Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Similar point, opposite language

Exponential Growth of Computing
I read two articles yesterday whose contrast got me thinking.  The surprise was that they seem to aiming in similar directions, but the languages that they use to get there are almost opposite.

First, here is Tom Friedman in the New York Times.  He is writing about resource efficiency and how, in his view, "green" and "gold" — that is, environmental stewardship and the profit motive —  can become partners rather than adversaries. He begins by talking about traffic in Moscow but that is just the peg on which to hang a general point: "The planet is getting flatter and more crowded. There will be two billion more people here by 2050, and they will all want to live and drive just like us. And when they do, there is going to be one monster traffic jam and pollution cloud, unless we learn how to get more mobility, lighting, heating and cooling from less energy and with less waste "

He goes on, "This will force us to decouple consumption from economic growth."

Huh?  "Economic growth", at least as it is usually defined, just is growth in production and consumption. You might as well suggest that we "decouple" the total of our spending from the amount we pay for each item that we purchase.

But for Friedman, I think, "economic growth" has taken on a wider and less precise meaning - in fact, it seems to be more or less synonymous (for him)  with "human flourishing".  So I would paraphrase him as saying, "The pressures of a flat, crowded planet will force us to find ways of human flourishing that don't depend so much on taking physical stuff on a one-way journey from resource to waste."

Now look at the latest post on Herman Daly's blog.  He makes the two-stage argument that growth (a) will eventually become impossible, and (b) "long before it becomes physically impossible, it will become uneconomic", i.e. the marginal value of another unit of growth, when all costs and benefits have been taken into account, will turn negative.  Daly's argument is that this point is at hand, but that it is obscured from us by an accounting system which fails to include the illth (negative wealth) that is generated by our economic activities.

But he is no doomster.  "I eagerly submit", he writes, that "even if we limit quantitative physical throughput (growth) it should still be possible to experience qualitative improvement (development) thanks to technological advance and to ethical improvement of our priorities."  Here is the "decoupling" idea again, but for Daly, "growth" is on the side of this contrast that must be limited, not on the side on which continued improvement is to be expected.

Of course this is a question about the use of words.  To me, though, it seems clear that Daly's usage is more realistic and truer to our ordinary language.  If I'm right that Friedman uses the language of "economic growth" as a synonym for the whole range of human aspirations, it suggests that economics has taken on almost a religious or spiritual value for him — a way of viewing the whole of life. I don't think economic language can carry that weight.

Daly concludes his article with this challenge: "If you are a technological optimist please have the courage of your convictions and join us in advocating policies that give incentive to the resource-saving technologies that you believe are within easy reach. You may be right — I hope you are. Let’s find out. If you turn out to be wrong, there is really no downside, because it was still necessary to limit throughput to avoid uneconomic growth."

1 comment:

John Roe said...

Cricket Hunter wrote: "Have you read Bill McKibbon's Deep Economy, John? The thinking that "economy" doesn't actually measure that which makes our lives happier or more satisfying (at least those of us who have those first-tier necessities covered),so maybe we ought to look for a different way to measure our societal success is such an important one. The shorthand you called Thomas Friedman on leads to confusion and frustration by many who expect satisfaction from externally-measured, economic success.