Proposed Outline for a degrowth book
Bob Thomson, 16 November 2009 Introduction Why degrowth? - Entropy and economics - Climate change - Our destructive industrial model - The futility of sustainable development - The rebound effect Post Development - The critique of neo-classical economics - Stopping the development juggernaut - The myth of scarcity - wants vs needs - Ethno and bio diversity and development - Degrowth is not a return to the cave! - Degrowth and the global south An Overview of degrowth movements - Voluntary simplicity - convivial degrowth, slow food, etc. - Steady state & eco-economics - Deep ecology - World systems research/theory - Right Wing Degrowth Proponents - The World Social Forum - Europe vs North America - Indigenous/aboriginal approaches - Evo Morales and Living well but not better - The anarchists (?) - Degrowth in the Global South Undo development, remake the world - New politics - Self organization, complexity theory and post-capitalist cultures - Social movements vs the State: political agency in a new paradigm - Diversity vs leadership: Is there a conundrum? - Disaster as opportunity? - Other Worlds are Possible - The new 3 R's – Renounce, Redesign, Rebuild - Releasing the imagination Bibliography and internet resources

Introduction – Degrowth: The Imperative of Slowing Down Everything

Traditional economics teaches us that growth is good. It means more jobs, more consumption and more satisfaction of personal needs. But research on the history of Homo Sapien's last several hundred years on the planet Earth shows that unlimited economic growth has brought us to the brink of closely related financial and climate crises. What should have been obvious all along, that infinite growth on a finite planet is not possible, has now come into vogue. These crises provide us with an incentive to look at their roots and struggle to find a fresh place to start anew, looking at what alternatives we as a species and a planet might have from here.

This book examines degrowth as a solution to the future of human society on the planet Earth. The planet itself is not in danger after 4 billion years of evolving, adapting and adjusting, but our human society's role and impact on the planet is destined to change dramatically in the next decade or two in ways we are just now recognizing.

At the root of these financial and climate crises is the fact that we consume, and to consume we have to produce, and to produce we need energy, and we are using much more energy than the fixed and unchanging steady flow of energy available to fuel current levels of consumption. The First Law of Thermodynamics states that the the amount of energy in the Universe is fixed and the Second Law of Thermodynamics states that all energy when used to produce, will be transformed from a useful form to a bound or useless form.

We have been able to get away with this excess consumption and energy use by tapping into a large but fixed and now much diminished store of solar and terrestrial energy built up over millions or even billions of years. Solar energy, through photosynthesis by plants, provides a steady but nevertheless fixed and limited supply of energy which was stored as fossil fuels. Terrestrial energy is similarly fixed and is not infinite – for example a switch to nuclear energy would exhaust know uranium supplies in a short 30 years. In the past three centuries, homo industrialus has consumed these fixed stocks of stored energy to excess, moving away from homo erectus' reliance on constant but lesser flows of solar energy. We have done this in a way that releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at a rate which is disrupting the Earth's climate balances. These imbalances are such that they are beginning to seriously disrupt our production of food and our society's patterns of production and consumption.

We know with some certainty that it would take 6 planets to sustain the current 6 billion human inhabitants of Earth at the same level as North Americans or 3 planets at a European level of consumption. Knowing this is impossible, we are faced with radical changes in not only economic production and consumption, but in a host of cultural, community, lifestyle and political changes that will be necessary if we are to find a sustainable response to these crises, or to survive a catastrophic culling of our human numbers by destructive weather events, flooding, desertification, resource wars and famine.

We begin our exploration of degrowth with a review of the ecological history of the planet as essential background to understanding the complex inter-relationships between humans and the planet, between culture and nature. We look at the concept of entropy – the measure of no longer usable energy that is at the root of the thermodynamic destabilization of our current global system. We examine the failure of classical economic policies and look at what's happening and who's who in the growing world of post industrial development theories and at the social movements that are arising to respond to these crises. We explore and sketch out some of the myriad innovative approaches being discussed and actively pursued across the globe to cope with, counter, or maybe even mitigate these crises.

A number of emerging degrowth movements are convincingly challenging the fundamentals of neo-classical economics, but are not just talking about another economic model or an imperative resulting from an ecological crisis. Rather, many proponents see degrowth as a choice versus a necessity, an option to reconsider what constitutes a good life, giving precedence to human and social values over the economic and ecological, replacing consumers with citizens, warning against “ecototalitarianism” and promoting new forms of democracy. In this regard, an area ripe for further research and exploration is the potential for links with the “Live well but not better” Andean indigenous philosophy championed by Evo Morales, the President of Bolivia, and other Latin and North American aboriginal thinkers.

One broad conclusion could be that we will not be able to reduce our industrial consumption and production sufficiently or quickly enough to avoid catastrophic environmental changes if we continue the culture of the market, which assumes that the good of all depends on the pursuit of individual gain. The balance between community and individual, between personal wealth and common wealth, between humans and nature, has tipped too far toward the individual. The result has been that changes now necessary to save the planet go counter to the political, social and economic cultures and policies prevalent in most nation states of today's world. We need to find a new balance. One that tips us back toward community, while maintaining individual freedoms, but suppressing the abuses of the power of a few wealthy individuals over the many. This new balance favouring community over individual must also include the community of other animal and plant species with which we share the planet.

