Against the doomsayers

Today is World Environment Day, and it’s a good day to celebrate past achievements and point out the errors of the doomsayers who’ve long been over-represented in the environment debate. The central message of the doomsday school is simple:
we can’t protect the environment unless we are willing to accept a radical reduction in our standard of living.

Although they agree on this point, they disagree radically about its implications, dividing into two opposed groups[1]

* Deep Greens who say that we should radically reduce our standard of living and protect the environment
* Dark Browns who say that we should do nothing to protect the environment because to do so will wreck our standards of living

Experience since the first World Environment Day in 1972 suggests that neither of these positions is true.

On the one hand, claims that we are bound to run out of resources, made most vigorously by the Club of Rome in the 1970s, have repeatedly been refuted by experience. Most natural resources have actually become cheaper, but even in cases where prices have risen, such as that of oil, the economic impact has been marginal, relative to the long-run trend of increasing income. The recent increase in the price of oil, for example, might, if sustained, reduce income by about 1 per cent, or around 4 months of economic growth.

At this point, doomsayers usually point to a growing world population and the increased demands on resources that will arise when people in China and India aspire to Western living standards. The tone isn’t quite as apocalyptic as in the 1970s, when the Paddock brothers were advocating letting Bangladesh starve, but the analysis often hasn’t caught up with the data. Population growth peaked (in absolute terms – the percentage growth rate has been declining for decades) around 1990. Current UN estimates have a population of 9 billion in 2050, but if the declining fertility in wealthy countries is followed elsewhere this will probably turn out to be an overestimate.

In most respects, economic growth is consistent with improvements in the environment rather than degradation. Wealthy countries are unwilling to put up with polluted air and water and have the technical and scientific resources to fix them.

On the other hand, the Brown doomsayers have an equally bad record. Time after time, they’ve opposed environmental improvements as too costly, repeatedly overestimating the costs and underestimating the benefits. The debate over CFCs and the ozone layer provides a good example, since it was one of the first issues to be addressed on a global scale. The doomsayers repeatedly attacked both the science behind the ban on CFCs and the economics of the policy, claiming it would cause massive economic damage. In reality, even without taking account of health benefits, it seems likely that the CFC ban yielded positive net economic benefits. Most of the leading participants in this debate (Fred Singer, Sallie Baliunas, Julian Simon, Tom DeLay, the Marshall and Oregon Institutes) are familiar to anyone who’s followed the global warming debate, except that Bjorn Lomborg has taken Simon’s place.

All of this leads up to the one big remaining problem that of global warming (and the inter-related debate about Peak Oil). The doomsayers on both sides are out in force on this one. For the Deep Greens, it’s the one remaining chance to achieve support for radical change. For the Dark Browns, this is the real fight, for which the CFC debate was just a rehearsal.

All the evidence, though, is that we can reduce emissions to levels consistent with stabilising global CO2 levels over the next few decades at a cost of around 5 per cent of GDP – a few years worth of economic growth at the most. Quite possibly, as in previous cases, this wll turn out to be an overestimate.

fn1. Both groups engage in a fair bit of wishful thinking about their position, the Greens arguing that we’ll all be happier in the long run and the Browns claiming that the environmental problems will solve themselves if we ignore them.

325 thoughts on “Against the doomsayers

  1. James,
    Your harping on the water issue is becoming laughable. In every single one of your examples (with the possible exception of Angola – I do not know enough about it) the problems result from the perverse incentives built into the privatisations.
    I am not going to bother with water any more. Your position, as you have put it, is just plain silly. Start talking with PrQ about it – he knows much more than either of us.
    As for oil and other fossil fuel depletion, you are right that the change will be driven by scarcity, and that is the point – it is what should drive it. Oil will run out. As it starts to run out, the price will rise. People will move to substitutes. Those substitutes may cost more, they may cost less. If they cost more, consumption of energy will reduce. If they cost less, consumption of energy will rise. It is simple – no smoke, mirrors, disasters, wizardry or devilment.
    The enormous increase in the price of fuel over the last couple of years is a good case in point. Even with a quintupling and more of the price of fuel (from USD 10 per barrel of oil to the current near USD 70) the economy has not collapsed, with civil disorder and riots on the streets.
    Face it, James – you are wrong. Read our good host’s original post on this and prove him wrong. If 32 comments from me and several from our good host are not enough I just feel I am wasting my breath (or at least my typing).

  2. On Progress, Substitution, Democracy & Communism

    Reynolds claims that we change technologies and materials, not from scarcity, but because better things are available. James Sinnamon
    then implied that coal came out of wood-shortage.
    Although he did not say that coal was better than wood, that inference could be drawn if left unexplored.
    Reynolds is a Believer in the ideology of progress and James is a disbeliever. James sees democracy as threatened by shortages and Reynolds refuses to countenance true shortages.

    Progress ideology leads us to believe that the industrial revolution brought human beings from stunted form, early deaths, and savage struggling societies to the life expectancies and material possessions available on average to people who lived in the first world during the second part of the 20th century. This belief that our early ancestors lived awful lives is also the idealogy of the demographic transition which accompanies the progress ideology.

