The Mismeasure of All Things

ON A ROAD NOT FAR FROM MORGANTOWN, West Virginia, my guide pulled over to show me the peculiar color of a certain river. It was orange. The rocks and creek bed were a hue somewhat brighter than rust but duskier than the reflective vests worn by utility crews. Years of drainage from coal mining tailings, high in the acid produced during the washing of the coal, had killed everything in the watercourse, rendering the water a moving hazard and contributing to the economic decline of the area. Coal had also sickened the bodies of miners, as well as the atmosphere.

Yet the years when rivers like the one I saw became industrial sewers were some of the most prosperous in the history of the state of West Virginia, when men and women were relatively well employed, cashing their paychecks to pay for groceries and rent, televisions and cars, medicine and property taxes. Every conventional accounting of the economic significance of the coal industry includes the wages paid, the small businesses sustained, and the quarterly profits of corporations, but not the rotted lungs, or the polluted waters, or the rising oceans that inundate low-lying slums in Bangladesh. These other effects, equally direct, receive no valuation when coal’s contribution to economic growth is tallied. They are invisible to the gross product of West Virginia or the United States.

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) might seem benign enough. After all, it’s just a number. But it has emerged as the principal way the public evaluates a nation’s status and whether times are good or bad. News organizations report rising GDP as a sign of recovery, and stagnant or declining GDP as a portent. But GDP mismeasures all things. It is about as indicative of human progress as a body count is of success in war; it’s not only blunt, but also blind to the destruction behind the number. It denies that “growth” makes us poorer in the long run and in the short run benefits only a few. The inventor of GDP, the economist Simon Kuznets, never intended it as an indicator of progress or happiness. Kuznets sent a report to Congress in 1934 that included a new way of reporting on the state of the economy, but cautioned that “the welfare of a nation can . . . scarcely be inferred from a measure of national income.”

Yet advocates of economic growth seized Kuznets’s indicator and simply chose to ignore his apprehension. They reduce national welfare to national income, regardless of the social distribution or ecological effects of wealth. They look at history with the same foggy lens, missing the social relations behind the history of capitalism, as though everything preceding the Industrial Revolution was just a million-year recession. In their view, the problem with European feudalism was that it generated too little wealth, not that it was a social system built on violence. They see the steam engine as the invention that made possible the first explosive increase in worker productivity—rather than as a machine that created a poor and hostile working class in Britain and the United States. GDP soared, but the first industrial workers lived in sickness and starvation.

However, when we talk about national wealth, we tend to stress just the opposite—that it benefits everyone because a rising tide lifts all boats—when, in reality, as Robert Reich once quipped, it only lifts the yachts. Again, GDP obscures the truth. For example, divide our country’s GDP in 1790 (preindustrial) and 1890 (industrial) by the U.S. population at those times, and the increase per person appears remarkable. But these gains weren’t distributed equally. The apparent rise in individual income during that century also hides the immense poverty and environmental destruction that came as a consequence of growth. It tells us nothing of the violence between workers and employers for livable wages, an eight-hour workday, and basic factory safety. Affluence can be shared, or hoarded. Corporate profits do not create equitable living standards; only equitable public policy does that.

Consider the sale of a two-dollar t-shirt by a big-box store. The sale instantly becomes part of GDP, but there would have been no sale were it not for the undercompensated labor of the Cambodian woman who made the shirt. A Cambodian woman who, in one year, stitches and sews $195,000 worth of goods is paid $750. That calculates to a share of three-thousandths of every retail dollar. Meanwhile, many Cambodian workers aren’t paid enough to adequately feed their families.

Thoroughly globalized products present a problem for GDP as a measure. After all, what is a “domestic product” when the citizenship of product and profit are difficult to determine? The t-shirt’s costs stay in one country and its profits go to another. If the true cost of producing the t-shirt became part of its price, few households in the United States could afford to buy one. The profitability of the t-shirt and its volume of sales for the big-box store depend on below-subsistence wages and the absence of environmental laws. Economists call this externalizing—when the costs of production are dumped on the public, while the profits remain in private hands. To the extent that GDP represents millions of products shared across national economies, it is a highly subsidized number—in which other people and other places sustain the true costs of growth.

For the past three hundred years, investment capital has besieged the earth, creating orange rivers and blackened lungs, yet the idea that growth is good remains more popular than ever. It’s viewed as a social welfare policy that costs taxpayers nothing—there’s no need to redistribute income if everyone is always in the process of getting rich. The antidote to socialism, in the American experience, has been supercharged capitalism, but a quick look at the last thirty years through the lens of the financial collapse of 2008 tells a different story. Real wages peaked in 1972, and thereafter living standards for American workers declined. Corporations undercut the modest prosperity of the working class when they realized that workers in other lands could turn the same bolt and stitch the same sleeve for a fraction of the cost. Corporate leaders demanded that domestic workers accept slashed benefits and stagnant wages or lose their jobs.

Given that high wages drive consumption, GDP should have plunged during the ensuing decades. But it did the opposite. Credit cards and subprime mortgages fueled this expansion. In other words, rather than create the conditions for real growth, banks and government developed a system that encouraged people with declining incomes and savings to consume more. They favored a short-term spike in GDP over actual prosperity. The rest we know.

If we counted up all the damage done in the name of growth—the unions busted when jobs went abroad, the lower wages and depleted benefits workers accepted for the same reason, the foreclosed mortgages sold by lenders in order to boost their earnings for shareholders; if we tally the rainforests cut, the ocean floors raked over, and the drought damage in Texas due to the highest CO2 concentrations in human history—the numbers would reveal a falling line. According to Friends of the Earth, the decline would amount to a vanished $12,500 per capita. But if GDP and the assumptions behind it are broken, what would be a better measure of human welfare?

You wouldn’t know it from the terminology and tenor of this campaign season in which GDP remains the unquestioned measure of national economic health, but there are a number of methods for measuring true progress rather than mismeasuring so-called growth. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has invented its own Leisure-Adjusted GDP by adding in the recreational hours of workers; in 2001, Luxembourg, Norway, and Ireland led the world. Others include the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare, which factors in resource depletion, pollution, and income distribution, and the Genuine Progress Indicator, which tries to determine if economic growth has improved a country’s welfare. These kinds of estimates— and there are many others — value “quality of life” over “standard of living,” and they value healthy ecosystems.

