Home > Economics in Two Lessons, Philosophy > The political is personal

The political is personal

May 18th, 2015

Working on my Economics in Two Lessons book, I’ve had to address the concept of Pareto optimality, which naturally raises the question of how it fits into Pareto’s larger body of anti-democratic and anti-egalitarian thought, which culminated, at the end of his life, in his embrace of Mussolini’s fascism. This led me to an article (paywalled, sorry) published by Renato Cirillo, in 1983, defending Pareto against the charge of being a precursor of fascism. Cirillo asserts that, far from being a fascist, Pareto

“manifested consistently a strong attachment to a type of liberalism not dissimilar to the one later attributed to Mises and Hayek”

These are rather unfortunate examples, in view Mises writings in praise of fascism and work for the Dollfuss regime, and (even more), Hayek’s embrace of Pinochet, at the very time Cirillo was writing [^1].

This, along with my discovery that Locke was actively involved in the expropriation of the native American population, justified by his theory of property, led me (back) to the question of the relationship between the writings of political theorists (broadly defined to include economists, sociologists and philosophers engaged with these issues) and their personal political activity and commitments. I’ve come to two conclusions about this.

First, for serious writers on political theory, political engagement is and ought to be the rule rather than the exception. I don’t mean that philosophers should (necessarily) run for office. Rather someone whose political theory doesn’t lead them to have and express views on the great political issues of their day probably doesn’t much of interest to say about theory either (unless of course, their theory leads them to some form of quietism). That’s true of the writers whose commitments were creditable (for example, John Stuart Mill and Bertrand Russell) as well as the discreditable cases I’ve mentioned.

Second, it makes no sense to look at the theoretical writings and ignore the political commitments with which they are associated. For example, it is easy to construct readings of Pareto, Mises and Hayek in ways that make them appear either as friends or as enemies of political liberalism. Their (remarkably similar) actions make it clear which reading is correct. Eventually, of course, ideas outgrow their creators to the point where original intentions, and the texts in which they were expressed, cease to be relevant. But, as the Locke example shows, that’s a very slow process. As long as a writer is regarded as having any personal authority, the weight of that auhtority must be assessed in the light of their actions as well as their words.

[^1]: To be sure, none of these writers can properly be described as fascists – they aren’t interested in nationalism or in the display of power for its own sake. Rather, their brand of liberalism is hostile to democracy and indifferent to political liberty, making them natural allies of any fascist regime which adheres to free market orthodoxy in economics.

  1. Mick
    May 18th, 2015 at 18:35 | #1

    Rawls’ Difference Principle has been subject to Pareto-based arguments (cf Lamont here): http://www.academia.edu/4177502/Principles_of_Justice_in_the_Original_Position

  2. Megan
    May 18th, 2015 at 18:41 | #2

    I won’t labour the point, but I don’t believe nationalism is an essential element of fascism. Historically it was an important element, but these days (where it exists) it is more of a symptom as we have developed a kind of globalised fascism.

    I’m reading a book of Orwell’s essays. The following extract is from “Why I Write”:

    I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in — at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own — but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape. It is his job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage, in some perverse mood; but if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write. … I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are:

    (iv) Political purpose. — Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

    I mention that quote in the context that “everything is political”, one way or another.

  3. jungney
    May 18th, 2015 at 19:22 | #3

    JQ: I tend to agree. It seems to me that you’ve acknowledged the deeply situational, specific and structural reasons that underpin the nature of ideology.

  4. Geoff Edwards
    May 18th, 2015 at 19:35 | #4

    Thanks Prof John. Your post brought to mind David Ricardo and his widely cited example of the merits of trade: Portugal is more efficient at producing wine, England at producing cloth, so they both should specialise. Of course the foundation of his so called theory of comparative advantage is quicksand because the preconditions of full employment and immobility of capital no longer apply. However, setting that aside, I understand that Ricardo’s family had extensive wine estates in Portugal. This would seem to more or less completely invalidate any general theory that he purported to derive. Can any reader post a reference to an author who may have written on this conflict of interest?

