Reclaiming hope from the dismal science

Also published on Resilience

Post Growth is published by Polity Press, 2021.

“Empowering and elegiac” might seem a strange description of a book on economics. Yet the prominent author and former economics minister of Greece, Yanis Varoufakis, chooses that phrase of praise for the new book Post Growth, by Tim Jackson.

In many respects the book lives up to that billing, and in the process Post Growth offers a hopeful vision of its subtitle: Life After Capitalism.

My dictionary defines an elegy as “a poem of serious reflection, typically a lament for the dead.” In writing an obituary for capitalism, paradoxically, Jackson also gives us a glimpse of a far richer way of life than anything capitalism could afford us.

Along the way he takes us through the origins and later distortion of John Stuart Mill’s theory of utilitarianism; the demonstration by biologist Lynn Margulis that cooperation is just as important an evolutionary driver as is competition; the psychology of ‘flow’ popularized by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi; and the landscape-transforming campaigns of Kenyan environmental justice activist Wangari Maathai.

Jackson accomplishes all this and more, elegantly and with clarity, in less than 200 pages.

The dismal science and its fairytales

Since the mid-19th century, under the influence of the ideals of competition and survival of the fittest, economics has earned the sobriquet “the dismal science”. At the same time, contemporary economics grew in significant part from the theories of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, in which the goal of economics would be the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. During our lifetimes, mainstream economics has proclaimed a gospel of unending economic growth. What gives?

In Mill’s day, Jackson writes, the word ‘utility’ was “a kind of direct proxy for happiness.” But meanings change:

“Economists today use ‘utility’ to refer to the worth or value of something. They tend to measure utility in monetary terms. The argument that we are driven to maximize our expected utility then assumes a very different meaning. But perhaps it’s easier to see now why the pursuit of GDP growth is seen as an irreducible good by economists and policymakers alike.” (Post Growth, page 52)

Speaking to the UN Conference on Climate Change in September 2019, Greta Thunberg famously dismissed economic orthodoxy as “fairytales of eternal economic growth.” Jackson devotes much of Post Growth to demonstrating, first, that this fairytale contradicts fundamental laws of physics, and second, that capitalism does not deliver ever-greater happiness, even for the minority in the upper half of the income scale, even during the brief and anomalous burst of growth following World War II. He explains,

“An infinite economy (the ultimate end of eternal growth) means infinite depreciation. Infinite maintenance costs. An infinite need for available energy to turn back the tide of entropy. At the end of the day, the myth of growth is a thermodynamic impossibility.” (Post Growth, page 79)

Jackson’s elegant discussion of thermodynamic limits notwithstanding, I found his discussion of the end of economic growth less than fully satisfying. He notes that labour productivity grew greatly up to about 1960, that this growth in productivity was the major enabler of rapid economic growth, and that as labour productivity growth stalled over the past several decades, so too has economic growth. He mentions – without clearly endorsing – the idea that this labour productivity was directly tied to the most easily accessible fuel sources:

“A fascinating – if worrying – contention is that the peak growth rates of the 1960s were only possible at all on the back of a huge and deeply destructive exploitation of dirty fossil fuels ….” (Post Growth, page 31)

But his primary focus is to outline why we not only must, but how we can, lead prosperous lives that give freedom to limitless human potential while still respecting the unyielding limits that thermodynamics set for our economy.

Growth when necessary, but not necessarily growth

Is money – and therefore, also GDP – a good proxy for happiness? In an important but limited sense, yes. Jackson cites what is now an extensive body of evidence showing that

“more income does a lot to increase happiness when incomes are very low to start with. Looking across countries, for instance, there’s a rapid increase in measured happiness as the average income of the nation rises from next-to-nothing to around $20,000 per person.” (Post Growth, page 52)

Beyond that modest income, however, the measured increase in happiness that goes with increased income dwindles rapidly. At the same time, research shows that “Society as a whole is less happy when things are unequal ….” From a utilitarian viewpoint, then, trying to constantly provide more for those who already have more than enough is pointless. But by closing the inequality gap – “levelling up our societies” – we can greatly increase the happiness of society as a whole.

Jackson doesn’t stop, however, with merely making that assertion. He dives deeply into discussions of the true value of care work, human creativity, the psychology of flow, and love. In the process, he goes a long way toward fulfilling a major goal of his book: presenting a realistic vision of a future “in which plenty isn’t measured in dollars and fulfillment isn’t driven by the relentless accumulation of material wealth.”

Late-stage capitalism, in fact, goes to great lengths to ensure that people are not happy.

Merchants of discontent

In the wake of the Great Depression and World War II, Jackson says, the industrialized economies were able to produce material goods beyond the needs of citizens. The response of capitalism was to develop ways of ensuring that consumers constantly feel they “need” more. The burgeoning advertising industry “drew on another metaphor, borrowed from an emerging ‘evolutionary psychology’: the insatiability of human desire.”

This development “turned Mill’s utilitarianism completely on its head”, trading not in happiness but in discontent:

“Anxiety must tip over into outright dissatisfaction if capitalism is to survive. Discontentment is the motivation for our restless desire to spend. Consumer products must promise paradise. But they must systematically fail to deliver it. … The success of consumer society lies not in meeting our needs but in its spectacular ability consistently to disappoint us.” (Post Growth, page 91)

Fortunately there are ways to pursue fulfillment and satisfaction which do not depend on ever-increasing consumption. In this respect Jackson draws extensively on the work of Hungarian psychologist Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi and his classic book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990).

In Jackson’s description, 

“People ‘in flow’ report an unusual clarity of mind and precision of movement. They experience a sense of confidence and control over the task. But there is also a sense of being lost in the moment, sometimes even being carried along by a momentum that is entirely outside of oneself. People describe a sense of wonder, a connectedness to the world, a feeling of satisfaction that goes beyond happiness or the gratification of pleasure.” (Post Growth, page 101)

Fleeting pleasure can be bought and consumed. By contrast enjoyment, in Jackson’s use of the terms, typically takes work – the enjoyment from playing a sport well or playing music well may involve an investment of hundreds of hours of focussed attention. This work need not and often does not have adverse environmental impacts.

Clearly one needs a basis of material prosperity – beginning with adequate nutrition and housing – in order to pursue what Jackson describes as high-flow activities. But in a relatively egalitarian society which provides basic needs for all, people can achieve lasting satisfaction in activities which, Jackson and colleagues have found, tend to be both high-flow and low-impact.

“Flow exemplifies with extraordinary clarity the kinds of dividends that remain available to us in a postgrowth world,” Jackson writes. “Flow offers us better and more durable satisfactions that consumerism ever does.” (Post Growth, page 102)

While celebrating human creativity, it is equally important to restore the dignity of “the labour of care.” Some activities are fundamental to maintaining human societies: providing the food we need every day, taking care of children, providing comfort and care to those stricken with illness or in the fragility of end-of-life. Jackson notes that many people suddenly realized during the pandemic how fundamental the labour of care is. But we have done precious little to afford workers in these sectors the respect and security they deserve.

When we honour and reward all those who perform the labour of care, and we promote the lasting enjoyment that comes from flow activities rather than the resource-sucking drain of consumerism – then, Jackson says, we will have the foundation for a resilient, sustainable, postgrowth society.

Can we get there from here?

Jackson cites an oft-told joke in which a tourist on a road-less-travelled asks an Irish farmer about the best way to Dublin. The farmer replies, “Well, sir, I wouldn’t start from here.” The point being, of course, that no matter how inauspicious our present location may be, we can only start from exactly where we are.

Unfortunately I found Jackson’s road map to a post growth society unconvincing, though he makes an honest effort. In successive chapters he relates the work of Kenyan environmental justice activist Wangari Maathai, and Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich That Hanh. Their examples are moving and inspiring and Jackson draws important lessons from their achievements and from the obstacles they faced.

But Jackson’s book is likely to reach primarily an audience in wealthy countries, and primarily readers who have at least a basis of material prosperity if not far more than they need. If we are to reach a post growth society soon enough to avoid both environmental conflagration and social collapse, a large number of relatively wealthy people need to realize they can be much happier by escaping the treadmill of constantly greater wealth accumulation and constantly greater consumption. I think Jackson is right on the mark in his discussion of flow, and I’d like to believe that his vision will catch on and become a civilization-defining vision – but Post Growth doesn’t convince me that that appealing future is likely.

In the concluding chapter Jackson writes, “In the ruins of capitalism, as I hope to have shown in this book, lie the seeds for a fundamental renewal.” I believe he has identified the seeds we need, and I dearly hope they will grow.


Illustration at top of page, from clockwise from top left: Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai, in photograph from Wikipedia; author Tim Jackson, photo copyright by Fernando Manoso-Borgas, courtesy of press kit at timjackson.org.uk; philosopher John Stuart Mill circa 1870, photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Going to extremes

It only took us a century to use up the best of the planet’s finite reserves of fossil fuels. The dawning century will be a lot different.

Also published on Resilience

In the autumn of 1987 I often sipped my morning coffee while watching a slow parade roll through the hazy dawn.

I had given up my apartment for a few months, so I could spend the rent money on quality bike-camping equipment for a planned trip to the Canadian arctic. My substitute lodgings were what is now referred to as “wild camping”, though most nights I slept in the heart of downtown Toronto. One of my favourite sites afforded a panoramic view of the scenic Don Valley Parkway, which was and remains a key automobile route from the suburbs into the city.

Even thirty-five years ago, the bumper-to-bumper traffic at “rush hour” had earned this route the nickname “Don Valley Parking Lot”. On weekday mornings, the endless procession of cars, most of them carrying a single passenger but powered by heat-throwing engines of a hundred or two hundred horsepower, lumbered downtown at speeds that could have been matched by your average cyclist.

Sometimes I would try to calculate how much heavy work could have been done by all that power … let’s see, 1000 cars/lane/hour X 3 lanes = 3000 cars/hour, X 200 horsepower each = the power of 600,000 horses! Think of all the pyramids, or Stonehenges, or wagon-loads of grain, that could be moved every hour by those 600,000 horses, if they weren’t busy hauling 3000 humans to the office.

This car culture is making someone a lot of money, I thought, but it isn’t making a lot of sense.

One early autumn afternoon a year later, in the arctic coastal town of Tuktoyaktuk, I dressed in a survival suit for a short helicopter trip out over the Beaufort Sea. The occasion was perhaps the most elaborate book launch party on record, to celebrate the publication of Pierre Berton’s The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the Northwest Passage and The North Pole. The publisher had arranged for a launch party on an off-shore oil-drilling platform in said Northwest Passage. As a part-time writer for the local newspaper, I had prevailed upon the publisher to let me join the author and the Toronto media on this excursion.

The flight was a lark, the dinner was great – but I couldn’t shake the unsettling impression made by the strange setting, beyond the ends of the earth. I thought back, of course, to those thousands of cars on the Don Valley Parkway alternately revving and idling their powerful engines. We must be burning up our petroleum stocks awfully fast, I thought, if after only a few generations we had to be looking for more oil out in the arctic sea, thousands of kilometers from any major population centre.

This post is the conclusion of a four-part series about my personal quest to make some sense of economics. I didn’t realize, in the fall of 1988, that my one-afternoon visit to an off-shore drilling rig provided a big clue to the puzzle. But I would eventually learn that dedicated scholars had been writing a new chapter in economic thought, and the quest for energy was the focus of their study.

Before I stopped my formal study of economics, I sought some sort of foundation for economics in various schools of thought. I devoted a good bit of attention to the Chicago School, and much more to the Frankfurt School. It would not have occurred to me, back then, to understand economics by paying attention to the fish school.

