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Ecological Economics, De-Growth and Denial: The Role of Social Engineering William E. Rees, PhD, FRSC UBC School of Community and Regional Planning CANSEE.

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Presentation on theme: "Ecological Economics, De-Growth and Denial: The Role of Social Engineering William E. Rees, PhD, FRSC UBC School of Community and Regional Planning CANSEE."— Presentation transcript:

1 Ecological Economics, De-Growth and Denial: The Role of Social Engineering William E. Rees, PhD, FRSC UBC School of Community and Regional Planning CANSEE 2013 Sustaining the Commons: Ideas and Actions for a Green Economy York University, Toronto (31 October 2013)

2 Context: The Anomalous, Unsustainable Oil-Based Expansion of Civilization The serious use of fossil fuel beginning in the 19 th Century allowed the explosive growth of the human enterprise Continuous growth—population and economic—is an anomaly. The growth spurt that recent generations take to be normal is the single most abnormal period of human history. 2013 Population: 7.1 billion

3 The ‘Great Acceleration’, post 1750: The exponential growth of consumption  “The Great Acceleration is clearly shown in every component of the human enterprise included in the figure. Either the component was not present before 1950 (e.g., foreign direct investment) or its rate of change increased sharply after 1950 (e.g., population)” (Steffen, Crutzen & McNeill 2007 [Ambio 36: 314-321])  This explosion of energy and material throughput (consumption and pollution) has occurred during a period of unprecedented technological and economic efficiency gains.

4 ffads global biocapacity: 12.0 billion hectares current human eco-footprint: 19.0 billion hectares The Global Picture OVERSHOOT: Economic and material growth today is being financed, in part, by the liquidation of essential, non- substitutable self- producing natural capital and at the expense of global life support systems.

5 When growth is uneconomic Adapted from Daly (2005) The optimum level of consumption is reached when marginal gains equal marginal losses. Any further increase in consumption (economic scale) is uneconomic growth (growth that makes us worse off).

6 In theory, H. Sapiens has unique potential to escape our predicament  Unparalleled capacity for evidence-based reasoning and logical analysis;  Unique ability to plan ahead;  The capacity to exercise moral judgment;  Unique diversity of mechanisms for cooperative engagement;  Compassion for other individuals and other species.

7 An Obvious ‘Solution’: Planned De- Growth (and it’s not a new idea)  John Stuart Mill saw no virtue in people becoming much richer than they need be, but advocated instead for a just distribution of property “…attained, by the joint effect of the prudence and frugality of individuals, and of a system of legislation favouring equality of fortunes, so far as is consistent with the just claim of the individual to the fruits… of his or her own industry.”  He even suggested a version of economic ‘contraction and convergence’, this in 1848, no less! “It is only in the backward countries of the world that increased production is still an important object: in those most advanced, what is economically needed is a better distribution…”  In effect, Mill contemplated a society of universal ‘enoughness’ in which everyone would be able to enjoy “sufficient leisure, both physical and mental, from mechanical details, to cultivate freely the graces of life.” (quotes from J. S. Mill 1848, Book iv, Chap. iv).

8 Thoroughly modern, Mill even made the ecological connection  Mill lamented that that Earth might lose “that great portion of its pleasantness which it owes to things that the unlimited increase of wealth and population would extirpate from it, for the mere purpose of enabling it to support a larger, but not a better or a happier population.”  He found no satisfaction “…in contemplating the world with nothing left to the spontaneous activity of nature.”  He hoped for posterity’s sake that people would come to “be content to be stationary, long before necessity compels them to it” (quotes from J. S. Mill 1848, Book iv, Chap. iv).

