Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Externality Trap, or, How Progress Commits Suicide

I've commented more than once in these essays about the cooperative dimension of writing:  the way that even the most solitary of writers inevitably takes part in what Mortimer Adler used to call the Great Conversation, the flow of ideas and insights across the centuries that’s responsible for most of what we call culture. Sometimes that conversation takes place second- or third-hand—for example, when ideas from two old books collide in an author’s mind and give rise to a third book, which will eventually carry the fusion to someone else further down the stream of time—but sometimes it’s far more direct.

Last week’s post here brought an example of the latter kind. My attempt to cut through the ambiguities surrounding that slippery word “progress” sparked a lively discussion on the comments page of my blog about just exactly what counted as progress, what factors made one change “progressive” while another was denied that label. In the midst of it all, one of my readers—tip of the archdruidical hat to Jonathan—proposed an unexpected definition:  what makes a change qualify as progress, he suggested, is that it increases the externalization of costs. 

I’ve been thinking about that definition since Jonathan proposed it, and it seems to me that it points up a crucial and mostly unrecognized dimension of the crisis of our time. To make sense of it, though, it’s going to be necessary to delve briefly into economic jargon.

Economists use the term “externalities” to refer to the costs of an economic activity that aren’t paid by either party in an exchange, but are pushed off onto somebody else. You won’t hear a lot of talk about externalities these days; it many circles, it’s considered impolite to mention them, but they’re a pervasive presence in contemporary life, and play a very large role in some of the most intractable problems of our age. Some of those problems were discussed by Garret Hardin in his famous essay on the tragedy of the commons, and more recently by Elinor Ostrom in her studies of how that tragedy can be avoided; still, I’m not sure how often it’s recognized that the phenomena they discussed applies not just to commons systems, but to societies as a whole—especially to societies like ours.

An example may be useful here. Let’s imagine a blivet factory, which turns out three-prong, two-slot blivets in pallet loads for customers. The blivet-making process, like manufacturing of every other kind, produces waste as well as blivets, and we’ll assume for the sake of the example that blivet waste is moderately toxic and causes health problems in people who ingest it. The blivet factory produces one barrel of blivet waste for every pallet load of blivets it ships. The cheapest option for dealing with the waste, and thus the option that economists favor, is to dump it into the river that flows past the factory.

Notice what happens as a result of this choice. The blivet manufacturer has maximized his own benefit from the manufacturing process, by avoiding the expense of finding some other way to deal with all those barrels of blivet waste. His customers also benefit, because blivets cost less than they would if the cost of waste disposal was factored into the price. On the other hand, the costs of dealing with the blivet waste don’t vanish like so much twinkle dust; they are imposed on the people downstream who get their drinking water from the river, or from aquifers that receive water from the river, and who suffer from health problems because there’s blivet waste in their water. The blivet manufacturer is externalizing the cost of waste disposal; his increased profits are being paid for at a remove by the increased health care costs of everyone downstream.

That’s how externalities work. Back in the days when people actually talked about the downsides of economic growth, there was a lot of discussion of how to handle externalities, and not just on the leftward end of the spectrum.  I recall a thoughtful book titled TANSTAAFL—that’s an acronym, for those who don’t know their Heinlein, for “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch”—which argued, on solid libertarian-conservative grounds, that the environment could best be preserved by making sure that everyone paid full sticker price for the externalities they generated. Today’s crop of pseudoconservatives, of course, turned their back on all this a long time ago, and insist at the top of their lungs on their allegedly God-given right to externalize as many costs as they possibly can.  This is all the more ironic in that most pseudoconservatives claim to worship a God who said some very specific things about “what ye do to the least of these,” but that’s a subject for a different post.

Economic life in the industrial world these days can be described, without too much inaccuracy, as an arrangement set up to allow a privileged minority to externalize nearly all their costs onto the rest of society while pocketing as much as possible the benefits themselves. That’s come in for a certain amount of discussion in recent years, but I’m not sure how many of the people who’ve participated in those discussions have given any thought to the role that technological progress plays in facilitating the internalization of benefits and the externalization of costs that drive today’s increasingly inegalitarian societies. Here again, an example will be helpful.

Before the invention of blivet-making machinery, let’s say, blivets were made by old-fashioned blivet makers, who hammered them out on iron blivet anvils in shops that were to be found in every town and village. Like other handicrafts, blivet-making was a living rather than a ticket to wealth; blivet makers invested their own time and muscular effort in their craft, and turned out enough in the way of blivets to meet the demand. Notice also the effect on the production of blivet waste. Since blivets were being made one at a time rather than in pallet loads, the total amount of waste was smaller; the conditions of handicraft production also meant that blivet makers and their families were more likely to be exposed to the blivet waste than anyone else, and so had an incentive to invest the extra effort and expense to dispose of it properly. Since blivet makers were ordinary craftspeople rather than millionaires, furthermore, they weren’t as likely to be able to buy exemption from local health laws.

The invention of the mechanical blivet press changed that picture completely.  Since one blivet press could do as much work as fifty blivet makers, the income that would have gone to those fifty blivet makers and their families went instead to one factory owner and his stockholders, with as small a share as possible set aside for the wage laborers who operate the blivet press. The factory owner and stockholders had no incentive to pay for the proper disposal of the blivet waste, either—quite the contrary, since having to meet the disposal costs cut into their profit, buying off local governments was much cheaper, and if the harmful effects of blivet waste were known, you can bet that the owner and shareholders all lived well upstream from the factory. 

Notice also that a blivet manufacturer who paid a living wage to his workers and covered the costs of proper waste disposal would have to charge a higher price for blivets than one who did neither, and thus would be driven out of business by his more ruthless competitor. Externalities aren’t simply made possible by technological progress, in other words; they’re the inevitable result of technological progress in a market economy, because externalizing the costs of production is in most cases the most effective way to outcompete rival firms, and the firm that succeeds in externalizing the largest share of its costs is the most likely to prosper and survive.

Each further step in the progress of blivet manufacturing, in turn, tightened the same screw another turn. Today, to finish up the metaphor, the entire global supply of blivets is made in a dozen factories in  distant Slobbovia, where sweatshop labor under ghastly working conditions and the utter absence of environmental regulations make the business of blivet fabrication more profitable than anywhere else. The blivets are as shoddily made as possible; the entire blivet supply chain from the open-pit mines worked by slave labor that provide the raw materials to the big box stores with part-time, poorly paid staff selling blivetronic technology to the masses is a human and environmental disaster.  Every possible cost has been externalized, so that the two multinational corporations that dominate the global blivet industry can maintain their profit margins and pay absurdly high salaries to their CEOs.

That in itself is bad enough, but let’s broaden the focus to include the whole systems in which blivet fabrication takes place: the economy as a whole, society as a whole, and the biosphere as a whole. The impact of technology on blivet fabrication in a market economy has predictable and well understood consequences for each of these whole systems, which can be summed up precisely in the language we’ve already used. In order to maximize its own profitability and return on shareholder investment, the blivet industry externalizes costs in every available direction. Since nobody else wants to bear those costs, either, most of them end up being passed onto the whole systems just named, because the economy, society, and the biosphere have no voice in today’s economic decisions.

Like the costs of dealing with blivet waste, though, the other externalized costs of blivet manufacture don’t go away just because they’re externalized. As externalities increase, they tend to degrade the whole systems onto which they’re dumped—the economy, society, and the biosphere. This is where the trap closes tight, because blivet manufacturing exists within those whole systems, and can’t be carried out unless all three systems are sufficiently intact to function in their usual way. As those systems degrade, their ability to function degrades also, and eventually one or more of them breaks down—the economy plunges into a depression, the society disintegrates into anarchy or totalitarianism, the biosphere shifts abruptly into a new mode that lacks adequate rainfall for crops—and the manufacture of blivets stops because the whole system that once supported it has stopped doing so.

Notice how this works out from the perspective of someone who’s benefiting from the externalization of costs by the blivet industry—the executives and stockholders in a blivet corporation, let’s say. As far as they’re concerned, until very late in the process, everything is fine and dandy: each new round of technological improvements in blivet fabrication increases their profits, and if each such step in the onward march of progress also means that working class jobs are eliminated or offshored, democratic institutions implode, toxic waste builds up in the food chain, or what have you, hey, that’s not their problem—and after all, that’s just the normal creative destruction of capitalism, right?

That sort of insouciance is easy for at least three reasons. First, the impacts of externalities on whole systems can pop up a very long way from the blivet factories.  Second, in a market economy, everyone else is externalizing their costs as enthusiastically as the blivet industry, and so it’s easy for blivet manufacturers (and everyone else) to insist that whatever’s going wrong is not their fault.  Third, and most crucially, whole systems as stable and enduring as economies, societies, and biospheres can absorb a lot of damage before they tip over into instability. The process of externalization of costs can thus run for a very long time, and become entrenched as a basic economic habit, long before it becomes clear to anyone that continuing along the same route is a recipe for disaster.

Even when externalized costs have begun to take a visible toll on the economy, society, and the biosphere, furthermore, any attempt to reverse course faces nearly insurmountable obstacles. Those who profit from the existing order of things can be counted on to fight tooth and nail for the right to keep externalizing their costs: after all, they have to pay the full price for any reduction in their ability to externalize costs, while the benefits created by not imposing those costs on whole systems are shared among all participants in the economy, society, and the biosphere respectively. Nor is it necessarily easy to trace back the causes of any given whole-system disruption to specific externalities benefiting specific people or industries. It’s rather like loading hanging weights onto a chain; sooner or later, as the amount of weight hung on the chain goes up, the chain is going to break, but the link that breaks may be far from the last weight that pushed things over the edge, and every other weight on  the chain made its own contribution to the end result

A society that’s approaching collapse because too many externalized costs have been loaded onto on the whole systems that support it thus shows certain highly distinctive symptoms. Things are going wrong with the economy, society, and the biosphere, but nobody seems to be able to figure out why; the measurements economists use to determine prosperity show contradictory results, with those that measure the profitability of individual corporations and industries giving much better readings those that measure the performance of whole systems; the rich are convinced that everything is fine, while outside the narrowing circles of wealth and privilege, people talk in low voices about the rising spiral of problems that beset them from every side. If this doesn’t sound familiar to you, dear reader, you probably need to get out more.

At this point it may be helpful to sum up the argument I’ve developed here:

a) Every increase in technological complexity tends also to increase the opportunities for externalizing the costs of economic activity;

b) Market forces make the externalization of costs mandatory rather than optional, since economic actors that fail to externalize costs will tend to be outcompeted by those that do;

c) In a market economy, as all economic actors attempt to externalize as many costs as possible, externalized costs will tend to be passed on preferentially and progressively to whole systems such as the economy, society, and the biosphere, which provide necessary support for economic activity but have no voice in economic decisions;

d) Given unlimited increases in technological complexity, there is no necessary limit to the loading of externalized costs onto whole systems short of systemic collapse;

e) Unlimited increases in technological complexity in a market economy thus necessarily lead to the progressive degradation of the whole systems that support economic activity;

f) Technological progress in a market economy  is therefore self-terminating, and ends in collapse.

Now of course there are plenty of arguments that could be deployed against this modest proposal. For example, it could be argued that progress doesn’t have to generate a rising tide of externalities. The difficulty with this argument is that externalization of costs isn’t an accidental side effect of technology but an essential aspect—it’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Every technology is a means of externalizing some cost that would otherwise be borne by a human body. Even something as simple as a hammer takes the wear and tear that would otherwise affect the heel of your hand, let’s say, and transfers it to something else: directly, to the hammer; indirectly, to the biosphere, by way of the trees that had to be cut down to make the charcoal to smelt the iron, the plants that were shoveled aside to get the ore, and so on.

For reasons that are ultimately thermodynamic in nature, the more complex a technology becomes, the more costs it generates. In order to outcompete a simpler technology, each more complex technology has to externalize a significant proportion of its additional costs, in order to compete against the simpler technology. In the case of such contemporary hypercomplex technosystems as the internet, the process of externalizing costs has gone so far, through so many tangled interrelationships, that it’s remarkably difficult to figure out exactly who’s paying for how much of the gargantuan inputs needed to keep the thing running. This lack of transparency feeds the illusion that large systems are cheaper than small ones, by making externalities of scale look like economies of scale.

It might be argued instead that a sufficiently stringent regulatory environment, forcing economic actors to absorb all the costs of their activities instead of externalizing them onto others, would be able to stop the degradation of whole systems while still allowing technological progress to continue. The difficulty here is that increased externalization of costs is what makes progress profitable. As just noted, all other things being equal, a complex technology will on average be more expensive in real terms than a simpler technology, for the simple fact that each additional increment of complexity has to be paid for by an investment of energy and other forms of real capital.

Strip complex technologies of the subsidies that transfer some of their costs to the government, the perverse regulations that transfer some of their costs to the rest of the economy, the bad habits of environmental abuse and neglect that transfer some of their costs to the biosphere, and so on, and pretty soon you’re looking at hard economic limits to technological complexity, as people forced to pay the full sticker price for complex technologies maximize their benefits by choosing simpler, more affordable options instead. A regulatory environment sufficiently strict to keep technology from accelerating to collapse would thus bring technological progress to a halt by making it unprofitable.

Notice, however, the flipside of the same argument: a society that chose to stop progressing technologically could maintain itself indefinitely, so long as its technologies weren’t dependent on nonrenewable resources or the like. The costs imposed by a stable technology on the economy, society, and the biosphere would be more or less stable, rather than increasing over time, and it would therefore be much easier to figure out how to balance out the negative effects of those externalities and maintain the whole system in a steady state.  Societies that treated technological progress as an option rather than a requirement, and recognized the downsides to increasing complexity, could also choose to reduce complexity in one area in order to increase it in another, and so on—or they could just raise a monument to the age of progress, and go do something else instead.

The logic suggested here requires a comprehensive rethinking of most of the contemporary world’s notions about technology, progress, and the good society. We’ll begin that discussion in future posts—after, that is, we discuss a second dimension of progress that came out of last week’s discussion.


1 – 200 of 228   Newer›   Newest»
Cherokee Organics said...


Speaking of externalising costs…

I came across an article the other day and it put in my mind the comment: “When common garden variety corruption can no longer be ignored…” Anyway, the article was discussing the rise and rise of the activity of big business called “transfer pricing” or also known as “international related party dealings”. It sounds very boring, but in fact impacts many of us. This activity appears to be undertaken by big business to avoid paying taxes on company profits. My understanding of the process, and I could be incorrect in this understanding, is that a local company owns another company in a country which has low company tax rates such as Singapore or Switzerland for example. The Singapore or Switzerland based related company then apparently loans money to the local company and charges interest to that local company (or charges a royalty or management fee). Those expenses then pretty much eliminate local company profits and effectively ship them offshore and then those local companies don’t pay much – if any – company taxes. Talk about externalising costs of doing business onto the general public.

