Wednesday, 10 August 2022

The Ecological Clarity that the Ukraine War brings – A Paradox and Its Explanation

 Any modern-day war in and between rich industrial countries has bad ecological impacts. The amount of destroyed built-up material is a wastage that has to be replaced, which entails negative ecological impacts through mining and smelting of non-renewable resources. Same is the case with used up metals and other materials contained in equipment of war and munition. All this is known since long and applies also to the war in Ukraine. What, however, is especially remarkable in the case of the Ukraine War, is the clarity it brings to some dodgy ecological issues. 

Background of some recent Facts 

Facts are nearly always the best proof of the correctness or otherwise of political, economic, and ecological opinions and theories. So I want first to present here a selection of recent facts. Let me begin with two scenes from German TV broadcasts.

     After the beginning of the Ukraine war, many Europeans, but especially the Germans, who since long have been importing huge quantities of relatively cheap Russian natural gas for domestic heating and many industrial purposes, became panicky over whether the Russians would continue to deliver gas in terms of the contract in spite of the various economic sanctions imposed on them by the EU. In the course of his frantic search for alternative sources of natural gas, Robert Habeck, the Green economy minister in the current “traffic-Light” coalition government went to Qatar and met the equally young Emir of the small but gas-rich country. During the handshake – one could see that in the TV-Report – Habeck made a low bow in the style of an humble supplicant, while the Emir stood with his head held high in the style of a patron.

    The next scene: the former foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel of the SPD, now a political has-been, derided the present coalition with the words: “It is really a change of times when the economy minister Habeck of the Green Party breathes new life into CO2-emitting coal-fired power plants, and the champion of an austerity policy finance minister Lindner of the FDP (Free Democratic Party) incurs hundreds of millions of Euro new debt.

    Fact is also that many other states are taking several retro-steps like building new coal-fired and nuclear power plants. They are doing this because they are anxious to keep their industries and infrastructures, and their whole industrial or half-industrial mode of living supplied with sufficient and sufficiently cheap energy. Worldwide, at present, 200 new coal-fired power plants are being built. In Germany, of course, they are not building any new coal-fired power plants after Datteln 4 (completed in 2019), but they are now repealing the earlier decision to close down all lignite-fired power plants soon. Moreover, they are planning to import from the USA large quantities of LNG extracted by the fracking method which was earlier much reviled by ecologists and the Greens for its evil polluting effects. Together with the Netherlands government, they are also considering gas extraction from under the mud flats of the North Sea – formerly, for ecological reasons, a prohibited zone for such purposes.

    As for nuclear power   opposed by all kinds of ecologists and Green parties since 1974 –, it is enjoying a new lease of life. At present, eight European countries are building new reactors, or are seriously planning to build new ones. France has decided to keep all its nuclear power plants running. And the EU has decided to change its energy taxonomy, henceforth calling natural gas and nuclear energy green energy.

    Similar things are happening all over the world. China has recently been building more and more new coal-fired power plants. The tempo is increasing. For instance, in March 2020 alone, the authorities gave permission for building of more coal-power capacity (7.960 Megawatt) than in the whole year 2019 (6.310 Megawatt). India is pursuing a similar policy. This is manifested in the data on permission for opening new coal mines. Recently, some 40 such permissions have been given.

    All over the world, at present, also about 55 new nuclear power plants (NPP) are being built. The German Angst of nuclear power does not appear to be too great anywhere else, not even in the underdeveloped world. In India, e.g. at present, two NPPs are being built, in Bangladesh one.

    This worldwide trend has naturally led to very bad results for the climate. Instead of going down, total Co2 emission is continually increasing. According to International Energy Agency (IEA), in 2021, globally, 36.3 billion tons of CO2 –equivalents of green-house gases were emitted. That is two billion tons more than the figure for 2020. In Germany, after going down steadily since 1990, total CO2 emission is again rising. Whereas in 2020 it was 644 million tons, in 2021 it was 675 million tons.

    In view of the above-mentioned facts and figures, Antonio Gutierrez, General Secretary of the United Nations, said in despair: “We are committing collective suicide.” Many Germans are thinking that the ambitious goal of energy transition has failed – among them are many leading politicians, such as Michael Kretschmer, Chief Minister of the province of Saxony. Chancellor Scholz and leading Green politicians however think that, despite the obvious setbacks, the energy transition can still be achieved. In their despair, many other European politicians – particularly the French President Macron – have recently declared nuclear power and natural gas to be “green energy”. The German Green Party, but also those of Europe as a whole, the main pillar of whose founding ideology was opposition to nuclear power, are of course resisting. But they may soon buckle. 

