Creative Destruction

May 3, 2007

Problems of Social Organization

Filed under: Environment,Ethics,Philosophy — Brutus @ 10:54 pm

We’re a species tragically marred by our own success. This article by Jeremy Rifkin presents the depressing numbers. Similar disaster is predicted everywhere these days. Here’s just one other example. (You’ve got to be living under a rock not to be aware of other, similar reports.) Some are considering how to face coming catastrophe: see here and here and here. The picture is bleak, and it’s been looming over the horizon for no short time.

The overarching story is that humankind and human nature has run its course and that, like the virus that eventually destroys its host, we have unwittingly sealed our own sad fate and ruined the planet for human habitation (and most other habitation with it). Unfortunately, unlike a virus, we can’t simply leap to a new host. In short, our basic form of social organization in the modern world, capitalist industry, has wrought changes in the ecosystem so vast that they’re now unrecoverable, and we’re too committed to our current paradigm to change in time to avoid catastrophe. In addition, our sheer numbers have been gained through a base exploitation of everything at our disposal, as though no other living creature has any right to survive.

Lost somewhere in the detritus of my abandoned and unfinished blog posts is the notion of maximizing, minimizing, and optimizing. Whereas most of nature occupies a niche in relative balance with the rest of creation — or at leasts lacks the wit and tools to overcome the cycles of ebb and flow — mankind since the Industrial Revolution (and perhaps since the Enlightenment) has been hellbent on maximizing its ecological niche. (Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel demonstrates rather unequivocally that this has ever been our modus operandi. Human expansion in prehistory was always the trigger for local extinctions. Basically, we ate everything.) We’ve succeeded marvelously. Now, in this our latest stage of development, our impact is astonishing. Industry has provided us the means to wrest from the Earth everything we can, and no morality has effectively suggested that a more restrained approach to living, establishing, for example, an optimized or balanced harmony with the rest of nature, might ultimately be a better way of living.

I’ve been reading on the subject for over a year now and am still struggling to get my head around it. The extrapolation of current trends is almost too depressing to contemplate, and I can’t profess to having the hopefulness of many others who have similarly recognized our dilemma. However, the ethical response is to at least acknowledge what’s happening in the wider sweep of human history and hopefully alleviate some suffering down the line.

The best statements on this topics I’ve come across so far are two essays in Orion Magazine: “The Idols of Environmentalism” and “The Ecology of Work” by Curtis White. They are beautifully written and lack the sort of doom and gloom that is inescapable for me. They suggest the basic response that Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael and other books, has been recommending: that we walk away from civilizational culture.

29 Comments »

  1. The first article cited from the Washington Post entitled “The Risks of Too Much City” by Jeremy Rifkin, is simply wrong headed.

    Yes, cities use lots of resources. But, the risk is of too little city, not too much. Cities use far fewer resources per capita, and pollute less per capita, than other forms of human habitation. If we want to save the planet, we need a larger proportion of people to live in cities.

    Comment by ohwilleke — May 4, 2007 @ 3:21 pm | Reply

  2. I guess this bit from the Rifkin article gives you no pause:

    No one is really sure whether this turning point in human living arrangements ought to be celebrated, lamented or merely acknowledged. That’s because our burgeoning population and urban way of life have been purchased at the expense of vast ecosystems and habitats.

    Cultural historian Elias Canetti once remarked that each of us is a king in a field of corpses. If we were to stop for a moment and reflect on the number of creatures and the amount of Earth’s resources and materials we have expropriated and consumed in our lifetime, we would be appalled at the carnage and depletion used to secure our existence.

    If the only question we answer or value we serve is efficiency, then I guess I might agree with you that Rifkin has it backwards. However, there are other considerations. Efficient feeding of our own consumption can’t be the last word simply because it can’t be sustained.

    Comment by Brutus — May 4, 2007 @ 5:14 pm | Reply

  3. They suggest the basic response that Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael and other books, has been recommending: that we walk away from civilizational culture.

    This is tantamount to calling for the deaths of five billion people. Walking away from civilizational culture is walking away from the social tools and technologies that permit us to exist as other than scattered tribes of brute savages.

    Comment by Robert — May 4, 2007 @ 9:25 pm | Reply

  4. Robert, I think you’re right inasmuch as we can’t simply abandon civilization without consequences. However, these writers all believe that we’re on track for a serious, unavoidable human cull anyway and that we will need some to blaze the trails for whatever follows. Personally, I’m still unsure how to greet the news that we’re doomed to some sort of apocalyptic future. I’m less inclined, however, to deny that all the information we currently have available points in that direction.

