Krugman on degrowthies

update: I got P3'd.
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I'm always interested when a mainstream economist pipes up about growth vs degrowth. As the wikipedia page says, degrowth is a `political, economic, and social movement based on ecological economics and anti-consumerist and anti-capitalist ideas'. The CASSE book Enough is Enough reflects this - not least because it emerged from a conference-wide braindump. It's a recognisable web of `ideas that tend to go together'; I'm unsure they're consistent. (I like standing on the sidelines and sniping too.)

So, Krugman just stuck his oar in, albeit only for about three sentences. It's obviously not possible to judge based solely on that, but it seems weirdly simplistic. In particular:

It's worth pointing out that they [the degrowthies] have a much too narrow notion of what it means to have a growing economy. It doesn't necessarily mean more stuff! It could be better stuff, or more services — and there are also choices to be made in how we produce and distribute stuff. There is absolutely no reason to believe in a one-for-one link between real GDP and greenhouse gases.

Well, no, there's not a one-to-one link. Really, no-one ever said there was. Let me have a go at stating my own position. Growth of material extraction can't go on forever. Economic growth can't be completely decoupled from physical output and that will eventually hit limits (is perhaps already). But that eventuality is some way off yet - any transition to a post-carbon economy requires growth for a few decades yet - a point that first hit home hearing Ruth Wood explain the economy's reaction to an increase in output of green tech using input-output models. But it's good to be arguing about this stuff right now. That web of ideas needs unpicking and re-assembling, and it's not a bad time to be doing that while economics as a whole is going through a serious navel-gazing period.

I also still have this vague sense that the concept of growth itself is being misapplied. As I've heard several people say who've been studying it in-depth, no-one really knows what the source of growth is. Jane Jacobs' ideas are enough part of my DNA for me to wonder if development wouldn't show up as growth in the kinds of indicators we use - which is what Krugman's implying, I think. A rainforest might be `steady-state' but it's ever-evolving. And actually, human development - while sharing some characteristics of evolving systems - has its own dynamic that's more a mash-up of attentive artistry and evolution. Which leads me to worry about building an entire political theory around an abstract target of zero-growth. I think other goals make more sense and would achieve genuine sustainability far more effectively than attempting some global-scale bound.

But Krugman is way more dismissive than I think the issue deserves. Jorg Friedrichs' back of the envelope numbers did more to convince me of that than anything else recently. Assuming 3% per annum growth, he points out, would require the resource intensity of the economy by 2100 to be reduced by 95% if resource levels were to be kept steady. And that's not even stopping their through-put - it's just keeping them as they are now. Any model of McDonough-style cradle to cradle metabolism using the same material set is going to be harder still (but, ultimately, necessary).

Another aspect that worries me: abstract concern about growth vs degrowth as an armchair-philosophy pursuit is one thing. The reality of resource extraction globally is quite another - and it's not a pretty story. Many people are vulnerable to exploitation, even to simply being killed for others to get access to the resources (though nice to see, googling for that, turns out someone actually got prosecuted for murder).

I'm still generally much more sympathetic to Krugman's economics than ideas put forward under the steady-state banner, but I've also been to a few evenings put on by CASSE here at Leeds - they've bought many thought-provoking speakers in and (notwithstanding the obligatory Trot taking questions as an opportunity to proselytise) the conversations have been great brainfood. There's especially still a huge gulf between the understanding of the money system - and claims about what should be done - between degrowthies and orthodox economics. Degrowthies seem way too sure of their ideas on this - again, I'm only sniping from the sidelines, and it's great that the arguments are happening.

But yes - prompted to write because I would have liked a more in-depth look at Krugman's thoughts on this stuff. Instead, all we get is: `such people have no power, and therefore don't do any real harm.' Nice!

"By visual inspection it can be seen that..."

"By visual inspection it can be seen that..." Can it? That certainly seems to be the approach of folks at the GWPF and elsewhere in the paws-o-sphere.

So, say you were locked in a windowless box room, someone handed you this daily temp record (pictured on the right also) and demanded you tell them which was coming next, summer or winter solstice? And if you get it wrong they'll shoot you in the head? You'd be happy with "by visual inspection it can be seen that..." would you?

