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Deep Thought - Oct 8

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All distant problems are not created equally

Jamais Cascio, Open the Future, IEET
By definition, distant (long-term) problems are those that show their real impact at some point in the not-near future; arbitrarily, we can say five or more years, but many of them won’t have significant effects for decades. Our habit, and the institutions we’ve built, tend to look at long-term problems as more-or-less identical: Something big will happen later. For the most part, we simply wait until the long-term becomes the near-term before we act.

... The practice of waiting until the long-term becomes the near-term is less effective, however, for the other kind of distant problem: Let’s call them “long-lag problems.” With long-lag problems, there’s a significant distance between cause and effect, for both the problem and any attempted solution. The available time to head-off the problem doesn’t stretch from now until when the problem manifests; the “solution window” may be considerably briefer. Such problems can be harder to comprehend, since the connection between cause and effect may be subtle, or the lag time simply too enormous. Common-sense answers won’t likely work.

A simple, generic example of a long-lag problem is difficult to construct, since we don’t tend to recognize them in our day-to-day lives. Events that may have been set in motion years ago can simply seem like accidents or coincidences, or even assigned a false proximate trigger in order for them to “make sense.”

But a real-world example of a long-lag problem should make the concept clear.

Global warming is, for me, the canonical example of a long-lag problem, as geophysical systems don’t operate on human cause-and-effect time frames.

... My interest, at this point, is to try to identify other long-lag problems, and to see what kinds of general conditions separate long-run and long-lag problems. With both global warming and asteroid impacts, the lag comes from physics; with peak oil (and other resource collapse problems), conversely, the lag comes from the need for wholesale infrastructure replacement. What else is out there?
(7 October 2008)

The Age of Unbridled Consumption Just Ended

Lisa Wise - The Women's Media Center, AlterNet
An economic storm is descending, and for many, the storm will be bad. While the Bush Administration and Congress wrestle with how to bail out Wall Street, and argue about how softly CEOs of failed financial institutions should be allowed to land, average citizens must leap into the new reality without benefit of 24-karat parachutes...

...Recently, the Global Footprint Network issued a report stating that by September 23, humanity had consumed all the new resources the planet will produce for the year. For the rest of 2008, we are in the ecological equivalent of deficit spending, drawing down our resource stocks -- in essence, borrowing from the future. Sound familiar? We can't hope to keep to our economic budget if we can't keep to our ecological budget.
Septermber 23, earth overshoot day
(3 October 2008)

Herman Daly on the Credit Crisis, Financial Assets, and Real Wealth

Herman Daly, The Oil Drum
The current financial debacle is really not a “liquidity” crisis as it is often euphemistically called. It is a crisis of overgrowth of financial assets relative to growth of real wealth—pretty much the opposite of too little liquidity. Financial assets have grown by a large multiple of the real economy—paper exchanging for paper is now 20 times greater than exchanges of paper for real commodities. It should be no surprise that the relative value of the vastly more abundant financial assets has fallen in terms of real assets. Real wealth is concrete; financial assets are abstractions—existing real wealth carries a lien on it in the amount of future debt. The value of present real wealth is no longer sufficient to serve as a lien to guarantee the exploding debt. Consequently the debt is being devalued in terms of existing wealth. No one any longer is eager to trade real present wealth for debt even at high interest rates. This is because the debt is worth much less, not because there is not enough money or credit, or because “banks are not lending to each other” as commentators often say.

Can the economy grow fast enough in real terms to redeem the massive increase in debt? In a word, no. As Frederick Soddy (1926 Nobel Laureate chemist and underground economist) pointed out long ago, “you cannot permanently pit an absurd human convention, such as the spontaneous increment of debt [compound interest] against the natural law of the spontaneous decrement of wealth [entropy]”. The population of “negative pigs” (debt) can grow without limit since it is merely a number; the population of “positive pigs” (real wealth) faces severe physical constraints. The dawning realization that Soddy’s common sense was right, even though no one publicly admits it, is what underlies the crisis. The problem is not too little liquidity, but too many negative pigs growing too fast relative to the limited number of positive pigs whose growth is constrained by their digestive tracts, their gestation period, and places to put pigpens. Also there are too many two?legged Wall Street pigs, but that is another matter.

Growth in US real wealth is restrained by increasing scarcity of natural resources, both at the source end (oil depletion), and the sink end (absorptive capacity of the atmosphere for CO2). ...

TOD editor Nate Hagens writes:
Previously, Herman Daly wrote a guest post on the Steady State Economy, outlining core suggestions on how to overhaul our banking, financial (and value) systems. I encourage everyone to read it (if short on time, please read the conclusion). Professor Daly was Senior Economist at the World Bank before leaving to teach Ecological Economics at University of Maryland's School for Public Policy. He was also the catalyst for me to leave my own financial career and return to school to study the real economy (i.e. what we call the human economy is only a small part of a larger closed system). Below the fold are his thoughts on the current crisis (current being defined as last 30-40 years or so). (For comparison, here are links to what 'mainstream' economic icons George Soros, and Bill Gross are saying.)

(7 October 2008)

Fall of the technological world

Jan Lundberg, Culture Change
The technological world is going to fall and disintegrate, much like the financial house of cards appears to be doing. We need to embrace this reality and start living in a reasonable, responsible fashion, because we cannot escape it even if we can try to prepare. Hoping that the government will solve the problem of greed is like hoping the fox no longer hungers for fresh raw chicken. Similarly, hoping for a graceful exit from the entropic inferno of techno tyranny is to imagine we can be teleported to a better planet. So we must draw upon the do-it-yourself principle, as rebels and free people have always done in all aspects of human existence.

This essay examines the why and how of technology's fall, and also the post-technological future. My own biases aside -- I have a love-hate relationship with technology -- I believe we can think outside the box (and abandon the box), and gain perspective even in our world of addiction to material, manufactured and disposable things. Why is this important? The reasons are ecological -- we cannot avoid the scientific facts -- and there are moral reasons as well.

Mother Nature does not give second chances. "We are not exempt from extinction", says paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey. Extinction is part of evolution of all life, so we must face that humans are nothing special. In fact, their cleverness in manipulating the environment was helpful only up to a certain point in our "pre-history"; it has resulted today in our going over the ecological precipice. As we continue today's mass extinction we are pretending it's not important, perhaps so we can cling to our convenient and alluring technology, and put off rebelling until the floor is caving in.

... If technology and the cultivation-agriculture that made it possible is perhaps our worst mistake, and is going to be mostly phased out as "growth" implodes, what will our future without massive technology look like?
(7 October 2008)

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