    Comment by Brutus — May 5, 2007 @ 12:38 pm | Reply

  5. I guess this bit from the Rifkin article gives you no pause…

    …If the only question we answer or value we serve is efficiency, then I guess I might agree with you that Rifkin has it backwards. However, there are other considerations. Efficient feeding of our own consumption can’t be the last word simply because it can’t be sustained.

    What you are saying in response to ohwilleke makes absolutely no sense. All else being equal, efficiency in our consumption is more sustaqinable than inefficiency.

    If cities use fewer resources per capita, then having a higher portion of the population live in cities reduces consumption and, unless there is a corresponding decrease in production capability, makes things more sustainable.

    What you eem to dislike about the cities is that there are too many people. But that isn’t due to them living in cities. If you think that we are overpopulated and that that is what is going to do us in, then talk about reducing the population as a solution. But don’t talk about urbanization as the problem, as if moving everyone into the country would solve the problems you worry about.

    No one is really sure whether this turning point in human living arrangements ought to be celebrated, lamented or merely acknowledged. That’s because our burgeoning population and urban way of life have been purchased at the expense of vast ecosystems and habitats.

    Burgeoning population, maybe. But cities aren’t what comes at the expense of vast ecosystems. Cities use remarkably little habitat area compared to other forms of living. Do you think that evacuating everyone out of New York City and building large suburban tracts for them would be more eco-friendly?

    Comment by Glaivester — May 5, 2007 @ 6:59 pm | Reply

  6. Glaivester wrote:

    If cities use fewer resources per capita, then having a higher portion of the population live in cities reduces consumption and, unless there is a corresponding decrease in production capability, makes things more sustainable.

    Oh pshaw. Living in cities doesn’t make anything more sustainable. It only delays the inevitable, which is the collapse of the ecosystem. As with global warming, the only real solution is to dramatically reduce our impact on the environment, which requires a willingness to give up our current level of consumption and rate of destruction. That willingness doesn’t exist.

    Comment by Brutus — May 5, 2007 @ 7:56 pm | Reply

  7. I want to get Brutus and this guy together. There would probably be some kind of matter-antimatter reaction, thus destroying the planet. (Which would only be a hastening of the inevitable, in Brutus’ view.)

    Given that these people and their ilk have been predicting doom, and have been reliably wrong about it, for decades, I hope you’ll forgive me if I remain sympathetic to your feelings on the issue, while disregarding the contents of the warning. Things which can’t continue, don’t; prophecies of doom predicated on human inability to change course, when in fact changing course is pretty much our best skill, are simply unpersuasive.

    To put it another way, the air is now considerably cleaner than it was when I was a boy. Yet when I was a boy, doomcriers like Rifkin were talking about how soon only the very rich would be able to breathe clean air. At least we’ll have plenty of oxygen to keep us going through the inevitable biosphere collapse.😉

    Comment by Robert — May 5, 2007 @ 8:48 pm | Reply

  8. Oh pshaw. Living in cities doesn’t make anything more sustainable. It only delays the inevitable, which is the collapse of the ecosystem.

    Delaying the collapse of ecosystem is making things more sustainable.

    In any case, the issue here is not whether moving everyone to cities will save the planet. The issue is whether urbanization is a net detriment or a net benefit in terms of making our consumption sustainable.

    As with global warming, the only real solution is to dramatically reduce our impact on the environment, which requires a willingness to give up our current level of consumption and rate of destruction.

    Sure, but making consumption more efficient can be part of that, whether or not that alone is enough to solve the entire problem.

    Comment by Glaivester — May 5, 2007 @ 11:06 pm | Reply

  9. Delaying the collapse of ecosystem is making things more sustainable.

    You’re using “sustainable” in its quaint and old-fashioned sense of “something which can continue for now”.

    The doomocrats are using “sustainable” as a code word for “meets with the approval of people who genuinely believe that living in a tent and eating organic broccoli confers moral standing”.

    Comment by Robert — May 6, 2007 @ 1:37 am | Reply

  10. Glaivester insists:

    Delaying the collapse of ecosystem is making things more sustainable.