Tax haven explosion puts hole in corporate tax

It is not until you realise the size of this apparent swindle is twice that in dollars terms of all the “real world” trade between Australia and China in 2012 and who knows what it amounts to now!

It was at about that point that realisation dawned on me and perhaps I’m drawing the wrong conclusion, but even so, common sense says that perhaps those companies are not actually financially viable in their present circumstances had they actually had to pay company tax? I don’t actually know the answer to this question, however, it strikes me as a common sense conclusion to draw because, the returns aren’t actually being seen in the markets. Sure, companies are paying dividends, many people are being paid as employees well above their actual worth and some people are getting wildly rich, but there isn’t as much of that going on as the sheer volume of the “international related party dealings” would lead a person to expect. So many people rely these days on income from investments that perhaps we have now tipped into unsustainable territory for that sort of income and what can’t be sustained, usually isn’t!

Dunno, but it isn’t good…



PS: I've got a new blog up Chookflation discussing the increasing cost of purchasing chickens, chicken wars, spiders, cyclones and adapting to hot weather. All good fun stuff with photos and I also added a link to the blog in mp3 format so you can hear me rubbishing on, instead of having to read the blog.



Cathy McGuire said...

Ah, a wonderful description that really hits the blivet on the head! (Love the illustrations, also.) And today I came across a remarkable (and sad) example of this (I think): I checked in with my local self-owned feed store to see what chickies they had in. They had none, and the owner told me it was because they couldn't get the delivery to result in live chickens. Apparently, the Post Office, that used to just put air mail on the nearest plane and off to its destination, has contracted with Fed Ex, which by rule sends all parcels through its hub in Memphis, no matter where they come from. These past weeks have been cold in Memphis, planes have been delayed, and besides, shipping live chicks (food and waterless, of course) through an extra flight or two has resulted in ...externalities. :-( The owner is really upset, and especially frustrated because there seems to be no alternative to the gargantuan shipping companies - none that would allow him to sell the chicks at a decent cost. He says he's gonna try once again this week and then find another supply. I see a niche market for some local chicken breeder...

Doug W. said...

Reminiscent of Catton's ecological principles applied to social issues--the concept that a species by changing its environment can make it less hospitable to its own survival or continuation. Progress with the impacts of externalization undermines it own continuance.

JimK said...

Jeremy England's theory would seem to apply:

Strovenovus said...


In defense of the notion that progress also encompasses virtue and utility, selflessness and personal sacrifice, I offer Cenote Sagrado BioEnergy, another Great Squirrel Case Endeavor.

NC Jim said...

This post dovetails nicely with a theory Thom Hartman (RT- Big Picture)has been proposing to explain why CEO salaries are so high. Certainly CEOs (in his view) need excellent skill sets but there are sufficient candidates with the necessary skills to meet demand at much lower salaries. Hartman's thesis is that in order to maximize profit at any cost (externalize) with no empathy or compassion for those adversely affected requires a successful CEO to also be a sociopath. Since sociopaths are only about 2% of the population, there is now a small supply of candidates with the required skills and psychology. There are just not that many Jack Welshs around and the market price goes up. Taken together, this theory and today's post seem to compliment each other.

sandy said...

Greetings from Big Mango (BKK)- Slicing the Gordian Knot again.
Thanks. I propose three categories for externalities:

1. Domesticated- where we know the cost/ benefit tradeoffs, and have fixed some, chose to live with others;

2. Tame- where we know (publically) only minimum cost/ benefit
tradeoffs, still under evaluation, but privately may know reeeely bad.

3. Wild- where we know 'something' is causing lots of damage/ death, but we havnt identified the source(s), may be crossbreeding in wild with other externalities.

Happy Hunting, Pearce, Minister of Future.

HalFiore said...

Which would explain why attempts to regulate externalities through the imposition of technological, "progressive" fixes usually generate more problems than they solve. When the straightforward solution would be for some source of authority to simply say, "Stop doing that," those market actors who have an interest in keeping the activity going, teamed with a consumption-obsessed customer base and the propaganda firepower to generate the demand, will almost always have enough influence to deflect regulation to a form they can fob off onto someone else. Hence the concept of "mitigation," for which there now exists an entire separate industry, with all of its own externalities.

Ray Wharton said...

A very interesting idea, though I wonder about the flip side of externalized benefits to a certain degree of complexity.

I was a bathroom recently and found a patch of mold growing on the smooth surface. It is obvious of course the cost its preferred way of life have on it's environment as many kinds of life are sensitive to the byproducts it releases, those spores can be nasty. But I was seeing a different angle to it, the mold was taking a lifeless, some would say uninhabitable, surface devoid of natural resources except in trace amounts from air born dust and moisture from the shower, and colonizing it. The rough surface of the mold helped its local community store water between the showers, and its biological byproducts found hungry membranes to be absorbed by. If not for my apocalyptic intervention it would have carried on decomposing what ever waste came it's way, and building up more complicated organic molecules, until the room got so nasty that human efforts to clean it would be defeated and the microbes could carry forward turning a barren surface into a life support center.

On one level the mold was externalizing cost, and eventually those costs came back to it with an ample helping of apple cider vinegar to boot. On another level it was part of a cycle which turns lifeless mineral surfaces into life supporting little ecosystems. It added alot of complexity to that lifeless polished polymer, but there were consumers for all of its products! Even the nasty spores are a tasty meal to some microbes who help keep the mold in check.

Recently energy density stacked the deck very strongly toward industrialism, because the energy needs complicated ways of following it's bliss, and the machine needs power to over whelm their competition. Still I wonder about the theme that after past societies did their dance of building up and tearing down complexity, some technologies that survived were more complex than what existed before, and the survivors were exactly those which could survive shrinking back down, at least part of the way, to the craft scale.

All of this is tied together for me personally because I have started exploring mycology as a little cottage scale business. The big industrial mushroom farms have very fancy technology and can do amazing things. Home growing is very simple and cheap, with the right education everyone could grow their own as easily as they could keep chickens or make their own pickles (from seed), the scale is small but that is good because mushrooms are not keen on large distribution anyway. Tonight I am still working with the pressure cookers, and they are nearly done cooking to make another 20 pounds of inoculated grain. Interestingly cardboard is one of the most important tools for low tech mushroom cultivation, it is the most high tech bottle neck in the style of growing I am following, but I hope a more basic alternative can be found.

This all somehow reminds me of an idea inspired by Bateson that senescence is caused by the organism learning and adapting itself into a corner, until it needs a hard reboot through the process of generation.

Paul said...

Hi John. A few points have occured to me as I've read through this post.

First of all, Jonathan's definition, - "what makes a change qualify as progress, he suggested, is that it increases the externalization of costs"

When you consider the peak oiler's maxim of "borrowing from the future", doesn't it make sense that Externalisation means the temporal as well as the immediate physical?

Secondly, I'm in the position (really) of (the equivalent of) expert blivet maker. I've put my price for blivets up to the upper end of what the market will support, but I'm working sixty hours a week at my blivet press, yet the orders keep comng in. I haven't had a real holday for 3 years. I'm now looking at franchising. Getting others to make blivets to my high specification, and to somehow take a cut. It's taken me a decade or more to establish my reputation, and while demand for blivets is high, why shouldn't I take advantage of the opportunity to earn the same or a bit more money, but spend a bit more time doing something other than manning a blivet press?

I'm not saying it's right or moral or anything, but I'm sick and tired of slogging my bollocks off for 60 hours a week, and if I can get other people to give me money, for offloading some of that demand, well, I'd be a fool not to, no?

Thrirdly, Have you read Robert Tressell's "The ragged Trousered Philanthropists"? You've pretty much provided an abstract, in a few brief paragraphs, of what took an entire novel of classic utopian English novel to say. Paragraph eleven is pretty much taken verbatim from it.

And that's also where I got to tonight before I had to finish my post. I have to work tomorrow. I like my job but I'd love to be able to just stay home.

tickmeister said...

Can't find the quote, but I believe that in one of Eisenhower's speeches, he used the phrase "We shall blacken the skies with progress."

Jo said...

Oh, bravo! These are all the ideas that have been swirling around in my head for such a long time, but you have pursued them relentlessly to their logical conclusions like a terrier after a rat.
The idea that popped into my head while reading was that the 'trickle-down effect' that is so beloved by free-market capitalists everywhere is actually a thing after all - only it is not wealth that trickles down, but the nasty effects of all those externalities.
So this is where I am stuck. I can see the problem. I don't want to be party to the injustice of it. Yet it permeates every area of my life. Everything that makes my life work as an average, clueless suburbanite, is a blivet.
I am taking tiny baby steps away from the Machine, but the project seems overwhelming. It also makes me very angry that I have been put in a position where everything I own or use, the whole fabric of the society I live in, comes at the expense of misery for someone else, or is wrecking some bit of planet I can't see.
I feel like King Midas - I am an incredibly privileged member of an elite society, yet everything I touch has likely already killed somebody.
The baby steps I have taken so far - trying not buy new, growing some food, searching for local products, making my own - well, it's a start, but will take a long while to finesse.
So tell us Archdruid, what is your response to the immensity of this issue? Is there something I am missing? Do we opt out completely? Create an alternative society? I mean, I'd like to do both, but honesty compels me to admit that right I now am quailing somewhat at what that might mean for me and the children, the dog, the cats and the budgies here in the suburbs..

Mark Rice said...

I can see where often more complex technologies produce more externalities but it is always true?

Generating electricity with nature gas instead of coal reduced externalities -- well -- at least until we started hydrofracking for tight gas.

We have new telecom equipement where the increase in data transmission capacity is greater than the increase in power consumption or the increase in electronic components. If we do not increase the capacity of our communication networks we decrease the externalities associated with them.

Mister Roboto said...

There's a joke associated with the comedy cartoon television show "The Simpsons" that describes alcohol as "the cause of and solution to all of society's problems", though it might be more accurate to say "society's personal and domestic problems". For society's economic and political problems (not to mention a number of other types), it would be possibly just as accurate to substitute the word "technology" for "alcohol"!

onething said...

It is worth quoting what Agent said last week on this topic:
"I'll go even further to hazard that externalizing such unacceptable costs, and centralizing the benefits to a select group of humans (that may not include any of us), is what industrial society has been all about from the start. Hiding the true costs and benefits is the foundational lie of our civilization. "
Externalities of scale - that's a keeper.

YCS said...

Ugo Bardi has analysed the effect of what you've said as the 'Seneca cliff', which explains why resource extraction often has sudden abrupt drops.


Kutamun said...

Unwinding of complexity ....i guess we are talking about Entropy , which has no opposite but is an indicator of a scale ranging from order to disorder ...
So by externalising , leaving more and more elements out of our edonomic model ....the effect of generating a high degree of perceived order is to evoke serious disorder ...Wasnt that the subject of an Archdruid post quite sime time ago ??
To externalise is to effectively exclude certain elements from the cognitive framework one is operating , in this case , the " free market" system . Such loss of cognition is a form of unconsciousness , which is not to say that the excluded elements have gone away , but are merely off rearranging themselves into a new configuration which may not benefit the unconscious operator in a way they had hoped , ie they may be rassembling themselves into a new form or constellation much higher on the scale of disorder , only to burst back into the fragile framework of the poor deluded operators when they have assembled enough force and their effects are undeniably palapable ; to which occurence the deluded operators may then respond by hastily assembling another franework or narrative to blame the manifesting cluster on something else ....

Is anyone going to vote for reduced complexity ? I am reading a quarterly essay on the greens in Australia by Amanda Lohrey , and in her concluding remarks she talks about the Grreenies being the true heirs of the enlightenment ! , which says to me that she doesnt understand what and why is happening at all . "Deep Ecological Formations " within the Autralian Greens have long been suspicious of " socially progressive " ( big government socialist) elements within the party , and giving them a loud voice would be a good strategy by the neocons to infiltrate and discredit the movement . It is worth noting their current leader Christine Milne , is a practicing catholic , so no quantum eco mystical sect running that show . I hope they avoid splitting along the lines of the German Green " fundies vs realists " , " deep green vs socialist " ...

My vote is with the Green Wizards .... I have taken to walking around town in a " doomsday" tee shirt complete with gas mask and am getting some strange looks - funny that ..
Kuta '

Timothy K. said...

How interesting that this topic came up today. Just this morning, on the way to work, I saw a small car piously proclaiming "zero emissions". (It had a painting of a big splash of fresh-looking water for extra effect).

I had thought, well, there may not be emissions *right there*, but there certainly are at the many stages of product implementation and power distribution.

The trend of externalizing costs has been noticed by me in my industry, but this is a fascinating observation that it really does seem to be an inevitability of the systems in which we currently live.

Shining Hector said...

Eh, seems a little too... tidy I suppose would be the best term.

I don't necessarily see technological progress and externalities welded together. There's certainly positive correlation between the two in some cases, but there's also negative correlation in other cases. Like most stuff, the devil's in the details.

Technological advances can also decrease externalities. Off the top of my head, more complete combustion not only decreases the externality of pollution, it also saves the operator money on fuel. The newer methods of making ammonia directly from nitrogen and hydrogen leaves far fewer waste products than the old methods involing collecting, burning, and distilling various organic materials. A masonry heater makes more efficient use of fuel than a campfire, and a solar cooker probably beats them both. The entire purpose of public sanitation is basically to be one gigantic anti-externality.

anothershamus said...

You summed it up pretty well JMG. Too bad it's too late to implement the restraints of rampant capitalism and see what a respected commons and sustainable economy look like. It seems that with all human endeavors, we push until exhaustion or collapse. With this worldwide capital engine driving this run-up this collapse will be one to watch. Grab some popcorn and a seat and see you on the other side! cheers!

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, I could do an entire post on the financial dimension of externalizing costs -- that's what the big bailouts in the wake of the 2008 crash amounted to, after all: transferring costs from Goldman Sachs et al. to governments, so that dumb bets by big banks weren't subject to the discipline of the market.

Cathy, and it's exactly that sort of process that's already starting to dissolve the global economy into regional and local subunits.

Doug, got it in one.

JimK, how so? I may be slow on the uptake, but I don't quite see the connection.

Strovenovus, funny! A nice macabre touch. You're in the contest!

NC Jim, that's one possibility. The other that occurs to me is that there isn't a free market in CEOs -- once you get into that class, you're basically allowed to engage in as much profiteering as you want,and externalize the costs...

Sandy, I'd fiddle with the taxonomy a bit, but the basic idea works.

HalFiore, exactly! As long as it's profitable to externalize costs, those who want to keep on externalizing costs will be able to find ways to do it, and "mitigation" is just another way to push costs onto somebody else.