The Paradox 

Obviously, it is a paradox. The din of the Ukraine War, the embargo on Russian oil etc. and the fear of Russia turning off the gas taps are only four and a half months old, whereas the euphoric assertions of low costs and all round efficacy and adaptability of the renewable energies are quite old. Let us take three examples:

    The late Herman Scheer, the then President of Eurosolar, and high priest of solar energy, wrote in 1999: 

“For an inconceivably long time the sun will donate its energy to humans, animals, and plants. And it will do that so lavishly that it could satisfy even the most sumptuous energy needs of the worlds of humans, animals and plants experiencing drastic growth: The sun supplies us every year 15,000 times more energy than what the world population commercially consumes …” 1

In 1999, this euphoria was a bit too far away from the then reality. Photovoltaic and other “renewable” and “clean” energy technologies were actually still too costly. But in 2014 came good news. Ottmar Edenhofer, economist and one of the three co-chairs of the third working group of the IPCC, said something that made us sit up and take notice. He said: “It would not cost us the world to save the planet.” The cost of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius would, he said, be only 0.06 percent less yearly economic growth than what would otherwise be possible. And Paul Krugman, Nobel Laureate in Economics, wrote a few weeks later in NEW York Times an article entitled Climate Change: Salvation Gets Cheap. Referring to the glad tidings on the cost of saving the planet coming from the IPCC, Krugman wrote the [problem of] climate threat is solved. He even wrote: “… there’s no reason we can’t become richer while reducing our impact on the environment.” The reason behind this euphoria was that prices of photovoltaic panels were tumbling.

    And now a more recent example: Greta Thunberg founder-leader of the teenager climate protection group Fridays for Future, that is simply demanding that the politicians finally do something decisive about the problem, was once asked, what then the politicians should do. She is reported to have replied: Why do you ask me? I am only a schoolgirl. Ask the scientists (as if all that the scientists advise were so easy to do!). She once wrote, all the technologies needed for the solution of the problem were already there. They only needed to be used. This was nothing concrete, though many other young people are glibly mouthing concrete “solutions” like their radical elder brothers do: “shut down all coal mines immediately”, “let all fossil fuels remain in the ground”, “all energy supply must come from renewable sources only” etc. etc.

    And now, in 2022, this mad rush for alternative sources of natural gas – a fossil fuel, mind you –  and the US President Biden eating his words of making Saudi Crown Prince Salman a pariah and going to him with the request to increase oil supply on the world market. Inevitably, the question comes to mind: Why couldn’t the renewable energy technologies long ago replace the fossil fuels and nuclear energy? How do we explain this about-turn in energy policy? 

An Explanation of the Paradox 

This euphoria, which had begun much earlier than 1999, was all along baseless. For the sake of brevity, I shall here present only the main points of my arguments and won’t go into details, which the interested reader can find in my theoretical book2 and many articles in my blog. 2):

     (1) India e.g. is a tropical sunbathed country. The sun nearly uninterruptedly shines nine months a year. Even in the rainy season the sky is not clouded all the time and everywhere. And the South-West and North-East monsoon winds plus our long coast line can provide ample suitable sites for setting up wind-power facilities. Highly qualified engineers and technicians are also not scarce. Similar are the conditions in China. So why don’t the Indian and Chinese capitalists ditch much reviled fossil fuels, coal in particular, as our main source of power and invest heavily in solar and wind-energy industries? Can’t they calculate chances of making profit? Of course, they can.

    (2) The reason why capitalists do not want to give up fossil fuels, particularly the super versatile petroleum, is that they are the most profitable sources of energy. That is mainly because their energy density is much higher than that of the renewable sources sun and wind. Since for capitalists the ecological and social costs of fossil fuels are mere externalities, they, not being idealists and fashion-conscious, naturally prefer the fossil fuels.

    Moreover, ordinary people are not willing to pay higher prices for energy, not even in rich industrial countries. This was demonstrated in France by the yellow vests movement, the participants in which even violently, and successfully, resisted the increase in prices of fossil fuels for automobiles.

     No large scale use of liquid hydrogen made by using “renewable” energy (so-called “green hydrogen”) is yet being tried. Through any conversion of energy from one state/form to another, a lot of the original amount of energy gets lost. So “green hydrogen” is much costlier and much less profitable than any original form of energy. The greater part of the batteries of e-cars of the world are for this reason still loaded up with electricity made by using conventional fuels, not with solar or wind electricity.

    (3) Krugman and all others of that ilk always look at the market price of solar panels (and wind turbines), which indeed tumbled in the recent past. But serious energy scientists, when they try to judge the basic cost and efficacy of energy technologies, compare mainly their EROEI (Energy return on energy invested) figures.

    The market price of any commodity is in principle a very uncertain thing. It can vary from time to time and place to place, and it depends on many variable and volatile factors: wages, taxes, subsidies, distances etc. But, given that technologies used for the manufacture of solar panels, wind turbines etc. are more or less the same everywhere, the amount of energy required to be invested, from A to Z, for manufacturing them (the EI of the term EROEI) must be roughly the same everywhere, and hence they can be compared. The ER of the term (energy return) varies from place to place, depending on availability of sunshine and blowing wind.

     To measure the ER of any energy technology is easy. We just need to attach a meter to the end point of the system. But to measure its EI is difficult. The equipment needed to produce e.g. solar panels have first to be produced themselves – beginning with all the mining machinery (excavators e.g.) for mining the necessary minerals all the way upwards to the metal frame on which the solar panels are mounted.

