Climate change and economic growth: our readers write

Our August issue featured the story “Hokkaido: The Anti-Climate Summit” by Walden Bello of Foreign Policy in Focus, arguing that the G8 nations derailed meaningful efforts to address global climate change at the July summit in Japan. Bello protests that “like the United States and Japan, the European governments continue to hang on to the position that economic growth can be ‘decoupled’ from energy use. In other words, they think they can maintain current European consumption levels and only have to achieve the more efficient use of energy and replace oil with other energy sources.” Our July Exit Poll was: “Is it possible to meaningfully address global climate change while maintaining current levels of economic growth?” We received the following responses:

From Joe Wetmore of Autumn Leaves Used Books in Ithaca, NY:

It is not possible to maintain current levels of economic growth. It is simple math; you cannot have a permanent upward growth curve.

The is a limit to the number of people this earth can provide for; there is a limit to the number of resources that can be extracted. Since we are extracting resources as fast as we can, and a large part of the earth’s population is living in poverty, we probably need to cut back on our population. This means that we first and foremost, have to stop producing more people, especially in the “developed” countries.

World War 4 Report replies: Well, we’re glad you added “especially in the ‘developed’ countries.” We reject Malthusian approaches to the question. The problem is that capitalism—the system predicated on endless growth—is eating up the planet at an accelerating rate. The question of sheer human numbers is ancillary. And it is in the “graying” developed world where we use far more resources per capita—not the developing world, where birth rates are highest.

From Frank Connelly, somewhere in cyberspace:

Traditional notions of economic growth [are] misleading when proposing meaningful policies to address global climate change. Net economic welfare would be more in line when evaluating the advantages of addressing the issue.

In terms of economic growth, one could, for instance propose a simple economy where you own a house. The economy grows, when I build a bomb. And grows more when I provide a service by blowing up your house.

I am sure you can appreciate the ludicrous nature of evaluating everything economic in monetary terms.

I wish to thank you for your support and will be sure to light a candle for you and yours should I ever return to church.

World War 4 Report replies: Absolutely. Bechtel made a mint building Iraq’s oil infrastructure in the ’50s. Then Lockheed and Raytheon made a mint selling bombs to the Pentagon to destroy it in the ’90s. Now Bechtel is making another mint rebuilding it. All so we can spew more hydrocarbons into the atmosphere and accelerate global warming. The system works great—for Bechtel and Lockheed. Destroying the planet is what the system does.

See our last post on the global climate destabilization, and our last Exit Poll results.

  1. Your answer seems to imply
    Your answer seems to imply that populations can increase forever, or at least substantially more than they have so far.

    This is absurd.

    Current agriculture is Dependant on massive oil inputs, from fertilizers to tractors. As we run out of that, we run out of the ability to grow food at the current rate.

    The impact of 6 billion Humans on the planet is to crowd out or exterminate the rest of the species. From over fishing of the North Atlantic to the clear-cutting of the Amazon rainforest, Humans are taking over the planet. While it may be possible to do this on the short term, this is not sustainable. Humans cannot survive as the only life-form on the planet.

    Every problem that Humans cause is multiplied by more human.

    1. Overpopulation and propaganda
      Pointing to “overpopulation” is missing the point, and is, in fact, a racist propaganda device. It is, in the words of Eduardo Galeano, “blaming poverty on the children that the poor don’t avoid having.”

      The agriculture which is massively dependent on petro-inputs is not producing food to feed local populations, and is increasingly not producing food at all. Whether it is producing traditional “third world” cash crops like coffee and bananas, or so-called “non-traditionals” like macadamia nuts (all the rage in Costa Rica) and flowers (Colombia), or soy for cattle feed (Argentina, Paraguay), or beef for global fast-food chains (throughout Central America), or cotton for Nike’s sweat-shops (ditto), it is hoarding the best lands for the export sector. In contrast, agriculture which produces basic grains and legumes for local consumption tends to use more sustainable low-input traditional peasant methods (e.g. Mexico’s ejidos). Thanks to free trade policies, the prior sector is massively expanding, while the latter is under relentless attack. Once again, the problem is capitalism.

      Meanwhile, in the US heartland, once “the world’s breadbasket,” lands are increasingly being turned over to “biofuels“—as you yourself recently pointed out.

      It is not six billion humans who are exterminating the rest of the planet’s species. It is capitalism. We humans could get along just fine without the fax paper, disposable chop-sticks and fast-food burgers that the rainforest is being turned into.

      Finally, fertility is a function of economics. Birth rates fall as economic security increases. They soar along with levels of misery (see Gaza, Kosova, etc.) The world’s “oldest” country is Japan, with a median age of 43, while the youngest is Uganda, with a median age of 15.

