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On the steady state mailing list someone...

First published June-2014
last update 13-June-2014

On the steady state mailing list someone posted that ressource consumption misses the point of steady state economics, which should be defined as a steady population and constant output.

Here is my reply:

As for defining steady state in terms of resource consumption/waste on balance with resource availability/waste sinks, I do not see any other useful definition of a steady state. Population can stay the same while consuming more resources more unsustainably (until a crash) and some hazy economic "aggregate" metric is liable to inform us even less about reality. Of course resource consumption/waste-sink balance puts constraints on population and other things, but it is resources/sinks that are fundamental (if we had infinite resources we could have infinite population).

Your conditions of "(1) A steady human population and (2) a steady physical level of output" is what misses the point, as both can stay constant and lead to ecological collapse. I can pump at a constant, exponential, or even declining level of output from a well and pump it dry; what matters is if the total water pumped is below or above the recharge rate of the ground water.

However, I agree that a steady-state can be dynamic, using resources ever better and increasing leisure time would be nice, but this is not a necessary condition for steady state; leisure time could stay constant.
As with GDP zero-growth, population "zero growth" is a likely characteristic of any steady-state society, but the converse is not necessarily true, as a zero growth population can still collapse the ecosystems (population growth would be negative after that).

This error in reasoning I think comes from population over-shoot examples in the natural world. There is a huge difference between natural overshoot and what humanity faces: other animals do not have technology, so their only means to overshoot is population; but to then apply this lesson to humanity and reduce overshoot to population makes no sense as it ignores our technological systems.
The distinction I think is very important as focusing on population is usually made to "shift blame" to poor regions with high population growth ignoring the resources they actually consume, and excusing the far higher consumption of rich regions, where the persons making these claims usually reside — thus shifting focus from the industrial "consume everything" economic system to voiceless "overshoot patsies" elsewhere who have little measurable impact on the global ecological system.
For instance, the very rich, who consume enormous amounts, are particularly interested to decrease population, a target that has been mentioned is reducing by 15% the projected plateau of population growth (essentially all these population "savings" to be in poor countries).
15 % reduction is consumption is no where near what is needed to have a meaningful impact, and since these un-peoples will be not-born in poor regions, they would represent even less actual reduction in consumption.

Now, if we accept 15% is basically meaningless to the worlds problems, and set our sites on 50% to 80% reduction, on a relevant time scale, this could only be achieved by:

1) World War III using nuclear weapons: likely to have far greater negative ecological impact than the population reduction has positive ecological impact.
2) Widespread ecosystems collapse resulting in global famine: ecosystems collapse is what we’re trying to avoid.
3) Nazi-style systematic genocides: "workable" in theory but I would argue the executive managers necessary are unlikely to have the ethical characteristics to manage the earth’s resources sustainably: as I would argue it’s unethical to kill if other options are available (which they are).
4) High-fatality rate global pandemic.
5) Moving 50-80% of people into space colonies.
1&2) The first two options, if undertaken for population reduction measures, achieve the result they are intended to avoid, ecological collapse.

3) The third would mean Nazi-style totalitarian takeover of most of the world, either overtly or covertly (systematic killings could be administered through food, drinking water etc. with a time-delay kill vectors difficult to attribute a cause).
4) The fourth would be an "ethical" possibility if such a pandemic happened spontaneously, if "engineered" see option 3. However if spontaneous it’s not "unethical" but neither it is an ethical course of action, as sitting around for something to happen continuing business as usual is not constructive but wishful thinking: maybe the wish will come true but that is not a course of action but inaction, even if one was pinning one’s hopes on pandemic the ethical course would still be to do all other actions likely to decrease resource consumption and waste-sink saturation.

5) No current technology is available to achieve this, and it’s entirely unlikely to arrive on any relevant time scale.
However, if we focus on resource consumption rather than population we arrive at a very different analyses.

We have the technology and the methods to reduce consumption and ecological impact radically, requiring no global upheaval that makes managing things likely to spin out of control.

Some (as in most of what we need) measures we can simply choose to do now (through appropriate regulation):
- Reducing meat consumption.
- Reducing frivolous personal fossil transportation.
- Mandating cradle-to-grave product life-cycle management (i.e. taxing externalities).
- Banning (with enforcement) high ecological impact activities like shark finning, deep sea bottom trawling, logging in high-biodiversity areas, etc.
- Multiple independent studies (i.e. real science) into the ecological impacts vs. yield of the agricultural systems available (rather than basing policy on single corporate funded, private data, "studies").
- Renewable energy, in particular solar concentrating systems which are low impact, high temperature, low cost, globally deployable and in particular in poor regions where deforestation can be reduced (disclaimer: I work in this field).

So the above are common sense policies that are both ethical and together would have far more impact than even a 15% reduction in population. The only argument against them are "people don’t want to consume less" or "corporation won’t tolerate internalizing costs"; true there is resistance to these policies, but basing argumentation on the assumption that people are unreasonable / unethical is unlikely to yield any ethical result. If people are unethical then they are liable to want to consume all available resources to "keep the party" going regardless of alternatives, and any feasible plan the "enlightened" manage to get going is either likely to be mismanaged in any case or is delusional to begin with (i.e. the "enlightened" are liable to be just another ignorant / unethical group).

Considering our ressource consumption is not tied to population, as with essentially every other creature, but almost entirely due to our technological systems, technology / infrastructure choice is where all the sustainability gains are.

The data says we are heading to stable population in any case, and the data also says our global ecomomic system is incredibly wasteful: most grain going towards meat, most fuel burned for unecessary transport, most energy could be easilly generated clost-to-point of use with renewables, in particular solar (which powers the other non-geothermal renewables).

Of course, we can always nitpick and claim renewables are intermittent, but if the energy is cost effective what’s the problem of doing a majority of energy tasks when the primary solar energy is there in abundance (i.e. extremely low-cost) and storing some biofuels-charcoal for when needed?

The problem with "adapting" is that it goes against business as usual. But starting with business as usual as the criteria is liable to result in business as usual as the conclusion. However, it’s business as usual that’s got us into our ecolgoical quagmire, there’s no reason to assume like-minded thinking will solve the problem. People have lived with intermittent interior lighting (the sun), intermittent water (monsoons), intermittent food access (migrations passing, harvests, big catch), and have managed to live for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years under such conditions. Sleeping at night, water storage (West India essentially perfected rain water storage, but threw away that system easilly replicable and sustainable system in favour of massing damning projects and well-pumping), food storage, have been successful adaptation strategies to intermittent ressources.

Of course technologies exist to compliment the low-cost sun-shine making this almost a moot point now, but my point is that it shouldn’t be a criteria, if the energy is low-cost when available (i.e. when the sun shines) adapting to this is relatively easy, much easier than adapting to a radically different cliamte pattern / atmospheric chemistry, ocean-death or ecosystems collapse (which a recent paper showed could happen without obvious predictive signals that are feasible to monitor; i.e. hitting tipping points may not be obvious until after-the-fact).

Written by Eerik Wissenz.

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