    Of course, an excavator e.g. is not used for producing just one solar panel. But the prorata energy consumption of any equipment used in any serially produced object can be estimated. In this estimating process many mistakes can be and indeed are made, many steps in the production line are ignored. This explains why different researchers can and do present very different, often exaggeratedly optimistic estimates of the EROEI (aka net energy) of renewable energy technologies. This is why many false hopes of 100 percent renewable energies, total energy transition etc. could be circulated – particularly by the Green Parties. How controversial the matter still is can be seen in a recent paper.3 But for me, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

    One may now ask: why do we then hear (e.g. in Germany) that today renewable energies are cheaper than coal-fired energy? One brief reply: in Germany, electricity production in coal-fired power plants is almost entirely done with lignite excavated in Germany with equipment made in Germany by high-wage German workers. The solar panels e.g. used in Germany are however all made in China, by using coal-fired electricity and the labor of low-wage Chinese workers. State subsidies, tax benefits etc. also play a role.

    The atmosphere of the earth is a global affair. It does not matter at all where the green-house gases are emitted, they are distributed by the winds in the whole atmosphere. And the whole earth warms up as a result. 

Conclusion 

The truth of the matter has been sufficiently revealed in the months following the beginning of the Ukraine War. Industrial society is basically and mainly a product of fossil fuels. A whole industrial society cannot be run without these fuels. And, moreover, the global ecology problem, the various kinds of global pollution, cannot be reduced to the issue of climate change and green-house gas emissions. It is also and mainly a question of growing amount of resources that a growing number humans consume in an industrial way. Global warming and its consequences are just symptoms of too much consumption of fossil fuels and other resources.

    I have above referred to Greta Thunberg’s belief that all the technologies needed for the solution of the climate change problem were already there. That they only needed to be used. Below the article in which I read this opinion of Thunberg was a comment made by a reader. It read: “The greatest minds in the Western world are working on this. They have produced no solution, because there is none.”

    This comment is convincing, but only partly. There is no solution because nobody is prepared to ditch the industrial society that has made life so comfortable for so many people. “The greatest minds” have failed to find a solution because they all want to have their cake and eat it too. If they were prepared to give up their addiction to the industrial society and their self-sanctification, then the problems could be solved: with a steady state economy at a much lower level with just two billion humans living on the earth. 

References: 

1. Hermann Scheer (1999: 66) Solare Weltwirtschaft: Strategie für die okologische Moderne. Munich: Antje Kunstmann.

2. Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism. A critical Analysis of Humanity’s Fundamental Choices. 1999, London (Zed Books).

My blog:

www.eco-socialist.blogspot.com

3. “Renewables K.0.-ed by EROEI?”

by Craig Morris

https://energytransition.org/2014/09/renewables-ko-by-eroi/

Saturday, 13 November 2021

Climate Crisis: Bangladesh May Drown, Pakistan May Face Severe Droughts

An Indian friend of mine, Sri Sagar Dhara, who is attending the COP 26 meeting, has sent a report from Glasgow on the prospects for Bangladesh and Pakistan in the year 2100. Being a South Asian (Indian) myself, I read it with great interest, which caused the following thoughts to occur in my mind.

    Please read the highly interesting article of Sagar first. Link

https://countercurrents.org/2021/11/cop26-by-2100-bangladesh-may-drown-pakistan-likely-to-face-severe-water-shortage-fear-experts/

Then my comments.

Saral’s Comments

I thank Sagar Dhara for this article focusing attention, unusually, on Bangladesh and Pakistan, two of India’s “dear” neighbors, who after all are no small islands in the Pacific or the Indian Ocean. How dear they are to us has been demonstrated by the recent NRC exercise in Assam and the three wars at India’s Western front. The description of the plight of the people of Bangladesh and Pakistan in the near future is, I hope, realistic, coming as they do from knowledgeable people from the two countries. But Sagar’s conclusion? Is it at all realistic? And his exhortation to us Indians? What chance does it have of being accepted?

Empty Idealism or Down-to-Earth Realism

Sagar writes: “…. should India help? As a country that believes in vasudaiva kutumbakam (the whole world is a family), of course India should help … .” “Vasudaiva kutumbakam” is a noble, but, sorry to say, empty ideal. I have heard/read it as a slogan a few times in the speeches and writings generated by outwardly idealist NGO activists. The slogan itself was perhaps coined by some sage in ancient India some three thousand years ago. But today, it is a far cry from the reality. I do not know when “India” ever believed in this ideal.
    In the Christian Western world, I have more often heard the cynical saying: “Everybody for himself and God for all”. That is also roughly the conclusion of human ethologists on the reality of human nature. The current treatment meted out to illegal migrants at the Polish-Belarussian border corroborates this.
    Empty idealism devoid of all realism is the bane of NGO welfare activities. Two years ago, at a big gathering of Fridays for Future, I heard a speech by a young woman who is active in the efforts to save illegal African migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea and help them reach the shores of Europe and enjoy a better life there. She asserted inter alia “every human being has a right to choose the country where (s)he wants to live.” I do not know where other than in her fertile imagination this right has been codified. But I know that her activities are promoting fascism in Europe as a reaction.
    A German politician, the then President of the state, whose traditional task it is to give idealist speeches in high-flown language, said in 2015 or 2016, at the height of the illegal migrants crisis in Germany, something like this: “Our hearts are very big, but our capacity is limited”, whereby he stretched his arms on two sides to make the sign of embracing people. He meant Germany’s capacity to accept immigrants.

No Solution ?