  5. May 18th, 2015 at 19:39 | #5

    The personal and political actions of past authorities and admired exemplars in subjects outside that realm is often a fraught issue in other areas than economics. Political attitudes can change and hindsight judgement is dubious.

    Take the field of religion. Past theologians have deliberated on various aspects of social and political behaviour and often come to diametrically opposite conclusions, apparently based on the same text and belief system. Here is a past respected American religious theologian passing judgement on an issue of the day.


    Circumstances exist among the inhabitants of these United States, which make it proper that the Scriptures should be carefully examined by Christians in reference to the institution of Slavery, which exists in several of the states, with the approbation of those who profess unlimited subjection to God’s revealed will.”

    Historically he was on the wrong side of the argument. But that does not automatically invalidate all the theological, or theoretical and practical arguments he, and other authorities of the time, made. It was not THEN seen as the settled moral issue it now is.

    The problem with the theological position of someone like Stringfellow then, and economists more recently, is the suspicion that the religious or economic conclusions were a result of their political and social point of view, rather than their dalliance with politics being a side-effect of their theological/economic expertise.

  6. Newtownian
    May 18th, 2015 at 19:59 | #6

    A piece of history I’d like to see you address John which may fit with this is the (hi)story of mainstream economists’ reaction to the Limits to Growth. (A recent revisit is HALL, C. A. S. & DAY, J. W. 2009 Revisiting the Limits to Growth: After Peak Oil. American Scientist, 97 230-237.) My reading is that at the time it was quite vitriolic and dimissive. The following article reportedly made economist blood boil – SKINNER, B. J. 1976. Second iron age ahead. Am. Sci., 64, 258-269. There has been much published since and of course there is ‘peak oil’. More recent articles on non oil resources (and hence less likely to make blood boil) indicating the debate is still alive and lively are TILTON, J. E. 1996. Exhaustible resources and sustainable development: Two different paradigms. Resources Policy, 22, 91-97. That indicated debate was still raging 20 years later and the latter touches on your opportunity cost issue. ALLWOOD, J. M., ASHBY, M. F., GUTOWSKI, T. G. & WORRELL, E. 2011. Material efficiency: A white paper. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 55, 362-381.

    Another possibly relevant issue is a debate on intergenerational ethics and sustainable economics. e.g. BECKERMAN, W. 1997. Debate: Intergenerational Equity and the Environment. Journal of Political Philosophy, 5, 392-405. The latter is interesting in that his assertions seem to amount to us having no obligation to future generations and hence this should not be part of (economic) policy. Certainly an interesting ethical issue.

  7. Ikonoclast
    May 18th, 2015 at 20:08 | #7

    I will soon reach a point relevant to this post so bear with me. I used to be a great admirer of Edmund Spenser’s poetry. Imagine my disillusion I discovered what a truly nasty piece of work Spenser was.

    For example;

    ” In 1596, Spenser wrote a prose pamphlet titled A View of the Present State of Ireland. This piece, in the form of a dialogue, circulated in manuscript, remaining unpublished until the mid-seventeenth century. It is probable that it was kept out of print during the author’s lifetime because of its inflammatory content. The pamphlet argued that Ireland would never be totally ‘pacified’ by the English until its indigenous language and customs had been destroyed, if necessary by violence.[12]” – Wikipedia.

    “Spenser wished devoutly that the Irish language should be eradicated, writing that if children learn Irish before English, “Soe that the speach being Irish, the hart must needes be Irishe; for out of the aboundance of the hart, the tonge speaketh”.[22]

    ” He pressed for a scorched-earth policy in Ireland, noting that the destruction of crops and animals had been successful in crushing the Desmond rebellion..” – Wikipedia.

    Literary works, philosophical works and even political-economic works by such people (cruel authoritarians, advocates of cruelty, dispossession and so on) are irretrievably stained. The lie of the life destroys the worth of work. If the life is a lie, the work is a lie, no matter how beguiling and fair-seeming it might appear at first sight. Once so alerted, you can search in the work and soon find the lies. Locke is a good case in point for this method. Jungney has pointed this out very well in the JQ blogs.

