S-curves and other paths

Also published at Resilience.org.

Oxford University economist Kate Raworth is getting a lot of good press for her recently released book Doughnut Economics: 7 Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist.

The book’s strengths are many, starting with the accessibility of Raworth’s prose. Whether she is discussing the changing faces of economic orthodoxy, the caricature that is homo economicus, or the importance of according non-monetized activities their proper recognition, Raworth keeps things admirably clear.

Doughnut Economics makes a great crash course in promising new approaches to economics. In Raworth’s own words, her work “draws on diverse schools of thought, such as complexity, ecological, feminist, institutional and behavioural economics.” Yet the integration of ecological economics into her framework is incomplete, leading to a frustratingly unimaginative concluding chapter on economic growth.

Laying the groundwork for that discussion of economic growth has resulted in an article about three times as long as most of my posts, so here is the ‘tl;dr’ version:

Continued exponential economic growth is impossible, but the S-curve of slowing growth followed by a steady state is not the only other alternative. If the goal is maintaining GDP at the highest possible level, then the S-curve is the best case scenario, but in today’s world that isn’t necessarily desirable or even possible.

The central metaphor

Full disclosure: for as long as I can remember, the doughnut has been my least favourite among refined-sugar-white-flour-and-grease confections. So try as I might to be unbiased, I was no doubt predisposed to react critically to Raworth’s title metaphor.

What is the Doughnut? As Raworth explains, the Doughnut is the picture that emerged when she sketched a “safe space” between the Social Foundation necessary for prosperity, and the Ecological Ceiling beyond which we should not go.

Source: Doughnut Economics, page 38

There are many good things to be said about this picture. It affords a prominent place to both the social factors and the ecological factors which are essential to prosperity, but which are omitted from many orthodox economic models. The picture also restores ethics, and the choosing of goals, to central roles in economics.

Particularly given Raworth’s extensive background in development economics, it is easy to understand the appeal of this diagram.

But I agree with Ugo Bardi (here and here) that there is no particular reason the diagram should be circular – Shortfall, Social Foundation, Safe and Just Space, Ecological Ceiling and Overshoot would have the same meaning if arranged in horizontal layers rather than in concentric circles.

From the standpoint of economic analysis, I find it unhelpful to include a range of quite dissimilar factors all at the same level in the centre of the diagram. A society could have adequate energy, water and food without having good housing and health care – but you couldn’t have good housing and health care without energy, water and food. So some of these factors are clearly preconditions for others.

Likewise, some of the factors in the centre of the diagram are clearly and directly related to “overshoot” in the outer ring, while others are not. Excessive consumption of energy, water, or food often leads to ecological overshoot, but you can’t say the same about “excessive” gender equality, political voice, or peace and justice.

Beyond these quibbles with the Doughnut diagram, I further agree with Bardi that a failure to incorporate biophysical economics is the major weakness of Doughnut Economics. In spite of her acknowledgment of the pioneering work of Herman Daly, and a brief but lucid discussion of the work of Robert Ayres and Benjamin Warr showing that fossil fuels have been critical for the past century’s GDP growth, Raworth does not include energy supply as a basic determining factor in economic development.

Economists as spin doctors

Raworth makes clear that key doctrines of economic orthodoxy often obscure rather than illuminate economic reality. Thus economists in rich countries extoll the virtues of free trade, though their own countries relied on protectionism to nurture their industrial base.

Likewise standard economic modeling starts with a reductionist “homo economicus” whose decisions are always based on rational pursuit of self-interest – even though behavioral science shows that real people are not consistently rational, and are motivated by co-operation as much as by self-interest. Various studies indicate, however, that economics students and professors show a greater-than-average degree of self-interest. And for those who are already wealthy but striving to become wealthier still, it is comforting to believe that everyone is similarly self-interested, and that their self-interest works to the good of all.

When considering a principle of mainstream economics, then, it makes sense to ask: what truths does this principle hide, and for whose benefit?

Unfortunately, when it comes to GDP growth as the accepted measure of a healthy economy, Raworth leaves out an important part of the story.

The concept of Gross Domestic Product has its roots in the 1930s, when statisticians were looking for ways to quantify economic activity, making temporal trends easier to discern. Simon Kuznets developed a way to calculate Gross National Product – the total of all income generated worldwide by US residents.

