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Byron Shire
May 24, 2024

What the ph’c is going on? The ecological crisis and the steady-state solution

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Every science student learns in school about matter and energy: that there are three states of matter (solid, liquid, and gas), and two forms of energy (kinetic and potential). 

An astute physicist will point out that there are more states of matter (true), but that is not relevant here. What is relevant for our earthly concerns at this time, is that from the perspective of modern science, matter and energy are the foundation of everything that exists. 

Everything? Yep, even you and your thoughts. In western philosophy this idea is called ‘materialism’, not to be confused with mass consumerism – another meaning associated with ‘materialism’. While controversial, the materialist worldview – that everything is composed of matter and energy – leads to some important principles relevant to the ecological crisis now underway.

First, humans have been increasing, and continue to increase, their use of both matter and energy for many centuries. The rate of increase accelerated greatly following World War II, and at present globally, humans use about 100 billion tonnes of matter and about 600 exajoules (6 followed by 20 zeros) of energy every year. 

Figure 1: Economic growth – increases in matter and energy and decreases in ecosystems / natural environments.

From the materialist conception of the world this has drastic ecological consequences since all that matter and energy for human use is unavailable for any other species. These increases in matter and energy are directly related to the commonplace policy of economic growth: the economy is a real thing, so the growth in production of real goods and services requires growth in matter and energy, which come from the environment. This materialist understanding of economic growth and its ecological consequences is shown in figure 1. Notice that as the economy grows it expands into the surrounding ecosystems, degrading their functionality. 

With this materialist understanding of the world in view, the ecological crisis becomes wholly intelligible; put simply, there are too many people using too many resources. Virtually every ecological problem that raises concerns today: biodiversity loss, climate change, the hole in the ozone layer, overextension of the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, plastics and other pollutant build-ups in the environment, and all the rest, are the result of our dedication to economic growth and its associated increases in matter and energy.

Figure 2: Steady-state economy – allowing for the preservation of the ecosystem. Source: Author’s own, adapted from Daly (2015).

Solution straightforward

Next, with a materialist understanding of the world the solution to the ecological crisis is straightforward: we need to limit the amount of matter and energy that we use to a sustainable level. This situation, known as the steady-state economy, has been promoted by ecological economists for decades, and is depicted in figure 2. 

This situation provides the important distinction between growth and development: whereas growth is a quantitative increase in matter and energy use, development is qualitative changes in material output, with the amount of matter and energy use held steady. Such qualitative changes can include changes in technology, fashion, and income and wealth distribution, and are represented in the diagram by different colours of material output. With this important terminological and conceptual difference in mind, there is no development going on in Byron Shire, only growth, which is inherently unsustainable in/on a finite shire, state, Earth, solar system, etc. Think of a human body analogy: a baby grows by accreting more matter and consuming more energy, but a grown adult can continue to develop throughout their life through experience and education without any growth at all.

In a biophysical sense the steady-state economy is the solution to our ecological crisis, which will continue to worsen until the matter and energy used by humans is brought down to and held at a sustainable level. Straightforward though this is, achieving a steady-state economy will not occur easily; economic growth, capital accumulation and the associated concentration of political and economic power are core features of the capitalist world-system. 

Still, one must hold out hope and do what is possible for its achievement. In the last federal election the only party that gave policy support for the steady-state economy was the TNL party (formerly registered as The New Liberals, an Australian political party formed in 2019 and founded by Victor Kline). 

Perhaps linking facts about matter and energy to our ecological crisis in school would help realise a steady-state economy.


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6 COMMENTS

  1. Green matter? Blue energy? Still time to secure a spot in Sat’s citizen science event- ring Cate Coorey and say you want to join in and see why local coastal beach walks matter and how Belongil and Tallow energies are in form of ICOLLS- a, er, what? Intermittently Closed and Opening Lakes and Lagoons!!??!!@#$%$&&

  2. Intelligently argued. There really is no cover for those who want to do business as usual until the world is uninhabitable; all the facts and science are against them.

  3. We have repeatedly headed for limits to what our environment can supply over the last 400 years, and each time we have innovated and completely changed those limits, but each of those innovations also dramatically grew the economy. It’s not either or. For example, we had to use 75% of all farm land to grow oats to fuel our work horses, and we were rapidly heading for over population and mass starvation. So we developed oil technology thus freeing up the farm land, making food easier and cheaper to grow via the oil powered tractors. We were going to starve by the mid-80s but we developed modern farming technology and could suddenly grow enough food for over 10 billion people. We keep doing this in all fields and each time the economy goes through a boom while using less energy and matter to produce superior results.