  8. Geoff Edwards
    May 18th, 2015 at 20:34 | #8


    For an essay tracing economists’ traditional antipathy towards limits to growth, my favourite is Matthew Simmons (2000) Revisiting The Limits to Growth: Could the Club of Rome Have Been Correct, After All? An Energy White Paper, available from http://greatchange.org/ov-simmons%2Cclub_of_rome_revisted.html or http://www.energybulletin.net/node/1512 . Although the essay fizzles out a bit towards the end.

    For a peer-reviewed update, I recommend Turner, G. (2008) ‘A comparison of The Limits to Growth with 30 years of reality’ Global Environmental Change, Vol 18: 397-411. This Australian research tracked a few of the indicators from the 1972 work and found that we were following the business as usual trajectory.

    Despite all the scientific evidence that there are real thermodynamic and resource limits to unlimited economic expansion, and that we are approaching them rapidly, most orthodox economists that I meet simply refuse to accept these “doomsday” predictions. There is truly a cognitive dissonance between contemporary mainstream economics and science.

    The most lucid explanation I know of this scene is a little known paper Int. J. Environment, Workplace and Employment, Vol. 2, No. 4, 2006 385 Sustainability – implications for growth,
    employment and consumption by Richard Sanders, a Brisbane-based ecological economist.

  9. Robert
    May 18th, 2015 at 20:37 | #9

    I agree that philosophers ought to be politically engaged, but I think that the relationship ought to be more complicated that a 1:1 mapping of philosophy onto political views. Hayek’s explanation of the rule of law, for instance, is tainted by his insistence that the rule of law is the only virtue that law can exhibit, and that therefore e.g. redistribution makes for morally bad law. (Raz has a famous response to Hayek and others on these points in “The Rule of Law and its Virtue”).

    If your philosophy leads you to a deontological rejection of opposing political viewpoints, then you should entertain the possibility that something has gone wrong.

  10. May 18th, 2015 at 21:46 | #10

    Deleted. I told you to take a month off, only a few days ago

  11. Ivor
    May 18th, 2015 at 21:53 | #11

    @Jack Strocchi

    Under capitalism, because of capitalism, free markets end up generating a fascist impetus.

    You cannot accumulate value by continually expropriating value from workers without finally, when other options are exhausted, resorting to a form of fascism.

  12. TerjeP
    May 18th, 2015 at 22:06 | #12

    Rather, their brand of liberalism is hostile to democracy and indifferent to political liberty, making them natural allies of any fascist regime which adheres to free market orthodoxy in economics.

    What does “indifferent to political liberty” mean in practice? I think people should be free to express any political opinion they wish to. But I certainly don’t think they should be free to implement any political system they want. Anybody that believes in “limited government” by definition thinks that there should be restraints.

    Pinochet was heroic for stepping in to stop the unconstitutional acts being perpetrated by Allende. But obviously Pinochet subsequently lost the plot and became a brutal despot. When it comes to such historical figures it’s possible to admire some deeds and abhor others. I would not judge somebody poorly for admiring the admirable deeds unless in so doing they sought to whitewashed the abhorrent ones.

  13. Luke
    May 18th, 2015 at 22:20 | #13

    A couple of typos:
    probably doesn’t _?have?_ much to say
    weight of that _auHTority_

    Feel free to delete this comment!

  14. Mick
    May 18th, 2015 at 22:32 | #14


    Ann Pettifor @AnnPettifor 2 hours ago
    Robert Shiller, Michael Howard & I will discuss the ‘infinite boom’ at https://howthelightgetsin.iai.tv/events/the-infinite-boom
    Here’s my take: http://www.primeeconomics.org/articles/the-growth-delusion

  15. Mick
    May 18th, 2015 at 22:34 | #15

    @Jack Strocchi

    “Making the trains run on time” was attributed to Mussolini

  16. Megan
    May 18th, 2015 at 23:54 | #16


    Pinochet was heroic for stepping in to stop the unconstitutional acts being perpetrated by Allende.