Schooled by fish

Well into the 21st century, I started hearing about biophysical economics and the concept of Energy Return On Investment (EROI). I can’t pinpoint which article or podcast first alerted me to this illuminating idea. But one of the first from which I took careful notes was an April 2013 article in Scientific American, along with an online Q & A, by Mason Inman and featuring the work of Charles A.S. Hall.

The interview ran with the headline “Will Fossil Fuels Be Able to Maintain Economic Growth?” Hall approached that topic by recalling his long-ago doctoral research under ecologist H.T. Odum. In this research he asked the question “Do freshwater fish migrate, and if so, why?” His fieldwork revealed this important correlation:

“The study found that fish populations that migrated would return at least four calories for every calorie they invested in the process of migration by being able to exploit different ecosystems of different productivity at different stages of their life cycles.”

The fish invested energy in migrating but that investment returned four times as much energy as they invested, and the fish thrived. The fish migrated, in other words, because the Energy Return On Investment was very good.

This simple insight allowed Hall and other researchers to develop a new theory and methodology for economics. By the time I learned about bio-physical economics, there was a great wealth of literature examining the Energy Return On Investment of industries around the world, and further examining the implications of Energy Return ratios for economic growth or decline.1

The two-page spread in Scientific American in 2013 summarized some key findings of this research. For the U.S. as a whole, the EROI of gasoline from conventional oil dropped by 50% during the period 1950 – 2000, from 18:1 down to 9:1. The EROI of gasoline from California heavy oil dropped by about 67% in that period, from 12:1 down to 4:1. And these Energy Return ratios were still dropping. Newer unconventional sources of oil had particularly poor Energy Return ratios, with bitumen from the Canadian tar sands industry in 2011 providing only about a 5:1 energy return on investment.2 In Hall’s summary,

“Is there a lot of oil left in the ground? Absolutely. The question is, how much oil can we get out of the ground, at a significantly high EROI? And the answer to that is, hmmm, not nearly as much. So that’s what we’re struggling with as we go further and further offshore and have to do this fracking and horizontal drilling and all of this kind of stuff, especially when you get away from the sweet spots of shale formations. It gets tougher and tougher to get the next barrel of oil, so the EROI goes down, down, down.”3

With an economics founded on something real and physical – energy – both the past and the immediate future made a lot more sense to me. Biophysical economists explained that through most of history, Energy Return ratios grew slowly – a new method of tilling the fields might bring a modestly larger harvest for the same amount of work – and so economic growth was also slow. But in the last two centuries, energy returns spiked due to the development of ways to extract and use fossil fuels. This allowed rapid and unprecedented economic growth – but that growth can only continue as long as steady supplies of similarly favourable energy sources are available.

When energy return ratios drop significantly, economic growth will slow or stop, though the energy crunch might be disguised for a while by subsidies or an explosion of credit. So far this century we have seen all of these trends: much slower economic growth, in spite of increased subsidies to energy producers and/or consumers, and in spite of the financial smoke-and-mirrors game known as quantitative easing.

The completed Hebron Oil Platform, before it was towed out to the edge of the Grand Banks off Newfoundland Canada. Photo by Shhewitt, from Wikimedia Commons.

The power of the green frog-skins

John (Fire) Lame Deer understood that though green frog-skins – dollars – seemed all-important to American colonizers, this power was at the same time an illusion. Forty years after I read Lame Deer’s book Seeker of Visions, the concepts of biophysical economics gave me a way to understand the true source of the American economy’s strength and influence, and to understand why that strength and influence was on a swift road to its own destruction.

For the past few centuries, the country that became the American empire has appropriated the world’s richest energy sources – at first, vast numbers of energy-rich marine mammals, then the captive lives of millions of slaves, and then all the life-giving bounty of tens of millions of hectares of the world’s richest soils. And with that head start, the American economy moved into high gear after discovering large reserves of readily accessible fossil fuels.

The best of the US fossil energy reserves, measured through Energy Return On Investment, were burned through in less than a century. But by then the American empire had gone global, securing preferred access to high-EROI fossil fuels in places as distant as Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Iran. That was about the time I was growing to adulthood, and Lame Deer was looking back on the lessons of his long life during which the green frog-skin world calculated the price of everything – the blades of grass, the springs of water, even the air.

The forces of the American economy could buy just about anything, it seemed. But dollars, in themselves, had no power at all. Rather, biophysical economists explained, the American economy had command of great energy resources, which returned a huge energy surplus for each investment of energy used in extraction. As Charles Hall explained in the Scientific American interview in 2013,

“economics isn’t really about money. It’s about stuff. We’ve been toilet trained to think of economics as being about money, and to some degree it is. But fundamentally it’s about stuff. And if it’s about stuff, why are we studying it as a social science? Why are we not, at least equally, studying it as a biophysical science?”4

The first book-length exposition of these ideas that I read was Life After Growth, by Tim Morgan. Morgan popularized some of the key concepts first worked out by Charles Hall.5 He wrote,

“Money … commands value only to the extent that it can be exchanged for the goods and services produced by the real economy. The best way to think of money is as a ‘claim’ on the real economy and, since the real economy is itself an energy dynamic, money is really a claim on energy. Debt, meanwhile, as a claim on future money, is therefore a claim on future energy.”6

The economic system that even today, though to a diminishing extent, revolves around the American dollar, was built on access to huge energy surpluses, obtained by exploiting energy sources that provided a large Energy Return On Investment. That energy surplus gave money its value, because during each year of the long economic boom there was more stuff available to buy with the money. The energy surplus also made debt a good bet, because when the debt came due, a growing economy could ensure that, in aggregate, most debts would be paid.

Those conditions are rapidly changing, Morgan argued. Money will lose its value – gradually, or perhaps swiftly – when it becomes clear that there is simply less of real, life-giving or life-sustaining value that can be bought with that money. At that point, it will also become clear that huge sums of debts will never and can never be repaid.

Ironically, since Morgan wrote The End of Growth, the dollar value of outstanding debt has grown at an almost incomprehensible pace, while Energy Return On Investment and economic growth have continued their slides. Is the financial bubble set for a big bang, or a long slow hiss?

Platform supply vessels battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon, 2010. Photo by US Coast Guard, via Wikimedia Commons.

The economy becomes a thing

When I was introduced to the concepts of biophysical economics, two competing thoughts ran through my head. The first was, “This explains so much! Of course, the value of money must be based on something biophysical, because we are and always have been biophysical creatures, in biophysical societies, dependent on a biophysical world.”

And the second thought was, “This is so obvious, why isn’t it taught in every Economics 101 course? Why do economists talk endlessly about GDP, fiscal policy and aggregate money supply … but only a tiny percentage of them ever talk about Energy Return On Investment?”

Another then-new book popped up right about then. Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy, published by Verso in 2013, is a detailed, dry work of history, bristling with footnotes – and it was one of the most exciting books I’ve ever read. (That’s why I’ve quoted it so many times since I started writing this blog.)7

As Mitchell explained, the whole body of economic orthodoxy that had taken over university economics departments in the middle of the twentieth century, and which remains the conventional wisdom of policy-makers today, was a radical departure from previous thinking about economics. Current economic orthodoxy, in fact, could only have arisen in an era when surplus energy seemed both plentiful and cheap:

“The conception of the economy depended upon abundant and low-cost energy supplies, making postwar Keynesian economics a form of ‘petroknowledge’.” (Carbon Democracy, page 139)

Up until the early 20th century, Mitchell wrote, mainstream economists based their studies on awareness of physical resources. That changed when the exploding availability of fossil fuels created an illusion, for some, that surplus energy was practically unlimited. In response,

“a battle developed among economists, especially in the United States …. One side wanted economics to start from natural resources and flows of energy, the other to organise the discipline around the study of prices and flows of money. The battle was won by the second group, who created out of the measurement of money and prices a new object: the economy.” (page 131)

Stated another way, “the supply of carbon energy was no longer a practical limit to economic possibility. What mattered was the proper circulation of banknotes.” (page 124)

By the time I went to university in the 1970s, this “science of money” was orthodoxy. My studies in economics left me with an uneasy feeling that the green frog-skin world was, truly, a powerful illusion. But decades passed before I heard about people like H.T. Odum, Charles Hall, and others who were developing a new foundation for economics. A foundation, I now believe, that not only explains our economic history, but is vastly more helpful in making sense of our future challenges.

* * *

Lame Deer’s vision of the end of the green frog-skin world was vividly apocalyptic. He understood back in the 1970s that we are all endangered species, and that the green frog-skin world must and will come to an end. In his vision, the bad dream world of war and pollution will be rolled up, and the real world of the good green earth will be restored. But he had no confidence that the change would be easy. “I hope to see this,” he said, “but then I’m also afraid.”

Today we can study many visions expressed in scientific journals. Some of these visions outline new worlds of sharing and harmony, but many visions foretell the worsening of the climate crisis, economic system collapse, ecosystem collapse, crashes of biodiversity, forced global migrations. These visions are frightening and dramatic. Are we caught up, today, in an apocalyptic fever, or is it cold hard realism?

We have much to hope for, and we also have much to fear.


Image at top of post: Offshore oil rigs in the Santa Barbara channel, by Anita Ritenour, CC 2.0, flickr.com


Footnotes

 

The fat-takers cross the oceans

Also published on Resilience

Ecological overshoot is a global crisis today, but the problem did not begin with the fossil fuel age. From its beginnings more than five centuries ago, European colonization has been based on an unsustainable exploitation of resources.

In Seeker of Visions, John (Fire) Lame Deer says “The Sioux have a name for white men. They call them wasicun – fat-takers. It is a good name, because you have taken the fat of the land.”

The term, often also written as “wasi’chu”, has engendered discussion as to what the words originally meant in the Lakota language.1 In any case, the phrase “fat-takers” seemed fitting to Lame Deer, it caught on quite widely – and it took literal meaning to me as I learned more about the history of European colonization.

When I wrote a newspaper review of a then-new book by Farley Mowat in the 1980s, I couldn’t help but recall Lame Deer’s words. Nearly thirty years later, I’ve come to regard Mowat’s book, Sea of Slaughter, as a foundational study in biophysical economic history.

Here, Canadians may ask incredulously, “Since when was Farley Mowat a biophysical economist?” And readers from everywhere else are likely to ask “Farley who?” A brief bit of biography is in order.

Farley Mowat (1921 – 2014)  was one of the most successful Canadian writers of all time, author of dozens of best-selling books beginning in 1952 and continuing into the twenty-first century. He wrote in a popular style about his own experiences in Canada’s far north, the maritime provinces, travels in Siberia, and his life-long love of the natural world. Never shying from controversy, Mowat became a hero to many Canadians when he was banned from entering the US, and he was vilified by many for his support of the direct-action Sea Shepherd Conservation Society which named two of its ships in his honour. His books also received withering criticism from some writers who questioned Mowat’s right to use the label “non-fiction” for any of his books.2

Later in this post I will touch on Mowat’s shortcomings as a historian. First, though, a personal note in the interest of full disclosure. For ten years I lived just a few blocks from Mowat’s winter home in Port Hope, Ontario. Although we crossed paths and occasionally shared a few words while walking the Lake Ontario shoreline, I was formally introduced to him only once, near the end of his life. He had decided to sell off much of his collection of his own books. Though he was famously computer-averse, he recognized that the new-fangled “world wide web” could help sell his library. I was part of the team that built him a website, and at the launch party he honoured me with the title “the big spider”.