A realization is dawning – not only are there limits to growth - but negative growth is an option that needs serious consideration for the sake of the survival of humans as well as the planet as we know it. Groups are forming all over the globe to tackle this dilemma – at both macro and micro levels. In the Global South responses include cooperative energy and livelihood projects. In the North voluntary simplicity movements are taking hold and global fair trade/eco-sourcing trade initiatives have blossomed. Indigenous communities worldwide are finding growing confidence in their planet-view of a good, but not better life.

But it will take more, much more, if we are to overcome the heavy weight of centuries of investment in our current neo-liberal industrial model and the unsustainable way of living and consuming that it actively promotes. And it is more than a problem of just economics. This heavy weight has insinuated itself into the social, cultural and political fabric of the economically dominant western/northern world and through it, into important parts of the global south. Nothing short of a major upheaval in the way we live and respect the otherness of our non-human companions on the planet is likely to save us from an impending disaster.

Our intent here then is to describe the roots and causes of the unfolding collapse of our industrial model, outline the complex global and planetary systems which have gotten us into this mess, and explore the basic scientific, economic, social, cultural and political factors behind them, in the hope of that further study, debate and action will stimulate creative responses from social movements and occasionally governments.


Entropy and Economics

At the root of the current environmental and financial crises lies the basic fact that infinite growth on a finite planet is simply not possible. Our dependence on highly unequal, excessive and continued economic growth, and its consequent environmental impact, ignores this rather obvious reality. Classical economic theories ignore this basic fact, while a myriad of sustainable “development” hypotheses have sprung up which attempt to “reform” classical theory and purport to show that slower, continued “green” growth, with a more just distribution, can avoid these crises if only we act soon enough.

In this chapter, we look at this fundamental question of energy and economic growth through the eyes of a number of writers beginning back in the early twentieth century. To better understand some of the complex mathematical and scientific concepts used by the principal researchers in the area of economics and the environment, we'll also look at the history of planetary energy use as far back as 5000 BC, to follow the environmental impacts of homo erectus through to homo industrialus.

A central tenet of the need for economic degrowth is that solar and terrestrial energy, either current or stored, is the only energy on our finite planet that we can tap for fuelling economic activities, i.e. to grow food, make clothing and shelter, transport goods (and ourselves) for trade and create physical “capital” or machinery to help us do more of this. The first law of thermodynamics states that the source or stock of energy in the universe is finite. (Although in the case of the sun, it might be considered essentially infinite in relation to human needs.) However, the rate of flow of solar energy to the Earth is pretty much fixed and unchangeable. The amount of energy stored on the planet Earth through millions of years of photosynthesis in the form of fossil fuels (solar energy) or minerals (terrestrial energy), is significant but nevertheless finite. However, we have developed technologies which allow us to greatly increase the rate of extraction or use of these fixed millenia old “stocks”, many of which are now rapidly nearing exhaustion. The second law of thermodynamics states that this energy, when tapped, flows in one direction only, from a useful form to a less useful form, from low entropy to high entropy – entropy being a measure of “bound”, unusable or unavailable energy. “Waste energy cannot be recycled, except by spending more energy to power the recycle than would be reclaimed in the amount recycled.”1

Some argue that nuclear energy effectively has no such entropic limits, and has a theoretical capacity such as to be essentially unlimited in relation to human energy needs. However, estimates of current nuclear capacity and technology indicate that an increase in nuclear power generation to replace just 40% of present use of fossil fuels would deplete all currently known uranium deposits in about 30 years2, not to mention the prohibitive cost of disposing of or protecting the 99% of uranium fuel that cannot be transformed to energy and becomes highly toxic radioactive waste. While we may never physically completely run out of uranium (or oil for that matter), the cost of extraction would soon become too high to make it a feasible source compared to others.3 Furthermore, “each stage of the nuclear-fuel cycle including power plant construction, mining/milling uranium ores, fuel conversion, enrichment (or de-enrichment of nuclear weapons), fabrication, operation, decommissioning, and for short- and long-term waste disposal contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.4

Others argue that solar energy is also effectively a limitless source and could fuel further growth without increasing global warming. This of course ignores the fact that increasing the amount of solar energy retained on the planet will inevitably increase both temperature and waste products and will require energy to build the solar generation infrastructure. Furthermore, solar energy is not as “concentrated” as fossil fuel energy5, so while it might reduce the rate of entropy increase (i.e. waste) on the planet, it would not stop it. It might however slow, but not stop, the rate of global warming.

A related phenomenon known as the “rebound effect” comes in to play here. In 1865, English economist William Stanley Jevons discovered an efficiency paradox: the more efficient you make machines, the more energy they use.6 Why? Because the more efficient they are, the better they are, the cheaper they are and more people buy them, and the more they'll use them.7 More solar energy could generate solar cars, roads, gadgets, etc. and so might not be the solution many think it should be.