As Raworth stresses, Kuznets himself was clear that his national income tally was a very limited way of measuring an economy.

Emphasising that national income captured only the market value of goods and services produced in an economy, he pointed out that it therefore excluded the enormous value of goods and services produced by and for households, and by society in the course of daily life. … And since national income is a flow measure (recording only the amount of income generated each year), Kuznets saw that it needed to be complemented by a stock measure, accounting for the wealth from which it was generated ….” (Doughnut Economics, page 34; emphasis mine)

The distinction between flows and stocks is crucial. Imagine a simple agrarian nation which uses destructive farming methods to work its rich land. For a number of years it may earn increasingly high income – the flow – though its wealth-giving topsoil – the stock – is rapidly eroding. Is this country getting richer or poorer? Measured by GDP alone, this economy is healthy as long as current income grows; no matter that the topsoil, and future prospects, are blowing away in the wind.

In the years immediately preceding and following World War II, GDP became the primary measure of economic health, and it became political and economic orthodoxy that GDP should grow every year. (To date no western leader has ever campaigned by promising “In my first year I will increase GDP by 3%, in my second year by 2%, in my third year it will grow by 1%, and by my fourth year I will have tamed GDP growth to 0!”)

What truth does this reliance on GDP hide, and for whose benefit? The answers are fairly obvious, in my humble opinion: a myopic focus on GDP obscured the inevitability of resource depletion, for the benefit of the fossil fuel and automative interests who dominated the US economy in the mid-twentieth century.

For context, in 1955 the top ten US corporations by number of employees included: General Motors, Chrysler, Standard Oil of New Jersey, Amoco, Goodyear and Firestone. (Source: 24/7 Wall St)

In 1960, the top ten largest US companies by revenue included General Motors, Exxon, Ford, Mobil, Gulf Oil, Texaco, and Chrysler. (Fortune 500)

These companies, plus the steel companies that made sheet metal for cars and the construction interests building the rapidly-growing network of roads, were clear beneficiaries of a new way of life that consumed ever-greater quantities of fossil fuels.

In the decades after World War II, the US industrial complex threw its efforts into rapid exploitation of energy reserves, along with mass production of machines that would burn that energy as fast as it could be pulled out of the ground. This transformation was not a simple result of “the invisible hand of the free market”; it relied on the enthusiastic collaboration of every level of government, from local zoning boards, to metropolitan transit authorities, to state and federal transportation planners.

But way back then, was it politically necessary to distract people from the inevitability of resource depletion?

The Peak Oil movement in the 1930s

From the very beginnings of the petroleum age, there were prominent voices who saw clearly that exponential growth in use of a finite commodity could not go on indefinitely.

One such voice was William Jevons, now known particularly for the “Jevons Paradox”. In 1865 he argued that since coal provided vastly more usable energy than industry had previously been able to harness, and since this new-found power was the very foundation of modern industrial civilization, it was particularly important to a nation to prudently manage supplies:

Describing the novel social experience that coal and steam power had created, the experience that today we would call ‘exponential growth’, in which practically infinite values are reached in finite time, Jevons showed how quickly even very large stores of coal might be depleted.” (Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy, pg 129)

In the 1920s petroleum was the new miracle energy source, but thoughtful geologists and economists alike realized that as a finite commodity, petroleum could not fuel infinite growth.

Marion King Hubbert was a student in 1926, but more than sixty years later he still recalled the eye-opening lesson he received when a professor asked pupils to consider the implications of ongoing rapid increases in the consumption of coal and oil resources.

As Mason Inman relates in his excellent biography of Hubbert,

When a quantity grows by a constant percentage each year, its history forms a straight line on a semilogarithmic graph. Hubbert plotted the points for coal, year after year, and found a fairly straight line that persisted for several decades: a continual growth rate of around 6 percent a year. At that rate, the production doubled about every dozen years. When he looked at this graph, it was obvious to him that such rapid growth could persist for decades – his graph showed that had already happened – but couldn’t continue forever.” (The Oracle of Oil, 2016, pg 19)

Hubbert soon learned that there were many others who shared his concerns. This thinking coalesced in the 1930s in a very popular movement known as Technocracy. They argued that wealth depended primarily not on the circulation of money, but on the flow of energy.

