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Hello all participants in our sustainability conference!
In my role as one of the organizers of the conference I welcome you to the discussion period. A conference is about interaction and dialogue. Some comments to single papers has been made but to intensify dialogue I suggest that each one of you who has contributed a paper also becomes a commentator to some other paper. Questions of clarification can be asked and so on.
Those of you who have not contributed a paper are of course still welcome to make comments on single papers or broader issues.
I hope that our dialogue will be of a constructive kind and reflect mutual respect.
“Only when papers depart too much from normal standards of conference papers have we rejected them”.
This was not the reason I was given when I asked why my paper for the morality conference was rejected. Again, we’ve been having conferences conforming to normal standards for a century and they haven’t achieved much: normally surveying existing opinion and rarely advancing understanding by “thinking out of the box”, as when I’ve looked at economies from the perspective of their being information systems.
In the present situation characterized by multifaceted and complex threats to humankind, we need an open, pluralistic debate in line with normal ideas of democracy.
In this conference I have found Joachim Spangenberg’s “the World Shapes the World We Make” valuable, not least enabling me to recognise myself as an “ecological economist”! Even he, though, hasn’t looked outside the box to the extent of providing for science and education in his topological model as sometimes absent control information feedback channels; whereas mine did. He won’t have seen that, and unlike last time no contact details have been provided so I can send it him , which rather makes a mockery of this being an “open, pluralistic, democratic” rather than an “elite economists club” debate.
This conference is apposite to the problems that the world faces. The Earth is like a super tanker without a Captain going at full speed into uncharted waters using an old chart that is now out-of-date. We badly need to adjust (some would say replace) the narrow conventional economic view. If this conference can help to identify the rocks ahead, before we hit them, it will have been worthwhile.
To add to the super-tanker metaphor – the dangerous course of the captainless supertanker S.S.Earth is being guided by a gigantic shoal of the fish species Pisces Economicus. A small number of contrarian members of the shoal belonging to the sub-species P.Ec. WEAius are reversing their course and colliding with the hull of the supertanker in an effort to divert it from its dangerous course!
Undoubtedly, economic growth is a major factor undermining the ecosystem. For capitalism, however, growth is an inherent imperative – it is a grow-or-die system. So, the de-growth perspective or policy, proposed among else in the papers contributed to this Conference by M. Martinez – Iglecias & E. Garcia, and by G.K. Charonis (two papers) is a rather utopian proposal, within the existing capitalist context. For more on this critique, I welcome the above contributors and anyone interested to read the relevant section in my own contribution, as well as R. Smith (2010) cited in my paper, and perhaps respond to this critique.
Good allegation, Dr. Liodakis. Now please consider the following propositions:
– Calculations of the global ecological footprint indicate that our use of natural resources already exceeded the regenerative capacity of the biosphere in 1985. Since then we have continued consuming these resources nonstop, reaching in 2007 a level of consumption 50% higher than what would be considered sustainable.
– The “peak oil”, i.e. the critical moment of the beginning of an irreversible decline in production, has been reached or is approaching.
– Three of nine planetary boundaries have already been overstepped: rate of biodiversity loss, climate change and human interference with the nitrogen cycle.
– 2/3 of the most vital ecosystems’ services are already deteriorating.
All these propositions have been published in scientific journals. They are factual, empirical propositions. They can be true or false. If only some of them are true, then the current situation is one of overshoot, beyond the limits of the planet. If the current situation is one of overshoot, then it is unsustainable and a phase of degrowth is unavoidable. The phase of degrowth will last at least until going back to a sustainable physical scale.
In this conceptual frame, capitalism and degrowth can be compatible or not. This simply doesn’t matter. If at the end they are incompatible, then bad luck for capitalism! In this conceptual frame degrowth is not a utopian proposal; it is a mere fact.
‘Utopian’ should then be saved for qualifying visions of social change in a degrowth context. The “prosperous way-down” (the rich and complex vision drafted by Howard and Elizabeth Odum) can be or not a utopian proposal. The same for Latouche and the French proposals of décroissance. This issue should be discussed. There are also several visions of catastrophic degrowth which can be seen as dystopian: not only way-down but die-off. They should be discussed too.