The second law of thermodynamics is clear. We cannot grow and increase entropy indefinitely without running into the limits of the planet, and so we must come to terms with the relationship between economics, entropy and the environment. As one commentator has noted, “you can't push your car backward to fill the gas tank!”8

But first, let's look at the history of planetary energy use. Why? Because an understanding of the dynamics of energy flows is central to an understanding of global warming and the current environmental crisis.

In 1922 Frederick Soddy, a British Nobel nuclear chemistry laureate turned economist, tackled the gulf between mathematical economics and physical/environmental reality. He argued that we must live on energy revenues or flows (e.g. sunlight captured by plants) and can only augment this revenue from eons of accumulated palaeozoic energy capital (e.g. fossil fuels), and that only for a limited time before these stocks are depleted. He pointed out that: “solar low entropy (revenue) is nearly infinite in total amount but strictly limited in its rate of flow to Earth, whereas terrestrial low entropy (concentrated minerals in the Earth's crust) is strictly limited in total amount, but can be used up at a rate of our own choosing.”9

The circular flow of goods and money so often cited by economists ignores the constant reduction of useful energy as projected by Soddy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics in its theoretical constructs promoting unlimited growth.

A history of planetary energy flows

It took millions of years for Homo Sapiens as hunter-gathers to seriously reduce the supply of wild animal and vegetable food sources using progressively more efficient tools, a period during which world human population grew inexorably. This population pressure forced a switch from the hunter-gatherer paradigm to the development of sedentary agriculture. Today, after some five thousand years of sedentary agriculture, followed by over two centuries as homo “industrialus”, we have used up 50 to 300 million years of accumulated planetary solar energy from photosynthesizing plants which turned water, soil and air into hydrocarbons.

Recently, a number of authors have begun to look at energy flows within our essentially closed ecological [planetary] system to better understand the relationships between the environment, the economy and human activities. Traditional economists, subscribing to both market and socialist approaches, have focused on flows of monetary income and changing stocks of monetary capital to the exclusion of the environment and energy flows.

New research highlighting these historical flows of energy range from Homer Thomas-Dixon's deconstruction of the thermodynamics of the collapse of the Roman Empire10 to Sing Chew's overview of 5,000 years of ecological degradation caused by human societies.11 Jared Diamond looks at 13,000 years of human history and asks why wealth and power came to be distributed as they are rather than in some other way12, while Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen13 and Jeremy Rifkin14 incorporated the second law of thermodynamics into economic theory. George Monbiot15 and James Lovelock16 describe the phenomenon of global warming and warn us of the potential disaster we face.

Looking at these accounts of human energy use, three broad historical energy paradigms, hunter-gatherer, sedentary agriculture and homo industrialus have dominated the environmental impact of humans on the planet. Population pressures on hunter-gatherer societies generated a new energy paradigm after several million years of gradual reduction of easy to catch animals and low lying “fruits”.17 This drove a transition to sedentary agriculture, which permitted the temporary storage of food energy and led to specialization of work tasks and increasing social complexity within the human population.18 Limits on land, resources and energy for agricultural expansion led to the development of fossil fuel energies and the emergence of homo industrialus.19

This history of differing periods of energy flows and stocks leads us to a very different understanding of the current financial and economic crisis from that of traditional event and personality histories.

Homer-Dixon's analysis of the thermodynamics of the collapse of the Roman empire provides a good introduction to the review of the ecology as opposed to the politics of this period. He follows the expansion of Rome's consumption of resources to the point where its capacity to extract energy from its hinterland waned and eventually collapsed.20 Calculating the calories of food energy needed to build the Colosseum, feed slaves, oxen and soldiers, control longer supply chains and cope with gradually exhausted crop lands, he shows how shortages of labour and the increased stresses of population, energy scarcity, environmental damage, climate change and economic inequality finally led to a collapse of urban population and the empire.

Sing Chew traces the interactions of culture and nature in his extensive reviews of Bronze Age Mesopotamia and later Mycenaean Greece.21 With the aid of countless archaeological studies, he follows population, urbanization and accumulation of capital to show how they impact the pace and extent of ecological degradation and exhaustion. The siltation of irrigation systems due to erosion following deforestation, expansion of pasture out of forest which preceded overgrazing for wool and textiles, salination of soils from desertification and lower agricultural productivity - all point to extensive ecological degradation responsible for the collapse, weakening or overthrow of numerous civilizations. He cites long-term cuniform trading and crop productivity records, evidence of recourse to longer supply chains for tin and copper, reduced pottery strength resulting from shortages of firewood – but a few of the indicators of economic and cultural stress which in turn have their impact on anthropocentric factors such as wars, corruption, clashes between elites and slaves, etc.

