The big question

Tom Friedman’s op-ed today raises the big question… are we in the first stages of a major shift, rather than a simple business downturn?

Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”

We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese …

We can’t do this anymore.

“We created a way of raising standards of living that we can’t possibly pass on to our children,” said Joe Romm, a physicist and climate expert who writes the indispensable blog We have been getting rich by depleting all our natural stocks — water, hydrocarbons, forests, rivers, fish and arable land — and not by generating renewable flows.

My sense is that a growing number of people are asking this question – which is of course the whole reason for the interest in the idea of sustainability. In one sense, that which is ‘unsustainable’ will, by definition, not continue indefinitely.  But the harder question is whether it’s possible to transition from an unsustainable course to a sustainable course without a ‘crash landing’.  I take some hope from the many interesting new projects that are attempting to find a new way forward on more renewable foundations.

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  • Jim  On March 10, 2009 at 11:27 am


    Don’t waste your time going down that road, or you will look like his supporters did in the last century!

  • Curt  On March 11, 2009 at 1:15 pm

    I think it’s a little too easy to shout ‘Malthus’ and then not deal with some of the issues raised here.

    I realize that there are all sorts of dynamics at work here –
    – economic substitutions
    – technology breakthroughs
    – behavior shifts
    – etc.
    which make predictions of the future very unreliable.

    And yet, there is such a thing as depleting a natural resource. Fisheries in the north Atlantic, lowered aquifers, etc. Ecosystem collapses are generally pretty hard to reverse once they happen – and we frequently underestimate the value of the ecosystems in our economic calculations. Is it not worth thinking about whether it’s worth trying to avoid some of these collapses?

    On the financial front, which is not something on which Malthus had much to say, I do think that over-reliance on credit has played a big role in getting us where we are today. In a period of largely stagnant wages, it is truly ‘unsustainable’ to keep borrowing more and more money. We are seeing the painful unwind of that situation now, and it may take quite awhile for it to play out (as you frequently remind me, the market takes time!).

  • Jim  On March 11, 2009 at 6:03 pm

    Please advise of a collapsed Ecosystem that has been pretty hard to reverse.

  • Curt  On March 12, 2009 at 8:36 am

    Here are some quick pointers to some ecosystem ‘collapses’ (hard to define strictly, so interpretations will vary).

    – Historic example of Easter Island (and other earlier civilizations that appear to have outrun their resource base) – perhaps of limited import to today, but perhaps not…
    – Current conditions in Haiti (
    – Gulf of Mexico ‘dead zone’ (
    – Global fisheries appear to be over-harvesting one fish species after another. North Atlantic Cod was one of the first examples (“Several cod stocks collapsed in the 1990s (declined by >95% of maximum historical biomass) and have failed to recover even with the cessation of fishing.” from
    – I don’t have time to look up info on aquifers and fresh water, but my understanding is that water tables are dropping fast in many areas – how that all plays out is beyond me, but it does seem an issue worth studying.

    My claim would be that we don’t really understand ecosystem connections very well, and thus sometimes without intending to we break down cycles that could have been self-renewing.

  • Jim  On March 12, 2009 at 9:54 am

    The implication of my question was in your expressed concern for ecosystem collapses that have effected mankind.

    You can’t be serious that your anecdotal examples of Easter Island and Haiti can be applied to a serious segment of mankind, can you? We are talking about the Earth as a whole!

    How many people have died or what catastrophies have happened due to the Gulf of Mexico ‘dead zone’?

    Same question for North Atlantic Cod?

    Same questions for aquifers and fresh water?

    Why do you and Thomas Friedman worry about such things before the fact? Shouldn’t you at least have seen one catastrophe before you recommend action in a panic? Mankind is very adaptable!!

    I’ll stop on that subject and see your response – but I want to present you a fact that is what effects my thinking. I think this is “wisdom” which I find such a shortage of – not to say I am particularly wise, but this is the opposite of “analytical” or “scientific” studies which as I get older I begin to look at as statistics – remember “lies, black lies, and statistics”?

    Several months ago I began to question mankind generated “global warming” – primarily because of Al Gore’s rants – so did some thinking and calculating.

    There are 6 Billion people on this earth. If I put them, shoulder to shoulder, front to back, allowing 6 square feet for each person, what area of the earths surface would they cover?

    All 6 Billion would fit in Multnomah County, Hood River County, and Washington County – the county Portland is in and its eastern and western neighbors – a total of 1726 square miles and would still leave 430 square miles vacant!