Of more lasting significance for me, though, was a brief correspondence with Mowat in 1985. After reviewing Sea of Slaughter, I wrote to Mowat that the systematic exploitation of animal resources, over several centuries starting in the 16th, likely played an important role in the dramatic economic advance of western European societies. Mowat sent back a courteous note agreeing with this observation and encouraging me to carry this line of thinking further. Decades later, I’m following up on Mowat’s suggestion. 

A 1985 trade paperback edition of Sea of Slaughter

While many of his books were written and received as light reading, Sea of Slaughter was anything but cheerful. He often said it was the most difficult of all of his books for him to complete, because the content is almost unrelentingly brutal.

In the opening pages Mowat writes, “This is not a book about animal extinctions. It is about a massive diminution of the entire body corporate of animate creation.” (page 13)3 With a primary focus on the North Atlantic coasts of North America, but moving across the continent and to far-away oceans, Sea of Slaughter spotlights the price paid by many species – in the sea, on land and in the air – wherever colonizers determined that slaughter was profitable. Some of the species he discusses were hunted to extinction, but far more were reduced to such small remnant populations that the killing machines simply moved on.

A key reason for the slaughter, Mowat explains, is that so many animals of the North Atlantic necessarily carry a generous layer of fat to protect them from cold water. And animal fat, he took care to remind readers of the current era, has throughout history been a key nutrient and a key energy source, especially for people in cold climates. This was no less true in Europe during the Little Ice Age of the 14th to the 19th centuries, but Europeans had a problem – they had already taken unsustainable numbers of the fattest marine species from the eastern North Atlantic.

The Basque people of what is now northwest Spain and southwest France had become the unquestioned leaders in hunting whales on the open seas, and it was due to this prowess that they feature so prominently in Sea of Slaughter.4 Discussing the intertwined histories of the Basque culture and marine mammals, Mowat writes:

“By 1450, a fleet of more than sixty Basque deep-sea whalers was seeking and killing sardas [black right whales] from the Azores all the way north to Iceland. They wrought such havoc that, before the new century began, the sarda, too, were verging on extinction in European waters. At this crucial juncture for the future of their whaling industry, the Basques became aware of a vast and previously untapped reservoir of “merchantable” whales in the far western reaches of the North Atlantic.”

The same was true, Mowat argued, of many other fat-rich species that lived in cold northern waters. Several types of whales, walrus, water bears (known today as polar bears), and other species had become scarce or non-existent in European waters – but were found in great abundance at the other side of the Atlantic.  

Fishermen spearing whales from the safety of their boats. This image also depicts other fat-rich species which were intensively exploited by Europeans in North American waters, including the narwhal, a “morse” – the Old English term for walrus – and plump waterbirds. Coloured etching. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Before the fur trade

Though Canadians learn that the fur trade was the essential economic development in our early history, Mowat says that fur trading was a relatively late development. The first economic resource, in chronology and in priority, was the oil known as “train” (from the Dutch traan, meaning “tear” or “drop”) rendered from fatty marine animals. This was followed by fish, then hides for durable leather, and finally by furs.

“Late fifteenth-century Europe found itself increasingly short of oil,” Mowat wrote. “In those days, it came mostly from rendering the fat of terrestrial animals or from vegetative sources. These were no longer equal to the demand …. As the sixteenth century began train became ever more valuable and in demand ….” (page 206)

Only the Basques had the ship-building, provisioning, ocean-going and hunting expertise to find new sources of train across the ocean, and they did so at the dawn of European colonizing of the “New World”, Mowat writes. He notes that “the municipal archives of Biarritz contain letters patent issued in 1511 authorizing French Basques to whale in the New World ….” (page 213) Within a few decades, Basque whaling stations dotted the coast of Newfoundland, Labrador, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. There were dozens of rendering factories, where the whales were cut into pieces so the blubber could be dropped into cauldrons and rendered into high-quality oil that was shipped in barrels to European markets.

The major whale species near shore could not long withstand such intensive depredations, but the heyday of the Basque whale “fishery” was not destined to last much longer in any case. Most of the Basque fleet was dragooned into the ill-fated Spanish Armada and destroyed in 1588, and by then plenty of foreign competitors were moving into the train trade.

By the late 16th century, fleets from several other nations were taking fish, seabirds, and marine mammals in great numbers. Though there was specialization, even ships outfitted primarily for fishing or whaling would capture and consume seabirds by the thousands.

The cod fishery, Mowat explains, rapidly became an industry of huge importance to the European diet. But cod is lean, and “if eaten as a steady diet in cold latitudes can result in chronic malnutrition because of a low fat content.” (page 28) The crew of a sailing venture were not going to earn a profit unless they had high-energy provisions. Fat-insulated seabirds, found by the tens of thousands in coastal rookeries, met the need:

“The importance of seabird rookeries to transatlantic seamen was enormous. These men were expected to survive and work like dogs on a diet consisting principally of salt meat and hard bread. … Some Basque ships sailing those waters displaced as much as 600 tons and could have comfortably stowed away several thousand spearbill [great auk] carcasses – sufficient to last the summer season through and probably enough to feed the sailors on the homeward voyage.” (page 28 – 29)

The great auk, a flightless bird which stood nearly a meter tall and weighed 5 kg, originally numbered in the millions. Not a single live great auk has been seen since the mid-nineteenth century.

Ships which specialized in bringing back oil could and did switch species when their primary quarry got scarce. They learned that “as much as twelve gallons of good train could be rendered from the carcass of a big water bear” – with the result that in North America as well as in Europe, the ursus maritimus was soon confined to arctic seas that were hard to access by ship. The same pressures applied to walruses, which were highly valued not only for oil but also for ivory and for hides which were tanned into the toughest grades of leather.

The Gulf of St. Lawrence was home to huge numbers of walrus. In 1765, a Lieutenant Haldiman was asked to report on the prospects for walrus hunting at the Magdalen Islands. “The Magdalens seem to be superior to any place in North America for the taking of the Sea Cow,” he wrote. “Their numbers are incredible, amounting, upon as true a computation as can be made, to 100,000 or upwards.” (page 318)

Just 33 years later, the British Royal Navy asked for another report on the walrus population of the Magdalens. Captain Crofton’s report was terse: “I am extremely sorry to acquaint you that the Sea Cow fishery on these islands is totally annihilated.” (page 319)

The various species of seal were more numerous and geographically dispersed. Yet the colonial exploitation system showed itself capable of taking seals at a far faster rate than could be sustained. Mowat writes,

“The period between 1830 and 1860 is still nostalgically referred to in Newfoundland as the Great Days of Sealing. During those three decades, some 13 million seals were landed – out of perhaps twice that number killed.” (page 361)

By the end of the 19th century, seals, too, were in steep decline. Whales and walruses, meanwhile, were being slaughtered in the most distant seas, with steep drops in their populations occurring within decades. Once Yankee whalers had reached the far northern reaches of the Pacific in about 1850, “It took the Americans just fifty years to effectively exterminate the Pacific bowhead.” (page 240) It was difficult for ships to get around the coast of Alaska into the Beaufort Sea, but high prices for train and baleen made the trip worth the trouble – for a couple of decades: “By 1910 the Bering-Beaufort-Chukchi Sea tribe of bowheads was commercially and almost literally extinct.” (page 241) 

Arctic Oil Works, in San Francisco, about 1885. Courtesy UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library. John R. Bockstoce writes that this facility was capitalized at $1,000,000, and adds: “the Arctic Oil Works had the advantage of allowing the Pacific Steam Whaling Company’s ships (upper left) to unload directly at the refinery. Oil could be pumped into the 2,000-gallon tanks …. Refining was done in the three-story structure at the right.” (In Whales, Ice, & Men: The History of Whaling in the Western Arctic, University of Washington Press, 1986).

Facts or fictions

Several of Mowat’s books were criticized as being more fiction than fact. His angry responses did not, in my eyes, enhance his credibility. Professing to work in service of fundamental truths, Mowat said “I will take any liberty I want with the facts so long as I don’t trespass on the truth.”5 In that attitude, he sounds like a pioneer of “truthiness”, “telling my truth”, and “alternative facts”.

Rereading Sea of Slaughter twenty-five years after its publication, I find it frustrating that the wealth of statistics is accompanied by very few footnotes or references. But I have not seen the same type of criticism of Sea of Slaughter that some of his other books attracted, and much of the story he tells has been corroborated in other books I have read in the ensuing years.

As I was working on this essay, I was particularly glad to see an excellent new article by editor and writer Ian Angus. Entitled “Plundering a New Found Land”, published on the site Climate & Capitalism, the article not only confirms the picture Mowat paints of the Newfoundland cod fishery, but also provides important context and scale about this venture. Angus writes,

“While Spanish ships carried silver and gold, a parallel trade involving far more ships developed far to the north. Historians of capitalism, including Marxists, have paid too little attention to what Francis Bacon called ‘the Gold Mines of the Newfoundland Fishery, of which there is none so rich.’”

Mowat had quoted Charlevoix, writing in the 1720s about the cod fishery in similar terms: “These are true mines, which are more valuable, and require much less expense than those of Peru and Mexico.” (page 169)

While Mowat described the drastic reduction, over a few short centuries, of the once abundant North Atlantic cod, Angus tells us what this fishery meant to the recipients of the bounty:

“The Newfoundland fishery drove ‘a 15-fold increase in cod supplies … [and] tripled overall supplies of fish (herring and cod) protein to the European market.’ Cod, formerly a distant second to herring, comprised 60% of all fish eaten in Europe by the late sixteenth century.”

Back in 1985, when I wrote to Farley Mowat in response to Sea of Slaughter, I suggested that the resources taken from the oceans were likely far more important to European economic advancement than were the gold and silver taken from mines. Years later, viewing the world through a biophysical economic lens, it seems clear that the gold and silver would have been of little or no value unless the populations of Europe had been adequately fed, with adequate energy for their work, plus adequate fuels for heat and light in their homes and workplaces.

Angus’ research confirms that the North American cod fishery was of huge dietary importance to Europe. And I think Mowat was correct in saying that meals of lean cod also needed to be supplemented with edible oils, and that a hard-working labour force in cold northern Europe must have benefited greatly from the thousands of shiploads of fat taken from the animals of the northern seas.6

Angus also tells us about the important work of Canadian researcher Selma Huxley Barkham, whom he credits with having “radically changed our understanding of the 16th century fishery in Newfoundland and Labrador.” It was Huxley Barkham, Angus writes, who unearthed in the 1970s the evidence that the Basques pioneered the large-scale exploitation of both cod and whales off the coasts of Newfoundland, starting at the very beginning of the 16th century.

The name Selma Huxley Barkham does not appear in Sea of Slaughter. Yet I was to learn that her work was essential to the next chapter of this story.

The sheltered harbour at Pasaia, on the Basque coast near San Sebastian, was home port for  many of the whalers who ventured across the Atlantic in the early 16th century.

Epilogue

In November of 1565, a storm blew up along the coast of Labrador, striking the Basque whaling station at Red Bay. Farley Mowat tells us how one ship ended far beneath the waves:

“The 500-ton San Juan has begun to drag. … Having torn her anchors free of the bottom, the ponderous, high-sided carrack, laden to her marks with a cargo of barrelled oil and baled baleen, swings broadside to the gale and begins to pick up way ….

“Nothing can stop her now. With a rending of oak on rock, she strikes. Then the storm takes her for its own …. She lurches, and rolls still farther, until she is lying on her beam  ends and is flooding fore and aft. Slowly she begins to settle back and slips to her final resting place five fathoms down.

