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February 22, 2007

Tim Garton Ash: Wibble

Tim Garton Ash provides a dirge of sub-Marxist wibble today. Can capitalism survice? Will it eat itself? What, oh waht, can we lefties look forward to as an alternative? Anything, anything except capitalism will do, of course.

Above all, though, there is the inescapable dilemma that this planet cannot sustain six-and-a-half billion people living like today's middle-class consumers in its rich north. In just a few decades, we would use up the fossil fuels that took some 400 million years to accrete - and change the earth's climate as a result. Sustainability may be a grey and boring word, but it is the biggest single challenge to global capitalism today. However ingenious modern capitalists are at finding alternative technologies - and they will be very ingenious - somewhere down the line this is going to mean richer consumers settling for less rather than more.

There's only one problem with this prescription, that we cannot all live well. It's untrue. Now we have in fact had a look at what the future might be like. It's called the Special Report on Emissions Scenarios and it's what forms the basis of the IPCC's report on climate change. Reject this and you need to reject the scientific consensus on climate change itself: for it's the very basis upon which it is built. Here's one of the SRES families of scenarios:

The A1 storyline is a case of rapid and successful economic development, in   which regional average income per capita converge - current distinctions between   "poor" and "rich" countries eventually dissolve. The primary dynamics are:

  • Strong commitment to market-based solutions.
  • High savings and commitment to education at the household level.
  • High rates of investment and innovation in education, technology, and institutions     at the national and international levels.
  • International mobility of people, ideas, and technology.

That's roughly globalisation, the expansion of liberal capitalism to all corners of the globe over the next 93 years.

The global economy expands at an average annual rate of about 3% to 2100, reaching   around US$550 trillion (all dollar amounts herein are expressed in 1990 dollars,   unless stated otherwise). This is approximately the same as average global growth   since 1850,

Not that this isn't some outrageous projection, it's simply taking what has been happening and extending it out into the future.

Energy and mineral resources are abundant in this scenario family because of   rapid technical progress, which both reduces the resources needed to produce   a given level of output and increases the economically recoverable reserves.

You see, resources are not a fixed thing.

The end result of these trends is a world in 2100 where all regions of the world are enjoying, with some 7 billion people, the current middle class northern world existence. There are no shortages of anything.

Now it is also true that this is one of the high emissions scenarios, with a temperature rise greater than some of the other families of scenarios. But the trope that capitalism, or markets, or globalisation, cannot continue because we do not have the resources for this to lead to the poor becoming rich: well, we've got a great big bloody report that states precisely and exactly the opposite.

Given this, you do have to wonder how many people have ever actually bothered to read these reports when they can come out with wibble like Garton Ash just has done.

February 22, 2007 in Economics | Permalink

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Comments

It's not really quite correct to say that "there are no shortages" of anything except for those things that no one will pay for ("pay for" being being shorthand for "in such small supply that those who want some will be willing to give up access to other things that others find in supply shorter than they'd like).

More appropriate would be the recognition that the market assures that all things in such short supply are used in just such manner as to result in the most precise allocation of all those things to those who want 'em, with due regard to the intensity of those wants, that such desires on the part of all are satisfied as completely as is possible under any thinkable system.

Under such a system, not only are many things which were luxuries expensive for even the few become commonplaces for the very many and, further, indeed, things which didn't even exist come into being to satisfy not only new wants but those pre-existing but impossible of satisfaction.

Posted by: gene berman | Feb 22, 2007 5:09:06 PM

I hasten to add that any possible observation of human behavior and reflection on its meaning must yield the conclusion that every improvement in any condition is necessarily coupled with pre-existing thought directed toward such improvement. Such are foundational of all innovation and require, at even low level, consideration of risk-recognition akin to entrepreneurialism (including lending in expectation of gain). He who interferes with these activities is in opposition to the very idea of "progress," except to the extent that it is to be seen in the predation of some by some others.

Posted by: gene berman | Feb 22, 2007 5:32:16 PM

This is what Worst-of-all says:
"The A1 storyline is a case of rapid and successful economic development, in which regional average income per capita converge - current distinctions between "poor" and "rich" countries eventually dissolve."

Worstall says that since these scenarios have been thought of, they must be realistic: "Reject this and you need to reject the scientific consensus on climate change itself: for it's the very basis upon which it is built."

Bullshit. It's a storyline. The authors of the report don't say this is what could realistically happen. They just say, let's assume this happens, what are the consequences on climate? The scenario is based on assumptions that are not themselves tested, like this one:

"Energy and mineral resources are abundant in this scenario family because of rapid technical progress, which both reduces the resources needed to produce a given level of output and increases the economically recoverable reserves."

Let me repeat that: the authors, just for the sake of argument, assumed energy and resources to be abundant. Worstall says this is proof that energy and resources aactually *will be abundant*.

How embarassing.

Tim adds: The authors most certainly do state that this could realistically happen. All scenarios are "equally likely" remember?

Posted by: piglet | Feb 22, 2007 10:14:12 PM

You've never been correct about resource scarcity before, why should we believe you now?

Posted by: Josh | Feb 22, 2007 10:23:25 PM

"Tim adds: The authors most certainly do state that this could realistically happen."

This is bullshit. How should the authors be able to predict what technological changes the future might bring? Predicting the socioeconomic trajectory of humanity is quite a bit trickier than predicting climate change, and that is already hard enough. Worstall misunderstands or micsontrues the purpose of those story lines. Here's what the authors say in introducing their story lines: "Chapters 2 and 3 demonstrate the large uncertainty in the literature that surrounds both future emissions and the possible developments of their underlying driving forces. The uncertainties range from inadequate scientific understanding of the problems, through data gaps or lack of data, to the inherent uncertainties of future events in general. Hence alternative scenarios are used to describe the range of possible future emissions."

"The broad consensus among the SRES writing team is that the current literature analysis suggests the future is inherently unpredictable and so views will differ as to which of the storylines and representative scenarios could be more or less likely." What a surprise!

Posted by: piglet | Feb 25, 2007 3:14:58 AM