9 Contemporary Variants: Catching up with Mill  Steady-state economics: advanced by ecological economists as the basis for living more equitably within the means of nature. A major legacy of Herman Daly, though rooted in N. Georgescu-Roegen’s interpretation of the 2 nd Law of Thermodynamic (the Entropy law).  The de-growth (décroissance) movement: advocates a gradual downscaling of production/consumption toward a more equitable and cooperative society that would ensure both ecological stability and human wellbeing. Also rooted in Georgescu-Roegen and further energized by evidence of ecological overshoot.  Despite increasing urgency, either contemporary variant: a) really takes us much beyond Mill; b) is gaining significant traction in today’s geopolitical climate.

10 Which brings us to contemplating the nature of ‘reality’ – we make it up as we go!  The ‘social construction of reality’ (or, rather, ‘perception’) is a universal phenomenon within and across cultures.  Every religious doctrine, political ideology, scientific theory, academic paradigm, mythic worldview, social norm and cultural narrative is a ‘social construct’.  Each such construct is first birthed in language as an uneasy blend of facts and beliefs, values and assumptions; the whole is massaged and polished by social discourse and frequent repetition (or experimental replication in the case of science).  A particular construct eventually becomes elevated to the status of ‘received wisdom’ by tacit agreement among members of the social group creating the construct.  Neo-liberal and ecological economics are competing social constructs. But are they equally ‘valid’?

11 Not all constructs are created equal  “You may say, if you wish, that all reality is a social construction, but you cannot deny that some constructions are ‘truer’ than others.  They are not ‘truer’ because they are privileged, they [become] privileged because they are ‘truer’” (Postman 1999).  Some conceptual models provide better ‘maps’ of the reality they purport to represent than do others.

12 Popper put it this way  “What the scientist’s and the lunatic’s theories have in common is that both belong to conjectural knowledge. But some conjectures are much better than others…” (Karl Popper, The Problem of Induction) But this has never stopped societies from buying into to deeply flawed ‘conjectures.’

13 Shared Illusions: Our collective shield against the harsh barbs of reality  “The masses have never thirsted after truth. They turn aside from evidence that is not to their taste, preferring to deify error…” (Gustave le Bon 1896).  “For us to maintain our way of living, we must… tell lies to each other, and especially to ourselves… [the lies] are necessary because without them many deplorable acts would become impossibilities” (Jensen 2000).

14 Even ‘hard science’ is afflicted  “… a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” (Max Planck, 1949)

15 The problem is universal and persistent (i.e., it’s part of fundamental human nature)  “Not truth, but error has always been the chief factor in the evolution of nations…” (Le Bon 1895).  “Wooden-headedness, the source of self deception...plays a remarkably large role in government. It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions [i.e., ideology] while ignoring any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts” (Tuchman 1984).

16 An Explanatory Cognitive Mechanism  During individual development, repeated sensory experiences and cultural norms literally shape the human brain’s synaptic circuitry in patterns that reflect and embed those experiences. Socially constructed patterned thinking acquires a physical presence in the brain.  Subsequently, people seek out compatible experiences and, “when faced with information that does not agree with their [preformed] internal structures, they deny, discredit, reinterpret or forget that information” (Wexler, 2006).

17 Why is all this relevant? The conservative right has beat the liberal left in the social construction game, putting global society at risk:  See the Lewis Powell Memo (or Powell Manifesto) of 23 August, 1971 at: http://reclaimdemocracy.org/powell_memo_lewis/http://reclaimdemocracy.org/powell_memo_lewis/  Read at least: a) Lewis Lapham’s analysis (Tentacles of Rage: The Republican Propaganda Mill, a Brief History) Harpers, 1 Sept 2004) http://www.mindfully.org/Reform/2004/Republican- Propaganda1sep04.htm b) This excerpt from Winner Take-All-Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned its Back on the Middle Class (J.S Hacker and P. Pierson) at: http://billmoyers.com/content/the-powell-memo-a- call-to-arms-for-corporations/ c) Bill Moyers’ analysis at: http://www.truth- out.org/opinion/item/4580:bill-moyers-our-politicians-are-money- launderers-in-the-trafficking-of-power-and-policy-2 http://www.mindfully.org/Reform/2004/Republican- Propaganda1sep04.htmhttp://billmoyers.com/content/the-powell-memo-a- call-to-arms-for-corporations/http://www.truth- out.org/opinion/item/4580:bill-moyers-our-politicians-are-money- launderers-in-the-trafficking-of-power-and-policy-2