As it happens, trends that long (29 days) go against the seasonal trend about 30% of the time for daily temp data near me. 3 in 10 odds of getting shot in the head there, if you went with "visual inspection". There is, of course, a seasonal trend, but it's noisy. With noisy trends, "visual inspection" is regularly, predictably misleading.

And that's the problem with the "pause" argument: the people most strongly selling it are going on nothing more than "by visual inspection it can be seen that..." Some of them do it knowingly, many others do it because it seems intuitively correct. Intuition is not always a good guide.

I cherrypicked that one, of course: the next solstice is summer. Here it is circled in green, in the context of four years' temp data, with other pink lines for all of the 30% that go against the seasonal trend.

Carbon capture and storage: saviour or snake oil?

An edit of a P3 comment:
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The International Energy Agency just sent a tweet linking to a new report (PDF of exec summary) entitled "resources to reserves 2013". The web story has the top-level figures.

But it's the number in the tweet that I'm writing about: "even a 1% increase in the average recovery factor could add more than 80 bb, or 6%, to global proven oil reserve." I've wiffled about carbon capture and storage before: my current view is that it's only being so aggressively pushed because it fits neatly with existing oil firms' goal of pursuing enhanced oil recovery. (I don't think that's been done nefariously - it just appears to many to be a win-win option that makes politicians lives easier as well as fitting with existing firms' aims.)

So that IEA number: a 1% increase in average recovery factor would add 80 billion barrels of oil. The exec summary goes on to say that:

"Over the last 20 years, the average recovery factor from the Norwegian Continental Shelf has seen a significant shift – from 34% to around 46% today. // If the shift seen in Norway were to be achieved in all the basins of the world, it would double current proven reserves. A similar additional shift could be achieved by adopting EOR techniques on a much wider scale. Currently, there is a significant increase in the number of EOR pilot tests, especially those using chemical methods and CO2 injection. Examples may be found around the world, from China, Russia, the Middle East and North America to Argentina."

Double reserves? If a 6% increase is 80bb, that's a lot of CO2, eh? Here's the IEA CCS roadmap: "as long as fossil fuels and carbon-intensive industries play dominant roles in our economies, carbon capture and storage (CCS) will remain a critical greenhouse gas reduction solution." The same arguments are made in the UK (PDF). Here's Ed Davey in the foreward:

"In the decades to come, emissions must fall while delivering more energy and more growth to a world hungry for both. Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) will play a vital role in helping us resolve this dilemma. CCS is the only technology that can turn high carbon fuels into genuinely low carbon electricity. It is essential if we are to meet the challenge of climate change whilst maintaining security of energy supplies."

The only way I see it becoming a 'critical greenhouse gas reduction solution' is where it's not being used to increase the recovery factor. CO2 EOR obviously does nothing for the CO2 from the fuel that it's enabling to be burned.

Can someone make a counter-argument? You'd need to be able to show that any stored CO2 (e.g. from power plant coal) used for EOR at least cancelled the CO2 output it enables. Is anyone doing that? Given they're talking about hypothetical doublings of output, I'd be surprised if this kind of venture can even hope to approach even carbon neutral, but that's just a hunch.

One might want to also argue that, by pursuing the technology, we'll open up new possibilities later - I don't find that very comforting, personally. There's also the counter-argument that you've locked us into a fossil-fuel based transport system. Which, of course, can't happen if we're serious about carbon reduction: globally, the transport sector is due to double in size by 2050, given its rapid expansion in developing countries. Global transport CO2 is currently ~14% of total CO2 output. Most government targets are using an "80% reduction by 2050" number (though many are arguing that needs to be net zero). Without decarbonising transport, it would rapidly end up moving towards and beyond 100% of our total allowable output way before 2050.

If the IEA's analysis of how CO2 EOR can change recovery rates is right, CCS could well be a lethal dead end. If I'm wrong, I have nothing against the technology itself, if burying CO2 is what it takes. But it's looking suspiciously like snake oil to me. Need to work on some numbers...

