I’m not optimistic, but that doesn’t make me a pessimist

Environmental scientist Giorgos Kallis in Knowable Magazine:

“We know there were civilizations that flourished in periods where they did not necessarily expand economically. Greece in the classical period would be an example. And many civilizations tried to put limits on how much money an individual could accumulate, or how much money you can lend, or interest rates. We have examples where we know society tried to limit and tame this self-perpetuating character of growth. And we know there are societies that flourished without having constant growth.”

“The easy but stupid critique to that is, “Oh, you want us to go back and be like hunter-gatherers or live like the Romans?” No, that’s not the point. We’re not saying look at how other civilizations are better, we’re saying let’s study other civilizations to get ideas about how things could potentially work differently in our society”.

Do you think we’ll get this figured out in time?

“I’m not optimistic. To think that tomorrow people will wake up and come to their senses and realize that climate change is a huge problem and economic growth is unnecessary, and take action on that? No, I don’t think this will happen. But this doesn’t make me a pessimist. History has always been dire. I don’t think I’d be better off living 100 years ago, having two world wars in front of me, or facing famines. History never stops, and constantly there’s a moment of fighting for things to be better.”

“The last 200 years, we lived in a capitalist society where growth is fundamental for the stability of the system. Maybe there is no alternative, and the only way is to have growth. If this is becoming catastrophic, what do we do? Do we bow our heads to catastrophe, to disaster, or can we think outside of that? We know that we humans are very inventive. Why can’t we think of alternatives? Why is this the only thing where we can’t think differently?”

The Sustainability Problem of Digital Currencies

Bitcoin is back in the spotlight these days thanks to some wild price movements and central bank meetings. The decentralized currency has recently been trading over its all-time high of $1200 on some exchanges. But the higher the price goes, the more it exacerbates bitcoin’s dark side: shocking levels of electricity consumption.

In 2015, I wrote that bitcoin had a big sustainability problem. Back then, each bitcoin transaction represented roughly enough electricity to power 1.57 American households for a day— approximately 5,000 times more energy-intensive than a credit card transaction. Since it’s been two years, it’s time for an update.

Updated calculations with optimistic assumptions show that in a best-case hypothetical, each bitcoin transaction is backed by approximately 90 percent of an American household’s daily average electricity consumption. So even though that’s still about 3,994 times as energy-intensive as a credit card transaction, things could be getting better since 2015.

Unfortunately, it’s more likely that things are getting worse. A new index has recently modeled potential energy costs per transaction as high as 94 kWh, or enough electricity to power 3.17 households for a day. To put it another way, that’s almost enough energy to fully charge the battery of a Tesla Model S P100D, the world’s quickest production car, and drive it over 300 miles.

Read more: A Single Bitcoin Transaction Takes Thousands of Times More Energy Than a Credit Card Swipe, Christopher Malmo. Thanks to Renaud d’Avout d’Auerstaedt.

In Defense of Degrowth

“The idea of degrowth is contentious, often misunderstood, and (perhaps paradoxically) growing in popularity. In this book, Giorgos Kallis, one of the movement’s leading thinkers, presents an accessible, inspiring, and enjoyable defense. The book’s chapters—a compilation of his opinion essays, newspaper articles, blog posts, and ‘minifestos’—range from topics such as eco-modernism, the history of economics, science fiction, the Greek crisis, and Hollywood films.

The book also features debates and exchanges between Kallis and degrowth detractors. In defense of degrowth is intended as an introduction for the curious, a defense against the skeptics, and an intellectually stimulating conversation for those already convinced but willing to learn more.”

In Defense of Degrowth can be downloaded as a free e-book.

How Beneficial is the Sharing Economy?

“Uber is part of a new wave of corporations that make up what’s called the “sharing economy.” The premise is seductive in its simplicity: people have skills, and customers want services. Silicon Valley plays matchmaker, churning out apps that pair workers with work. Now, anyone can rent out an apartment with AirBnB, become a cabbie through Uber, or clean houses using Homejoy. But under the guise of innovation and progress, companies are stripping away worker protections, pushing down wages, and flouting government regulations. At its core, the sharing economy is a scheme to shift risk from companies to workers, discourage labor organizing, and ensure that capitalists can reap huge profits with low fixed costs.”

Read more: Against Sharing. Thanks to Sarah.

Older Buildings Increase Urban Vitality

older smaller better buildings“All across America, blocks of older, smaller buildings are quietly contributing to robust local economies and distinctive livable communities. This groundbreaking study demonstrates the unique and valuable role that older, smaller buildings play in the development of sustainable cities.

Building on statistical analysis of the built fabric of three major American cities [San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.], the research demonstrates that established neighborhoods with a mix of older, smaller buildings perform better than districts with larger, newer structures when tested against a range of economic, social, and environmental outcome measures.”

Older, Smaller, Better. Measuring how the character of buildings and blocks influences urban vitality“, National Trust for Historic Preservation, May 2014. Via Lloyd Alter.

Decoupling of Economic Growth and Material Consumption is an Illusion, Researchers Say

“Metrics on resource productivity currently used by governments suggest that some developed countries have increased the use of natural resources at a slower rate than economic growth (relative decoupling) or have even managed to use fewer resources over time (absolute decoupling). Using the material footprint (MF), a consumption-based indicator of resource use, we find the contrary: Achievements in decoupling in advanced economies are smaller than reported or even nonexistent.”

“By calculating raw material equivalents of international trade, we demonstrate that countries’ use of nondomestic resources is, on average, about threefold larger than the physical quantity of traded goods. As wealth grows, countries tend to reduce their domestic portion of materials extraction through international trade, whereas the overall mass of material consumption generally increases.”

“Our findings call into question the sole use of current resource productivity indicators in policy making and suggest the necessity of an additional focus on consumption-based accounting for natural resource use.”

Read more: The material footprint of nations, Thomas O. Wiedmann, Heinz Schandl, Manfred Lenzen, Daniel Moran, Sangwon Suh, James West, and Keiichiro Kanemoto, in PNAS 2013. Open Access. Via Klimaatblog.