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Economics blind spot is a disaster for the planet

Herman Daly, New Scientist
[Describes an incident while he was working at the World Bank] … That was when I realised that economists have not grasped a simple fact that to scientists is obvious: the size of the Earth as a whole is fixed. Neither the surface nor the mass of the planet is growing or shrinking. The same is true for energy budgets: the amount absorbed by the Earth is equal to the amount it radiates. The overall size of the system – the amount of water, land, air, minerals and other resources present on the planet we live on – is fixed.

The most important change on Earth in recent times has been the enormous growth of the economy, which has taken over an ever greater share of the planet’s resources. In my lifetime, world population has tripled, while the numbers of livestock, cars, houses and refrigerators have increased by vastly more. In fact, our economy is now reaching the point where it is outstripping Earth’s ability to sustain it. Resources are running out and waste sinks are becoming full. The remaining natural world can no longer support the existing economy, much less one that continues to expand.

The economy is like a hungry, growing organism. It consumes low-entropy natural resources such as trees, fish and coal, produces energy and useful goods from them, and spits out high-entropy waste such as carbon dioxide, mine slag and dirty water. Mainstream economists are mostly concerned with the organism’s circulatory system, how the energy and resources can be efficiently allocated, while tending to ignore its digestive system. As my experience with the diagram showed, the sources of the resources that the organism consumes and the sinks into which it deposits waste are ignored. Effectively, economists are assuming they are infinite.

Because of this, they recognise no limits on the capacity for economic growth.
(15 October 2008)

Ecological Crises and the Agrarian Question in World-Historical Perspective

Jason W. Moore, Monthly Review
… I do not mean to suggest that what we have come to call the neoliberal ecological regime will go away overnight. It won’t. But it seems clear that the agro-ecological regime which took shape out of the crises of the 1970s has exhausted itself. This in itself is not a novel phenomenon. We have, over the past six centuries of world capitalist development, witnessed a succession of world ecological regimes that have been crucial to the system’s periodic waves of social restructuring and geographical expansion. If large-scale industry has often captured the imagination of Marxists in the periodization of modern history, it is clear that industrial and agricultural revolutions have always been joined at the hip. The Manchester textile mills of the nineteenth century were unthinkable without the Barbados sugar mills of the seventeenth.

… So, to repeat our question, where is the agricultural revolution—that audacious mix of technical innovation and (neo?)colonial plunder—that will feed today’s workshop of the world? The short answer is that there isn’t one. All great revivals of world accumulation—and I am not speaking of the financial expansions that always accompanied the demise of great world powers—have depended on this pairing of plunder and productivity. But today there is no space for plunder because all the spaces have been plundered. One can return to the old haunts, but it’s a little like robbing a gas station twice the same day. You’ll get something the second time around, but it won’t be much.

… It has been my argument that the origins of today’s global ecological crisis are to be found in the unusual responses of Europe’s ruling strata to the great crises of the long fourteenth century (c. 1290–1450). There are indeed striking parallels between the world-system today and the situation prevailing with a broadly feudal Europe at the dawn of the fourteenth century—the agricultural regime, once capable of remarkable productivity gains, entered stagnation; a growing layer of the population lived in cities; vast trading networks connected far-flung economic centers (and epidemiological flows between them); climate change had begun to strain an overextended agro-demographic order; resource extraction (in silver and copper for instance) faced new technical challenges, fettering profitability. After some six centuries of sustained expansion, by the fourteenth century, it had become clear that feudal Europe had reached the limits of its development, for reasons that had to with its environment, its configuration of social power, and the relations between them.

What followed was, either immediately or eventually, the rise of capitalism. Regardless of one’s specific interpretation, however, it is clear that the centuries after 1450 marked an era of fundamental environmental transformation. …

This ecological regime of early capitalism was, as all such regimes are, beset with contradictions. These came to the fore in the middle of the eighteenth century. Almost overnight, England shifted from its position as a leading grain exporter to a major grain importer. Yields in English agriculture stagnated. Inside the country, landlords compensated by agitating for enclosures, which accelerated beyond anything known in previous centuries; outside the country, Ireland’s subordination was intensified with an eye to agricultural exports.

… The Industrial Revolution retains its hold on the popular imagination as the historical and geographical locus of today’s environmental crisis. It is a view that coexists, sometimes more easily than at others, with a profound faith in technological progress. From the story we have at hand, my sense is that it may be more useful to view the Industrial Revolution as the resolution of an earlier moment of modern ecological crisis, and as the detonator of another, more expansive and more intensive, reconstruction of global nature. The Industrial Revolution offered not merely a technical fix to the developmental crises that wracked early capitalism’s ecological regimes; within this revolution was inscribed a vast geographical fix to the underproduction of food and resources. In the same breath, these fixes were in time as limiting as they had once been liberating.
(November 2008 issue)
There are some important points in the article. Unfortunately, it assumes familiarity with the Marxist tradition and is thus inaccessible to most people. If Marxists ever learned to write readable prose, they would be a real threat to the status quo!

Several other articles are available online from the current ecology issue of the socialist Monthly Review. -BA

Abdicating the “A” word, frantically fighting for the familiar

Carolyn Baker, Speaking Truth to Power
… Throughout the major spiritual traditions on earth one finds what Jung called the archetype, theme, motif of apocalypse. We are all too familiar with the fundamentalist Christian notion of rapture, tribulation, and new millennium now popularized in Tim LaHaye’s “Left Behind” series. Yet Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and myriad indigenous traditions include, for different purposes and with their own unique embellishments, concepts of apocalypse. It appears that apocalypse is a mythic, archetypal phenomenon deeply embedded in the human psyche. Without exception, apocalypse, which actually means “unveiling” or “revealing”, is perceived universally as a process in which that which is hidden will be revealed, resulting in some sort of purification. A Hopi prophecy says that “When the Blue Star Kachina makes its appearance in the heavens, the Fifth World will emerge. This will be the Day of Purification.” Hopi elders believe that we are now transitioning from the Fourth to the Fifth World and that purification is the purpose of the current upheaval.

I believe that because apocalypse is a fundamental archetype, something in us knows that that is precisely what we are experiencing in the final days of 2008 and are likely to continue experiencing for years to come. Whether we admit it or not, the archetype of apocalypse is percolating in our psyches. Economists and politicians in denial or simply wishing to keep their jobs insist that good times will come again-that everything will bounce back to “normal” in a couple of years. “A long, and deep recession” they continue to parrot, even as beads of sweat gather on their foreheads-a stunning example of fighting for the familiar. We’re just sailing through some rough waters, they insist, unable to grasp that what began as a few choppy waves has now become a sea change.

What it is difficult for humans to wrap their minds around is the unprecedented nature of the current moment. We grasp for whatever straws of evidence we can produce that might prove that there’s nothing really idiosyncratic about it.

… Some individuals who have been forecasting longer than I have the events now unfolding are justifiably saddened, if not enraged, by the obtuseness and denial of other human beings to take seriously their persistent caveats. I share their frustration, and at the same time, I realize that none of this is about me or them or any of our prophetic research. In fact, to continue chanting the “I told you so, I warned you” mantra is to become further mired in the old paradigm. Civilization, after all, is nothing if not hierarchical, competitive, and arrogant.

Apocalypse is demanding the diminution of human ego, in which case, the appropriate response to the masses who didn’t listen is not “I told you so,” but rather, deep compassion and deep grief. The inability of our species to read the writing on the wall is another chilling testimony to the power of civilization to mentally, emotionally, and spiritually incapacitate its inhabitants. There but for fortune go any of us. …
(16 November 2008)