Tim Harford (Financial Times) on saving the planet and growth

Last weekend Tim Harford, wrote a flawed article How to maintain economic growth and save the planet. The aims are mutually exclusive  The FT published some comments. There were excellent ideas for saving the planet, but every one of them would at least inhibit economic activity in some way.

Tm Harford actually asks for  innovations. The suggestions selected by the FT are all policy prescriptions – mostly either for legislation or hair shirt behaviour. Nobody noticed that the Basic (Citizens’) Income is a highly relevant innovation. In passing, that reminds me, even Kate Raworth misses this in her best seller Doughnut Economics, but it doesn’t look as though Tim has read her book.

One mantra commonly heard is ‘re-use, repair, recycle. Absolutely essential – world wide – to avoid further damage to the ecosphere,  but it would decimate whole swathes of production, and whole swathes of producers will resist that – not just the fossil fuel industry, – all forms of production.

In the book of which I am the main author (as per the Résumé, and Résumé as Springboard ‘Pages’ on this blog), I wrote the following in 2011:

A Green (i.e Steady State, zero growth) economy does not mean zero economic activity. Zero growth may or may not turn out to be the norm, punctuated from time to time as environmentally sound innovations take effect, but the level of economic activity can be quite buoyant. . . .If there is sufficient eco-friendly inventiveness, it may even be possible for economic growth to continue indefinitely.

But the problem with this assumption is that there are limits to technological improvement Once upon a time a creature evolved able to fly. Its successful descendants expanded and are now found everywhere on earth. But birds long ago reached the limits of aerodynamic efficiency. Ever since then, each species has had to accept a finite  ‘steady state’ environment.

In my Page Résumé as Springboard, I examine some reasons why it is proving so extraordinarily difficult to escape from growth. The pressure is on to find new ways to keep it going, whatever the side effects.

Hydraulic fracturing for example is touted as an invention capable of extending growth into the future. It would make that possible but for the production of CO2, and especially methane (CH4), the latter being a much more powerful greenhouse gas. Fracking most definitely does not qualify as eco-friendly. But if fossil fuels must stay in the ground, then both legislation and hair-shirts will be necessary until innovations which do not damage the ecosphere come along. That may be short term, but don’t bank on it.

Mind you, although the shape of things to come will feel like hair shirt for some, downsizing need not feel threatening. It will be a lot less threatening than the crisis if growth is not stopped. A Basic, Citizens’ income will ensure that the need to limit consumption will be shared fairly. It will make as few changes as possible to the world as we know it.

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4 responses to “Tim Harford (Financial Times) on saving the planet and growth

  1. I’ve just turned 80 and I’m facebooking about the GE-Hitachi BWRX-300 as if every day was my last one – and one day it will be. Same for you too – but there’s still time for you to climb on board and get with me on the promotion of this humanity-saving technology.

    Their is a ‘British Isles Green parties members/supporters for Nuclear Energy’ on facebook and I’m sure they’ll welcome you as a member.

    You know in your heart of hearts that renewables haven’t a hope of ‘saving humanity’ but advanced nuclear power technologies can do it, so it’s never too latew to change your mind.

    • My worry is not nuclear power – I do not understand why nuclear waste is more dangerous than uranium just left in the ground, but I am against anything which allows humans to cling to the illusion of growth outside strictly limited windows of opportunity, such as those exploited by the first amphibians, birds, beetles, or humans with capabilities their hominid ancestors did not have.
      I believe renewables will be capable of a ‘Dunkirk’ type salvage from the worst of the more or less inevitable catastrophe, but I may well join you and support the GE-Hitachi BWRX-300 once the above principle is grasped. (If I live that long).

      • “…anything which allows humans to cling to the illusion of growth outside strictly limited windows of opportunity……….I believe renewables will be capable of a ‘Dunkirk’ type salvage from the worst of the more or less inevitable catastrophe…”

        There’s an underlying contradiction here, in that growth maps on to more energy and resource use. Yet, for every unit of electricity generated, wind power uses 11X more resources and solar pv 16X more resources than nuclear power. So salvaging would be much better realised, with much less ‘growth’ using nuclear power and not renewables.

      • You are right, but the mind set change is crucial. I have recently become much clearer on why it is going to be so difficult to dislodge the growth paradigm.
        Your nuclear option may well be rapidly adopted by any survivors of the Tragedy, but before that it will be clutched at as a straw capable of keeping growth going.

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