The Cognitive Prison Habits of Economic Growth and Development

This post grew out of a recent facebook discussion. Hat Tip to Bruce Kunkel for the title phrase “Cognitive Prison Habits.”

George Monbiot recently made some important points and asked questions we all should be giving some thought to.
“Green consumerism, material decoupling, sustainable growth: all are illusions, designed to justify an economic model that is driving us to catastrophe.”
“The promise of economic growth is that the poor can live like the rich and the rich can live like the oligarchs. But already we are bursting through the physical limits of the planet that sustains us.”
I would add the aphorism that “When you find yourself in a hole, rule #1 is to stop digging.”

The International Energy Agency has just released their yearly World Energy Outlook report, which tells us that current policies put us in a scenario that would add the equivalent of another China and India to today’s global demand for energy by 2040, and greenhouse gas reduction polices currently in play or being considered are “far from enough to avoid severe impacts of climate change.”

While the title of Monbiot’s post mentions consumerism trashing the planet, consumerism is not the fundamental problem (us) that he is addressing, nor is it unrestrained corporate power (them). More fundamental, giving rise to both of the above polarities, is the almost unquestioned commitment to growth that is built in to most of our systems. In Monbiot’s words:
” The promise of private luxury for everyone cannot be met: neither the physical nor the ecological space exists.
But growth must go on: this is everywhere the political imperative. And we must adjust our tastes accordingly…
A global growth rate of 3% means that the size of the world economy doubles every 24 years. This is why environmental crises are accelerating at such a rate. Yet the plan is to ensure that it doubles and doubles again, and keeps doubling in perpetuity. In seeking to defend the living world from the maelstrom of destruction, we might believe we are fighting corporations and governments and the general foolishness of humankind. But they are all proxies for the real issue: perpetual growth on a planet that is not growing.”

One of the most important presentations that I think should be mandatory basic education for everyone is Albert Bartlett’s “Arithmetic, Population, and Energy.”
Bartlett claims that “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.” He talks about the arithmetic and the impacts of unending steady economic and population growth, including an explanation of the concept of doubling time.

Fortunately there is a transcript as well!

http://www.albartlett.org/presentations/arithmetic_population_energy_transcript_english.html

Consider these questions (hat tip to Penelope Whitworth) – “Where does that commitment [to growth] come from? Is it programmed into our genes, or our consciousness, or inherent to biological life forms? Part of the “genetic code” of the cosmos? Is it a sociocultural thing? Could we have a humanity whose value system isn’t around growth?”

I addressed these isssues in my 2015 ITC paper, Patterns for Navigating the Transition to a World in Energy Descent.   Growth is a natural pattern that exists in all natural systems. However, some tend to fetishize and reify this pattern as a primary imperative. For many it has become something of a “myth of the given” – we don’t even question it. The first step is to recognize and respect this as a natural pattern, but to realize it needs to be balanced and integrated for optimal health with all other natural patterns (see my brief intro to PatternDynamics: Following the Way Nature Organizes Itself to Deal with Complexity.

In natural systems, growth tends to expand exponentially in the early phase when resources are abundant; then comes a phase of climax, where things can settle down into a more cooperative mode, somewhat approximating (comparatively, and for a period of time) a steady state. The best example is to look at a barren landscape, where fast growing weeds compete with one another for dominance. After a long period of time, this landscape could, under the right set of conditions, eventually evolve into a mature old-growth forest ecosystem, which is a perfect example of interconnected mutual support and reciprocity. This in contrast to the competitive growth pattern exhibited by the “adolescent” patch of weeds.

The question becomes, are humans smarter than yeast, which grows rapidly until all available resources are consumed, followed by a collapse? Can we successfully transition to a climax stage which mirrors the steady-state of an old-growth forest, or are we now near our final climax, to be followed by an unrecoverable collapse?

Even those who question unfettered growth are enmeshed in the system that tends to keep driving it forward.
Integral Economist Peter Pogany saw this commitment to growth as part of the “source code” of the self-organizing world system that emerged in recent history. As systems tend to reinforce and sustain themselves and their dominant patterns, it can be very difficult to try to manipulate and change the system’s direction (see Donella Meadows’ “Thinking in Systems: A Primer”). In Pogany’s view, it will take a (brutal) chaotic transition (which has already begun) to get the system to change course to a new, Gebserian, integral world system that is not wedded to the Growth pattern as a prime directive. Pogany saw this chaotic transition “as a necessity to precipitate a crisis of consciousness that would eventually lead to the wide-spread “integral a-rational” consciousness structure, as based on the thinking of cultural philosopher Jean Gebser” (see my articles Chaos, Havoc, and the American Abyss, and Consciousness and the New World Order.

