Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Paul Hawken and Jane Jacobs on the L

I just finished reading Paul Hawken's The Ecology of Commerce and just started reading Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities. So today as I was wandering all over Chicago, settling debts, buying shit, walking around, etc., I read the Jacobs. And, you know, that makes a lot more sense for El reading material than the last stuff I posted about reading on the El. Edward Abbey and Neal Stephenson... well, between the two of them there's plenty of disdain for cities (though for very different reasons). And with Jacobs there's love. Angry love sometimes, but love anyway.

And the Brown-Line train rocked gently from side to side like a gondola (it was actually a Red-Line train running on the elevated tracks because of subway construction). But that's not the damn point. Focus, Al. I wanted to write about Hawken, actually.

Paul Hawken is an environmentalist and an entrepreneur. He wrote The Ecology of Commerce from the premise that in the long run non-renewable energy sources will indeed run out and humanity will need to live within an energy budget limited mostly by solar output. And that in the long run if we produce toxic waste that we can't break down or use safely that it will continue to build up in the environment, accumulate in the fatty tissues of all kinds of animals (especially marine creatures, but land creatures like humans as well), and make us all crazy. He wrote this shit in 1993, when gas was under a buck a gallon in Georgia (source: I remember this kid on my block named David Hunt mentioning that it was in the 80s there, and it could have been some time around 1993, maybe before but not after -- he moved out of town not long after Clinton got elected, if memory serves). Of course, people with their heads screwed on their shoulders have been saying these things for a long time (the first peak-oil predictions came in the 50s and correctly predicted US peak production; cue arguments about whether the peak was artificially induced by drilling policy or whether that's irrelevant because only a fraction of US land available for drilling is actually being used anyway and because peak doesn't mean you're plum out, or that you couldn't possibly extract at a higher rate, just that it's not economical to do so), but I didn't read any of their papers 'cause I wasn't born yet.

So an aside. To my knowledge there are a few ways that people theorize we could deal with crises of energy and toxic pollution. The first is primitivism. Suburban sprawl faces obvious problems in a time of expensive energy (we're seeing that already), but so do big cities with energy-intensive industries that are very far from agriculture. So does anyone that wants a heated or air-conditioned home, hot water. Heating and cooling air and water consume lots of energy. More importantly (we can always take fewer showers, just ask the French), computers and data centers use lots of energy, and they're really important for, you know, progress and stuff. Anyway, in economic terms, the economy would have to shrink a lot. Economies like ours don't shrink in pleasant ways. That's what they say, at least. A severe adjustment could, as I understand it, overwhelm banks, which are already struggling because of the fall of housing and credit bubbles. At that point, all bets are off. I think there's at least a possibility of rampant starvation and economic collapse.

A second way is the idea of technological singularity. Hawken writes a lot about how our current economy is "linear", in that it extracts resources at unsustainable rates and outputs useless or toxic waste, similar to immature biological ecosystems (which typically grow quickly at first and then either suffer population crashes or in more benign cases just stop growing). He contrasts this to mature ecosystems, which are "cyclical", in that the waste products of one organism become food for others, almost universally. If there was toxic or useless waste the systems would not have developed to their complex state of maturity. What Hawken calls a "linear" economy is mathematically more properly described as exponential. Population grows exponentially; resource use does also, but more quickly. But there are technological exponential curves like Moore's Law, too. And rapid growth in various measures of information availability driven by world-wide network access. The time between world-changing events keeps shrinking, and this is taken as a trend by some futurists. One common idea is that the development of "true" AI, essentially the ability of a computer to think or even to take on human consciousness, could be a world-changing event that allows technological progress to continue forever. This could skirt the issue of pollution, as humans wouldn't have to rely on any other organisms or even their own biological processes to pass their knowledge on to another generation. Furthermore, this would make many current uses of resources obsolete, and potentially allow for extraction from other planets (in theory time isn't as much of a problem for computers as people, my source for this being the terrific Futureheads song Robot; though today's computers are hard-pressed to outlive goldfish, a computer with the ability to repair itself might do better). But don't listen to me. Listen to these guys. They claim that all this talk about physical resources is "astonishingly irrelevant", and here I am getting caught up in what a singularity might look like and how it would solve these problems. Which probably makes me a fuddy-duddy. Let's just say I'm a little skeptical, given struggles of space programs, physical limits of transistor size, and what seems to me like very non-exponential progress in AI research. For balance I should point out that quantum computing has had some cool results lately. For balance of balance, I just want to take this opportunity to make fun of some singularity nuts for talking like exponential growth curves have singularities. They don't. Even if accelerating progress makes change flash before our eyes at a ridiculous rate and we colonize the galaxy in a year or so (the speed of light is "astonishingly irrelevant", just another glass ceiling to be smashed by the power of our intelligence) a singularity means the stoppage of time and infinite progress, and that it would not be, if you just blindly follow trends, which is already pretty optimistic to me.