“She lies there yet.”

She lies there yet, and was all but forgotten for centuries. But due in no small part to the archival research of Selma Huxley Barkham, the San Juan was located in the mid-1970s. The wreck had been exceptionally well preserved by the nearly freezing waters, and divers gathered a wealth of documentation about its design, Basque construction techniques, and its contents of crew, cargo and provisions.

I have not been to Red Bay, but in October of 2018 I paid a visit to the Basque port from which the San Juan and so many other ships were launched. In this port today, a dedicated team at the Albaola heritage centre is partway through a difficult and lengthy process: they are building an exact replica of the San Juan, using only materials and tools that would have been available in the sixteenth century.

Visitors can see the shipbuilding in progress, along with extensive exhibits about Basque shipbuilding history, the sources of materials for the ships, and the provisions the ships carried for their trans-oceanic voyages. They have also published a beautiful and informative book, The Maritime Basque Country: Seen Through The Whaleship San Juan. (Editions in French and Basque are also available.)

The Albaola centre’s research paints a picture of a sophisticated, highly organized industrial enterprise that reached far beyond the shipbuilding yards. Because the Basques of the 16th century built so many ships, which each needed lots of strong timber in a variety of configurations, some areas of the Basque region specialized in growing oak trees in particular ways: some trees were kept very straight, while others were bent while still supple, so the wood was already shaped, and at maximum strength, for use many years later in parts of the ship that needed angular timbers. Clearly, this industry could only have developed through the accumulated experience of many generations.

A worker at the Albaola centre shaping a timber piece for the San Juan replica, in October 2018. For this project, the builders were able to search area forests for oak trees with sections naturally shaped to approximately the dimensions needed. Centuries ago, when many such ships were built every year, foresters through the region carefully trained growing trees for these purposes, producing “grown-to-order” pieces that had maximum strength but required minimal carving.

Similarly, the barrels used for holding cider – safer to drink on long voyages than water, and consumed by sailors on an everyday basis – and for packaging the whale oil, required vast numbers of barrel staves, all made to standard sizes, with the ships’ holds designed to carry specific numbers of these barrels. Even the production of ship’s biscuit or hardtack – the dry bread which kept for months and which was the monotonous basis for sailors’ diet – was a big business. The Maritime Basque Country says that before the whaling fleet left port each spring, 250 tons of hardtack had to be baked by bakers throughout the region.

Seeing the replica of the San Juan under construction, it was impossible not to marvel at the ingenuity of the sixteenth century society which built the original San Juan and so many ships like it. Centuries ahead of what we term the Industrial Revolution, there were highly sophisticated and complex technologies and forms of social organization at work, making possible what we refer to today as “economic development”.

At the same time, it is clear from Sea of Slaughter that European societies were already practicing ecological overshoot, centuries before the Industrial Revolution and centuries before the fossil fuel phase. Europeans had already taken the fat from many of the nearby ecosystems, and though they found apparently abundant sources of fat across the oceans, within a few short centuries those resources too would be drawn down.

In biophysical economic terms, Europeans (and colonizers with roots in Europe) boosted their economies through rapid and unsustainable exploitation of resources, including, in particular, energy resources, and they did so long before fossil fuels came into use. The challenging implication is that in the coming decades, faced simultaneously with a climate crisis, a social equity crisis, dwindling accessible supplies of the energies we have taken for granted, and a biodiversity crisis, we must do far more than return to pre-fossil-fuel practices. We must learn to live within the earth’s means. We must un-learn patterns that have shaped European civilizations for more than five centuries.


Next in this series: The reality behind the illusion. Lame Deer understood that the green frog-skin world, in which everything is measured in dollars, is a bad dream – but in the mid-20th century that dream seemed to have immense real power. To conclude this series, I will examine the ideas that helped me to make sense of this riddle, and to make sense of economics. (Previous posts: Part I and Part II)


Image at top of page: A whale being speared with harpoons by fishermen in the arctic sea. Engraving by A. M. Fournier after E. Traviès. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)


Footnotes

 

Can big science be sustained?

Reflections on Fundamentals by Frank Wilczek

Also published on Resilience

During a long career at the frontiers of physics Frank Wilczek has earned many honours, including a Nobel Prize for Physics in 2004. Fortunately for general readers he is also a gifted writer with a facility for explaining complex topics in (relatively) simple terms.

Perhaps you have, as I do, an amateur fascination with topics such as quantum electrodynamics (QED) and quantum chromodynamics (QCD), and questions such as “To what extent do the laws of physics work the same running forward in time or running backward in time?” If so I heartily recommend Wilczek’s latest book Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality. (Penguin Random House, January 2021)

Wilczek shares with us the sense of wonder and beauty that has kept him excited about his work for the past 50 years. You might realize, as I did, that with Wilczek’s help you will understand aspects of particle physics, cosmology, and the nature of time better than you ever thought you might.

Yet from the opening pages of the book, Wilczek drops in assertions about history, society and the role of science that I found both troubling and worthy of a more focused examination.

What makes western science so great? (Or not.)

In Fundamentals Wilczek spends most of his time discussing scientific developments during the 20th century, particularly developments that weren’t even mentioned in high-school textbooks the last time I took a course in physics. But he grounds his discussion in a celebration of the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century.

“The seventeenth century saw dramatic theoretical and technological progress on many fronts, including in the design of mechanical machines and ships, of optical instruments (including, notably, microscopes and telescopes), of clocks, and of calendars. As a direct result, people could wield more power, see more things, and regulate their affairs more reliably. But what makes the so-called Scientific Revolution unique, and fully deserving of the name, is something less tangible. It was a change in outlook: a new ambition, a new confidence.” (Fundamentals, page 4)

In subsequent centuries, the applied science that grew from this scientific revolution led to internal combustion engines, electric motors, all manner of telecommunications, digital cameras, lasers, magnetic resonance imaging and the Global Positioning System – to name just a few of the technologies that have transformed ways of life.

I count myself a fan of the scientific method, and I haven’t personally known anyone who is either ready, willing or able to live without any access to any of the technologies Wilczek cites as outgrowths of this method. But can these technological successes be credited solely to a new and superior approach to inquiry?

In the opening pages Wilczek states that “prior to the emergence of the scientific method, the development of technologies was haphazard.” (page 3) He then slips in an observation that to him requires no elaboration, presenting a graph of GDP growth with this comment:

“This figure, which shows the development of human productivity with time, speaks for itself, and it speaks volumes.” 

Graph from Fundamentals, by Frank Wilczek, page 3.

The graph speaks for itself? And just what does it say? Perhaps this: when at long last humans learned to extract ancient deposits of fossil energy, laid down over millions of years, and learned how to burn this energy inheritance in a frenzy of consumption, with no worries about whether successive generations would have any comparable energy sources to draw on, only then did “economic growth” skyrocket. And further: it’s not important that a great deal of wealth – from accessible fossil energy reserves to biodiversity to climate stability – has gone down as fast as that graph of GDP has gone up. It doesn’t matter, since in GDP’s accounting for economic growth there is no need to distinguish productivity from consumptivity.

As you might guess, what I glean from that GDP graph may not match what Wilczek hears, when he hears the graph “speak for itself.” But I think the relationship of science to the larger human enterprise, including the economy, deserves further scrutiny here.

That GDP is a crude economic indicator should become clear if we reflect on the left side of Wilczek’s graph as much as the right side. He credits the scientific revolution with leading to an explosion in productivity – but his graph shows a barely perceptible change in world GDP per capita for the period 1500 – 1800. Significant growth in GDP per capita, then, didn’t arise for at least a century after the scientific revolution, until about the time fossil fuel exploitation began in earnest.

Can this be taken as evidence that there were no fundamental changes in the world economy during the centuries immediately preceding the fossil fuel economy? To the contrary, some of human history’s most epic changes began about 1500, as western european nations colonized the Americas, instituted the slave trade on a massive scale, colonized large parts of Africa and Asia, and began a centuries-long transfer of ecological wealth from both land and sea around the globe, at the cost of hundreds of millions of human lives. Global economic wealth per capita may not have changed much during those centuries – but the distribution of that wealth, and the resulting wealth of a small slice of educated european elites, certainly did change. And it was from these elites that, with few exceptions, came the men (again, with few exceptions) who worked out the many discoveries in the scientific revolution.

It shouldn’t surprise us that these new understandings would come from people who had the economic security to get good educations, acquire expensive books, set up laboratories, make patient observations for years or decades, and test their theories even if any practical applications might be so far in the future as to be unforeseeable. A well-rounded assessment of the scientific revolution, then, should look not only at the eventual technological outcomes that might be credited to this revolution, but also the ecological and sociological factors that preceded this revolution. And a balanced assessment of the scientific revolution should also ask about blind spots likely to accompany this worldview, given its birth among the elite beneficiaries of a colonialism that far more of the world’s population were experiencing as an apocalypse.

In particular, it should be no surprise that among the class of people who do the lion’s share of consumption, the dominant faith in economics has conveniently assured them that their consumptivity equals productivity.

How much energy is enough energy?

Wilczek spends much of Fundamentals illuminating energy in many guises: the energy charge of an electron, the energy that holds quarks together to form protons, the gravitational energy of a black hole as it bends space-time, the dark energy that appears to be causing the universe not just to expand, but to expand at an accelerating pace. His explanations are marvels of clarity in which he imparts the sense of wonder that he himself felt at the outset of his lifelong scientific journey.

When he turns to the role that energy plays in human life and society, unfortunately, his observations strike me as trite. He titles one chapter, for example, “There’s Plenty of Matter and Energy”.

Here he gives us the unit AHUMEN, short for Annual Human Energy, which he calculates at 2,000 calories/day, which over a year comes to about 3 billion joules. With this unit in hand, he notes that world energy consumption in 2020 was about 190 billion AHUMENs, or about 25 AHUMENs per capita. He draws this conclusion:

“This number, 25, is the ratio of total energy consumed to the amount of energy used in natural metabolism. It is an objective measure of how far humans have progressed, economically ….” (p 127, emphasis mine)

If tomorrow we consume twice as much energy as we consume today, then by this “objective measure” we will have progressed twice as far economically. This sounds to me like neither clever physics nor clever economics, but mere mis-applied arithmetic.

Wilczek adds that Americans consume roughly 95 AHUMENs per person, without pointing out what should also be obvious: if the global average is 25 AHUMENs per capita, and Americans consume 95 per capita, that means hundreds of millions of people in our advanced global economy are getting only a few AHUMENs each.

Proceeding with his argument that “there’s plenty of energy”, Wilczek says that if we consider only “the portion of solar energy that makes it to Earth, then we find ‘only’ about 10,000 times our present total energy consumption. That number provides a more realistic baseline from which to assess the economic potential of solar energy.” (page 127)

Indeed, there is and always has been a vast amount of solar energy impacting the earth. That energy has always been enough to fry a human caught unprotected for too long in the desert sun. It’s always been enough to electrocute a human, when solar energy is incorporated into lightning storms. That abundant solar energy can even freeze us to death, when increasingly unstable weather systems push arctic air deep into regions where humans are unprepared for cold.

That energy has always been enough to kill crops during heat waves or to flood coastal cities when storms surge. With each passing year, as our geoengineered atmosphere holds in more heat, there will be more solar energy theoretically available to us, but immediately active in global weather systems. That will make our economic challenges greater, not simpler.