    What unconstitutional acts is Pinochet heroic for stepping in to stop?

    A list of the acts with references to the parts of the constitution they offended against is the very least you must provide to support that statement.

  17. TerjeP
    May 19th, 2015 at 00:11 | #17

    Megan – I’ll quote this passage from historian (and NSW parliamentarian) Dr Peter Phelps.

    On 26 May 1973 Chile’s Supreme Court unanimously denounced the Allende regime’s “disruption of the legality of the nation” in its failure to uphold judicial decisions. Allende’s Government refused to permit police execution of judicial resolutions that contradicted the Government’s measures. On 22 August 1973 the Chilean Chamber of Deputies passed a resolution 81-47 that called on “the President of the Republic, Ministers of State, and members of the Armed and Police Forces” to put an immediate end to the breach of the Constitution “with the goal of redirecting government activity towards the path of Law and ensuring the Constitutional order of our Nation, and the essential underpinnings of democratic co-existence among Chileans”.


  18. Megan
    May 19th, 2015 at 00:48 | #18


    Oooohhh! A quote! From a NSW parliamentarian, no less.

    Sorry Terje, but you made an assertion of fact. You must be able to back it up with evidence.

    Maybe you can’t. That’s OK, you can just say you heard it around the place and accepted it to be true.

    But unless you (the person who asserted it to be a fact) can do that, the exact opposite must apply. That is, it isn’t true.

    Again, please show me the acts Allende did which violated the constitution and list the sections they violated.

    As an aside: I admit that I might be wrong about this (see how it’s done?) but…at least on one point the required vote was 2/3rds, and 47 from 81 doesn’t make the cut.

  19. jrkrideau
    May 19th, 2015 at 04:03 | #19


    Ireland would never be totally ‘pacified’ by the English until its indigenous language and customs had been destroyed, if necessary by violence.

    And he was still wrong as the Republic of Ireland seems to say. OTOH, this seems similar to various policies followed against Australian and Canadian native populations.

  20. jrkrideau
    May 19th, 2015 at 04:07 | #20

    What unconstitutiona activities?

    Threatening ITT ?

  21. jungney
    May 19th, 2015 at 05:58 | #21

    So, was the torture and murder of Victor Jaraheroic constitutionalism? Here’s the detail:

    Víctor Jara was detained in Estadio Chile among thousands of others during the 1973 Chilean military coup against the Unidad Popular government, of which Jara was an icon. Jara, a popular folksinger, sang for the other detainees to maintain morale. Along with Andean and Chilean folk songs, he sang a “manifesto” composed his second night there. The militia recognized him for his song and fame and removed him from the crowd. The guards tore off his nails, smashed his hands, and ordered him to play the guitar. He was found dead a week later with signs of brutal treatment and gunshot wounds. The “manifesto” survived through both the detainees who memorized the song and the scraps of paper containing Jara’s handwritten lyrics.

    Why is the path to libertarian freedom always awash with the blood of others?

  22. John Quiggin
    May 19th, 2015 at 05:58 | #22


    Pinochet was a mass murderer from Day 1, a fact of which you appear unaware, presumably because so many of the people you associate with are apologists for his murderous regime. I don’t want any Pinochet supporters commenting on my blog. So, I suggest you take a bit of time off to educate yourself on this topic. If, after that, you still consider Pinochet “heroic”, please don’t bother returning here.

  23. TerjeP
    May 19th, 2015 at 07:19 | #23

    JQ – what part of “brutal despot” don’t you understand? I made it quite plain that nobody should whitewash the abhort deeds. You are being a little silly.

    Stalin was a useful ally in defeating Hitler. Does that make me a fan of Stalin? George Washington was heroic at times. Does that make me an advocate for slavery? Ghandi was a great social reformer. Does that make me a racist who thinks Indians are racially superior to Africans? Churchill showed great leadership. Does that mean I support gassing of Muslims?

  24. TerjeP
    May 19th, 2015 at 07:26 | #24

    Sorry Terje, but you made an assertion of fact. You must be able to back it up with evidence.