Ray, I'll want to talk sometime about the difference between technology and other ways to get things done. It's specifically technological complexity, rather than complexity as a whole, that maximizes externalities.

Paul, you say that you're pricing your blivets at the top of what the market will support, but the torrent of business you're getting suggests that you're wrong -- you might be able to decrease your workload without losing money by raising your prices further, and letting people know that if they want a premium product, yes, they do have to pay a premium price. That said, you could also take in an apprentice or two, you know, and get them making blivets under your direction, thus passing on bliveting skills to the next generation.

Tickmeister, that's an edgy quote! If you find the source, I'd welcome hearing about it.

jcummings said...

Hi - a nice angle on true -cost economics.

I would parse things a bit. As a small scale hand made blivet maker myself (farmer), I can say easily that large scale corporate blivet makers achieve a much lower amount of waste (internalized or externalized) per blivet than your hand maker of blivets. A person cannot compete in terms of efficiency with a machine. The large system creates more waste because many of those blivets produced at the alter of progress are either wasted altogether (like some 40% of industrially produced food) or not needed and marketed into the hands of the public (like what to do with excess manufacturing capacity after WWII). The greatest signifier of progress in my mind is the paradigm of maximum production above all other concerns. From this paradigm flows all the many negative outcomes you describe here (and elsewhere).

Taraxacum said...

Fascinating! I think many futurists tacitly understand and acknowledge this. The assumption is that one day we will be able to tap the heart of the galaxy directly for unlimited free energy and unload our externalities into the infinite vacuum of space, making it a moot point. It isn't of course, as you have painstakingly argued for years now.

John Michael Greer said...

Jo, getting stuck on the immensity of the challenge is a good way to bog down in despair. Ernest Thompson Seton's advice is always worth remembering: "Do what you can with what you have, where you are, right now."

Mark, if I may quote myself:

"a) Every increase in technological complexity tends also to increase the opportunities for externalizing the costs of economic activity"

Please note the word "tends." That doesn't mean it happens in every case; that means it happens rather more often than not, and so citing specific examples where it doesn't happen doesn't undercut the argument. Of course we can also talk about the whole system cost of natural gas production, electronics component manufacture, etc., which also have to be included in the equation...

Mister R., no argument there!

Onething, exactly. I was delighted to see so many other people catching on to the same thing I was getting.

YCS, I know; I disagree with him. Historically, societies don't collapse that way, and my theory of catabolic collapse explains why: societies in crisis slash costs and cannibalize capital to keep going, and these measures work at least for a time to bring things back into balance. That's what produces the stairstep decline that real societies in real history undergo.

Kutamun, it occasionally happens that a society chooses reduced complexity as a way to survive, but it's not common. Our civilization made the other choice, and is well on its way into the predictable consequences.

Timothy, excellent! Yes, that's exactly the sort of thing I'm talking about.

Hector, yes, I expected that sort of rhetorical strategy. You might want to start by rereading the place where I said that "every increase in technological complexity tends also to increase the opportunities for externalizing the costs of economic activity" -- emphasis added. You might then want to consider that pulling examples out of context and ignoring their whole system impacts, when it's the whole system impacts I'm discussing, is arguably not the most valid form of argument. Is a sewage system really a source of anti-externalities? How much CO2 is produced in manufacturing its concrete? What about the ecological cost of keeping it supplied with chlorine? Etc., etc., etc. -- the more complex the technology, the more costs are involves, and it's precisely the unwillingness to trace those costs all the way out that helps drive the situation I discussed in this week's post.

Taraxacum said...

Aha! More interestingly, it only BECOMES a moot point IF we become able to tap the heart of the galaxy, and therefore we must trudge ever onward or risk the consequences of our actions catching up with us.

Taraxacum said...

I see now that there is a deep dread buried in the dark and hidden corners of the modernist soul, at what would ever happen should we slow our progress and allow those consequences to catch up to us. As a society our heels are ever dogged by the destruction we have wrought.

John Michael Greer said...

Anothershamus, oh, granted. I'd like to do something about getting some useful things through the bottleneck to the successor cultures on the other side, though, even if that interferes with the popcorn.

Jcummings, I think you've missed the core of my argument. Industrial production isn't actually any more efficient, except for very nuanced values of that slippery word "efficient" -- the industrial system is just much, much better at pushing its costs off onto other people, the economy, society, and the biosphere. It's always easy to look more efficient when someone else is surreptitiously paying your bills, and their input isn't being included in cost-benefit statements!

Taraxacum, I've long admired Garret Hardin's insistence that when people say "X is infinite," what that actually means is "I refuse to think about X." The futurists are classic examples, as it's only in a world of pure abstract fantasy that infinite energy and infinite vacuum exist. Draw energy out of the cosmos, and that's going to have an impact; dump waste into space, and orbital mechanics are likely to bring it swinging right back around at you!

deedl said...

Thanks for this great and insightful post. When reading this post the book "The Sources of Social Power" written by Michael Mann came to my mind. He wrote that there are four major sources of power, which are political power, economical power, ideological power and military power.

Linking the ideology of progress to capitalism seems to me as being two different ways of exercising power by the economical elites. Thus we can see economical greed as the greed for economical power which is a subset of a general greed of power (let's assume that being an hierarchical animal greed for power is inherently human).

Since for exercising power effectively more than economical power is necessary, it has to be accompanied by other forms of power. "Progress" is the ideological power that removes any rational discussions about the necessity of externalizing costs. Political power can be, as you have written, bought (which is economical power being converted to political power).

Looking through Mann's glasses it seems obvious that progress has to come together with cost externalization and both are caused by an economical elite maximizing it's power. From this point of view, increasing technological complexity is not a cause for anything but a phenomenon of emergence, a symptom of socioeconomical processes.

Now that i have written these thoughts this theory may be incomplete, because it does not explain, how the socialist societies with planned economies and without economical elites created the same kind of environmental externalities.

Here the book "Spiral Dynamics" by Don Beck and Chris Cowan may help out with some interesting ideas. They see consciuousness as an emergent phenomenon that grows and includes increasing parts of our universe (not much to argue with that). Based on this idea cost externalization is caused by a consciousness that does not include the costbearer (other people and species) into ist own weltanschauung. So it seems as a cost reduction. This may explain why both socialism/planned economy and capitalism/marked economy produced environmental externalities, because both are socioeconomic worldviews which simply do not incorporate the biosphere. This may also explain why capitalism produces social externalities preferrentially in far away countries or at least in far away social strata.

Since it is always a bad idea to create a black and white world with good and bad people, i propose the following "big picture": Maximizing Profit is the exercise of economocal power by the economical elites. It is done using technology, which as a side effect becomes more and more complex. It is accompanied by the exerciese of political power (buying politicians) and ideological power (embracing the technological means of cost externalization as "progress"). The true bearer of cost is probably simply not on the radar of large parts of the economical elite (or when it is, it is not linked to the cost externalization). So to them the externalization is truly seen as a cost reduction and the ideology of "progress" is seemingly proving itself.

PS: Externalization has been a topic in my blog (part I and part II).
Little Spoiler: The ultimative externalization is not externalizing cost, but externalizing risk. If youre company is "too-big-to-fail", then you succesfully externalized the risk of being an entrepreneur.
Another Topic of my blog has been the consciousness of economical elites.

Myosotis said...


I feel that, so much too.

So I'm practicing my spinning and doing what I can. You've got to stay sane to be able to keep on working to make it different.

Shining Hector said...

Spanked again.... No surprise at this point, I guess.

It's not really intended as a rhetorical strategy. You'll note my qualifying statements as well.

I guess to distill the concept to most abstract level, it's not quite an accident that the terms externality and waste share a lot of overlap. But waste also means waste. As in inefficiency, underutilized resources, undesired byproducts, etc. Waste is mostly undesirable to all parties concerned, and a substantial portion of "progress" is the minimization of waste and through that minimization of externalities, "whole systems" handwaving notwithstanding.

A chemical process that uses 100% of the feedstock and turns it to 100% of the desired product is generally the ultimate goal of a producer. I doubt anyone really sets out to generate externalities and dump leftover feedstock and various unwanted byproducts. The chemical company who dumps toxic sludge into the river isn't necessarily maximizing the owner's personal wealth if a little tweaking could instead maximize the conversion of feedstock to desired product and minimize the unwanted production of useless byproducts. There are win-win conditions as well, it's not all a zero sum game.

Jason Fligger said...

Hello JMG: One reason we tend to pursue ever-increasing complexity involves our need for defense. Those who invest in technology and externalize the most costs tend to have the most accurate and powerful means of defense. Without adequate defense, other greedy humans would overrun a society and take its property. As an aside, a dominant defense system typically allows a society to take other people's property too so it has a dual benefit. As resources become more and more scarce, everyone's defense systems become less and less complex until people are left only with sticks and stones. At that stage, those who are left may decide to put their sticks and stones down and figure out how to live a better life by working together. All will be well until some selfish person decides to take more than his share. Then the whole competitive fight for survival will ensue once again. Perhaps only a few are greedy. However, it only takes a few greedy leaders to push an entire society into a competition for "survival".

jcummings said...

I'm not sure that maths out, again on a per blivet basis. Consider your blivet smith hand forging blivets. Now the blivet smith stays up late one night with a largish bottle of home brew and conceives of a jig he can make in his shop, from scraps, that allow him to make 10 blivets an hour instead of 5 with more uniformity and less waste. This technological advance costs almost nothing, internalized or externalized (maybe he swiped the bottle and scraps from a neighbor). The scion of progress would extend this example indefinitely in search of maximum production. At some point, though, somewhere between the clever jig and the factory, pursuit of maximum production becomes harmful to the systems you describe above. In my mind, this is why appropriate tech as a category of tools is so vital - it responds to different paradigms than maximizing production: maximizing the health and well being of those systems you describe - social, economic, ecological. At some point, the pursuit of maximizing production leads to a great deal of externalized costs, as it must necessarily, as you point out. But the road there is bumpy and asymmetric. Would a hand-maker of blivets making 10 million blivets produce less externalized waste than a factory producing that number? I'm not sure that's knowable. We can say with more certainty whether or not the world needs 10 million blivets. If not, than we can point the finger at progress in the form of maximizing production.

Mickey Foley said...

There also seems to be a moral externalization at work. Instead of taking responsibility for our complicity as corporate cogs or imperial citizens, we follow our leaders' example and blame the system for forcing us to collaborate in its crimes. It's strange how many of my former co-workers were content to cannibalize their souls for an increasingly dispiriting, bedraggling middle-class lifestyle. What used to be the means to a happy life, financial security, has become an end in itself. People don't seem to realize that sacrificing everything else to achieve that will leave you spiritually void and incapable of joy. It's a good thing my conscience provided enough negative feedback to stop me before I collapsed completely. Unfortunately, most of us have been derelict in our duty as the conscience of the system. (For more uplifting thoughts along those lines, check out my blog, Riding the Rubicon!)

John Michael Greer said...

Deedl, in capitalist societies, business is the same as government; in socialist countries, it's exactly the other way around. I see industrial socialism as the natural end state of monopoly capitalism, when there really is only one firm producing everything -- and thus it's subject to exactly the same problems.

Hector, "spanked"? No, I just pointed out to you that you were misstating one of my points and ignoring another. As for waste, if a process that produces more waste is more profitable than a process that produces less, then standard economic theory and repeated experience alike show that the more wasteful process will be chosen. It's all very well to insist that nobody wants to produce waste; the point is that everyone in a market economy wants to maximize profit, and since pushing costs off onto somebody else is a proven and highly effective way to do that, dumping waste rather than "tweaking the process" (in the real world, usually an expensive procedure) is quite common.

Jason, I'd encourage you to do a bit of reading about how societies actually decline and fall; you'll find that the process has little to do with the scenario you've proposed.

Jcummings, again, that's why I specified industrial production, and the specific form of progress that involves increasing technological complexity. Improvements in craft technique are a different matter, as very often they have less to do with increasing technological complexity and more to do with learning and the development of skills, and don't necessarily increase externalities the way that technological complexity does. As I take this discussion further, I hope to clarify that a bit, and also bring in appropriate tech -- yes, it's very much part of all this.

Mickey, yes, and that's also a part of the discussion that needs to happen.

Mark In Mayenne said...

I had been pondering externalities in relation to gold mining and its toxic waste, wondering if regulation could be created sufficient to solve the problem. I'm not convinced that local artisanal blivet manufacture necessarily reduces externalities but it does change the incentives around waste disposal.

Stein L said...

I am reminded of the huge smokestacks that were erected in industrial areas, in order to ease the removal of a visible externality to, at least, the neighboring county.

Whether poison in the water, smoke in the air, plastic in the oceans or CO2 in the atmosphere, we are adept at ignoring externalities for as long as possible, if they should happen to impinge on our quest for increased economic returns.

Everyone's heard a variant of the following exchange:
"We need to do something about the smell of the fumes from the smokestack."
"What do you mean? That's the smell of money!"

In one of his books on lateral thinking, Edward de Bono proposed two solutions to such externalities:
1. Make the owners and administrators of a polluting factory live where the impact of their pollution is felt.
2. Place the water intake of a factory downstream from its water outlet.

These days, the accumulated effects of our externalities are such that we can't move away from them. The CO2 in the air has a world wide impact, it affects the global commons to our peril.

Technological progress as a means of "increasing the externalization of costs" makes perfect sense.
Consider one of the objections in comments: that sewage treatment plants are anti-externalitites. That objection fails to see the larger picture, that the plant is required because of an excessive concentration of people in an area. It makes it possible for that concentration of people to remain in a condition of overshoot, given what's required to maintain a society these days. The objection also ignores the energy and resources required to establish and operate these sewage plants.

As such, the objection is typical of the kinds of blind spots we've managed to develop, because we can't countenance the actual consequences of our actions.
Consider electrical vehicles. Their manufacture requires the use of several rare earth elements, and powering the batteries draws on the output from coal and nuclear plants, in most instances.
They're still considered a clean technology, because we have fixated on the fact that the vehicle doesn't emit exhaust fumes. We ignore the fact that the externalities are emitted elsewhere.

When hosting the APEC summit in Beijing, Chinese authorities did something they've apparently later come to regret. They instituted a ban on manufacturing activity and motoring inside a large radius circle around Beijing, in order to reduce air pollution.
During the conference, the skies above the city were blue, something people hadn't seen for a long time. The phenomenon was so astonishing that it earned a nick name: APEC Blue. It also raised a clamor for something to be done about the externalities of the Chinese economic "miracle." APEC Blue brought the cost home to those affected.