      So it is the immiseration of the “third world” (by capitalism, especially the “neoliberal” or “savage” model so in vogue now) which is leading to population growth—not the other way around. You want to halt population growth in the developing world? Restrain US imperialism and let Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales and the Zapatistas do their thing in peace. The long-term solutions lie in land and wealth redistribution, not preaching to the poor to stop reproducing.

      I suggest you read the discussion of “overpopulation” in the introduction to Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America, or the chapter “Overpopulation as a Propaganda Device” in my own first book, War on the Land: Ecology & Politics in Central America.

        1. Economics, not population
          What do you want me to do, pick an arbitrary figure so you can quibble with it? How about addressing my arguments? You are approaching the question the wrong way. It isn’t like we can halt population growth by simply choosing to do so. And it is a little obscene to even be talking about population when resource consumption is so absurdly skewed.

          Check out this chart. The US puts more than twice as much carbon into the atmosphere per capita than our nearest competitors (Russia, Germany and Japan are about tied for second). Approaching the zero end of the scale are Bangladesh and Ethiopia. Now check out this chart, ranking the world’s 185 countries by population growth. Ethiopia clocks in at 43 with 2.31% annual population growth. Bangladesh is 56 at 2.09%. Russia is 176 at -0.37 (yes, that’s negative). Germany is 162 at -0.02%. Japan is 158 at 0.02. The US is 111 at 0.91%.

          So the countries most responsible for global warming are those which are approaching or have reached zero population growth. Do the math, as the catch-phrase goes.

          1. Do the math
            I did not suggest that we enact laws limiting births, or Stalinist purges. The most successful way to limit population growth is economic equity.

            And there is no question that it is first world populations that are hardest on the planet. Not only are we the destructive part, but we put the pressure on the third world nations to be destructive too.

            You cannot blame ecological destruction simply on capitalism. Yes Capitalism is destructive to the environment (and the soul). But Humans are quite capable of vast changes of the planet’s ecology without capitalism.

            We need economic equity.

            And, this has been my point all along, we need a world population that does not require resources at a faster rate than the planet can replenish them.

            1. Math done
              Well, we seem to be groping towards agreement here. Yes, the Sahara became a desert (in large part due to deforestation) centuries before the emergence of capitalism. But capitalism is the first system predicated on wanton waste of the earth’s resources, and it is also the first truly global system. Yes, “we need a world population that does not require resources at a faster rate than the planet can replenish them.” But getting from here to there necessarily entails massive public restraint on the workings of capitalism—with an eye (at least) towards its eventual abolition.

      1. Bill, just because something
        Bill, just because something is used as a propaganda device doesn’t mean it isn’t real and doesn’t make it any less ugly. You have yourself made that point about many of the crimes against humanity dismissed by what you call the “idiot left”, isn’t it?

        You said that 6 billions people can live here sustainably. That’s part of your argument and Jospeh is not side-stepping it challenging you on that.
        I agree that, in theory, billions could live here sustainably but that’s never happened and it’s not going to happen any time soon. “Capitalism” (quotes because that means different things to different people) is only part of the problem.

        I don’t have kinds (do you?) and I don’t see why I should only preach to rich people.

        Oh, and there are many around the world who essentially live on other countries’ export crops. You aren’t but please don’t discount us and our fondness for imported grain.

        1. I never said…
          …that any given number could or couldn’t live here sustainably. I explicitly said that the very question is missing the point. Because capitalism, the system predicated on wanton waste of the earth’s resources, is also driving runaway population growth.

          No, I don’t have kids. But there is very good reason why you should only preach it to rich people. The Nicaraguans (1.89% population growth rate) a.) use far fewer resources per capita than gringos, and especially the “rich”; and b.) aren’t going to slow their population growth until they achieve a higher standard of living anyway. That’s just the way it works. Do you think it is a coincidence that the post-industrialized countries are those which are approaching or have reached ZPG?

          “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not everyone’s greed.” —Gandhi

          1. No, it’s no coincidence…
            but correlation isn’t causation, especially when the correlation is weak. Your explanation for “ZPG” (that would exclude emigration/immigration, yes?) is worse than simplistic.
            But I don’t want to argue about economic determinism, marxist economic history or what it is that you were saying about 6 billions humans.

            What I’d like to know is what system do you think could allow the really existing humanity to live sustainably on this planet? I know it’s technically possible so this isn’t some kind of rhetorical put-down… I just don’t know what could work politically.
            Faith may have been good enough for Gandhi but I would need more than the marxist cop-out about blueprints to be convinced that there is a humane way out of the predicament at hand which doesn’t involve a voluntary demographic adjustment. Granted, that’s unlikely… got anything more plausible?

