Economic growth and environmental management in a global Iriai

The Ecomodernist Manifesto published last month delivers a new and optimistic approach to development and the environment. The bottom line is that:

Intensifying many human activities — particularly farming, energy extraction, forestry, and settlement — so that they use less land and interfere less with the natural world is the key to decoupling human development from environmental impacts. These socioeconomic and technological processes are central to economic modernization and environmental protection. Together they allow people to mitigate climate change, to spare nature, and to alleviate global poverty.

The alternative vision involves narratives of moribund western economies governed by corrupt corporations collapsing under the weight of the internal contradictions – leading to less growth, less material consumption, less CO2 emissions, less habitat destruction and a last late chance to stay within the safe limits of global ecosystems.  And this is just in the ‘scholarly’ journals.

The global warming progressives are right in one respect.  Economies are fragile – movements on markets can be fierce – recovery glacially slow sometimes. There are economic problems – but the problems are not intrinsic to capitalism. They were created by poor judgement.  We blundered into it through stupidity.  It is not difficult – however – to imagine scenarios in which markets are deliberately destabilised to hasten the end of capitalism. Creeping tax takes, overspending by government, printing money, keeping interest rates too low for too long, or too high for too long, taxing primary inputs, implementing market distorting subsidies – the scope is endless. These are suspiciously the objectives of global warming progressives – but let’s not call it a conspiracy.

The rational management of economies requires interest rates to be managed through the overnight cash market to restrain inflation to a 2 to 3% target.  Markets need fair, transparent and accessible laws. Including on open and fair markets.  Optimal tax take is some 23% of GDP and budgets are balanced.  Markets operate best in a robust democracy.  These nuts and bolts of market management – mainstream market theory pioneered by F. A. Hayek – keep economies on a modest and stable growth trajectory.

Growth provides the resources for social progress and environmental conservation and restoration. Environmental management involves the strategic deployment of methods and technologies across landscapes, industries and infrastructure using multi-disciplinary science and theories and models of institutional structures – polycentricity – pioneered by Elinor Ostrom in real world applications over the past 50 years.  It involves bottom up management that can provide better outcomes for both business and the environment – rather than top down prescriptive methods from governments that are globally failing to conserve our environment.   The bottom line is that we can grow economies and enhance environments.

There are three key ideas in advancing management of the global commons.

1. The problems of the environment and development are interrelated – biodiversity, population, land use changes and emissions of different gases and aerosols across a number of sectors.  Decoupling the developed and the natural worlds reduces climatic and ecological pressures on systems that –  through internal chaotic responses – are inherently unpredictable.

2. Economic growth provides resources for solving problems – restoring organic carbon in agricultural soils, conserving and restoring ecosystems, better sanitation and safer water, better health and education, updating the diesel fleet and other productive assets, replacing cooking fires with better ways of preparing food, etc.

3. The way to manage the environment is through informed decision making at multiple scales.  It requires creating a ‘polycentric‘ framework for applying multi-disciplinary environmental science to inform government, business and the community.

There have been various responses thus far and all of them seem confused about the mechanics of decoupling human development from natural systems.  In their hands it is more abstract concept than the nuts and bolts of sustainable development on which we have been working for decades.

I am an engineering hydrologist and environmental scientist.  My essential skill set is in the quantification, impact analysis and mitigation of mobilization of sediment, nutrients and pollutants from mining, industry, agriculture and urbanization.  Along with having some facility in technical and scientific communication that increasingly is my focus.  I am an award winning designer of ‘integrated urban water supplies’ – integrating stormwater management, water supply sources and sewage treatment and recycling to meet human needs efficiently while conserving downstream environments.  Urban environments are ecosystems – that can be made interesting, species rich and attractive in their own right – and at the intersection with natural systems there are ecotones that are transitions to natural systems.  The ecotones provide opportunities for deploying techniques and technologies by which we can mimic natural – that is predevelopment – downstream water quality and flows.  This is the essence of ‘decoupling’ human development from natural systems, but it is not cheap.

As a student of environmental science it was evident that only rich economies can afford environments.  Aid has some part to part to play in development, as in the Copenhagen Consensus Post 2015 Millennium Development Goals analysis.  The critical element however is in optimal economic growth this century, the conditions for which were defined by classic liberalism over the past two centuries.  Economies are dynamically complex systems, they shift abruptly according to internal dynamics.  The most stable economies manage interest rates to restrain inflation, have fair, transparent and accessible laws, have optimal tax takes and balanced budgets and evolve a social contract through robust democratic processes.  Health and education outcomes can be best improved through economic development and this results in reduced population pressure, as well as providing resources for agricultural soil conservation and increased organic content, for conservation and restoration of ecosystems and for ‘water sensitive urban design’.  The central problem for climate and the environment is – not at all paradoxically – how to best grow economies.

We can address most of the causes of loss of biodiversity only through prosperity and modern mitigation practices.  Climate change is a minor cause – which is probably over estimated by the World Wildlife Fund in their latest Living Planet Index – at some 7.1% of the total causes of biodiversity loss.


Source:  WWF

If we accept the WWF assessment as an indicator of the relative importance of threats to biodiversity – it is apparent that a far broader strategy than ‘putting a price on carbon’ is needed to turn it around.  The alternative – seriously proposed in some of the responses – of a romantic return to village life with vastly reduced economic activity seems likely to add to this problem.