We fixate on isolated benefits of technological progress, and fail to see the larger picture. We see the EV without exhaust, and ignore where its energy comes from.
The citizens of Beijing had come to see air pollution as something natural, because they so rarely saw a clear blue sky. Instead, the rich came up with strategies to manage: air locked work places, homes, and schools for their children - and you better get rich yourself, to escape the pollution. The "smell of money" made them blind to what they were miring themselves in.

As such, it could be argued that technological progress, as we have come to define it, serves to help us maintain our blind spots to the actual consequences of our claimed advances.

Mr O. said...

Once upon a time, in a kingdom far, far away the King wizards discovered a way of linking all their crystal balls so they could could not only talk to each other but also see each others libraries. The king was delighted by this as he believed it would help him in his endless war with the neighbouring kingdom and he poured lots of gold from the kingdoms taxes into the project. This net work became known as the Wise Wizards Web and more and more ordinary people bought crystal balls to participate in it.

Then one day the King of the neighbouring Kingdom died and in the ensuing chaos the King became less interested in the WWW and through it open for the use of anyone in the Kingdom. His subjects were very exciting believing this would usher in an era of equality, education and erudition unknown since fabled times.

However one man had an idea. Sauros worked for a money lender but thinking about the wise wizard web he wondered if he could use it for mercantile means., and as he paid the kingdom nothing for the use of the wise wizard web much of his overheads would be dispersed across the realm. Thinking about what to sell he hit upon scrolls as they were easy to transport and popular with both the sages and the common people. Renting an old stable in the land of a sympathetic Baron, he created a www spell that listed every scroll available in the kingdom. He called his spell ‘The amazing disjunction’.

The people were ecstatic, rather than having to dig through musty scrolls in booksellers shoppes they could just go to the spell site and a cart would arrive a few days later with it. Payment was handled by fairy dust which was found to flow very well through the network of crystal balls.

However before long people started to notice that the old scroll shoppes started to close down. They had to hire premises and booksellers, pay taxes not only to the cities but also the crown, and keep all the bothersome regulations enacted by good kings in the days of yore to protect the common people.
The ex-money lender however only needed a few uneducated serfs to service his mercantile concern and thanks to the friendly Barons rule he needed only pay them a few groats.

However still he was feted throughout the kingdom, invited to royal feasts, and his name shouted across the land. He bought more old stables and started selling other things via the crystal ball network, leather work, armour, clothing, farming equipment, he didn’t draw a distinction and as his enterprise grew more and more of the olde shoppes selling these items closed, and he employed more serfs to toil in his stables.

However by now lust for gold had corrupted his heart and all this was not enough. He told the cart drivers that he would reduce the few pennies he paid them for transport to half that amount. Only the biggest cart driving cartels could survive these rates and then only by cutting the pittance they paid their drivers. Other carters were driven out of business, and commoners wanting to make deliveries discovered that many things could no longer be sent easily by cart. Indeed not even tiny chicks.

Next he turned his gaze to the makers of scrolls and he told them from now on you must sell me your scrolls for half the price you used to and you must sell them to no one else who might sell them on for a higher price than I. The scrolled makers quailed before his baleful gaze and did as they were told. Of course this meant they had to go to the sages and wizards who wrote the scrolls and tell them that they could no longer afford to pay them what they used to. Many writers who once survived by their words now went hungry.

Many other dark deeds did the mighty Sauros go on to do, each one adding to his power and wealth, and impoverishing more and more common folk, and the people started to mutter that a darkness had entered the land. But alas Sauros had corrupted the hearts of the King and his court and they could only slavishly chant ‘ Mighty Sauros is a force of progress, we must bow before him and worship him’.

Until one day…

Scotlyn said...

Phew! What an excellent explainer has come out of last week's conversation. So easy to grasp. I shall share this post widely, with thanks to both Jonathan the Muse and JMG the master spinner.

Yif said...

My entry for The Archdruid Report, the Great Squirrel Case Challenge of 2015.

Disqualified due to reference to another entry's power source(TM) but worthwhile to consider anyway.

Historical Precedence

Stein L said...

Have patience with this little anecdote.

Some years ago, a farmer in Britain decided he wanted to save a breed of cows, the Old Gloucester. In 1972, there were only 68 Gloucester breed heifers alive, of a breed that had made Gloucester cheeses famous centuries ago.

Together with another farmer, and with the assistance of veterinarians and consultants on which of the animals to breed from, Charles Martell managed to save the Old Gloucester breed. Today, there are over 650 registered breeding females.

Martell financed his rescue mission with the cheeses he made from the milk of the cows. The milk of the Gloucesters is particularly suited to cheese-making, as it is high in protein and butter fat, in particularly small globules.

Martell is the maker of Stinking Bishop cheese, which was made famous when Wallace, of Wallace and Gromit fame, was resuscitated with the use of one. Wallace is a great cheese lover, and I'm getting to the point of my anecdote.
Martell was concerned when Nick Parks of the animation company asked whether he could use Stinking Bishop in a coming feature film. Martell feared the publicity could be a problem:

"We're a tiny little company making about 100 cheeses a day and when the whole world wants a slice of cheese, I don't quite know how we're going to manage it," he said.

He also said: "We're limited for space. We've got two people making the cheese. If we get another one, where will we park the car?"

Of course, demand skyrocketed for Stinking Bishop upon the release of the film. But Martell didn't ramp up production. He wasn't in business to make money, he was in business to save a breed of cows.

We would all benefit if businesses reexamined their purpose, and found something other than profit to motivate their decisions.

patriciaormsby said...

(@JMG: I know you know this story. I'm just throwing it out there to add to the whole picture for discussion.)

I know of one society that practiced sustainability. It was ruled by a family of dictators that enforced sustainable hunting, forestry and other practices and eschewed most of what we would call progress, going as far as to limit its citizens' contact with foreigners. It flourished culturally nonetheless, to the extent that at least one religious group wanted to declare it "the Promised Age," a lot like the "Millennium" that some Christians say will arrive after Armageddon. The tyrants chose stability rather than "progress."
This was Edo Era Japan.
On July 8, 1853, folks near Edo (now Tokyo) noticed an odd sight: some warships entering their harbor under a cloud of black smoke. The Americans, led by Commodore Perry, demanded Japan to open its doors to commerce.
The Japanese sized up the situation very quickly, and after overthrowing the Tokugawa rulers, who were pretty helpless in the face of the present challenge. Under the young Meiji Emperor, the country embarked on modernization. They realized they had to, or get run over and be enslaved by the colonizers.
The cancer, I'm afraid, took root. I'm on the editorial staff of an environmental research journal, and the next issue is focusing on political-academic-industrial cooperation for a brighter future. They are truly starting to see all the results of externalities coming home to Japan, but the people are not ready to put two and two together.

afterthegoldrush said...

That's a very astute analysis JMG (not that that's a surprise from you). - thank you. It gave me a rather big ''aha!" moment. The very simple concept that any given technology out competes a similar simpler technology by way of externalising (either knowingly or unknowingly) the costs of its 'improvements' is a keeper, and one to sit on the back-burner of the mind for future insight and awareness.
Of course, the decision then, knowing this compromise, is what does a society choose to keep. I don't think our culture has anything like the sapience needed to be able to make such decisions, but perhaps the Eco-technic Phoenix that arises will. We can only hope so - as well as provide some sort of foundation for that future now (my own attempt is to learn traditional hand-tool woodwork/traditional crafts to teach my children and others).
It seems I don't get time to read all the comments on your blog these days (it's become rather busy this last 5 years or so), but I never miss an episode - too good to miss!
In a slight aside, I also thought that your Catton tribute post a few weeks back was very fitting - I think he would have approved. I also hope that in my 'Catton moment' (ie meeting you briefly last year) I didn't embarrass myself too much ;)
Regards to all.

Tat Loo said...

I believe that Jevon's Paradox also applies. "Progress" and "efficiency" coupled with the mad systemic drive for profit (and entropy?) maximisation means that ever increasing amounts of resources are used up and discarded ASAP.

All in the name of chasing ever increasing piles of inherently worthless electronic digital credits.

It is like some kind of messed up alchemy from Hades which has poisoned our perspective the entire World.

George Keller Hart said...

This is brilliant--placing externalities at the center, rather than an afterthought, a footnote on market failure, as usually done.

You are focusing attention very productively on "A General Theory of Externalities" so to speak.

You are developing an extremely insightful framework for inquiry, challenging the 'normal science' of today with a fundamental conceptual shift, vis a vis Thomas Kuhn.

Thank you.

Now if only you had 100 million readers!

G. Hart
Concord, Massachusetts

M said...

Wow. This latest series of posts is reaching new levels of archdruid awesomeness.

I think meme might be another word that's useful when discussing the cooperative writing you mention in the beginning of this week's essay. I write a blog that focuses on my little city's economy, and things the community can do and maybe should think twice about to create a more convivial economy.

I use that word specifically to honor Ivan Illich and his wonderful book, Tools for Conviviality. Illich also wrote Energy and Equity, a book in which he predicted the disintegration of society due to ever higher quanta of energy per human. This energy creates ever more complex technologies--the energy complexity spiral, not his term, but similar (and he included things like the medical and educational and transportation systems under technology) that eventually passed beyond a controllable, healthy, convivial human scale. He also foresaw the one percent problem, arguing that increasing energy use funneled more and more wealth to fewer and fewer individuals, creating the kind of equity gap we see today.

I am currently reporting on a gas station renovation project in the middle of my town that has gone awry--a number of additional, older, unexpected tanks were unearthed, and they have been leaking into the soil. The Dept. of Environmental Conservation (a bit of Newspeak?) is now involved. Tests are being done up to several hundred feet away, to make sure underground feeder streams are not bearing toxins into the nearby creek. The hole we dig grows ever deeper(that was the subtitle of my follow-up post.)

After one of my posts, a reader took me to task for not knowing what I was talking about in terms of "remediation", not using the correct technical terms (neither was true, but anyway). His main argument was hey, these things happen all the time, we have ways to fix it, it's the risk of being in the petrol business.

Yes, but who bears those risks, right? (And what a relief to know these things happen all the time!) In my current draft of a post responding to him, (takes a couple days between work and family) I write:

"It's an unwavering faith in science and technology, in the belief that things always progress in the direction of improvement and betterment for all (or at least for us, all can come later.) I will say that constantly running around spending huge amounts of capital and energy cleaning up messes caused by our use of fossil fuels is the definition of unsustainable, if only for the simple reason that, as extraction of the energy consumes more and more of our capital and energy resources, there will be less and less left over for the metaphorical rolls of Bounty to clean up the external costs. For example, the LUST fact sheet linked in the third paragraph above states, "The U.S. EPA released The National LUST Cleanup Backlog study in 2011, which reports that 'sufficient LUST Trust monies are not available to address all eligible sites.'” Also note that the fund itself is due to expire in September 2016 (though it has been extended in the past.)

LUST, by the way, is the Environmental Protection Agency's Acronym for Leaking Underground Storage Tanks--now there's an externality out of sight, out of mind--at least until someone decides to beautify their gas station.

The first sentence in that paragraph can be attributed to ideas gleaned directly from reading this fantastic blog for the past several years, while the external cost reference may be an example of that concept building up some steam as a meme for another run at the zeitgeist. As always, I look forward to next week's post! Thank you.

Odin's Raven said...

Perhaps there are another couple of problems as well.

Regulatory costs and rent seeking by politicians and bureaucrats can add to the externalities borne by the public.

Also, when 'fraud IS the business model', any notionally productive activity may become waste, functioning as cover for the thefts and currency debasement perpetrated by the (temporarily) ruling thieves and their political pals.

Ares Olympus said...

George Carlin had some clever definitions too, for instance the "progress of ideas":
"Where ideas are concerned, America can be counted on to do one of two things: take a good idea and run it completely into the ground, or take a bad idea and run it completely into the ground."

But I suppose my own analysis I'd try to go deeper, consider Schumacher's "Convergent and divergent problems."

Perhaps progress is the temporarily successful application of convervent solutions to divergent problems?

Like the Right media has rightfully objected to an Obama administration's assertion that "jobs" are part of the solution to reducing radial Muslim terrorism like ISIS.

But the blindspot shows the myth in America as well - to a politician "more jobs = progress", but to an employer "less jobs = progress", so this divergent problem is going to hit something sooner or later.

So far all we've discovered is "more debt = progress", externalizing costs to the future that will never agree to our demands.

My own reaction has always been - the most secure future is one where my cost of living is smallest, and then I don't need million dollar retirement funds to imagine how to live from age 65 to 95, or whatever people are supposed to be saving for these days, i.e. giving to Wall street to gamble with.

Tony f. whelKs said...

I think a lot of supplemetary evidence for this thesis comes directly from the mumblings of the High Priests of modern economics. There is a tendency to declare disussion of externalities as beyond the pale. 'Setting aside externalities' is a phrase I've encountered numerous times issuing from the mouths of economists.

There is the explicit assumption that the absorbtive powers of natural systems are inifinite, based on the twisted logic that 'ecosystem services' are free, therefore inexhaustible. It ties in with the crazy notion that the environment is a subset of the economy, rather than vice versa. I never did work out how the economy includes everything else, yet the externalities leave the economy.

Add to it the dogma that a system of actors seeking their own best interests (ie profit) drives an efficient market that provides the greatest collective good, and we are expected to perceive an 'invisible hand' at work. Once externalities come back into the picture, this hand is revealed as a big invisible boot in the collective backside.

Funny really, the way people who rail the loudest against redistribution of wealth see no irony in their claims to a God-given right to redistribute illth.

Maybe it would help if Economics 101 included compulsory modules on ecology, thermodynamics and metaphysics. Maybe.

donalfagan said...

Around 2006, when Diamond's Collapse was gospel among many peakists, some economist-type posters on Econbrowser claimed that the Rapa Nui's demise was an example of a tragedy of the commons. If only, they said, those date palms had been privately owned, then the owners would never have allowed them to be over-harvested. Extrapolating, if only PepsiCo owned the Ogallala aquifer, then they'd never let the Kochs run a dilbit pipeline through it. If only some firm owned the atmosphere, they'd never let automakers and powerplants pollute it. If only someone owned the Pacific Ocean, they'd never let it become a garbage dump. If only someone owned the biosphere, etc.

It seems to me that they were arguing that entropy could be managed by any sort of ownership, while you are arguing that entropy can only be managed by small scale ownership.

Professor Diabolical said...

At root they are all issues of morality, not physics, which is why understanding you have to be a psychopath to happily dump all externalities on anyone else without thought is a key insight. Most of us have conscience and can't do that, so we fail and are overrun by those who will. Because we are also moral cowards who won't face them and ourselves.