    Now, just from a practical, thinking standpoint, it is hard for me to believe that mankind, covering this small a percentage of the earths surface, even with their infrastructure, can effect the earths ecosystem.

    Any merit in this evaluation of the situation?

  • Curt  On March 12, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    A few thoughts…

    1. I wasn’t aware that I was “recommending action in a panic.” I am personally interested in trying to understand how things work, and think it’s worth thinking in advance about how to avoid “pissing in your own well.” I don’t expect everyone to think that way, but I hope people that put together policies and market regulations think that way.

    I know that unsustainable trends will not continue – so then I try to look at what are alternative paths that make sense. Market analysts do the same thing with stocks. Some people are able to turn those ideas into great business ventures…

    2. The global picture – I think the globalization of markets does link things together much more tightly than ever before in world history. So we are more impacted today by disruption halfway around the world, and vice versa. The planet is a big place – and yet is there any habitable place that isn’t already pretty well habitated?

    I fly across the U.S. and see thousands of miles of cultivated land – that tells me that people can have a pretty massive impact on the land.

    Likewise, for the Amazon rain forest – “The mean annual deforestation rate from 2000 to 2005 (22,392 km² per year) was 18% higher than in the previous five years (19,018 km² per year).” (wikipedia). That seems like a pretty big impact to me. (in particular when much of the cleared land cannot be used very well, as the soil is actually quite poor).

    So I do believe human activity can have an effect. Despite that, I try to view extreme claims skeptically, and I’m not out there recommending draconian measures. I think the better we understand complex systems, the better chance we have of making some reasonable decisions about how to manage some of the ‘global commons’.

  • Jim  On March 13, 2009 at 9:21 am

    You didn’t react to all of humanity fitting in your three counties! I was amazed when I figured this out! Did you check my math? Does it surprise you?

    You didn’t answer my question of whether my argument has merit. I fly over the country and don’t notice the cultivated land but do notice the much greater amount of untouched land. Do you see that?

    The oceans are 71% of the Earth’s surface area and must have a significant impact on all ecosystems along with the uncultivated land, and I would say the footprint of man can have very little impact on this portion of the planet – perhaps 85 or 90%of the surface area? – I’m not sure but this is probably close. So you believe man’s activity on 10-15% of the Earths surface area is creating “Global Warming”? Sounds unlikely to me!

    I would guess – just a gut feel, but probably pretty accurate – that the sun has more impact on the earth every day than man has since the dawn of time. Do you think that statement is unreasonable? And I’m not even mentioning wind, rain, lightning, gamma rays and many other things I don’t even understand.

    You are being led by a set of scientists/politicians who are taking advantage of a subject that has no answers and are causing a “panic” for their own good – you may not be in a panic, but “Greenpeace”, “Sustainability”, BHO, et al, certainly are! Perhaps our definitions of “panic’ are not the same, but the President of the United States saying there is not disagreement in the scientific community on Global Warming is either “panic” or ignorance. I hope it is the former!!

    Your comment that “…unsustainable trends will not continue…” is a problem because you do not know what is unsustainable unless you can tell the future. I am sure Malthus thought wood and coal were not sustainable until today, but then oil was discovered! How do you know what will be discovered tomorrow?

    Of course nothing will last forever – this is what you mean by sustainability, isn’t it? – if you grow. And growth is necessary to any system, particularly mankind. If we don’t grow, we disappear – note European demographic projections. Is that what we want? This is mathmatically the only way you can have sustainability.

    I choose to grow and use man’s inventiveness to solve problems as they occur, not anticipate problems and waste effort fighting possible windmills!

  • Curt  On March 13, 2009 at 11:08 am

    I agree that on the pure ‘physical presence’ level the sheer mass of humanity, even at 6 billion or 9 billion, occupies a quite small percentage of the physical land space of the world. It’s one measure of humanity, one of many. As a basis for skepticism, it’s fine. I guess the question is whether there is any other measure which you could imagine as convincing? If you consider all measures as mere ‘anecdotes’ then perhaps there isn’t any point to citing any studies or statistics. But I’ll throw one more way of thinking about it out there…

    I believe that in the last 150 years we’ve burned somewhere around half of the oil that’s available on the planet (that which has so far been discovered anyway – and discoveries have been dropping for quite a few years now). That oil took millions of years to be created. So if we burn that much of it in a pretty short time span, it seems reasonable to me that it could have an impact. Thus I find the studies that show a rising level of CO2 to be convincing.