For that abundant solar energy to represent “economic potential”, we need to have technologies that can make that solar energy useful to us, and manageable by us, in cost-effective ways. Wilczek both recognizes and dismisses this concern in a single sentence:

“Technology to capture a larger fraction of that [solar] energy is developing rapidly, and there is little doubt that in the foreseeable future – barring catastrophe – we will be able to use it to support a richer world economy sustainably.” (page 140)

Wilczek himself might have little doubt about this, but I wish he had included some basis on which we could be confident this is more than wishful thinking.

While this discussion may seem to have veered a long way from the core concerns of Wilczek’s book, I suggest that the relationship of societal energy consumption to the needs of the scientific enterprise may soon become a critical issue.

ATLAS detector being assembled at Large Hadron Collider, 2006. Photo by Fanny Schertzer, 27 February 2006. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

The energy demands of big science

The work of 20th century physics has come with a high energy price tag. Famously, some of the major steps forward in theory were accomplished by brilliant individuals scribbling in notebooks or on chalk boards, using tools that were familiar to Newton. But the testing of the theories has required increasingly elaborate experimental setups.

The launching of a space telescope, which helps reveal secrets of the farthest reaches of our universe, is one energy-intensive example. But likewise in the realm of infinitesimally small, sub-atomic particles – where Wilczek has focused much of his work – the experimental apparatus has become increasingly grand.

Wilczek tells us about Paul Dirac, a pioneer in quantum electrodynamics who wrote in 1929 that “The underlying physical laws necessary for the mathematical theory of a large part of physics and the whole of chemistry are thus completely known.” Yet much subsequent progress in the field had to wait:

“When Dirac continued, ‘And the difficulty lies only in the fact that application of these laws leads to equations that are too complex to be solved,’ modern supercomputers were not even a dream.” (page 120)

The theoretical framework for the Higgs particle was proposed decades before it could be confirmed, and that confirmation carried a huge energy cost. “In the years prior to 2012, Higgs particle searches came up empty,” Wilczek writes. “We know now, in retrospect, that they simply didn’t bring in enough energy. The Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, finally did.” (page 176)

It’s not just that this collider involved the construction of a circular tunnel 27 km in circumference, nor that while operating it draws 200 MW of electricity, comparable to one-third the electricity draw of the city of Geneva. The power allows experimenters to smash protons together at speeds only 11 km/h less than the speed of light. And these collisions, in turn, result in nearly incomprehensible quantities of data being captured in the Atlas detector, which sends “all this information, at the rate of 25 million gigabytes per year, to a worldwide grid that links thousands of supercomputers.” (page 176)

When the tunnel had been bored, the superconducting magnets built and installed, the Atlas detector (itself twice the size of the Parthenon) assembled, the whole machine put into operation, and the thousands of supercomputers had crunched the data for months – then, finally, the existence of the Higgs particle was proven.

Wilczek doesn’t go into detail about the energy sources for this infrastructure. But it shouldn’t escape our attention that the experimental-industrial complex remains primarily a fossil-fueled enterprise. Fossil fuels fly researchers from university to university and from lab to lab around the world. Fossil fuels power the cement plants and steel foundries, and the mines that extract the metals and minerals. Many individual machines are directly powered by electricity, but on a global scale most electricity is still generated from the heat of fossil fuel combustion.

Wilczek cites the vast amount of solar energy that strikes the earth each day as a vast economic resource. Yet we are nowhere close to being able to build and operate all our mines, smelters, silicon chip fabrication facilities, intercontinental aircraft, solar panel production facilities, electricity transmission towers, and all the other components of the modern scientific enterprise, solely on renewable solar energy.

And if someday in the not-too-distant future we are able to operate a comparably complex industrial infrastructure solely on renewable energy, will this generate enough economic surplus to support tens of thousands of scientists working at the frontiers of research?

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory unveiled Summit as the world’s most powerful and smartest scientific supercomputer on June 8, 2018. “With a peak performance of 200,000 trillion calculations per second—or 200 petaflops, Summit will be eight times more powerful than ORNL’s previous top-ranked system, Titan. … Summit will provide unprecedented computing power for research in energy, advanced materials and artificial intelligence (AI), among other domains, enabling scientific discoveries that were previously impractical or impossible.” Source: Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Just one clue

Wilczek cites a famous quotation from equally celebrated physicist Richard Feynman. During a lecture in 1961 Feynman offered this question and answer:

“‘If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or the atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made of atoms.’” (Feynman, quoted in Fundamentals, page 61)

And Wilczek proposes this revision:

“Instead of ‘all things are made of atoms,’ we should say that ‘all things are made of elementary particles.’” (page 62)

This may seem nothing more than an intellectual parlor game, with scientific knowledge today increasing at an accelerating pace. Wilczek doesn’t sound worried about the death of scientific knowledge, when he says that “Technology has already given us superpowers, and there is no end in sight.” (page 171)

But as we roar ahead into the climate crisis, I think it would be helpful and appropriate to revise Feynman’s question, replacing the “if” with “when”:

If When, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be is destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words?

We can’t know for sure, of course, whether the climate cataclysm will destroy scientific knowledge. But what we can see is that we are on a so-far unwavering path to climate catastrophe, and that most governments around the world aren’t pledging (let alone fulfilling pledges) to make carbon emissions reductions that are even close to sufficient. With each passing year the challenge of transforming our civilization into a sustainable civilization grows more urgent, time grows shorter, and the consequences of failure grow more threatening not only to individual lives but to the very survival of our species. These threats are being documented and communicated in great detail by our scientific enterprises. And yet the greatest beneficiaries of our supposedly productive global economy (individual examples notwithstanding) lead the charge to the cliff.

So perhaps it’s time to consider seriously “What one sentence of information might be most useful to our survivors?”

Suppose we project our thoughts, right now, into a climate-ravaged future. Earth’s surviving inhabitants contend with a violently unstable climate. They struggle to gather enough food from deeply impoverished ecosystems, they try to build sufficiently robust shelters, they yearn to raise healthy children, and they face these challenges without any useful energy boosts from polluting fossil fuels (fuels which in any case will be hard to extract, since we’ll have already burned up the easily accessible reserves). Our digital networks of knowledge may well have gone dark, and our libraries may have flooded or burned.

In this future, will it be helpful to tell our descendants “All things are made of elementary particles?” Perhaps it will be many generations further on, if all goes well, before they can again support a scientific elite, armed with elaborate experimental apparatus, capable of making sense of these “elementary particles”.

I can’t help but wonder if, in this future, the best advice we might offer would be a simple warning: “Don’t do what we did.”


Photo at top of page: Grappling the Hubble Space Telescope. An STS-125 crew member aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis snapped a still photo of the Hubble Space Telescope after it was grappled by the shuttle’s Canadian-built Remote Manipulator System. Credit: NASA. Accessed at Wikimedia Commons.

Will the sun soon set on concrete?

Also published on Resilience

At the mention of our “fossil economy” or “fossil civilization”, most of us probably think immediately of “fossil fuels”. But as Mary Soderstrom’s recent book points out, not only our energy supply but also our most important building material has origins in fossilized ancient life.

Concrete, by Mary Soderstrom, is published by University of Regina Press, October 2020. 272 pages.

In Concrete: From Ancient Origins to a Problematic Future, Soderstrom shows us why cement is the literal foundation of nearly every strand of the capitalist economy. She also explains that, just as the fossil fueled industrial complex is deeply dependent on concrete for its infrastructure, so too the concrete industry is deeply dependent on fossil fuels. And these dependencies can’t be unwound easily or quickly, if at all.

By weight, of course, concrete is primarily made from sand, gravel and water – but the all important ingredient which turns the slurry into “manufactured rock” is cement. And cement, Soderstrom writes, “is in large part made from rocks laid down hundreds of millions of years ago when the shells and carapaces of organisms settled in the bottom of seas.” (Concrete, page 3)

The particular rock is limestone, which is abundant, widely distributed, and relatively easy to quarry and crush. But to make a cement from limestone takes energy – a lot of energy.

Ancient Greeks and Romans invented one form of concrete, and some of the resulting buildings and aqueducts still stand today. Quicklime was the basis for their concrete, and production of this lime needed only the heat from firewood. Making lime, Soderstrom says “had a large impact on the forests of any region where people had figured out how to make the substance.” (Concrete, page 44)

For uses such as marine piers and aqueducts, early concrete also depended on particular types of sand that had been forged in the heat of volcanos. The best such sand came from Pozzuoli, near Vesuvius, and such sands are still known as pozzolans. That kind of sand is not so abundant nor so widely distributed, and the global dominance of concrete as a building material had to await more recent technological developments.

This limestone quarry and cement production plant on the north shore of Lake Ontario is operated by St. Marys Cement, a subsidiary of Brazilian corporation Votorantim Cimentos. February 2016.

A key step came in the nineteenth century through the work of French engineer Louis Vicat. In his efforts to recreate the intense heat of volcanos, he developed kilns that chemically transformed crushed limestone into a forerunner of today’s ubiquitous Portland cement. These industrial volcanos had their own serious implications:

“The temperatures required for doing this are nearly twice as high as that needed to make quicklime, about 1,450 degrees C, and therein lie two of the great problems created by our enormous use of modern concrete: where to get the energy to attain those temperatures, and what to do with the greenhouse gases emitted in the process.” (Concrete, page 25-26)

The primary fuel for cement production remains coal, supplemented in some areas with pet coke (a dusty carbon residual from petroleum refining), ground up tires, plastic, even some wood byproducts. To date, renewable energy sources are not up to the challenge of producing good cement at quantity. That is because, Soderstrom writes “the end product of hydro, solar, nuclear, tidal, and wind power is electricity .… [S]o far it doesn’t produce temperatures high enough to make cement from the basic rock.” (Concrete, page 47)

Another key development arose because concrete, as hard as it may be, does not have great tensile strength and therefore doesn’t, by itself, span gaps very well. The skyscrapers and bridges essential to our cities and transportation systems need the addition of steel to concrete. Ridged steel rods, woven into forms before the concrete is poured, are commonplace today, but Soderstrom writes that it took much trial and error to produce a steel that would adhere to concrete in the right way. That steel was also very expensive until development of the Bessemer furnace in the 1850s. Only then could concrete take its place at the foundation of the industrial economy.

Vancouver Public Library central branch, British Columbia, October 2016.

Flashy constructions of glass, steel and concrete throughout our cities are one face of concrete’s dominance. But Soderstrom reminds us that concrete is equally important in humble abodes around the world. Do-it-yourself builders in edge cities rely on a bag of cement, a few buckets of gravel, and an old barrel in which to mix up a slurry – and the result may be a new wall or a solid floor in an improvised one-room dwelling. The government of Mexico, she notes, helped combat the spread of parasites by paying for $150 of supplies, allowing small home owners to replace their dirt floors with concrete.

“The desire to provide sanitary housing for ordinary working families has been the motor for concrete construction since the middle of the nineteenth century,” Soderstrom writes. (Concrete, page 69) There are echoes of this trend everywhere. In American suburbs, even where the walls and roofs are made of lumber, the homes nearly all stand on concrete foundations. Concrete was critical in rapidly reconstructing urban housing in Europe following World War II. And such construction continues on a gargantuan scale in contemporary China: “the United States used 4.5 gigatons of cement between 1901 and 2000, while China, as it ramped up its housing and infrastructure offensive, consumed 6.6 gigatons in only four years.” (Concrete, page 102)

Roads, bridges, houses, apartments, offices, factories – if concrete was important only in those categories of infrastructure, it would be a big enough challenge to replace. Yet Soderstrom illustrates how concrete is closely implicated in the food we eat and the water we drink. The formerly desert valleys of California, which now supply such a huge proportion of fruits and vegetables for North America, only became an oasis – perhaps a temporary one – due to massive concrete dams and hundreds of kilometres of concrete aqueducts and concrete irrigation ditches.