    Utter nonsense. If you compare a heavy thing to an even heavier thing, that doesn’t make the heavy thing light. Or put another way, an automatic rifle is lethal. A semi-automatic rifle may be less lethal (in terms of, say, kills per minute), but that doesn’t exactly make it life giving, now does it? With the issue at hand, living as we do (rurally, in suburbs, and in cities) are all destructive because our habits of consumption make them so. Cities may provide the best efficiency for our style of social organization, but that doesn’t make cities more sustainable; they’re only less destructive (and I’m not even challenging that contention since it’s immaterial to the wider issue).

    Robert wrote:

    You’re using “sustainable” in its quaint and old-fashioned sense of “something which can continue for now”.

    No, “sustainable” means something more nearly perpetual than merely OK for now. You can graft political or moral implications onto “sustainable” if you wish, but that’s a nonstarter. There is no satisfaction to be found in blaming others or prophesying the future correctly (as in “I told you so”). Perhaps it’s a “green” perspective to want human existence to be in greater balance with the natural world than it now is so that human society might last more than a few millenia. Right now, we’re seriously out of balance, and our way of life is unsustainable. I’m not talking about our extinction (though plenty of other species will suffer that fate at our hands). But our current form of society will collapse because we can’t agree that it’s not possible to keep doing what we’ve been doing. We need to transition to something else.

    Comment by Brutus — May 6, 2007 @ 12:57 pm | Reply

  11. But our current form of society will collapse because we can’t agree that it’s not possible to keep doing what we’ve been doing. We need to transition to something else.

    Do you not get that this has been true for the last six thousand years? We’re constantly transitioning to something else. There is no configuration of society which results in us being a stable (even dynamically stable) small population that lives in harmony with nature. We dance, or we die.

    Comment by Robert — May 6, 2007 @ 1:14 pm | Reply

  12. I get it that we’re always adapting and changing. The difference now is that our failure to change drastically and quickly enough — necessary because of our behavior up to this point in history — will most likely result in the avoidable destruction of habitat and the deaths (probably by starvation) of billions.

    Comment by Brutus — May 6, 2007 @ 4:11 pm | Reply

  13. What’s the alternative? If the destruction is avoidable, then there’s a practical solution. How do we feed and house six billion people in a manner that you would find environmentally sustainable?

    Comment by Robert — May 6, 2007 @ 4:15 pm | Reply

  14. Good questions. I don’t know the complete answers. In my view, the first step is the acknowledge that the situation isn’t merely urgent, it’s an international emergency. Then we start right away to bring our impact, the human footprint if you will, down to a level that does significantly less harm. That will require a commitment to living without a lot of things we now take for granted. Beyond that, I’m unsure.

    Comment by Brutus — May 6, 2007 @ 5:45 pm | Reply

  15. Well, wait a minute. If you don’t know the answers, and you aren’t sure of the course to take, then how can you say that our failure to change is going to result in avoidable disastrous consequences? Change to what? Avoid how?

    Then we start right away to bring our impact, the human footprint if you will, down to a level that does significantly less harm.

    You mean like, for example, clustering in cities to reduce the footprint caused by having human settlement controlling vast swathes of territory?

    Comment by Robert — May 6, 2007 @ 5:58 pm | Reply

  16. Robert wrote:

    If you don’t know the answers, and you aren’t sure of the course to take, then how can you say that our failure to change is going to result in avoidable disastrous consequences? Change to what? Avoid how?

    I didn’t say I don’t have any answers, just that the answers are incomplete. It’s a highly complex issue, so the full picture won’t emerge except in hindsight. The proper course to take is unclear except that it must be a repudiation of the present course, which leads to disastrous consequences. (Nobody seems to be arguing that point.)

    Our present way of life is to lay claim to anything and everything in the biosphere for human use and consumption. It’s pretty much “damn the consequences for any other species” because we act as though our dominance makes everything exclusively ours but not so much theirs — except for a few folks trying to preserve other species and their habitats in the pursuit of biodiversity.

    BTW, human footprint is a metaphor for our aggregate effect on the planet, not just a measurement of acreage of settlement or territory under cultivation. Although cities may be the most efficient way of accommodating our current wants and needs, it remains to be seen whether that will be true in a different style of social organization, which is as yet difficult to foresee. One of the basic elements, according to the folks I’ve been reading, is localization rather than globalization. So if living near the food we consume is the norm, rather than having it brought in from all corners of the globe, then cities may not be very efficient after all.