Also that our complicity in the system thus created slowly drives the population quite mad with dissonance. Participating in the system that keeps us alive requires us either to be evil or to create doublethink to hide our evil from ourselves. This is also why we have 1st world self-loathing which believes humans are innately evil and need to be killed en masse, along with the entire culture annihilated in apocalyptic fury--much commented on here.

In contrast, none of these are true: they are a choice of morality. As Mahatma said, "There is enough for everyone's need but not everyone's greed." We can face the externalities we are responsible for and say, "Hey, I can't dump in the river because that would be, um, manslaughter." Simple. We do this from time to time: first we said slavery was legal and moral, then we said it was immoral, and later illegal.

But when en masse the culture ignores morality, it is free to dump externalities and collect profits by killing others by the millions as we do now. Without a return to morality, there can be no change in the thermodynamic inertial system we've created, because those who are externalizing are too powerful and can always buy off any attempted regulation. Only within a moral argument and moral risk, a will to moral behavior do they have to change.

If they do not return to morality of not stealing/hurting/killing others, then yes, the society itself will dissolve and collapse as described, and rightfully so, as ultimately it is killing or driving mad nearly everyone and you have to be a psychopath to survive in it.

jonathan said...

jmg- thank you for the hat tip. i'm glad i was able to contribute a little something to your analysis. to that analysis i would offer just one additional thought. you make the absolutely accurate point that a market economy doesn't just allow externalization of costs but encourages it. however, non-market economies do the same thing albeit for somewhat different reasons.

the government bureaucrats who ran state industries in the ussr and who run state industries today in china created environmental and social disasters that rival anything that a market economy has ever done. perhaps we can say that a market economy is a sufficient but not a necessary condition for externalization of costs.

i think this may be a corrective to those who believe that "progress" can continue indefinitely and safely with just a little more government involvement and regulation. the costs of government are, after all, just another form of externality. and modern governments are, as much as corporations, dependent on the process for their existence.

Passive Solar said...

Hello JMG,

I have been reading/listening here for the better part of a year and this week's post has finally prodded me to comment.

IMO "market discipline" rewards those companies that excel at maximizing the externalities you describe so can't be used to decide or choose anything beneficial in an industrialized society.

Personal/individual or community discipline needs to be a core value in the years ahead but as soon as we widen it out to the "market" all responsibility for actions is lost.

Thank you for the time and effort you put into your posts.

Passive Solar

Kyoto Motors said...

In other words, if car owners had always been asked to contain and sequester their emissions, the auto industry would never have taken off... It's a habit of mine to point to the tailpipe of drivers whenever they try to complain about cyclists...
As for profitability, it is at least theoretically possible for a firm to assume the costs that would otherwise be externalized, so long as reduced profits are deemed acceptable... This does not have to show up on the sticker price... Especially if the business model is cooperative. Of course, there is a limit to how much cost the profit margin can absorb...

Brian Cady said...

But societies opting out of technoprogress must compete in business and war with rabid externalizer, tech-advance-worshipping societies.

Yet Amish/Mennonite have integrated themselves with the most warlike externalizer yet.

How do they co-operate without competing?

Sixbears said...

Then again, the company that can turn blivet waste into non toxic useful product has an advantage over those who throw it away. Those who can build blivets with little waste can save on material costs up front.

Engineer friend of mine was involved with a metal treatment process. Waste was dumped. Thanks to the EPA it got more and more expensive to dump the waste, plus the chemicals were getting more expensive. My friend figured out how to reuse the chemicals indefinitely, eliminating the waste, saving the company a lot of money.

The real world is complex.

Brian Cady said...

Hector, doesn't waste not include underutilized resources. Aren't they (natural) capital?

RogerCO said...

Nice one. So when someone talks of the "economies of scale" what they generally are actually talking about is externalising costs.
Small is indeed beautiful.

Kristiina said...

Extremely fine article! Perfectly sums up the weird skew our culture has gotten into. And comments are an added enrichment. Very, very nutritious fare.

I am starting to discern a counter-current. It has been going on for me quite some time, but it is appearing also among my friends. I have only this winter installed a hot-water boiler in my house. Before that I heated water with wood-burning stove. There is some strange exquisite pleasure in having personally felled trees to cut for firewood, piling it to dry, carrying and making fire for one's bathing and other needs. Fine medicine to heal alienation and open avenues for joy. It is hard labor, too. I am hearing something like this among friends, too. Definitely not mainstream, but I used to be the only freak I know. Unwinding, and finding the fine pleasures of genuine human culture in making things the laborious way.

It seems trying to escape feelings of fear and building defenses might be the psychological factors in keeping this process going, as Taraxacum so brilliantly poits out. Sometimes the thinking in the collapsenik circles is just more of that same fear&defensiveness just dressed in a different outfit. So my suggestion would be to sort out the fear and defensiveness to get on the path to retrace our steps. That would unwind the motor ever running to reach the center of the galaxy. All that said, a warm shower whenever I want it is a wonderful pleasure. Makes me feel like a spankin' new human. Bathing in sauna is different. And we humans are also suckers for variation, which may be a less dangerous driving force behind the cult of progress. I think we can have variation without embarking on the ship bound for the center of galaxy, no?

Jason Fligger said...

JMG: With what part of my comment to you disagree? When I wrote my comment, I was thinking about my American Indian ancestors who, for the most part, had a value system that allowed them to live in harmony with the earth for thousands of years. When that value system collided with one that valued technological progress, it was rapidly and efficiently destroyed. It was only allowed to remain on lands that the more technologically advanced people did not want.

Marc L Bernstein said...

Instead of adjusting its technological expansion and elaboration, a society could control its population in order to maintain a cap on the overall deleterious impacts of the environmental externalities resulting from its technologically-based economy.

I'm not convinced that this principle of environmental sustainability through population control can be put into practice, though. Are there any examples of past societies that cooperated effectively in controlling their population growth? I would not expect to find very many examples.

Organisms in general do not deliberately impede their own population growth, but rather count on their environment to cull their numbers instead.

Of course after overcrowding becomes sufficiently acute, human behavior changes, but not necessarily in functional ways. Rather an epidemic of neurotic and pathological behavior patterns can be expected to manifest themselves. Violence and sociopathological behavior can be expected to increase as overcrowding worsens, and only persons who can function within a hideous, callously indifferent social milieu can be expected to survive. Callousness becomes adaptive within a milieu full of suffering.

Human beings are inherently tool-making and tool-using creatures, and on psychological grounds it may be prohibitively difficult for a society to discourage technological inventiveness among its members.

Is humanity fundamentally flawed in such a way that maintaining a stable and sustainable relationship with its environment is highly unlikely? It is no easy matter to analyze this possibility objectively.

The question arises as to whether human nature is flawed or whether the fault lies with our present culture, or in the past to cultures that had fatal flaws.

Just as sociopathic CEOs rise to the top in our present culture, and just as those corporations which do the best job of externalizing their costs outcompete those that are less efficient in this capacity, entire cultures have been destroyed, weeded out, out-competed and rendered extinct by more aggressive, environmentally malevolent cultures which externalized a portion of their economic costs onto other more benign cultures. We see this today as indigenous cultures continually get impoverished, poisoned, killed or pushed aside by our so-called dominant culture. It does not bode well for the future of our species.

Justin W. McCarthy said...

Did anyone else notice the m.c. Escher quality to the blivet?

Paulo said...

Great Post and not too much to disagree with.

However, I sure do like my new Honda motorcycle that was made in Thailand.

I use this example to say we are all complicit, in one way or another. In time, space, and circumstance, some of us were born lucky. A common quip is to say being born in North America was akin to winning the lottery of life. Our relative wealth has provided time to browse and participate in discussions such as these. Some take solace in living simpler lives, but have the wealth and circumstances to deliberately choose to do so. I have never minded paying our high Canadian taxes, and have always hoped our changing Govt takes it upon itself to help out the less fortunate than I. But maybe now is the time to drop a toonie in the busker's guitar case instead of wondering why he/she doesn't just get a job like I did for 40 years, and play music on time off?

Like I said, all of us are complicit.

Justin Patrick Moore said...

Here is an interesting book on a speculative bubble that has already popped. Zac Bissonnette wrote "The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass Delusion and the Dark Side of Cute."

I'll leave it to someone else to actually read it though.

Marty said...

JMG: (Thanks for all the great stuff)

Two quibbles. Can we stop letting the Blankfeins, Icahns, and Kochs off the hook by giving them "The Market" camouflage for their personal greed? These are personal decisions made "legal" by persistent corruption of the body politic and the public media (and intellectuals). It is not some clockwork mechanism that imposes its will on "the system" or "management."

The second is more of a question. I remember that you have issues with Bucky Fuller's utopian view of technology but isn't there a point in the "ephemeralization" thread of his thinking? If so, one would think that pursuit of that kind of "technology" would not be detrimental. No?

Witter said...

Here's my second contribution to the Great Squirrel Case Challenge.

I had a lot of fun doing that one.

Lynnet said...

Another great example of externalization of costs is the low wages for an ever-increasing percentage of the working population. In direct terms, the taxpayers are subsidizing health care, food costs, and other expenses to enable the wage-earners to actually live on the wages. The less obvious impact is a fact that Henry Ford knew and today's CEOs have forgotten: low wages depress purchasing power. However, this is externalized to the entire society. So it is to a company's benefit to pay the very lowest wages they can get away with, expecting that the better wages at other companies will keep their sales up. The end result is a toxic wage dump, the middle class being
hollowed out, and sales figures being supported by the (very temporary)
expedient of debt.

oilman2 said...

There have been numerous discussions regarding this, but the thought trail was "hypercomplexity" and "complex systems". Adoption of complex systems requires significant taxes and subsidies (think rural electrification and now 'internetification') which must be paid by everyone, not just the beneficiaries. For our farm, we must increase profits to support satellite internet access - otherwise the cost cannot be supported. Yet without it, we would rapidly become wholly local (not bad, but a decline in living standard would be instant). How much of the satellite cost is inherently externalized? Most I imagine - so we still must ride on the backs of the group to have internet access...

Again, we have a privately owned 'county water company' that generates profits for shareholders somewhere. And we have roads we pay for via taxes, but there are numerous county officials that administer this, but even then, it is through bids from 'authorized contractors'.

So how do you step away from externalization (hypercomplexity) without going full-on Luddite?

Wolfgang Brinck said...

It seems to me that in a balanced ecosystem there are no externalities. Every output, that is, every waste product that any organism produces is an input or feed stock for another organism. Of course, balance is a temporary condition, the environment constantly changes and balance has to be constantly re-established, but change is sufficiently slow that evolutionary processes can adapt to process new externalities. Eventually, something may come along that eats plastic.
Progress is in effect change that temporarily creates unprocessed externalities. I say temporarily because as you pointed out, unprocessed externalities lead to collapse of the system that produced them. The whole thing is self-rectifying. Only thing is, that after rectification, that is after re-balancing the ecosystem, some of the players in the system may be missing. And players in the ecosystem may be cultures. Cultures collapse even though the species may live on.
I like to think that externalities are the real product of progress, cultural benefits are a side effect.

Josh said...

Nice piece, as usual.

I am on-board with the thesis that increasing technological complexity enables increased externalization of costs and impacts. But I anticipate that some techno-optimists may respond with examples of processes where the development and application advanced technologies really have resulted in increased efficiencies and reduced environmental impacts. Close inspection may reveal that such examples may not actually be exceptions to your thesis, but for purposes of a thought experiment, say they do seem to defy your assertions here.

In this case, the increased technological complexity would result in products and/or services which really are lower in cost, i.e. more affordable. They would then likely be subject to the Jevons effect - though the process may be more efficient or less polluting, in aggregate consumption would increase, as would aggregate waste/impact. (You've probably written on this before...)

Obviously the planet does not care about the efficiency of a particular unit product, but the overall aggregate impact.

For example, techno-utopians like to point out things like this article:

that says that if a computer from a 20 years ago had the computing power of a current macbook but the efficiency of the older model the battery life would only be 2.5 seconds.

So advancements in battery technology have made today's laptops far more energy efficient than the machines of yesteryear - hooray for the environment? No, aggregate demand for energy and resources and aggregate waste production associated with personal computing over this time period has increased so much as to nullify efficiency gains. We've made personal computing more affordable and accessible, so laptops, iPads, and smartphones have proliferated around the globe and are ending up in giant e-waste recycling dumps in Africa and China (where the plastics get melted down and re-manufactured into Mardi Gras beads and children's costume jewelry that contain toxic heavy metals and endocrine disruptors....)

[ ]

Dave Zoom said...

Transpose blivit for fracking , in the USA its a free for all , in Europe not so much , Europe has the much vaunted ( by the populus ) and hated ( by the free market ) national health systems , the cost of posible sickness caused by polution lands squarely on each countries treasury those funds could be spent elswhere ( higher pay for the political class ) hense polution can not be externalised , its legislated into the operating costs of fracking pushing up costs to the point its not viable to drill .
From the day that the first farmer pushed his Ox shoulder blade into the soil we have externalised costs , in that case forcing the hunter gatherer to go elsewhere .

William Zeitler said...

Isn't there a sense in which the rabbit externalizes the conversion of sunlight into calories by eating plants instead? On the other hand, plants 'externalize' the problem of soil depletion by providing inputs to organic fertilizer factories (rabbits). Perhaps what distinguishes Nature from Techno is that Nature doesn't have any dead-end externalizations -- one creature's externalization is some other's useful input. On the other hand, Techno is loaded with dead-end externalizations (see your local dumps -- atmospheric, oceanic, geologic, etc.). Just a thot.

Wolfgang Brinck said...

One thing I noticed while I was in the Army was that its organizational structure whether evolved or consciously crafted cleverly dissociates action from responsibity. This formula almost guarantees atrocities. Actors, soldiers, are not responsible for their actions - officers give the orders. Soldiers do things they would not do if they were themselves responsible for their actions. In the end, however, soldiers try to justify their actions by various tricks of reasoning so they can feel as if they were responsible agents.
The same sort of thing goes on in our society. The driving of cars that I have done was not my decision. I needed that car to get to work. The CO2 that the car generated was not my fault because my society didn't give me any options for making a living that didn't involve driving a car. At least, that's the sort of reasoning I can use to justify the driving of a car even though I know that generates the externality of greenhouse gas emissions. So in my mind I can continue to use the fruits of progress, in fact, must use the fruits of progress because I lack the imagination to do without them.

Scott Renbarger said...

I forget where, but I learned this as the CCPP game: Commonize Costs, Privatize Profits.

oilman2 said...

Is this not another euphemism for efficiency?