The leaders of Technocracy, including Hubbert, were soon speaking to packed houses and were featured in cover stories in leading magazines. Hubbert was also tasked with producing a study guide that interested people could work through at home.

In the years prior to the Great Depression, people had become accustomed to economic growth of about 5% per year. Hubbert wanted people to realize it made no sense to take that kind of growth for granted.

“It has come to be naively expected by our business men and their apologists, the economists, that such a rate of growth was somehow inherent in the industrial processes,” Hubbert wrote. But since Earth and its physical resources are finite, he said, infinite growth is an impossibility.

In short, Technocracy pointed out that the fossil fuel age was likely to be a flash in the pan, historically speaking – unless the nation’s fuel reserves were managed carefully by engineers who understood energy efficiency and depletion.

Without sensible accounting and allocation of the true sources of a nation’s wealth – its energy reserves – private corporations would rake in massive profits for a few decades and two or three generations of Americans might prosper, but in the longer term the nation would be “burning its capital”.

Full speed ahead

After the convulsions of the Depression and World War II, the US emerged with the same leading corporations in an even more dominant position. Now the US had control, or at least major influence, not only over rich domestic fossil fuel reserves, but also the much greater reserves in the Middle East. And as the world’s greatest military and financial power, they were in a position to set the terms of trade.

For fossil fuel corporations the major problem was that oil was temporarily too cheap. It came flowing out of wells so easily and in such quantity that it was often difficult to keep the price up. It was in their interests that economies consume oil at a faster rate than ever before, and that the rate of consumption would speed up each year.

Fortunately for these interests, a new theory of economics had emerged just in time.

In this new theory, economists should not worry about measuring the exhaustion of resources. In Timothy Mitchell’s words, “Economics became instead a science of money.”

The great thing about money supply was that, unlike water or land or oil, the quantity of money could grow exponentially forever. And as long as one didn’t look too far backwards or forwards, it was easy to imagine that energy resources would prove no barrier. After all, for several decades, the price of oil had been dropping.

So although increasing quantities of energy were consumed, the cost of energy did not appear to represent a limit to economic growth. … Oil could be treated as something inexhaustible. Its cost included no calculation for the exhaustion of reserves. The growth of the economy, measured in terms of GNP, had no need to account for the depletion of energy resources.” (Carbon Democracy, pg 140)

GDP was thus installed as the supreme measure of an economy, with continuous GDP growth the unquestionable political goal.

A few voices dissented, of course. Hubbert warned in the mid-1950s that the US would hit the peak of its conventional fossil fuel production by the early 1970s, a prediction that proved correct. But large quantities of cheap oil remained in the Middle East. Additional new finds in Alaska and the North Sea helped to buy another couple of decades for the oil economy (though these fields are also now in decline).

Thanks to the persistent work of a small number of researchers who called themselves “ecological economists”, a movement grew to account for stocks of resources, in addition to tallying income flows in the GDP. By the early 1990s, the US Bureau of Economic Analysis gave its blessing to this effort.

In April 1994 the Bureau published a first set of tables called Integrated Environmental-Economic System of Accounts (IEESA).

The official effort was short-lived indeed. As described in Beyond GDP,

progress toward integrated environmental-economic accounting in the US came to a screeching halt immediately after the first IEESA tables were published. The US Congress responded swiftly and negatively. The House report that accompanied the next appropriations bill explicitly forbade the BEA from spending any additional resources to develop or extend the integrated environmental and economic accounting methodology ….” (Beyond GDP, by Heun, Carbajales-Dale, Haney and Roselius, 2016)

All the way through Fiscal Year 2002, appropriations bills made sure this outbreak of ecological economics was nipped in the bud. The bills stated,

The Committee continues the prohibition on use of funds under this appropriation, or under the Census Bureau appropriation accounts, to carry out the Integrated Environmental-Economic Accounting or ‘Green GDP’ initiative.” (quoted in Beyond GDP)

One can only guess that, when it came to contributing to Congressional campaign funds, the struggling fossil fuel interests had somehow managed to outspend the deep-pocketed biophysical economists lobby.

S-curves and other paths

With that lengthy detour complete, we are ready to rejoin Raworth and Doughnut Economics.

The final chapter is entitled “Be Agnostic About Growth: from growth addicted to growth agnostic”.