            1. OK, at least it isn’t a coincidence
              The correlation is not weak. It is nearly perfect. There are some anomalous exceptions, e.g. fertility rates plummeted in Russia along with the standard of living after the Soviet collapse. But fertility rates are high throughout what used to be called the “third world,” and low throughout the post-industrial West.

              What system do I think “could allow the really existing humanity to live sustainably on this planet”? Green socialism, since you asked. But I am less interested in coming up with a “blueprint” than supporting the tendencies already moving in that direction here in actual reality: the Zapatistas in Chiapas, the Evo Morales revolution in Bolivia, the local communist administration in Kerala, etc.

              I’m all for “voluntary demographic adjustment”—the key word being “voluntary.” That cannot be achieved while the big majority of humanity is mired in misery. The Marxists are right: economics come first. Sorry.

              1. dude, Kerala is one of your “exceptions”
                Did you take a look at the fertility and GDP statistics there? Isn’t Kerala often used as a demonstration of viability of the mainstream (liberal) theory of demographic adjustement?

                I’m all for supporting leftist movements but…
                -despite the merits of their politics and of the way of life of their base, I don’t see how the EZLN would lead billions of city-dwellers to any kind sustainable economy
                -the Bolivian government is not only overseeing the waste of the non-renewable resources it controls but is also essentially living on the proceeds (how is that green?)
                -Kerala’s “communist administration” is manifestly not trying to bring an end to private property of the means or production or wage labour (which defines capitalism according to your link) and its main contribution to sustainability seems to be policies favouring a very low fertility (which you said is not only impossible but also pointless)
                So I really don’t get it. Perhaps if you would flesh out a bit exactly how these movements are bringing about a sustainable economy, be it capitalist or not (links are fine)…

                P.S.: Since I know little about Kerala and even less about its popular front, I checked the CPIM website… and found not only a suitably wordy programme but also call for a tax givebacks to oil companies in order to support the CO2-liberating burning of unsustainable resources in India.

                1. No utopian solutions, sorry
                  Of my three examples, Kerala is the one I am least familiar with, but the book Kerala: The Development Experience paints a very positive picture—moves towards local self-sufficiency, alternative technology and the like. If they’ve achieved a successful “demographic adjustment,” that shows they’re doing something right. The EZLN are not attempting to “lead billions of city-dwellers.” They are attempting to effect local self-rule as a model for others to adapt to their own circumstances, and to build a popular movement in Mexico of like-minded struggles. The Bolivian government is trying to establish democratic control over the hydro-carbons, which is the first step towards any real move towards sustainability. They are also implementing local autonomy for Bolivia’s indigenous peoples. Certainly, the inevitable reliance on petro-proceeds to pull Bolivia out of poverty is a contradiction. There are always contradictions. Remember Hegel?

                  1. providing for 6+ billions is becoming utopian
                    I miswrote: I wouldn’t say Kerala has undergone a demographic adjustment (yet) but it is has achieved a swift demographic transition.
                    Still, the government has indeed been doing many things right and has achieved more by leveraging radical liberalism than any petro-state ever did by leveraging waste and pollution. While I’m somehwat disappointed, I’m certainly not going to blame it for cultivating BAU like its less enlightened counterparts in India or abroad rather than being part of some utopian solution.
                    Unfortunately, Kerala seems to be among the regions most vulnerable to climate change and it’s as if the G7 was conspiring with petro-states (regardless of ideology) to bring it the four horsemen.

                    The horsemen have an involuntary demographic adjustment plan by the way. While I favour the swift blossoming of a thousand Keralas, I have to say that the PRC’s infamous (and overrated) policy is a lot more humane than the horsemen’s plan.

                    1. What the hell is BAU?
                      Providing for 6 billion may be becoming “utopian,” and the “horsemen” may indeed have a nasty plan for us, but don’t blame “overpopulation”. Blame the fraying of the biosphere’s basic life support structures by capitalism.

                    2. Business As Usual
                      Blaming overpopulation, capitalism or even both is pointless (although the latter at least makes some sense).

                      You apparently have no workable alternative… and neither does the CPIM as far as I can see, which is presumably why their administration is preaching about the need to have less kids. That works here and now.
                      Dreaming is vital as well because we need ideals as much as we need solutions but I think it shouldn’t preclude rational problem-solving. It unavoidably leads to unrealistic expectations (see my dismay at the CPIM position on fuel prices) and therefore to some irrationality but I think that, as long as lack of realism doesn’t devolve into a kind of rigid black-and-white thinking, dreaming and experience can keep influencing each other.