In my 2015 paper for the Integral Theory Conference (cited above, but also posted here), I quoted from Edgar Morin and Peter Pogany to describe what  Bruce Kunkel has called the “cognitive prison habits” that keep us locked in to pursuing endless growth and development at all costs. To requote the quotes quoted in that paper:

Edgar Morin referred to “development” as:

“The master word, adopted by the United Nations, upon which all the popular ideologies of the second half of this century converged…development is a reductionistic conception which holds that economic growth is the necessary and sufficient condition for all social, psychological, and moral developments. This techno-economic conception ignores the human problems of identity, community, solidarity, and culture… In any case, we must reject the underdeveloped concept of development that made techno-industrial growth the panacea of all anthroposocial development and renounce the mythological idea of an irresistible progress extending to infinity” (Morin, Homeland Earth: A Manifesto for the New Millenium, 1999, pp. 59-63).

Addressing this “myth of the given,” Peter Pogany pokes fun at his own profession (of economists):

“Historically, geocapital [matter ready to be used to feed cultural evolution] has registered a net increase; additions and expansions more than offset exhaustions and reductions. This long-lasting successful experience led to the culturally ingrained confidence in the possibility of its eternal continuation. Economic growth theory keeps “deriving” the same conclusion over and over again: Optimally maintained economic expansion can continue forever. Translated from evolutionary scales to our own, this is analogous to “Since I wake up every morning I must be immortal” (Rethinking the World, 2006, p. 118).”

I suggest we join Morin and Pogany in renouncing  the irrational exuberance that expects irresistible progress and economic growth extending to infinity. To break out of this cognitive prison habit may be very challenging indeed. However, at some point there will be no choice.  It’s time to stop digging that hole that we think is taking us up the mountain.

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Greece, the Limits to Growth, and My Paper

My paper, “Patterns for Navigating the Transition to a World in Energy Descent,” to be presented at the upcoming Fourth International Integral Theory Conference on July 18th, is about resource depletion (“energy descent”) and the unsustainability of current economic structures, which may indicate we are entering a new era signaled by the end of growth. [8/24/15 update: the paper has now been published by Integral Leadership Review]

In a recent post entitled “The Limits to Growth and Greece: Systemic or Financial Collapse?“, Ugo Bardi writes, “could it be that all the financial circus that we are seeing dancing in and around Greece is just the effect of much deeper causes? The effect of something that gnaws at the very foundations not only of Greece, but of the whole Western World?

Let’s take a step back, and take a look at the 1972 study titled “The Limits to Growth” (LTG). Look at the “base case” scenario, the one which used as input the data that seemed to be the most reliable at the time…”

Bardi concludes: “If the LTG study is right and the crisis is generated by the gradually increasing costs of production of natural resources, (and there is plenty of evidence that these costs are increasing worldwide, see also here) then, collapse cannot be avoided, at best it can be mitigated by acting at the system level. By means of such measures as renewable energy, efficiency, and recycling, the system can be helped to cope with a reduced resource availability. But the economic contraction of the system is unavoidable. It is a contraction that we call financial collapse, but that is simply the result of the system adapting to lower quality (i.e. more expensive) resources.”

To corroborate, I will share an excerpt  from my paper mentioned above:

“…Richard Heinberg, senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute believes we have reached The End of Growth (2011), as does energy economist Jeff Rubin (2012), who understands that “the real engine of economic growth has always been cheap, abundant fuel and resources.” However, this wasn’t the training he received as an economist:

Nearly every economics exam I wrote dealt with the idea of maximizing economic growth. It wasn’t until I had years of real-world experience under my belt as chief economist of an investment bank that I began to understand what the textbooks were missing…After watching GDP growth shrink in the face of steadily rising oil prices, I couldn’t escape the notion that growth might someday become finite. During my formal training, steeped in conventional economic theory, the idea of static growth was never even considered. It doesn’t matter which school of economic thought you subscribe to or where you belong on the ideological spectrum, the notion of growth is an unquestioned tenet of the discipline (ibid, pp. 26-27).

Thomas Piketty (2014) caused a sensation when his rigorous academic economics book was translated into English, and became a bestseller. Piketty provides good evidence that we will not likely see again the levels of growth experienced in the 20th century. One reference he cites is even less optimistic. Robert J. Gordon, economics professor at Northwestern University forecasts a 0.2 percent growth of real disposable income for the majority of the U.S. population over the next 25 to 40 years. He names four “headwinds” contributing to this self-described “gloomy forecast”: demographic shifts, educational attainment, increasing inequality, and the ratio of debt to GDP at all levels (Gordon, 2012; 2014). This projection does not include resource constraints.

“Rogue” or “heterodox” economists who recognize the validity of biophysical constraints (limits to growth) include E.F. Schumacher (1973), Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (Gowdy and Mesner, 1998), Herman Daly (Daly & Cobb, 1994), and Peter Pogany (2006). Taking a thermodynamics perspective on economic growth, Pogany argues that entropy applies to matter, not just to energy. Therefore eternal substitution and recycling among materials is an illusion in a closed system (with regards to matter) such as our terrestrial sphere of earth and atmosphere. Technology cannot, in the end, overcome entropy, which means that the Pulse of Growth ultimately hits a peak, based on the availability of quality resources not yet dissipated.

