August 27, 2009

Physical and Moral Cornucopians

Peak Oilers and core environmentalists recognize the debt/growth economic model as physically unsustainable, while social reformers recognize it as spiritually and morally malevolent. There’s a lot of overlap among these groups.
But also overlapping is our mirror obverse, physical and moral cornucopianism. These are the faith-based people who reject resource limitation, believe growth can be infinite and benign, and think even wealth concentration can lift all boats.
We can split these into two broad groups, the green cornucopians (mainstream environmentalists and renewable/alternative energy and “efficiency” evangelists), who believe in physical boundlessness, and the economic liberals who believe in the taming and benevolence of growth and wealth. As I said there’s much overlap among these two as well.
In a nutshell greens think the problems of civilization can be solved through being more eco-friendly and energy-efficient about our growth, our wealth accumulation, and our consumerism.
Further (and endless) exponential growth is to be accomplished through an alternative energy transformation.
Wind, CSP, solar PV, smart grids, and far more efficient use of electricity will continue to power civilization at something near its current level.
2nd, 3rd, 4th generation biofuels will allow us to continue driving our cars the way we have been (and allow the rest of the globe to hit the road as well).
These cars will be PHEVs and EVs.
Meanwhile new technology will render vestigial fossil fuel extraction and burning far less carbon intensive.
New technology will everywhere render us ever more energy efficient and less emissive. 
(In every one of these it’s assumed that new technology will forever come along to continue the process.)
Meanwhile corporations will happily join the environmental and energy crusade. All stages of manufacturing and distribution will be ecologically and efficiently rationalized so that consumerism can continue unabated but in a green way.
This new infinite green consumerism will in turn economically power growth forever, which will in turn afford the investment to keep developing and deploying the eternally new green technology, which will in turn allow continued growth and consumerism without running up against resource or pollution limits, and so on.
Throughout, corporations will be more profitable than ever, the rich will get richer than ever, all boats will be lifted, everyone will be ecstatic, and this will all be done in a earth-friendly and resource efficient way.
Finally, any rump carbon issue which wasn’t cleared up by the genius of the green market and green technology will be mastered with a market-oriented mitigation policy, based on traded emissions permits and offsets. (If the caps look a little iffy, what with the offramps and safety valves, don’t worry. Given how wonderfully our market mechanism is going to function, those will never be triggered. They were only put in there for political show. And don’t worry about the anemic reduction goals. In our new green corporate utopia, we’re going to be mitigating so much carbon the plants won’t have enough to breathe.)
These permits and offsets, and derivatives from them, may blow up a finance bubble, but don’t worry. Unlike in previous Neanderthal economies, our new green economy will know how to control bubbles and prevent them from getting out of control. No more capitalist crises for us!
This is no doubt on account of our newfound moral virtue. For just as the greens think technology will save us from the environmental and energy crises and still allow the Tower Of Babel to keep rising higher, so liberals think there’s a way to morally redeem growth and superconcentration of wealth so that these continue even as all of society benefits and we achieve the end of poverty.
I won’t bother trying to hack my way through the tangle of liberal reform proposals which have somehow not worked for decades now, which years have seen only wages stagnate and decline, unionism clobbered, the safety net shredded, corporate power enhanced, and wealth ever more concentrated. You would think anyone who doesn’t like these things would’ve learned by now, but the Democrats’ version of corporate liberalism remains a popular ideology even as everyone deplores every development it has presided over.
The basic problem is the belief that growth, capitalist “innovation”, and wealth concentration are morally neutral or even inclined to be benevolent, except that mean old Mr. Potter perverts them from their right usages. Even a real philosopher like John Rawls still bases his otherwise excellent difference principle on this bad foundation (so we’ll let him stand in for the liberals).
(Even Marx believed in the intrinsic benevolence of growth and technology, objecting only to the capitalist mode of production.)
Rawls was willing to champion every aspect of capitalism and growth so long as it was done in a way which truly would lift all boats. (The difference principle means in theory that the measure of any policy must be whether or not it even slightly betters the condition of the poorest. Excellent principle with insuperable practical difficulties given the industrial premise.) In the end it’s another version of trickle-down, but which would use taxation and other government mechanisms to cause the trickling.
But we know that trickle-down does not work, both systemically and morally. Capitalism simply does not create enough constructive investment opportunities for bloated wealth to find a way to trickle down. That’s why wherever it accumulates this wealth always blows up bubbles instead. And even if such investment opportunities could be found, they’re not as profitable as rent-seeking through asset bubbles, so the entrenched wealth structure acts aggressively to defend its rentier prerogatives.
We know that throughout history, from all large ancient civilizations through today, concentrated wealth is used as a weapon to further concentrate itself. Even where a society has a real economy and generates real wealth, concentrated wealth invariably seeks to concentrate further at a rate greater than wealth is created.
So wherever a society seeks to grow economically, we have an eternal zero-sum game, where if the public isn’t gaining it is losing.
The American people have been losing now for forty years.
So the cornucopians are just as wrong about the progressive possibilities of continued growth as they were about its physical possibilities.
The only way to help the poor, and seek the public interest, is to distribute wealth the right way in the first place, not to let it concentrate and then expect it to “trickle down”.
(In a subsequent post I’ll explain why this would not be harmful to innovation.) 


  1. I suspect you are right about most of this, but defining the public interest is not so easy and in fact presents largely unsolvable problems well explained by Hayek and reducible, in a nutshell, to the idea that under socialism the worst people inevitably climb to the top and perpetrate even greater evil. Actually, it may be the abuse of government power which props up monopolistic corporations (themselves little governments), destroys innovative competition, enables usury, preserves a system which threatens to engulf us and most probably will. Excellent writing though. Keep it up.

    Comment by jake chase — August 27, 2009 @ 12:25 pm

  2. Thanks, Jake.

    “Socialism” certainly has no worse a record of lofting nasty people to the top than capitalism, and probably a much better record, though I haven’t sat down and tallied it.

    (Especially since, by the Right’s own definition, America has been socialist since the 30s at least. That would include Reagan and Bush – Medicare, right? Nobody dismantled it, and Bush extended it. :))

    At any rate, today what’s far more important than any differences between capitalism and socialism is how in this mass industrial world the only thing we have is mass corporatism. Nominal ownership of the means of production is a mere detail of this.

    And yes, it is abuse of government power, by the bought flunkeys of corporate power. Government does corporate bidding, enabling corporations to buy the government even further, and so on in a vicious circle.

    I don’t think conventional political action can break the circle.

    Comment by Russ — August 27, 2009 @ 5:42 pm

  3. […] there can never be even the thought of escape.   The craziest and most pernicious notion of the green cornucopians is that we’re somehow going to:   1. Transform the West’s entire automobile fleet to […]

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  4. […] This post quotes from a paper to be delivered next year casting doubt on what I’ve called green cornucopianism.   Although Malthus’s worries about land shortages were transcended by world-historical events […]

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