Saturday, June 23, 2007

Your Global Footprint?

Keywords: carrying capacity; ecological footprint; climate change; technology; population; Malthus; Ester Boserup; agriculture; Alvin Toffler; Heidi Toffler

In my circle of friends, there is much concern about living sustainably. Several assumptions about this matter tend to go together: (a) that the planet offers only a fixed capacity to support the population, so that we in the affluent countries are morally obligated to “reduce our ”; (b) that is harmful to nature, and indeed the higher the technology, the more it depletes the earth’s resources and robs the poor of their fair share; and (c) that we should all share access to the earth’s resources in a cooperative way, by restraining commercial competitiveness and materialism. I have been uncomfortable with this overall philosophy for a long time and now I want to point out why.

The concept of the “global footprint” is more misleading than helpful. It is claimed that we have to start conserving because we are using up more than our share of the world’s resources. Indeed, if everyone in the world consumed as much of the earth’s resources – food, wood, minerals, energy, etc. — then three planets the size of ours would be required. To prevent such inequities, and the looming starvation and economic collapse, we must voluntarily reduce our own standard of living, our own “ecological footprint.”

To calculate ecological footprints, a number of factors are combined to give an overall score for an individual or for a nation. The main factor in that equation is the quantity of produced. If GHGs were removed from the equation, the rich countries actually would not be significantly out of line with the less developed countries. Now, I will agree that we need to reduce our GHG emissions; that part of the ecological footprint theory seems perfectly true. However it is our emissions that have to be reduced, not our consumption of resources per se. That is, we would have to stop using fossil fuels even if they even existed in infinite supply, because doing so is necessary to prevent global warming.

Why is this distinction important? Because is not a Malthusian problem, whereas the over-consumption of resources is precisely Malthusian. It was Thomas who predicted that in time humankind will run out of food because our population will grow faster than the food supply. Only famine, disease, and war can provide positive checks against this imbalance.

Malthus was proved wrong long ago. However, there is still a Malthusian “folk theory” that dominates everywhere: the notion of the “carrying capacity” of land. Every plot of land supposedly can sustain only a finite number of human beings, so we must live within that reality by curbing consumption — or, better yet, by limiting human reproduction. The new concept of the ecological or global “footprint” is basically a new version of this older theory of “carrying capacity,” though with one additional factor -- the aforementioned greenhouse gas emissions, which is the only factor that actually worries me. I am trying to reduce my emissions, and I hope you do so too. But it is high time we re-examine the concept of “carrying capacity” or “global footprint,” for it is leading us to make harmful decisions.

“Carrying capacity” has been defined as the “maximum number of people that a given land area will maintain in perpetuity under a given system of usage without land degradation setting in.” The truth is, the “carrying capacity” of a piece of land is not fixed, but varies with the technology that people use is producing goods from it – i.e. with the “system of usage.” The more advanced the prevailing technology, the higher will ordinarily be the earth's carrying capacity. Yes, technology depends on exploiting some of the earth's resources, but it can also make the earth more productive — increase its carrying capacity.

Take agriculture, for instance. (see photo) was a Danish scholar who worked at the United Nations on agricultural issues. Her book, The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure (1965) made a huge impact in the social sciences when it was published, for it demonstrated in a new way that Malthus had misunderstood the causal relationship between population growth and . She argued that the evolution of agriculture was a process that normally had to be pushed by the increasing density of human population.

Her review of economic history extends back into pre-historic times and forward to the mid-20th century. As anthropologists have come to recognize, hunters and gatherers did not readily take up farming. They only did so, and reluctantly at best, when they could not feed themselves in any other way. And the same goes for the adoption of increasingly advanced methods of food production. Even primitive societies today that grow food without plows or draft animals often resist superior technology when their government offers it to them. Why? Because it requires more work. Yes, more advanced tools can obtain more food from a given amount of land, but only with an increasing amount of labor. . Only necessity will drive farmers to increase the carrying capacity of their fields by adopting more intensive types of .

Previously, scientists had considered land as either cultivated or uncultivated, but Boserup developed five stages of increasingly intense forms of cultivation, according to the length of fallow between periods of cultivation. The lowest level is “slash-and-burn” farming, which burns a plot of forest land, cultivates it briefly, then leaves it fallow 15-20 years before starting over. The highest level is multi-cropping, with no fallow. The move from one level of intensity to the next is caused by population growth. Each such "advance" entails more labor per plot of land, and thus the intensification increases the productivity of land and reduces that of labor.

This pattern, which is found all around the world, shows that population growth causes agricultural growth. And empirically it holds up. Malthusians have it backward. Population growth does not exhaust the soil, but increases its “carrying capacity” by forcing technological advances.

