Shock Treatment

Earth seen from Apollo 17 – public domain image

It’s the 50th anniversary of the very first Earth Day. I certainly didn’t think I’d be celebrating it like this: inside our house, in the middle of a pandemic. This pandemic is shock treatment for both the economy and the political system. Where do we go from here?

As a college student, I remember the local celebrations of the very first Earth Day in Nashville in 1970. I wasn’t yet vegan. The event itself seemed rather innocuous. I don’t remember any of the speeches and didn’t stay until the end. Sure, I thought, it’s nice to protect the environment. But the need for clean air, clean water, and nice places for Smokey the Bear to live didn’t seem to present the same sort of existential threat that the war in Vietnam did, in which hundreds of thousands were being killed and of which we ourselves could conceivably become victims.

Today the environmental crisis is an existential threat to human civilization far greater than the Vietnam War. Just by itself, COVID-19 has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and we ourselves could conceivably become victims. And the pandemic is only one of a long list of ominous problems. Remember “climate change”? How about “mass extinctions” or “peak oil”?

Many years later, I found out that my Dad (a nuclear physicist) had also celebrated that very first Earth Day in 1970. He had helped arrange for M. King Hubbert, the pioneering oil geologist, to give a talk in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Hubbert was an early prophet of peak oil. Hubbert tersely described the entire oil age as just a small blip in human history. (See chart below.) This little blip was “Hubbert’s pimple.”

“Hubbert’s pimple”: the insignificance of the oil age

In economic terms, the biggest impact of the pandemic may very well be that it will bring the oil age to an end — by forcing “peak oil.” The true meaning of “peak oil” is not that we “run out of oil,” but that oil production becomes increasingly difficult and expensive, and starts to decline. It’s true that oil production was already problematic even before the pandemic. The economy was a mess. A recession was likely, the economy was saturated with low-paying jobs, the national debt was soaring out of sight, and some oil companies were already bankrupt. But the pandemic seems to have delivered the knockout punch. Other people have already reached similar conclusions.

I could be wrong. It’s possible that the government might bail out the big oil companies and then subsidize them on an ongoing basis, that we could revive consumer confidence, and that the oil age could stagger forward once again. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to visualize how this might happen. Most likely, this means the end of the oil era and the end of economic growth entirely.

The pandemic is also very much about our treatment of animals, which was the immediate cause of COVID-19. Some people ate pangolins, became sick, and here we are on Earth Day. But the significance of the pandemic is much greater than this one problem. Our treatment of animals is just part of a broader human pattern of indiscriminately devouring not just animals, but plants and minerals as well.

Cyclists riding in Melbourne for climate protest. Source: Takver,

And here’s the strangest thing: in many respects our economic situation isn’t that bad! It’s understandably troubling that 95% of all COVID-19 deaths have occurred in MY age category and that it’s REALLY contagious. Yet in economic terms, if we can somehow manage to stay alive, a lot of things are going really well. The air is clean. Greenhouse gas emissions are sharply down. Traffic jams have evaporated. (Bike paths, though, are a bit more crowded. We need to do something about that.) No one’s going to starve to death, not from lack of food, anyway — farmers are plowing under all the food that they can’t sell. If we can survive the pandemic and just keep getting a check for $1200 every month, wouldn’t everything be more or less fine?

Some people have decided that limits to economic growth aren’t so bad. Milan, an Italian city with a huge air pollution problem, has decided, post-pandemic, to reduce car traffic drastically. Evidently they liked one of the results of the pandemic — the improved air quality — enough to want it to continue.

This is the direction we need to head — not in the direction of some illusory “economic recovery,” but in making people comfortable with a smaller economy. Get rid of the wet markets and factory farms to drastically reduce the chances of a future — and perhaps even scarier — pandemic. Phase out the automobile in favor of low-energy alternatives like trains and bicycles. Smooth out the economic costs to the individual with a universal basic income to keep everyone afloat during the transition. Pay for it by raising taxes and soaking the rich: a steep progressive income tax and closing of income tax loopholes, a wealth tax, a carbon tax, and medical care for all.

We needn’t worry about the effects of all this on “economic growth.” We don’t want economic growth anyway! That’s what got us into this mess. We want to be alive and well and in balance with nature. All the necessary conditions for our happiness are already present, in considerable abundance. Rather than further wrecking the planet in order to somehow revive the fires of consumerism, we need to get used to a smaller economy, and make it easier for everyone to live a simpler life.