Sagar writes, the people of these two countries would suffer for “no fault of theirs”. That is roughly true. But not entirely. Nobody else is to blame other than those Bangaldeshis (and West-Bengalis) who in the past went farther and farther south, clear cut parts of the Sunderbans and settled down on the very low-lying delta areas. Such flood-prone and regularly cyclone-ravaged low lying areas should not have been inhabited at all in the first place.
    I understand, population pressure did not leave many ordinary poor people any other choice. But surely, it is not the Western imperialists that created the population pressure in Bangladesh (and West Bengal). Bangladesh became an independent country in 1971 when its population amounted to 65.5 million. Today, i.e. in 2020 figures, it stands at 164.7 million. In the same period, Pakistan’s population rose from 59.73 to 220.9 million (Source: Internet, Google). The leadership of these countries, usually highly educated and well-informed, could have done something at least in this area of policy, which has been fully under their control. If they had, the suffering today would have been much less.
    Sagar reports: a principal scientific officer from Pakistan, when asked, “Does Pakistan have a solution?”, replied “No”. An apparently rich farmer from Bangladesh, who, mind you, has the financial means to travel to Glasgow and stay there for a few days, suggested the solution that India should accept climate refugees from Bangladesh. This is surprising, capitulation!
    It is true that, climate change being a global problem, Bangladesh and Pakistan cannot tackle all their climate change related problems on their own. But nor can India do that. And in the future, India too will require help from the countries to tackle climate change impacts on its territory.
    So can anything be done at all? At least to mitigate the bad effects of climate change, if not to solve the whole problem? I think yes. World Bank sources say that at present, the population growth rates of the three countries are as follows: Bangladesh - 1%, Pakistan - 2%, India - 1%. That means, at current rates, every year, the population of Bangladesh is growing by 1.64 mil., that of Pakistan by 2.29 mil., and that of India by 13.8 mil. Obviously, in this area at least, these countries could do much more to take off the pressure. This is the easiest thing to do. Other things are much more difficult. For, as I formulated two-three years ago as an impossibility theorem:

“It is impossible to fulfill the continuously growing demands, wishes, aspirations and ambitions (100 per cent renewables for instance) of a continuously growing world population while our resource base is continuously dwindling and the ability of nature to absorb man-made pollution is continuously diminishing. It is a lunatic idea that in a finite world infinite growth is possible.”

    Dr. Manmohan Singh, the then PM of India, said already some 10 years ago, he had the most difficult task of creating 10 million new jobs every year. How can then the present-day government create jobs in India also for the climate refugees of Bangladesh and Pakistan?

Monday, 1 November 2021

THE COMING COLLAPSE

On the eve of the COP 26, UN’s world climate conference (to begin in Glasgow on 31. October. 2021), Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the host country UK, said in Rome the following:

“This is our memento mori,” (‘Remember that you will die’.) ….“After its fall, the level of education in Rome, the construction skills went down, the marvelous villas were lost, even the livestock shrunk in size. The same thing can happen to us if we don’t act against climate change now.” He said further that global warming will spur “colossal migrations, shortages of food and water, and many other conflicts.”

Johnson was optimistic that modern societies have the capacity to mitigate the negative effects of humans on the planet. (https://www.rt.com/uk/538937-boris-johnson-ancient-rome/). I am not so optimistic. I am of the opinion that particularly modern societies are not capable of mitigating this impending collapse.
    I have dealt with this topic in an earlier short essay posted on this blog on 1. October 2019 (
http://eco-socialist.blogspot.com/2019/10/is-collapse-of-our-civilization.html). Recently, I read a review article on some books on this topic published in the journal  Nature (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00436-3). Thereupon I wrote another short piece in which I explained why I disagree with the politician Boris Johnson as well as with the scholar-authors reviewed in the said article in Nature. It is reproduced below:

oooooo

I sincerely thank Nadarajah for posting this. Even to read just a book review is better than not to read anything on this unpleasant subject simply because the books are too discouragingly long. While reading the review, the following thoughts occurred to me:
    I am convinced that our present-day civilization is heading for a collapse, for I cannot see that we humans have resolved to do the
needful to mitigate, let alone avert the various crises converging to result in an inevitable collapse. The first and the most important things to do for the purpose would have been to stop all further economic and population growth in the world. But the leaders of the world have not resolved to do that. On the contrary, they are all actively pursuing the goal of continuous economic growth and passively tolerating the continuous spontaneous growth of world population. The collapse would not be like a big-bang bomb blast, it would happen gradually, but, from now on, more or less rapidly. In fact, the process has already begun.

Societies, Civilizations, Cultures

If we are allowed to go only by the short presentations in the review, the authors of the books have dealt mainly with the collapse of societies that emerged in different particular civilizations obtaining at the time.
    Most people use these terms interchangeably, meaning the same thing. But it is useful to differentiate between them. Let us use the term society in the following sense: a more or less large group of people living under more or less similar social and religious hierarchical systems having more or less same/similar social laws, norms, rituals and moral codes. And let us use the term civilization to imply a certain level of state formation, a certain level of material and
technological development covering housing, clothing, transportation, communication, techniques of production of food and other useful things, formalized laws such as criminal laws, property laws and laws governing other material relations which are generally brought into force by the rulers of the particular historical time.
    Here I do not intend to elaborate on the terms societies, cultures and civilizations. It may suffice to give a few examples: Samuel Huntington gave his most famous book the title “Clash of Civilizations”, whereas in its German translation, it is called “Kampf der Kulturen. We in India e.g. speak of Hindu culture (with its sub-cultures), Muslim culture etc., although we are all, more or less, living in the same civilization, half industrial and half rural, where e.g. both motor vehicles and bullock carts are used as means of transportation.
    Of course these things are always in a state of flux, border lines between the terms are often blurred. But I hope readers understand what I mean. I would like to conclude this paragraph with a quote. Knowledgeable people use the word “culture” in its social-anthropological meaning, namely “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” In this meaning “culture” includes also “the material organization of life”, that is, “social and economic
institutions.” [Edwards, Paul (ed.) 1967]

What is collapsing Today?

