The real problem confronting sustainability, and a partial solution

Malthus graph

Malthus graph

I came upon a Linked-In discussion about a recent article titled The tiny minds of environmental “prophets of doom” by Brian Lee Crowley. Most of the people who commented on Linked-In were not favorably impressed. To my mind, both Crowley and most of his detractors merely argue around the problem.

 

Malthus

Thomas Malthus published the first edition of An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798. In part, his intention was to refute the idea popular among philosophers of the time that the human race could achieve a perfect society by its own efforts.

Although he did not exactly say so, his name is forever associated with the notion that the human population will outlive the food supply and that the resulting famines and social upheavals will result in depopulation.

So far, nothing of the sort has happened. Mankind has managed to increase food supply—not to mention the world’s population–far beyond anything Malthus could imagine. Over the past two centuries, though, other prophets of doom have viewed population increase with alarm and pointed to other shortages besides food.

Crowley

Without mentioning Malthus or anyone else by name, Crowley asserts that the human race has always been clever enough to solve problems before and will always continue to do so.

That, it turns out, is exactly the blind faith in human reason preached by Rousseau and others that Malthus objected to in the first place. The fact of grinding poverty in human society formed the basis of Malthus’ skepticism. That hasn’t changed, either.

Just because technology has been able to expand the food supply, does that mean that technology will always be able to expand the minerals that modern lifestyles depend on? The latest revolution in agriculture, the so-called Green Revolution after the Second World War depends heavily on petro-chemicals and irrigation.

Most of the cheap oil has already been extracted. Fracking, whatever its environmental impact turns out to be, can only get expensive oil. And as long as we can’t move excess water from flooded areas to areas suffering extreme drought or worse, limits of the water supply likewise make the status quo unsustainable.

Crowley, on the other hand, sees no reason for “us” (meaning Americans and Western Europeans?) “to accept that our rich way of life is to be junked.”

Critical respondents to Crowley

sustainabilityI’m not sure if Linked-In group discussions are visible to non Linked-In members but you can just in case click here

Here are some ideas from the discussion, which are all familiar and recurring ideas in today’s environmental discourse. The entire discussion has 190 comments as I write this. There are more than enough comments for my purpose on the first page.

  • There are technological solutions to all our problems, but economic and political forces that will determine how effectively they will be applied.
  • The powers that be profit from the status quo, and the rest of us must demand change.
  • Politics and industry in a competitive free marked are driven by money and must be compelled to change by grassroots public awareness
  • History has been with Crowley’s [anti-Malthusian] arguments so far, but it’s intellectual arrogance to assume that it will always be so.
  • The solution lies in tough government and forcing the media to pay attention.
  • Crowley heads a Think Tank. That makes him a (gasp) lobbyist! And that think tank is funded by (shudder) conservatives!
  • We should/should not tax carbon [dioxide] on a per capita basis.
  • We need/don’t need a worldwide Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).
  • Why does the US government run a $15 trillion deficit and continue to pay $800 billion in oil and gas subsidies?
  • Making wind and solar energy free and using all landfill waste for energy will not be enough to get the world off fossil fuels.
  • Technology can solve environmental problems only after human greed is taken out of the equation.

I could go on, but that last comment hits the nail on the head.

We have met the enemy. . .

PogoThe real problem confronting sustainability—or any other comparably serious issue—is people. We can’t take human greed out of the equation. Neither can we take out our tendency to shout past each other instead of communicate.

All of the participants in the discussion were polite to each other, but all of the points above besides the last come to us through the media in the form of political shouting matches.

One reason why the Kyoto Accords failed is that they exposed the meeting grounds between the greed of established economies like the United States and the greed of the rising economies like China.

Both the greatest human attainments and human abuses seem to come from centralization. The earliest man who enforced a claim to be king offered his people some protection against neighbors, but kings eventually sold their people on the notion that kings were somehow a superior class of being.

The poverty that turned Malthus away from the optimism of Rousseau and others comes not so much from overpopulation as the need for autocrats to have plenty of people to lord it over.

One would think that poverty wouldn’t be similarly built in to a democratic form of government, but there is still a great deal of centralization of leadership. We might not have emperors, kings or petty nobility claiming special class privileges any more, but we still have autocrats.

I have earlier pointed out that today’s concentration of venture capital deals very efficiently with money by making inefficient, wasteful use of natural resources. Venture capitalists basically don’t know what to do with companies that prefer to work on a local and decentralized model.

So am I advocating breaking up centralized power structures? Of course not. How could that possibly happen? “Progressives” who despise capitalism and big business seem to think that the federal government should do the job of curbing centralized economic interests. What? And concentrate more power in the government? That doesn’t look much like progress to me!

Crowd-funding

One attractive alternative to centralized venture capitalism has lately arisen: crowd-funding. Now, of course, there are still people involved. Crowd-funding does not and cannot remove human greed from the equation. But it has great potential as a way to bypass the bottlenecks caused by clueless venture capital and dysfunctional government. And why do centralization and decentralization have to be mutually exclusive?

Oakland, California based Solar Mosaic established an online crowd-funding marketplace. They have attracted 700 investors and $1.1 million for 12 rooftop solar power installations in four states. The latest offering of 4 new projects sold out in less than 24 hours.

Investments in this latest batch ranged from $25 to $30,000, with the average being $700. Small investments will yield small profits, but there are no fat cats to bar the door.

Crowd-funding is just one more promising innovation that can potentially make a huge impact on “green” companies if it can be scaled up. And the beauty is that scaling up doesn’t mean that Solar Mosaic has to become a huge company. It means that Solar Mosaic has to succeed for its clients and investors and that a swarm of similar companies have to have to succeed in essentially non-competing ventures.

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