In principle, they could replace copper wires with carbon polymers and make gold from scraps of copper, but in practice they could not do it if they had to pick through the ofals of low-entropy substance in search of other material inputs…between “can be done economically” and “cannot be done physically” there is a tipping point: “Can be done physically but not economically” (Pogany, 2006, p. 123).

Of course there are many economists who strongly dispute the voices above; but more and more are questioning the status quo, with some arguing that we need to embrace a “degrowth” alternative (Caradonna, et al., 2015). Certainly there is reason to pause and to question the idea of infinite economic growth on a finite planet. This is one more “myth of the given” that should not be taken for granted. Edgar Morin referred to “development” as:

The master word…upon which all the popular ideologies of the second half of this century converged…development is a reductionistic conception which holds that economic growth is the necessary and sufficient condition for all social, psychological, and moral developments. This techno-economic conception ignores the human problems of identity, community, solidarity, and culture… In any case, we must reject the underdeveloped concept of development that made techno-industrial growth the panacea of all anthroposocial development and renounce the mythological idea of an irresistible progress extending to infinity (Morin, 1999, pp. 59-63).

Addressing this “myth of the given,” Pogany pokes fun at his own profession:

Historically, geocapital [matter ready to be used to feed cultural evolution] has registered a net increase; additions and expansions more than offset exhaustions and reductions. This long-lasting successful experience led to the culturally ingrained confidence in the possibility of its eternal continuation. Economic growth theory keeps “deriving” the same conclusion over and over again: Optimally maintained economic expansion can continue forever. Translated from evolutionary scales to our own, this is analogous to “Since I wake up every morning I must be immortal” (2006, p. 118).”

References

Caradonna, J., Borowy, I. Green, T., Victor, P.A., Cohen, M., Gow, A. … Heinberg, R. (2015). A degrowth response to an ecomodernist manifesto. Retrieved from: http://www.resilience.org/articles/General/2015/05_May/A-Degrowth-Response-to-An-Ecomodernist-Manifesto.pdf

Daly, H. & Cobb, J.B. (1994). For the common good: Redirecting the economy toward the community, the environment, and a sustainable future. 2nd, updated edition. Beacon Press.

Gordon, R. J. (2012). Is U.S. economic growth over? Faltering innovation confronts the six headwinds. Center for Economic Policy Research, Policy Insight No. 63 (September 2012).
http://www.cepr.org/sites/default/files/policy_insights/PolicyInsight63.pdf

Gordon, R.J. (2014). The demise of U.S. economic growth: restatement, rebuttal and reflections. NBER Working Paper No. 19895 (February 2014).

Gowdy, J. and Mesner, S. (1998). The evolution of Georgescu-Roegen’s bioeconomics. Review of Social Economy Vol LVI No 2 Summer 1998. The Association of Social Economics. Retrieved from: http://homepages.rpi.edu/~gowdyj/mypapers/RSE1998.pdf

Heinberg, R. (2011). The end of growth: adapting to our new economic reality. Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers.

Morin, E. (1999). Homeland earth: a manifesto for the new millenium. Creskill: Hampton Press.

Morin, E. (2008). On complexity. Creskill: Hampton Press.

Piketty, T. (2014). Capital in the twenty-first century. translated by Goldhammer, A. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Pogany, P. (2006). Rethinking the world. Lincoln: iUniverse.

Pogany, P. (2013a). Al Gore, Stephen King, and Jean Gebser are related. How? Retrieved from: http://blog.gebser.net/

Pogany. P. (2013b). Thermodynamic isolation and the new world order. Retrieved from: http://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/49924/

Rubin, J. (2012). The big flatline: oil and the no-growth economy. New York: Pallgrave Macmillan.

Schumacher, E.F. (1973). Small is beautiful: economics as if people mattered. London: Blond & Briggs.

Schumacher, E.F. (1977). Guide for the perplexed. New York: Harper & Row.

Joshua Farley on Rethinking Economic Growth

Justin Ritchie and Seth Moser-Katz over at Extraenvironmentalist have posted this great video featuring Joshua Farley, interviewed at the recent International Conference on Degrowth in the Americas held in Montreal.  Farley explains the concepts and implications of money as debt, GDP as a measure of the economy, and economic degrowth.

 

Joshua Farley is a renowned ecological economist working to integrate social, human, and natural capital into the way the world views economics. He is a Fellow of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics and a Professor in the Community Development and Applied Economics faculty at the University of Vermont. With economist Herman Daly, Joshua co-authored the foundation textbook Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications; he also co-authored Restoring Natural Capital: Financing and Valuation. Joshua has received several Fellowships and has spent considerable time abroad, including several years teaching ecological economics at the School for Field Studies Centre for Rainforest Studies (CRS) in Far North Queensland Australia.