One thing capitalist economies almost never measure—and therefore do not evaluate—are the benefits, or “services,” they receive from environments at no cost. In conventional economic thinking, a forest has the value of the board feet it contains, but a forest also holds billions of gallons of water, which prevents flooding and keeps rivers and streams running clear. The trees hold soil in place that would otherwise roll down the mountain, muddying streams and rivers and destroying fish and bird habitats. Since fish such as salmon travel vast distances and spend half their lives in the oceans where they are caught, forest policy can end up affecting an industry seemingly far removed from the fate of Douglas firs. The totality of these ecosystem services, and the organisms that provide them, is called natural capital. Investing in natural capital, and coming up with a measure of its health and viability, would give us a different way of looking at progress.

For instance, we tend to think of investment as a way to make money, but it’s really a restraint on spending, because it requires delaying consumption now for the possibility of future gain. Investing in natural capital means not cutting the timber, leaving the fish in the ocean, keeping the mountaintop intact. The “interest” from this leave-it-alone policy consists of the ecological services (and less tangible returns) provided by the natural capital. Natural capital, in other words, yields not when it is extracted but when it remains in place, doing what it has always done.

There is rising interest in natural capital, and some of it comes from Google, which is developing an Earth Engine that would map things like soil fertility, deforestation, and other information having to do with the monitoring and measurement of environmental change. A team from Stanford University has invented software (called InVEST or Integrated Valuation of Ecosystem Services and Trade-offs) that puts a value on the benefits of mountain meadows and lily ponds. At the very least, these tools offer data to offset the claims of businesses focused on extraction.

And yet global ecological valuation also carries the danger that its definition of natural capital will blur into the same old drive for profitability. Corporations could claim to preserve natural capital in some self-serving way to fool the public into thinking that they’re doing something that they’re not. Worse, these tools might end up valuing only those services useful to humans. To the extent that we place our interests and needs above the inherent worth of a blooming desert or undeveloped waterfront, natural capital would presumably do nothing to prevent their destruction, particularly if they’re viewed as somehow insignificant. For instance, one might ask, “What has this salt marsh done for me lately?” If the question comes down to economic value, the salt marsh might fail to justify its existence.

There are other kinds of alternative measures. These are the indices of happiness that take into consideration the available resources per person, as well as the necessary food, water, open space, and services that we all need. These include the Happy Planet Index, Gross National Happiness measure, and National Accounts of Well-Being. Happiness indices include thriving environments because they are necessary for thriving humans and place well-being above profit. This might be the most radical of measures, since it posits a standard for progress that exists outside of the economy. It says that there are behaviors other than accumulation and consumption, and systems for meeting needs other than capitalism.

A touchstone concept for every index of national happiness comes from the nineteenth-century political economist and moral philosopher John Stuart Mill and his theory of the “stationary state.” Mill pointed out that “the increase of wealth is not boundless,” and “we are always on the verge” of its end. Thus technological change runs up against diminishing returns, and so-called resource abundance can turn into acid-washed rivers, exploited forests, and depleted oceans. For Mill, the idea that life is and must always be a constant “trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other’s heels” for a dwindling bit of wealth led him to think that the cooling off of the economy into entropic stagnation might not be such a bad thing.

What might a post-growth economy look like? It would not be a utopia—an immediate effect would likely be increased unemployment and social unrest. But we are fully capable of creating equality and economic security for everyone, if we so choose. Workers might be given the choice of more leisure time rather than higher wages, with a corresponding drop in consumption for its own sake. Governments would make investments in natural capital (as they do now in national parks and wilderness areas) to maintain the ecological services provided by migrating birds and watersheds. Businesses would recycle everything, since it wouldn’t be possible to add to the total amount of matter in the economy—only change it into different forms. Schools and communities would teach sufficiency, not accumulation, as a primary value.

If we lack the imagination to see other modes of human prosperity, all of our hometowns and natural places could end up like parts of West Virginia and so many other environmentally compromised areas around the country and world—our forests and fields ripped out like entrails, our rivers deadened and stained, our working lives spent reproducing a material world that is killing us. GDP obscures the social relations that make up economic growth. It allows us to continue in the delusion that the domestic product can be isolated from the global economy, and it distracts us from looking at the planet’s degradation by upholding consumption as a standard of progress. It might seem like quite a lot for a simple number broadcast over the radio in the car on the way to work, but people can only evaluate what they can measure. Measuring differently is itself a revolutionary act.

Steven Stoll is associate professor of history at Fordham University in New York. His writings have been published in Harper’s Magazine, Lapham’s Quarterly, and The Atlantic.

Comments

  1. It’s hard to know what to say when the writer has stated the obvious. Killing the goose that lays the golden eggs no matter what temporary benefits it accrues to ourselves and a small support staff of species is not progress in any meaningful sense.

    Putting a price value on everything as in GDP curiously encourages its ultimate scarcity. Pollute a river and the price of fresh water goes up. Great if you are in the water business. Folks might want to explore Lauderdale’s Paradox and the “perverse subsidy” it gives rise to.
    http://sou-parks.wikispaces.com/The+return+of+Lauderdale's+paradox

  2. That’s a very good point–that GDP creates a scarcity that then fuels GDP. Capitalist theorists have liked to argue that when something becomes expensive, demand for it falls, sending the market to another resource thus allowing the scarce one to rebound. But when something becomes expensive more people want to sell it. This is what happened to the California sardine, the passenger pigeon, and other animals once they became attached to markets. Conservation laws, very early on, sought to isolate environments and species from markets for just this reason.

  3. Wild Connections asked Dr. Tadini Bacigalupi to explore the value of all ecosystem services, including especially natural capital, provided by the Pike-San Isabel National Forest in Colorado. It totals $2,208 per acre! Genetic information, pollination, fresh water and its purification and recycling, carbon sequestration, religious/spiritual and aesthic values, cultural heritage,among other things and all in addition to the values that acrue to the wildlife living inthe forest, are not counted by the Forest Service when it plans for logging or road construction. His report is on our web site at http://www.wildconnections.org/library.html

  4. Good comments however right now I’m trying to deal with a link perversity in my previous post. For some reason “Lauderdale’s” loses an apostrophe, transmuting into “Lauderdales” and thereby misdirecting to a nonproductive article. So I’m going to try again and see if it simply the post or there is some glitch in the comments section.

    http://sou-parks.wikispaces.com/The+return+of+Lauderdale's+Paradox

  5. Same problem but I should have picked up on the obvious solution. Simply restore the apostrophe in the address section ie Lauderdale[‘]s and open again.