    Comment by Brutus — May 7, 2007 @ 12:13 pm | Reply

  17. The thing is that population growth predictions based on simple exponential growth don’t work. Much of the world, to wit, the developed world, has reached a plateau or even a decline. New nations are joining these ranks every decade and China, one of the most influential in the overall number is on board.

    The way to reduce population from 6 billion on down, is not for civilization to collapse and everyone to die, but for those 6 billion people to feel sufficiently selfish and secure to have fewer than the replacement level of kids per generation, producing gradual, voluntary negative population growth.

    Comment by ohwilleke — May 7, 2007 @ 1:38 pm | Reply

  18. Did someone really write this?

    The difference now is that our failure to change drastically and quickly enough — necessary because of our behavior up to this point in history — will most likely result in the avoidable destruction of habitat and the deaths (probably by starvation) of billions.

    Where is your sign: The End is Near! You forgot to shave this morning… No wonder. Talk about faith in the human race. History tells quite a different situation, our race is tenacious and in fact quite a good ‘tenent’ of this earth. (pun intended).

    Comment by Vilon — May 7, 2007 @ 2:47 pm | Reply

  19. Utter nonsense. If you compare a heavy thing to an even heavier thing, that doesn’t make the heavy thing light. Or put another way, an automatic rifle is lethal. A semi-automatic rifle may be less lethal (in terms of, say, kills per minute), but that doesn’t exactly make it life giving, now does it?

    I didn’t say it was sustainable, I said it was more sustainable. Delaying collapse = sustaining things longer than not delaying collapse = more sustainable. I am not arguing that everyone living in cities would solve our consumption prolem. I am just arguing that THE EXISTENCE OF CITIES THEMSELVES (as opposed to other ways of living) ARE NOT THE SOURCE OF THE PROBLEM.

    Please don’t argue with me by correcting me on things I NEVER SAID.

    My point was simply that if living in a city is more efficient, then getting a larger portion of the population to live in the city will make it easier to reduce our consumption. If we need to reduce our consumption by, say, 50%, and living in a city reduces consumption by 30% relative to living somewhere else, then if 10% of the population not living in cities were to move there, that would reduce our consumption by 3%.

    Would this solve our problem? No. But we would have reduced the problem by 3/50ths. The fact that it doesn’t solve the problem doesn’t mean that it can’t be one part of the solution.

    Put another way, even if I accept your premise that we are overconsuming at a rate that is destroying us, the fact that we are heavily urbanized is not the cause of this. Rather, heavy urbanization is one way that people deal with trying to reduce the consumption of large numbers of people.

    Comment by Glaivester — May 7, 2007 @ 8:15 pm | Reply

  20. In any case, Brutus refuses to answer ohwilleke’s and my point, which is that the existence of cities is not the problem.

    Whenever we bring this up, he refuses to answer this. Instead, he keeps arguing that our current population levels and per capita consumption levels are unsustainable, which neither ohwilleke nor myself have contradicted. His arguments consist of two points:

    (1) Increased urbanization will not solve the problem of overconsumption all by itself, therefore it is worthless to consider as part of a solution.

    (2) Because we cannot solve our problems without a reduction in our standard of living or population being at least part of the solution, reducing our standard of living or our population must be the only parts to our solution. We cannot consider enacting them in concert with other, partial remedies.

    If the only question we answer or value we serve is efficiency, then I guess I might agree with you that Rifkin has it backwards. However, there are other considerations. Efficient feeding of our own consumption can’t be the last word simply because it can’t be sustained.

    But increased efficiency reduces the resources consumed to acheieve the same end. So increased efficiency can be part of the solution the problem of overconsumption whether or not it is the entire solution. You do not seem to grasp that increased efficiency is a net benefit, even if it can’t do the job all by itself.

    Are you really unable to comprehend this?

    Comment by Glaivester — May 7, 2007 @ 8:27 pm | Reply

  21. Glaivester wrote:

    if I accept your premise that we are overconsuming at a rate that is destroying us, the fact that we are heavily urbanized is not the cause of this. Rather, heavy urbanization is one way that people deal with trying to reduce the consumption of large numbers of people.

    I agree that urbanization is not the cause. However, I am unconvinced that the efficiencies offered by urbanization would have anything more than a negligible effect on addressing the problem. I get what you’re saying, and I’ll even agree that Rifkin’s article is misfocused (or backwards, if you prefer). But it’s not the only cite I gave. And if living near where the food we eat is cultivated, as some believe needs to be the case, then efficiency suggests we not collectivize in cities. Energy can probably be distributed cheaply over distance, but not regular consumables such as food once the oil is run out.

