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2023 SkS Weekly Climate Change & Global Warming News Roundup #38

Posted on 23 September 2023 by John Hartz

A chronological listing of news and opinion articles posted on the Skeptical Science Facebook Page during the past week: Sun, Sep 17, 2023 thru Sat, Sep 23, 2023.

Story of the Week 

Opinion: Let’s free ourselves from the story of economic growth

A relentless focus on economic growth has ushered in the climate crisis. We need a better definition of well-being.

Growth rules the world. Presidents succeed or fail, companies soar and crash, and countries are invited to the table on the basis of their growth percentage.

Economic growth by the common definition is that GDP — gross domestic product — keeps getting bigger over time. GDP is an idea, and it was created to measure exports, consumption, investments, profits, wages — the total value of goods and services within a country’s borders. The current economic order uses GDP as a marker of national performance, and its growth is synonymous with a country’s financial wealth, worth, and power. For that reason, policymakers, political pundits, and economists love to propose, plan, and debate the best path for economic growth.

Nothing on Earth or in our known universe grows and lives forever. The economy and endless growth are an imagined machine-like system, unbounded by the laws that govern the rest of us. I imagine the growth-based economy beet-faced, with clenched, pounding fists, demanding more, faster, and now. A bottomless pit for a stomach, it eats with an insatiable appetite anything and everything within reach. This machine has grown so massive and powerful, I’m uncertain if it belongs to us, or if we belong to it. The machine eats and grows for the sake of its growth, with little consideration to the moral, social, or ecological costs. Though the machine and its rules are imaginary, the consequences are not: Land, resources, and life are consumed, extreme wealth and poverty, pollution, mass extinction, human death and displacement, and climate crisis are produced.

I write of growth like a story because it is: Humans imagined the growth-based economy and continue to tell a tale of its value and functions, achievements and superiority — economic growth like a God who endowed us with the power of the market, the tools of capitalism, and helped us build the modern world. Perhaps economic growth once served a rightful purpose: expanded trade networks, novel inventions, more efficient innovations, a raised standard for the quality of human life. Maybe — it depends who you ask and which story is told. Slavery and colonization are chapters in the story of economic growth too. 

Click here to access the entire article as originally posted on the Yale Climate Connections website.

Opinion: Let’s free ourselves from the story of economic growth A relentless focus on economic growth has ushered in the climate crisis. We need a better definition of well-being. by Nikayla Jefferson, Commentary by Yale Climate Connections, Sep 22, 2023 

Articles posted on Facebook

Sunday, Sep 17, 2023

Monday, Sep 18, 2023

Tuesday, Sep 19, 2023

Wednesday, Sep 20, 2023

Thursday, Sep 21, 2023

Friday, Sep 22, 2023

Saturday, Sep 23, 2023

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Comments 1 to 7:

  1. I'm surprised that Hannah Ritchie's blogpost, My TED talk is now live ,  on Sep 22 wasn't highlighted. Hannah's message is somewhat in contrast to that offered by Nikayla Jefferson.  Her subtitle reads, "We can live well and tackle our environmental problems at the same time.  Let's do it."  I found her TED Talk quite uplifting and hopeful yet realistic about the work required to create even a better future.

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  2. Just Dean

    Regarding Hannah Ritchies video. I read the main points that she made in her video. Her points were basically that infant mortality is much lower than 300 years ago, poverty has come down, we have made some progess with wind and solar power, coal fired power is declining, and levels of deforestation have generally stopped and environmental pollution in America has fallen (despite economic growth). All worthy points to make and a good counter to the doom and gloom.

    Other writers have put a positive spin on human progress such as Seven Pinker in Enlightenment Now and Michael Shermer in The Moral Arc and IMO both books make good points.

    However economic growth has a good and bad side. The good side is obvious, but the article did point out the bad side. I don't agree with all the points it made, but economic growth has been a prime contributer of deforestation and its a bit naive to think it can continue indefinitely without causing more deforestation. There is also depletion of the worlds fisheries. Economic growth is also generally accepted to be one of the prime causes of mineral resource depletion (along with population growth) that is on track to leave future generations short of basic materials. Economic growth has been one prime cause of pollution in the development phase of many societies. While its possible to have economic growth and keep pollution at moderate levels as America shows, a necessary condition is a strong rule of law absent in many countries and America ( and other developed countries) is not exactly free of all pollution.

    It therefore looks like it would be very difficult and perhaps impossible to have indefinite economic growth based around resource extraction and processing and also have a sustainable environment, and also maintain ever expanding wealth. It is also hard to see how such economic growth would be maintained indefinitely if we are using up finite resources. So it looks like economic growth may fall naturally over time all other things being equal. Economic growth rates have been falling in developed countries since the 1970s anyway.