  6. The “Measure What Matters” movement is gathering energy world-wide. The UN has convened a working group to articulate the design elements of a sustainable global economy for the 21st century (and beyond), and one key element of it will be an alternative indicator set, one that measures sustainable delivered well-being (or what Bhutan has been calling Happiness in its measure of Gross National Happiness). In Vermont, the Governor has issued a dashboard of indicators that do a better job of surveying the breadth of various aspects of human well-being, and the legislature has commissioned the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics to compile an updated Genuine Progress Indicator for the state. The GPI (says the enabling legislation) should be reported for use in budgetary decisions. This is the next step in the alternative indicators movement: integrating the alternative indicator set into policy decisions. Bhutan, again, has led the way in this work. One way to accomplish the integration is through (for instance) a GNH or GPI Impact Statement process for policies. Another: integration of the indicator set with program benchmarks set by an Outcomes-Based Budgeting process in state and local governments. If enough states adopt this approach, the Feds will have to follow.

  7. The author says “people can only evaluate what they can measure”. This is a paraphrase of Lord Kelvin’s statement that “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” The author further suggests that “Measuring differently is itself a revolutionary act.”

    I say that a truly revolutionary act would be to let go of the illusion that we can measure what matters, that we can quantify the ineffable, even that “progress” – moving “forward” or “advancing” in linear time or technological sophistication – is a social or ecological good.

  8. Robert Riversong:

    I disagree, as you might expect. Your position seems at bottom nihilistic. If we can’t measure what matters, and if there’s no progress of any sort, then it’s all pretty much the same and there’s hardly any point in discussing it. That’s a formula for preserving the status quo, not for dramatic positive change.

  9. For most indigenous and non-Western cultures, nature is truly alive, and every entity within it is endowed with agency, intelligence and wisdom. This animistic perception is archetypal, ancient and primordial.

    James Hillman, student of Jung and founder of Archetypal Psychology, suggests that animism is not, as is often believed, a projection of human feelings onto inanimate matter; but that the things of the world project upon us their own “ideas and demands”, that any phenomenon has the capacity to come alive and to deeply inform us through our interaction with it.

    Spinoza, Leibniz and Alfred North Whitehead each believed matter to be intrinsically sentient. Paul Shepard (Coming Home to the Pleistocene) suggests that it was the Neolithic adoption of agriculture that drove animism underground as people became fearful of undomesticated nature and worshipped wrathful masculine gods who were distant from nature. David Abrams (The Spell of the Sensuous) argues that the advent of formal writing systems, in particularly the emergence and spread of the phonetic alphabet and number systems, was a major element in the shift from direct experience to idealized, mediated experience of the world.

    This is the etiology of our modern dependence on measurement:

    Galileo (1564 – 1642) taught that one must ignore subjective sensory experiences if one wished to learn anything useful about the world, and believed that reliable knowledge resided in quantities, so nature had to be reduced to numbers if she was to reveal her secrets and submit to the control of the human mind. For scientists, mathematics became the language for understanding and controlling nature.

    Francis Bacon (1561-1626) called for scientific thinkers to “bind” and constrain nature using mechanical inventions so that she “could be forced out of her natural state and squeezed and moulded” and thereby “tortured” into revealing her secrets.

    René Descartes (1596 – 1650) declared that the material world we see and sense around us was devoid of soul, and that it was nothing more than a dead, unfeeling machine which we could master and control through the exercise of our rational intellect. He taught that any entity could be completely understood by studying how its component parts worked in isolation – his infamous reductionist methodology.

    John Locke (1632-1704) gave the name “secondary qualities” to felt experiences, in order to emphasize their inferior, derivative nature compared to the primary qualities of size, shape and weight – insisting that “the negation of nature is the way toward happiness”.

    Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727) invented (independently of and concurrently with Liebniz) differential calculus – the mathematics of change – and seemed to provide final confirmation that the world was no more than a vast machine whose behavior could be precisely predicted and explained by quantification.

    These thinkers and this revolutionary movement signaled the shift into scientific materialism. As mechanistic science grew in influence, the anima mundi faded from consciousness and human life became increasingly devoid of soul and transcendent purpose.

    None of the things that people truly value – such as human and other-than-human relationships, love, loyalty, trust, a sense of place, hope and wisdom – can be quantified or measured, and yet nothing is so universally considered essential to a good life. When we “measure what matters” we miss most of what really matters and constrain ourselves to a lifeless world of abstractions.

  10. Your comment is interesting but again I disagree. The point of much social science is to turn subjectively reported experience into usable data. Having been a romantic once, I know that a sentence like that can send shivers of distaste through a body. But consider: a survey research instrument can ask questions like:

    “If you lost your wallet, how confident are you that it would be returned to you if it were found by a) a policeman; b) a stranger; c) a neighbor?” If you scale the answers from one to three or five or whatever, you can get a clear, quantified reading on the level of trust that people have in each other, in neighbors, in civic administration. That trust is an important contributor to a sense of well-being in society; it is an element of human well-being or happiness that policy ought not to destroy (at the least) and ought to work to improve (at best).

    Similarly: “How many times last week did you have a meal with family members or loved ones?” gives a quantified answer about social connections. It doesn’t measure “love,” no; but it does measure peoples’ engagement with their loved ones, and some might say that’s more meaningful: love is as love does.

    As to hope: do you know about the Cantril self-anchoring scale? It is a fairly precise measure of hopefulness–and attention to it would have predicted the events of the Arab Spring in Egypt and Tunisia.

  11. Eric,

    This is a comment section, and not a forum for debate, so this will be my last comment (though you will probably feel compelled to have the last word).

    My father was a protege of Kurt Lewin and one of the pioneers of Social Psychology. He was also a graduate school professor of research methods and statistical analysis. He invented some of the survey instruments you refer to.

    They are useful but extremely limited and, like all quantified measures of unquantifiable (because feeling rather than mind sourced) valuations, they reduce human experience to a lifeless abstraction that has little resemblance to the reality of the world we embody.

    And relying on the quantifiable will do nothing but perpetuate the current paradigm which has drastically undermined life on earth and the planet’s thermodynamic homeostasis and set biological evolution back ten million years.

  12. I think you’re right that this isn’t a place for debate. I don’t need the last word, except to say thanks for the interesting and informative exchange.

  13. As a parent who cares about the natural world that my children will inherit, I’ve always struggled with the premise that a constantly growing economy or rising GDP is what we use to measure progress. It’s true that we measure what we care about as a society. I think it’s high time we redefine what truly matters. For too many the natural world wouldn’t figure into the equation, but I am heartened by this discussion and hope that it can become part of the bigger “economic” discussion that seems to dominate everything. Thanks for this essay!