    Increased urbanization will not solve the problem of overconsumption all by itself, therefore it is worthless to consider as part of a solution.

    That’s close to my argument. I think urbanization is immaterial to the preliminary thrust of how we might begin to address the problem of overconsumption. Although you insist that stating the negative of a negative (“less unsustainable”) is a positive, it’s a mistake to think that way if not semantically incorrect. Efficiency is not conservation and greater efficiency does not always (or even mostly) point to less consumption because our current mindset is simply to consume whatever we can afford, consequences be damned. Efficiency may lower price, but we then tend to consume more. It’s not written in stone, but I dare say that tendency is a lot stronger than banking our efficiency savings or simply letting nature be undisturbed.

    Because we cannot solve our problems without a reduction in our standard of living or population being at least part of the solution, reducing our standard of living or our population must be the only parts to our solution. We cannot consider enacting them in concert with other, partial remedies.

    That’s pretty much it. According to this article by George Monbiot (whose credentials are pretty good compared to those of us entertaining this debate), governments have committed to very modest targets for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, which won’t even make a dent in the problem based on what is now known. And that’s just the global warming piece. Overfishing, clear cutting rain forests, and mountaintop mining are a few other practices that partial remedies and greater efficiency won’t meaningfully address. Monbiot is clear: we know what to expect, but we lack to will to avoid it.

    But increased efficiency reduces the resources consumed to acheieve the same end. So increased efficiency can be part of the solution the problem of overconsumption whether or not it is the entire solution. You do not seem to grasp that increased efficiency is a net benefit, even if it can’t do the job all by itself.

    Are you really unable to comprehend this?

    Oh, I comprehend. Keep beating the efficiency drum. It’s a mere drop in the ocean. The degree of increased efficiency we would need would to meet the necessary emissions reductions indicated in Monbiot’s article are between 80% and 90% by the target date is 2050. So by then, a typical week’s travel, say 250 miles, in a car rated at 25 mpg would require the car get 125–250 mpg (reducing 10 gallons to 1-2 gallons). An equivalent efficiency would have to be obtained for coal-burning plants even if it were an electric car. Extrapolate that level of efficiency across everything all our consumable needs and I think it’s pretty wishful thinking. But I forget, we’ll have Mr. Fusion and the nanoassembler by then, so no worries.

    Comment by Brutus — May 8, 2007 @ 12:04 am | Reply

  22. Energy can probably be distributed cheaply over distance, but not regular consumables such as food once the oil is run out.

    Probably not accurate. In fact, oil has been a deurbanizing factor — because it makes transportation prices low relatively to higher land values in city centers. The car and the interstate highway system and suburbs are the result of oil based technology. If we left an oil based technology urban pattersn would likely revert to the more dense “steam age” (really “coal age”) patterns were saw before then, where people lived in tight clusters around selected railheads, ports, and riversides. This time around, the coal or other fuel might be burned centrally and distributed as electricity, rather than burned locally.

    In fact, most bulk food shipments, like grains (and bulk fuel shipments of coal), still travel by extremely efficient barges, cargo ships and rail lines.

    Rail engines are already universally hybrid diesel-electric, and could realtively easily be converted to electric or biodiesel-electric — they are an order of magnitude more fuel efficient than trucks.

    Barges rely, in significant part, on the current. Cargo ships are both highly efficient and could be partially wind powered if economics demanded it — steam ships were in commercial service as late as the 1960s and could return if necessary, or one could be nuclear powered cargo ships — a couple of have been made, so they are technologically feasible, but the politics and the economics didn’t pan out at the time.

    What you would likely see would be the development of green house based truck farms along rail lines near cities, and on roof tops.

    Comment by ohwilleke — May 8, 2007 @ 2:48 pm | Reply

  23. The degree of increased efficiency we would need would to meet the necessary emissions reductions indicated in Monbiot’s article are between 80% and 90% by the target date is 2050. So by then, a typical week’s travel, say 250 miles, in a car rated at 25 mpg would require the car get 125–250 mpg (reducing 10 gallons to 1-2 gallons). An equivalent efficiency would have to be obtained for coal-burning plants even if it were an electric car. Extrapolate that level of efficiency across everything all our consumable needs and I think it’s pretty wishful thinking.