With blinders full on, blivet makers pursue efficient blivet making. Their accountants pursue efficient blivet costing and sourcing while engineers pursue efficient blivet manufacture, likely spawning a "blivet press" manufacturing company and special makers of large 'blivet pallets'.... So, when robots make the blivets and drones deliver them to your door, there are many that benefit, but how many blivets do we need? And is the cost accounting accurate enough to make people understand that one reliable blivet maker is actually cheaper?

Efficiency is as highly overrated for humans as cognition is underrated.

Twilight said...

I wonder then if previous sustainable societies had social/religious tools to limit or prevent the emergence of new technologies that could have created instability? Or did they just rely on the absence of extra available energy to prevent it? It seems to me that a preference for tradition and a habit of viewing anything new or different could be adaptive in light of this model, even though it is the very thing a modern western mind would find stifling and limiting.

indus56 said...

Fine discussion of externalization of costs, and some commenters insightfully question whether much of today's economic activity would be tenable if full costs were paid by their authors. I've had similar thoughts about local blivet-making industry, turning natural gas (as energy source) into tar (as output) and shipping it to Texas for refining into oil. Although the net energy return on energy invested is estimated at 3 or 4 to 1, I can't help suspecting that if even energy costs were fully accounted for--to build universities, engineering faculties, economics departments, extract ore for pipe and machineries, roads, security services, lobbying retreats--the activity might already been strongly net-energy negative.

Which led me to ask who would actually speak up if that were already known to be the case?

Ember said...

Beautifully wrought! This nicely converged many lines of observance and thought I've been preoccupied with. Something else to note is the cyclical reinforcing of technological progress that makes the impact exponential - meaning that some of the most lauded technologies are those that manage the externalities created by previous progress. Smartphones, electric cars, smart grids, and a whole slew of "green" (though decidedly not appropriate) technologies exist solely to mitigate the externalities created by computer driven, bureaucratic, non-local working conditions that are themselves the externalized pains of previous technological breakthroughs. This also helps us identify the groups who are able to regress - those who drop out of the "system" (collapsing now) free themselves of the externalized costs loaded onto workers and citizens and so can regress - though a huge part of the pain of regression is dealing with the many other whole-system externalities. The other group of regressers comes from the youth of upperclasses (or even middle classes in first world countries;) these people can afford to shop for retro tech like record players and solid wood furniture mining (like fossil fuels) their relative wealth and freedom, the stored up potential energy of the hungry externalized.

Howard Skillington said...

Thank you for posting the blueprint for the mechanical blivet press. I've always wondered how the heck they make those things.

indus56 said...

Resonant for the discussion here is Bruno Latour’s _The Politics of Nature_ (2004), in its elegant appropriation of externality for political ecology, which I have run across only recently. In effect, he takes the notion of externality much further, to include not only externalities such as the impacts of asbestos or atmospheric carbon, but of entities of any sort placed beyond the boundaries of what constitutes the cosmos of any given collective.

At any given moment in the “progressive composition” of a collective, the latter can be found to have incorporated certain entities and relations, “but that also means that it has eliminated other propositions” (p. 124), being unable or unwilling to take them into account, consigning them to an exterior or unexamined negative space of ever accumulating
“excluded entities, beings that the collectivity has decided to do without, for which it has refused to take responsibility—let us remember that these entities can be humans, but also animal species, research programs, concepts…that at one moment or another are consigned to the dumping ground of a particular collective. We no longer have a society surrounded by a nature, but a [human/non-human] collective producing a clear distinction between what it has internalized and what it has externalized.” (p. 124).

But thus far in the account we find nothing, however, that obliges us to say
“that these externalized entities will always remain outside the collective….So what are the entities that have been set aside going to do? They are going to put the collective in danger, always provided that the power to take into account is sensitive and alert enough. What is excluded by the power to put in order* at t0 can come back to haunt the power to take into account at t + 1” (pp. 124-125).

A viable collective is precisely one that is able to invest the entities--the misery of asbestosis, climate catastrophe, economic, societal and biospheric systems, gods, slaves--with the power to put the collective in danger or the power to reveal where it is already suffering, with voices that hold sway.

Stacey Armstrong said...

The last two posts keep bringing me back to the idea of how to determine what the parameters of "enough" might look like, not just on societal level but also on a very personal level.

Curiously, as I read about the blivets last night I kept thinking about Tennyson's poem Ulysses. "Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades forever and forever when I move. How dull it is to pause" I was always struck by the fact that the returning hero could not deal with the complexities of being home, staying in one place, engaging in relationships with his family and people. I had a great deal of sympathy for his son and wife. While I realize this is not the common reading of the poem; I can't help but wonder what the antidote to the ringing close might be? Instead of " to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield" perhaps it would be something like "to yield, to attend, to know and not to flourish ." (There clearly is a reason Tennyson was called The Boss!) I find myself wondering what a modern Telemachus or Penelope might look like.


shhh said...

Years ago in my early 40's I got around to getting a college edumuhcation and obtained an degree in Accountancy.

I realized pretty quickly that double entry accounting was one most eloquent swindles ever perpetuated and was a key enabler of "rational business decision making," for precisely the argument you present here. That is to say, developing a strict system of "allowable" costs and hyper logical ways to treat them, created a mental bluff that was palatable for the initiated and obtuse to the uninitiated. (as are most magics)

I have tried, and failed, many times to express the argument of externalities being the fundamental flaw in Capitalism and, on the patently false assumption that I remember Marx and Engels, this exact criticism has been offered at various times in various means, all to no avail.

Which leads me further to inquire of the metaphysical components of what "incentivizes" (tm) these behaviors. FWIW, I suspect there are two interrelated components of the human construct in play. First, evolution has not reacted to multi-generational adaptive pressures in a way the rewards long term foresight in societies, and second, psychic relationships with archetypes have not kept pace with the implications of technological advancements - i.e. on a population basis, individual responses to archetypes outweigh all other consideration and greed is rewarded. Hero-myths abound in Libertarian fantasies...

Great expostulation Mr. Greer.

1ab9a86a-8991-11e3-899b-000bcdcb8a73 said...

I like the idea of raising a monument to progress. Perhaps, instead of trying to convert the followers of progress to another creed, they need only be confirmed into their own by making it a proper religion, with monuments, tombs etc.

"Here stands the mighty blivet, giver of our strength"

"Here lieth the widget, not really as good as the blivet , but quite something in its day".

Since the actual tangible benefits of progress seem to have been reduced to getting to look at smaller and smaller i-screens, with ever shorter lifespans (albeit slightly beyond the warranty period), it should be possible for followers to replace those ephemeral benefits with entirely non-material ones.

On a somewhat random but somewhat connected point. I'd always assumed that scientology was a joke by its author, very much at his followers expense. But it just occurred to me that it could be seen as a parody (intended or otherwise) of the religion of progress.

GHung said...

JMG: "Things are going wrong with the economy, society, and the biosphere, but nobody seems to be able to figure out why..."

When I bring these things up with most folks, it's blank stare time. It doesn't even occur to them to question society's externalized costs. This process has become deeply inculturated into every aspect of their lives; quite convenient when folks can barely deal with the overall complexities of progress (if at all). Easier to discount the future. They'll deal with these externalized costs only when confronted with them; up close and personal. In a time when so many of these costs are coming home to roost, like vultures circling overhead, the response seems to be 'duck-and-cover'. Let's hope it doesn't come to that.

Ember said...

Now we need new ways to determine which technologies to use. I'm not necessarily voting for it as a practical solution, but I resonate with the indigenous Mayan perspective presented by Martin Prechtel while being interviewed by Derrick Jensen for Sun Magazine. First, there is an acknowledgement of the externalities created by, say, making a knife - not only the physical, but the "less-tangible" costs. These are paid for through ritual; if the ritual is skipped (the externalities not acknowledged and paid,) then the tool will "shed blood" rather than do beneficial work. (This is a apt metaphor our current blood shedding technological progress.) Second, Martin tells of their buildings which are built just well enough to provide shelter for an understood "lifetime," often only a few years or decades. There is no deception as in our culture, that we can make "timeless" structures, or even that that would be preferable. The eventual dilapidation and failure of the mayan villagers' housing presents opportunities for work, for gathering, for grieving, and for rebuilding. I've often thought that the greatest leg up for the USA in becoming a superpower was that it was most recently built - but with our obsession in creating permanence, the latest "permanent" construction is only best until better comes along, and then it is too permanent and embedded to improve.

jcummings said...

I suggest that the extetnalizing of costs - no doubt a real cause of progress' own demise, is a symptom of the prevailing patadigms of progress - chief among them a drive to maximize production at all costs. Somewhat like a person being shot - like the externalizing of costs, the technical thing which causes death is the loss of blood. In this analogy, the paradigms underlying progress are the notions which lead to the pulling of the trigger, launching the bullet, which ultimately cause the damage.

There are some splitting of hairs here, but the reason I think it's important goes back to the blivet forger who comes up with a new jig. If her operating paradigm is in line with those that mark industrialism, then much like Walmart began as a mom & pop local store, that blivet jig is but the first step in an industrial process. If, on the other hand, that smith's operating paradigm is along other, more life sustaining lines, then that jig is, as you suggest, an appropriate tech, craft-style improvement.

I see far too many artisan-style growers and craftspeople who market their wares as part of a life-sustaining movement, but whose operating paradigm is that of industrialism, and so who aren't really any better than their industrialist counterparts. The organic food movement is rife with such practices.

Dammerung said...

To what extent do you think it's actually possible to make a better comb than yesterday's without increasing the environmental or psychological load factor of a civilization? While we - obviously - are pretty far down the road to collapse, it still seems to me that progress - in the form of getting more out of the same raw materials - is still possible. There was recently a guy who made a small modification to the head of an axe to get a perfect split almost every time. He weighted it slightly off kilter and changed the shape of the head to come down with great consistency. Same raw materials, same impact to manufacture, but a clearly better use of the same resources to create an improved instrument. Right?

Denys said...

Agree with 98% of what you write JMG and like some others find myself itching to jump to solutions. Would the green wizards forums be a place to go to talk these things out? Is it moderated as strongly as your comments here?

Years ago I participated in a group that Sharon Astyk founded called Riot for Austerity. Goal of the group was to see if we could run our lives on 10% of the electric, water, energy (natural gas, oil, gasoline) that the average American uses. Also to buy/grow good locally and and not buy new, etc. etc. We had very lively discussions in a Facebook group working on solutions to get to this 10%. (spoiler alert - it can not be done and live a "normal" American life).

One day a man jumped in and called us all a bunch of bored housewives who had nothing better to do. We guessed he was looking for grand technological solutions and helped him along by making sure he was banned from the group so he couldn't risk being bored again by such discussions as gray water, hand washing clothes, raising goats and chickens, and what kind of non-electric lighting worked best.

Yupped said...

One of the roots of this problem seems to be the desire and willingness of some people to scale up their operations to maximize profit and minimize costs, and to do so while producing unconscionable results that would make other humans pull back. Non-renewable energy and the technology it powers enable and turbo-charge this desire. Without cheap and available resources you could still maximize your profits through unethical and destructive methods, but these would be the more direct and brutal methods known for centuries: war and slavery and exploitation. And they all require leaders to get their hands dirty.

Whereas for a modern CEO, and certainly a CEOs employees and customers, it's possible to externalize horrific costs to Slobbovia, thus preventing them from needing to act brutally or from being faced directly with the consequences of their actions. And I think that tends to shield us from questions of conscience in these matters, as well as just preventing us from the practical impacts of polluting our own backyards in the careless manufacture of family blivet needs.

The original Wall Street movie, from the 80's, had that great line "...the problem with money, Bud--it makes you do things you don't want to do". I think that line works for cheap energy, even more so.

Also, logistically, it should actually be a lot easier to control Blivet production pollution if Blivet production is concentrated in a small number of locations, rather than if it is spread out across many thousands of locations across the globe or in every major town. That's similar to the challenges of controlling point source and non-point source pollution. Politically, though, it is of course impossible to get those same very powerful people to do things they don't want to do, especially when they have a good degree of control over the levers of government.

Sukey Jacobsen said...

I would refer readers to this book:
Heinberg, Richard. The End of Growth
It oresents a good overview of growth or technological
progress economics.

I often read posts on the site.

Of course reading all of this is useful for a self education. More important is a personal response. For starters I suggest having zero debt, downsizing if your domicile is large, growing your own food, learning rewarding skills for self sufficiency, finding true resilience in all of your endeavors. Of the last this includes building community and having meaningful and ethical relationship with all species. Let's just call this stewardship. Or in terms of this most recent post, it means ethically and responsibly managing the externalites of all you do and all you consume.
The Book, Enough is Enough" comes to mind.

Varun Bhaskar said...


Yes, yes, yes! I spotted this issue years ago in college but was never able to articulate it so clearly. There is no such thing has reducing cost in a complex system, it is a closed loop and our poop has to end up somewhere. (sorry couldn't resist).

I think we're building the future of economics on this blog.



Friction Shift said...

You've begun to explore one of the core processes of predatory capitalism as practiced so exceptionally well in the U.S. The term "progress," of course, is merely its marketing slogan, but it's been done so well that it has turned into, as you point out, a secular religion.

A corollary process, mentioned in an earlier post to this conversation by Cherokee Organics, is what has been called "lemon socialism," or "corporate welfare;" that is to say, privatizing all profit and socializing any loss. A swindle, indeed. Thus the corporations shout to the heavens about the holy marketplace and "unfair regulation" when guvmint dares to, say, require them to shoulder some of the burden placed on the biosphere and public health by their externalities, but go running and whining to that same evil guvmint the moment the cruel realities of the marketplace send the grim reaper to their door.

Without lemon socialism, for example, most of the big banks in the US --which under anything but the pretend accounting "standards" now permitted them by the guvmint are insolvent -- would be memories today. The only domestic auto maker still standing after the crisis of 2006-2008 would be Ford, which somehow managed to foresee the mess and didn't require a bailout.

I'm often amazed at how cleverly lemon socialism is disguised. For example, a blogger I regularly read was recently excoriating electric cars -- a worthy mission -- based on the fact that Tesla wouldn't exist without massive subsidies. Um, what about GM? Imagine a world in which GM was required to pay not just for the pollution its factories generate, but for the infrastructure (roads, public parking garages, traffic signals, enforcement) required to use its products? Externalities all.

Under your example of the small-scale production of blivets, perhaps only the community should decide if a blivet maker who racks up huge losses should get a subsidy, or have to switch to making rectabular excrusions to make a living.

changeling said...

I can think of very dreadful example of cost externalization. It is speculation in food speculation in food commodities, that cause massive harm to poorest countries, while it is only advantageous to very small circle of financiers.

Clay Dennis said...


The industrial model of passing off externalities is of course not the only one, most of us in the western world also try and push off our costs as externalities on others.