  14. Great article with A very well articulated argument. Unfortunately, it suggest little in the way of solutions. Perhaps, as there are few solutions, which is a sobering thought as I sit in the maternity ward visiting my new granddaughter…

  15. “One basic weakness in a conservation system based wholly on economic motives is that most members of the land community have no economic value. …. Of the 22,000 higher plants and animals native to Wisconsin, it is doubtful whether more than 5% can be sold, fed, eaten or otherwise put to economic use. Yet these creatures are part of the biotic community, and if (as I believe) its stability depends on its integrity, they are entitled to continuance.”- Aldo Leopold

    “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” – Albert Einstein

  16. The last quotation is often attributed to Einstein but the archival evidence points to William Bruce Cameron, “Informal Sociology: A Casual Introduction to Sociological Thinking” (1963)

    Another fascinating perspective on what we either do not count or count only as “bad”, like weeds, are the 100 trillion bacteria that live on or in every human body (90% of our living cells), including 10,000 different species, without which we would not be able to live.

    How do we quantify the value of such biotic symbiosis, or the myriad other relationships that comprise our human and natural ecology?

  17. Welcome back to Orion Robert Riversong. I have missed your intelligent and spiritually grounded voice, and regret that I became emotionally off-center in the course of dialoging with you. My bad. I agree completely with your remarks about the unfortunate materialist direction of modern culture. With regard to “animism” my experience tells me that all things without exception are arising in and as the consciousness of the Supreme Being. I am That, you are That, all of this reality is That, and there is nothing other than That. May all beings harken to this Truth and live together in love. It remains a fact that it is useless to argue in favor of a spiritual vision with those who are presently convinced that “material causes” are the sole realities in our existence.

  18. The observations of cyclical regularities and balance would seem to have provided 2 major insights underlying the concept of numbers. The idea of a repeatable uniform abstraction could then emerge.

    Language is nothing if it is not communicating physical things and their relations.

    Perhaps religion is the recognition that there is a world we can’t describe or count that has significance.

    As in anything else human the word becomes the thing, the map becomes the territory and God becomes a mysterious chief issuing commandments. We know how to screw things up.

    So what is the most important thing we can take from the big 3? Let me take a try.

    1. The idea of exponential growth associated with doubling establishing the insight of limits.

    2. The Golden Rule or the reciprocity principle based on the notion of common humanity.

    3. Socrates when told he was the wisest of men as divined by the Oracle replied “Well I know nothing so I must be the only person who knows he knows nothing.” But being Socrates he developed a dialogue toward higher insight leading I guess to the best hypothesis around for the time, but humbly recognizing that direct knowledge was out of reach.

    What can I distill from this that I can put on a bumper sticker? I’ll try these which I know I’ve made familiar to a few folks.

    MORE TREES, LESS PEOPLE!
    TOOLS FOR NEED, NOT GREED!

  19. http://www.straight.com/article-170627/david-suzuki-absurdity-endless-economic-growth

    For the first time in four billion years of life on Earth, one species has become so powerful and plentiful that it is altering the physical, chemical, and biological features of the planet on a geological scale. And so we have to ask, “What is the collective impact of everyone in the world?” We’ve never had to do that before and it’s difficult. Even when we do contemplate our global effects, we have no mechanism to respond as one species to the crises. – David Suzuki

  20. *** Our nervous system has the potential to entertain and develop capacities to appreciate and enact behaviors that go beyond mere self-interest, and gross materialism. However, we have evolved societies that reward the lowest tendencies of the most selfish among us. To lack any trace of conscience is needed to rise to the top of our power structure. “Good guys finish last.” Unless we reverse our emphasis, we are bound to reap the consequences of an unloving materialist worldview. No external force will be necessary to doom us — we are doing it all by ourselves.

  21. While reading Mr. Stoll’s potent essay and, as always, the weighty 20 comments to date, I suddenly realized that Steven Stoll’s title
    probably strikes some of us as a tart and ironic echo of the famous Greek maxim uttered by Protagoras (485-421 B.C.). This superb man declared what seems today to be almost simplistic: “Man is the measure of all things.” Those six words are of utmost value to me; for many, they are what is essentially the epitaph already inscribed on many societies globally, to put it bluntly and less idealistically than Protagoras would have said it in his Pre-Socratic community.

    Personally, I wish everyone of any age could read and energetically reflect on some of what survives of “ancient Greece,” as I am trying to accomplish. Mr. Stoll has bravely articulated here just might “occupy” people to the extent that “revolution” or “renaissance” or some synthesis of the two might become reality.

    Global warming could be curbed,even averted,for example, and the “…price of fresh water,” to quote David M on the 26th, might stabilize. Another fresh start: Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”! Read or re-read his poem! FGR

  22. With the understanding that man can undo anything we do, I too believe that “Man is the measure of all things.” The unacknowledged problems we have to face are our conscious failure to accept responsibility for what have done and our deliberate refusal to do things differently… and thereby move toward sustainable lifestyles and right-sized corporate enterprises.

  23. *** It bothers me that in this excellent essay that deals with so many of our problems that need fixing, there is no mention of one of the root causes behind all our difficulties: population overshoot. Fixing this one problem would make all of his suggestions possible. Not to fix it renders all other solutions unworkable.

  24. S E Salmony: “With the understanding that man can undo anything we do…”

    But that is the primary misunderstanding and, in fact, the hubris, of mankind. We are like children at play in the fields of the Lord. We can set things in motion that we cannot control, as we have now done with climate change and species extinction.

    Our power to wreak havoc is almost unlimited, but our knowledge of our own universe and our ability to consciously control it is limited, while our arrogance seems infinite.

  25. mike k: I believe the reason that so few are willing to venture into the population problem is that 1) any “solution” would appear to be draconian, and 2) it is a symptom of even deeper issues that we are not willing to face.

    Population growth began with technological agriculture and the first food (energy) surpluses we extracted from the earth, and it accelerated with each paradigm shift in energy – from human power to domesticated beasts of burden to wood, coal, petroleum and nuclear – finally approaching exponential (the “hockey stick” graph).

    Population overshoot is due to the exploitation, through increasingly complex technologies, of increasingly concentrated (and finite) energy reserves, creating as well an increasingly complex society which requires a high energy load just to maintain (as is evident in the deterioration of every facet of our social institutions and infrastructure as we hit peak everything).

    We are not willing to consider the population “bomb” because it would require that we re-evaluate technological civilization, to which we both are addicted and accept as the core “religion” of modernity. Without that faith in “new and improved” technology to save us from the crises created by the last generation of “new and improved” technology, we feel we would be adrift and without hope.