All visions of social change in degrowth (way-down era, beyond the Earth’s limits, post-carbon society, post-development or whichever term one wishes to use) are not interesting because of what they say about the future (nobody knows the future) but because they free up the imagination and allow us to think outside the constraints of the maddening dogma of growth, beyond the dying paradigm of development.
In Greece and Spain we already have the painful experience of some years of compatibility between capitalism and chaotic, disordered degrowth. Capitalism has been compatible for a long time with policy principles well adapted to the ascending phase (great scale, speed and competition). We don’t know if it would be also compatible with the application of principles more suitable to a situation of limited resources (reduced scale, efficiency and cooperation), principles that perhaps would be able to do the degrowth benign and compatible with the maintenance of a sufficient degree of well‐being. We don’t know but, certainly, your paper offers a lot of good reasons to give a negative answer to this question. Thank you for your contribution to clarify this aspect of the debate.
[Inversely, if the factual propositions at the beginning were false, degrowth wouldn’t be necessary. And then all our argument should be abandoned or substantially modified.]
Mercedes Martinez-Iglesias & Ernest Garcia
Dear Mercedes Martinez-Iglesias & Ernest Garcia,
Thank you for your constructive and thoughtful response on my comment.
First I must say that I am very much agreeable with the critique of the ‘maddening dogma of growth’, both in your approach and in several de-growth exponents, except that I would stress that it is not a mere dogmatism, but rather a systemic necessity for capitalism.
The problem, to my mind, with your approach and most approaches of a neo-Malthusian character is a rather rough quantitative reductionism, and concepts like carrying capacity or ecological footprint suffer from the same quantitative and abstract reductionism. But a quantitative comparison (between productive capacities and social use or needs) is not enough. Overcoming empiricism of the type ‘fact is a fact’, we should recognize that the prevailing social relations and capitalism more specifically do matter. To put it schematically, capitalism does matter because it affects both sides of the equation (roughly the supply and demand side), as well as the associated mode of coordination (the market).
I also agree with you that growth tends to overshoot ecological limits (in a broad sense), but growth cannot be conceived in abstraction (decoupled) from capitalism. So, contrary to what you are saying, it is crucial whether capitalism is compatible with de-growth or not. Those of the de-growth proponents who believe that capitalism is compatible with de-growth are essentially led to an unsustainable reformism within capitalism. On the other hand, there is a common ground between those (de-growth proponents) who recognize that de-growth is essentially incompatible with capitalism and other more radical or Marxist critiques.
Utopian thinking can be considered in a negative and a positive (progressive) sense. The fist case is reserved for anachronistic or highly unrealistic and unlikely prospects (corresponding to the naïve belief that de-growth, compatible with capitalism, can ensure sustainability). The second case refers to a process of becoming, a potential reality, not yet realized. Such a positive Utopian thinking may be associated with the recognition that capitalism is incompatible with de-growth and the need of social change beyond capitalism as a precondition for social and ecological sustainability.
Again, I appreciate your contribution.
Dear George Liodakis,
The following assertions summarize the conflicting views that, apparently, still remain between us. I think that:
a) When the question is describing facts, empiricism of the type ‘a fact is a fact’ is pretty good.
b) The proposition ‘if A is neo-Malthusian, then every assertion made by A is wrong’ is false.
c) Quantitative and abstract reductionism is perfectly adequate to arithmomorphic objects of knowledge. [‘Arithmomorphic ‘ according to Georgescu-Roegen’s definition].
d) Concepts like carrying capacity and ecological footprint are fully applicable to human populations.
e) The concept of ecological footprint suffers from many problems [mainly those related to the calculation of biologically productive surfaces which are needed for industrial products] but not from quantitative and abstract reductionism.
f) Growth can be decoupled from capitalism. [I believe it, as all the communist regimes of the 20th Century did].
g) Degrowth and capitalism are compatible (at least for a while). The year 2012 in Spain is the indisputable proof of it.
