Throughput the Wringer

A new UN report details how for every person in Australia, nearly 80 tonnes of materials are extracted each year. But a few of us we change our light bulbs, recycle some of our waste, and feel better about it.

For every person in Australia, over 40 tonnes of materials are consumed each year. We extract far more than we consume. But even the half that we consume is enormous. No doubt it is also very unequal.

Much of that extracted material ends up in China and every countries. But for every person in China, only 17 tonnes of materials are consumed each year.

In its extraction and consumption of pure material, Australia far surpasses  even the United States. There, no more than 25 (and currently less than 20) tonnes of materials are extracted, per person, each year. And consumption is around 20 tonnes per person.

Australia is a superpower in the pure volume of materials extracted, processed, put through the system, turned into throughput, and consumed, whether in the form of household consumption, or in industry.

Among those seriously concerned about climate change, there is a long-running debate about decoupling. It is clear that all the rich countries have economies whose sheer use of resources, materials, throughput, are so vast and so destructive to the environment, with such a climate footprint, that they must completely reorient their resource and energy usage — and urgently. By urgently, we mean that to avoid catastrophe it should be done within negative five years. The arithmetic becomes more drastic each year, so that even to do it by pure state enforcement — utmost efforts, the economy on a war footing, transition implemented by force of law — may not be enough to avoid the 1.5+  degree catastrophe.

But this still leaves the question as to what the desired economy should be. The question is: Is it sufficient to switch to renewable energy, and reorient our economy towards a rational use of energy and resources? Such an economy is quite possibly institutionally incompatible with capitalism, but this is at least what is needed. Or, is it necessary to go further, and to reverse economic growth, and head towards a steady-state or degrowth economy?

That is, the principal question in responding to climate change is whether it is sufficient to reject capitalism, or whether we must reject the idea of economic growth altogether. The politics demanded by the climate situation are that stark, and have been that way for many years. The conservative position is to overthrow capitalism; the radical position is to overthrow the conventional measure of standard of living and, instead of seeking to increase it, seek to decrease it as fast as possible.

Robin Hahnel, the anti-capitalist economist,  for instance, takes the conservative position. Once energy comes from renewable sources, so that climate impact is under control, and sustainable, then growth is still possible, if it derives from intangible or less-tangible or at least less-climate-impactful goods. On this, I tend to agree, though I am not sure that the less-impactful goods can be provided in sufficient quantity to provide growth.

But when one looks at the sheer mass and volume of materials extracted, shipped, processed and consumed around the world — the 40 tonnes of materials consumed for each Australian each year — it is hard to imagine a sustainable future which does not rapidly decelerate this maelstrom of coal, metal, concrete, bitumen, oil, gas, and war.

And that amounts, at least, to a severe degrowth of a particular type — the type that is built of bricks and mortar, shipyards and railroads, family homes, blue collars, and American apple pie. Which is all another way of saying that a radically different economic system is the very first thing a sustainable economic future demands.

Sometimes the choices are easy. And for the short and medium term they are. Green jobs and the war economy of a war on fossil fuels will provide employment, aggregate demand, excitement, initiative, innovation, science, technology, adventure, purpose, and an historically rare sense of literally building a better world with our own bare hands. But sometimes they are not.

In the long run, the choices are not easy. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that once the wind turbines, the solar panels and the smart networks cover the globe, capitalism faces crises and a choice between throughput, catastrophic warming, and minimally acceptable levels of employment on the one hand, or crisis, poverty, feudal inequality, and unrest on the other. For those who care about the long term prospects of civilization, the only way out is a radically different system.

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Written by dan

August 12th, 2016 at 10:04 am

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