  26. Robert R — The population problem is at root a spiritual problem. The ignorant, deluded, self-involved modern mind cannot in its colossal hubris even begin to deal with it. Lack of initiation and practice of true spiritual paths inevitably leads to disaster. “Unless you build the house with My help, you build it in vain.” I am more and more deeply realizing that any project to stop the collapse of civilization is futile. The massive karma behind this outcome will now ripen whatever we do. We will reap the whirlwind. The only question now is how those of us somewhat spiritually aware will navigate the rising storm while continuing on the Paths to the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. Part of what gives me some solace in this troubled time is contained in this:

    Prospero:
    Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
    As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
    Are melted into air, into thin air:
    And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
    The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
    The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
    Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
    And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
    Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
    As dreams are made on; and our little life
    Is rounded with a sleep.
    The Tempest Act 4, scene 1, 148–158 I am not a mayavadin. There is only reality; but the more material aspects of this epic drama are not the whole show…

  27. Steve — I am unaware that Rachel Carson favored runaway population growth?

  28. We cannot choose to change the course we took 150 years ago.

    The best-considered estimates are that we surpassed the earth’s carrying capacity of human population in the mid 19th century before we began exploiting petroleum, and that the planet can support perhaps one billion people living at a mid-19th century lifestyle.

  29. Dear Mike K,

    Rachel Carson’ ‘superhighway’ is not the path she was advocating. She was suggesting another path, a road less traveled by. The superhighway is to be associated with unbridled population increase; the road less traveled is another way of going forward….and population limits, I suppose.

    Always,

    Steve

  30. The best advice I’ve come across for surviving this time of crisis and transition is this Hopi prophesy:

    “To my fellow swimmers there is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift, that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore, they are being torn apart and will suffer greatly. Know that the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our heads above water . And I say see who is there with you and celebrate. At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally, least of all ourselves, for the moment that we do, our spiritual growth and journey come to a halt. The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves. Banish the word struggle from your attitude and vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration. We are the ones we have been waiting for.”

  31. Steve — Thanks for the clarification. I see what you intended now, and I agree.

  32. I find that the idea of “growth” in GDP or a company or production feeds into this as a positive number. What if we use a standard of living number for the population in a society. We could measure number of children attending school, whether each person/family has basic needs met to generate a number and collectively show a community/state/country’s ‘value’. The raising of this number should indicate the ‘wealth’ of a nation rather what is produced, i.e, how many cars, and televisions.
    Calling it a “happiness number” makes it sound silly. This is a valuation number, a standard of living number.

  33. Robert Riversong perhaps has his finger on the pulse of where we have strayed off the path. A fundamental difficulty is that the globally dominant western economic model is entirely dependent on measuring and pricing those things that can be measured and priced. ‘Valuing’ so-called natural capital through clever and complex measuring is unlikely to move us to a place of true understanding and appreciation of the web of ecological relationships that sustains life – it will simply create another market to be exploited for individual and corporate profit and gain at someone and something else’s expense. The current western economic arrangement is neat because those things that can’t be measured and priced either have little or no value or are said not to exist and so can be discounted from any further serious consideration. This has happened to the extent that we have painted humanity and the rest of the living world into a corner and no amount of fiddling with the way we measure or price things is going to get us or our rich biodiverse planet out of that corner intact. We appear to be locked into a way of doing things that is so out of balance that it is, in effect, out of control.

    There can be little doubt that understanding the world around us by measuring has revealed many wonders and enabled human progress that has benefited millions of people. The other side of this balance sheet is articulated well by Stephen Stoll. What has been missing in this development is any sense of restraint, an understanding of the need for balance in the sense that balance is a dynamic state dependent on movement rather than something that is static, balance that requires conscious effort to achieve. Modern rationalism and its obsession with measuring rules at the expense of balance in pretty much all areas of western human endeavour and its effects are manifest across the planet. At some point we will be forced to face this issue; the question is will we do so willingly or will we have to be dragged kicking and screaming to examine our attitudes and behaviour to find a way of re-balancing our individual and collective relationships with each other and with the world we depend on.

  34. Andrew M. — The real issue in our world is not so much about technical ideas of how to measure or not measure things, but whether love, truth, goodness, and compassion will be our guiding understandings and motivations; or their opposites — selfishness, greed, violence, and ignorance. Our (increasingly unlikely) salvation from the ongoing collapse of civilization is more a matter of the awakening of the spiritual heart than some refinements of the intellect. Some ancient Greeks and prophets throughout the ages understood the destructive power of human hubris in all its forms, and tried to persuade us to turn to spiritual paths as the only real solution. Our tendency to frame our problems in technical and intellectual terms only deepens our ignorance of our difficulty’s real origin, and their possible solution.

  35. Humanity isn’t inherently selfish, greedy and violent – those are all necessary outcomes, however, of a cultural paradigm which both limits and defines the range of possible thought and action.

    It was “enlightenment” liberalism which made rationality, personal freedom and material progress the norm for human striving. America was built on those principles.

    Fundamentalist religion was a reaction to secular liberalism, but it made the fatal error of juxtaposing the “spiritual” against the rational.

    The path we need to rediscover is, as Andrew McDouall notes, that of the balance of the mind with the heart. Either/or will lead us to a dead end.

  36. R. R. — I agree, of course. Real deep spirituality has never been opposed to reason, science, or philosophy per se. It is the unbalanced exploitation of these gifts that is disastrous unless directed by love. Another way to understand our situation is to say that our focus has been overbalanced on the outer dimensions of reality, to the detriment of the inner levels. Real spirituality imo is always integrative and inclusive. Things over emphasized and areas excluded inevitably end tipping over our precious canoe of consciousness.

    Over the entrance to the Oracle at Delphi there were two inscriptions: Know Thyself (which could be interpreted ‘look within’) and Nothing Too Much. We have strayed far from both these injunctions.

  37. I would urge caution about using “love” as the missing ingredient. It is the most overused and least understood concept.

    The fully enlightened one would be beyond both love and hate, residing in perfect equanimity.

  38. Robert — To speak is to be certain that one will not be understood. And indeed the words we use to gesture towards the most profound and mysterious realities can never convey the content of those realities or the states of consciousness and being necessary for glimpsing their sacred depths. Yet even understanding this inherent difficulty in speech, we resort to it in our desperate need to touch each other somehow, our desperate need for love, communion, understanding. May we be forgiven for gesturing towards things ineffable and sublime. For me, the archetype of the Tower of Babel has a deeper and more tragic significance than most ascribe to it. It points to one of the root causes of our inability to get along with each other in this troubled world.

  39. If “To speak is to be certain that one will not be understood”, then I would say there is no point in speaking. I speak, or write, in such a way as to encourage understanding and avoid words and concepts which are prone to ambiguity or vagueness.

    If we have a “desperate need for love, communion, understanding”, then I say that is not an authentic or healthy goal – it is to fill the cravings of an addiction.

    To live in equanimity is to live without craving, without desperation, without desire. That is the state of balance we should aim to achieve. It does not require Buddhahood to achieve it.