In other areas hundreds of millions of people live in areas that would frequently flood were it not for concrete flood control structures – and which might flood, catastrophically, if these structures are not maintained. Meanwhile hundreds of millions more depend for their drinking water on concrete canals that divert water away from its natural flow. This is true in the US southwest, for example, but on an even greater scale in China. “Already, Beijing is getting 70 percent of its water” from the South North Water Diversion,” Soderstrom writes – and this project is far from completion.

Truck route to Port of Valencia, Spain. October 2018.

An attempt to paint a full picture of concrete’s history and current importance is necessarily wide-ranging, and boundaries around the subject would necessarily be subjective. In the discussions of military strategy, social housing policy, and the politics of carbon taxes, there were many points in the book where I felt the focus on concrete was getting a bit too soft. Yet Soderstrom’s goal is much appreciated: she wants us to understand the vast scope of the challenge we face in transforming our concrete civilization into something sustainable.

It is now widely realized that the production of concrete is a major source of carbon emissions, and that we must reduce those emissions to net zero in the next few decades or face imminent collapse of the planetary life-support systems. Concrete: From Ancient Origins to a Problematic Future gives us glimpses of many efforts to reduce the environmental impact of concrete, through use of different fuel mixes, carbon sequestration, or technological enhancements that reduce the amount of Portland cement needed in a given project. None of these experiments sound reassuring, given the rapidity with which we must transform this critical industry, and given that it would be difficult if not impossible to simply forgo the use of concrete, within decades, without mass casualties.

Other books are better positioned to discuss the technical challenges involved in making sustainable concrete, or making sustainable infrastructure without concrete. But Soderstrom has performed a real public service in showing us the rich history of the seemingly dull material that undergirds our way of life.


Photo at top of page: Exponential Growth of Bridges – a Canadian Pacific rail line runs under ramps for the new Highway 418 expressway near Courtice, Ontario. January 2021. (Full-size image here.)

 

Transition to a Low-Energy Future

One project has taken the lion’s share of my work time for the past year, and it has been a project close to my heart.

As long-time readers will have noted, my writings frequently concern the intersection between energy and economics. I was honored and grateful, therefore, to be asked to serve as guest editor of an issue of The American Journal of Economics and Sociology.

After a year’s work this issue is now published, under the title “Transition to a Low-Energy Future”. An issue overview and all individual articles can be found here.

I am now working on the next phase of this project – seeing this published as a generally-available print book. Inquiries and comments on this project are most welcome; please get in touch through the Contact page on this website.

Platforms for a Green New Deal

Two new books in review

Also published on Resilience.org

Does the Green New Deal assume a faith in “green growth”? Does the Green New Deal make promises that go far beyond what our societies can afford? Will the Green New Deal saddle ordinary taxpayers with huge tax bills? Can the Green New Deal provide quick solutions to both environmental overshoot and economic inequality?

These questions have been posed by people from across the spectrum – but of course proponents of a Green New Deal may not agree on all of the goals, let alone an implementation plan. So it’s good to see two concise manifestos – one British, one American – released by Verso in November.

The Case for the Green New Deal (by Ann Pettifor), and A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal (by Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen and Thea Riofrancos) each clock in at a little under 200 pages, and both books are written in accessible prose for a general audience.

Surprisingly, there is remarkably little overlap in coverage and it’s well worth reading both volumes.

The Case for a Green New Deal takes a much deeper dive into monetary policy. A Planet To Win devotes many pages to explaining how a socially just and environmentally wise society can provide a healthy, prosperous, even luxurious lifestyle for all citizens, once we understand that luxury does not consist of ever-more-conspicuous consumption.

The two books wind to their destinations along different paths but they share some very important principles.

Covers of The Case For The Green New Deal and A Planet To Win

First, both books make clear that a Green New Deal must not shirk a head-on confrontation with the power of corporate finance. Both books hark back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous opposition to big banking interests, and both books fault Barack Obama for letting financial kingpins escape the 2008 crash with enhanced power and wealth while ordinary citizens suffered the consequences.

Instead of seeing the crash as an opportunity to set a dramatically different course for public finance, Obama presented himself as the protector of Wall Street:

“As [Obama] told financial CEOs in early 2009, “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.” Frankly, he should have put unemployed people to work in a solar-powered pitchfork factory.” (A Planet To Win, page 13)

A second point common to both books is the view that the biggest and most immediate emissions cuts must come from elite classes who account for a disproportionate share of emissions. Unfortunately, neither book makes it clear whether they are talking about the carbon-emitting elite in wealthy countries, or the carbon-emitting elite on a global scale. (If it’s the latter, that likely includes the authors, most of their readership, this writer and most readers of this review.)

Finally, both books take a clear position against the concept of continuous, exponential economic growth. Though they argue that the global economy must cease to grow, and sooner rather than later, their prescriptions also appear to imply that there will be one more dramatic burst of economic growth during the transition to an equitable, sustainable steady-state economy.

Left unasked and unanswered in these books is whether the climate system can stand even one more short burst of global economic growth.

Public or private finance

The British entry into this conversation takes a deeper dive into the economic policies of US President Franklin Roosevelt. British economist Ann Pettifor was at the centre of one of the first policy statements that used the “Green New Deal” moniker, just before the financial crash of 2007–08. She argues that we should have learned the same lessons from that crash that Roosevelt had to learn from the Depression of the 1930s.

Alluding to Roosevelt’s inaugural address, she summarizes her thesis this way:

“We can afford what we can do. This is the theme of the book in your hands. There are limits to what we can do – notably ecological limits, but thanks to the public good that is the monetary system, we can, within human and ecological limits, afford what we can do.” (The Case for the Green New Deal, page xi)

That comes across as a radical idea in this day of austerity budgetting. But Pettifor says the limits that count are the limits of what we can organize, what we can invent, and, critically, what the ecological system can sustain – not what private banking interests say we can afford.

In Pettifor’s view it is not optional, it is essential for nations around the world to re-win public control of their financial systems from the private institutions that now enrich themselves at public expense. And she takes us through the back-and-forth struggle for public control of banking, examining the ground-breaking theory of John Maynard Keynes after World War I, the dramatically changed monetary policy of the Roosevelt administration that was a precondition for the full employment policy of the original New Deal, and the gradual recapture of global banking systems by private interests since the early 1960s.

On the one hand, a rapid reassertion of public banking authority (which must include, Pettifor says, tackling the hegemony of the United States dollar as the world’s reserve currency) may seem a tall order given the urgent environmental challenges. On the other hand, the global financial order is highly unstable anyway, and Pettifor says we need to be ready next time around:

“sooner rather than later the world is going to be faced by a shuddering shock to the system. … It could be the flooding or partial destruction of a great city …. It could be widespread warfare…. Or it could be (in my view, most likely) another collapse of the internationally integrated financial system. … [N]one of these scenarios fit the ‘black swan’ theory of difficult-to-predict events. All three fall within the realm of normal expectations in history, science and economics.” (The Case for the Green New Deal, pg 64)

A final major influence acknowledged by Pettifor is American economist Herman Daly, pioneer of steady-state economics. She places this idea at the center of the Green New Deal:

“our economic goal is for a ‘steady state’ economy … that helps to maintain and repair the delicate balance of nature, and respects the laws of ecology and physics (in particular thermodynamics). An economy that delivers social justice for all classes, and ensures a liveable planet for future generations.” (The Case for the Green New Deal, pg 66)

Beyond a clear endorsement of this principle, though, Pettifor’s book doesn’t offer much detail on how our transportation system, food provisioning systems, etc, should be transformed. That’s no criticism of the book. Providing a clear explanation of the need for transformation in monetary policy; why the current system of “free mobility” of capital allows private finance to work beyond the reach of democratic control, with disastrous consequences for income equality and for the environment; and how finance was brought under public control before and can be again – this  is a big enough task for one short book, and Pettifor carries it out with aplomb.

Some paths are ruinous. Others are not.

Writing in The Nation in November of 2018, Daniel Aldana Cohen set out an essential corrective to the tone of most public discourse:

“Are we doomed? It’s the most common thing people ask me when they learn that I study climate politics. Fair enough. The science is grim, as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just reminded us with a report on how hard it will be to keep average global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. But it’s the wrong question. Yes, the path we’re on is ruinous. It’s just as true that other, plausible pathways are not. … The IPCC report makes it clear that if we make the political choice of bankrupting the fossil-fuel industry and sharing the burden of transition fairly, most humans can live in a world better than the one we have now.” (The Nation, “Apocalyptic Climate Reporting Completely Misses the Point,” November 2, 2018; emphasis mine)

There’s a clear echo of Cohen’s statement in the introduction to A Planet To Win:

“we rarely see climate narratives that combine scientific realism with positive political and technological change. Instead, most stories focus on just one trend: the grim projections of climate science, bright reports of promising technologies, or celebrations of gritty activism. But the real world will be a mess of all three. (A Planet To Win, pg 3)

The quartet of authors are particularly concerned to highlight a new path in which basic human needs are satisfied for all people, in which communal enjoyment of public luxuries replaces private conspicuous consumption, and in which all facets of the economy respect non-negotiable ecological limits.

The authors argue that a world of full employment; comfortable and dignified housing for all; convenient, cheap or even free public transport; healthy food and proper public health care; plus a growth in leisure time –  this vision can win widespread public backing and can take us to a sustainable civilization.

A Planet To Win dives into history, too, with a picture of the socialist housing that has been home to generations of people in Vienna. This is an important chapter, as it demonstrates that there is nothing inherently shabby in the concept of public housing:

“Vienna’s radiant social housing incarnates its working class’s socialist ideals; the United States’ decaying public housing incarnates its ruling class’s stingy racism.” (A Planet To Win, pg 127)

Likewise, the book looks at the job creation programs of the 1930s New Deal, noting that they not only built a vast array of public recreational facilities, but also carried out the largest program of environmental restoration ever conducted in the US.

The public co-operatives that brought electricity to rural people across the US could be revitalized and expanded for the era of all-renewable energy. Fossil fuel companies, too, should be brought under public ownership – for the purpose of winding them down as quickly as possible while safeguarding workers’ pensions.

In their efforts to present a New Green Deal in glowingly positive terms, I think the authors underestimate the difficulties in the energy transition. For example, they extol a new era in which Americans will have plenty of time to take inexpensive vacations on high-speed trains throughout the country. But it’s not at all clear, given current technology, how feasible it will be to run completely electrified trains through vast and sparsely populated regions of the US.

In discussing electrification of all transport and heating, the authors conclude that the US must roughly double the amount of electricity generated – as if it’s a given that Americans can or should use nearly as much total energy in the renewable era as they have in the fossil era.1

And once electric utilities are brought under democratic control, the authors write, “they can fulfill what should be their only mission: guaranteeing clean, cheap, or even free power to the people they serve.” (A World To Win, pg 53; emphasis mine)

A realistic understanding of thermodynamics and energy provision should, I think, prompt us to ask whether energy is ever cheap or free – (except in the dispersed, intermittent forms of energy that the natural world has always provided).