    Japan has had relatively minimal economic growth over the last 30 years but has maintained a good standard of living. So once countries reach a certain level of wealth it looks like we could have zero or near zero economic growth and maintain a good standard of living.

    However the commentary seemed to call for a more rapid and deliberately planned end to economic growth. This might face difficulties because our entire financial system is based on debt finance reliant on at least some economic growth to pay off the debt. If economic growth was abruptly switched off for good banks would not be able to make loans.

    Any governmnet brave enough to have a policy of zero economic growth (easily achieved through monetary policy) might find the entire business sector waging war against them along with a large part of the population. A zero growth world would probably require large modifications to how capitalism operates and this should be possible but doesn't look like it would be rapidly achieved. It seems more likely to me that economic growth will slow and stop of its own accord due to emerging resource scarcity, demographic changes, etc,etc.

    Its very hard and slow turning large ships around.

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  3. Regarding the Story of the Week and comments by Just Dean and nigelj,

    Positivity can indeed be Good. But focusing on the positives can also develop negative results, particularly if it impedes learning to be less harmful, especially if it hides or excuses undeniably unsustainable beliefs and related unjustified harmful actions.

    Positivity can produce damaging unsustainable attitudes like: ‘Pursuing the interests of <Insert any subset of humanity> First will produce so much Winning (for the sub-set of humanity)’. That ‘positivity’ would include the harmful attitude of Prioritizing the interests of the Current Generation (discounting the interests of the future generations - or being positive that the brilliance of future generations will solve everything). It can also lead to harmful popular nonsense like: ‘There are Fine People on all sides of an issue’ or ‘Every opinion is equally valid’.

    ‘Everybody must be allowed to maintain or improve their enjoyment of their life’ is a very damaging belief. That ‘very positive’ belief has developed many harmful results and many unsustainable ‘positive perceptions of improvement and superior status’, not just harmful climate change impacts.

    The recent NPR article “The U.N. plan to improve the world by 2030 is failing. Does that make it a failure?”, like the Story of the Week, is a well-reasoned evidence-based presentation. Current global Leadership (political and business) has not been improving Humanity’s reality as quickly as it could or should – even though it understands that it could and should do that.

    The presentation by Hannah Richie, a leader in Our World in Data, also correctly points out that the required changes have not been happening quickly enough. But that presentation fails to include the understanding that it is very harmful to ‘wait for less harmful and more sustainable ways of enjoying life to become cheaper and easier’. That belief can only be helpful if it is used by leadership, and supported by others, to justify more rapidly making harmful unsustainable ways of living more expensive or harder, especially more expensive and harder for higher status people to benefit from.

    As nigelj correctly points out, the current developed situation regarding poverty is not measured by ‘today vs. 300 years ago’. It should be measured by recent rates of progress. The failure to succeed in achieving the SDGs indicates that there is a systemic developed problem. A very good recent presentation of this understanding was made by Matthew Stewart in "The 9.9 Percent" (about how the most powerful 0.1% win with support of the 9.9% - excused by a portion of the remaining 90% due to their divisive fighting to become 'higher-status' like the top 10%). “The 9.9 Percent” provides a detailed evidence-based rational understanding of the systemic problem and required changes. In a nut-shell what needs to be done is compromising the ability of the undeserving among the top 0.1 Percent (in wealth and power) to be supported and excused by the rest of the top 10% or any of the 90%. Note: 0.1% of the current global population is 8 million. And 10% is 800 million. Every nation has some undeserving trouble-makers.

     Bit about GDP.

    GDP could be increased by increasing the amount of sustainable development. But a lot of the current developed GDP is unsustainable and harmful. So maintaining current perceptions of GDP. And prolonging the harmful unsustainable activities in an effort to maintain developed perceptions of superior status can be understood to be an exercise in ‘positivity’, a very damaging exercise.

    Harmful activity that directly, and exclusively, improves the life circumstances of people living less than a decent life is understandably ‘harmful unsustainable activity worthy of being prolonged’. But it is understandable that harm done by ‘reduction of poverty’ needs to be limited for the reduction of poverty to be sustainable. Increased or prolonged ‘evaluated value’ of GDP due to harmful activity that people living better than basic decent lives benefit from needs to be understood to be a ‘negative’.

    One of the insidious currently developed results is the popularity of the claim that people only need to change to be less harmful if being less harmful is cheaper and easier. That excuses continued and increasing harmful behaviour because of the unjustified belief that ‘the marketplace will produce cheaper and easier alternatives that are less harmful’.