I am a bit disappointed that the reviewed authors have addressed the subject as so many case studies, which they have done with a ‘retrospectoscope’. Of course, the collection is very good history writing. But our present-day civilization is quite different from those of the past, those of the Rapa Nui, the medieval Mayans, the ancient Sumerians etc., and even from the high civilization of the classical Romans.
    It is different in that none of the past ones were
global like our present one. In none of the past civilizations countries were so dependent on imports and exports of goods and technologies for their economic prosperity or survival as the countries of today. To mention just a few more examples, there simply was no global, not to speak of instant, communication before our times, no cheap means of travelling all over the world, no great similarity of the life-style of the rich and the middle classes in all countries, no similarity of the diseases they suffer from (Covid-19 e.g.) and the healing technologies they use, no identity of the knowledge they impart to their students etc. etc.
    Of course, the
cultures are not converging yet. Their differences still remain, but the gaps are slowly closing, The different religions are still there. And although English has become the lingua franca all over the world, the vernacular languages are not disappearing, on the contrary. These two things – religions and vernacular languages – are becoming more and more the cores of cultural identities that are often causing conflicts. But that is a different subject.
    Our present-day civilization is different in another very important respect. Whereas in the previous ones, energy supply for work was mainly based on human and animal labor, that of ours is mainly based on fossil fuels. Whereas the former sort – human and animal labor – was eminently renewable, fossil fuels are eminently nonrenewable, hence ultimately exhaustible. Wind and solar radiation also played a substantial part in the production methods of previous civilizations – wind as the power behind sailing ships and wind mills and the warmth of solar radiation as the main factor in growth of vegetation and food crops. They do not play such great roles in our present-day civilization.
    Two additional important differences are: (a) in the quantity and type of
man-made pollutions: In the previous civilizations, most pollutants were biodegradable. Wastes that were not recycled were rare in the past. Today it is just the opposite. (b) Today’s most dangerous man-made pollution, high rates of emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere are going to change the global temperature for perhaps a million years, making the Earth uninhabitable.
    The cases of collapse studied by the learned historians were singular and isolated, occurring in different times and caused by different factors. There were of course factors that were common to all these cultures and civilizations, e.g. steady
population growth throughout history, development of class societies, greed of oppressive ruling classes etc. They surely played some role in their history, but not necessarily the decisive ones in their collapse. Resilience, revival or replication was possible because of continued existence of sufficient renewable resources and of further possibilities of migration to greener pastures that were sparsely populated and/or where the local populations were militarily not strong enough to resist aggression.
    When, however, our present-day civilization collapses, which is happening in front of our eyes (see e.g. the article by
Paul Kingsnorth posted by Sajai Jose on 29.10. on this list), it cannot be salvaged. It is already overpopulated, there are no satisfactory possibilities of large-scale migration to greener pastures any more, the nonrenewable resources so very essential for running its over-complex economies will have been gone forever, and many parts of the Earth may finally and irreversibly have become uninhabitable.
    Let me finish this text with two quotes from Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, whose disciple I regard myself to be:
   
Georgescu-Roegan (1971/1981: 296) calls the supplies of nonrenewable energy sources and other minerals in low-entropy state “the limited dowry of mankind’s existence on Earth”. A dowry is not only a limited but also a one-off gift, Therefore, he comes to the logical conclusion:

“Even with a constant population and a constant flow per capita of mined resources, mankind's dowry will ultimately be exhausted if the career of the human species is not brought to an end earlier by other factors.” (ibid)

On the fate of our present-day civilization, he wrote in a fit of pessimism,

"Will mankind listen to any program that implies a constriction of its addiction to exosomatic comfort? Perhaps the destiny of man is to have a short, but fiery, exciting and extravagant life rather than a long, uneventful and vegetative existence. Let other species, – the amoebas, for example – which have no spiritual ambitions, inherit an Earth still bathed in plenty of sunshine." (Georgescu-Roegen 1972/1976: 35)     

    I do not quite agree with NGR. I do not think the human species would disappear from this Earth altogether. We are far too intelligent for that, far too ingenious. Our descendants would survive, in somewhat still inhabitable pockets left behind after the collapse, but in much smaller numbers. They would however live in a different civilization and with different cultures.

References:

Edwards, Paul. ed. (1967) Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1967. New York].

Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas (1971/1981) Entropy Law and the Economic Process, Harvard University Press. Cambridge MA (US).

Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas (1972/1976) Energy and Economic Myths. New York: Pergamon Press

Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Once More on Resources and Population – 2021

 

I recently had occasion and need to write again on the above subject – in a google-group mailing list called Radical Ecological Democracy. I am reproducing the correspondence. The context should be easily clear.

 24.06.2021

It seems to me that every generation of thinking young people feel compelled to rediscover simple truths, actually truisms, and invent the wheel again and again.
    That about 90 percent of all resources used by our present-day economies do not grow like trees or fall from the sky like sunshine, and hence must be mined are commonplace knowledge. Even the bronze-age people knew that for making bronze they had to dig the raw materials out of the earth.
    That such materials are nonrenewable and hence exhaustible have also become well-known since at least 1972, when the book Limits to Growth was published.
    The idea and the knowledge of limits to availability of such resources are known ever since Malthus formulated in the late 18th century his famous population theory.
    That our whole industrial way of living inevitably pollutes the environment can be seen even by laypersons with their own eyes, and that since the beginning of the industrial revolution three hundred years ago.
    Yet, few drew the necessary conclusions from this knowledge. One big exception was our own Gandhiji, whom I consider to have been the first Green thinker-leader of modern times. Some hundred years ago, he wrote the following:

“The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom [the UK] is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.”

 

    When Gandhiji wrote this (1928), India meant the whole British India that included today’s Pakistan and Bangladesh. The population of this huge subcontinent has since then swollen from the then 300 million to today’s ca.1700 million. Yet, not many, not even the NGOs and the environmental activists of the world are daring to talk about this problem. Politicians and famous economists of the world, also those of India, are still blabbering about economic growth, in best cases, about sustainable growth, green growth, Green New Deal, renewable energy, electric cars etc.
    Thankfully, here and there, a few soft voices of reason can be heard. Phrases like “physical limits to economic growth”, “community of monks living on a mountain top” or “a resource efficient population” (Tom Abeles) could be heard in the RED list. But still nobody dares talk about the number of humans that can sustainably live on the earth. In Europe, some two years ago, a group of top economists asked in a petition the EU-leaders to follow an economic policy of de-growth. But even they had no idea of how today’s 8 billion human population growing to 10 billion by 2050 would be able to live sustainably.
    In the meantime, we are getting reports of famine from Madagaskar, Yemen and Tigray, in the year 2021. That reminds me of Malthus. But we do hear a lot about biodiversity loss and X’tinction rebellion.

With greetings from

Saral Sarkar

                                                    

On Sun, 27 Jun 2021, 12:14 Ashish Kothari, <ashishkothari@riseup.net> wrote:

Saralji, as you do raise this issue several times, how about if you told us what you think is a human population that can be sustainable, and under what conditions.

ashish

27.06. – 2.7.2021

 Dear Ashish, Mari Marcel, Britt, Ratheesh and all who have read my intervention of 24/25.6.2021

 I am glad to note that you have reacted to my persistent efforts to direct your attention to the huge problem of overpopulation that mankind has been facing since long. I have been publishing my thoughts on this and related problems since 1983, on the population problem since 1993 – not as an academic, but as an eco-socialist activist. At the end of this contribution I will give some references and links to my relevant publications. Here I want to respond only briefly to your reactions.

    I know why many people are afraid of broaching the issue of population. It is often precarious to speak of the population problem as a problem of too many humans. You might be scolded as a “fascist” or “racist” or “misogynic man”. I have suffered such scolding a few times. A famous Bangladeshi eco-feminist family friend of ours reproaches (or used to reproach) all who say (said) that Bangladesh is/was overpopulated for allegedly wanting to “depopulate Bangladesh”.

 (1) My case for Population Control

 (a) Most of us humans want to defend biodiversity. And we are worried about the ongoing sixth extinction. Yet we are afraid of mentioning the main cause of biodiversity loss: our own omissions and commissions. It is taking place not only because of us inexorably pursuing our own economic interests, but also because of our growing numbers with our ever-growing “basic needs” and “pleasures”. Both factors are constantly goading us into expanding our economic zones and our habitats into territories of other species. Soon there would be “no room for wild animals”. It is a fundamental principle/law of ecology that in any habitat, if one of the species living there grows too much, that is neither good for that particular species nor for the web of life there.

    Some old-style socialists routinely say, it is capitalism and the capitalists that have to be blamed for all the environmental ills, not the “people”. That is too cheap. The poor peasants who are encroaching into the habitats of wild animals in Africa are not capitalists. The fishermen and peasants who are occupying the Sunderbans in Southern Bengal too are not capitalists. But the elephants of Africa and the tigers of the Sunderbans regularly attack the encroaching humans and destroy their crops and homes. They, in turn, are also getting decimated.

    Imagine an ideal old-style socialist society (not the defective Soviet model of the past). Would it do anything differently, if its human population and its “needs” and “aspirations” would be growing? And who are enjoying the fruits of continuous industrialization, only the capitalists? And not also the average people?

    (b) Population growth is also the basic cause of many small-scale wars and conflicts between small states, tribes, and ethnic groups. In the ultimate analysis, the genocidal massacre of Tutsis by Hutus that took place in Rwanda in 1994 was caused by shortage of fertile land and jobs for a growing population. Since, in the Sahel zone of Africa, the amount of fertile land is limited, regular battles (with massacres) between groups of herders and peasants take place there. The whole world is afraid that soon a war might break out between Ethiopia on the one side and Egypt and the Sudan on the other, the bone of contention will then be the waters of the river Nile. The populations of the three countries have been growing in the last ten years at the rate of 2.6, 2 and 3 percent respectively.