  40. The Misunderstanding of the most Important Thing…..

    For too long a time human population growth has been comfortably and pseudoscientifically viewed by politicians, economists and demographers as somehow outside the course of nature, somehow disconnected from the population dynamics of other evolved species on Earth. The possible causes of human population growth have seemed to them so complex, obscure and numerous, so they have said for many too many years, that an adequate understanding of the cause of human population growth, much less a strategy to address the emerging and converging ecological problems posed by the unbridled growth of the human species, has been assumed to be unapproachable. Their preternatural grasp of human population dynamics has lead to widely varied forecasts of human population growth. Some forecasting data indicate the end to human population growth soon. Other data suggest the rapid and continuous increase of human numbers ad infinitum, and like the endless expansion of the global economy, without adverse impacts. The dogmatic adherence of these politically correct experts to erroneous, unscientific theory regarding automatic population stabilization around the midpoint of Century XXI and a benign demographic transition to a good life for the human community at large cannot be accepted any longer as if it is based upon the best available evidence.

    Recent scientific evidence appears to indicate that the governing dynamics of absolute global human population numbers is knowable as a natural phenomenon. Despite all the misleading, intellectually dishonest and deliberately deceptive ‘scientific research’ to the contrary, Homo sapiens can be shown to be, and now seen, as a species that is a part of and definitely not separate from the natural world we inhabit. Experts in politics, economics and demography have consciously fostered and continue obdurately to countenance a perilous disconnect between ecological science and political economy. Perhaps politics, economics and demography are themselves disciplines that are fundamentally disconnected from science. They appear to have more in common with ideology rather than science. To suggest as many too many politicians, economists and demographers have been conveniently doing that understanding the dynamics of human population numbers does not matter, that the human population problem is not about numbers, or that human population dynamics has so dizzying an array of variables as not to be suitable for scientific investigation, seems wrongheaded and dangerous.

    According to research of Russell Hopfenberg, Ph.D., and David Pimentel, Ph.D., global population growth of the human species is a rapidly cycling positive feedback loop in which food availability drives population growth and the recent, skyrocketing growth in absolute global human numbers gives rise to the misconception or mistaken impression that food production needs to be increased even more. Data indicate that the world’s human population grows by approximately 2% per year. All segments of it grow by about two percent. Every year there are more people with brown eyes and more people with blue ones; more people who are tall as well as more short people. It also means that there are more people growing up well fed and more people growing up hungry. The hungry segment of the global population goes up just like the well-fed segment of the population. We may or may not be reducing hunger by increasing food production; however, we are most certainly producing more and more hungry people.

    Hopfenberg’s and Pimentel’s research suggests that the spectacularly successful efforts of humankind to increase food production in order to feed a growing population has resulted and continues to result in even greater human population numbers worldwide. The perceived need to increase food production to feed a growing population is a widely shared and consensually validated misperception, a denial both of the physical reality and the space-time dimension, a colossal misunderstanding. If people are starving at a given moment of time, increasing food production and then distributing it cannot help them. Are these starving people supposed to be waiting for sowing, growing and reaping to be completed? Are they supposed to wait for surpluses to reach them? Without food they would die. In such circumstances, increasing food production for people who are starving is like tossing parachutes to people who have already fallen out of the airplane. The produced food arrives too late. Even so, this realization does not mean human starvation is inevitable.

    Consider that the population dynamics of humankind is not biologically different from, but essentially common to the population dynamics of other species. Human organisms, non-human organisms and even microorganisms have similar population dynamics. In all cases the governing relationship between food supply and population numbers of any living thing is this: food is independent variable and population numbers is the dependent variable. We do not find hoards of starving roaches, birds, squirrels, alligators, or chimpanzees in the absence of food as we do in many “civilized” human communities today because non-human species and what we call “primitive” human communities are not engaged in food production. Please note that among tribes of people in remote original habitats, we do not find people starving. Like non-human species, “primitive” human beings live within the carrying capacity of their environment. History is replete with examples of early humans and more remote ancestors of “civilized” people not increasing their food production and distribution capabilities annually, but rather living successfully off the land for thousands upon thousands of years as hunters and gatherers of food. Prior to the Agricultural Revolution and the production of more food than was needed for immediate survival, human numbers supposedly could not grow beyond their environment’s physical capacity to sustain them because human population growth or decline is primarily determined by food availability. Looked at from a global population perspective, more food equals more human organisms; less food equals less human beings; and no food equals no people. The idea that food production must be increased to meet the needs of growing human population has been actually giving rise to skyrocketing human population numbers, not only since the Industrial Revolution but even more recently and intensively with the onset of the Green Revolution that began sixty years ago.

  41. Steve — The logic and evidence for your understanding of population dynamics is clear and convincing to anyone who is not the unwitting victim of cultural propaganda and ignorance. Unfortunately, those who are so deluded constitute the overwhelming majority of people, including many who otherwise have some real intelligence when it comes to other matters. Waking as many as possible to these crucial realities, which are like a huge ignored elephant in our living rooms, is vitally important. Keep up the good work.

  42. It is probably within the power of human ingenuity to convert every bit of organic material, including fossil fuel, into food. At that point it would become almost completely an anthropogenic world with us acting as stand in gods. The idea of man being simply one species forced to ultimately conform to Mother Nature’s limits would be turned into a cute fable.

    It seems to me the idea of unlimited growth implicitly incorporates such an idea, not to mention the romance of finally colonizing the universe.

  43. Humanity could save itself from itself while there is still time, but chooses not to do so with every passing day because many too many movers and shakers consciously and deliberately refuse to acknowledge their understanding of reality and respond ably to ‘what is’. Leading elders know what is happening but willfully reject speaking out loudly, clearly and often about what is true to them. A pervasive and pernicious dearth of intellectual honesty, moral courage and willingness to do the right thing by powerbrokers and their sycophants and many minions, all of whom dominate the mass media, is everywhere in evidence.

  44. There is a theme arising here which I find not only counterproductive but dishonest: that the “fault” lies with the “leaders” and the “movers and shakers”. It is seen more broadly as the 1% vs 99% meme.

    In truth, every one of us is responsible for the unquestioned acceptance of the dominant paradigm, and precious few are willing to take the personal leap of faith required to radically change our lives.

    Talking about change does not accomplish change. Living it seeds a new reality. Others won’t change because their logically convinced to change. They will change when they see people living better lives in a radically simpler and more satisfying way.

