What "Progressives" Are Really After, Part 2

Climate activist Adam Sacks at Grist:

We must leave behind 10,000 years of civilization; this may be the hardest collective task we've ever faced.  It has given us the intoxicating power to create planetary changes in 200 years that under natural cycles require hundreds of thousands or millions of years"”but none of the wisdom necessary to keep this Pandora's Box tightly shut.  We have to discover and re-discover other ways of living on earth.

We love our cars, our electricity, our iPods, our theme parks, our bananas, our Nikes, and our nukes, but we behave as if we understand nothing of the land and water and air that gives us life.  It is past time to think and act differently.

If we live at all, we will have to figure out how to live locally and sustainably.  Living locally means we are able get everything we need within walking (or animal riding) distance. We may eventually figure out sustainable ways of moving beyond those small circles to bring things home, but our track record isn't good and we'd better think it through very carefully.

Likewise, any technology has to be locally based, using local resources and accessible tools, renewable and non-toxic.  We have much re-thinking to do, and re-learning from our hunter-gatherer forebears who managed to survive for a couple of hundred thousand years in ways that we with our civilized blinders we can barely imagine or understand.

Yep, let's all return to that sustainable world of 8000BC, scrap the worldwide division of labor and all our technology, and go back to subsistance farming and travelling by horse.  Gee, what a happy time that was...

Interestingly, this guy is making an incredibly common failure among physical scientists -- the attempt to apply conservation of mass/energy physical models or bacteriological growth models to economic growth:

Endless growth is an impossibility in the physical world, always"”but always"”ending in overshot and collapse.  Collapse: with a bang or a whimper, most likely both.  We are already witnessing it, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.Because of this civilization's obsession with growth, its demise is 100 percent predictable.  We simply cannot go on living this way. Our version of life on earth has come to an end.

Here is what I wrote, in a post titled "Physics, Wealth Creation, and Zero Sum Economics"

My guess is that this zero-sum thinking comes from our training and intuition about the physical world.  As we all learned back in high school, nature generally works in zero sums.  For example, in any bounded environment, no matter what goes on inside (short of nuclear fission) mass and energy are both conserved, as outlined by the first law of thermodynamics.  Energy may change form, like the potential energy from chemical bonds in gasoline being converted to heat and work via combustion, but its all still there somewhere.

In fact, given the second law of thermodynamics, the only change that will occur is that elements will end in a more disorganized, less useful form than when they started.  This notion of entropic decay also has a strong effect on economic thinking, as you will hear many of the same zero sum economics folks using the language of decay on human society.  Take folks like Paul Ehrlich (please).  All of there work is about decay:  Pollution getting worse, raw materials getting scarce, prices going up, economies crashing.  They see human society driven by entropic decline....

[But] the world, as a whole and in most of its individual parts, is wealthier than in was in 1900.  Vastly more wealthy.  Which I recognize can be disturbing to our intuition honed on the physical world.  I mean, where did the wealth come from?  Out of thin air?  How can that be?

Interestingly, in the 19th century, scientists faced a similar problem in the physical world in dating the age of the Earth.  There was evidence all around them (from fossils, rocks, etc) that the earth had to be hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of years old.  The processes of evolution Darwin described had to occur over untold millions of years.  Yet no one could accept an age over a few million for the solar system, because they couldn't figure out what could fuel the Sun for longer than that.  Every calculation they made showed that by any form of combustion they understood, the sun would burn out in, at most, a few tens of millions of years.  If the sun and earth was so old, where was all that energy coming from?  Out of thin air?

It was Einstein that solved the problem.  E=mc2 meant that there were new processes (e.g. fusion) where very tiny amounts of mass were converted to unreasonably large amounts of energy.  Amounts of energy so large that it tends to defy human intuition.  Here was an enormous, really huge source of potential energy that no one before even suspected.

Which gets me back to wealth.  To balance the wealth equation, there must be a huge reservoir out there of potential energy, or I guess you would call it potential wealth.  This source is the human mind.  All wealth flows from the human mind, and that source of energy is also unreasonably large, much larger than most people imagine.

  • morganovich

    one thing our esteemed proponent of stone age living leaves out is that under such a system, far fewer humans could be supported. i would guess that our population would need to decline 80%.

    i presume he anticipates being one of the lucky ones who gets to survive? who's going to break it to everyone else?

  • artemis

    our stone age living proponent also makes the most common failure i see in his type. they presume and "ideal period" where we were in harmony with nature. Such a time never existed. There are places today that live effectively in the stone age. If you go visit them you will find that the pollution there is much worse than in america as a result of huge populations burning biomass to cook, keep warm, etc.

    Let's look at some other things our primitive ancestors did:
    Drove virtually every large mammal in north america to extinction (contrary to popular believe the native americans were not at all "in tune" with nature. just as the giant sloth, woolly mammoth, etc.)

    Turned previously lush regions into deserts through massive land clearing

    Polluted everything downstream with human and animal waste products. This is why even today the "south side" (or whatever side is downstream) of towns are generally poor and high crime. We've moved past the times where downstream land was worth less, but our buying habits haven't.