    We are rarely told that until agricultural feudalism set in and was followed by the industrial feudalism of the coal-based revolution, human height and life expectancy norms were comparable to our norms of today. Ref: Steckel, R.H., “Men from Early Middle Ages were nearly as tall as Modern people”, Columbus, Ohio,–

    Note that access to abundant protein in the late 20th century seems to have led to really big statures. However the trend to a cheap fatty diet is giving way to extraordinary obesity and early diabetes, promising a decline in life-expectancy. This gives any gain in life-span due to the industrial revolution a run of about 50 years I would think, although I haven’t really looked into it.

    The ideology of progress came to us from the coal & iron based industrial revolution. The time line for this revolution can be taken from around 1750. It goes on to the 1973 oil shock, whence began our current sustained decline in economic growth [Maddison, OECD] which has coincided with decline in growth of oil per capita from 1979). The notion of progress is based on putting 223 odd years of horrible suffering followed by a short radical improvement for the first world (1950-1973)up as if it were an enduring norm of human civilisation. The notion of materials and energy substitution so dear to the priests of economic rationalism seem to be merely a grab-bag of selective inferences taken from this false norm.

    The lot of the British working class improved only gradually on the lot of the medieval serf from the early 20th century in some parts of the first world, later in others (continental Europe). So, after the dispossession and privations accompanying the feudal middle ages, there were centuries of absolute misery for larger and larger numbers of people. This misery was exacerbated by the explosive population growth that fed the industrial revolution and fed from it, which saw the English population increase from about 5 million in 1750 to 21.5 million in 1881.

    An excellent recent book, Barbara Freese, Coal a human history, Arrow books, Random House London, 2006, unearths some statistics which give a lie to the notion that the use of coal is overall progressive or that it was a choice that gave rise to a benign and improving industrial revolution.

    For instance, the mortality rate in 1842 for the working class of Britain was a death rate of 57% prior to the age of 5 years, giving those classes an average life expectancy of 17 years. (page 81-82). The effects of coal on air quality and light were so devastating that the life expectancy of the city gentry was only 38 years. (The rural poor lived to be around 38 and the rural gentry had an average life-span of 52). In 1854 when troops were sought to fight the Crimean war, 42% of recruits from the cities and suburbs were rejected due to their poor health and small stature and strength. This was apparently after they had already been screened by local recruiters. About half of the population of industrial areas in Britain suffered from rickets. Rickets is a disease disease due to lack of vitamin B (synthesised from sunlight by our bodies) which causes the pain and deformities associated with soft, breakable bones, such as the hall-mark bow legs, which turned several generations into bow-legged, hunch-backed short lived suffering creatures.

    In short, the British working-class were the prototype for the third world working class that ‘western’ wealth relies on. (And, no, I don’t think we Australians can afford to wring my hands ostentatiously about this because we are now about to similarly consume the lives of our own workers in Australia after a few years of comparative industrial democracy, following use of slave and indentured labour from approximately 1788 until about 1900.)

    Going from wood/ charcoal to coal/coke was only an improvement in the sense that, due to the amount of coal available close to iron in Britain, it was possible to develop new industrial technologies of mass production and eventually to make SOME of the world’s population hugely wealthy for a while, but at the expense of an ever widening circle of misery (much of the 6.5 billion global population) as the industrial colonists now known as corporations continue to dispossess and disintegrate sustainable clan and village systems in order to excavate fuel for the industrial machine that maintains our pyramid system of growth economics.

    On Substitution Theory:
    James Sinnamon queries the substitution theory, noting that coal replaced wood only when wood became scarce. In fact, coal replaced charcoal only after the technology for making coke from coal was developed. Although coke, like charcoal, burns almost without smoke (both being almost pure carbon), the processes to obtain charcoal from wood and coke from coal are very pollutant. They are not only pollutant in global atmospheric terms, but in local air terms, access to sunlight terms, and in terms of chemical fallout, such as acid rain, which causes death to entire lakes and streams.

    Because of these costs these processes can only be sustainable on a limited scale. This was never a problem prior to the Industrial revolution because human populations were always kept in check by wood supply. Without the vast masses required to build, service and provide consumers, mass production and mass economies are not possible on a national or global scale. Probably had it not been for Britain’s land tenure system, which made community dispossession and private aggregation much easier than elsewhere, the workforce quotient would have frustrated the evolution of industrial capitalism.

    It was only due to the vast preserves of ancient forests turned to coal, and their fortuitous location nearby very large deposits of iron in Britain, together with Britain’s large number of dispossessed citizens who formed the laboring class from the time of the Normans (1066) and who were to form the mass of working-class, plus the technology for producing coke, that human populations were able to exceed the natural limits of wood for the first time in the first ever mass scale human overpopulation. This system was capable of mass-producing material wealth and it came to be known as capitalism. It is a kind of feudal pyramid system that makes those who own the assets and the factories extremely wealthy and powerful. The industrial revolution quickly made the owners of coal, iron and production more rich and powerful than any kings and queens before them.

    The misery that accompanied feudalisation post the Roman Empire had caused enormous suffering but the wealth of the industrial revolution was accomplished based on misery on a wider scale than any seen before.

    Unfortunately, due to the failure of the theory of progress which Andrew
    Reynolds has such faith in, the US and Australia are both falling back on coal in the absence of any other large amounts of other fuels. We will of course soon run out of coal, but not before it does enormous damage to democracy and our health and daily lives.

    On Democracy and Communism:

    As mentioned above, things got horribly bad from about 1750 to 1950 for most people who serviced the industrial revolution. The eventual spread of wealth to what became known as the first world was at the cost of enormous suffering. It was this suffering which gave rise to Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class and to his association with Marx.