                      I’m getting wordy and you probably have better things to do than to keep talking to me now. Nice talking to you anyway. Keep up the good work!

                      P.S.: I keep getting 550 errors (no such user) when trying to write to the report’s feeback address. I already emailed David about it over the weekend but I’ve got no reply yet and I don’t know if he’s in a position to look into this right now.

                    3. What “works now”?
                      Excuse me, LAND REFORM “works now.” Ask the Zapatistas, who are fighting and dying to keep the lands they have liberated.

                      “Preaching” assuredly does not work, not now or later. The success in Kerala is not due to “preaching,” but to an alternative economic program which has empowered the poor. Read the book I linked to.

                      I will look into the 550 errors, thanks for the heads-up.

                    4. yeah, that was a flippant shorthand
                      I also think the policies are more important (see my post above) but surely government propaganda works too. I doubt they call it preaching though.

                      That said, when it comes to describing the policies, “empowering the poor” is a tad simplistic as well, isn’t it? There’s so much stuff that goes into demography…

                    5. indigenous cities?
                      Do the Zapatistas have a program for Mexico City. Or ideas about how to move forward? This isn’t trolling, I’m too lazy to do the research myself.

                    6. Yes, in fact
                      There are working-class districts of Mexico City that have declared for the Zapatistas and formed their own autonomous councils on the Zapatista model. I have to emphasize again that the Zapatistas are not seeking to impose a pre-fab “program,” but to help create a national program in alliance with progressive forces and popular struggles throughout Mexico.

                      El Alto, Bolivia, is an almost wholly indigenous city of over half a million. It developed from the informal settlements on the Altiplano above La Paz established in the ’90s by displaced peasants and miners. It was the nerve-center of the 2003 uprising, waged a successful campaign to restore municipal control of the privatized water system, and is Evo Morales’ surest stronghold of support.

                    7. they get it
                      The lack of ‘pre fab program’ means they’re onto something politically. The question is whether political decentralization will lower consumption and waste, especially in urban areas. My guess is yes, if only by working around the global supply chain and encouraging (requiring?) cooperation. Too blue sky at this time to be relevant, I know …

                2. one size fits all
                  The Japanese village that has mandated zero waste is certainly on the right track. I think they are addressing a personal responsibility and top down model at the same time, but this isn’t at all scalable without addressing the vast standard of living inequalities that support the ‘globalization’ era (read: scam). The Chinese and Indians make the case that we got 100 years of car culture so why shouldn’t they. The rich countries have to restructure our economies and supply chains to consume less. But then there’s less of what we know as ‘profit’ as it’s defined now and in the past. So can we move forward significantly without corporate capitalism withering away / being smashed (pick one or both)? No. Will they go quietly? Doubtful.

                  That’s not to say the groundwork shouldn’t be done. Ideas for sustainability are being bounced around constantly these days. Everything from science fiction to inner city gardens. Is this trivial without taking on ‘the system’? Maybe, but it doesn’t hurt.

  2. Yes but …
    Current levels of economic growth can only be maintained by redefining economic growth by decoupling (like that word) from consumption. Can current levels of consumption be maintained? No. However if you consider, for instance, posting to WW4Report as adding value (economic growth), this value is added at a very low electrical overhead. Some heat, to be sure, but much less energy then producing a plastic screwdriver (in China and shipping it to Dayton). A pop song produced in China, however, can reach me for less than the footprint of one inch in a taxi cab.

    The world can be managed at this and a greater level of population if we’re all cooperative, mostly vegetarian and not tied to non renewable consumables, all of which is easily within our grasp technologically. Am I optimistic about this happening without a showdown? No. As mentioned above, capitalism (by which I mean corporate capitalism) is not evolved enough to function without waste at this time.

    1. capitalism (by which you mean corporate capitalism)
      The capitalism that runs the planet is corporate, and really has been from the beginning. Mercantilist outfits like the East India Company were the world’s first multi-national corporations. The vision of homespun mom-and-pop capitalism is only possible in the context of massive public restraint of capitalism’s inherent rapaciousness.

      Capitalism will not spontaneously “evolve” towards sustainability. It is predicated on waste—on taking the world’s resources and turning them into (mostly useless or worse) consumer goods, at an ever-increasing rate.

      1. (r)evolution
        > in the context of massive public restraint of capitalism’s inherent rapaciousness.

        I agree and would maintain that it’s more of a species wide evolutionary shift that would encompass as a part a political change.

        Will this happen in time to stave off disaster? No. Might happen during disaster. We shall see as time is relatively running out.