November 19, 2017

Grandpa’s tougher than we thought

The “Limits To Growth” and other ecologically orientated studies of the future of industrial society point to some of the major constraints on further economic growth, such as resource shortages, global pollution loads and social disintegration. Critics, who for various reasons are incapable of facing the implications, search frantically for arguments which will persuade themselves and others that such constraints are either illusory or that, for various technical reasons, they will never become operative.

One such argument is that these studies have overstated the situation, and that things are not quite as bad as they appear to be. This argument is used in varying degrees by our most outspoken ostriches such as Zuckerman, Beckerman, Maddox and also the World Bank in its Report on “The Limits To Growth”. The latter for instance sets out explicitly to demonstrate that the estimated reserves of non-renewable resources cited by the “Limits” team are very pessimistic. It points out, for instance, that in 1954, world iron ore reserves were estimated at 85 billion gross tons with an iron content of 42 billion tons. In 1966 reserves were in the order of 250 billion gross tons and another 200 billion gross tons were identified as potential ores, leading together to an estimate of about 200 billion tons of metallic iron in both categories, or five times larger than the 1954 estimate. The “Limits” estimate is 110 billion tons, or roughly half the 1966 estimate of “reserves and potential ores” which most people agree is extremely conservative. According to the US Bureau of Mines, the price increase required to double the current reserve estimates is 35-40 per cent.

With regard to bauxite, the situation is even more favourable as world reserves increased seven-fold between 1950 and 1972, from 1.6 billion tons to 11.7 billion tons.

It must not be forgotten that the “Limits” model has allowed for such uncertainty by assuming that resources exceed proven reserves by five times. Meadows (the head of the “Limits” team) and his colleagues regard this as a generous assumption. The World Bank, however, considers this claim as “patently absurd, since possible developments in resource expansion—through discovery and technology, and resource creation (the commercialisation of heretofore unutilised or underutilised goods)—can individually raise reserves much above five times their current levels, nothing to say of what they can do jointly by interaction”.

There are many things wrong with the World Bank’s position. The fact that estimates were wrong on one or two previous occasions does not mean that they will always be wrong. The number of wrong estimates cited is very small, far too small to provide a satisfactory sample of estimates on which to base a prediction regarding the accuracy of future estimates.

The critics forget that it is not only massive resource and energy supplies which have permitted the growth of industrial society in the last 150 years but the fact that these were available at an unrealistically low price. Industrialisation has, to a large extent, taken the form of substituting synthetics for natural products. As the price of the resources with which the synthetics are made increases, so does this substitution become increasingly less economic until eventually industrialisation must go into reverse. Let us not forget that the price of many of the resources cited has gone up by as much as four times in one single year!

The same argument is used against the “Limits to Growth” position on global pollution. On this subject the “Limits” team considers that a pollution catastrophe could be averted if pollution generation from all sources were reduced to one fourth its assumed initial level, but expresses great scepticism that this could be accomplished.

Their model assumes a linear relationship between pollution level (POL) and capital stock per capita (CIR). The Bank consultants, on the other hand, consider that a reduction of the ratio POL/CIR to three-eighths the value originally assumed—an adjustment well within the error range of the data—erases the prediction of catastrophe.

“Since data on the actual relationship between pollution and capital stock are sparse, and especially in view of the high degree of aggregation of the pollution variable, they consider that there is no particular reason to favour one value for this relationship over the others.”

Besides they estimate that,

“crudely speaking, it appears that industrial pollutants can be reduced to 80 per cent from 90 per cent through annual expenditures of the order of 5 per cent or less of the total value of the particular industrial output”.

For electric power generation, similar reductions would cost about 2 per cent of total power costs. Automobile emissions (CO and NO) can be reduced to one-tenth of the present rate which would mean increasing prices by 10 per cent. Resources for the future estimate that for about 46 billion dollars a year (including the cost of solid waste disposal) this would mean just under 2 per cent of GNP.” There is a lot wrong with this argument. Firstly, it is simply not true that pollution levels can, even in theory, be reduced by 80 per cent or 90 per cent, This may be true for specific pollutants, but not for a host of pollutants whose emissions cannot be controlled by technical means at all: heat, for instance, save by generating less energy, carbon dioxide by burning less fossil fuels, nitrates and phosphates and pesticides in agriculture by using less of them.