Jared Diamond in “Guns, Germs and Steel” looks at 13,000 years of human history, viewing differing developments of human societies on different continents, drawing on anthropology, behavioural ecology, linguistics, epidemiology, archaeology and technology.22 In his broad survey of how wealth and power came to be distributed as they were and now are, “he argues that the gaps in power and technology between human societies do not reflect cultural or racial differences, but rather originate in environmental differences.”23

It took several thousand years before the human population (one species out of millions of life forms on Earth), outgrew the agricultural energy paradigm which followed millions of years of hunter-gatherer societies. Jeremy Rifkin and Ted Howard have noted that in Europe, the growing population consumed more crops and trees than could be generated by the natural process of photosynthesis from current solar energy, leading to a reduction of forests and wood sources in Europe in the Middle-Ages.24 Deforestation, the limits of domesticated animal energy on land utilization and other factors led to still further resource pressures, which in turn pushed the development of new (but still finite) energy sources such as coal to satisfy changing and growing human 'needs'.25

The industrial 'revolution', after a few short centuries, has now greatly expanded the consumption and transformation of energy. The principle source was and remains solar energy accumulated via millions of years of photosynthesis into fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas. We have now reached a point where these fixed stocks are close to exhaustion, the so-called phenomenon of 'peak oil'.26 The by-products and wastes of this industrial energy paradigm produced by this “borrowing” from ancient solar flows, are now generating serious limits on productivity and further growth.

They are toxic, poisoning local areas, and bringing disruptive climate and environmental changes to the entire planet. In short, “traditional” economics are no longer economical. For example, the UNEP/EC sponsored research programme TEEB27 has calculated that losses of natural capital, just as a result of deforestation and soil degradation, is between 2 trillion and 4.5 trillion dollars per year, every year28 compared with world foreign direct investment flows in 2008 of $1.8 trillion.29

We have noted that classical economic analysis of income flows has missed or downplayed these macro environmental and energy trends by assuming that resources are infinite and that the Earth has the capacity to clean up after us by simply absorbing our wastes at little cost. This has proved to be a tragic mistake.

Despite this fundamental deficiency, orthodox economic analysis of accumulated “wealth” and the flows of economic income and surpluses generated between many actors across geography, demography and time are nevertheless important to an understanding of the 'big picture' that underpins our current crisis, even if it ignores the overall picture that inclusion of energy, environmental and social factors would add to our understanding.

The distribution of who has what and where is still important, in that it influences the dynamics of overall “wealth” accumulation and therefore of stocks as well as flows of both energy and money.

We can also look at the human history of globalization, in the transition from mercantilism to empires to a post-colonial world and the growth of the influence of transnational capital versus nation states. We have much to learn from these geographic, demographic, temporal and political flows of income. The key to understanding lies in a focus on both flows and accumulation, not just on stocks of “wealth”. More importantly, we also need to think about the human (political, cultural and sociological) and ecological factors which influenced those flows.

Looking at modern history for example, during decolonization, the UK built an empire based on global control of natural resources and slave labour.30 As popular revolts threatened rates of colonial pillage in the late 1940's and 1950's, the British cultivated an Afro-Saxon class to which they felt they could safely bequeath the outposts of empire. So too the French, in support of their own empire, encouraged an Afro-Gallic class which remained loyal to the Elysee's myth of 'liberté, egalité, fraternité'. These political/cultural/sociological (i.e. anthropocentric) elements of human history, while falling within a broad economic framework, are themselves non-economic factors or contexts which nevertheless influence or even determine the economic framework.

However, in this period of history we call capitalism, the surpluses to be captured from the control of governance and mercantile trade which was ceded to these new non-European 'governors' was never sufficient to generate autonomous local wealth, compared to that gleaned from European industrial manufacturing. For the most part these new colonial elites simply never had the ability to accumulate capital or develop an autonomous capitalist base which would allow a complete rupture from their imperial or neo-colonial roots.

Without an autonomous economic base, the elite governors of the global south had to rely on state control to maintain their dominance. The result was a deformed polity dependent on frequently shifting political, tribal, religious or even family alliances. Throughout the post-colonial world, weak and unstable governments remain easily dominated by the industrial grand-parents.

All the same, the grassroots revolts against colonial exploitation did produce trade unions, nationalist movements and political forces outside (and sometimes even within) the colonial elites, which have played an important role in this complex dialectic of historical give and take.

Gone are the heady days and dashed hopes of democracy from the era of political decolonization that stretched from Indian and Ghanaian independence in 1947 and 1957 until the final days of the Portuguese Empire in the mid-1970s. Since the 1990s, economic globalization has reached a torrid pace and spread its complex tentacles, shifting manufacturing beyond the old imperial heartlands. It has been an era marked by enormous expansion of consumption, technology and international trade. But this has been highly unequal and plagued by growing resource scarcities, an overextension of imperial power, both military and financial, and a still insecure but nevertheless increased degree of state legitimacy in the global South. This state legitimacy, aided at first by the now defunct Soviet Union, is the subject of a whole other tangent in our analysis meriting further attention [but not here?].

In the past several decades, a number of ex-colonial nation states and their ruling classes have been able to accumulate enough local capital, technological capacity and political clout to begin to challenge northern industrial domination. However, while the BRICs31 may be in the process of shifting global economic negotiations from the G7 to the G20, they have not yet challenged the dominant neo-liberal industrial model.

The traditional neo-liberal economic theories and policies which led this global growth, focus almost exclusively on economic “development”, and have proved not only inadequate to account for the cost of environmental degradation, but have actually encouraged it. Climate change in particular has forced us to look much more closely at the interaction of economics and environment.