Global Warming Policy Foundation: web banner data plus the rest

The Global Warming Policy Foundation (google them if you want, they get no links from me) have a web banner showing annual average global temps from the Met Office's HADCRUT4 dataset since 2001.

Given that Nigel Lawson's been putting himself about a bit (see andtheresphysics for an overview) I thought I'd stick their banner in its proper place, along with the full dataset - and made it into an animated gif. How 90s. The gif link is also here. Anyone spot any errors, let me know.

Equilibrium schmequil-schmibrium

A comment by `Zamfir' at crooked timber (via Krugman) jumped out at me:

Lots of mechanics and other physical processes are modelled as equilibria, or quasi equilibria, even when people know that it is not correct. That's typically the opposite of purity-obsessed scholastism, it's more an engineering fix to get bad results that are still better than no results. You multiply the results by an out-of-the-blue correction factor for `dynamical effects', and hope for the best.

Contrast with Philip Ball:

[Economic] models take no account of real human behaviour, which is far too messy to permit any theorems that can be proved rigorously. Economic models become citadels of crystalline mathematical perfection that would shatter if touched by the harsh rays of reality.

(He does immediately go on to say "it would be grossly unfair to suggest that this describes everything that happens in economics, let alone in all social sciences... But it is widespread".)

His target isn't specifically the use of static equilibrium assumptions in economic models, but the view Ball gives is spot on for how most agent-based modellers and complexity thinkers view it. ABM and complexity are seen as "a pioneering break from a moribund Newtonian worldview" (Manson 2001 p.412), obviously superior to those silly static equilibria. Usually they will argue that's the case because it's `more realistic'. Hmm - so's Call of Duty 4, I'm not sure that makes it a better model of anything.

Slightly less flippantly: the models are never the problem. You try what you can and throw it at the wall of reality. Some things stick. Or, as Einstein put it, talking about physics: it's

"a logical system of thought which is in a state of evolution, whose basis cannot be distilled, as it were, from experience by an inductive method, but can only be arrived at by free invention. The justification (truth content) of the system rests in the verification of the derived propositions by sense experiences. The skeptic will say: `it may well be true that this system of equations is reasonable from a logical standpoint. But it does not prove that it corresponds to nature'. You are right, dear skeptic. Experience alone can decide on truth." (Quoted in Kaldor 1972 p.1239.)

Like I say: try what you can, throw it at reality. I'm not saying I'm any good at this - I have a definite tendency to prefer making little pretend worlds - but the point is, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with using static equilibrium as an assumption. Zamfir's quote made me happy thinking about it being used in a practical manner all over the place. In some situations it's useful, in others less so, in some it makes no sense at all. The point is how it's used (already rambled about that at some length).

I have this notion there's a direct parallel to `emergence' in agent modelling. ABM is all about interaction: that's its basic structure and its main strength. The use of physics ideas in classical economics is its strength, but it's also what makes it brittle. The same is true for ABM. To be useful, you want your method to be able to help examine any number of different questions - but in ABM, it's easy to end up defaulting to Epstein's `if you didn’t grow it, you didn’t explain it' (Epstein 2006 p.xii) and thinking you've answered something. Di Paolo and Bullock nail that one: conflating emergence and explanation means whatever you were wanting to look at has been `brushed under the carpet of emergence' (Di Paolo et al. 2000 p.8).

This is somewhat reminiscent of the final deathstar scene in Return of the Jedi: ABM ends up nearly becoming the thing it hates most: wedded to an obsession with realism, it can no longer experiment or pursue a diverse range of questions. Actually, that didn't sound anything like Return of the Jedi.

Cameron climate fudge is hugely dangerous

Cameron at a press conference today:

I think the point I would make is whatever your view about this issue, clearly we have had and are having some pretty extreme weather. So whatever your view about climate change, it makes sense to mitigate it and act to deal with that weather. That is the view of the whole government.

Sounds a little like Mike Hulme's recent take (discussed at P3):

What matters is not whether the climate is changing (it is); nor whether human actions are to blame (they are, at the very least partly and, quite likely, largely)...

It doesn't matter whether humans are to blame? Makes sense to `deal with the weather' and not worry about anyone's views?