    In the 1970s – 1980s, in Maharashtra (India), the locals started an agitation for throwing the internal immigrants (South Indians) back from their state to South India because the latter were accused of occupying all the white-collar jobs. Also in the 1990s, we witnessed the caste conflict between upper caste Indian Youth and the youth of the other backward castes (OBCs).

    A similar agitation has been taking place in Assam (Eastern India) since long – not only against Bangladeshi illegal immigrants, but also against immigrants from West Bengal. In the latter case, the immigrants are mostly Hindus like the Assamese, their skin complexion is the same, i.e. brown, their mother tongues are very similar. But they are competitors for the scarce jobs, business opportunities and scarce agricultural land.

    The international media report only on illegal migration across national borders – on Central Americans and Mexicans get-crashing into the USA, Africans and Muslims from the Middle East get-crashing into Europe. The conflicts caused by migration within a country generally go unnoticed, but they are there in almost every country where the population is growing.

    Until about fifty years ago, it was not difficult for the surplus population of a country to emigrate to a relatively sparsely populated or industrially developed country. Immigrants were even welcome in many countries. But today, the boat is full. Immigrants are not welcome, they are being pushed back, walls are being built at borders, xenophobia is growing, fascism is spreading. If not for anything else, it is for the sake of peace within our own species that we should stop our own population growth.

    (c) I read about the population theory of Malthus at college at the age of 17. Our lecturer said, while rejecting the theory, that a human is not born only with a belly, but also with two hands. The implication was that a human also produces value (food etc.), so that population growth was no problem. We however know that not all pairs of hands find jobs or sufficient fertile land to produce value. There is unemployment in all countries. Moreover, not all young people are satisfied with finding some job for some food and clothing only, they want to have good jobs for a good life. But good jobs are scarce in their own native land. So they get-crash into Europe and North America.

    In 2011, the educated youth made uprisings in one Arab country after another (the Arab Spring). They also succeeded in many countries. They overthrew Ben Ali, Mubarak, Gadhafi and Saleh. They had thought they would henceforth enjoy a good prosperous life in freedom and democracy. But today they acknowledge their failure. Today, in Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq, they are again agitating, this time against more or less democratically elected governments they have themselves brought to power. Apparently they knew nothing about limits to growth.

 (2) Counterarguments

 Wherever I spoke about overpopulation and the necessity of population control, some listeners came up with some standard counterarguments:

    (a) The growth rate of world population is falling and by 2050 or 2100 or so it will stabilize at ten to eleven billion. So don’t worry! That is true, and the prognosis for 2050 may also come true. But is that any consolation? Today’s ca. 8 billion humans are irretrievably consuming so many nonrenewable resources that even with zero growth of both, that will leave nothing over for the children who are being born today – i.e. nothing but an “uninhabitable Earth”* and a moonlike landscape full of huge mining craters.

    (b) Often it is argued that enough food is being produced in the world, it only needs to be distributed fairly. True, if you take the whole annual world food production and divide it by 8 billion, then you get enough food per capita. But how much could be produced if the farmers desist from using chemical fertilizers and pesticides and herbicides? Don’t ecologists want to ban the use of such chemicals?

    And is it not utterly absurd, utterly starry-eyed to imagine that the farmers of food-surplus countries – USA, Canada, Argentina, Australia etc. – would invest their money and labor to produce a surplus only to gift it away to the hungry poor of the world? They would gladly sell their surplus to whoever pays for it But how can the hungry of today get the money for that? Or they would sell their surplus grain to meat producers of rich countries.

    The World Food Program (WFP) buys a lot of the surplus for feeding the hungry of the world, the money for which comes from the rich states. So, in an indirect way, the surplus food does get distributed. But does anybody feel comfortable with this undignified beggar-like status of a part of humanity?

    Moreover, humans do not want to live by bread alone. It is never enough to have just sufficient food. Every citizen of even poor countries needs also a roof above his head, some decent clothing, basic medical care, basic security against crime, schooling for his children, and an opportunity for earning his and his family’s livelihood (i.e. a job). A functioning state should be able to provide these. Those that cannot are rightly called failed states. Overpopulation and high population growth rates are leading today to a growth of the number of failed states.

    (c) Inevitably, some (e.g. Britt in RED list) come up with the argument that citizens of the rich North consume 80 percent of the world’s resources, while constituting only 20 percent of the world’s population. Ergo, it is they who are to be blamed for all the ills of the planet, not the overpopulated countries of the poor South. Ergo, it is they who must do something for overcoming the planetary crises, and not speak about overpopulation in the Gobal South.

    The statistic is, generally speaking, correct. But what is the use of baying at the moon? Old-style Imperialism is history. And what has already happened in history cannot be unhappened. We in the South must ourselves save our own respective countries from ruin. It is not the task of the North. And it is not in their interest that the number of low-wage laborers in the Global South goes down.