With this history behind us, we can now go back to some of the first modern studies of economics and the environment, largely from the pioneering work of two men, Frederick Soddy (1877 – 1956), a British nuclear chemist, and Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (1906 – 1994), a Romanian mathematician and economist. Georgescu-Roegen32 in particular has become the mentor of a large part of the European degrowth movement while remaining largely unknown until recently in North America except for a few specialists in the area of environment and economics.33. Soddy has been almost completely unknown until recently and was widely regarded as a crank in economic circles in the early twentieth century.34

Frederick Soddy (1877 - 1956)

As noted earlier, Soddy argued that we must live on solar and terrestrial energy revenues or flows and can only augment this revenue from energy capital, and that only for a limited time before these stocks are depleted. He pointed out that: “solar low entropy (revenue) is nearly infinite in total amount but strictly limited in its rate of flow to Earth, whereas terrestrial low entropy (concentrated minerals in the Earth's crust) is strictly limited in total amount, but can be used up at a rate of our own choosing.”35

Stocks of [energy] assets, to the extent that we can maintain them against the ravages of entropy, are aids and accessories in improving our ability to tap the energy revenue, but the revenue itself cannot be significantly increased and it cannot be saved except to a limited degree.”36

In his Cartesian Economics37 Soddy was very clear: “Physical science thus answers precisely, and, I think for the first time, the problem of political economy, or , as one Marxian writer puts it, «What are the sources of our society's wealth, that is, the means of subsistence and comforts of the individuals comprising it?» The means of subsistence are derived from the daily revenue of solar energy, through the operations of agriculture. The accessories of life, clothes, houses and fuel, as well as its comforts and luxuries, are derived in great part by the augmentation of this revenue out of a capital store of energy preserved from bygone geological times. Life depends from instant to instant on a continuous flow of energy, and hence wealth, the enabling requisites of life, partakes of the character of a flow rather than a store.”

Indeed, as we repeatedly have stressed, in the past two to three centuries we have already used up millions of years of accumulated solar energy in the form of fossil fuels.38 “Economic development since the industrial revolution has been in the direction of ever less reliance on the abundant current solar flow and toward dependence on the relatively scarce terrestrial stock. This is what Soddy called the 'flamboyant period', destined to be short-lived.”39

With respect to “capital” or saved energy revenue, “Soddy emphasized that the present surplus accumulation can never be changed into future revenue in any physical sense, but only exchanged for it under social conventions. Although it may comfort the lender to think that his [or her] wealth still exists somewhere in the form of 'capital', it has been or is being used up by the borrower either in consumption or investment, and no more than food or fuel can it be used again later. Rather it has become debt, an indent on future revenues to be generated by future sunshine. 'Capital', says Soddy , 'merely means unearned income divided by the rate of interest and multiplied by 100' (Cartesian Economics, page 27)”.40

In applying these physical and thermodynamic realities to economics, Soddy noted that modern currencies are not real wealth, “but only symbols that represent the bearer's claim on an economy's ability to generate [future] wealth”41 He noted that banks create debt based on a claim on future wealth generation (future production), but that, while compound interest can increase debt exponentially, real physical wealth is subject to physical limits to growth and is “corruptible”, i.e. subject to the second law of thermodynamics, which holds that there is a one-way flow of finite energy in the universe, depreciation if you like, from more to less useful energy.

He added: “The real 'lender' is the community at large whose money balances lose in purchasing power with the issue of new money [by the banks]. We know the new money will be spent and increase demand, because the borrower who gets it would not pay interest just to increase his idle balances. Prices are bid up since ex nihilo [out of nothing] creation of money (demand) can increase much more rapidly than can the ex materia creation of new physical wealth (supply).”42

Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (1906 - 1994)

Georgescu-Roegen was a Romanian mathematician, statistician and economist, best known for his 1971 magnum opus The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, which postulated that the second law of thermodynamics governs all economic processes, i.e., that usable "free energy" tends to disperse or become lost in the form of "bound energy", limiting the possibilities of economic growth. He is considered the godfather of degrowth economics and the mentor of most European proponents.43

Although he apparently was unaware of Soddy's work on thermodynamics and economics44, Georgescu-Roegen came to very similar conclusions. He was a mathematical economist however, and his work is not easily accessible to those of us not versed in the world of matrix algebra, indifference curves and the laws of thermodynamics. An understanding of his work is easier having reviewed the history of energy flows presented earlier.

Georgescu-Roegen began with the First Law of Thermodynamics, which states that the total amount of energy in the universe is fixed, and thus new energy cannot be produced. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that energy can only be transformed from one form to another, and in one direction only, i.e. from useful energy, to energy that is no longer available to fuel economic activity. Within this thermodynamic reality largely ignored by traditional economists, entropy is a measure of the amount of energy no longer able to be converted to productive “work”.

For example, burning coal or falling water can be transformed into motion or electricity, but ashes and lower level water cannot be reused again, at least not without adding other new sources of energy from within the existing finite stock. As noted earlier, you can't push your car backward to fill the gas tank.

In a practical sense then, the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the concept of entropy mean that we simply do not have unlimited sources of energy to fuel further economic growth, a fact overlooked by conventional economics. As already stated, the energy we currently derive from hydrocarbons (fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas) is the product of millions of years of accumulation of incoming solar energy via plant photosynthesis – a process that cannot be replicated in a short time frame. Once it's gone, it's gone.