    I could go on...

    And one might say "but we're smarter now"... only his entire premise is that we are not smarter, and we can't handle all this technology. Technology that saves many, many more species than it kills.

  • Zach

    "our stone age living proponent also makes the most common failure i see in his type. they presume and “ideal period” where we were in harmony with nature. Such a time never existed."

    For all the crap that these kinds of people give organized religion, their thoughts seem pretty religious. The old times, where man was perfect, then a fall from grace and a promise of eternal damnation unless you "repent and change your sinful ways".

  • Brian

    I suggest Adam Sacks lead by example.

  • the liberals

    wait, wait, please don't misunderstand: we don't ALL have to give up cars, and ipods, and central heating. shoot, that's just crazy talk! we just want YOU to give them up. we'll hang on to ours, as befits the benefits due to the priestly class. as al gore has shown us, if we can get enough of you proles to quit flying, it becomes much easier to get good rates on a private jet. lighten UP, proles! we'll make sure you always have enough beer and the nfl will always be on your telescreens.

    hey, look! a shiny object! look over here, proles!

  • morganovich

    all we need to do is get the average life expectancy down to 36 again and we're set...

    also: if you haven't, read his whole piece. wow. the hubris of, based on a failure to comprehend physics and data, demanding that 80% of the world die to support your little log cabin fantasy is pretty breathtaking.

  • ben

    I think what Adam Sacks is giving voice to is fundamental to the climate debate.

    My theory is this. The climate debate has little to do with science. The line of division in this debate is on personal values, and my guess is that one value in particular matters in this debate: a view that the world is zero sum. This value implies that consumption and surplus now must result in deficit later. Higher consumption now means a larger deficit later.

    Either you have this value or you do not. If you do, then the science of global warming gives objective voice to your intuitive concerns, and you readily accept policy conclusions which flow from it. If you do not, then climate science is probably not persuasive, and climate catastrophism probably appears ludicrous.

    This values view of the debate explains a couple of other features of it. One is the strong correlation between green politics and a leftist or socialist view. If one believes the economy is zero sum, then consumption beyond some minimum is evil because it necessarily comes at a cost that perfectly offsets the large surplus we currently enjoy. While consumption is privately enjoyed, the coming deficit or catastrophe which must follow is borne by the population and not the individuals who produced it through their largesse. Under this world view, taxing and regulating consumption now is appropriate and indeed essential because this reduces the socialised costs later.

    This values view of the debate also explains the passion that climate stirs. Nobody gets this excited about partical accelerators or relativity. Climate gives voice to a personal value that I guess something like half the population has.

    If this view is correct, then arguments over the merits of the science won't change much. The science, however proper, is merely a proxy for something more fundamental.

  • ben2

    I think what Adam Sacks is giving voice to is fundamental to the climate debate.

    My theory is this. The climate debate has little to do with science. The line of division in this debate is on personal values, and my guess is that one value in particular matters in this debate: a view that the world is zero sum. This value implies that consumption and surplus now must result in deficit later. Higher consumption now means a larger deficit later.

    Either you have this value or you do not. If you do, then the science of global warming gives objective voice to your intuitive concerns, and you readily accept policy conclusions which flow from it. If you do not, then climate science is probably not persuasive, and climate catastrophism probably appears ludicrous.

    This values view of the debate explains a couple of other features of it. One is the strong correlation between green politics and a leftist or socialist view. If one believes the economy is zero sum, then consumption beyond some minimum is evil because it necessarily comes at a cost that perfectly offsets the large surplus we currently enjoy. While consumption is privately enjoyed, the coming deficit or catastrophe which must follow is borne by the population and not the individuals who produced it through their largesse. Under this world view, taxing and regulating consumption now is appropriate and indeed essential because this reduces the socialised costs later.

    This values view of the debate also explains the passion that climate stirs. Nobody gets this excited about partical accelerators or relativity. Climate gives voice to a personal value that I guess something like half the population has.

    If this view is correct, then arguments over the merits of the science won't change much. The science, however proper, is merely a proxy for something more fundamental.

  • Mesa Econoguy

    My God these people are stupid…..

  • Dr. T

    All the naysayers fail to understand science or the physical world. They look at closed systems and see that they must degrade, but then they apply that "knowledge" to open systems. Our planet is an open system with an essentially unlimited energy supply (the sun) and huge quantities of limited energy supplies (fossil fuels and nuclear fuels). We have vast (but limited) amounts of metals and minerals, but when they run out we can start mining asteroids. Thus, we don't have the limitations of a closed system, and we don't have to panic about declining resources and pollution. (Proper application of energy eliminates pollution: look at our drinking water, our rivers and lakes, and our air quality. All are better now than in the mid-1900s and even the mid-1800s.)

    The naysayers have similar misbeliefs about economics. They fail to understand that wealth is created, not found, and therefore has no bounds in an open economy. (The economy isn't a pie that gets divided among people. The economy is a bakery that can make more and more pies as gains customers and as it becomes more productive.) Of course, most of the naysayers prefer governments that prevent open economies, and their limited thinking will fit those situations.