The first of Elinor Ostrom’s design principles for polycentric governance is to define the boundaries of the problem and identify the groups involved.  Resources for urban environments (some 0.5% of total land area) are drawn from mines, agricultural land and from wild stocks.  Mining uses comparatively little land – about the same as urban areas – the impacts come from downstream discharges of sediments and pollutants.  These can be managed and the land restored to something like pre-existing conditions after mining ceases. By far the largest use of land is for agriculture – some half of total land area.  The total extent of agricultural land is 4.9 billion hectares – and there is not much scope for expansion – on which future global food security depends.  There is an absolute necessity to increase the productivity of agricultural lands this century to provide for increased population and changed consumption patterns.  This is possible with the most modern agricultural systems that restore soil organic content.  The practices reduce runoff, conserve soil and water and enhance agricultural productivity as well as sequestering carbon.   There is an opportunity as well to address nitrous oxide and methane emissions.

Emissions of greenhouse gases, as suggested above, are far from restricted to transportation and electricity generation.  Greenhouse gases come from a number of sectors and technologies.

  • Carbon dioxide (CO2)– Fossil fuel use is the primary source of CO2. The way in which people use land is also an important source of CO2, especially when it involves deforestation. Land can also remove CO2from the atmosphere through reforestation, improvement of soils, and other activities.
  • Methane (CH4)– Agricultural activities, waste management, and energy use all contribute to CH4
  • Nitrous oxide (N2O)– Agricultural activities, such as fertilizer use, are the primary source of N2O emissions.
  • Fluorinated gases (F-gases)– Industrial processes, refrigeration, and the use of a variety of consumer products contribute to emissions of F-gases, which include hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6).’

EPS greenhous gases

Source:  US EPA

We may add black carbon to the list of significant climate ‘control variables’(1) – second only to carbon dioxide from fossil fuel sources.  Some 26% of emissions come from electricity generation and 13% from transportation.  Mitigation of these sources can come from a range of technologies – good solutions come from low cost energy technologies.  Mitigation of other sources – as well as management of wild stocks and commons – require a far wider ranging approach than merely taxes and caps.  It requires a whole new approach in the intersection of business, government and community that Elinor Ostrom described as polycentric governance.  Ideally this leads to a harmony with nature and conservation – rather than a tragedy – of the commons.

Such co-operative, polycentric management of planetary systems is best described as a global ‘Iriai’ – a Japanese word meaning to enter the joint use of resources – and I suggest using the methods of environmental science.  Environmental science is a cross-disciplinary field that combines in small teams a range of skills in the natural sciences, law, economics, archaeology, sociology, etc., as well as local knowledge, focussed on solving problems across a variety of scales from the local to the transnational.  It provides a framework for synergistic solution of complex social, environmental and economic problems.  The essay found here discusses how this framework might work over a specific jurisdiction.    It describes an integrated government, business and community institutional structure based on the principles and practices of environmental science as it is understood by practitioners.  The cost of this structure is not inconsiderable, but is perhaps comparable to the current systems that are objectively failing the test of biological conservation.  It is a complex and messy solution – as is needed to solve complex and messy problems of the global commons.

The rhetoric of the ecomodernist manifesto boils down to the simple proposition that we can as a species manage both economic development and ecological conservation.  It strikes the right note of a bright future for humanity.  As such it is an antidote to the cataclysmic narratives that characterize so much of the rhetoric around these issues.  It offers instead a positive vision, which is what is needed to capture the high ground in the culture war.  So lets start filling in the details.  Starting by ditching the clumsy ecomodernist neologism.  A global Iriai is deeply poetic in comparison, it conjures the biblical idea of a stewardship of nature – but using the most modern ideas, methods and technologies.

There is a dynamic around this manifesto that can be influenced in its evolution. I read somewhere recently that left and right speaks to divisions that are no longer relevant – to be supplanted by uppers and downers.  Buying into this discourse is the future for uppers.  So if I may – and as I read recently on my facebook timeline – I’m wearing the cape and I’ll make the whooshing noises.

(1) Climate, like economies, is a member of the broad class of complex dynamical systems. This is the most modern idea in climate science and one with profound implications.  The evidence is clear that climate shifts abruptly – unpredictably and to a greater or lesser extent – at intervals of 20 to 30 years.  The US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) defined abrupt climate change as a new climate paradigm as long ago as 2002. A paradigm in the scientific sense is a theory that explains observations.  A new science paradigm is one that better explains data, in this case climate data, than the old theory.  The new theory says that climate change occurs as discrete jumps in the system.  The system is pushed by small changes in control variables past thresholds at which points the balance of ice, dust, cloud and biology shifts.  Patterns of ocean and atmosphere circulation shift in response to internal climate dynamics and at a rapid pace determined by the dynamics of the system rather than any external factor.  The article here reviews abrupt change in simple systems, in a 1-D climate model and in the climate system at multi-decadal timescales.

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One Response to Economic growth and environmental management in a global Iriai

  1. This article was ‘workshopped’ at Judith Curry’s blog Climate Etc. The ‘denizens’ provided very useful commentary.

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