We will soon reach, if we haven't already, the point of 'peak oil', i.e. the point at which we extract and use hydrocarbon resources faster than we find new sources or develop more efficient technologies to use them. Synthetic or agro-fuels (such as gasohol) and new materials made from carbohydrates (i.e. grown vs extracted from hydrocarbons) are far less concentrated than fossil fuels and subject to this same entropic limit. In addition, the agronomic, demographic and social disruptions of growing vs mining energy is magnifying the very problems it set out to solve.45

Georgescu-Roegen was largely ignored by classical economists, particularly in his adopted home, the USA. Herman Daly notes that Georgescu-Roegen himself commented to the effect that “in the house of the condemned, one must not mention the executioner”46 and adds that not only was his formidable reputation as a mathematician intimidating, but that he was not an easy man to get along with.

HIs “heretical insistence that markets, societies, and ecosystems all share a common dependence on energy and the relentless laws of thermodynamics led him to the unpopular conclusion that modern human society is not sustainable. Shunning even the alternative visions of steady state, appropriate technology, 'small is beautiful', and sustainable development as so much 'snake oil' “ 47

Entropy and Climate Change

Having looked at these elements of the thermodynamics of development economics, we now turn to the closely related phenomenon of climate change, and specifically at global warming. Global warming is now accepted as an important by-product of human industrial production and is projected to result in a number of serious effects with the potential to disrupt human life and economic activities. For example: rising sea levels; increased frequency of some extreme weather events; heavy precipitation and flooding leading to erosion and desertification; changes in oceanic circulation which regulate polar ice caps and solar reflection; etc., etc.

Like thermodynamics, global warming is a complex topic with many scientific variables and the subject of much controversy. Basically, it is the phenomenon whereby greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, released into the Earth's atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels, increases the absorption of incoming solar energy, causing atmospheric temperature to rise.

Since essentially unfettered economic growth is the principal root cause of greenhouse gas accumulation in the Earth's atmosphere, any negotiated targets for their reduction to reduce the catastrophic impact of global warming must directly involve either reduced consumption or new technologies, or both. Some observers believe that it is already too late to attempt to reduce their concentrations and that carbon offsetting is a joke and ethical living a scam.48 Here we look at the complex science behind global warming and try to understand what it might mean for degrowth.

Carbon levels in the atmosphere have actually increased and decreased over the centuries, with a high degree of correlation between atmospheric temperature and parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere.49 Historical levels can be determined through the measurement of CO2 in ice cores taken from glaciers and the Antarctic which have accumulated over thousands of years.

Controversies over global warming revolve around whether current temperature levels are at or are increasing faster than historical levels, and whether humans are responsible for increasing carbon levels.50 The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that most of the observed temperature increase since the middle of the 20th century was caused by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases resulting from human activity such as fossil fuel burning and deforestation.51

The Earth as a complex ecosystem has developed mechanisms which adjust carbon levels in the atmosphere and thus maintain atmospheric chemicals and temperature within ranges that permit life to continue in its myriad forms. These mechanisms involve controls over the reflection of solar energy back into space, as well as balancing the concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere which absorb solar energy. Many scientists believe these balancing mechanisms have now been overwhelmed by economic growth and that the result will be an inevitable and potentially disastrous culling of human life.

So how does global warming work?

Higher atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases lead to greater absorption of solar energy, increasing atmospheric warming. But clouds and ice cover reflect solar energy before it warms the Earth itself and ocean algae absorb the principal greenhouse gas element, carbon, to limit its accumulation. There is a sophisticated relationship between clouds and carbon concentrations in which dimethyl sulphide (DMS) produced by ocean algae is crucial to the precipitation of water vapour and thus reflective cloud formation. Water vapour needs a solid to condense from vapour to liquid and the majority of cloud condensation nuclei over the oceans appears to be DMS.52

But higher carbon concentration and global warming heats the surface of the oceans, reducing oxygen levels in surface waters and therefore the nutrient content of the sea water that feeds the algae. This reduces the concentration of algae and therefore their consumption of carbon dioxide and their production of DMS and thus reflective cloud formation, a dual function that helps cool the planet and balance atmospheric temperatures.53

The intricate links between algae living in the oceans, sulphur particle production, atmospheric chemistry, cloud physics and climate are slowly being uncovered in dozens of laboratories around the world.” according to James Lovelock, the original proposer of the Gaia hypothesis that the biosphere and the Earth are closely integrated in a complex interacting system that maintains climatic and biochemical balance on Earth.54 Lovelock believes that the Earth is a living super-organism, whose delicate balancing of planetary chemistry has been disrupted by human activities which will result in an inevitable major decline in human population over the next hundred years.55

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007 set a target of 450 ppm maximum of atmospheric CO2, which they thought would limit the global temperature rise to below 2˚C, and prevent “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”56  Other scientists state that we must reduce atmospheric CO2 down to 350 ppm, or else face irreversible catastrophic effects57 The current level of atmospheric CO2 is 385 ppm (September 2009)58 and was 450 ppm some 50 million years ago when Earth was nearly ice free. “If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm, but likely less than that.” 59

Globally, approximately 29.2 Billion net metric tons of CO2 were added to the atmosphere through the combustion of fossil fuels in 2006.60 “Total anthropogenic emissions of one trillion tonnes of carbon (3.67 trillion tonnes of CO2), about half of which has already been emitted since industrialization began, results in a most likely peak carbon-dioxide-induced warming of 2 °C above pre-industrial temperatures.”61 More than 100 countries have adopted a global warming limit of 2 °C or below (relative to pre-industrial levels) as a guiding principle for mitigation efforts to reduce climate change risks, impacts and damages.62 At a rate of 29 billion metric tons a year, we would reach this trillion ton limit in the next 17 years!