In a later book, Population and Technological Change: A Study of Long-term Trends (1981), Boserup extended her insight from agriculture to the rest of economic production. She showed that many technologies can be developed only if the population is dense enough to yield “economies of scale.“ Still, she applied her economic model only to the level of industrial production, not the kind of “knowledge” economy in which you and I earn our living today. To understand the new system we turn to a new book by Alvin and Heidi , Revolutionary Wealth, which reveals the inadequacy of all three of the assumptions mentioned above.

In Canada and the other affluent societies, very little wealth comes from farming or manufacturing, but from jobs that involve intangible products. When we write songs, design software, advise investors, conduct therapy sessions, or direct plays we are trafficking in knowledge, not physical materials. Today almost all good jobs are in the “knowledge” sector. Only four percent of Canadians are farmers, and we are exporting unskilled industrial jobs overseas. Indeed, that is how the less developed countries will escape from poverty — through the adoption of our technology. Moreover, knowledge (unlike material things) is intangible -- neither scarce nor even finite. It is not conserved by any law of thermodynamics. If I give you my money or my property, you will own it but I no longer will. If I give you my knowledge, we both will have it. Economics has been the study of scarce goods and commodities, but when it comes to the economics of knowledge, we have to start thinking differently.

The Tofflers explain how Asia happened to make its great breakthrough to modernity and prosperity. In 1965 the Japanese auto manufacturers imported digital technology from the United States, where it was not being widely adopted, and began to assemble cars with robots. The precision and quality of their cars became far superior to those of other countries. They used the most advanced technology as well to produce cameras, television sets, VCRs, and so on, exporting so many products that the US finally slapped trade limits on their semi-conductors.

Next these newly rich Japanese firms began offloading their low-tech factory jobs to Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. As the workforce in those countries shifted from agriculture to industry, they began acquiring new hand-me-down knowledge about finance, about markets and marketing, about import-export rules and business in general. These recipient countries experienced lengthening life expectancy, reduced rates of population growth, and a a 400 percent increase in average real incomes.

How is poverty reduced? Not by aid (though that can be helpful too) but primarily by external inputs of capital, plus relevant that allows the poor to become entrepreneurs and manufacturers. Curtailing the spread of high technology would condemn the whole Third World to perpetual poverty. Yet that is what many of my friends would like to do: stop technological change. In the name of equity and justice toward the downtrodden of the earth, they want to stop economic growth and persuade everyone to consume fewer material goods.

This is misplaced kindness. Wealth nowadays comes from knowledge, science, and technology. Moreover, jobs in the “knowledge economy“ involve work with intangibles and, accordingly, require the extraction of less and less material resources from the earth. I am not justifying extravagance, waste, and materialistic greed; far from it. But I am pointing out that real progress for humankind will not come from reducing our standards of living, but rather from increasing the carrying capacity of our planet through the creation and diffusion of knowledge and technology. Spend your energy lavishly, acquiring and spreading useful knowledge; that's how you can make a difference in the world.

We can increase efficiency. When that happens, wealth can grow. We can all even reduce our ecological footprints while increasing our consumption.

Finally, I want to mention how that happens. Technology is wonderfully responsive to the . When we begin to deplete a resource, its price will increase in a capitalist economy. Prices are an extraordinarily effective signal that an opportunity exists to serve others by producing a product from a different material, or by using the scarce material more efficiently. That is technological innovation. Economists know this better than anyone, and economists worry less about their global footprint than anyone else.

Now you can stop worrying about yours. But do reduce your CO2 emissions; that's an entirely different matter — one that we definitely should worry about.



Blogger Metta Spencer said...

I'm posting several complete letters here that I received in response to this entry. I reply to them in a subsequent blog entry, "Malthus Rules!"

I my view, a bad article. I do not like it at all. It is based on technical fixes, and we know since the steam engine was introduced as a relief of humans from hard physical labour that technical solutions of today become the problem of tomorrow. The burning of fossil fuels we know today are our biggest problem, as expressed in the article. Todays technical fixes, such as the 'green revolution' in Agriculture, nuclear power generation to avoid green house gases, genetic engineering, etc will cause us or our children headaches tomorrow.

10:23 PM  
Blogger Metta Spencer said...

This one is from Sam Lanfranco:
As an economist and a farmer, and one working on "information
technology and knowledge networking" I am very personally left
befuddled (dismayed) when I read much of what is written about how
technology holds the Malthusian "pox-on-our-house" at bay.