    We may not get to a 80%-90% reduction in 43 years. But, if we do, we wouldn’t get there with a 125 mpg to 250 mpg single passenger car similar to existing cars.

    The easiest way to get improved fuel efficiency is to increase bus use. Getting 50 people to ride a 50 passenger bus that gets a current technology 8 mpg, is equivalent to having them use single occupancy vehicles that get 400 mpg. An ordinary 50 passenger bus with just an average of just 8 passengers at a time is more fuel efficient than having those eight passengers each take a single occupancy Toyota Prius or Smart Car.

    Rising gas prices are going to make riding the bus more attractive. Increasing urban density also reduces the average miles traveled per week. I live in an urban residential neighborhood in Denver that used to be when it was built (and recently was again) served by a light rail line, and work a couple of miles away on the fringes of downtown. Our one car family drives about 100 miles a week, effortlessly and without skimping, and I commute by car to and from work. The biggest travel demand is a weekly trip to distant soccer fields.

    If more people ride a bus, bus service gets more frequently, riding the bus poses fewer security issues because more middle class people ride it (not just the very poor, the disabled and those who have revoked licenses), bus costs per trip go down, and the incentive to live closer to work (due to longer trips by bus than by car) increases. If the average travel per week dropped from 250 miles to say 150 miles, ordinary personal vehicles got 40 mpg, and we could get the bus system to operate at about 25% of capacity, we could meet the 2 gallon a week goal with existing technology.

    How would anyone get people to agree to this shift in lifestyle? High fuel prices. We are at about $3 a gallon for gasoline in the U.S.; at somewhere in the $8-$16 a gallon range, electric cars are a better deal than gasoline powered ones and public transportation starts looking much, much more attractive.

    Historically, it takes about a decade or two to fully transition to a major new technology (e.g. cell phones), or to make a major urban pattern change (like after the interstates arrived).

    So, if gas prices make it to $8-$16 a gallon by say 2030, the transition to the goal level would happen by about 2050, right on schedule, without any major technological innovation at all. If, in fact, we have some technological innovation, even say a 20% improvement over current technology in 43 years, that buys us several more years to get on the ball.

    Comment by ohwilleke — May 8, 2007 @ 3:06 pm | Reply

  24. I agree that urbanization is not the cause… I get what you’re saying, and I’ll even agree that Rifkin’s article is misfocused (or backwards, if you prefer).

    Thank you. That was the primary point that I was arguing.

    Comment by Glaivester — May 8, 2007 @ 7:35 pm | Reply

  25. Now, on to another point:

    Because we cannot solve our problems without a reduction in our standard of living or population being at least part of the solution, reducing our standard of living or our population must be the only parts to our solution. We cannot consider enacting them in concert with other, partial remedies.

    That’s pretty much it. According to this article by George Monbiot (whose credentials are pretty good compared to those of us entertaining this debate), governments have committed to very modest targets for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, which won’t even make a dent in the problem based on what is now known.

    So? When I talk about “partial remedies,” I don’t mean that we half-solve the problem. I’m talking about solving some of the problem through reduced standard of living, some through reduced population, some through increased efficiency, some through new technology [e.g. teleconferencing instead of flying].

    What I was accusing you of arguing is that if we pursue one solution, we cannot simultaneously pursue any others to supplement it.

    That’s like saying that we should forget about safer sex and avoiding IV drugs and avoiding risky behaviors and focus all of our efforts against AIDS at finding a cure.

    The degree of increased efficiency we would need would to meet the necessary emissions reductions indicated in Monbiot’s article are between 80% and 90% by the target date is 2050. So by then, a typical week’s travel, say 250 miles, in a car rated at 25 mpg would require the car get 125–250 mpg (reducing 10 gallons to 1-2 gallons). An equivalent efficiency would have to be obtained for coal-burning plants even if it were an electric car. Extrapolate that level of efficiency across everything all our consumable needs and I think it’s pretty wishful thinking.

    When did I say that efficiency would be the entire solution? My point is, with increased efficiency, we can reduce our standard of living less than without it and still achieve sustainability. Assuming we need to reduce emisions by 80-90% (and oversimplifying here that we cut emissions from all sectors by the same amount to make the mathematical model simpler), then if we can increase car fuel efficiency from 25 mpg to 50 mpg, then we will only have to decrease our driving by 60-80% instead of 80-90%. That is my point.

