A Call for Scientists to Speak Out About Economics.
It is a sad fact that most scientists have very little to say about economics. Perhaps it is because so many economic theories are unintelligible and seem to be allied to political movements that do not practice evidence-based policy formation.
Perhaps too, scientists are often beholden to corporate and government finance for their livelihoods. But, whatever the reasons, scientists are often very, very quiet when our politicians suggest that all our ills can be overcome by continued economic growth; regardless of the fact that we have limited resources at our disposal.
I think scientists need to speak out. Over the past 30 years, our politicians have almost grasped the idea that the resources we humans have at our disposal fall into two distinct categories, renewable and non-renewable; both categories provide limited inputs to our activities. Politicians have also almost realised that our outputs, including those that contribute to climate change and loss of habitats, must be limited to rates that enable our planetary systems to function and remain reasonably stable. Yet, inspite of their improved grasp of how and why human activities are governed by the laws of nature, most politicians seems to think that we should ignore entropic thermodynamics and simply go for growth as if such limits did not exist.
Let’s be clear. All activities require energy and there is no such thing as work-free activity; whatever we do, ‘stuff’ is required. Economic activity is not immune to the laws of physics. It is true that technology can vastly expand our economic horizons but we should not assume that such expansion can be cost-free in terms of entropic advancement; we do not know, for example, that if fusion can be made to work as an energy supply, what the consequences might be. If a fusion plant required vast inputs of materials and energy for its construction and safety systems, the advantages of extraordinary outputs might not be worth the physical costs of the capital endeavour. And even if those problems could be solved, what we do with the additional energy will impact our world to an astonishing degree. Besides, a viable future is perfectly possible with existing technology, without fusion, if only people would vote for it and campaign vigorously.
Even though mass and energy are, in the final analysis, transmutable one to the other, the global human population needs to live within existing technological and environmental limits until new technologies are tested as to their suitability for adoption. Remember the old nuclear power slogan, “energy too cheap to meter”? With existing patterns of growth, our biosphere has been stretched almost beyond breaking point; climate change, peak oil, declining resources, a growing population and the appalling loss of our living bank of species and their habitats do not bode well for a future based on expanding the economic system of global consumerism that nearly all our politicians keep promoting.
I believe this is what we need to achieve over the next few years:
- Improve the living standards of the poorest 3 billion people and reduce the over-consumption of the richest 3 billion people by promoting voluntary restraint in the rich communities and the free transfer of technology and resources to those poorer communities that require them. Timescale: 1 decade.
- Stabilise the global human population to fewer than 10 billions without coercion, through education and family planning. Timescale: 2 decades.
- Promote a gradual decline of the global population to around 5 billions without coercion through education and family planning. Timescale: 10 decades.
- Promote science and technological research, particularly in the fields of renewable energy, food and clean water supply, maintaining habitats and disease prevention. Timescale: ongoing.
- Promote the reduction in the production of heavy weapons such as nuclear weapons and other WMD systems. Timescale: ongoing.
- Promote peace and secular democratic governance world-wide. Timescale: ongoing.
What we would end up with if we could involve citizens, scientists and politicians in the programme I have outlined is a steady-state global economy in which human activity was limited to the ability of our planetary systems to provide the necessary inputs and cope with the inevitable outputs. In short, we need citizens to sign up to an ethical and scientifically viable future.
Now many cynics will say that wars in the fight for resources, territories, religion and power will prevent such a future emerging; true, if we do nothing. But self fulfilling prophesies of doom are not helpful. Some will say that the problems are too big and can not be tackled. But let’s make one point very firmly: tackling these problems are all easy from a technical standpoint using current technologies, it is only the political will that is lacking. And if it is true that we citizens get the politicians we deserve then it is up to all of us to make our positions on these issues as clear as we can.
This isn’t about allying oneself to the ‘left’ or ‘right’ either; both arch-capitalist and hawkish socialist economics rely on three incorrect common assumptions. The first is that economic growth is essentially unlimited by the laws of physics because ‘human ingenuity’ somehow trumps scientific reality. The second is that redistribution of wealth happens ‘naturally’ by either ‘trickle down effect’ (right wing) or ‘state redistribution of the means of production and consumption’ (left wing). The third is that it is only military power and coercion that can transform society. In truth, both systems are dogmatic, undemocratic and in denial concerning the very concept of limits, let alone the reality of limits, and the power of an active citizenry.
So, break free of the dogmatic ‘left’ and ‘right’ boxes. Be a citizen.
We are not all cut out to be politicians but we can make it very clear who we might support by mass action in support of the things we care about. In this age of relatively cheap mass communication via the internet (a luxury that might not last if corporations and nation states end up controlling content), we can make our voices heard. In terms of campaigning for a practical and ethical future, we need to use our time on the net and in our political action wisely. We are all busy living our lives and our time is valuable. So sign up to the things that matter. We all need to sign up to solving the root causes of our problems, not just to ameliorating symptoms.
It is perfectly natural to think that your small contribution to solving these vast global problems might not count. But every political action you take will influence another to act too. It is worth remembering that only 30 years ago, environmentalists attempting to promote further research into climate change and global warming were thought of as cranks but now 90% of scientists support the proposition that we need to act to prevent the problem escalating. Likewise, we need to heavily support the concept of a stable-state economy.
We also need to ditch ‘left’ and ‘right’ wing politics for good. Over the last 100 years, modern capitalism and socialism have not brought peace and prosperity to all. Neither of these economic systems work. It is time to change the way we look at economics and scientists should be clear about the thermodynamic truth that there are limits to growth; limits that we exceed with every passing year as our failing planet sends us a message that we can no longer ignore.
Buckfastleigh, England, September 2010
Go to www.sirisuk.org and sign the Sirisuk Declaration