If I held a gun to your head and told you, "It's capitalism or your life," could you give up your way of life?
Tim Garrett just showed us the gun.
Recent studies indicate that even if the most ambitious pledges made by politicians at Copenhagen are kept, our globe will heat up 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit; well past the point scientists warn us about tipping points.
What makes facing the facts so hard? Why can't we face our current problems, even when they are staring us in the face? If we can't face them, how are we to overcome them?
We have difficulty with this issue because the question is just that dramatic. We are in the unenviable position of giving up our entire way of life in order to save our physical lives. Global capitalism is the only structure most of us have ever known. But capitalism, and the social structures around capitalism, are poised to kill the majority of people on the planet. Sounds like hyperbole? What if I could prove it mathematically? Tim Garrett did just that.
The idea that we should put limits on growth because of some natural limit is a profound error, and one that, were it ever to prove influential, would have staggering social costs.--Larry Summers, Obama's Chief Economic Adviser
[Note to economists: This is very simplified for the average person to understand conceptually. It is not meant to be a forest level view of our economy, but more a view from space.]
Our current form of capitalism is debtor capitalism. That means that money is loaned into existence. If a bank loans you ten dollars it then charges you interest. When the bank loans you ten dollars, you have to pay them back, say eleven dollars. Where does that extra dollar in interest come from? More money must be loaned to someone else and circulate to you in order for you to pay the debt. You have to sell something of value to the other person to get that extra dollar. The amount of money in circulation must, therefore, continually increase.
This would cause run away inflation if it were not for the fact that more stuff is manufactured every year, so our national "value" increases every year. This is measured by the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
The GDP does not take into account anything bad that happens in the economy. It only looks at the amount of transactions within the economy and judges all transactions as good. So, if you make bombs and blow them up, that is good. If you divorce your spouse, and now both of you are buying stuff to run separate households, that is still good. If what you sell creates toxic waste that causes cancer, that is doubly good because you can also sell the drugs to treat the cancer. If you destroy the planet, it's still good as long as money was created in the process.
Another way to look at the GDP is that we are converting our natural resources--trees, minerals, wild lands, air, water--into "stuff", which can be sold or used as collateral for loans. There is more debt each year, so we have to convert our resources at an ever-increasing rate to stay ahead of the debt. If we are unable to do this, our economy will "contract". Contraction looks like the Great Depression or worse. Some people lose jobs, some starve, and all people (except the very rich) do without. Capitalist dogma states that contraction is bad and should be avoided at all cost.
But what happens if our resources run out? If we run out of oil, clean water or air? In a way, global warming is running out of the Earth's ability to buffer the CO2 we put in the air. What happens then?
The system grinds to a halt. We contract because there is no more "collateral" for the debt.
That is why we can't address this issue. We have given a mandate to those that govern us that we are never to contract and therefore our economy is to continue to grow indefinitely. Yet we are on a finite world. These two principles are on a collision course and we feel powerless to stop the collision.
"It turns out, money is power..."--Tim Garrett discussing his revolutionary equation linking GDP growth to global warming.
Enter Timothy Garrett, a young physicist and associate professor of atmospheric sciences at University of Utah. Being a physicist, he views the world like a machine. He theorized that a simplified model of the Earth could be achieved, if you viewed civilization like a "heat engine". Civilization consumes energy to do work in the form of economic production. This production then allows civilization to grow and become more complex, which in turn spurs it to consume more energy. All of this energy consumption results in the waste product of CO2 and other green house gases.
This view of the world is similar to our understanding of a growing child. A child consumes food (energy) which he uses to play (do work). But the calories are also used to make him grow larger (growth). This process releases heat (waste products, CO2). As he grows, he is able to consume more, which makes him grow faster and release more heat.
This model allows physicists to make predictions without looking at complicated socioeconomic issues like population growth or standard of living. We can calculate the maximum amount a child can grow based on the calories consumed. We need not count his cells or know exactly what each cell consumes to know the rate of his growth based on how many calories he consumes.
What Prof. Garrett found was that this model did indeed work. The model accurately predicted the relationship between global energy use and economic production as given by the US Dept of Energy data on global consumption and United Nations GDP. Once it was successful with this data, Garrett used it on historian's estimates of global economic production as far back as 2000 years. The calculations accurately predicted the numbers given by historians. He was able to consistently pin global GDP to CO2 levels throughout time. In fact, it was so exacting he came up with a constant--9.7 milliwatts/$. That is 9.7 milliwatts of energy go into making every 1990 inflation adjusted dollar of the world's GDP.
So what does this view of the world say? Civilization itself is in a feedback loop. Civilization consists of energy consumption (calories consumed) and incorporation of environmental matter (growth of the body). Our energy consumption, and therefore our CO2 emissions, accelerate at a constant rate based on our past economic production. In fact our past economic production is an exponential of an exponential (known as a super exponential) of future emissions. In other words, when a dollar is created, it represents work, which releases CO2, but also that dollar is put into the system to create growth that will release CO2 in the future. Dollars already in the system have already contributed to future CO2 emissions and you can't take them back! Decreasing the energy consumed now is like trying to decrease the calories an adult consumes to that of a small child. The adult eventually collapses, but not before he fights to obtain more calories. Therefore, energy conservation will not be effective in reducing global emissions.