    Engels was the son of a Manchester cotton mill-owner who ran the mill by day and researched the condition of the working class by night.

    Andrew Reynolds frequently slams Sinnamon’s posts due to inferences he makes that they are advocating communism.

    What other answer to the horrors of industrial capitalism was there than the construct of industrial communism, I ask you.
    Engels and Marx were students of simple societies where they saw how things could work on a clan system where land was not transacted and wealth was under the control of the community.

    Neither the construct of global capitalism or global communism seems to
    succeed. The scale is probably too great for human beings to manage and can only occur where the biological system of land-tenure is destroyed, and, along with it, the clan systems that humans and most animals naturally organise through. Communism seems to have been based on the notion of early organisation of villages writ large. Capitalism arose from the feudal notion where a lesser cast was reduced to working for
    a higher cast that had acquired most of the land.

    The history of progress is of the spread of coal & iron based wealth to the first world at the cost of enormous suffering via dispossession to create working classes, fouled air and virtual slavery. From the fouled air we were saved by oil. We had a short honeymoon and now we are running out of oil.

    What is the ‘progressive’ solution? There is none on sufficient scale to preserve our current life-style. It is back to coal and the awful misery and suffering that accompanies its use. We may have succeeded in cleaning coal to a limited degree but we are cancelling out these improvements simply due to the scale on which we are going to have to use coal if we attempt to replace petroleum with it. Already in the US the rules are being rewritten to cut the costs of production.
    We can be sure that this will also be the case in Australia and we have a foretaste of this with the dismantling of our industrial laws which reflect an earlier period of greater economic growth in Australia.

    Apologies for this unweildy post; no time to scale it down properly but I felt I must weigh in here.


  3. AndrewReynolds, I cannot believe that you are trying to avoid countering James’s argument by resorting to the excuse that privatisation would be just fine if only it were perfect, with regard to water.

    Not good enough, Andrew!

    Apart from this I am constantly amazed by the attitude of men towards water. Have you no notion of your own mortality?
    Did your mother never teach you the story of King Midas?

    And, if she did, can you remember the punchline?

  4. Kanga,
    Before I launch into this fully, are you genuinely advocating Marxist communism or have I misunderstood you?
    If not, are you agreeing with James that Ted Trainer’s ideas are right?
    What do you see as the way forward?

  5. Andrew – “As it starts to run out, the price will rise. People will move to substitutes. Those substitutes may cost more, they may cost less. If they cost more, consumption of energy will reduce. If they cost less, consumption of energy will rise. It is simple – no smoke, mirrors, disasters, wizardry or devilment.”

    However as has been explained to you before the substitutes do not have fossil fuel’s energy return. Oil as a item does not have a direct subsitute to replace it at any price.

    Also the time delay between oil becoming scarce and whatever substitutes we can cobble together could leave us high and dry for 10 years unless we start now. This distruption could be enough to cripple the world economy for many years.

  6. Ender,
    We may as well just link to the last peak oil discussion if you want to rehash this one.
    and any number of others.
    If you genuinely believe in this, just go and buy a few large storage tanks of oil and sit on them for a few years. If the price rises by more than the storage costs you will be up – perhaps a long way. If not, you will be worse off. Up to you.

  7. Andrew – “If you genuinely believe in this, just go and buy a few large storage tanks of oil and sit on them for a few years”

    It is not only me Andrew and why do economists always try to end an argument with ” well you should be making money out of it”. The EROI of the substitutes cannot compete with oil – it is a basic physical fact.

  8. Ender,
    Also a basic fact is that there is enough energy arriving on Earth, from the sun, to power every conceivable device for the foreseeable future – and some time beyond that. About 4 billion years from now we will lose that, but I think we can safely leave that for now.
    The problem is its capture, storage and distribution and use. These are technical issues, susceptible to a technical solution. Up until now, and for some time from now (how much is open to dispute) much of our energy requirements have been met by capture by long dead plants, storage in gas, liquid or solid form, distribution in either electrical or liquid form and then use in a myriad of devices. All of these can be changed. If the EROI drops by half, but we double the amount of energy captured, then we have no net change.
    I am also not sure if I should thank you for mistaking me for an economist, but I am not a member of that Ernest profession.

  9. Andrew – You are absolutely correct however using solar energy will require massive changes. We will no longer have the conventient, highly concentrated solar energy that we use at present but will have to rely on the diffuse 1kw/meter that we receive during the day and at night via the wind, tide and waves.

    I agree that the problem is not substitutes but ACCEPTABLE substitutes. SUV drivers will not be told that they cannot drive 1000km whenever they like. I will not be told that I cannot run my 104cm TV because there is not enough wind to run it. We want and have been conditioned to have as much power as want when we want it.

    We will all have to accept compromises to accept the lower energy density of solar energy. As I said in previous discussions I am quite confident that given time we can transition to a fossil free future where severe climate change is averted and/or adapated to. However the key it time. I am quite pessimistic that sufficient action will be taken in time to avert the dangerous period between the lack of oil and the start of alternatives.

  10. Rickets is a disease disease due to lack of vitamin B (synthesised from sunlight by our bodies) which causes the pain and deformities associated with soft, breakable bones, such as the hall-mark bow legs, which turned several generations into bow-legged, hunch-backed short lived suffering creatures.

    I think you will find that it is a deficiency of vitamin “D” not vitamin”B” that is the cause of rickets.

