has crippled Venus will be triggered here too.

Clever answers on a postcard please to James Hansen, University of Columbia, New York, NY.


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