  • Reed Coray

    One can but hope the Adam Sacks of the world do the honorable thing (at least in their collective opinion) and fall on their swords before making the rest of us fall on ours.

  • http://www.timworstall.com Tim Worstall

    Much easier answer.

    Economic growth is measured by GDP per capita growth.

    GDP is not the amount of stuff produced. It is the value added to stuff. You can have GDP growth while using more, the same or less stuff. You just have to add more value to it.

  • Bob Smith

    We have vast (but limited) amounts of metals and minerals, but when they run out we can start mining asteroids.

    This is key. The asteroids have hundreds of thousands of years of heavy metals and other valuable material available, assuming everybody on the planet consumes them at the same rate Americans do. There are also vast stores of hydrocarbons out there.

    Resources are not a problem, limited imagination is. Activists like the bozo mentioned above would likely scream that space launches pollute too much to be allowed.

  • DMac

    It wouldn't be long before the food riots begin, as everything grown within the 'local' areas of NYC and LA are stripped bare in short order.

  • Prof Frink

    I think 80% is too low. Even in the year 1000 AD, there were only an estimated 300 million people. At the start of the agricultural revolution, that figure was around 600 million. Thus, I would guess local subsistence could only support 5% to 10% of the world's current population.

  • Roy Lofquist

    There are many definitions of "life". The most fundamental definition is found in the laws of thermodynamics - if entropy is decreasing it's alive.

  • Gil

    Yeah well saying "wealth is positive-sum" ignores the certain amounts of destruction that went with it. After all, what would've happen if there was no emiment domain and simpler people had no intentions of selling their resource-rich land instead preferring to keep it running inefficiently? Suppose there were property rights in the 'commons' thereby giving the factories no places to pollute thus stopping the Industrial Revolution dead in its track and keeping everyone stuck in an agrarian world? Alternatively, slavery must have been profitable otherwise it would have dissipated aeons ago (or never even evolved).

    On the other hand, why use population growth as a measure of wealth? Is someone with ten children automatically wealthier than someone with five children? Why? Societies that put emphasis on how many babies that parents can crank out tend to be poor ones. How much of the world's population actually create the world's wealth and how many are passive recipients of others' wealth?

    Besides like it or lump it, the Western World was definitely environmentally better off before the Industrial Revolution. Living lo-tech is bad for humans but good for nature. So what if tribal people did some environment damage and stopped not because they cared but because their lifestyle was no longer any more destructive to the environment of the time? Westerners definitely did despoil the environment even more. At least have some decency to admit the terraforming of the wild, untamed nature into cities, farms and gardens amount to a form of zero-sum conversion - the natural environment wasn't left alone whilst other land was created for people.

  • Val

    Roy, that is a common misconception about life. Entropy appears to be decreasing locally, but this 'decrease' is occuring in an open system with massive energy input. Net entropy still increases. No dice.

  • perlhaqr

    Kinda makes me yearn to smack this asshat in the head with an antelope thighbone.

  • http://www.tinyurl.com/fan001 ZZMike

    "Yep, let’s all return to that sustainable world of 8000BC..."

    Pointless as it is to reply to a board-certified moron like Sacks, I would also ask him if he's willing to give up the few odd strides in medicine that we've made since the early Pharaohs - when the average life expectancy was somewhere between 30 and 40 years.

    Little things, like the cure for polio (Salk, 1954), or for rabies (Pasteur, 1885) or for smallpox (Jenner, 1796), or ...

    Rosseau was wrong. There never was a "noble savage". The main difference between the lives of men and of animals way back when was that we spent a little less time hunting for food than they did.

    And we could sing about it over the campfire at night.

    The campfire that kept the wolves at bay.

  • http://elmtreeforge.blogspot.com Firehand

    "Sacks, sounds dangerous; you go first."

  • Doug

    Sounds like there outa be some sort of mandatory hard labor for Adam. Idle brains are the devils workshop.

  • Titus

    travelling by horse

    That's actually far too generous: the horse wasn't domesticated that early, and it wasn't a means of personal transportation until the invention of the chariot around 5,000 years ago. It wasn't a highly effective means of personal transportation until the invention of stirrups around, at best, 500 B.C. This guy isn't talking about ancient Mesopotamian life, he's talking about ape-with-a-stick life.

  • GregS

    It's easy to get angry at people like Adam Sacks for advocating these ideas, but he's just taking the green movement to its logical conclusion. Environmentalism is essentially a religion that holds pristine nature to be sacred, and human modifications to nature to be immoral. Most environmentalists don't take it that far, of course, and most try to find some compromise that lets them protect nature while retaining their technology-based lifestyles. But in the end, if you think pristine nature is sacred, then you've got to conclude that any human activity above the hunter-gatherer level is corrupt. So the problem isn't with people like Sacks; it's with the ideas that underlies the entire green movement. And it's those ideas you need to discredit, not the people who mouth them.