Increasing energy efficiency (conservation) will only allow civilization to grow faster and consume more. This is known as Jevons Paradox and was discovered by William Stanley Jevons in 1865. He noted improvements in steam engine efficiency made coal prices fall and coal consumption soar. In other words, if Wal-Mart converts all its stores to energy saving lights to "save the planet", the energy saved will not just sit there untapped. They will use their savings to make and sell more stuff, either by packing existing stores with more or by creating more stores. The energy saved in efficiency today (efficient light bulbs), will actually result in more energy use in the future (more stores built).
Civilization acts like an organism. It seeks to maximize its growth and thus its energy consumption. If more energy efficiency is introduced, then civilization gets more growth for the energy it spends, and that makes it consume even more energy in the future. If green energies are introduced then both the old carbon energy and the new green energy will be consumed to increase growth.
Is Global Warming Unstoppable?Theory Also Says Energy Conservation Doesn't Help
Are there basic physical constraints on future anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide?--Tim Garrett's original article in Climatic Change
"Ultimately, it's not clear that policy decisions have the capacity to change the future course of civilization." --Tim Garrett
Well I must admit that I was surprised that conservation will be like throwing kerosene on our already lit bonfire, but the rest of it does not surprise me. I am glad that someone finally was able to prove what so many of us could deduce by observation.
Since population growth and standard of living are both results of past economic growth and fall out of the equation, Prof Garrett believes there are only a few ways to get out of this deadly loop. Uncouple CO2 emissions from the equation by converting all energy use to non-emitting energy sources, or economic collapse.
If we switched to energy sources that don't emit CO2 and continue on the same course of constantly accelerating energy consumption, what would happen? Prof Garrett did some calculations and discovered that it would take a rate of conversion for our energy sources of 2.1% a year just to hold our emissions steady. That is 300 gigawatts of new non-emitting power annually or the equivalent of one new nuclear power plant a day!
He also did some calculations with economic collapse. The economy would have to be zero to stabilize the carbon at 450 ppm. This would mean complete economic collapse in my lifetime and that does not even get us to the 350 ppm James Hanson says we need.
What does collapse look like? Ask Zimbabwe:
Since 1994, the average life expectancy in Zimbabwe has fallen from 57 years to 34 years for women and from 54 years to 37 years for men. Some 3,500 Zimbabweans die every week from the combined effects of HIV/AIDS, poverty, and malnutrition. Half a million Zimbabweans may have died already. --CATO
Physically, there are no other options without killing the economy.--Tim Garrett
I admit, this sounds pretty dismal. So should we despair?? Is our only future economic and then societal collapse??
Yes and no.
Yes, if we are unable to think outside the box. If we must remain debtor capitalists. If we must have the same or better standard of living. If we must organize our society into winners and loser, then yes...we are doomed to economic collapse, desertification, water shortages, food shortages, population collapse and an increase in global temperature of 6 degrees Fahrenheit.
We need to drastically reduce the consumption per person globally. In capitalist lingo "reduce consumption" is the same as economic collapse. In a capitalist system, reducing consumption can be achieved by killing off some of the population or decreasing the standard of living for many. This is the road we are currently traveling.
But there is another way. We could uncouple the economy from growth and therefore future emissions. If we turned our collective back on capitalism, and turned to an economy that could survive stagnant growth or even contracture, would that change things? Yes, we could then use conservation to lower our energy consumption. We could go below the zero growth point that Tim Garrett used as the basement of his equations. We could convert all energy consumption to wind, wave and solar, uncoupling it from CO2 emissions, but we would also need to uncouple economic stability from growth and increased efficiency.
This has been done before, but not for a very, very long time. Anthropology tells us that most human cultures started with gift economy or shared economy. In fact, humans have lived longer on the planet under gift economies than under capitalism.
It really is capitalism or your life. Well, capitalism or your children's lives, if you're as old as I am. Given that choice, can society do it? Can we give up everything we were taught? Change how we think about society? Change society? Change our values completely...in order to save our own children?
We could stop having a capitalist system. We could abandon the one system that demands ever-increasing consumption in order to remain stable. Pick another system. Pick one that is stable, just, and fair as consumption contracts.
"I will give no deadly drug to anyone, though it be asked of me, nor will I counsel such, and especially I will not aid a woman to procure abortion." Hippocratic Oath
The biggest argument against change is that those who long for change are dreamers. They are not "realistic". The change they long for would never succeed. Because the human heart is too dark. Because people need to be controlled. Because some are too lazy, brutal, stupid to allow change to work. Because the forces that keep us here are too strong. Yet, this argument offers little proof. Just the assertion and nothing else. And so, we continue to follow the same path...even when we know that the path leads either nowhere or somewhere we don't want to go.
When we look back at history, the lessons it teaches us about change contradict this stance completely. Let's take infanticide, for example. There is something most of us can agree is amoral and should remain illegal. Yet, it was acceptable behavior for the Romans and the Greeks, the supposed inventors of democracy. Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle considered infanticide to be part of utopia. It was not that they relished a parent killing their own offspring; it was that they did not think a working society could be achieved without infanticide. They could not imagine a world without infanticide. Only Heroditus, and his student Hippocrates, disagreed.
Now, we live in a world where infanticide is universally seen as abhorrent. Slavery, even though it still exists, is universally outlawed, and self-governance, at least on the surface, is the rule rather than the exception. All these are major changes in the world and the way the world is run. And all at some time seen as impossible.
We are at a crossroads. Consider the impossible or die. No... make the impossible happen or die. Can we do it? Do we have the intestinal fortitude to change everything? Everything we think we know? Are we worthy of the challenge laid before us?