As can be seen from the diagram below, the vast majority of these emissions come from industrial sources, leading us to the next chapter on the destructive nature of our industrial “development” model.


The energy/entropy history of the planet and Homo Industrialus' impact on it are the subject of many new and not so new studies and reviews. This is a largely English bibliography. There are dozens if not hundreds of works in French, Spanish, Italian and other languages which can be found on the internet.

Bob Thomson, Ottawa, 14 March 2010

See other bibliographies at:


Many environmentalists are critical of Lovelock's proposal to use nuclear energy as a short-term solution in a transition to a more sustainable society.

[MOVED] Chew notes that “cultural willingness and foresight to make changes in lifestyle and social organization and perhaps levels of technology and knowledge available” could address the conditions of the ecological crisis.63


Traditional economists have simply assumed there are no immediate or meaningful limits on resources or energy to restrict endless economic growth. But the concept of entropy exists in the general public consciousness as a kind of folk wisdom – witness phrases like 'there's no free lunch', 'you can't buck the system', and 'there's no use crying over spilt milk'. With the mainstream media reluctantly recognizing that global warming and climate degradation are an immediate threat to human survival, public awareness can only grow stronger. This despite efforts by the large corporations which benefit from the current hydrocarbon dependent industrial infrastructure to either minimize the seriousness of the problem or give us 'happy face' corporate solutions. Anything to marginalize the radical alternatives needed to get beyond this crisis.

The area of our finite Earth available to produce what we consume and use to clean up our wastes is about 2.1 hectares per person (based on current population levels). The average global per person 'footprint' at current rates of production and consumption is 2.7 hectares. Oops too much. And some of us use far too much. US citizens each require an average of 9.4 global hectares (or nearly 4.5 Planet Earths if the global population all had access to the Great US Mall). Currently Chinese citizens use on average 2.1 global ha. per person (i.e. one Planet Earth).64

Nature 458, 1158-1162 (30 April 2009) Greenhouse-gas emission targets for limiting global warming to 2 °C

The Critique of Neo-Classical Economics [This might better go in the next chapter]

In addition to their critique of the failure of neo-classical economics to adequately consider environmental and/or energy limits on economic growth (see above), Soddy, Georgescu-Roegen and other degrowth proponents have attacked the assumptions, and therefore the validity, of the quantitative, mathematical framework of neo-classical micro and macroeconomic theory which underpin most economic policy prescriptions promoted today by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Paris Club, the Washington Consensus, etc.

Noting that “economic phenomenon cannot be described by a mathematical system”65, Georgescu-Roegen pointed out that economics is more than market exchanges based solely on prices, and that the assumptions underlying the utility theory concepts so central to neo-classical economics lacked credibility. Their use of the notion of indifference, with its dependence on a cut and dried choice between preference and non-preference of goods of relative utility, confuses mathematical concepts with consumer reality according to Georgescu-Roegen.

In lay terms, he argued that consumers are not guided in their maximization of “utility” by economics or prices alone, but differentiate among biological, social, personal and economic wants, many of which cannot be reduced to points on a theoretical indifference curve.66 Both Soddy and Georgescu-Roegen concluded that price and therefore money value is not an accurate reflection of real world marginal utility.

When one realizes that over two-thirds [three-quarters?] of the population of the planet Earth make economic decisions based on relationships of reciprocity and interdependence, and the minimization of regrets, and not just on the maximization of utility based on market prices, it is not difficult to see how “development” policies based on this dominant but misleading and unsound neo-classical economic theory have failed not only this two-thirds majority but now is failing the entire planet and pushing us to unsustainable and destabilizing economic growth.

Soddy did not spare Marxist economic theorists in his critique of classical economists. He noted however, that had Marx been aware of “the modern doctrine of energy there can be little doubt that his acute and erudite mind would easily have grasped its significance in the social sciences. As it was, in fairness to him it must be said that he did not attempt to solve the real nature of wealth, but concentrated entirely upon the problem of its monetary equivalent, that is, upon exchange-value rather than use-value. Of wealth he said labour is its father and the Earth its mother, a dictum which varies in degree of truth with the latitude as well as with the state of agricultural engineering.” 67

A more sophisticated presentation of the neo-classical circular flows of money and goods.