    Now whether that CO2 is a cause of climate change is more debatable, and I think most projections of continuing climate change are highly debatable, because climate is such a massively complex phenomena (as you say, influenced by all sorts of things!). So I do question why some people seem completely convinced – I don’t think anyone on the planet can fully grasp the phenomenon.

    When I use the term unsustainable, I mean a straightforward definition – that which cannot continue indefinitely. I believe we can detect all sorts of things that are unsustainable – which does not imply that I can see the future, but that I know some change will occur sometime in the future. For example, the housing boom was unsustainable – prices could not keep going up forever. Working your best employee too hard for too long is unsustainable – she will get sick or burnt out or quit or whatever.

    On a longer time scale, burning oil is unsustainable. We may well be able to continue for 30 or 40 years, but it will get increasingly expensive to extract, and that will tend to provide incentives in the marketplace for alternatives. I totally agree that human inventiveness is remarkable, and that innovations will come in the future that I can’t imagine today. This is exactly what I meant in the original post when I concluded: “I take some hope from the many interesting new projects that are attempting to find a new way forward on more renewable foundations.” It’s the people who see that things will need to change who are extra motivated to come up with the innovations we will all benefit from! I don’t see that as tilting at windmills!

    However I do think that we need to find better ways to respect the self-renewing systems that exist in nature. The reason I bring up ecosystem collapse is that I find it to be extremely short-sighted to create “dead zones” and “fished-out” zones. If we do it out of ignorance of the ecosystem dynamics, that’s one matter (the concept of an ecosystem didn’t even exist until about 1930), but if we do it in spite of knowing that we’re going to crash a renewable system, that is just silly.

    We depend on natural cycles to create fresh water and to grow food – so I think we need to respect those cycles and try to work with renewable cycles as much as possible. The planet is big, but I do believe there are limits that should be respected (i.e. conserved).

    Last point – you say “if we don’t grow, we disappear” – isn’t there such a thing as a balance? On the population front, we see that the places that are growing fastest are the most poor… and growing populations in desperately poor places are what lead to situations like Haiti today, where people are adapting to very degraded circumstances.

  • Jim  On March 14, 2009 at 11:20 am

    Will respond in more detail later. A couple of comments:

    “So I do question why some people seem completely convinced – I don’t think anyone on the planet can fully grasp the phenomenon.”

    Werre you amazed at BHO’s comments a while ago that there is no question of the validity of the science? I was astounded! Hope you are beginning to question some of the other irrational justifications/expedites of his “stimulus”. Of course after his comments yesterday, I guess the problem has disappeared! What do you think?

    I do not believe there is such a thing as “balance”. Look around – life is meant for growth wherever you look in the universe. Businessmen are very sensitive to this, because businesses tend to die if static.

    Perhaps we have discovered a “root cause” of lefty/righty differences!

    Sorry for the divergience – I will get back on point later.

  • Curt  On March 15, 2009 at 9:33 pm

    Two points:

    While I believe the climate issue is debatable, that still means that there is some probability of a threat. I think once a politician makes a decision to take action on something, they will tend to sell that position… it’s not very convincing to claim that there’s a 30% chance of a bad thing happening, or a 10% chance. (I’d in fact liken it to the Bush Administration approach to Iraq – they decided it was a threat that needed to be addressed, and tended to take strong very positions for action.)

    While I agree that businesses typically attempt to grow, I’m not convinced that it’s the right argument or metaphor for populations. It’s interesting that despite the drive to growth among businesses, most big businesses fade out sooner or later. It’s interesting to peruse the list of former companies that were in the Dow: “On November 1, 1999, Chevron, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, Sears Roebuck, and Union Carbide were removed from the DJIA” – for more see:

  • Jim  On March 16, 2009 at 7:57 am

    I will respond to #10 but still get back to you later on #8 which needs more discussion. Two points back at you:

    3,000 people died in a terrorist attack which in my mind is a good reason for action – whatever you think of the correctness of it. As I said earlier, I see no reason for actions at this time on Global Warming, therefore BHO is completely different from W in my mind. But not in yours! BHO and the Dems need to learn that truth is the answer to forwarding their beliefs, not unproven assumptions! Do you agree with the difference?

    My rather aggressive statement: “Look around – life is meant for growth wherever you look in the universe.” – did not assume that every entity grows forever, though I didn’t explain it well. But the “net” of life must be towards growth. For instance, the universe grows, but planets die and are created every day – not meant to be an exact analogy to our ecosystem but I hope it gets my point across. Maybe this is another root cause for lefty/righty differences!