    Some questions. ‘ too many people using too many resources’, who do you want to reduce and who to you want to have live in poverty? Which animals desperately need the crude oil, coal, iron ore, etc that we are taking from them?

    I agree with you that we have to keep innovating for greater efficiency, that’s actually the reason we make civilisations in the first place if you know how they work. But a big part of our growth in the future is to draw resources in from space, while sending as much of our population off planet as practical. We are currently developing that technology you may have noticed. And it will dramatically expand the economy without have to kill nor impoverish anyone.

    • Wow. So these are our choices? Get sent off-planet (your wording implies a lack of choice … reminiscent of our own not-too-distant history of penal settlements) to mine the moon while the wealthy stay here and enjoy themselves?
      I like Jason’s suggestion better. But it’s a bit like dealing with addiction. On a massive scale. We have enough for everyone to live simply (materially) and richly (culturally/spiritually). But the uneven distribution we currently have has been working to make more people materially wealthy, until it’s just not gonna work any more (given finite resources and ecological needs). The costs to the planet’s systems are starting to bite human systems – look at our current housing crisis – such a mirror of the loss of habitat of other species. We’ve been told greed is good for far too long. Other ways of life, that recognise and are based on our non-separation from the planet and its complex, beautiful systems … are possible, and far more interesting and enjoyable. But yeah … not likely if the drug-dealers are allowed to keep pushing their addictive substances.

  4. We have repeatedly headed for limits to what our environment can supply over the last 400 years, and each time we have innovated and completely changed those limits, but each of those innovations also dramatically grew the economy. It’s not either or. For example, we had to use 75% of all farm land to grow oats to fuel our work horses, and we were rapidly heading for over population and mass starvation. So we developed oil technology thus freeing up the farm land, making food easier and cheaper to grow via the oil powered tractors. We were going to starve by the mid-80s but we developed modern farming technology and could suddenly grow enough food for over 10 billion people. We keep doing this in all fields and each time the economy goes through a boom while using less energy and matter to produce superior results.
    Some questions. ‘ too many people using too many resources’, who do you want to reduce and who to you want to have live in poverty? Which animals desperately need the crude oil, coal, iron ore, etc that we are taking from them?
    I agree with you that we have to keep innovating for greater efficiency, that’s actually the reason we make civilisations in the first place if you know how they work. But a big part of our growth in the future is to draw resources in from space, while sending as much of our population off planet as practical. We are currently developing that technology you may have noticed. And it will dramatically expand the economy without have to kill nor impoverish anyone.

    REPLY:

    The type of reply Christian presents is often referred to as ‘technological sustainability’ in the literature. It, as Christian asserts with little long-term reference to history and none to natural laws and limitations, argues that technological innovation will enable ‘us’, whoever that is, to continue the biophysical expansion of the economy indefinitely. Let’s take a closer look.
    First, the narrow period of history that Christian has chosen is the most anomalous period in earth’s history. This is important because it frames his argument in apparently favourable terms. The earth is about 4.5 billion years old. Life appeared about 3.7 billion years ago, and the Cambrian explosion which produced many of the current plant and animal taxa occurred about half a billion years ago. Modern humans with a genetically endowed language capacity (which is what’s enabling this conversation) occurred about two to three hundred thousand years ago. The recession of the last ice age which permitted settled agriculture happened about 12 thousand years ago. Capitalism, as historicised by world-systems analysis, and which is roughly congruent with the beginning of Christian’s history, is a mere 500 hundred years old. Everything that preceded it is forgotten about. Only the inexorable growth that is a core feature of capitalism is presented. I think this is a monumental error; a little thought will show why.
    Next, contrary to what social constructivists want to believe, there are in fact real natural laws of and limitations to the world; they are not just ‘social constructions’. The most pertinent of these, as argued by ecological economists for decades, are the first and second law of thermodynamics. Any physics or thermodynamics textbook will explain these, but basically, the first law limits the amount of energy (and matter), and the second law limits the efficiency of energy transformations (it can never be 100%). This is too big a topic to bear lengthy examination here. Interested readers who want to get a handle on this could read Hall and Klitgaard’s textbook on biophysical economics; I would certainly recommend Christian do so.
    Finally, to address Christian’s questions posed about redistributive politics and policies, I suggest he read Daly and Farley’s textbook on ecological economics, particularly Part VI. This web form doesn’t allow hyperlinking to these texts, but they’re easily found, especially the latter. The suggest about extraterrestrial growth is not a serious solution to this issue.

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