But I agree with you that capitalist degrowth is already being a mess. Still more: its eventual continuity looks as a direct road to hell. Perhaps, at the end, this agreement is more important than the former discrepancies.
Thanks for your comments.
Dear Ernest Garcia,
I would briefly respont to the points you raised as follows:
a) Empiricism is shortsighted (if not blind), but you may still follow such an approach if you so wish.
b) I think neo-Malthusian approach is wrong, but I wouldn’t acuse anyone for accepting some aspects of this approach.
c,d,e) The capacity of any piece of land (or the planet as a whole) to produce use values is not fixed, but significantly determined by scientific/ technological developments and changes in social organization (the prevailing social relations of production). These latter factors also significantly affect the quantity (and quality) of use values necessary (on average) to sustain the reproduction and development of a human being. If you ignore (abstract from) these factors, you end up with only a very crude and obviously contestable comparison. That is why, such an abstract quantitative reductionism may be misleading.
f) Growth is an inherent necessity and cannot be decoupled from capitalism. As for communism, I must say that there has been no such a system sofar. Soviet Union and other related regimes were actually state capitalism, and this, along with international antagonism, explain why these regimes remained attached to growth.
g) You may wish to believe that degrowth is compatible with capitalism, but you will in vain expect it to be realized under normal condition (except in periods of crisis).
Historical evolution may have to teach us all many thing. Let’s be open to it.
With best regards
George Liodakis writes: “Undoubtedly, economic growth is a major factor undermining the ecosystem. For capitalism, however, growth is an inherent imperative – it is a grow-or-die system.”
Humans are mammals who follow the same growth imperative as other species regarding niche expansion and commandeering of available energy and resources. In my lifetime our numbers have tripled. Various reasons can be combined to try to explain this. However, socio-economic engineering or theory seems extremely weak in that regard.
Our behavior, including ‘economic’ is not dematerialized. It depends upon genetics, epigenetics, and environmental feedback loops since conception in the womb. Socio-cybernetics (see John Raven: _The New Wealth of Nations_) attempts to map out ‘better’ s-e engineering. I suspect it can help ceteris paribus; but as we are in biological overshoot, it alone cannot be a solution to unsustainability.
John agrees with me, although nobody likes to ‘give up.’ See:
Steven B Kurtz
Steven B Kurtz writes ” In my lifetime our numbers have tripled. … Socio-cybernetics … alone cannot be a solution to unsustainability”.
Controlled behaviour depends on aims and feedback loops which may not exist, and deliberate Malthusian starving of the 99% by the 1% or Chinese government killing off the unborn is what happens when population control is not dematerialised, i.e. effected by force rather than communication, understanding and self-control. As of now inadequate science and education channels limit understanding, and there is no local availability of population targets for each locality, adjusted in response to births, deaths and population movements; no recording of intended or actual pregnancies so that couples have time to change their minds so as to act responsibly. Social scientists seem not to have heard of PID servos automatically channelling information feedback from past, present and future to correct the aims of “material” controllers like ourselves.
Global warming and the prospect of methane release from melting thermofrost are making Biblical prophecies of the end of the world look mighty realistic, but yes, none of us like to give up. While there’s life there’s hope, at least in the Biblical promise of an after-life.
Firstly, as an economist myself I congratulate WEA for fostering this Sustainability Conference within the institution where, even among “heterodox” economists, those of us worrying about the insustainability of our present world are a only a few.
In second place, I want to thank Peter Soderbaum and Małgorzata Dereniowska for their effort (surely, as any human activity, with errors included) in order for this conference to happen and within that context we may communicate in-between us and with whoever else gets interested in the event.
Now, as a member of the Third World I feel astonished to find, one more time, that these far-ahead-minds of the First World did advance so little on the matter of our conference which we clearly see is leading the planet to a close catastrophe.
About this, currently, I am writing a comment to the interesting presentation by George Charonis (“Is the Pursuit . . .”) where I’me trying to put forward some implications of the presentation, by disaggregating the bunch of developped countries from the rest, together with some visions I have for this first half of the century.