  11. Andrew Reynolds wrote: Face it, James – you are wrong.
    Perhaps you should let others be the judge of that.

    AR wrote: Read our good host’s original post on this and prove him wrong.

    With all due respect to Professor Quiggin, I don’t consider him to be an unchallengable authority. I think his original post misses a lot of critical points, which I have attempted to address.

    AR wrote: If 32 comments from me and several from our good host are not enough I just feel I am wasting my breath (or my typing).

    Why should it matter even if you have written 2032 posts? If they are all illogical and go off on tangents the minute one facet of your case begins to unravel, then I don’t see when I should be obliged to express agreement with you.

    You’re not obligated to read or respond to any of my posts.

    For my part I choose to repond to yours from time to time, because the fallacious illogical arguments you put are similar to some used by our current political leadership to justify their inexcusable inaction against the grave looming threats to our civilisation some of which I have described above.

    Glad you have been able to join in Ender. Try not to have yourself led up the garden path in this discussion as has happened to me on more than one occasion here.

    Good Luck.

  12. James,
    OK, by the numbers. My last attempt to get some sense out of you.
    1. You, interestingly, accuse me of going off on a tangent and then link to one of your own comments. AFAIK, I have only gone where your, rather odd, attempts to prove the free market cannot solve problems have lead. For example, trying to prove that the water problems in South Queensland are the result of a free market when there is no free market for water in South Queensland.
    2. You seem to believe that the solution lies either in creating small “eco-villages”, where you advocate Ted Trainer’s line, or in some form of command economy to fix the problems you you believe you have identified. I have not yet been able to get a clear idea of what action is required, but as you are blaming our political leaders for inaction, I presume you must know what action is required or you would seem to open yourself to charges of hypocrisy. Please indicate what action you would like to see our leaders taking.
    3. You and Ender appear to be pessimistic, as Ender indicated he is. I prefer educated realism. I look at the problems we face and then judge our ability to fix them based on humanity’s proven past ability to solve other problems. You merely say that there have been resource allocation problems in the past and then give good examples of where a non-free market (and all of them were far from free) has stuffed it up. I then agree that a non-free market has stuffed it up and point out the markets were non-free and the societies involved were non-democratic (with the possible exception of Norse Greenland, where a weather change was at fault). You then say I have missed the point. Fine, but if that is not the point, please let me know what it is.
    4. If any facets of my case have unravelled, please let me know. I see none.

  13. Andrew,

    I don’t particularly care that much whether or not the ‘free market’ is to blame for the mess we are in. I just want our governments to take action to deal with that mess. Clearly, if it had been left to the free market alone to deal with the threat posed by CFC’s to our ozone layer, then there would not have been an ozone layer by now.

    The current circumstances of humankind are clearly unsustainable and have to be changed dramatically, and while we still have left sufficient natural resources that would make possible an orderly civilised transition to a more sustainable form of society.

    If you aren’t able to see that, then then there may not be a lot more that we can discuss here.

    For now, the course of this discussion has gone as far as I am willing to take it. I will just have it leave it for others to draw their own conclusions from the arguments and counter-arguments above.

  14. Hopefully you don’t want governments to merely take action. Hopefully you want them to take action that is effective and causes negligible amount of problems elsewhere.

  15. James,
    Wanting government action to solve the problem, when government action has caused the problem, is probably not the best idea. Government inaction is frequently the best idea (IMHO).
    I agree that we need to change, as we have in the past. I think I have made that clear above. I just disagree that changes imposed by government fiat are the way to achieve them.
    However, I agree that we have argued ourselves to a standstill (yet again) on this topic.

  16. Andrew, you wrote: Wanting government action to solve the problem, when government action has caused the problem, is probably not the best idea. Government inaction is frequently the best idea (IMHO).

    As I pointed out only just above it was government action which saved the ozone layer, and the free market system which almost destroyed it.

    Your extreme irrational prejudice against human beings taking any collective decisions whatsoever in order to look after their own best interests is a symptom of your profoundly undemocratic and elitist attitudes as you have amply revealed in other forums on this site.

  17. collective decisions

    I think you will find that his prejudice is against coersion (eg pointing guns at people) not collective decisions and collective action. And he did use the “frequently” qualifier.

  18. Andrew Reynolds asked me,

    if I am “genuinely advocating Marxist communism or have I misunderstood you?”

    You have misunderstood me. Both capitalism and marxism have had their day.

    If not, [are you agreeing with James] that Ted Trainer’s ideas are right?

    Independently of James I think that Ted Trainer’s ideas are right, although I would consider agriculture in this country, post fossil fuel, as an affair of occasional oases plus hunter gatherers and mounted nomads, possibly on camels, with a few seafarers around the coasts. Use of local energy sources, such as they are in this naviguable and fast watercourse poor land. We used camel teams to lay the first railways and to get around the interior.

    What do you see as the way forward?

    In a fossil-fuel poor future we need to look to history.

    I don’t think that there is a way forward in the sense of material progress.
    Australia was an incredibly interesting place prior to the gold rushes and for a little while afterwards before the financial community took over.

    It was poor but there was a functioning society of natural scientists, explorers, authors, artists and farmers.

    Maybe those kinds of people could make something out of an energy poor future. Unfortunately we will not have the same intact vegetation and soils, so we will be working with considerably less than Australian could once still offer.

  19. If his prejudice is against coertion, why doesn’t he say so?

    He has many times.