As an example, my wife helps manage a publicly owned wastewater utility that transports and treats sewage from homes and business's. As there is no profit motive, they try very hard to comply with all aspects of regulation ( EPA, state reg, cleanwater act etc.) and have generaly developed a culture of technofixes and reductionism to help do this. Unlike most private enterprises they face stiff fines if they violate their permit, and at each facility there is a "jailable" official who can be held crimeanliy liable for flagerant violations. Doing this costs more and more over time as regulations become more stringent ( beleive it or not) and the costs of technology and the overall complexity of the system that results add up. In the old days much of these costs were externalized in the form of "free" federal money to build and upgrade facilities. But now pretty much all the cost have to be passed on to the ratepayers, which is resulting in quickly rising sewer rates in her utility as well as most others around the country.

This has resulted in much pushback from ratepayers and even in ratepayer revolts where the costs are framed as public sector corruption, waste etc. There is no doubt that in some places this may be true, but in most utilities in is the hard cost os technological complexity and energy that can not be externalized or shipped off to the third world that people are faced with first hand. What most ratepayers ( average citizens) don't realize is that most of the costs are caused by themselves in externalizing their costs by sending them down the sewer. High water use, toxic cleaners, pharmacuticals, and even the microplastic beads in facial scrubs cost every increasing amounts of money to remove ( take out of water and put somewher else). Only by taking out all these things at the source ( i.e. not useing them) and reducing water use to a bare minimum can the costs eventually go down. But this is never realized and most politics around this issue involve trying to figure out how to push the costs off on to the other guy.

CJ said...

Even the modest amount of Blivet pollution from craftsmen will be too much when multiplied by the population increase. A steady state would need to exist in population as well as technology if we are to have a chance. When all is said and done, are we really any different than yeast?

Beatrice Salmon-Hawk said...

JMG. A splendid and lucid explanation of what is going on. I don't care much if it is correct or not. It makes sense to me. I shall therefore no longer waste my energies in baffled expressions of anger and despair and concentrate on my wonderful life mostly spent on the land! Sure, "it does not pay" but that is rather a good thing, isn't it?

Øyvind Holmstad said...

Very intelligent post! Increased technology cannot save us, just destroy us.

By the way, Hardin was not describing a commons, but a free access regime.

escapefromwisconsin said...

I’m not sure I accept that definition. New technology could *theoretically* allow an internalization of costs as well. One example would be smokestack scrubbers that capture the particulate matter emanating from smokestacks. A good portion of the gypsum board used in construction is made from such captured material. Another example would be the capture of waste heat used in cogeneration. Of course, whether these are implemented or not has much to do with the regulatory atmosphere as much as anything else.

What makes a change count s progress is:

1.) Whether it allows wealth to be centralized. There are all sorts of things that could be considered “progress” but are not implemented because it does not increase profits to the already fortunate and makes the common person better off. Mumford pointed out that the Middle Ages was full of technological advances in the service of small, distributed communities serving human values, whereas the technological regime since the Enlightenment has had the results of centralizing power and turning people into cogs in a machine.

2.) Whether it conveys some sort of meaning. See this excellent article: Morality and Progress in Silicon Valley. The article points out that the idea of progress is essentially a *moral* argument and thus cannot be measured by traditional means such as ROI, GDP, efficiency, etc. As the article puts it, “To put it another way, progress is the only myth left when rationality has eviscerated other sources of meaning. Because of our faith in progress we have granted rationality itself a positive moral valence.”

I think the better argument is diminishing returns to technology. Econ 101: when you increase one input in a process while keeping all other inputs equal, you run into diminishing marginal returns. After a certain point, you may even run into negative returns.

There are all sorts of inputs that cannot be increased – we have only one stomach and two eyes, there are twenty-four hours in a day, the days of our life are three score and ten, we have a narrow range of temperature in which we are comfortable, there is only so much water, topsoil, etc. and so on. Even the endorphins in our brain limit our happiness levels. Increase technology given those facts and you cease to benefit after a certain point. Plus, the low hanging fruits are harvested first – technology that makes a big difference is invented first making marginal gains progressively less beneficial. As economist Robert Gordon has pointed out, we probably have not invented anything better than indoor plumbing in terms of benefits to the economy.

William Gabonay said...

Thank you for another excellent post.
I am a chemical engineer by training, currently working as the technical manager in a plant that produces flat glass for the automotive industry. (As an aside related to the current economic situation, our plant is scheduled to be closed at the end of June, so myself and roughly 100 fellow workers here will be out of a job.)
I'd like to submit that, in the context of the current growth-addicted market economy, even those rare instances where increases in technological complexity work to actually decrease externalities in principle, the net effect is an overall increase in externalities. This fits even some of these "exceptions" into the model of JMG's argument.
For example, last year, we purchased an installed a system here at the plant designed to significantly improve the combustion efficiency of gas delivered to our natural gas fired glass furnace. It worked. We now have a cleaner exhaust gas leaving through the smokestack. However, before we call the game in favor of technological complexity, consider WHY we did this, and the predictable result. We didn't install this new technology for the sake of reducing externalities by having cleaner emissions. We did it so that we could increase the tons of glass per day we produce while still meeting the government imposed emissions limits. So, the we now have the ability to melt more sand per day, thus producing more glass for our customers. It would be difficult to quantify, but I'd be willing to bet that the decrease in air pollution externalities we achieved is more than offset by the increases in externalities related to our increase in daily production. For instance: in sand, salt cake, limestone, and dolomite mining and transportation, the transportation of more glass product, increases in the other pollution streams from our own process, etc. Not to mention the externalities involved in manufacturing, transporting, and installing the technology itself.

I guess it's sort of a modified Jevons' paradox? If the effect of a technology or suite of technologies is to decrease externalities in one local area of a process, it tends to increase most other externalities related to the process.
Maybe this isn't always true, but in my 7 year career in corporate industrial manufacturing, this has always been the case.

Kirby Benson said...

The conclusion I draw from The Archdruid's extremely well thought out and beautifully written essay is that brown smelly stuff rolls downhill.

trippticket said...

Brilliant! Well done.

My wife and I own a little herbal products company in north Georgia (, and produce a variety of original products meant to replace more toxic industrial products - essential oil and witchhazel insect repellant that works just as well as DEET, a comfrey cream that heals any skin (and deeper) problem you put it on, a Tiger Balm-esque muscle and joint rub based again on essential oils, and so on.

Unfortunately, as wonderful as all that sounds, we still have to buy, and have shipped, an array of containers that appeal to our target demographic. The bugspray bottles come from China! Of all places. Because we can't find a domestic option that looks nearly as good for anything like the price we're paying to get them from China. Obviously today's argument has a lot to do with that. And it's a constant weight on our conscience.

Fortunately, I've also just been reading your book 'Green Wizardry', where you discuss the concept of "staged disconnection," or I might just have to slip into a bout of self-loathing!

The products we make are high quality, at least as effective, and much less toxic than their industrial counterparts, and once the raw materials arrive at our house carry almost zero additional externalities. Assuming that recycling plastic bottles, say, that contained witchhazel, is in fact a worthwhile way to handle that waste. Which I'm far from convinced is accurate.

We're producing and foraging a lot of our own food, almost ALL of our medicine, live an extremely low-impact life (22W of solar, wood cook/heating stove, sawdust toilet, root cellaring, fermenting, etc), but for now, we still have to make at least some money, somehow, to pay property taxes, phone service, auto insurance, and be able to go out once in a while. Or else take an outside job working for someone else, where even more of the problems discussed in today's post come into play I think.

So, are we being overly critical of our business impacts at his point? Should we be paying more for uglier bottles that nobody will buy? Anybody got any ideas for attractive bugspray bottles that are made, or could be made, closer to north Georgia? We've talked about shifting from metal tins for our salves to refillable pottery ones made by us or a neighbor, that, once the initial container is paid for, would cost the repeat customer a good deal less, especially as metal prices continue their ascent toward the heavens. Down the road a bit still I think. But plastic spray bottles? How do you low tech those? And, no, rub-on insect repellants aren't nearly as desirable to most people as spray-ons. At least not in our experience.

Or perhaps the answer is, like most other facets of industrial life, that we will just have to learn to do without certain things like manufactured insect repellants, in a deindustrial future? Just musing here, but would love some feedback.

Cathy McGuire said...

JMG, do you have this one from Mike Flagg?

He posted it on the Squirrel cage contest post over at the GW site, and I haven't seen it here. Just trying to keep the list updated. I now have 36, with his entry. A really good response rate, I think. :-)

avalterra said...

This might be a partial solution to Fermi's Paradox:

Greg David said...


The externality trap is especially effective in food production. A past career as a CSA grower (Prairie Dock Farm) gave me great appreciation of how the many externalized of costs of industrialized agriculture devalues labor and locality. A goal of our CSA was to incorporate as many of the costs of production as possible, and so we worked to understand the economic, social, and ecological (and spiritual) costs, so that they could be managed as holistically as possible.

Reducing input from off farm (fertilizers, energy and equipment), along with matter and energy bio-cycling and positive feed back loops, and reducing intermediaries helped reduce our externalized costs. It instead, put a value on human labor and invested in human dignity, often creating meaning in the farm’s owner’s and operators lives. The strategies implemented to reduce externalities tended to also sequestered carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, etc and energy of our farm. Hopefully we acted in a restorative manner.

IMO An economic system that does not have the discipline to internalize cost of production and externalizes them on the public and environment, is by definition not capitalism, but socialism, at least in part. This type of economic system is exploitive, consuming social and ecological capital and not sustainable. It marginalized our attempt to value labor, locality and a clean environment on our farm.

A better model of economics would respect social and ecological capital and be precautionary in its actions, thus internalizing costs of production. It would incentives and reward creation of social and ecological capital and be restorative in nature.

Going back to more simple 1950’s technologies could help make agriculture more restorative, because there would be fewer intermediaries and technology suites to account for. It would bring back a more human scale to agriculture and restore locality to the food production system.

If this is the type of regress you are postulating, sign me up! I want to help.


Max Paris said...


I don't know if anyone has brought this up yet but I came across a term that is the other side of the "externality" coin a couple of months ago. I was reading a Wired article about clean coal and the carbon capture and storage systems that are supposed to make it possible. Economists call costs like that "parasitics." Meaning, I guess, that they suck away at a companies bottom line.

Here's a quote from the article:

"The industry jargon for these costs is parasitic. (Sample usage, from an energy consultant: “Holy crap, the parasitics are awful.”)"

Here's a link to the article:

Thanks for today's essay.


anton mett said...

I went to a town meeting recently where the focus was on the lack of affordable housing. The committee was trying to explain the need for affordable housing for further growth in our city, as the biggest employer in town is looking to expand and will need lots of low-to-mid income workers. The idea that people need to be able to afford to live within the area to work in the area was brought up over and over, sometimes as an appeal to fairness for the democrats in the audience, and sometimes as a practicality for the republicans. Their proposed solution is to tax everyone and use that money to help pay for rental assistance and "low-income housing projects". I pointed out that these are really short term solutions and don't really solve the underlying issue. I suggested that perhaps our city should put in some sort of restrictions on any developers putting up more than 10 houses, saying that they had to make 20-30% of them "affordable" in a way that Minneapolis/St. Paul had instituted in the 60's and 70's. I've attatched a link to an article in the Atlantic that explained this policy and it's positive long term affects to the city.
The idea was immediatley shot down as being impracticle as, "that would be less profitable for the developers". I bring up this story because it ties into what you've been saying in a couple ways.
First, this is another good example of how companies are more interested in creating profit than a product that is actually good or in demand (we have high demand for houses under $200,000, but no one is building them).
The second point is that we are taking it for granted that the way things are is the way they must be. Being a housing developer has been incredibly profitable for such a long time that our local government is writing up laws with more concern for their profitability than with the actual product on the streets. I've noticed the same thing in articles pointing out how little young rock stars are making today compared to the 80's and 90's. The media is trying to act as if society has made some sort of contract that garantees rock stars, CEOs and developers will make a certain amount of money no matter their productivity, and if they aren't making that much, we should change the laws to better meet those expectations. What is left unsaid is that their may well be plenty of other people or job positions that can do the same thing better if we allow them to.

"Free Lunch" by by David Cay Johnston is an excellent book with lots of examples of this kind of thinking.

LewisLucanBooks said...

Externalities reminds me of the (usually) military term "collateral damage." "Damage" is such a negative term where "externalities" is so much ... nicer :-) .

Through an odd set of circumstances, I have recently read Zola's "The Ladies' Paradise" about the rise of consumerism via the development of large department stores in the 19th century. A study in externalization.

Then I read "Factory Man" by Macy. That's about the collapse of the American furniture industry (and, all attendant sub contracting) due to off-shoring and Chinese dumping of government
subsidized cheap furniture.

Speaking of ghastly factory conditions, one scene from "Factory Man" has really stuck in my head. The spraying of furniture finishes in China. With little or no protection for the workers. An American buyer was told the workers "Spray two years, die. Twenty more want job." They buyer bought the furniture, anyway. Lew

Shawn Aune said...

Every engineer I show the blue schematic to ends up giggling for about 10 minutes.

Thanks for everything.


William Zeitler said...

@escapefromwisconsin "Mumford pointed out that the Middle Ages was full of technological advances in the service of small, distributed communities serving human values, whereas the technological regime since the Enlightenment has had the results of centralizing power and turning people into cogs in a machine."

Where does he discuss this? I'd like to follow up on this!

Myriad said...

I've written a lot about externalities in the course of addressing the economic arguments of Objectivists at my favorite skeptics' forum. Aside from the willful ignorance factor (though Objectivists are far from the only ones adhering to economic theories in which labor and capital are considered the only relevant inputs, they're the most resistant to any evidence to the contrary), it seems that the whole concept of externalities has been under-taught since I want to school.

While in this essay you've focused mostly on the externalities of noxious waste and unrewarding labor, the depletion of resources is arguably a far more significant one in the long term. Each unit of non-renewable resource extracted, and each unit of renewable resource over the sustainable flow rate extracted, tends to increase the real cost of the next unit; one must go farther afield, dig deeper, and so forth.

Complexity comes in because that tendency can be staved off or even reversed, via increased complexity (e.g. mechanization)—but only temporarily, until new limits are reached.

This, it seems to me, links the ideas in this post to fundamentally similar ones (explained in somewhat different terms) in your Wealth of Nature book.

Here is another Squirrel Case entry. If my last one was more or less channeling Larry Niven, this one is a bit more... Norton Juster, maybe? Addressing sustainability issues via the power of anagrams.

I've also posted more about the "Midgard Serpent" tidal energy system. That is not an official addition to my previous entry, but a more straightforward and balanced assessment of its feasibility, for anyone interested.