10 Replies to “Shock Treatment”

  1. Perhaps we are finding out through our stay-at-home state government mandates that the simple joys of home give a calmer life style as well as a cleaner environment in which to live. It doesn’t seem to fit with your definition of “peak oil”, but we now have a oil glut with little demand. That too, it seems, could mark the end of the oil age. I do still wonder about “compassionate capitalism “. Is that an oxymoron? Elizabeth Warren believes in it, and she is one of our brightest and best. And yet, Andrew Yang too makes sense, that the jobs are soon enough to become automated ( though likely after my lifetime) and a guaranteed income necessary. Yes, there is motivation to survive this pandemic, even as a senior citizen, simply to see and have a part in what’s around the corner.

    1. You’ve posed a lot of really good questions. Many assume that “peak oil” means “prices are too high for consumers to afford,” but it can also mean “prices are too low for oil companies to make a profit.” Or both at the same time! The latter case seems to apply here. Everyone’s broke so it doesn’t make sense either to produce or buy as much as we have been. So total oil extraction falls: peak oil.

      Herman Daly said that the three best ideas to come out of the Democratic primaries were Andrew Yang’s “universal basic income,” Elizabeth Warren’s “wealth tax,” and Bernie Sanders’ “universal health care.” Stay tuned.

    2. Well I’m not Keith; but it seems to me Warren is socialist in all but name. “Compassionate capitalism” would be the social democracy of Scandinavia – or what I call Scandinavian socialism. That compassionate capitalism would still depend on annual growth which is not sustainable. Some say “embrace The hopelessness” of system change in increments because certain powerful folks have too much to lose by letting compassionate capitalism happen. We may need revolution (peacefully I hope) rather than evolution, especially considering the time limits imposed by climate change.

      1. I’m trying to avoid using terms like “socialism” unless we define what it is. For some it means Soviet-style socialism, others think of Scandinavian social democracy or something else. We just need to define exactly what’s happening. Chopping down the rainforest in the name of the people is still a bad idea no matter what you call it. What is essential is community protection of natural resources and community control of the distribution of wealth. The “allocation” process (whether to produce tea-cups or bicycles or something else), within those parameters, can be left to the free market as long as nature and natural resources are protected and we have social justice. This probably means a much more active government role in the economy but we can subordinate the details to the basic principles.

        1. Well yeah I think free markets are here to stay; and the socialist authors I read have no problems saying a system with free markets is none-the-less socialist if it achieves the social goals of Marxism – which it won’t do with unchained free markets and trickle dumb economics. I’m a proud member of Democratic Socialists of America and call myself ecosocialist.

  2. Great post and also an excellent Herman Daly quote on three takeaways from the 2020 Democratic Primary. How we help 193+ UN member states implement more sustainable policies during and after Covid-19 is an important undertaking. I wonder what your latest thinking is on nuclear for baseload, including for countries like China and India. Do you think we can meet the energy demand for the expected peak of the population curve without a considerable nuclear baseload?

    1. Sorry, I should have confessed to my own current misgivings about the plausibility of either 100% renewable or a globalized nuclear baseload; cited Austria, Denmark, France and Sweden as examples of different state trajectories; and then asked whether you think 100% renewable is more essentially, i.e. constitutionally, vegan than nuclear baseload. I think we can reasonably argue that the harboring of nuclear weapons is not vegan, but what about nuclear power? Perhaps I am overstretching what “vegan” means to most, or adding a hidden “Christian green” qualifier. And forgive me if you have recently addressed this. I am coming back to your important work after some time away. Thank you.

      1. Actually, I did address problems with renewables in 2017, so not recently. I have only addressed nuclear power peripherally. Nuclear power is a complex issue, but briefly it should be considered in the context of an overall “degrowth” strategy. Unfortunately, no one wants to talk about nuclear in this way. It is anathema to most environmental organizations; and nuclear advocates want to talk about nuclear as a better way to continue “business as usual.” Nuclear will not ultimately deal with limits to growth, because nuclear fuels (on this planet anyway) are finite.

        1. I very much appreciate your 2017 background post and the overall framework you present here – as challenging a way forward as it suggests is likely to be the case. I recently had the opportunity to scan the 9 March 2020 introductory remarks of the new Director General of the IAEA, Rafael Grossi, to the IAEA Board of Governors, and I suspect your line of thought has its agreeing and laboring ears at that table. How significantly to scale up nuclear, over the next several decades, while still meeting rigorous safety standards, including on the disarmament side, is not a BAU equation.

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