    What do you think the definition of government is? It is the only institution in society with a legal right to use coesion (eg violence and force). The rule of law is backed by the threat of violence. Sometimes this is a necessary evil however violence should always (in my view) be a last resort. I think if you re-read what Andrew has written you will find no objection to collective action that is based on voluntary participation. In other words action by civil society, pritate enterprise, like minded individuals etc rather than government.

  20. Terje,

    Incidentally, would you define a ‘civil society’ as one which no longer makes dental care available to large sectors of the population, or ‘cares’ for it’s mentally ill in squalid boarding houses, if not on the streets or in prisons?

    How would you feel about governments raising our taxes in order to rectify these situations?

  21. James,

    I think the definition of civil society pivots on the notion of voluntary action. It seems odd that people who don’t care enough about the people around them to lend a hand (or dollar) should be expected to vote for people that would force them to lend a hand (or dollar). And strange that people that are willing to lend a hand (or dollar) would vote for people that would force them to do what they are capable and willing to do themselves.

    What I do notice about society is that as the size of the state has expanded, people have switched off to the plight of others and adopted the view that it is both the governments problem and the governments responsibility. The expansion of the state has lead people to abdicate any sence of duty or care for their fellow man.

    A while back I read a letter in a newspaper in which somebody expressed outrage that the local church was helping the poor. They said it showed government neglect. The notion of charity and its worth to society seems to have been debased by statism.

    Any move to raise taxes given its current level and given the waste and churn within the tax/welfare system would cause me to feel outrage. On the other hand a reprioritisation of spending might make me far more supportive of the issues (mental health and dental care) which you refer to.


  22. Terje,

    I don’t see why anybody should feel greatly concerned if you were to ‘feel outrage’ as a result of any decision by our Government to increase taxes in order to restore the Commonwealth Dental Program, axed in 1996, or to effectively care for the mentally ill, should they feel it necessary to do so.

    The fact remains that this society once could take much better care of everyone in it, and now, after roughly thirty years of neo-liberal ‘reform’, it cannot.

    If you find the current situation so unsatisfactory, then surely it would have been better to have left things, more or less, the way they were before.

    If you think that our tax system is inefficient, have you ever considered how inefficient, inequitable and arbitrary our system of private charities are? I think most would find it vastly more preferable, fair and cost-effective to give money to our governments through taxation to pay for what were once its core responsibities than they would to be constantly bothered by telemarketers canvassing donations for private charities.

  23. I don’t see why anybody should feel greatly concerned if you were to ‘feel outrage’ as a result of any decision by our Government to increase taxes in order to restore the Commonwealth Dental Program, axed in 1996, or to effectively care for the mentally ill, should they feel it necessary to do so.

    I am sure that most people would be oblivious to my view on the matter. However you asked me how I would feel and now you know.

    If you find the current situation so unsatisfactory, then surely it would have been better to have left things, more or less, the way they were before.

    I would like to see government once again be as small as it was 30 years ago. In fact roll it back 45 or even 100 years and I would be even happier. In fact you could abolish Federation and I would be supportive.

  24. Terje,

    Yes I did ask for your view, I admit.

    I was trying to point out what I see as a contradiction between your espousal of a ‘civil society’ and what I see as the practical consequences of your objection to Government spending on social welfare.

    For my part, I feel outrage that fellow human beings are treated so poorly, and unnecessarly so, given this Government’s record surpluses. A society which takes such abysmal care of poor people in need of dental care and the mentally ill to name a few does not count as truly ‘civillised’ in my opinion.

    My point still remains about charities. The cost-effectiveness of most charities is notoriously woeful and we would all achieve far better and far more equitable outcomes and share the burden far more equally if much of what is now given to charities were instead paid to the Government as taxes in order to fund what were previously core government responsibilities.

  25. Mental health care was formerly a state responsibility. In my state at least there is no surplus worth speaking of.

    I think that it is tragic that people suffer. However we have made the state bigger and bigger and bigger in the name of removing such suffering (by 1990 no child was to live in poverty etc, etc) and we have not really achieved anything. Welfare has proven less effective than charity even though it has access to vastly larger resources. The state sector has not proved efficient at all. Well funded does not mean efficient.

    The most fundamental problem with state based welfare is that it is funded via involuntary means. You may not regard this as an issue however I think that it is a very poor starting point if you want to build a just society. Some people believe that might makes right but I take a different view. Simply because you can do something does not mean you should.

  26. Kanga, James,
    Terje has answered most of your questions, and I agree with the point of view he has expressed.
    My perspective on Ted Trainer and the other “Deep Greens� (to use PrQ’s expression) is quite simple. I do not believe that such radical action is needed. I know you disagree on that. The problems, though, extend deeper than a simple picture of the future. The sites and other references I have been pointed to, and have found myself, on Trainer’s point of view, left major gaps.
    The most important one, indeed critical, is “How do we get there�? The page I linked to earlier, which was a lecture Trainer delivered, contained a lengthy discussion on the differences between orthodox Marxism and his ideas. The differences (it seemed to me) were in outcome. At no point, beyond a very fuzzy discussion, was there any concept of how he believed that we were to get there.
    Most of the great crimes and mass persecutions of history are in attempts to meet some great outcome, with the means to achieve this being made up on the way. Campaigns to convert heathens normally end up with a mass slaughter of heathens and many others. Campaigns for socialist outcomes normally end up with mass slaughter of many people, socialists and non-socialist. Campaigns for racial purity normally end up with slaughter of the people who are different and many others. I do not believe that any of these campaigns (with the possible exception of Nazism) started out with mass slaughter in mind. All of them ended up that way. There has never been a mass slaughter in the name of classical liberalism (or libertarianism, if you prefer to use that term).
    This is why the means are critical. If you plan to use force or coercion to achieve your desired outcome I will argue against it, and, if needed, fight it. If you plan to use persuasion, discussion and leading by example, I will support your right to do so – even if I am not persuaded.
    That is why I have been asking the question on means. You seem to have been avoiding it.
    I do see a way forward. I have yet to see a way forward from either of you. All I get a a wonderful picture of some imagined future. That is not a way forward.