As it is, the authors acknowledge a “potent contradiction” in most current recipes for energy transition:

“the extractive processes necessary to realize a world powered by wind and sun entail their own devastating social and environmental consequences. The latter might not be as threatening to the global climate as carbon pollution. But should the same communities exploited by 500 years of capitalist and colonial violence be asked to bear the brunt of the clean energy transition …?” (A Planet To Win, pg 147-148)

With the chapter on the relationship between a Green New Deal in the industrialized world, and the even more urgent challenges facing people in the Global South, A World To Win gives us an honest grappling with another set of critical issues. And in recognizing that “We hope for greener mining techniques, but we shouldn’t count on them,” the authors make it clear that the Green New Deal is not yet a fully satisfactory program.

Again, however, they accomplish a lot in just under 200 pages, in support of their view that “An effective Green New Deal is also a radical Green New Deal” (A Planet To Win, pg 8; their emphasis). The time has long passed for timid nudges such as modest carbon taxes or gradual improvements to auto emission standards.

We are now in “a trench war,” they write, “to hold off every extra tenth of a degree of warming.” In this war,

“Another four years of the Trump administration is an obvious nightmare. … But there are many paths to a hellish earth, and another one leads right down the center of the political aisle.” (A Planet To Win, pg 180)


1 This page on the US government Energy Information Agency website gives total US primary energy consumption as 101 quadrillion Btus, and US electricity use as 38 quadrillion Btus. If all fossil fuel use were stopped but electricity use were doubled, the US would then use 76 quadrillion Btus, or 75% of current total energy consumption.

A measured response to surveillance capitalism

Also published at Resilience.org.

A flood of recent analysis discusses the abuse of personal information by internet giants such as Facebook and Google. Some of these articles zero in on the basic business models of Facebook, and occasionally Google, as inherently deceptive and unethical.

But I have yet to see a proposal for any type of regulation that seems proportional to the social problem created by these new enterprises.

So here’s my modest proposal for a legislative response to surveillance capitalism1:

No company which operates an internet social network, or an internet search engine, shall be allowed to sell advertising, nor allowed to sell data collected about the service’s users.

We should also consider an additional regulation:

No company which operates an internet social network, or an internet search engine, shall be allowed to provide this service free of charge to its users.

It may not be easy to craft an appropriate legal definition of “social network” or “search engine”, and I’m not suggesting that this proposal would address all of the surveillance issues inherent in our digitally networked societies. But regulation of companies like Facebook and Google will remain ineffectual unless their current business models are prohibited.

Core competency

The myth of “free services” is widespread in our society, of course, and most people have been willing to play along with the fantasy. Yet we can now see that when it comes to search engines and social networks, this game of pretend has dangerous consequences.

In a piece from September, 2017 entitled “Why there’s nothing to like about Facebook’s ethically-challenged, troublesome business model,” Financial Post columnist Diane Francis clearly described the trick at the root of Facebook’s success:

“Facebook’s underlying business model itself is troublesome: offer free services, collect user’s private information, then monetize that information by selling it to advertisers or other entities.”

Writing in The Guardian a few days ago, John Naughton concisely summarized the corporate histories of both Facebook and Google:

“In the beginning, Facebook didn’t really have a business model. But because providing free services costs money, it urgently needed one. This necessity became the mother of invention: although in the beginning Zuckerberg (like the two Google co-founders, incidentally) despised advertising, in the end – like them – he faced up to sordid reality and Facebook became an advertising company.”

So while Facebook has grandly phrased its mission as “to make the world more open and connected”, and Google long proclaimed its mission “to organize the world’s information”, those goals had to take a back seat to the real business: helping other companies sell us more stuff.

In Facebook’s case, it has been obvious for years that providing a valuable social networking service was a secondary focus. Over and over, Facebook introduced major changes in how the service worked, to widespread complaints from users. But as long as these changes didn’t drive too many users away, and as long as the changes made Facebook a more effective partner to advertisers, the company earned more profit and its stock price soared.

Likewise, Google found a “sweet spot” with the number of ads that could appear above and beside search results without overly annoying users – while also packaging the search data for use by advertisers across the web.

A bad combination

The sale of advertising, of course, has subsidized news and entertainment media for more than a century. In recent decades, even before online publishing became dominant, some media switched to wholly-advertising-supported “free” distribution. While that fiction had many negative consequences, I believe, the danger to society was taken to another level with search engines and social networks.

A “free” print magazine or newspaper, after all, collects no data while being read.2 No computer records if and when you turn the page, how long you linger over an article, or even whether you clip an ad and stick it to your refrigerator.

Today’s “free” online services are different. Search engines collate every search by every user, so they know what people are curious about – the closest version of mass mind-reading we have yet seen. Social media not only register every click and every “Like”, but all our digital interactions with all of our “friends”.

This surveillance-for-profit is wonderfully useful for the purpose of selling us more stuff – or, more recently, for manipulating our opinions and our votes. But we should not be surprised when they abuse our confidence, since their business model drives them to betray our trust as efficiently as possible.

Effective regulation

In the flood of commentary about Facebook following the Cambridge Analytica revelations, two themes predominate. First, there is a frequently-stated wish that Facebook “respect our privacy”. Second, there are somewhat more specific calls for regulation of Facebook’s privacy settings, terms of sale of data, or policing of “bot” accounts.

Both themes strike me as naïve. Facebook may allow users a measure of privacy in that they can be permitted to hide some posts from some other users. But it is the very essence of Facebook’s business model that no user can have any privacy from Facebook itself, and Facebook can and will use everything it learns about us to help manipulate our desires in the interests of paying customers. Likewise, it is naïve to imagine that what we post on Facebook remains “our data”, since we have given it to Facebook in exchange for a service for which we pay no monetary fee.

But regulating the terms under which Facebook acquires our consent to monetize our information? This strikes me as an endlessly complicated game of whack-a-mole. The features of computerized social networks have changed and will continue to change as fast as a coder can come up with a clever new bit of software. Regulating these internal methods and operations would be a bureaucratic boondoggle.

Much simpler and more effective, I think, would be to abolish the fiction of “free” services that forms the façade of Facebook and Google. When these companies as well as new competitors3 charge an honest fee to users of social networks and search engines, because they can no longer earn money by selling ads or our data, much of the impetus to surveillance capitalism will be gone.

It costs real money to provide a platform for billions of people to share our cat videos, pictures of grandchildren, and photos of avocado toast. It also costs real money to build a data-mining machine – to sift and sort that data to reveal useful patterns for advertisers who want to manipulate our desires and opinions.

If social networks and search engines make their money honestly through user fees, they will obviously collect data that helps them improve their service and retain or gain users. But they will have no incentive to throw financial resources at data mining for other purposes.

Under such a regulation, would we still have good social network and search engine services? I have little doubt that we would.

People willingly pay for services they truly value – look back at how quickly people adopted the costly use of cell phones. But when someone pretends to offer us a valued service “free”, we endure a host of consequences as we eagerly participate in the con.
Photos at top: Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google (left) and Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO. Left photo, “A surprise guest at TED 2010, Sergey spoke openly about Google’s new posture with China,” by Steve Jurvetson, via Wikimedia Commons. Right photo, “Mark Zuckerberg, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Facebook, USA, captured during the session ‘The Next Digital Experience’ at the Annual Meeting 2009 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 30, 2009”, by World Economic Forum, via Wikimedia Commons.

 


NOTES

1 The term “surveillance capitalism” was introduced by John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney in a perceptive article in Monthly Review, July 2014.

2 Thanks to Toronto photographer and writer Diane Boyer for this insight.

3 There would be a downside to stipulating that social networks or search engines do not provide their services to users free of charge, in that it would be difficult for a new service to break into the market. One option might be a size-based exemption, allowing, for example, a company to offer such services free until it reaches 10 million users.

The unbearable cheapness of capitalism

Also published at Resilience.org.

René Descartes, Christopher Columbus and Jeff Bezos walk into a bar and the bartender asks, “What can I get for you thirsty gentlemen?”

“We’ll take everything you’ve got,” they answer, “just make it cheap!”

That’s a somewhat shorter version of the story served up by Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore. Their new book, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things, illuminates many aspects of our present moment. While Jeff Bezos doesn’t make it into the index, René Descartes and Christopher Columbus both play prominent roles.

In just over 200 pages plus notes, the book promises “A Guide to Capitalism, Nature and the Future of the Planet.”

Patel and Moore present a provocative and highly readable guide to the early centuries of capitalism, showing how its then radically new way of relating to Nature remains at the root of world political economy today. As for a guide to the future, however, the authors do little beyond posing a few big questions.

The long shadow of the Enlightenment

Philosopher René Descartes, known in Western intellectual history as one of the fathers of the Enlightenment, helped codify a key idea for capitalism: separation between Society and Nature. In 1641,

“Descartes distinguished between mind and body, using the Latin res cogitans and res extensa to refer to them. Reality, in this view, is composed of discrete “thinking things” and “extended things.” Humans (but not all humans) were thinking things, Nature was full of extended things. The era’s ruling classes saw most human beings – women, peoples of color, Indigenous Peoples – as extended, not thinking, beings. This means that Descartes’s philosophical abstractions were practical instruments of domination ….”

From the time that Portuguese proto-capitalists were converting the inhabitants of Madeira into slaves on sugar plantations, and Spanish colonialists first turned New World natives into cogs in their brutal silver mines, there had been pushback against the idea of some humans owning and using others. But one current in Western thought was particularly attractive to the profit-takers.

In this view, Nature was there for the use and profit of thinking beings, which meant white male property owners. Patel and Moore quote English philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon, who expressed the new ethos with ugly simplicity: “science should as it were torture nature’s secrets out of her,” and the “empire of man” should penetrate and dominate the “womb of nature.”

The patriarchal character of capitalism, then, is centuries old:

“The invention of Nature and Society was gendered at every turn. The binaries of Man and Woman, Nature and Society, drank from the same cup. … Through this radically new mode of organizing life and thought, Nature became not a thing but a strategy that allowed for the ethical and economic cheapening of life.”

Armored with this convenient set of blinders, a colonialist could gaze at a new (to him) landscape filled with wondrous plants, animals, and complex societies, and without being hindered by awe, respect or humility he could see mere Resources. Commodities. Labour Power. A Work Force. In short, he could see Cheap Things which could be taken, used, and sold for a profit.

Patel and Moore’s framework is most convincing in their chapters on Cheap Nature, Cheap Work, and Cheap Care. Their narrative begins with the enclosure movement, in which land previously respected as Commons for the use of – and care by – all, was turned into private property which could be exploited for short-term gain.

Enclosure in turn led to proletarianization, resulting in landless populations whose only method of fending off starvation was to sell their labour for a pittance. The gendered nature of capitalism, meanwhile, meant that the essential role of bringing new generations of workers into life, and caring for them until they could be marched into the fields or factories, was typically not entered into the economic ledger at all. The worldwide legacy remains to this day, with care work most often done by women either egregiously under-paid or not paid at all.

Yet as the book goes on, the notion of “cheap” grows ever fuzzier. First of all, what’s cheap to one party in a transaction might be very dear to the other. While a capitalist gains cheap labour, others lose their cultures, their dignity, often their very lives.

Other essential components in the system often don’t come cheap even for capitalists. In their chapter on Cheap Money, Patel and Moore note that the European powers sunk tremendous resources into the military budgets needed to extend colonial domination around the world. The chapter “Cheap Lives” notes that “Keeping things cheap is expensive. The forces of law and order, domestic and international, are a costly part of the management of capitalism’s ecology.” The vaunted Free Market, in other words, has never come free.