Anyway, Hawken doesn't really talk about those things, I just think they're important. Hawken proposes a sort of middle way. We don't have to take the all-or-nothing risk of continuing to accelerate extraction and pollution rates in hope of reaching a singularity, which might then bite us in the ass and turn into Skynet or HAL 9000 anyway. And we don't have to suffer a die-off because we're so far above the natural carrying capacity of our planet. We can instead radically re-organize our economy so that it works more like a mature ecosystem. When one company produces waste materials, another finds ways to use them. By changing the entire taxation regime over time to target non-renewable resource extraction and unusable waste (especially toxic waste) very heavily (replacing taxes on pure income or consumption) we can make sustainable business the only profitable kind, instead of the very difficult path it is today. The idea is that today businesses are cutthroat competitors, fighting tooth and nail for profit, and that they're really efficient at it. Unfortunately that usually means they're really efficient at turning resources into waste, because the actions of extraction and pollution don't incur costs that reflect their true long-term cost to human civilization. If we can make restoration of the environment, which has long-term benefits, profitable, businesses will compete too-and-nail to make the world better.

And I might have believed it, too, if Hawken himself hadn't provided all the reasons it would fail. I live pretty close to an old coal plant that is a heavy polluter. Located in the middle of Chicago, it pollutes at rates higher than allowed by current laws. But it's been grandfathered in. No, this plant does not meet the standards of the Clean Air Act. But what come out of these smokestacks aren't noxious gases, my friend. They're nostalgic gases (concept of "nostalgic pollution" shamelessly stolen from Heather; not from her blog, from a conversation with our neighbors at a party, but the blog gives me something to link to). I think that says a lot. The government isn't independent of corporate influence and won't be; it will help craft laws for its own benefit (examples provided by Hawken). Corporations are very good at subverting laws that would attempt to constrain their behavior (many examples in Hawken's text), and through globalization have become more powerful than most governments already and are surpassing the rest (again, argument provided by Hawken). Worse, because corporations in the modern capitalist world have all the rights of people but none of the responsibilities (this is true legally, as they're rarely punished severely, but the big problem is that they can very easily liquidate and reform, change their identities in the public eye without changing leadership), they're able to use PR devices to convince people to support corporate interests instead of their own.

To me, that's the biggest part that's unconvincing. Hawken's thesis is that only corporations acting under capitalism can save the world, and that we have to be concerned with how to keep them intact while building a sustainable economy. Meanwhile he provides more support for the claim that they're fundamentally destructive and sick than that they actually could be the drivers of a sustainable economy. He proposes that private "utilities" be places in charge of local resources, and that because of their long-term interest to sustain that resource that they'd allow only the right level of usage. There are some similar entities today: OPEC tries to control its member states' oil exports, and even so some of those members are reaching peak production and turning into net importers. Even in the US today, any company that owns land and has drilling, mining, or dumping rights on it should have as its interest the preservation of those activities as far into the future as possible. Yet strip mining and toxic pollution rule the day. Even governments, spurred by vital public needs and budget constraints instead of shareholder pressure and general profit motive, routinely are accused (rightly) of selling out the future with short-term financing fixes. I fail to see why resource utilities, if operated anything like either current corporations or governments (and that seems to be Hawken's major idea), would do differently than any of the existing examples we have.

Another thing that bothers me is that he quietly acknowledges in a few places (if you look closely and infer some things) that his "restorative" economy would have to shrink, and that population might have to shrink. But he never mentions the pain involved in this. Actually this might be a good argument for his ideas: that a gradual shrinking, though still painful, would be much, much better than a crash, and that keeping the same institutions in charge gives a better chance of gradual shrinking than various left-anarchist revolutions (or a global Communist revolution). The counter-argument to me is that a lot of investment assumptions have to change if you take away the assumption that the economy will, in the long term, grow exponentially. I think this includes a bank's expectation that it can lend money and usually get it back with interest, without which fractional-reserve banking would have a much greater risk-reward ratio. As most of our money supply doesn't exist as currency, and is a creation of this banking practice, this concerns me (I'm not really an econ guru, so if my understanding of the issue is totally wrong let me know). Hawken talks all about population crashes but that he doesn't mention the implications of a shrinking economy worries me (I can't find many quotes from economists in general on the subject other than stuff like, "Hey, look at the Great Depression, that sure sucked, 'eh?"). Anyway, market valuations of things are based on speculation, and no matter how carefully a plan is made to transition gradually to no-growth, if the realization of it hits the market suddenly we're headed for a crash.

The other economic question I have is whether corporations really are very efficient when they can't rapidly extract non-renewable resources or otherwise externalize the costs of their operations onto society. For one thing, corporations as they are means marketing as it is, which preys on people's irrationalities resulting in overconsumption of all sorts. The type of efficiency I'm talking about here is in whether they can elevate the carrying capacity of Earth, or whether they'll lead us to sell out long-term needs like education and research for short-term nicities. If the economy overall won't be exponentially growing anymore I think those become real trade-offs (whereas today overconsumption fuels growth by requiring more labor and more resource extraction).

But I don't want to be totally negative about the whole deal. Even though I'm pretty pessimistic about a plan like his actually working, it might, if it worked, be a fairly livable version of capitalism with corporations. I like his points about preventing business from externalizing its costs onto others (read: the poor). I'm not sure whether he's being disingenuous or just doesn't realize it, but imposing taxes or creating utilities that fully foist onto business the costs of their damage to the commons (and reward their improvements of it) are tantamount to nationalizing the commons. A fine idea in my opinion (coincidentally, The Death and Life of Great American Cities also talks about the tragedy of commons with regard to cities), but good luck sneaking it past highly interested parties.

Damn this is a fucking mountain of text. Sorry y'all. I'll try to be snappier next time.

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