  27. Andrew,

    The way forward begins with greatly expanding the participation of citzens in our democracy. A good first step would be to reverse the emascualtion of our Senate which John Howard has brought about to avoid public scrutiny of his Government.

    You are drawing a very long bow to suggest that bringing about the changes necessary to deal with the looming resources shortages and the destruction to our natural environment will necessarily “end up with slaughter of the people who are different and many others.”

    The current society of mass consumption of natural resources is doomed, no matter what alternatives to the natural resources we are now using we come up with. (And, as I have written before, I wish I could convince myself otherwise.) We have to find an orderly way back to some system that will allow humankind to live within the means that it has. Logically, I see it as looking something like what British society was prior to the Norman invasion of 1066, if we apply the ideas of Ted Trainer and David Holmgren. Hopefully, at least for a while, with some of the modern technlogies, which are less resource intensive such as telecmunications.

    No, I can’t give you a complete roadmap of how we are going to get back there, or of all the intricate details of how such a society will work, but in a healthy functioning democracy, in which most people are informed and are able to participate and have their voices heard, then we should be able to find a way.

    If we don’t find the way back, and, instead, continue down the path you would have us travel along, the consequences will be unthinkably horrific.

    If the above does not satisfy you, then that is too bad. I wasn’t expecting to be able to convince you, although I was hoping to be able to convince others you were wrong.

  28. James,
    I wa very careful to not say that I believed it would lead to mass slaughter. If you find a way that does not involve violence or coercion I would not necessarily oppose moves to change.
    I disagree, for the reasons I have stated ad nauseum above that any drastic, short term, changes are needed. The required changes will occur on a gradual, evolutionary, basis.
    The stuff that troubles me is where Ted Trainer was comparing his approach to a revolutionary Marxist one and not saying that he sees his as more gradual or less violent.

  29. Logically, I see it as looking something like what British society was prior to the Norman invasion of 1066

    Sounds great if you get to be King, and not one of the people with shit all over them.

    You don’t believe that there is any positive way to improve society (e.g. pricing externalities, cutting birth rates, developing new technologies) so you would like to return to a feudal, agrarian society where life was short and you did what your lord said?

  30. James,

    If step one is to encourage more participation and contribution from more citizens then count me in for the duration of step one.


  31. Tom Davies,

    Actually, the Normans introduced feudalism and caused population to grow and made the quality of life of ordinary people much worse.

    Pre-Norman society was not nearly as hierarchical. I heard on a radio documentary a few years back that people were quite healthy, grew tall and had a good life expectancy. When the fossil fuel resources, upon which our industrialised society is based, become effectively exhausted, we could do a lot worse than live the way they did in Britain up until the 11th century.

    If we start to make the right choices now, we may be able to achieve something like this instead of a collapse into outright barbarism.

    Andrew, I hadn’t given much thought to Saxon architecture. This seems to further confirm that these pre-Norman Biritish societies may have had a lot more going for them than we have been led to believe.

  32. Is step two going to involve storming parliament with pitchforks? That could be fun. At least for the first few minutes.

  33. Terje,

    I have little interest in stupid childish stunts such as the attempts to storm Parliament House. I am interested in the reversal of the subversion of our democracy, free speech and accountability that has been brought about by John Howard and his backers amongst others as I have raised in the thread, “Is Howard Defensible?”.

    Here are a few more more measures that would help restore meaningful democracy in this country:

    1. breaking the power of the media duopoly which manipulates both the outcome of elections and, in order to ensure that voters are given as little choice as possible at election time, the processes of policy formation in both major political parties.
    2. Proper freedom of information laws which can’t be subverted by unnecessarily excessive charges for access to documents, (which should all be on the Internet anyway) and by dishonest ploys such as the Qld Govenment’s notorious practice of having boxes of documents wheeled into and out of the Cabinet room in order to have them exempted from the provisions of the FOI.
    3. Elimination of “Commercial In Confidence” clauses in contracts between the Government and Private sector the use of which has only come into practice in more recent years.

  34. James,

    I am okay with these reforms. Although I wound question what means you would use to implement point 1. If you are after more free to air tv licences then I’d support that also.

    If you want an end to defamation laws so that our citizens have the same right of free speech as our MPs then I’d support that also.


  35. James,
    Living at a level consistent with 1065 would require a rather large reduction in population. At the time of the Battle of Hastings there was roughly 1.1 million people in England. There are now over 50 million. Apart from mass slaughter, do you have a proposal to get the population down to that level? Is there a selection process you propose?
    Mass sterilisation on other than a random basis would leave you open to charges of eugenics, mass slaughter, from the above, is not what you plan. We cannot offer material inducements as that would consititute over consumption. Any others?

