One thing you’ll learn if you spend any amount of time with me is that if there’s a way to do something backwards, then by God I’ll find it. And politics is no exception. Conventional wisdom would have you believe that most people enter adolescence with a head full of high-minded ideals and a willingness to shake up the system. As they get older, however, they gradually begin to accept the status quo. For me, that process is reversed.
The older I get, the more skeptical I become of our current social model. Why?
Let’s start with this:
What you’re looking at is a video by the late Dr. Albert Bartlett, a professor of physics at the University of Colorado. Since this one is over an hour long, I’ll summarize. (Though, I recommend watching the full thing when you can.)
Bartlett explains the inherent problems in a society centred around the concept of perpetual growth and illustrates the many ways in which the estimates of our remaining hydrocarbon resources are grossly overstated. Some of the more interesting moments in his talk are as follows.
“Imagine bacteria growing in a bottle. They double in number every minute. At 11:00 am, there is one bacterium in the bottle. At 12:00 noon, the bottle is full.
When was the bottle half full?”
Take a minute, and try to work it out on your own before you scroll down for the answer. Ready?
11:59. The bottle is half full at 11:59. The bacteria double in number every minute. One minute before noon, there were half as many bacteria as there are now.
And we can calculate the the amount of space used each minute.
11:58 1/4 (25%) of the bottle was used.
11:57 1/8 (12.5%) of the bottle was used.
11:56 1/16 (6.25%) of the bottle was used.
11:55 1/32 (3.125%) of the bottle was used.
Just five minutes before the bacteria used up their last micrometre of space, 97% of the bottle was still available for expansion. This, my friends, is the terrible power of the exponential function. If you were an average bacterium living in this bottle, when might it occur to you that you were running out of space?
It gets worse when you consider our use of non-renewable resources.
Why isn’t there a bigger push toward a stable society, with a minimal growth rate, based primarily on renewable resources? Possibly because we’re exposed to an enormous amount of misinformation regarding current hydrocarbon supplies. I’m going to give you the most telling example from Bartlett’s video. You can find this segment at 30:15.
“In the [energy] crisis of the 1970s, ads such as this appeared with messages like, ‘Don’t worry too much because we’re sitting on half of the world’s supply of coal. Enough for over five hundred years!’
Where did that 500 year figure come from? It may have had its origin in this report to the Committee of Interior and Insular Affairs of the United States Senate. In that report, we find this sentence: ‘At current levels of output and recovery, these American coal reserves can be expected to last more than 500 years.’”
“At current levels of output and recovery.” In other words, the estimate of remaining coal does not account for growth in population and in energy consumption. By contrasting the amount of coal recovered in 1971 with the amount recovered in 1991, Bartlett was able to calculate a growth in coal consumption of roughly 2.86% per year. And when you factor in that growth rate, the 500 years of coal that we were promised drops down to 36 years.
Misleading information and bad math.
Have you ever heard the expression “Capitalism isn’t a zero-sum game?” This is a very big tenant of Keynesian Economic Theory. For those of you who don’t know, Hungry Hungry Hippos is the perfect example of a zero-sum game. There are a definite, fixed number of marbles on the playing field. Your hippo’s job is to consume as many marbles as possible. Each marble that you consume leaves one less marble for your opponent. That is zero-sum in a nutshell. If there are five slices of pie and I take three, you can have at most two.
Keynesian Theory states that the Economy is not a zero sum game. How can this be? It’s tempting to think of the total amount of money in circulation in terms of a pie chart, and if I have five percent of the pie – which is a huge amount of money – it means everyone else has to battle over the remaining ninety-five percent. Keynes’s answer to this is that the pie gets bigger; it grows at a steady rate. If I take my three slices of pie, sure there are only two slices left, but those slices are gradually expanding. In the end, you could theoretically have just as much pie as I do because you have two big slices and I have three little ones.
I’m not going to debate whether this is a valid economic model because I’ve seen critiques and then critiques of those critiques. I think we can all agree that economy is growing, and therefore, in theory, Capitalism isn’t a zero-sum game.
We’ve also seen the problems of perpetual growth. Bartlett’s talk makes them quite clear. Not being an economist myself – so feel free to take this with a grain of salt – I’m going to point out what I believe to be the fallacy in Keynes’s logic. While it’s true that the money supply can be expanded indefinitely, the amount of physical resources available for consumption remains a fixed quantity that cannot be changed. Which means, if we’re going to learn to live within the limitations imposed by natural law, Capitalism has to become a zero-sum game.
Well, how do you reconcile that with the profit motive?
This is usually the part where someone comes along and starts denouncing the evils of Socialism and central planning while protesting my evil plan to move everyone into rigid society where liberty is dead. So let me be perfectly clear on this point.
I’m not advocating Socialism.
Socialism is an equally useless economic model, and employing its principles won’t do a thing to address the issue of resource management. In fact, for the purpose of this discussion, Socialism = Capitalism. Marxist Theory is rooted in idea that “the people who work in the factory should own the factory,” thereby receiving a greater share of the profits. From a Socialist perspective, it’s still in everyone’s best interest to mass produce goods and sell them at a profit; the only difference is who gets the lion’s share of the spoils. Under this system, steady growth is still a good thing, and you can see why that’s a problem.
No, I’m afraid we’re going to need an entirely new way of thinking, one rooted in conservation and sustainability.
Hey, looking for some great fiction? Check out Symbiosis, the book reviewers have called the illegitimate love child of Star Trek and Buffy.
Now available on Kindle
It’s had some great reviews!