18 Powell helped galvanize the corporate sector to socially (re)construct America Powell felt compelled to assert that:  the “American economic system is under broad attack.”  “Business must learn the lesson... that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination—without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.”  “Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.”  The latter was to include the financing of neoliberal economics departments, establishing new think-tanks, and other kinds of ‘front groups’.

19 A dramatic, rapid mobilization of corporate resources in the mid-1970s (which persists to this day)  The number of corporations with public affairs offices in Washington grew from 100 in 1968 to over 500 in 1978. In 1971, only 175 firms had registered lobbyists in Washington, but by 1982, nearly 2,500 did.  ‘Agency capture’ and the ‘revolving door’ syndrome are commonplace.  The number of corporate PACs increased from under 300 in 1976 to over 1,200 by the middle of 1980.  Powell’s legacy includes: the Business Roundtable, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Manhattan Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy (precursor to Americans for Prosperity) and other organizations united in pushing back against political equality and shared prosperity.

20 The Primacy of Neo-Con Reality  The corporate right created “brightly packaged policy objectives—tort reform, school vouchers, less government, lower taxes, elimination of the labor unions, bigger military budgets, higher interest rates, reduced environmental regulation, privatization of social security, down-sized Medicaid and Medicare, more prisons, better surveillance, stricter law enforcement”  In 1964, 62 percent of people surveyed had “trust[ed] the government to do the right thing; by 1994 the number had dwindled to 19 percent.  This is tribute to the success of the Republican/corporate propaganda mill that for the last forty years had been grinding out the news that “all government is bad, and that the word ‘public,’ in all its uses and declensions (public service, citizenship, public health, community, public park, commonwealth, public school, etc.), connotes inefficiency and waste.”  By the end of Reagan's second term “the propaganda mills were spending $100 million a year on the manufacture and sale of their product, invigorated by the sense that once again it was morning in America.” (quotes from Lapham 2004).

21 An Example of Corporate ‘Engagement’  The Center for American Progress Action fund identified at least $85 million the Koch brothers have given to 85 right-wing think tanks and advocacy groups in the decade and a half up to 2011.  GreenPeace claims that from 1997 to 2011, the Koch Brothers alone funneled over $67 million to climate-denial think tanks and other front groups, I.e., organizations such as the Heartland Institute who are working in lockstep with the Kochs’ ideological agenda while presenting themselves as scientifically credible experts.

22 A whole generation socially engineered to ignore reality.

23  Politicians often show willful ignorance; blindness to scientific data and analysis (deep denial);  Governments reject planning in the public interest; rigged markets determine major policy decisions;  Competitive belligerence dominates in both markets and international affairs.  Society has abandoned moral and ethical concerns in favour of self-serving short-term opportunism;  We seemingly condone crass individualism and personal greed at the expense of the common good (including our collective interest in survival); Neo-con values and ideology override evidence, analysis and reason

24 This is a new age of unreason, the 21 st Century Endarkenment

25 SO, THE QUESTION OF THE DAY: Granted that passion, instinct and cultural programming often trump reason, we can still ask what an intelligent, forward- thinking, compassionate species might do in light of available data, the historical record and on-going trends, to enhance survival prospects for contemporary society?

26 The Obvious Answer  Learn the neo-con lesson – mere facts, data and analysis are not enough.  Formally acknowledge our present danger and focus on humanity’s collective interest in survival.  Develop a long-term plan to re-engineer society to be more ecologically sensitive and socially responsible.  All we need is a few hundred million dollars and several decades—social learning, particularly the deliberate construction of an entire cultural paradigm, can be enormously expensive and a gluttonous time vampire.