    (d) Recently, some people are cursing population control and birth control policies. They argue with the fact of ageing populations in some rich countries and lack of sufficient number of young people for the labor force. They point at China’s problems. “India on the other hand is lauded for its enormous young population which favors economic prosperity” (Mari Marcel). In India, some people, e.g. former PM Manmohan Singh, have even been talking of “our demographic dividend”.

    This is corporate speak, the contemptuous way the capitalists and the managerial class speak about human beings. They may think: “après moi, le déluge “(after us the deluge). But we should not make it our own thought, despite all good reasons for pessimism. This problem, no doubt, is there and it must also be solved. But not by encouraging young couples to produce many children and thus ruining the environment further.

 (3) Sustainable Population

 Ashish requests me to tell “what I think is a human population that can be sustainable, and under what conditions.” The answer to this question is, broadly speaking, easy to give. Since, in principle, an economy based mainly on nonrenewable resources is not sustainable, an economy that is to be sustainable must, in principle, be mainly based on renewable resources. That can be easily imagined. The pre-industrial economy of Europe (indeed, of all countries) was sustainable, because it was mainly based on renewable resources: biomass, human and animal muscle power, wind, sunshine and the power of flowing water as sources of energy, and wood and some easily recyclable metals – like bronze, iron and aluminum – as solid material. The optimum population of that period was/is therefore the human population that can be sustainable. Note that I am saying “optimum”, the actual population of that period was more than optimal. That is why they had to migrate and conquer new territories and decimate local populations. That was one reason why so many wars were fought between kingdoms and empires. I guess, the actual world population of that period was about I billion (There are some estimates in the Wikipedia with curves of world population growth through the centuries)

 (4) What we can do. Realism

 It is easy for theorists to say, in principle it is so or basically it should be so. Activists must however try to achieve their solutions in practical terms.

    Nothing can be achieved overnight, activists must therefore work with a transition period plan and the goals set must be realistic. There is no use writing down dreams as goals. Even so, the ultimate goal(s) can/should be idealistically formulated, whatever be one’s ideal, so that they can serve as the compass for a long journey. Unity of purpose is necessary in any group, but in order to achieve that unity, agreement on analysis of the given situation must also be achieved.

    For today, I am closing this article in this vein. If readers demand it, I can write more on the subject answering their questions.

 References:

 My basic theoretical positions can be found in my book:

Saral Sarkar: Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism? A critical Analysis of Humanity’s Fundamental Choices (Zed Books, London. 1999, Orient Longmans, New Delhi, Hyderabad, 2001)

 David Wallace Wells : The Uninhabitable Earth

 Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas: Technology Assessment. The Case of the Direct Use of Solar Energyhttp://www.peakoilindia.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Georgescu-Roegen-The-Case-of-the-Direct-Use-of-Solar-Energy.pdf

Essays and articles on renewable energies 

Saving the Planet, American Style -- A Critical Review, and Some Thoughts and Ideas
https://eco-socialist.blogspot.com/2016/10/saving-planet-american-style-critical_7.html

Once More on the Viability of Renewable Energies
https://eco-socialist.blogspot.com/2016/06/once-more-on-viability-of-renewable_11.html

Root Causes of the Cleavages in the Ecological Left
https://eco-socialist.blogspot.com/2015/09/root-causes-of-cleavages-in-ecological.html

Krugman's Illusion: We Becoming Richer, But Not Damaging The Environment
https://eco-socialist.blogspot.com/2014/04/krugmans-illusion-we-becoming-richer.html

Thunberg's Problem. A Problem Without A Solution?
https://eco-socialist.blogspot.com/2019/03/thunbergs-problem-problem-without.html

The Global Crisis and Role of So-Called Renewable Energies in Solving It
https://eco-socialist.blogspot.com/2017/07/the-global-crisis-and-role-of-so-called.html

There is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch, For Humans. -- Response to Some  Comments on My Essay in Insurge-Intelligence
https://eco-socialist.blogspot.com/2017/08/there-is-no-such-thing-as-free-lunch.html

 Essays and article on the overpopulation and unwelcome migrants Problem

Polemics is Useless
A Proposal For An Eco-socialist Synthesis In The Overpopulation Dispute

http://eco-socialist.blogspot.de/2012/08/polemics-is-useless-proposal-for-eco.html

 

Two Different Demographic Crises -- Some Eco-Socialist Reflections

http://eco-socialist.blogspot.de/2013/11/two-different-demographic-crises-some.html


India's Unwelcome Immigrants Problem -- Identity Politics Beats Class Politics

https://eco-socialist.blogspot.com/2018/11/indias-unwelcome-immigrants-problem.html


The Refugee-Migrant Crisis of the EU -- Its Deeper Causes and Messages

http://eco-socialist.blogspot.de/2015/11/the-refugee-migrant-crisis-of-eu-its.html

The Tragedy of Lampedusa -- What to do?

http://eco-socialist.blogspot.com/2013/10/the-tragedy-of-lampedusa-what-to-do.html

For Saving the Earth We Need to Tell the Whole Truth -- an eco-socialist's response to Richard Smith

http://eco-socialist.blogspot.com/2017/12/for-saving-earth-we-need-to-tell-whole.html

 The Two Drivers of Ecological Collapse and the Two Tasks

http://eco-socialist.blogspot.com/2018/01/the-two-drivers-of-ecological-collapse.html