  45. There are leaders and there are followers. In our time followers are presented with cascading propaganda derived from bought-and-paid-for sycophants of wealthy and powerful leaders. This is nothing knew, nor does it take rocket scientists to see through the obsfucation and deception that is relentlessly broadcast by ‘the brightest and best’ via the mass media. Followers do not know what is happening because leaders will not instruct their minions to tell it like it is. A code of silence is operative among leaders just as surely as there is tacit agreement among them regarding whatsoever actions serve their selfish interests. Greed rules the world in our time. Leaders know all about that.

  46. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see through “the obsfucation and deception” but you claim that the sheeple are unable to do just that.

    The kind of conspiracy theory you propagate is a recipe for maintaining the status quo, as nothing would ever be possible as long as “they” control the minds of the masses.

    You don’t have much faith in common folk, do you?

  47. On the contrary, I retain quite a lot of faith in ordinary people. Human beings are not stupid. The mere presence of intelligence is a marker of humanity.

    What are not markers of ordinary people can be found in a set of personality characteristics: extreme foolhardiness, deceit, arrogance, greed and the dishonest perpetration of clever schemes that are organized and managed primarily their benefit. Ponzi schemes come to mind.

  48. Please note that a letter was left out of a word in the last sentence above. It should read, Ponzi schemers come to mind.

  49. S E Salmony

    “Looked at from a global population perspective, more food equals more human organisms; less food equals less human beings; and no food equals no people. The idea that food production must be increased to meet the needs of growing human population has been actually giving rise to skyrocketing human population numbers, not only since the Industrial Revolution but even more recently and intensively with the onset of the Green Revolution that began sixty years ago.”

    Makes sense to me although it needs to be pointed out that for rich countries the increase in food production doesn’t necessarily increase population at home. The increase is out sourced so to speak.

  50. Dear David M,

    You got it. The excess food from America’s ‘breadbaskets’ and corn belts is outsourced, as you put it. The food we do not consume is distributed to people without it in the underdeveloped world. That is how their populations explode in lands where little food can be grown. Food consumed excessively is the cause of the obesity epidemic in the overdeveloped world.

    Thanks for speaking out,

    Steve

  51. Because there is so much misinformation, disinformation and outright lies disseminated by outrageously enriched ‘talking heads’ via the mass media, discovering what is real can be a difficult task. Even so, how on Earth can our children begin to prepare for the future their elders are creating for them if they are not told what is actually happening now? Never in the course of human events have so few elders in a single generation taken so much for themselves and left so little for so many children.

  52. It is so easy for people with full bellies to talk of reducing food supplies, or not doing anything to facilate the production, which amounts to the same thing. It’s like Miss Hollywood de jure arguing against any more ugly people getting plastic surgery and going to Pilates classes.

    Go visit or read about how people live in the third world before you feel yourself empowered to preach against producing more food.

    Some posters here actually seem to yearn for the day when everyone simply grew everything that they ate. As a retired teacher, I chooce to celebrate the advent of the division of labor, because it kept a hoe out of my hand for 15 hours a day.

  53. It is so predictable, Steve, that you would criticize the move to grow more of our own food by natural methods, and similar initiatives to reduce world hunger by curbing global population overshoot. Your worldview seems to be that everything is going just fine; leave everything to business as usual and the wizardry of industry and all will be well. Apparently, any move to protect the environment or return to simpler and more natural ways of living is a threat to your idea that everything is in good hands — don’t mess with it. No need to change our doomed trajectory, full speed ahead….

  54. I’m not sure where the thread originated–regarding food and population–but I’d like to add something. It’s the wrong question. Much of the stress on the carrying capacity of the earth for humans goes back to Thomas Robert Malthus, and his brutal and entirely erroneous thinking. Malthus’ entire project was to blame the victims of starvation and poverty for their own starvation and poverty, leaving the real consumers untouched. He said, let the poor die to save the rest of us. The earth has plenty of room for people to have all their needs met, even for 10 billion of us. What it cannot sustain is an American level of consumption. Population is a problem, but to focus on numbers and not consumption is to play Malthus’ game. The people who live in the slums of Mumbai are not the problem.

  55. By the way, post 58 is from Steven Stoll, author of the article, not the Steve referred to in post 57.

  56. Steven Stoll — It is amazing the lengths many will go to justify the overwhelming number of humans on our sensitive planet. Let’s just forget about family planning and birth control measures eh? Let the good times roll, the more the merrier. Our capitalist masters could ask for no more enthusiastic cheerleader. And what level of consumption would you need to consign the denizens of your ten billion- strong world to? Tell it to the Chinese or Indians who are deeply convinced that every citizen needs a car, a TV, etc. etc. Your pipe dream of a sustainable world of ten billion modern humans just doesn’t hold water. (I guess that pipe must be a hookah lol — Wonder what you are smoking in that…lol

  57. Steven Stoll — I guess I came off as a trifle abrasive in my reply to your comment. Sorry, my bad. What I was reacting to was the tendency of many of us environmentally concerned types to emphasize one approach as the answer to our problems, which are actually endlessly interdependent and complex. In many cases to change anything, we have to change almost everything. Our whole civilization is way off course. Specific narrowly focused initiatives will never unravel the giant ball of wax containing capitalism, faux religion, selfishness, militarism, violence, lack of concern for others, no care for the environment, etc. on and on. In other words we are in a condition of total failure of all our basic systems, and only a basic overhaul of our worldview and all it comprises will save us from self destruction. If you doubt this, take a good look at the world around you.

  58. While we don’t know how to accommodate Chinese and Indian car driver-wannabes, the differing species of penguins or octopi may occasionally be confounded by these almost-like thems eating the same things and living similarly in THEIR environments.

    The answer is the same: it always works out. The same capitalism that sent railroads, then electricity, then the Internet across our continent drives the hearts of people in the third world who all are sure of one thing: they DON’T want to live in a third-world country any more. All humanity wants is a fair chance to succeed – even if their resue’ ends up in a (Gasp!!) binder.

    Geophysically, we amount to the dust on an old basketball. We may succeed in temporarily spoiling an area, but life cannot be stopped, and growth always wins, whether it is the first multi-cellular plant on a seafloor or purple chlorophyll on a planet beyond our sight.

  59. Steve — Your last comment finally convinces me that you are just a troll. Hence I will no longer pay any attention to your inanities.

  60. Steve

    “Some posters here actually seem to yearn for the day when everyone simply grew everything that they ate. As a retired teacher, I chooce to celebrate the advent of the division of labor, because it kept a hoe out of my hand for 15 hours a day.”

    This raises an interesting question, how specialized can we go before we generate serious negative feedbacks? If citizens are specialists of specialties derived from specialities does it eventually become a kind of ant like world where everyone plays his role to near perfection but lacks any sense of the whole.