  36. 50 million from 1.1 million over 950 years is 0.4% growth per annum.

    ie 1.004 ^ 950 = 45.

    England could kill 0.4% of the population for the next 950 years and that should about do it.

  37. Andrew and Terje,

    Once again, you are both trying to shoot the messenger. As much as I would like to be able to convince myself that we way we can sustain the world’s current popalation of 6.5 billion indefintely, it seem to me highly unlikely that we can. If this is so, then we need to find an orderly relatively humane way to reduce the population to what is sustainable.

    One way would be to adopt a policy of one child per family which would allow the world’s population to be reach sustainable levels after a few generations. As we do this, of course, we need to build agricultural and manufacturing systems which can be sustained using only nature’s interest rather than it’s capital.

    I have to say that I don’t find even this to be personally appealing, because I don’t see how it is likely that I will be around when we achieve a sustainable world population, but it is vastly preferable to any alternative I can think of, including savage wars over the allocation of the world’s diminishing resources.

    I raised England prior to the Norman conquest as one example of how society might look after it has been adjusted so that we can live within the means available to us. Hopefully, we will be able to hold on to some good aspects of this society, such as the Internet, at least for a while, but I can’t see that it is guaranteed.

    Just possibly we may be able to find a way to sustain considerably more than the 1.1 million that existed in pre-Norman England as an example, once our fossil fuel stocks have been exhausted, but we cannot know this for certain.

    To be indiffernt to the threat of population growth or, worse, to actively encourage it, in the current circumstances, when we badly need to reduce the world’s human population is the height of irresponsiblity, in my opinion.

    Terje, as one who has received a letter from a
    solicitor a few months ago, which contained a threat to sue me under Australia’s defamation laws, I fully concure with your views about defamation laws. A good site which deals with defamation laws is here.

  38. James,
    Seriously, though. Our technical, environmental and other levels of knowledge are so much greater than those of England pre-Hastings. To say that this is only “[j]ust possibly…” going to make a difference, to me at least, shows how little you appreciate the difference between technological ability and the resource base. You seem to believe that, given the same resources, a person with high technological knowledge is only capable of producing the same output as a person with little technological knowledge. This is, IMHO, clearly twaddle.
    Would you argue that the ancient Roman civilisation was not ecologically sustainable? They were able to maintain a population of over a million in the city of Rome itself in a time before the (reputed) birth of Christ by the use of various technologies, including aqueducts, and importing grain. A quick glance at the ability of China to sustain large populations for long periods, over millennia, could also be instructive.
    The hunting and gathering (with some agriculture) way of life indicates not only a low resource base but a low technical base. Even worst case this is simply not going to happen unless we simply forget all we have learnt over the last 10 centuries (and, in the case of China, last 20 or more centuries).

  39. Andrew,

    You should read Ronald Wright’s “A Short History of Progress” and you will see that the civiiisations of the Ancient Romans and Ancient Greeks were not sustainable.

    If we are concerned with outcomes, then I would suggest that our environmental understanding is, in fact, considerably worse than many cultures that we consider less advanced. Australian Aborginals took excellent care of this country for nearly all of the 40,000 years they have been living here (although it’s possible that, like many cutures, they did considerable harm when they first settled on this continent).

    Pacific Island cultures, including those on the Island of New Guinea, also took very good care of their environments over a period estimated between 40,000 years and 60,000 years until the arrival of European Colonists.

    Compare their record to the record of the supposedly smarter Ancient Greeks. The Ancient Greeks allowed the forests covering their hills to be chopped down and the rich soils to be washed away. If the Greeks had setteld on the Island of New Guinea instead, it would have been turned into barren rocks over 2,000 years ago.

    Of course, the globalised free market, if left unhindered, will see to it quickly enough that New Guinea and all other remaining parts of the world with rainforest will soon look like Greece or considerably worse.

  40. James,
    I note that you avoided the specific examples I gave – Rome and China. You also persist in avoiding the questions on:
    1. Any real notion of how you are going to achieve the process of taking human civilisation back to the level of England in 1065 or Australian Aboriginal society of pre 1788.
    2. Any real notion of how you are going to eliminate over 95% of the population of the planet within the sorts of timescales that would allow us to avoid the timebomb you have supposedly identified.
    3. A justification of why you believe that the free market is going to do the things you say it is.
    4. Who is actually going to do the restraining of the free market you claim is needed.
    5. How this person or persons unknown are going to be able to do it better than the free market.
    Saying that all I am doing is “shooting the messenger” merely means you do not have either the ability or the courge to identify the means.
    I am sure there are several others, but they will do for the moment.
    By the way, I notice that you appear to have gone further than Ted Trainer himself in this – Ted’s article, previously linked, uses, as an example of trading, the process of refrigeration. You appear to deny the place of all modern technology which would include refrigeration.
    I only offer that as an observation.

  41. Andrew,

    (Have made at least three unsuccessful attempts so far to post this, since I wrote it very early this morning.)

    I hadn’t been avoiding the Question of China or Rome. It’s not easy for me to immediately follow each and every tangent you would have me go off on to.

    Ancient Rome

    Regarding Ancient Rome, it was self-evidently unsustainable, and that you would attempt to hold that civilisation up as some a model of sustainability further confirms my impression that you are unable to draw the obvious conclusions from known incontrovertible facts.