Hope this conference brings to us more light and, very specially, that we shall end the event permeating our WEA colleagues with our questions, ideas and propositions.
So long, Horacio
Thank you Dave Taylor for highlighting some issues. Regarding:
“Controlled behaviour depends on aims and feedback loops which may not exist, and deliberate Malthusian starving of the 99% by the 1% or Chinese government killing off the unborn is what happens when population control is not dematerialised, i.e. effected by force rather than communication, understanding and self-control”
Behaviour is not always intentional (rationally planned); and the non-existence of the aims you imply tells us that we should not place faith in dramatic change in human nature. As far as deliberate starving or abortions, those are your input and straw men if referring to my statement.
“Global warming and the prospect of methane release from melting thermofrost are making Biblical prophecies of the end of the world look mighty realistic, but yes, none of us like to give up. While there’s life there’s hope, at least in the Biblical promise of an after-life.
Climate is but one symptom of drastic change on Earth. Toxification of food chains, water, air, soils, plus rapid biodiversity loss are other weak links which could crash civilization as we know it. The afterlife is not in my vocabulary, and holy books written by mortals are not in my library!
Cheers on the slippery downslope.
Steven Kurtz said “[Socio-cybernetics] alone cannot be a solution to unsustainability … although nobody likes to ‘give up.’” And now: “The after-life is not in my vocabulary …!”
Perhaps the second statement is a reason for the pessimism in the “although”? But my apologies for not putting an exclamation mark after my biblical comments. Where I come from, such exaggerated “highlighting” (true or not) is understood as “black humour”. And not being a Logical Positivist, my vocabulary includes hope and other useful non-“sense”.
Banter aside, I’m disappointed Steven’s not liking my examples has taken the discussion away from what they were examples of, and why I used them. (Far from being straw men, Malthusian policies were openly applied in the Irish potato famine and China’s one child per family policy is being openly applied now). What these were examples of is cybernetics in the sense of physical control systems effected by force. Wiener (1945), in the original ‘Cybernetics’, refers to “purely mechanical feedback” systems like “the one originally treated by Clerk Maxwell – the governor of a steam engine”. In my rhetorical examples grain was PHYSICALLY exported from starving Ireland and Chinese officials are TAKING women to abortion clinics.
There has to be a better way than this, and there is: the later (c.1968) form of cybernetics effected by self-powered systems (e.g. humans) assisted by a PID servo, i.e. an information sub-system feeding back error data from the present, past and future (e.g. a ship’s steersman, position-finder and lookout). Self-control of local populations requires publication of agreed targets adjusted in light of local births and deaths (or equivalent population movements) and PREGNANCIES. It doesn’t have to be perfect to be better.
Steven, whether mankind goes out with a bang or a wimper is irrelevant. If we care about its sustainability, self-control of our local populations is vital not only for reducing our load on our social and ecological systems but for getting over the hopelessness we are all feeling because government hasn’t got the answers and we can’t see our efforts making any discernable difference. Here is something that governments CAN do: quickly arrange provision of the necessary information. It is simple and self-explanatory enough for enough of us to see the point and do what is required. If we can do this, we are more likely to have the confidence to do other necessary things, like mass-replant trees as well as reducing fossil carbon usage.
The crunch is, you can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. If what is logically necessary is too “out of the box” for even WEA economists to take seriously, what hope of getting governments interested?
I think the mass tree regrowth idea is excellant and easily attainable. As far as addressing the overpopulation issue, I would add to the global emergency agenda the manditory cease of all births as of a specific date. Any further pregnancy occurances world wide should be taken care of in the obvious ways that they need to be. I would cease all sales and delivery of fossil fuels to any civillians every other day and tell them to make do as well as double or triple the cost of gas and donate the prophets to the repairation of the worthy areas of the deflated economy. At the same time I would come up with a different energy meathod. Use magnets or something completley clean. If all births stopped now and until 30 years from now the population should be fixed very quickly. Then use regulations to bring the birth of children back to legal terms. All of the money used for education and to the kids after ten years can also be thrown at the economy. Make recycling a law and have athorities check peoples waste remmoval habits and fine any who don’t follow along.