    Comment by Glaivester — May 8, 2007 @ 7:59 pm | Reply

  26. You’re using “sustainable” in its quaint and old-fashioned sense of “something which can continue for now”.

    The doomocrats are using “sustainable” as a code word for “meets with the approval of people who genuinely believe that living in a tent and eating organic broccoli confers moral standing”.

    While Brutus identifies real challenges, I have sometimes wondered if he doesn’t harbor a romanticized vision of native Americans and frontier farmers. I was intrigued to hear a story on NPR about contemporary people living at low levels of consumption and producing very little waste (except the biological kind). No, I don’t aspire to this lifestyle, but it’s interesting to note how different it is from Little House on the Prairie.

    Comment by nobody.really — May 9, 2007 @ 9:54 am | Reply

  27. nobody.really writes:

    While Brutus identifies real challenges, I have sometimes wondered if he doesn’t harbor a romanticized vision of native Americans and frontier farmers.

    I don’t want to go back to a romanticized past, but I do believe we need something more spiritually nourishing and ecologically sound than how we currently live. I’m utterly convinced in this debate that any point I might make based on empirical evidence (economics and science) will retrieve a plausible counter-argument. For example, bringing all sorts of new variables to bear on achieving lower emmissions (the fuel efficiency of autos was only a radically simple snapshot of a very complex problem) makes interesting and even convincing debate. But that doesn’t obviate the need to restrain ourselves rather rigorously. Frankly, I’m more comfortable with the poetic, spiritual, and humanitarian arguments of the sort Curtis White and Bill McKibben write, but in my experience, they fall even flatter than objective arguments. No one really wants to admit that humans are raping the earth, that we’re maniacly out of balance with nature, and that we’re in the midst of cultural suicide.

    Comment by Brutus — May 9, 2007 @ 11:01 am | Reply

  28. I was ‘fishing’ for something else when I came across your article. I was reminded of Rifkin yesterday when I read that Ferdinando Galiana wrote 1771 “The Econmoic Orocess was guided by a Supreme Hand”. In 1770 he ridicluled the very idea of economic laws transcending time and place and indeed the concept of laissez-faire’. Privately he conceded his new Machiavellianism cycicism was all due to the realistion that if he wished to keep his 15,000 livres state salary he was better off supporting the status quo. I see a simialr trens between 1980 Rifkin ‘Entropy’ and 2002 Rifkin ‘Hydrogen’?

    The hope in the world lies in the hope of a structural change in man’s thinking, much as Adam Smith achived in an earlier. Think of Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged’ graphic with man struggling under the weight of the world – in the 21st century it is the world struggling under the weight of man? Until the dated ‘colonisation’ thinking so portayed by Ayn Rand is repalced by a climactic paradigm line of thought man indeed speeds ever faster to ‘self-destruction or if lucky maybe only 5 billion dead mid century as that is WW I & II casulties scaled to present at 2%. Regrettable economists have allowed all to get inflation confused by monetary inflation. Genesis makes inflation [of man] quite clear and the effects and consequences of man’s inflation within limited economic systems?

    Andrew

    Comment by Andrew — January 2, 2008 @ 3:28 pm | Reply

  29. I just reread my post above and apologize for typing, it is late in UK and I have new curved keyboard.

    However I had omitted comment about Schupeters much lauded ‘Creative Destruction’ This is in danger of becoming the most influential nonsense since Horatio Alger Jnr> Those familiar with 19th century natural philosophy [Claussius & Kelvin] know that they were the first to face up to the reality that man was not putting God’s world into better order. The world had a time of existance defined by universal time. Man’s civilisation will exist from ‘start’ to ‘finish’ but that time is not set by the universe – Entropy is very very good on this aspect and easier to read than Georgescue Roegen who is merely brilliant. When man takes useful resources and transforms them into wsting asssets [Cadillacs?] he dissipated the asset by destroing its usefulness. Schumpeter, like most economists is stuck in the speculative world of Newtonian mechanics; what he observed but understood incorrectly is: ‘Destructive Creation’, when man creates wasting products from non renewable resources he destroys the usefulness to man of that energy-matter. When the world thinks in terms of ‘Destructive Creation@, there will be hope. Economics that complies with real rather than speculative science can be taught to children – age 12 seems good.

    Comment by Andrew — January 2, 2008 @ 3:43 pm | Reply


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