The World Bank consultants and Resources for the Future also forget that an 80 per cent or even a 90 per. cent reduction of pollution levels is of negligible account when GNP is in-creasing exponentially, as it has been, by 6 per cent per annum world-wide, In 30 years—assuming an 80 per cent reduction—total pollution generated would equal that which obtained before any measures were introduced, if we were to reduce pollution by 90 per cent, then such a point would be reached in 70 years.

They also assume the willingness of an industrial society faced with mounting expenditures and ever worsening crises to invest such sums in pollution control. Indeed, the experience of last year in the US should be sufficient to show just how low a priority is pollution control when an industrial state is faced with an energy and resource crisis as is the case today. (See The Caviar Chimera, Ecologist March/ April issue).

In addition, the World Bank does not seem to have understood the relationship between capital and pollution (CIR-POL). The former is a measure of the building up of the technosphere which is a new organisation of matter deriving its resources from the biosphere and consigning to it its waste products. It is important to realise however, that for the biosphere, not only the waste products of the technosphere but the technosphere itself are waste products. Capital expenditure is thus almost entirely devoted to the production of waste, though the toxicity of this waste will vary in different conditions.

Of course the main error is in attributing too great a sensitivity of the model to changes in the value of its variables. The question is not whether pollution levels must be reduced to a quarter or three eights of the present levels to avoid catastrophe. In the face of exponential growth of 6 per cent per annum such reductions are neither here nor there. The “Limits” team would have done better in fact to resist attributing any values at all to the variables used. This would have forced their critics to concentrate on the principles involved rather than divert attention to the measurable data. The figures at best are guess work, the principles, on the other hand, are unassailable.

The consultants write,

“Even small changes in the assumptions concerning population growth, pollution and technology could alter not only the volume but also the composition of future output with far-reaching implications for resource requirements”.

This may be true of the “Limits” model as it stands but it is certainly not true of the real situation facing us today.

In reality, a satisfactory model of the effect of industrialisation on the biosphere would be very insensitive to changes in the value of the variables in terms of which it would be described. Basically, it would show that industrialisation is a process involving the building up of a new organisation of matter: the technosphere which is in direct competition with the biosphere. The one can only expand at the cost of the other. Economic growth is thereby biological contraction. The process will come to an end when the technosphere can no longer be sustained by the biosphere. When this day will occur, is difficult to predict with accuracy, though everything points to the likelihood that it is very close at hand.

On the other hand, it is essential to realise that the more economic growth we allow, the more our society will become geared to the use of resources which will become increasingly expensive and eventually unavailable and the greater must be the social consequences of the inevitable crash. On the other hand, the earlier we start phasing out non-sustainable activities, the smoother will be the transition to a sustainable situation. Indeed we must start now on a programme of systematic negative-growth, de-industrialisation and decentralisation. There is not a day to lose.

The conclusion reached by the critics shows that they have totally missed the point. The World Bank consultants write, “We do not wish to imply that pollution is of little global concern or is unrelated to economic growth. This does not mean that there is no danger; it does mean that pollution build up and world’s collapse is not necessarily inevitable even with continued economic growth.”

The Social Policy Research Unit comes to the same unbelievable conclusion. “Since we believe that brute poverty is still a major problem for most people in the world, and since in general we do not believe that the physical constraints are quite so pressing as the MIT team suggest, we do not accept their enthusiastic endorsement of zero growth as the ideal for the world. (FUTURES, Vol. 5, No. 1, p. 10).

The argument is thus that we can go on poisoning the world simply because it appears still capable for a while longer to provide us with and to absorb the poisons we are methodically administering to it.

Grandpa, in fact is tougher than we thought, so we can go on pouring cyanide into his morning coffee.


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