1 See Wikipedia re Thermodynamics” for a useful summary of these concepts

2 Edward Keller,Some facts about nuclear, solar and wind”, Environmental Science: Earth as a Living Planet, 2001

3 See Kyle Saunders, “How Uranium Depletion Affects the Economics of Nuclear Power”, The Oil Drum, 18 April 2007

4 Science Daily, 5 March 2008 Nuclear Power Not Efficient Enough to Replace Fossil Fuels



7 Alec Dubro, “The Myth of the Efficient Car”, The Progressive, 9 February 2009

8 Eric Zencey, “Mr. Soddy's Ecological Economy”, New York Times, 12 April 2009

9 Herman Daly, “The Economic Thought of Frederick Soddy”, History of Political Economy, Winter 1980

10 Thomas Homer Dixon, “The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity & the Renewal of Civilization ”, 2007

11 Sing C. Chew, “World Ecological Degradation: Accumulation, Urbanization, and Deforestation 3000 BC – AD 2000”, 2001

12 Jared Diamond, “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies”, 1997

13 Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, “The Entropy Law and the Economic Process”, 1971

14 Jeremy Rifkin and Ted Howard, “Entropy: A New World View”, 1980

15 George Monbiot, “Heat: How Can We Stop the Planet Burning?”, 2006

16 James Lovelock, “The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth is fighting back and how we can still save humanity”, 2006

17 Jeremy Rifkin & Ted Howard, “Entropy: A New World View”, 1980, p.65

18 Whether this switch was the result of technological changes or population pressure is discussed by Ester Boserup in “The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure” 1965,

19 Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, “Technology Assessment: The Case of the Direct Use of Solar Energy”, Atlantic Economic Journal, Vol.6 No.4, December 1978, p.15

20 Thomas Homer-Dixon, “The Upside of Down”, op cit pp. 43-60

21 Sing C. Chew, “World Ecological Degradation: Accumulation, Urbanization, and Deforestation 3000 BC – AD 2000”

22 Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel" op cit


24 Jeremy Rifkin & Ted Howard, “Entropy: A New World View”, 1980, p.70

25 Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, “Technology Assessment: The Case of the Direct Use of Solar Energy”, Atlantic Economic Journal, Vol.6 No.4, December 1978, p.15


27 The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity,

28 Julio Godoy, “G20: Stiglitz & Sen come in too late”, IPS, 24 September 2009

29 World Investment Report – 2008, UNCTAD

30 Good reviews of British colonization can be found in Eric Williams “Capitalism and Slavery” 1944, and Walter Rodney's “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa”, 1973

31 BRIC - Brazil, Russia, India & China, a term coined by the investment company Goldman Sachs in 2001

32 For an accessible review of Georgescu-Roegen's work, see John Gowdy and Susan Mesner, “The Evolution of Georgescu-Roegen's Bioeconomics, Review of Social Economy, Vol. LVI, No. 2, Summer 1998

33 With few exceptions, there is almost no reference to Georgescu-Roegen in much North American literature on degrowth or sustainable economics. Daly points out many of the reasons for this in "How long can neoclassical economists ignore the contributions of Georgescu-Roegen?" 1999

34 See Herman Daly, “The Economic Thought of Frederick Soddy”, History of Political Economy, Winter 1980

35 Daly, op cit “The Economic Thought of Frederick Soddy

36 Daly, op cit “The Economic Thought of Frederick Soddy

37 “Cartesian Economics”

38 Wikipedia re peak oil

39 Daly, op cit “The Economic Thought of Frederick Soddy

40 H. Daly, op cit – See Soddy's “Cartesian Economics” online at

41 Zencey, op cit, “Mr. Soddy's Ecological Economy”, New York Times, 12 April 2009

42 H. Daly, op cit “The Economic Thought of Frederick Soddy


44 H. Daly, op cit “The Economic Thought of Frederick Soddy” p.482

45 For a good overview of the agrofuels conundrum and these disruptions, see “ch”, Transnational Institute, Amsterdam, 2008

46 Herman Daly, “How long can neoclassical economists ignore the contributions of Georgescu-Roegen?”, in Bioeconomics and Sustainability: Essays in honour of Nicholas Georegscu-Roegen”, Ed. Mayumi and Gowdy, 1999

47 Gowdy and Mesner, “The Evolution of Georgescu-Roegen's Bioeconomics”, Review of Social Economy Vol. LVI No. 2 1998

48James Lovelock believes catastrophe is inevitable, Guardian 1 March 2008

49 Barnola et al, “Historical Atmospheric CO2 record from the Vostok ice core”, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 1998




53 See James Lovelock, “The Revenge of Gaia” chapter 2 for a good explanation of this mechanism.

54 James Lovelock, “The Revenge of Gaia”, 2006, p. 31

55Lovelock, op cit, “The Revenge of Gaia




59 NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Study, Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?”, The Open Atmospheric Science Journal, 2008, 2, 217-231

60 US Environmental Protection Agency, “2009 U.S. Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report”, April 2009

61 University of Oxford, "Warming caused by cumulative carbon emissions towards the trillionth tonne", published in Nature 458, 1163-1166 (30 April 2009)

62 IPPC, Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report

63 Sing C. Chew, op cit, p.11


65 Cited in Gowdy, op cit, p.138

66 See Gowdy, op cit p..141

67 Frederick Soddy, “Cartesian Economics: The Bearing of Physical Science upon State Stewardship”, London 1921(?)