    My understanding of history is based on accounts by historians. I have not travelled to Chile to photograph any primary documents or interview those involved. Sorry if that’s what you were expecting.

  25. Ikonoclast
    May 19th, 2015 at 08:21 | #25

    @Geoff Edwards

    Limits to growth is a little more complicated than ” simple” thermodynamic limits. Advances in solar power generation (and wind power generation) mean that energy limits are likely to be distant rather than near in terms of the limits to growth. A simple thermodynamic argument at the level of appropriating exergy (energy for useful work) is not now able to demonstrate near limits to growth.

    This does not obviate the limits to growth “argument” (indeed LTG is not an argument but a physical certainty under the current known laws of the universe). It is very possible that one or more of the many other resources we use will be a limiting factor (in the sense of Liebig’s Law of the Minimum). This is notwithstanding substitutions. Indeed, as we are material beings, there are certain physiological needs which can never be substituted. Water is a clear example. Current water supplies are likely to fail in many parts of the globe. Glaciers are disappearing. When they disappear, glacier fed rivers disappear. Ground waters supplies, aquifers etc. are being depleted at completely unsustainable rates. When they fail, huge currently productive regions will become or revert to dust-bowls or deserts.

    Perhaps even more important is the limited ability of the biosphere’s physical cycles and bio-services to absorb wastes and keep providing the necessary physical and bio-services.

    It is clear that the climate system cannot safely absorb any more CO2 and CO2 equivalent emissions if we are not to exceed plus 2 C warming. (Which limit itself is now disputed as a “safe” limit.) It is clear that the ecological web of life cannot absorb even the wastes of current levels of production without generating a mass extinction event orders of magnitude greater than any other in the record.

    These facts ought to generate doubt in orthodox advocates of endless material growth. I see no signs of this doubt nor of any of the necessary humility in the face of natural forces. We are a long way into overshoot. All the science shows that.

  26. J-D
    May 19th, 2015 at 09:40 | #26


    It’s extremely common — perhaps universal — for the same individual to be responsible both for creditable actions and for discreditable actions, and therefore an appropriate recipient of both credit and discredit. The point you’re missing here is that it’s specifically and precisely the actions of Pinochet which you describe euphemistically as ‘stepping in to stop the unconstitutional acts being perpetrated by Allende’ which were discreditable (indeed, abominable). The vicious bloodshed wasn’t what you again euphemistically describe as a ‘losing of the plot’ subsequent to the ‘stepping in’; the ‘stepping in’ was the vicious bloodshed. If you think that violating a constitution can by itself be sufficient justification for killing people, then you are losing the plot.

  27. Uncle Milton
    May 19th, 2015 at 09:42 | #27

    Some economists do have a naive faith in the supposedly beneficial intentions of dictators, presumably because they have a free hand to impose those economists’ favourite economic prescriptions, without all that messy democratic push back. Alas, this includes economists on the Left. The great Joan Robinson was a big fan of Chairman Mao, including his cultural revolution. (On the local scene, so was Ted Wheelwright.) Michal Kalecki went back to Poland after the war to work for the communist government there.

    I don’t it’s the case that economists who play footsy with dictators actually approve of people getting tortured and murdered. But they are quite happy to avert their gaze if it means that the overall welfare of the country is improved, as they see it.

  28. TerjeP
    May 19th, 2015 at 10:04 | #28

    J-D – in my view Pinochet stoping Allende was like Stalin stopping Hitler. Although different also in some rather obvious ways. Allende needed to be stopped. That does not detract from the inexcusable tactics used in that quest but it does give them context.

    This illustrates the point of my original question about political liberty. Should Allende have been free to ignore Supreme Court rulings against his program of nationalisation? Does his political liberty trump the rule of law? Does he carry any responsibility for the unlawful state in which people felt they were forced to choose between one violent despot or another?

    I’m all for a pluralistic society where we tolerate a whole range of political views. I would not ban the communist party. But if they tried to implement old school communism in Australia and nationalise the farms and businesses and they controlled the means to do so then I may well make allegiances with some unsavoury people.

