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Is the Ecological Salvation of the Human Species at Hand?

Is the Ecological Salvation of the Human Species at Hand?

In “De-growth vs a Green New Deal,” Robert Pollin relies on the same blurring of distinctions that Robert Solow employed 46 years earlier in his condemnation of The Limits to Growth as “bad science.” Nicholaus Georgescu-Roegen pointed out Solow’s obfuscation in the article that inspired the term “degrowth.” That historical context is vital for understanding why Pollin’s “blueprint for ecological salvation” is no advance over Solow’s.

In “Is theEnd of the World at Hand” Solow scolded the “bad science” of The Limits to Growth report on the grounds that its authors’ model assumed “that there are no built-in mechanisms by which approaching exhaustion [of resources] tends to turn off consumption gradually and in advance.”[1] Solow cited increases in the productivity of natural resources to illustrate the importance of the price system as the built-in mechanism of capitalism for “registering and reacting to relative scarcity.”

According to Solow, between 1950 and 1970, consumption of iron in the U.S. increased by 20 percent while the GNP roughly doubled. Consumption of manganese rose by 30 percent. Copper consumption increased by one-third, as did lead and zinc consumption. These increases represented productivity gains ranging from 2 percent per annum for copper, lead and zinc to 2.5 percent for iron. Meanwhile, productivity of bituminous coal rose by 3 percent a year during the same period.

There were, Solow conceded, some “important exceptions, and unimportant exceptions.” Among the more important ones was petroleum, “GNP per barrel of oil was about the same in 1970 as in 1951: no productivity increase there.” Nevertheless, Solow was confident that “no one can doubt that we will run out of oil… [s]ooner or later, the productivity of oil will rise out of sight, because the production and consumption of oil will eventually dwindle toward zero, but real GNP will not.”

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Next Friday could be a very bad day somewhere along the East Coast

Next Friday could be a very bad day somewhere along the East Coast

I think I may have mentioned once or twice that I am a nerd, right?
So, last year during hurricane season I got hooked on a site called Tropical Tidbits.
The neat thing about this site — well, from a nerdy point of view — is that it posts the GFS model forecast, updated every 6 six hours, for the next two weeks! While you normally don’t hear forecasts more than five days out, I noticed that frequently the forecast even 10 or more days out can come pretty close. Winter or summer, if the model says there’s going to be warmer temperatures and a low pressure system, then it’s pretty darn likely that there’s going to be warmer temperatures a low pressure system.
It just might be 800 miles away from where the model says it will be.
For example, one model run put hurricane Jose directly over New York City about 12 days later! Needless to say, that disaster was averted — but Jose ultimately did pass about 600 miles southeast.
So here’s what the model run for 12 Noon next Friday (September 14) looked like as of noon Tuesday September 4:

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Is the Ecological Salvation of the Human Species at Hand?

The July-August issue of New Left Review published an essay by Robert Pollin titled “De-growth vs. Green New Deal” in which he outlines his objections to what Peter Dorman affectionately refers to as “a suicide cult masquerading as a political position.” I have written a response to Pollin’s article, that I have submitted to NLR, a draft of which, “Pollin’s Green New Deal: Blueprint for Ecological Salvation?” may be downloaded as a pdf file from dropbox.

In my response I am particularly interested in how Pollin’s argument unwittingly recapitulates Robert Solow’s from 46 years earlier, right down to the percentage of gross income to be invested in clean energy (Pollin) or pollution abatement (Solow). The ubiquitous “decoupling” turns out to be a euphemism for resource input productivity and not a particularly helpful one. Proponents often referring to the decoupling of GDP growth from “CO2 emissions” when what they mean — unless they intend to deceive — is the decoupling of the derivative rates of change.

A point I have mentioned previously is that Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen was not advocating “degrowth” as an ecological panacea. What he was saying (and what he wrote) was that evolution and history involve “permanent struggle in continuously novel forms” and is not a “predictable, controllable process.” There is no “blueprint,” no “built-in mechanism,” no 20 or 30 year investment plan, (and no pure interpretation of the U.S. constitution or the Bible) that will relieve us of that permanent struggle.

Reverse ‘Decoupling’ in the 21st Century

Post Script: I almost forgot to mention, there is this conceit on the part of technocrats to insist that if you don’t have a “blueprint” for how you’re going to “solve the problem” you’re not really serious. “Get out of the way!” This is a symptomatic late 18th century, early 19th century bourgeois viewpoint and is exemplified in Andrew Ure’s Philosophy of Manufactures. The machine and the factory were viewed as the pinnacle of human achievement and the best one could do is emulate their automatism.

Pollin plays the “degrowthers don’t have a programme and I do!” card with a vengeance. Of course the more detail and moving parts such a programme has, the better because the closer it resembles a machine or even a factory containing many machines. With that kind of challenge, it is very tempting to come up with a detailed programme to illustrate how various scenarios might work out in practice. But such competition will inevitably be judged on mechanistic grounds.

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