What idiocy. If humans weren't causing it - if these were just natural variations - there would be no requirement to cut carbon (or other GGHs) and we could concentrate funding on resilience-building. Decarbonising our global infrastructure is a gargantuan challenge - not an impossible one, but it requires all parties to understand the science. Without that basic agreement, we're going to umm and arr our way into a climate shitstorm.

It's hard to say from that quote whether Cameron is just fudging the word `mitigate' (which would mean actually dealing with the carbon issue) or was just blathering. I suspect the latter, given he's comfortable with appointing a class A climate Gish galloper to the post of environment secretary.

But his line of argument is hugely dangerous: `look, chaps - we all have different views, but let's just concentrate on dealing with the weather right now shall we?' We can persist with dealing with the symptoms for a while, but in the end if we don't address the underlying cause, the disease will overwhelm our ability to cope.

Superhuman passivity

How dare you, George? I've been writing some highly acerbic tweets, I'll have you know. h/t Susan Anderson at P3.

"We appear to possess an almost limitless ability to sit back and watch as political life is seized by plutocrats, as the biosphere is trashed, as public services are killed or given to corporations; as workers are dragooned into zero-hour contracts. Though there are a few wonderful exceptions, on the whole protest is muted and alternatives are shrugged away without examination. How did we acquire this superhuman passivity?"

Dream

A couple of oldies. Transcripts nabbed from here and here, with some corrections.

XKCD:

When did we forget our dreams? The infinite possibilities each day holds should stagger the mind. The sheer number of experiences I could have is uncountable, breath-taking, and I'm sitting here refreshing my inbox. We live trapped in loops, reliving a few days over and over, and we envision only a handful of paths laid out ahead of us. We see the same things each day, we respond the same way, we think the same thoughts, each day a slight variation on the last, every moment smoothly following the gentle curves of societal norms. We act like if we just get through today, tomorrow our dreams will come back to us.

And no, I don't have all the answers. I don't know how to jolt myself into seeing what each moment could become. But I do know one thing: the solution doesn't involve watering down my every little idea and creative impulse for the sake of some day easing my fit into a mold. It doesn't involve tempering my life to better fit someone's expectations. It doesn't involve constantly holding back for fear of shaking things up.

This is very important, so I want to say it as clearly as I can: FUCK. THAT. SHIT.

Waking Life:

Hey, are you a dreamer? I haven't seen too many around lately. Things have been tough lately for dreamers. They say dreaming's dead - no one does it any more. It's not dead, it's just been forgotten. Removed from our language. Nobody teaches it, so no-one knows it exists. The dreamer's banished to obscurity. I'm trying to change all that and I hope you are too - by dreaming every day. Dreaming with our hands, dreaming with our minds. Our planet is facing the greatest problems it's ever faced. Ever. So whatever you do, don't be bored. This is absolutely the most exciting time we could have possibly hoped to be alive. And things are just starting.

UK recession recovery worse than great depression

Following up on the recent OBR / Osborne stuff covered by Simon Wren-Lewis, Krugman does that bloody typical liberal thing of looking at the actual data. There's a lovely comparison of all recent UK recessions, with the recent one bumping along the bottom. As he says, it's a Three Stooges approach to economic policy:

Curly is seen banging his head against the wall; when Moe asks why, he replies, “Because it feels so good when I stop.”

A gradual increase in the consuming power of the natives

A quote from the general introduction to The Resources of the Empire, from 1924, by Sir Eric Geddes. It strikes me as a stark example of the ability to meld cold economic dominion and a sense of worthy purpose without breaking a sweat. He wonders, in a post-World War One situation, how to develop Britain's markets:

"[In tropical climates], any substantial increase in the white population is hardly to be expected, since the bulk of the work of the country must in such climates always be done by the native races. The purchasing power of these territories can therefore only be developed by the steady development of their material resources. This, of course, means recourse to British capital, if Great Britain is to get the greatest advantage from the development and if our Imperial ideal is to be fulfilled. In our present economic condition [post-WWI] this, of course, presents some difficulty, but if we can carry out this programme, there will follow a greater demand for British plant, machinery, shipping, rolling stock, etc., as well as a gradual increase in the consuming power of the natives."

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