    The ‘positive optimistic belief’ that things will be developed that are less harmful is unsustainable because ‘less harmful is still harmful’. And if people develop desires for ‘more enjoyable or personally beneficial actions’ the result can be more harm done even if ‘alternatives that are less harmful per unit of consumption or action replace more harmful ways’. More units of less harmful actions per unit can easily be ‘even more harmful’. And expecting people to aspire to be like people who are perceived to be lower status is nonsense. The highest status people need to be setting the least harmful and most helpful example for all others to aspire to. Anyone pursuing other interests should be moved down to the status deserved by their harmful lack of helpfulness.

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  4. OPOF @3. I agree and well stated. There is certainly a risk with the glass half full positive view of human history that we concentrate on the positive data and forget the negative data. And such books can get manipulated by people to minimise the negative data.

    Although the numbers dying in global conflicts has decreased steadly since the two world wars (according to The Moral Arc book) , the War in the Ukraine is a sober reminder that things can rapidly change so we are far from achieving a really peaceful, stable  world.

    And although global poverty has decreased on the whole, the situation is still not satisfactory, and  financial inequality within countries has increased to problematic levels. So the picture is complicated.

    And for every environmental improvement some aspect of environmentalism seems to have gone backwards.

    In fact I generally have an inherently  slightly pessimistic and doomy view of the human condition, but positive books like The Moral Arc are a good counter to that and help me keep my understanding accurate and realistic.

    Both books are very data driven. However they should not be read in isolation from books pointing out problems with the human condition, and vice versa.

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  5. Nigelj @4 :-  "... and financial inequality within countries has increased to problematic levels.  So the picture is complicated."  [unquote]

    Quite so ~ most nations are "improving" in wealth, as judged by average or median GDP per head (inflation adjusted).  But how are the lowermost quintile of people experiencing life?

    What I have not seen, is a comprehensive analysis of the poorest in the poorest Third World nations.  If a subsistence peasant farmer earns $1.00 per day as cash income ~ but then he moves to a city slum and earns $3.00 per day as a laborer . . . he is then recorded as being lifted above the poverty line, and the statisticians are happy about that.  Even though his health and quality of life are likely worse than before.

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  6. nigelj @4,

    To be clear, I am optimistic about the future of humanity in spite of the current, and growing, popularity of misleading claims made in pursuit of 'benefit for some - to the detriment of others'.

    I believe that the disastrous results of harmful misunderstandings, like the short-term (multiple decades is still short-term) surge of popularity of nonsense like Reagan-Thatcher-nomics (a main driving force opposed to the understood required corrections to limit climate change harm done), will be overcome as global leaders become bolder about taking action that conflicts with the interests of undeserving wealthy and powerful people.

    But 'responsible harm reduction' leaders need to have clear support from a significant portion of the population. It is very hard work to limit the harmful influence of misleading populists.

    Limiting the influence of misleading populists requires leadership that will compromise the ability of undeserving powerful people to mislead in ways that suit their unjust interests. But, more importantly, it requires a significant portion of voters to be dedicated to learn to be less harmful and more helpful to others. All major political parties sharing that objective but still having a robust diversity of perspectives aligned with that objective would be 'brilliant politicking'.

    The battles to 'limit the success of misleading marketing', on all matters that really matter, not just climate science and limiting climate change impacts, need to be won in order for humanity to sustainably improve the future for the robust diversity of humans and other life on this amazing planet. SKS is just one of the many important players in battle against 'mis-Leaders pursuing harmful unjustified unsustainable benefits For Their Type of People.

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  7. Eclectic @5,

    I agree that there is a preponderance of reporting of incorrect evaluations of ‘development progress’. Your example of a lack of improvement that could incorrectly be counted as an improvement is a god one. I would add the following case:

    People living a subsistence living condition in a village would benefit from receiving assistance from more fortunate people like:‘public health care’ or ‘public education that sustainably improves the quality of their food production (even if they never produce any excess product for trade). But such a person moving from that zero-income and ‘deserving of improvement’ circumstance to a city where they earn income just above the poverty line is not really an improvement. It may, in fact, be a negative change.

    Perhaps the most comprehensive recent documents I have seen that attempt to deliver a more accurate presentation are the UNDP Human Development Reports, particularly the HDR 2020 which delves into a diversity of improvements to ‘GDP measures of progress’.

    Some other more realistic economic evaluations are:

    • “Good Economics for Hard Times”, by Abhijt V. Banerjee and Ester Duflo, PublicAffairs 2019.
    • “The Age of Sustainable Development”, by Jeffrey D. Sachs, Columbia University Press 2015.

    Thomas Piketty has also presented some of this non-current-norm economics.

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