A strategic definition

How can the single word “cheap” be made a meaningful characterization of Nature, Money, Work, Care, Food, Energy and Lives? The authors promise at the outset to tell us “precisely” what they mean by “cheap.” When the definition arrives, it is this:

“We come, then, to what we mean by cheapness: it’s a set of strategies to manage relations between capitalism and the web of life by  temporarily fixing capitalism’s crises. Cheap is not the same as low cost – though that’s part of it. Cheap is a strategy, a practice, a violence that mobilizes all kinds of work – human and animal, botanical and geological – with as little compensation as possible. … Cheapening marks the transition from uncounted relations of life making to the lowest possible dollar value. It’s always a short-term strategy.”

Circular reasoning, perhaps. Capitalism means the Strategies of getting things Cheap. And Cheap means those Strategies used by Capitalism. Yet Moore and Patel use this rhetorical flexibility, for the most part, to great effect.

Their historical narrative sticks mostly to the early centuries of capitalism, but their portrayals of sugar plantations, peasant evictions and the pre-petroleum frenzies of charcoal-making in England and peat extraction in the Netherlands are vivid and closely linked.

Particularly helpful is their concept of frontiers, which extends beyond the merely geographic to include any new sphere of exploitation – and capitalism is an incessant search for such new frontiers. As a result, it’s easy to see the strategies of “cheapening” in the latest business stories.

Jeff Bezos, for example, has become the world’s richest man through a new model of industrial organization – thousands of minimum-wage workers frantically running through massive windowless warehouses to package orders, with the latest electronic monitoring equipment used to speed up the treadmill at regular intervals. Life-destroying stress for employees, but Cheap Work for Bezos. Or take the frontier of the “sharing economy”, in which clever capitalists find a way to profit from legions of drivers and hotel-keepers, without the expense of investment in taxis or real estate.

Patel and Moore note that periods of financialization have occurred before, when there was a temporary surplus of capital looking for returns and a temporary shortage of frontiers. But

“there’s something very different about the era of financialization that began in the 1980s. Previous financial expansions could all count on imperialism to extend profit-making opportunities into significant new frontiers of cheap nature. … Today, those frontiers are smaller than ever before, and the volume of capital looking for new investment is greater than ever before.”

Thus the latest episode of financialization is just one of many indicators of a turbulent future. And that leads us to perhaps the most glaring weakness of Seven Cheap Things.

The subtitle makes a promise of a guide to “the future of the planet”. (In fairness, it’s possible that the subtitle was chosen not by the authors but the publishers.) The Conclusion offers suggestions of “a way to think beyond a world of cheap things ….” But in spite of the potentially intriguing headings Recognition, Reparation, Redistribution, Reimagination, and Recreation, their suggestions are so sketchy that they end a solid story on a very thin note.


Top photo: “The boiling house”, from Ten Views in the Island of Antigua, 1823, by William Clark, illustrates a step in the production of sugar. Image from the British Library via Wikimedia Commons.

Super-size that commodity

Also published at Resilience.org.

A review of ‘A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism’

Don’t expect a whole lot of taste when you sit down to a plateful of commodities.

That might be a fitting but unintended lesson for foodies who work through the new book by Eric Holt-Giménez. A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism will reward a careful reader with lots of insights – but it won’t do much for the taste buds.

While A Foodie’s Guide is lacking in recipes or menu ideas, it shines in helping us to understand the struggles of the men and women who work in the farms and packing plants. Likewise, it explains why major capitalists have typically shown little interest in direct involvement in agriculture – preferring to make their money selling farm inputs, trading farm commodities, or turning farm products into the thousands of refined products that fill supermarket shelves.

Fictitious commodities

Karl Polanyi famously described land, labour and money as “fictitious commodities”. Land and labour in particular come in for lengthy discussion in A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism. In the process, Holt-Giménez also effectively unmasks the myth of the free market.

“Markets have been around a long time,” he writes, “but before the nineteenth century did not organize society as they do today.” He shows how capitalism in England arose concurrently with vigorous state intervention which drove people off their small farms and into the industrial labour pool. Meanwhile overseas both the slave trade and settler colonialism were opening critical parts of global markets, which were anything but “free”.

Nevertheless the takeover of food production by capitalism has been far from complete.

“Today, despite centuries of capitalism, large-scale capitalist agriculture produces less than a third of the world’s food supply, made possible in large part by multibillion-dollar subsidies and insurance programs. Peasants and smallholders still feed most people in the world, though they cultivate less than a quarter of the arable land.” (Holt-Giménez, A Foodie’s Guide To Capitalism, Monthly Review Press and FoodFirst Books, citing a report in GRAIN, May 2014)

There are a lot of reasons for this incomplete transition, but many are related to two of the “fictitious commodities”. Let’s start with land.

While land is the most important “means of production” in agriculture, land is of course much more than that. For people throughout history, land has been home, land has been the base of culture, land has been sacred. Even today, people go to great lengths to avoid having their lands swallowed up by capitalist agriculture – especially since this transition typically results in widespread consolidation of farms, leaving most former farmers to try to earn a living as landless labourers.

Autumn colours in the Northumberland Hills north of Lake Ontario, Canada

Likewise labour is much more than a commodity. An hour of labour is a handy abstraction that can be fed into an economist’s formula, but the labourer is a flesh-and-blood human being with complex motivations and aspirations. Holt-Giménez offers a good primer in Marxist theory here, showing why it has always been difficult for capitalists to extract surplus value directly from the labour of farmers. He also builds on the concept of the “cost of reproduction” in explaining why, in those sectors of farming that do depend on wage labour, most of the wage labourers are immigrants.

Before people can be hired at wages, they need to be born, cared for as infants, fed through childhood, provided with some level of education. These “costs of reproduction” are substantial and unavoidable. A capitalist cannot draw surplus value from labour unless some segment of society pays those “costs of reproduction”, but it is in the narrow economic self-interest of capitalists to ensure that someone else pays. Consider, for example, the many Walmart employees who rely on food stamps to feed their families. Since Walmart doesn’t want to pay a high enough wage to cover the “cost of reproduction” for the next generation of workers, a big chunk of that bill goes to taxpayers.

In industrialized countries, the farm workers who pick fruit and vegetables or work in packing plants tend to be immigrants on temporary work permits. This allows the capitalist food system to pass off the costs of reproduction, not to domestic taxpayers, but to the immigrants’ countries of origin:

“the cost of what it takes to feed, raise, care for and educate a worker from birth to working age (the costs of reproduction) are assumed by the immigrants’ countries of origin and is free to their employers in the rich nations, such as the United States and the nations of Western Europe. The low cost of immigrant labor works like a tremendous subsidy, imparting value to crops and agricultural land. This value is captured by capitalists across the food chain, but not by the worker.” (Holt-Giménez, A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism)

Farmstead in the Black Hills, South Dakota, USA

The persistence of the family farm

In the US a large majority of farms, including massive farms which raise monoculture crops using huge machinery, are run by individual families rather than corporations. Although they own much of their land, these farmers typically work long hours at what amounts to less than minimum wage, and many depend on at least some non-farm salary or wage income to pay the bills. Again, there are clear limitations in a capitalist food system’s ability to extract surplus value directly from these hours of labour.

But in addition to selling “upstream” inputs like hybrid and GMO seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and machinery, the capitalist food system dominates the “downstream” process of trading commodities, processing foods, and distributing them via supermarket shelves. An important recent development in this regard is contract farming, which Holt-Giménez refers to as “a modern version of sharecropping and tenant farming”.

A large corporation contracts to buy, for example, a chicken farmer’s entire output of chickens, at a fixed price:

“Through a market-specification contract, the firm guarantees the producer a buyer, based on agreements regarding price and quality, and with a resource-providing contract the firm also provides production inputs (like fertilizer, hatchlings, or technical assistance). If the firm provides all the inputs and buys all of the product, it essentially controls the production process while the farmer basically provides land and labor ….”

The corporation buying the chickens gets the chance to dominate the chicken market, without the heavy investment of buying land and buildings and hiring the workforce. Meanwhile farmers with purchase contracts in hand can go to the bank for operating loans, but they lose control over most decisions about production on their own land. And they bear the risk of losing their entire investment – which often means losing their home as well – if the corporation decides the next year to cancel the contract, drop the price paid for chicken, or raise the price of chicken feed.

Contract farming dominates the poultry industry in the US and the pork market is now rapidly undergoing “chickenization”. Holt–Giménez adds that “The World Bank considers contract farming to be the primary means for linking peasant farmers to the global market and promotes it widely in Asia, Latin America, and Africa.”

Farm field in springtime, western North Dakota, USA

Feeding a hungry world

In North America the conventional wisdom holds that only industrial capitalist agriculture has the ability to provide food for the billions of people in today’s world. Yet on a per hectare basis, monoculture agribusiness has been far less productive than many traditional intensive agricultures.

“Because peasant-style farming usually takes place on smaller farms, the total output is less than capitalist or entrepreneurial farms. However, their total output per unit of land (tons/hectare; bushels/acre) tends to be higher. This is why, as capitalist agriculture converts peasant-style farms to entrepreneurial and capitalist farms, there is often a drop in productivity ….”

Marxist political-economic theory provides a useful basis for Holt-Giménez’ explorations of many aspects of global food systems. Among the topics he covers are the great benefits of the Green Revolution to companies marketing seeds and fertilizers, along with the great costs to peasants who were driven off their lands, and potentially catastrophic damages to the ecological web.

But an over-reliance on this theory, in my opinion, leads to an oversimplification of some of our current challenges. This is most significant in Holt-Giménez’s discussions of the overlapping issues of food waste and the failure to distribute farm outputs fairly.

In recent decades there has been a constant surplus of food available on world markets, while hundreds of millions of people have suffered serious malnutrition. At the same time we are often told that approximately 40% of the world’s food goes to waste. Surely there should be an easy way to distribute food more justly, avoid waste, and solve chronic hunger, no?

Yet it is not clear what proportion of food waste is unavoidable, given the vagaries of weather that may cause a bumper crop one year in one area, or rapid increases in harvest-destroying pests in response to ecological changes. It is easy to think that 40% waste is far too high – but could we reasonably expect to cut food waste to 5%, 10% or 20%? That’s a question that Holt-Giménez doesn’t delve into.

On the other hand he does pin food waste very directly on capitalist modes of production. “The defining characteristic of capitalism is its tendency to overproduce. The food system is no exception.” He adds, “The key to ending food waste is to end overproduction.”

Yet if food waste is cut back through a lowering of production, that in itself is of no help to those who are going hungry.

Holt-Giménez writes “Farmers are nutrient-deficient because they don’t have enough land to grow a balanced diet. These are political, not technical problems.” Yes, access to land is a critical political issue – but can we be sure that the answers are only political, and not in part technical as well? After all, famines predated capitalism, and have occurred in widely varying economic contexts even in the past century.

Particularly for the coming generations, climatic shifts may create enormous food insecurities even for those with access to (formerly sufficient) land. As George Monbiot notes in The Guardian this week, rapid loss of topsoil on a world scale, combined with water scarcity and rising temperatures, is likely to have serious impacts on agricultural production. Facing these challenges, farming knowledge and techniques that used to work very well may require serious adaptation. So the answers are not likely to be political or technical, but political and technical.

These critiques aside, Holt-Giménez has produced an excellent guidebook for the loose collection of interests often called “the food movement”. With a good grasp of the way capitalism distorts food production, plus an understanding of the class struggles that permeate the global food business, foodies stand a chance of turning the food movement into an effective force for change.