Tuesday, October 23, 2007

New column posted on Scitizen

My latest column for Scitizen entitled Should Scientists Embrace Economic Growth? has now been posted. For some information on this column and the Paris-based science news website on which it appears, read my previous post on Scitizen and my new column there.


Anonymous said...

I skimmed Kurt, but I didn't see the words "intensity" or "decoupling."

I think thinkers on both the pro- and con- sides of growth often buy into a fixed linkage between economic growth and other things ... but it is not only unproven, it is actually disproven isn't it?

Have you watched the Gapminder videos?

(What we want is "good growth." The definition of that, and the constituency for that, is where we should be today. Perhaps folks like WorldChanging are there first?)

Kurt Cobb said...


I am not sure there can be any "good growth" as you suggest for the globe as a whole. Surely, growth will seem good to those who benefit from it in the short run and especially to those who are the poorest (but only if they actual benefit from it). If you take time to read the links I provided, you'll see that throughput continues to grow at astonishing rates. Are we more efficient? Yes. Can we become infinitely efficient? No. We will have diminishing returns and finally sharply diminishing returns.

If we are in overshoot, as I believe we are, what progress do we make toward sustainability if we reduce our resource intensity somewhat, but continue to grow the absolute inputs. The Earth simply doesn't care about relative inputs. Earth systems can only react to absolute inputs, especially at these levels. (If we were not in overshoot, perhaps resource intensity as opposed to total throughput would matter more, but as far as I'm concerned it's moot.) The only sensible path open to us is to stop growing and work vigorously to reduce our throughput. I do not believe that any achievable efficiency would allow us to grow indefinitely at current rates and still reduce throughput. My approach implies that governments will have to deal with income inequality directly by large redistributions. That is an anathema to the rich. But it is question that will have to be faced if we want to move toward sustainability.

I am therefore not sanguine about "the bright green future" promoted in some quarters. While I'm all for technology that can help us reduce absolute throughput, I simply don't think that such technology can relieve us of the burden of having to radically alter current lifestyles in the wealthy countries and also address inequality in order to maintain social peace.

None of this will be easy. But frankly I'm suspicious of easy solutions. They seem more or less like apologies for those who want to continue business as usual and label it sustainable.

Anonymous said...

OK, for "good growth" let's start with the easy stuff. What about growth in human knowledge?

Anonymous said...

Maybe I should jump ahead and frame that question. I think that there are two cardboard positions, that allow their perpetrators to pillory the opposite straw-man while embracing their own.

Those two extremes are:

- no growth
- unlimited growth

Both rely on implied and undefined definitions of growth, of course.

Rational folk in the middle ground have to do the hard work of thinking about what kind of growth they want, and how they are going to get there.

Anonymous said...

(As a reader of Taleb you should be aware how many predictions you had to make, and how deeply they had to be nested, to say that no possible kind of growth is possible within our future green energy budget, whatever that may prove to be.)

Kurt Cobb said...


Please read more carefully. I didn't make any predictions. I merely stated my opinion that it would be inadvisable to continue with growth. Certainly, the world economy can grow. But I think we would be wise to employ the precautionary principle, especially with so many warning signs blinking red, and err on the side of caution. If you take Taleb seriously you will know that he explicitly states that public policy ought to look carefully at the worst case and act appropriately. See page 162 of his book The Black Swan.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I'm a pedantic rationalist. When someone says "If we are in overshoot, as I believe we are [...]" I take that "belief" to be a prediction.

And please don't throw another undefined copy of the word "growth" at me before invoking Taleb.

Finally, I dare you. Write him and see if he thinks it is a rational precaution to stop all actions that qualify as "growth" in all meanings of the word.

PS. It might seem like a joke if I say "can we grow in "Buddha nature?" But really cultures and economies have often traded on intangibles. This bland insistence that "growth" is always tangible, and always has a 1:1 ratio with environmental harm (an "intensity" of 1) is odd.

Kurt Cobb said...


I'm confused by what you write. The column in question specifically refers to economic growth in the title and specifically states that improvements in quality and efficiency in the broadest sense are still possible when economies cease to grow. I think it would be useful to read both of the Daly pieces which I reference to give you a better idea of what Daly believes is possible in a steady-state economy

Anonymous said...

I am down on GDP, GNP, etc., as a measure of human progress. You won't catch me using those in my measures of growth.

So is strange for me to see people first buying into those measures (huh?) and then saying that "growth" must stop in order to get off the GDP treadmill.

No. Not at all.

What you need to do is define your goals, the goals you'd like to see more broadly accepted, and then define growth that way.

And, strangely, you may up winning on those old silly GDP, GNP, etc. measures anyway. Why? Because they are measures of money. Money can expand even as to goes towards bicycles and hippie communes.

To say otherwise is to make a very anti-Taleb claim that the future must be like the past, that growth must be experienced as it was at a point exactly in 2007, and not as it was (or will be) in any other time and space.

Anonymous said...

Kurt, don't waste your time with odograph, he is a paid troll whose agenda is just to avoid that the question about "the tricky issue of redistributing wealth" be ever clearly stated.
As you said "an issue that would almost surely be front and center in a no-growth economy", THIS is what he is paid for.
He is of course impervious to any bit of logic which would threaten his stance, "something" has to grow if profits are to be made.
See the craploads he eructed at The Oil Drum:
Peak oil is a fact where it's already happened, and a very reasonable theory where it has not.

For me, a good model would be a disproof of my position.

But on the rest, is there really a scientific way to peg "probable" resource scarcity?

What is your assigned confidence to your model, and was it determined mathematically?

And on aluminum, I'll believe it's a shortage when it doesn't come free with every can of soda.

You've reduced your logic to bare bones, which makes it more unassailable, but also less meaningful.

In chemistry they never gave us secret words to make our reactions work, in programming there were no secret words to ward off crashes.

Etc, etc...
This is just a small excerpt.

Far from being myself an obsessive egalitarian I think that a bit more meritocracy would very much enhance the long term prospects of humanity.
But merit has nothing to do with the cunning and ruthlessness which has driven the current "elites" of the naked apes to the top.
The same "qualities" in a more constrained world will only end up in warlordism.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for that "greatest hits" selection, K. It's a little choppy, but in context, not so bad.

But don't you think this "paid troll" stuff is just crazy enough to scare everybody away?

Anonymous said...

BTW Kurt, I'm not really sure how to proceed this morning. My basic confusion is why people who reject GDP as a measure of human progress and happiness would nonetheless use GDP as their measure of growth. And then fall into the trap of whether growth must therefore stop.

Shouldn't we reject GDP and then talk about growth some other way?

(I do, going way back ... never liked the measure)

Anonymous said...

See also, this post from 2005

Anonymous said...

Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz suggests a replacement for GDP:

"Long the standard scorecard for any national economy, GDP has become deficient as a measure of long-term economic health in our resource-driven, globalizing world.

Think about it. It's like grading a corporation based on one day's cash flow and forgetting to depreciate assets and other costs.

That's why economists looking for an alternative accounting framework to supplement the use of GDP are considering a new measure: green net national product.

The 'green' means that GDP must be reduced to take into account the depletion of natural resources and the degradation of the environment - just as a company must depreciate both its tangible and intangible assets. 'Net' national product (NNP) means that there has to be an adjustment for the depreciation of the country's physical assets."

Anonymous said...

Jorgen Randers suggested that GDP would keep growing, but a greater and greater share would be used to offset the negative consequences of growth.