    It seems like we could find among our Founding Fathers folks like Benjamin Franklin who had a general knowledge of how the society he lived in worked, which helped him make a serious contribution to that society. In our highly complex specialized world who understands more than a small part of how our society works? Things proceed pretty much on a trial and error basis. And with so many devastating trip wires awaiting us going forward that seems to me to foretell a dark future.

    From my standpoint that really leaves us one path out. We reduce our presence and allow a restoration of natural processes until we can get a working sense of the world we live in and then develop a modus vivendi that hopefully will last.

    MORE TREES! LESS PEOPLE!

  61. Mike — You’re right, that is abrasive, but I think I know where it comes from. I am not speaking against family planning or population control. I am for zero population growth. I just want to focus the attention on the degree of consumption and not population, merely. Malthus wanted to excuse the consumption of the capitalist masters, while putting all the balame on the poor. I do think that capitalists like population growth because it keeps wages low and consumption for their products hight–it feeds GDP, and one way that economic growth thinkers see GDP increasing is simply though population growth. So yes–we need a national population policy that allows for reproduction independent of class but limits it as well.

  62. Greetings from Ky. I’m glad to see people thinking seriously about our labor situation, wages, and supply and demand issues. At least we all agree on securing the borders so we can control immigration just like all out neighbors to the south do! lol

    Regarding world-wide population issues, there is no kind way to control population without person-to-person treatment regarding contraception. While this would indeed be a blessing to the women and kids of poor areas, they generally are excluded from reproductive decisions, and the men who gain economic security from additional (salable?) offspring as well as social status are going to be tough to convince, on a family level and as national or tribal policy.

    The fastest way to change a society to the point where humanitarian issues are pressed forward … is religion. We pretty much know which faiths allow for women getting to make these decisions, and which don’t.

  63. “…..the essence of this human-driven tragedy: to know that a given course of action will lead to disaster but to pursue it nevertheless.”
    — Cassandra

  64. Steve — Those the dark forces wish to destroy, they first seduce into unconsciousness, so they can then become the unwitting agents of their own destruction.

  65. From the article

    “Investing in natural capital means not cutting the timber, leaving the fish in the ocean, keeping the mountaintop intact. The “interest” from this leave-it-alone policy consists of the ecological services (and less tangible returns) provided by the natural capital. Natural capital, in other words, yields not when it is extracted but when it remains in place, doing what it has always done.”

    So what is the GDP value of that which nature offers freely – photosynthesis, rain, sun, wilderness and wild food? There is no GDP. Where is the investment? No investment required. It is in the scarcity of those things we need that GDP value emerges. That would seem to be a paradox.

    I brought up The Lauderdale Paradox in the first comment but haven’t really pursued it. Here is an article that does. And yes I realize it is quite agenda driven but I still think it has value if you separate the wheat from the chaff.

    http://monthlyreview.org/2009/11/01/the-paradox-of-wealth-capitalism-and-ecological-destruction

    “The ecological contradictions of the prevailing economic ideology are best explained in terms of what is known in the history of economics as the “Lauderdale Paradox.” James Maitland, the eighth Earl of Lauderdale (1759-1839), was the author of An Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Public Wealth and into the Means and Causes of its Increase (1804). In the paradox with which his name came to be associated, Lauderdale argued that there was an inverse correlation between public wealth and private riches such that an increase in the latter often served to diminish the former. “Public wealth,” he wrote, “may be accurately defined, — to consist of all that man desires, as useful or delightful to him.” Such goods have use value and thus constitute wealth. But private riches, as opposed to wealth, required something additional (i.e., had an added limitation), consisting “of all that man desires as useful or delightful to him; which exists in a degree of scarcity.”

    Scarcity, in other words, is a necessary requirement for something to have value in exchange, and to augment private riches. But this is not the case for public wealth, which encompasses all value in use, and thus includes not only what is scarce but also what is abundant. This paradox led Lauderdale to argue that increases in scarcity in such formerly abundant but necessary elements of life as air, water, and food would, if exchange values were then attached to them, enhance individual private riches, and indeed the riches of the country — conceived of as “the sum-totalof individual riches” — but only at the expense of the common wealth. For example, if one could monopolize water that had previously been freely available by placing a fee on wells, the measured riches of the nation would be increased at the expense of the growing thirst of the population.

    “The common sense of mankind,” Lauderdale contended, “would revolt” at any proposal to augment private riches “by creating a scarcity of any commodity generally useful and necessary to man.” Nevertheless, he was aware that the bourgeois society in which he lived was already, in many ways, doing something of the very sort.”

  66. I honestly believe the readers here know better than to fly blindly into yet another everyone-owns-everything scenario. Did we not learn anything from the Soviet experiment, or the Mao Zedong experiment, or the ongoing North Korean experiment?

    Even the first settlers to head for the Jamestown area tried this. What you always will end up with is starvation and poverty for all but a tightly-protected master class at the very top.

    Meanwhile, in American penniless man after penniless woman got off a boat at Ellis Island and improved their lives and their children’s lives. In a capitalist system, everyone does better.

    What has changed in the U.S. since 1960 is that we have had a very well-managed campaign to make people leave family and social supports behind and angrily demand Santa Claus for a government. A disastrously ill-educated and poorly parented nation now thinks it can do what no group of humans has ever been able to do. Did you ALL lose your copy of Animal Farm?

    The economics will never work, and in this next couple of decades, we all get to see just how awfully it will work out here, unfortunately.

  67. Steve, like a lot of people you want to make it about capitalist vs. socialist. Unfortunately the Marxist source of the article lends itself to that thinking.

    The Lauderdale Paradox is about creating economic value from what nature freely provides. The paradox is it is the degrading of its free character that gives it economic value, what has been called a “perverse subsidy.” That happens under capitalism or socialism.

  68. Going back to the ancient allegory I earlier alluded to that addressed this issue of suicidally exploiting resources, we have the story of the goose that laid the golden egg. The goose would regularly produce a golden egg but not on the schedule its owner wanted. So getting greedy he decided to extract multiple golden eggs at once by killing the goose. His greed of course left him impoverished.

    Converting this ancient story into a modern context, we have found a way to exploit the goose in a manner that increases golden egg production but leaves it progressively weaker. Finally the goose dies and we with it.

    I guess the question is what makes for a healthy goose and what level of gold egg production does that mean we must settle for? I believe that the healthy providing goose(Mother Nature) arrives when we live in self-sufficient communities where the feedbacks, potential externalities if you like, are all absorbed within the community. So sustainability means making do with your immediate surrounding environment pretty much. The economics of your life is inextricably bound up with the health of and interactive sympathy with your surroundings, free of the need to pillage distant neighborhoods.

    MORE TREES, LESS PEOPLE!

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