This sounds like a significant improvement over current economic orthodoxy – but I found this section weak in several ways.

First, it is unclear just what it is that we are to be agnostic about. While Raworth has made clear earlier in the book why GDP is an incomplete and misleading measure of an economy, in the final chapter GDP growth is nevertheless used as the only significant measure of economic growth. Are we to be agnostic about “GDP growth”, which might well be meaningless anyway? Or should we be agnostic about “economic growth”, which might be something quite different and quite a bit more essential – especially to the hundreds of millions of people still living without basic necessities?

Second, Raworth may be agnostic about growth, but she is not agnostic about degrowth. (She has discussed elsewhere why she can’t bring herself to use the word “degrowth”.) True, she remarks at one point that “I mean agnostic in the sense of designing an economy that promotes human prosperity whether GDP is going up, down, or holding steady.” Yet in the pictures she draws and in the ensuing discussion, there is no clear recognition either that degrowth might be desirable, or that degrowth might be forced on us by biophysical realities.

She includes two graphs for possible paths of economic growth –  with growth measured here simply by GDP.

Source: Doughnut Economics, page 210 and page 214

As she notes, the first graph shows GDP increasing at steady annual percentage. While the politicians would like us to believe this is possible and desirable, the graph showing what quickly becomes a near-vertical climb is seldom presented in economics textbooks, as it is clearly unrealistic.

The second graph shows GDP growing slowly at first, then picking up speed, and then leveling off into a high but steady state with no further growth. This path for growth is commonly seen and recognized in ecology. The S-curve was also recognized by pre-20th-century economists, including Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, as the ideal for a healthy economy.

I would concur that an S-curve which lands smoothly on a high plateau is an ideal outcome. But can we take for granted that this outcome is still possible? And do these two paths – continued exponential growth or an S-curve – really exhaust the conceptual possibilities that we should consider?

On the contrary, we can look back 80 years to the Technocracy Study Course for an illustration of varied and contrasting paths of economic growth and degrowth.

Source: The Oracle of Oil, page 58

M. King Hubbert produced this set of graphs to illustrate what can be expected with various key commodities on which a modern industrial economy depends – and by extension, what might happen with the economy as a whole.

While pure exponential growth is impossible, the S-curve may work for a dependably renewable resource, or a renewable-resource based economy. However, the next possibility – with a rise, peak, decline, and then a leveling off – is also a common scenario. For example, a society may harvest increasing amounts of wood until the regenerating power of the forests are exceeded; the harvest must then drop before any production plateau can be established.

The bell curve which starts at zero, climbs to a high peak, and drops back to zero, could characterize an economy which is purely based on a non-renewable resource such as fossils fuels. Hopefully this “decline to zero” will remain a theoretical conception, since no society to date has run 100% on a non-renewable resource. Nevertheless our fossil-fuel-based industrial society will face a severe decline unless we can build a new energy system on a global scale, in very short order.

This range of economic decline scenarios is not really represented in Doughnut Economics. That may have something to do with the design of the title metaphor.

While ecological overshoot, on the outside of the doughnut, represents things we should not do, the diagram doesn’t have a way of representing the things we can not do.

We should not continue to burn large quantities of fossil fuel because that will destabilize the climate that our children and grandchildren inherit. But once our cheaply accessible fossil fuels are used up, then we can not consume energy at the same frenetic pace that today’s wealthy populations take for granted.

The same principle applies to many essential economic resources. As long as there is significant fertility left in farmland, we can choose to farm the land with methods that produce a high annual return even though they gradually strip away the topsoil. But once the topsoil is badly depleted, then we no longer have a choice to continue production at the same level – we simply need to take the time to let the land recover.

In other words, these biophysical realities are more fundamental than any choices we can make – they set hard limits on which choices remain open to us.

The S-curve economy may be the best-case scenario, an outcome which could in principle provide global prosperity with a minimum of system disruption. But with each passing year during which our economy is based overwhelmingly on rapidly depleting non-renewable resources, the smooth S-curve becomes a less likely outcome.

If some degree of economic decline is unavoidable, then clear-sighted planning for that decline can help us make the transition a just and peaceful one.

If we really want to think like 21st century economists, don’t we need to openly face the possibility of economic decline?


Top photo: North Dakota State Highway 22, June 2014. (click here for larger view)