Shrink the Emitting Economy

Yesterday on Facebook, Ben Manski ( made the observation, “Not one article in today’s New York Times on #climate, just days after 400,000 march in that city and the (supposed) climate meeting of the #UN, yet articles about terrorism every day. What does that tell us?”

My reply was, “Actually addressing carbon emissions requires shrinking the emitting economy. No Democrat, Republican or conventional economist is willing to do what needs to be done. No publicity? No mystery.”

People have a lot of conflicting ideas about the economy. Now would be a great time to clarify exactly what “the emitting economy” is. In 2009, John Michael Greer came up with this description in

“… there is no such thing as ‘the’ economy in any human society; there are, rather, three economies, each of which follows distinctive rules.

The primary economy, in this way of looking at things, is the natural world itself, which produces something like three-quarters of the goods and services on which human beings rely for survival. The secondary economy, which depends on the primary one, is the collocation of labor, capital plant, and resources extracted from the primary economy that produces the other quarter or so of the goods and services human beings use. The tertiary economy, finally, is the system of social processes by which the products of the first two economies are allocated to people. This can take many different forms, of which the one most familiar to us is money.”

The emitting economy, then, is what Greer calls the “secondary economy.” It has been called the “real” economy by those who want to forget about the primary, natural economy and also to distinguish it from the faith-based economy of banking and finance.

It has also been called the “industrial economy,” especially by those who want to imagine that we are somehow “post-industrial.” It has never been clear just how a post-industrial economy is supposed to operate in the absence of, say, electricity, machine-powered transportation and so on. In other words, the so-called post-industrial economy is built on the foundations of both the natural world and the secondary/industrial economy. It is what Greer calls the tertiary economy.

Greer’s description is good, because the terminology keeps reminding us that what economists call THE economy is entirely based on and operates within the limits of the natural world. Everyone who recognizes and values the environment knows that. Conventional economists would have us forget it, or at least believe (there’s that faith-based element again) some collective genius created by a free market economy will always be able to circumvent those limits.

If that’s your religion, then there’s no way to get you to believe in limits imposed by the natural world unless and until you personally crash into them. At least, if you believe in continuous growth on a finite planet, please recognize this is a matter of faith and thus legitimately called a religion.

At least the problem of global warming and acidification is well defined. Global carbon emissions have been measured, with sufficient accuracy for all practical purposes. If we are going to act, we know what we need to act on. We have to reduce emissions by every means possible, if we are going to reduce the current >400 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere to any lower level. Currently, we are going in the wrong direction, and have been for centuries.

Here’s one representation of the problem that ties causes and results together clearly:

This chart deserves to be studied for some time, in order to understand the details. It shows which fossil fuels contribute to the problem. It shows how much each fossil fuel contributes. It shows which other activities contribute, and how much. It shows which elements of the global industrial economy burn fuels and use other resources to create greenhouse gas emissions, and how much.

It does not show, for instance, how much additional emission comes from methane vents in the Arctic Ocean. That’s something which is beyond our direct control. This chart shows emissions that are directly linked to humanity’s industrial economy. If we want less emissions, the obvious and direct way to get less emissions is to do less of the emitting activities.

A lot of people – you know who you are – are inclined to make an argument that all we need to do is increase efficiency. Increasing efficiency is certainly good, as far as it goes. It is hardly a new or untried idea. We’ve been talking about increased efficiency to curb emissions for decades, and this has unfortunately proven to be inadequate. That is, emissions have increased over those same decades.

There’s no reason to ignore or abandon efficiency, but such efficiencies as we have been able to implement in the last several decades are not lowering emissions. Obama has talked about an “all of the above” approach to slowly converting the economy to what he considers sustainable while keeping the economy growing. If you look at any chart tracking global carbon emissions or concentrations over time, you’ll see that this policy has had nothing like the desired effect. The rate of emissions is increasing, not decreasing.

It’s no more sensible to argue against this plain fact than it is to deny the basic facts of global warming itself. 2013 was a record year for carbon emissions. 2014 is on track to exceed 2013. And so it goes, unless there is some profound change in the carbon emissions coming from our secondary/industrial/emitting economy.

This economy, as it actually exists today, is the cause of the climate crisis and the pollution crisis. Naomi Klein, in her latest book “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate,” makes this point in great detail. She says “Capitalism.” I say, “the emitting economy.” Whatever definition is better, we are all trying to cope with the same reality, and that reality is our economy is destroying its own foundations and setting up its own spectacular collapse.

Of course, a lot of Greens along with a lot of Sierra Club people, etc. do not agree with shrinking the emitting economy. Simply shrinking the secondary/industrial economy, for the United States and for the rest of the world, would actually mean lower GDP, increased unemployment, a stock market crash and so on. Oh, that’s depression; throwing people out of work; bad for business; a political disaster. Nobody wants that.

Saying that shrinking the economy is a good idea is sort of like saying it would be a good idea to cut off someone’s leg. Even if the leg in question has been badly messed up in an accident; even if an infection has been getting worse for days and the foot is obviously gangrenous; the person whose leg it is may still strenuously object to the proposal to cut it off.

In fact, our primary economy has been pretty badly messed up. Besides warming and acidification, there’s a horrible list of chemical, radioactive and biological pollution; hormone disruptors, Chernobyl and Fukushima, genetically engineered crops and more. Most essential resources (oil, water, topsoil, ocean fisheries, etc.) have been depleted or degraded or both. And now, the infection of warming and the gangrene of acidification is setting in.

The question is, what are the consequences of excess carbon emissions going to be? Will it kill us? Will it just be painful for a while, and leave a scar, but we can survive and recover from it? Do we REALLY have to take the leg off today, or should we wait to see if less drastic measures show some improvement? And, of course, there is another essential question – CAN we actually take the leg off without killing the patient?

This kind of question is what we should be struggling to answer. We are well past the stage when we ought to work for marginal changes that will keep the emitting economy growing. That’s been tried for decades. Nature/the environment is getting critically worse.