27 What might this entail? A new cultural narrative incorporating ecological economics and steady-state thinking  Learn to override innate expansionist tendencies and abandon our socially constructed perpetual growth myth.  Construct a new global cultural narrative that shifts the values of society from competitive individualism, greed, and narrow self-interest, toward community, cooperation and our collective interest in repairing the earth for survival.  Create graphic scenarios contrasting the future chaos associated with the status with the ecological resilience, social stability and economic security possible in a steady-state.

28 Bottom Line: Let’s get real! In coming years, the human enterprise will likely contract. As an intelligent, forward- looking moral species we can (theoretically) choose between:  Business as usual – risking a chaotic implosion imposed by nature followed by geopolitical turmoil and resource wars or:  A well-planned, orderly and cooperative descent toward a socially just sustainability for all. Can humanity learn to live more equitably within the means of nature?

29 The easy stuff: Intervene to create more efficient markets; let prices tell the truth  End perverse subsidies (e.g., to the fossil fuel sector).  Acknowledge that most goods are underpriced and therefore over-consumed.  Recognize that government intervention to correct for gross market failure (e.g., climate change) is necessary and legitimate.  For efficiency, internalize ecological and social externalities, i.e., insist on full-cost pricing.  Initiate ecological fiscal reform—tax the bads, not the goods.  Implement a combination of pollution charges/taxes (e.g., carbon tax) and import tariffs. (Support WTO reform.)  Consider a negative income tax to assist low-income families through the transition.

30 Restructure our socio-ecosystems to conform to biophysical reality  Shift from quantitative growth to qualitative development  Create socio-eco-economic planning regions on a humanly manageable spatial scale.  Manage regional socio-ecosystems to maintain/increase species diversity, systems integrity and optimal habitat patchiness for the species concerned (i.e., inhibit full development of the ‘conservation phase’ of the adaptive cycle.  Relocalize—strive to maintain economic diversity and multiple employment opportunities within every planning region.  Invest in multiply redundant energy systems with an emphasis on sustainable renewable forms.

31 Re-socialize  Initiate a national public education campaign on the severity of the crisis and the need for decisive action.  Emphasize that global change is a collective problem requiring collective solutions (individual actions have inadequate, even trivial effects). Governments must act in for the common good.  Promote a cultural shift from private to public capital accumulation and to human development.  Implement job-training and job-placement programs to equip people for employment in sunrise industries.  Design and implement new forms of social safety nets to enable peoples’ transition to a smaller, post-carbon, steady- state economy (there will be sunset as well as sunrise industries).  Recognize the advantages of job-sharing and shorter work- weeks in the context of improved work-life balance (self- actualization).

32 Motivation and Rationale? It’s in everyone’s long-term best interest  Individual and national interests have converged with humanity’s common interests. That is;  Sustainability is a collective problem that demands collective solutions (no country can become sustainable on its own);  Failure to act for the common good will ultimately lead to civil insurrection, geopolitical chaos, resource wars and ecological implosion.

33 Reminder: Systems Failure is Possible Joseph Tainter on The Collapse of Complex Societies  Human societies are problem- solving systems. Each problem solved leads to greater societal complexity (e.g., division of labour, class structure, technological sophistication).  Inevitably there comes a time when “continued investment in complexity as a problem solving strategy yields a declining marginal return” (e.g., incomes stop rising). Tensions, intra- group conflicts and dissatisfaction build up, elites defend the status quo, popular discontent evolves into civil insurrection. Or:  The society destroys its ecological foundation; collapse follows.

34 Collapse is the norm when societies rigidify, lose resilience!  “...what is perhaps most intriguing in the evolution of human societies is the regularity with which the pattern of increasing complexity is interrupted by collapse …” (Tainter 1995).  This might be civilization’s last and best chance to break the historic pattern.


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