    Political liberty needs to be properly defined before opposition to it can be condemned. IMHO.

  29. TerjeP
    May 19th, 2015 at 10:10 | #29

    p.s. And for those that think Allende had the will of the people behind him this is bunk. His party did not even win a majority and his coalition partners abandoned him due to his unlawful deeds.

  30. TerjeP
    May 19th, 2015 at 10:18 | #30

    The vicious bloodshed wasn’t what you again euphemistically describe as a ‘losing of the plot’ subsequent to the ‘stepping in’; the ‘stepping in’ was the vicious bloodshed.

    To be super clear I do not deny this. Those that tried to kill Hitler with a bomb were engaged in an act of vicious bloodshed. The ANC in South Africa engaged in many when they challenged the apartheid regime. All such acts are questionable as is war itself. But also sometimes, unfortunately, necessary. Although even then one can rightly question if they needed to be as bloody or as vicious as they were. When you unleash the dogs of war sometimes things go too far. But from the comfort of an armchair a long time after the fact it’s also easy to be critical and pretend to be morally superior.

  31. John Quiggin
    May 19th, 2015 at 11:08 | #31

    Nothing more from you, please, Terje.

  32. Cambo
    May 19th, 2015 at 12:44 | #32

    Prof. Q if you are doing politically derived economic beliefs and including “the limits to growth” then I’d love to see Marilyn Waring’s “counting for nothing” included.

  33. jt
    May 19th, 2015 at 13:43 | #33

    I like pointing out to libertarians, conservatives and self-described classical liberals that the Social Democrats were the only party in the Reichstag who voted against the Enabling Act that gave Adolf Hitler dictatorial powers (of course the Communists were absent having been kicked out by right wing goons). Every parliamentrary representative on the right showed their true colours that day.

    Otto Wels, the SDP leader stood up in an atmosphere thick with intimidation and violence and said:

    We German Social Democrats pledge ourselves solemnly in this historic hour to the principles of humanity and justice, of freedom and socialism. No enabling act can give you power to destroy ideas which are eternal and indestructible.

  34. plaasmatron
    May 19th, 2015 at 18:16 | #34

    Terje, the quote in NSW parliament that you refer to is discussed in Wikipedia, but I suppose me quoting Wikipedia does not make it a fact.

    In 2013, on the 40th anniversary of the military coup in Chile, Phelps, in a speech in the NSW Parliament, said that he supported the overthrow of Salvador Allende. Phelps’ comments were controversial, with the Australian Labor Party and Australian Greens calling for Premier Barry O’Farrell to reprimand or sack Phelps for his comments. He was neither sacked nor reprimanded.[5]

    It also refers to the honourable Dr Phelps as stating

    “some of the strongest supporters of totalitarian regimes in the last century have been scientists… We should not be so surprised that the contemporary science debate has become so debased,” he said. “At the heart of many scientists – but not all scientists – lies the heart of a totalitarian planner.”

  35. anthony nolan
    May 19th, 2015 at 19:18 | #35

    Yairs, there really are some outliers. Phelps is one.

  36. Geoff Edwards
    May 20th, 2015 at 06:58 | #36

    Thanks, ikonoclast. I agree with all of your post except the first paragraph. Solar and wind are both dispersed forms of energy and to aggregate them requires energy and materials. I doubt whether a modern industrial society can be run on dispersed energy as we would spend too large a proportion of our materials, energy and labour budgets on gathering together enough energy to run the rest of society. It may be possible, but would probably require significant localisation so that population, sources of food and sources of useful work were all geographically close to each other to minimise waste of energy. I don’t see that happening without an enforced crisis of some kind.

  37. Ikonoclast
    May 20th, 2015 at 09:25 | #37

    @Geoff Edwards

    Our positions are probably quite close. I too am concerned about the dispersed nature of renewable energy. However, the latest data on solar and wind suggest the EROEI (which is a function of dispersion or concentration of exergy) is becoming quite workable, ranging from 10:1 on solar to 20:1 on wind. I think these numbers will improve even further.