  • Jim  On March 16, 2009 at 1:17 pm

    Back to #*:

    Paragraph #1: “If you consider all measures as mere ‘anecdotes’…” – I don’t consider all measures as anecdotes, but analogous situations to the ecology of this planet do not exist, so I do consider Easter Island, Dominican Republic, et al, anecdotal. Lets set a standard: I will accept any occurrence that seriously impacts 1% of the world population – or 60,000,000 people. When Global Warming impacts that set of people, I will be on your side real fast! Agreed?

    Paragraph #2: the question is what will oil usage be tomorrow, next year, 5 years from now, 10 years from, now 50 years from now… I don’t think you know, and to make decisions that effect our lives in serious ways when you don’t know is wrong! This week Thomas Friedman, who I seldom agree with, wrote a column on the possibility of fusion power being available in the forseeable future. What if it is? What happens to oil usage then? What if the Dems decide nuclear power is the way to go, and as with France we set a goal of 60 to 70% of our power from this source. What happens to oil and coal usage? CO2 generation would drop dramatically and your anticipated Global Warming may never happen! And this from the guy who started this conversation!

    Already commented above on Paragraph #3.

    Paragraph #4: your examples are unsustainability of non-physical things – values, human strength – I see no relationship between these comments and the unsustainability of physical goods. When you try to predict the unsustainability of a physical good, you are predicting the future, whether you think you are or not!

    Paragraph #5: see paragraph #2 remarks. I agree with people trying to develope new things, just not at an excessive cost which allows a set of “snake oil” selling politicians and businessman to make lots of money through fear. I would prefer to wait for the effect on the 1%! Does that sound harsh?

    More later!

  • Jim  On March 17, 2009 at 8:41 am

    Paragraph #6: I agree totally with you. Where ecosystem catastrophies have happened/began, appropriate actions should be taken by society to stop this catastrophy. Fiscal impact must be taken into account as we control this phenomenon. But this is a microscopic phenomenon, not macroscopic like Global Warming, and we can see, feel and understand these occurences. On the macroscopic projections I would prefer to wait for my 1%!

    Paragraph #7: I agree. I am also a conservationist, although we probably have disagreeing definitions of that word – semantics again!

    Paragraph #8 and last comment: in the microscopic analysis, compared to the earth as a whole which I will call macroscopic, I agree with the problems that exist and will exist in the future! But I consider them anecdotal since I do not believe the apply to the demography of the Earth. And with political will they could be solved quite easily and at a reasonable cost.

    Maybe when the population covers an area the size of the United States, as opposed to the 3 counties you live in and near, some of your concerns re the planet will be warranted.

  • Curt  On March 17, 2009 at 11:38 am

    A couple quick reactions… (I don’t have enough time now to get to all of it – too many interesting topics!).

    I think there’s an interesting comparison here – 9/11 had 3,000 victims, and that was enough to justify action, yet you’re proposing a boundary of 60 million “seriously impacted” before taking action on the potential threat of global warming… are these views consistent? (we’ve talked before about the number of highway deaths, much greater per year than terrorist attacks, but we tend to accept that amount of loss.

    I do think it’s worthwhile to think about what level of impact justifies action, and in part this will always rely on projections. If the bar is set too high, it may mean that a much greater future impact is virtually guaranteed since many of the impacts will run out over many years, and can’t be quickly reversed.

  • Jim  On March 18, 2009 at 8:19 am

    The discussion is getting very lengthy and complex – but fun! – so I am also going to rest for a day or so. On your last comment:

    I do not agree with the comparison for the following reasons: 1) 9/11 was a clear, specific action that deserved a response for a completely different set of reasons than, for instance, global warming; and 2) the cost of the Afghanistan/Iraq wars is insignificant versus the proposed costs for battling suspected global warming.

    If 60,000,000 being effected by an ecosystem anomaly is a number you are not comfortable with, what would be reasonable?

  • Curt  On March 18, 2009 at 11:57 am

    I’d say that I don’t think a simple measure of ‘number of people effected’ captures enough important considerations to make a decision (just as the number on 9/11 was not really the key factor). It is one measure, but I’d add things like:

    – projected costs of inaction (impact on agriculture, population movement and unrest, etc.)
    – projected costs of proposed action
    – projected benefits of action

    It’s a hard problem, without doubt. Projections are by their nature unreliable, yet we frequently forced to make the best call we can given current knowledge. All the tough decisions are made with too little information!

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