I am impressed by how much good analysis results in just confusing the
issues. For example, while it is true that most wealth today does not
come from agriculture, that wealth (physical assets, knowledge)
becomes worthless when we run short of potable water and food. The
"economies of scale" from population density are great for all those
things we do other than sustain life, but again that wealth and the
associated flows of income (purchasing power) evaporate if one of
three things goes wrong. First, we run short of water. Second, we run
short of food. Third, we run sort of places to dump our waste (water,

Water is a growing issue. Bought water (bottles) is more expensive
than bought fuel (oil products). Urban water systems, and
agricultural water systems, are under stress and will take an
increasing portion of one's disposable income over the coming years.
There are numerous problems with large scale agriculture (energy
intensive, transport costs, water needs, waste problems, risk factors
from concentrated producers, etc., not to mention issues around choice
of technologies).

Water, waste and food are core properties to a sustainable system.
Each is under threat from the dual factors of population and life
style. Technological advances have pushed famine back as a threat but
that same technology has eaten away at the sustainability of life on
the planet so there are fast approaching limits on how we innovate,
limits that are likely to curb both lifestyle - and possibly
population. Will we do this in systematic and decent ways, or will we
-as we are doing now- increasingly say "Let the poor eat dirt, or not
eat at all" as we hollow out the middle class of the globe, and all
the population in some regions.

The prospects don't look good. We are likely to talk ourselves into
inaction as we run short of water, bury ourselves in waste, and face
an increasingly problematic food supply.

My personal theory is that there is no life on other planets, and for
good reason. The gods first put humans on this planet as an
experiment. The experiment failed and they walked away from it. Had
humans been a success, the gods would have franchised humans across
the universe and there would have been more inhabited planets close
to us than there are Tim Horton's donut shops in Canada.

I would say that the above is food for thought, but words, for what
they are worth in the short run, make lousy food in the long run.

Regards, Sam

10:24 PM  
Blogger Metta Spencer said...

This one is from
Derek Paul
Your fascinating essay has much to recommend it, but it contains very many areas that require detailed investigation. In particular, the new technology you want to have enter the scene to solve problems needs to go through an acceptability panel before it is introduced. For example, the technology that enbles to ocean bottom be scraped has been exceedingly destructive. A full day's discussion of your proposal would be needed just for a start.
On the whole, I believe Malthus was right in principle, though of course he couldn't foresee the future. There surely is a limit to the extent the human race can multiply on this planet without civilization falling apart. You mention resources, and these are in fact limited, though it doesn't mean we have reached the limits yet. There's an argument about substitution (of one material for another) when one becomes in short supply, but somewhere the necessary economies come to amount to a fall in the standard of living. As for climate change, I think I could show, given enough time, that it is ultimately proportional to population. That would make it Malthusian, if I have understood your attribution of meaning to "Malthusian."

10:25 PM  
Blogger Metta Spencer said...

This one is from
Louis Lefeber: “Hi: I agree with most of the critical comments. But I would like to add some points, particularly about the claims in the final section of Metta's essay.

Consider her declarative statement: "We can increase efficiency." Whose efficiency? And what is the meaning of efficiency? Productivity of labor or capital? Or profitability? Government agencies? Social and political economic activities are parts of, and covered by, an enormous range of private and public institutions. You may increase the efficiency of one at the expense of another. For example, the more efficient use of capital may require diminishing contribution from educated high productivity labor. They may become unemployed or transferred to low productivity activities. It happens to be the case in the USA and Canada.

It is true that the price system is a guide to decision making. But it does not provide "an extraordinarily effective signal," as Metta proposes. The efficiency of the price system of a capitalist markets is time dependent. The longer the time horizon over which decisions are made, the less reliable is the price system's guidance for production and investment decisions. Furthermore, decisions by private individuals are based on myopic discounts of future benefits and costs. Risk and uncertainty about future markets, changes of tastes, politics, etc., bias investment decisions in favor of activities whose pay-off times are relatively fast. Investments that have large social benefits -- such as protection of the environment -- whose time horizons are very long and whose benefits the private investor cannot appropriate, are rarely undertaken without carrots and/or sticks.

In what sense are CO2 emissions a different matter? The social benefits from reduction of CO2 accumulation are subject to the same myopia that biases decisions in the capitalist market system

Finally, there is the comment: "We can increase efficiency, When that happens, wealth can grow." Whose wealth and cui bono? The enormous technological advances of the last twenty or thirty years have enormously increased the wealth of a small segment of capitalist entrepreneurs, and failed to advance or even diminished the welfare of the majority of the populations. This is the case in the industrial North America, and increasingly in China and India.
Such and closely related questions are taken up in my article (jointly with Thomas Vietorisz of Columbia and Cornell) on "The Meaning of Social Efficiency" in the most recent (April, 2007) issue of the Review of Political Economy.

10:25 PM  

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