    As the empire impoverished the soils of southern Europe, Rome exported its environmental load to colonies, becoming dependent on grain from North Africa and the Middle East. The consequences can be seen in those regions today. Antioch, capital of Roman Syria, lies under some thirty feet of silt washed down from deforested hills, and the great Libyan ruins of Leptis Magna now stand in a desert. Rome’s ancient bread baskets are filled with sand and dust.

    That is not, of course, the whole story. Rome controlled many environments,not all of which were exploited so destructively. Europe north of the Alps, with its wetter climate and heavy soils unsuited to the crude ploughs of the time, stayed lightly settled. …

    Mediaeval history confirms the archaeological evidence: the Empire fell hardest at its core, the Mediterranean basin,. where the brunt of the environmental cost was borne. Power then shifted to the periphery, where Germanic invaders such as Goths, Franks and English founded small ethnic states on northern lands that Rome had not exhausted.

       – Ronald Wright, “A Short History of Progress” pages 93-94


    Wright writes :

    China received more than her fair share of top-soil, though it had come as a lump sum, rather than a yearly allowance. … The deposits lie hundreds of feet thick in fertile plateaux carved here and there into precipitous ravines or spread out in alluvial plains below. This land is almost endlessly forgiving, with erosion merely exposing new layers of good earth.
       – Ronald Wright, op. cit. page 104

    On pages 110, Wright does give credit also to Chinese ingenuity. However, it should be pointed out that the most productive farmers in the world , that is amongst farmers who farm sustainably without resort to the use of fossil based fertilisers, are not the Chinese, rather they are to be found in New Guinea, and they have been doing this for over 40,000 years, which clearly puts to shame the supposedly more advanced Ancient Romans and Ancient Greeks (see chapter on food production (name and author escapes me as my copy has been lent) in The Final Energy Crisis, Pluto Press 2005, edited by Andrew McKillop and Sheila Newman).

    Andrew, you wrote:

    You also persist in avoiding the questions on:
    1. Any real notion of how you are going to achieve the process of taking human civilisation back to the level of England in 1065 or Australian Aboriginal society of pre 1788.

    So what?

    I point out that the current rate of consumption of natural resources, at many orders of magnitude greater than what has occurred for nearly all of human history, is unsustainable. It logically follows that we must alter our society so that it can persist after these resources are exhausted. I state that I think it likely that our society, altered to cope with much less natural resources, could resemble that of pre-Norman England.

    I think when people come to understand that the choice is between re-building our societies along these lines on the one hand, or complete collapse on the other, they will demand our governments find a way to do the former.

    2. Any real notion of how you are going to eliminate over 95% of the population of the planet within the sorts of timescales that would allow us to avoid the timebomb you have supposedly identified.

    Can’t you see that I have answered the question as well as anyone possibly can? Perhaps there isn’t time to reduce the population to the necessary levels. If so, that makes complacency in the face of the threat of over-population all the more irresponsible.

    3. A justification of why you believe that the free market is going to do the things you say it is.

    Perhaps you should show, concretely, and not just through wishful thinking, how the free market is going to be able to sustain our material levels of consumption, orders of magnitude greater than what has been consumed throughout nearly all of human history, when the natural resources that have made it possible so far, have become exhausted, and with regard to the practical difficulties I have raised in my previous contributions.

    4. Who is actually going to do the restraining of the free market you claim is needed.

    The free market has been restrained before by Governments with the support of the people, and it can happen again.

    What other possible answer were your expecting?

    5. How this person or persons unknown are going to be able to do it better than the free market.

    Well, we are going to have to agree to disagree here. To me, and the vast majority of society, it is a self-evidently stupid notion that all important decisions can simply be arrived at through price signals, without regard to any other consideration. In other posts, I have pointed to many examples which show that market forces have delivered abysmal outcomes for society as a whole. Above I gave the example of the threat to the ozone layer posed by Chloro-Fluorocarbons, to which, I note, you have failed to respond. Clearly, we would have no ozone layer left by now, if it had been left to market forces.

    Also, could you please stop misrepresenting me, or drawing conclusions for which you have no basis. Where have I said I am against refrigeration?

    I am not against appropriate modern technology, as long as we can find a sustainable means to manufacture it. As I indicated, I would like to see the endurance of computers and the Internet, and I would hope to also see that other things that make our lives more comfortable, such as refrigerators, can still be made available. I happen to think it is unlikely that we will be able to go o on manufacturing fridges on the scale necessary to supply all of humankind, but if we can,that will be great. Certainly private vehicles for all members of humankind, together with all the necessary fuel to travel the distances we are accustomed to travelling with the frequency we travel (whether we would prefer to or not), will be out of the question, as will widespread access to air travel.

    The longer we delay making the adjustments, necessary to cope with resource scarcity, the less likely it is that we will be able to preserve any of the benefits of industrialised society.

  42. James,
    You are the one trying to make the case for a drastic change from the current way of doing things, which would also massive societal change. You should therefore make the case, rather than trying to require me to prove the status quo to be correct.
    Yes, there is a requirement to change – I have not denied that. Change is what has been happening constantly to adapt to new situations over the entirety of human evolution. These changes, at least the ones that have worked, have been incremental and (mostly) free. If you are trying to put together a case for a massive, forced change that would mean that I, my children and everyone else would need to change for a life that is vastly worse then I would need to be convinced by more than “So what?” and platitudinous statements about central planning of everything, including who can breed.

  43. I’m glad that we can keep some technology in the brave new world. However it seems such a pity to miss out on all the technical innovation that might have been.

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