    However, if the dispersion/collection problem is overcome (even at least partially) there is still the issue of the scalability or build-out feasibility in terms of total materials available for the build-out of the energy collection infrastructure.

    At the same time, I maintain that renewable energy is our only option. It is sustainable (at some level) and will not cause broad climate change anywhere near the degree caused by burning fossil fuels. Thus, I say ” Whatever level of economic activity and civilization that renewable energy will confer then ipso facto that will become the level possible and extant.” We must take that path (indeed we will be forced by natural forces to take that path) and accept and live with whatever level of living that confers.

    It is very possible that energy problems, water problems, sea level rise already in train, climate change already in train and so on could reduce the world’s population considerably by the end of this century. Our standards of living could also reduce markedly. Indeed, I think both outcomes are very probable.

    Nevertheless, the principle remains that renewable energy and resources can sustain some level of civilization. The question is what level of civilization? All civilizations before industrialisation were so sustained by renewable energy although there are good arguments that certain other resources were not used sustainably even then at least on a regional basis. Some forests and perhaps even some fisheries were clearly exploited unsustainably before industrialisation. We can even go back to the first human migrations around the globe and note that the megafauna were exploited unsustainably.

    I believe a lot is possible with frugality, environmental design and a fully electrical economy. Some who blog here talk about the impossibility of living with intermittent electrical energy. Point one is that it would be possible to live with intermittent supply. Point two is that there are enough ways to aggregate individual intermittent supplies on a distributed network into a steady supply. Point three is that there are many ways to store energy and chemical potential storage (in batteries) is far from the only way.

    Everyone who has a solar hot water system already stores energy. They store the energy as heat energy which of course is the precise form of energy required as output. Aircon is not a life necessity though some who blog here think it is. However, it is quite feasible to aircon a house or building with solar power by day and let it keep cool at night. The latter is achieved by insulation and thermal ballast. Thermal ballast like water tanks, rocks or tiles which are integral parts of the interior structure are cooled by day (via the solar aircon stream) and absorb heat at night keeping interior air temperature cool.

    Commercial and industrial levels of energy will be feasible from solar panel arrays, concentrating solar power plants and perhaps even solar convection towers which produce power day and night. (Temperature gradients from surface to altitude increase by night.)

    Nevertheless, the materials for this build-out may be a limiting factor as we discussed. Water, soil and (lack of) climate benignity will become limiting problems for us. Certainly material growth must stop and will probably go into reverse for a considerable time span.

    Even knowledge and complexity growth must stop eventually. People forget that complexity requires energy for maintenance. With non-renewable energy sources the dwindling of the energy stocks and the negative externality damage are the primary limiting factors. (Though these problems still manifest as a dwindling flow of energy production.) With renewable energy sources, the peak net energy flow possible will be the limiting factor which in turn will be limited at some point by material build-out limits.

    Finally, “I don’t see that happening without an enforced crisis of some kind.”

    I absolutely agree and I have expounded on this blog a form of crisis theory which states that this system will have to collapse and manifestly fail to deliver for the majority of the population before our political economy (and energy economy) will undergo the necessary transformation. The brutal reality is that the bulk of the people will have to collapse into poverty and perhaps even begin starving en masse before they realise the current system has failed terminally and has no possibility of recovery without transformation.

  38. PB
    May 20th, 2015 at 19:38 | #38

    Wow. Terjep. Peter Phelps is your go to guy when it comes to one of the most disgusting tyrants of the second half of the twentieth century? The same Peter Phelps who accused Mike Kelly of being no better than the guards at Treblinka? Who thinks scientists who are concerned about climate change are little better than nazis? This is the guy you think has a compelling story to tell about the ‘heroicism’ of Pinochet?… If anyone needed evidence of the decadence of the Australian right there it is…

  39. John Quiggin
    May 21st, 2015 at 11:08 | #39


    Oddly enough, I appeared (by teleconference) before a committee of the NSW Legislative Council on electricity privatisation. Phelps was the main government member. I can’t say he struck me as a pleasant sort of person, or one I would want to cite as an authority.

Comments are closed.