JimK said...

This Jeremy England video goes into much more detail:

"winning Darwin's game happens to be about dissipating more than your competitor"

As I read this theory, it is basically an argument in theoretical physics that technological progress increases external costs.

John Michael Greer said...

Mark, it doesn't reduce waste but it does reduce the ability, and the incentive, to pretend that the waste doesn't matter.

Stein, exactly! Thank you for getting it.

Mr. O, and one of the curious things about the whole story is that Sauros wasn't actually making much of a profit. Vast amounts of fairy dust were flowing in, but it was flowing out just as fast, and only the ongoing cluelessness of the moneylenders who kept on giving him credit kept the whole thing from crashing down in a hurry. Until one day...

Scotlyn, please do!

Yif, got it -- you're in the contest.

Stein, it's a great anecdote -- and all the funnier in that it was one Charles Martel(l) who came riding to the rescue...

Patricia, I do indeed, and we'll be talking about the Edo jidai as the discussion continues. Among other things, it's a good example of how a society can deliberately choose to regress for the sake of survival, with excellent results.

Afterthegoldrush, whether or not our society can make a constructive choice at this point is an interesting question, one I intend to explore as we proceed. The first step, though, is to get people to recognize that they, as individuals, have a choice at all...

Tat Loo, indeed it does. It also interfaces closely with my theory of catabolic collapse, for whatever that's worth.

George, thank you. For what it's worth, this blog's currently getting a third of a million page views a month, and rising -- a hundred million's a ways off yet, but who knows? ;-)

M, that's a fine example -- and I'm delighted any time I hear that somebody's still reading Ivan Illich.

Raven, yes, but those costs don't necessarily pile up until the system collapses. The point of the externality trap is that this is what progress brings about.

Ares, good. So long as nobody asks "progress toward what?" it's easy to wave around the word "progress" as though it means something.

Tony, no argument there; any theory of economics that doesn't begin with thermodynamics and ecology is a delusion masquerading as a science.

Iuval Clejan said...

So, why not use Ostrom principles to govern the biosphere, family, community, and economy? Either by recognizing that they are all "commons", or by restricting activities to local commons and using shared values that explicitly or implicitlly internalize costs into the market? The amish do the latter already to some extent. Anyway, this is an argument for local production of goods and services--it is much harder to externalize with local production and consumption. You just need people to agree to do it, based on their values.

onething said...

Professor Diabolical,

I thought your entire comment @ 2/26 4:57 am was profound and interesting, but except for this:

"Without a return to morality, ..."

A return? When was there morality? When?

I wonder if perhaps there is a tipping point with civilized as opposed to pre-civilized societies, in which, although the pre-civilized can at times be murderous and immoral, at least they seem to have among the most capable of the population as leaders, whereas in civilization, as a result of the numbers of people being too large, the most conniving, ruthless and greedy become leaders.

Human beings have not become more immoral because of technology, rather, technology has allowed us to be immoral at a faster clip.

hhawhee said...

It seems to me that the main point of JMG's post this week is indeed something that the folk culture has quietly and sardonically acknowledged for some time.

How many times would I see some beautiful old tree cut down or a meadow paved over, and hear the phrase, "well, that's progress."

Now that I think about it, my recollections of people saying that are from my youth and early adulthood (60s, 70s and 80s). Have folks stopped talking that way? Maybe thinking about it, even in the form of a quip, has become a little too uncomfortable.

Scythe of Relief said...

I have heard David Holmgren refer to corporations as, cost cutting, profit maximizing machines.
Maybe this sounds better. Corporations are cost externalizing, profit maximizing machines.

With mining companies their response to diminishing ore bodies, is always 'economies of scale'("externalities of scale").
But not only do we have the problem of diminishing ore bodies, we have the problem of 'diminishing capital value'.
'Real capital' is the ability to do work, make money and pay off debt. 'Cheap oil' is 'ultimate capital' (it has the best ability to do work, make money and pay off debt.).
So the cost in the ability to do work is going up, along with increasing the work that needs to be done.
Therefore more costs have to be externalized. I know this all comes under 'diminishing returns' in general.
So externalizing cost is increasing the rate of diminishing returns to our society.

David said...

Blivets, Blivets, get your Blivets right here! These are the newest in the Blivet line and make all previous models instantly obsolete.

Our 2015 model features voice recognition, full duplex hi-def video, cloud storage, wifi, over-air upgrades and an app for deleting all your friends.

Whether you're using it to cool, heat, mix or google, this Blivet can handle it all. Built in guilt inhibitors help you avoid family discussions. The energy efficient yet high-powered motor helps you cut thru all objections and these Blivets are EPA approved in every State except Grace.

So its time to throw out your old Blivet and cough up for a new shinier one. Ain't progress grand!

Happy Blivetizing from the General Blivet Corporation and thank you for your Patriotism.

latheChuck said...

Another externality is "risk", or fragility. This was illustrated yesterday when someone cut a fiber-optic cable between Phoenix and Flagstaff, Arizona. Running all of their telephone, Internet, ATM, and some police communications through was "efficient", but for six-to-13 hours (depending on the locale), the customers paid an external price for that efficiency. Businesses were unable to process credit cards. Students were unable to perform class work. (My son's high school prefers writing to be submitted electronically.) Emergency 911 phone service was degraded. And everyone... I mean everyone... was unable to watch streaming cat videos, until service was restored.

We face similar risks in poorly maintained infrastructure: leaking water pipes create sinkholes, bridges collapse, potholes in highways damage cars, etc. None of it is guaranteed to happen at any particular time, but the risk grows.

BeaverPuppet said...


Another great post, thanks!

I'm wondering, though. Is progress always a choice? Aside from cultural preferences, I also see as a driving force behind progress the need to protects one's civilization from its neighbor civilizations (or conquer one's neighbor civilizations). If the civilization to my left is developing tanks and aircraft, can my civilization choose to keep things simple and expect to be safe?

Kyoto Motors said...

It's probably fair to say that plastic is Externality Incarnate (tho' by no means the only example).
Every molecule of petroleum-based plastic made in the 20th century is still with us. Most of it I'm guessing was designed as a single use product and has found its way into landfill or worse, was incinerated or has found its way to the ocean... Even if a product is intended to be used for a long time, designed obsolescence ensures that pretty much all plastic is ultimately disposable.
What a crime. What a shame...

indus56 said...

Am wondering about how different the construct of externality might seem when viewed through an ecological optics, whereby many externalities, which may be excreted from one system as waste, or byproduct, become food or habitat for another. Negentropy, I gather, in which entropy is either reversed in yielding complexity, or at least certain of the passages debouching in the Second Law's expression are prolonged all but indefinitely.

Perhaps in theory a sociopolitical ecology developing its techne along these lines might find itself less (or more loosely) bound by "inescapable" constraints on technological "progress"?

Marinhomelander said...

Here in the highly educated and wealthy environmental Whitetopia of Marin County, we're seeing both sides of the coin.

One town has just mandated that all new home construction must include solar. Two other towns, Sebastopol, a green ex-farming town in the counter-culture massage- therapy triangle and Lancaster, a god forsaken desert subdivision near L.A., are the only others in California.

Another municipality nearby is opening, a hydrogen refilling station for special cars that will hit the mass market in 2017.
Only twenty million tax dollars a year granted by the state for hydrogen filling stations.

Oh, and the source of the hydrogen, 1/3 of which must be from "sustainable sources" per the state of California: Methane from sewage treatment plants. The other 2/3 from a source combining natural gas and water. (And I suspect, a hell of a lot of electricity).

Sir, your writing and philosophy provides us with a magnificent lens through which we see the immediate truth of such tecnogobbledygook as the hydrogen story soon as we read it online.

Thank you

Dwig said...

John Michael: "I'd like to do something about getting some useful things through the bottleneck to the successor cultures on the other side, though, even if that interferes with the popcorn. " I just ran across what seems to me to be one of those "useful things": a website called Health After Oil. The "About" page says it's "a place for news, opinion, research, discussion, network building, planning and action in response to the unprecedented and sweeping challenges peak oil and energy decline poses to human health and the institutions whose purpose it is to protect and promote human health." This fits nicely into the "Culture Conserver" initiative, which I'd like to see revived at some point. And, I hope to see more "X After Oil"-type sites emerge.

Here's another aspect to the unsustainability of our government/financial/economic complex: a talk by Bernard Lietaer, "Why we Need a Monetary Ecosystem. One major point is the necessity for unbridled growth imposed by debt-based money (this is in addition to the dynamics described in this week's post).

Lietaer also develops a model that shows the relationships among efficiency, resilience, and sustainability in currency systems. I think this might be useful in other areas. In particular, I'm thinking about the insistence in our industrial economy of just-in-time distribution systems -- highly efficient, when everything goes just right, but highly susceptible to even mild disruption.

Agent Provocateur said...

Re. “Technological complexity tends to greater externalization of costs.”

I think the statement above is basically correct but slightly misleading. Greater technological complexity and greater externalization of costs are correlated but one does not necessarily cause the other.

My reasons for thinking so are as follows:

There is a well documented direct relationship between energy use per capita and population and population density. Surplus energy beyond subsistence needs allows for more people to live in a given space. Greater population density in turn allows for greater societal complexity. These relationships applies to all civilizations, not just our industrial one. Basically, the greater the energy surplus available to a society, the more different things people in it can do other than just getting by.

There is also a direct relationship between technological complexity and societal complexity. Simply put: the greater the range of things we do, the greater the number of different tools required to do those things.

So … it follows that there is a direct relationship between energy use per capita and technological complexity.

Whenever energy is used, some of it is lost doing something you didn't intend it to do. This is one way of stating the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. Typically the energy used and dissipated is carried by something with mass. Electricity requires copper cables, engines require working fluids, waste heat is carried off in flue gases and cooling fluids, etc.

So … the more energy a society uses, generally the more waste energy there is. Typically this energy is carried off by actual waste mass. It is some portion of this waste mass that is the problem i.e. pollution. Though pollution is certainly not the only externalization of costs inherent in any civilization, it is one of the ones we can most easily quantify.

It is certainly true that much o what we do has the technical potential for greater thermodynamic efficiencies that would reduce the waste energy and so pollution. [This is not the only way to reduce pollution of course; we could actually expend energy doing so.] But that there will always be some waste energy is a law of nature. Again, its the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics.

As JMG has taken pains to point out, “technical potential” does not mean “economic potential”. The thermodynamic efficiency of a particular technology is often determined by its economic sweet spot. This economic sweet spot itself is just a representation of the energy trade offs e.g. capital costs versus life cycle costs represent actual up front manufacturing energy costs versus the energy costs incurred in using the technology.

Nonetheless, should there be a gain in thermodynamic efficiency in a specific process in a society, this just means more surplus energy is now available. This in turn just leads to greater population and population density and so greater societal and technological complexity. These increases use up the extra energy made available by the gain in efficiency and then some resulting in even more energy use (should it be available). The greater energy use then leads to greater pollution on sum. Jevon's paradox is a facet of this process at work.

One could go through a similar analysis for any other externalized cost of industrial civilization. Take social inequity as an example. Such inequity can only arise in conditions of high population density. This density can only occur if surplus energy is available to allow it.

To be clear, it is not the greater technological complexity itself that necessarily creates more pollution, or more social inequity, or more of most other externalities. Its the availability and use of more surplus energy that allows for more technological complexity, more external costs, and more private benefits.

Jo said...

Still working my way through the truly excellent comments, but I was thinking today about the medieval guild system. These were, in effect, a self-limiting brake on progress/externalities. The masters of the guilds strictly defined the hours that its members could work, and the prices they were allowed to charge. Craftsmen could only become wealthy on the quality of their work - that was the only market differential. Guild members paid into a common pot to support members who couldn't work, and also to fund giant parties.
Then came the rise of the Protestant Ethic and its lonely road to salvation, with an angry God who liked you more if you were wealthy. Capitalism has such drear antecedents.
Hands up who wants to forsake capitalism and progress, build a fortified city and start a guild?

Modern Horoscope said...

Cathy McGuire's story this week really kind of nailed it for me, paraphrasing: "there are no chickens because we have no aircraft." I suddenly understood how it would be possible for this to end with us awash in ankle-deep $5/barrel crude and no one able to afford it. There isn't a single paragraph on self-sufficiency that doesn't seem to either start or end in "chickens" ... so you get up off that couch, sell your car, peddle your bartered bike to the feed store, only to find that complexity has welded chickens to air transport. You can even have the air transport, just not the chickens. Just wow. Thank you Cathy! Thank you JMG!

Mark Rice said...

I loved the squirrel challenge by Strovenovus. The tone was perfect.

John Michael Greer said...

Donalfagan, it's a little more complex than that. I'm suggesting that managing entropy becomes impossible if you have limitless technological progress, because as technology becomes progressively more complex, the entropy burden imposed on whole systems rises to the point of collapse. There are other things that can drive entropy to the point of collapse, too -- it's just that this post discusses progress in particular.

Professor D., maybe so, but we've spent the last two millennia trying to get people to be better than they are by way of moral exhortation, and you'll notice that it hasn't worked. In particular, tossing around labels such as "psychopath" and "moral coward" has proven to be a radically ineffective strategy for inducing change. Thus I'm interested in exploring more productive options.

Jonathan, and of course that's a valid point. As noted above, I tend to think of industrial socialism as the natural endpoint of industrial capitalism, the point at which one corporate organization monopolizes both the political and the economic sphere, so it would follow that the same bad habits would occur with even more force in socialist countries.

Passive Solar, good. I've noted in other contexts that people who won't practice self-discipline aren't able to practice any other kind of discipline, either, so you may have a point. Still, it's a source of wry amusement to me that the same people who babble on about the glories of the free market are usually the first in line when it comes to trying to protect themselves and their wealth against market forces.

Kyoto, exactly. My suspicion is that a huge fraction of current technology would be hopelessly uneconomical if it had to pay for all its externalities.

Brian, there are ways. I'll be discussing that as we proceed.

Sixbears, yes, there are cases here and there where that's true. There are also many more where it's not, which is why I used that pesky word "tends" in my post, you know.

RogerCO, got it in one.

Kristiina, we can have more variation, more diversity, if we don't board the spaceship -- there's really very little room for diversity in a spacecraft, after all!

Jason, my disagreement was with your suggestion that people will sit down and cooperate with one another as things slide down the curve of complexity. I can't speak for your Native American ancestors, but mine used to raid their neighbors, steal horses and other goods, and kill any enemy warriors they could catch. My Celtic ancestors did pretty much the same thing, for that matter -- though in their case it was mostly cattle that were the object of the raids, rather than horses. Poverty and technological simplicity do not necessarily, or even generally, make for peaceful cooperation!

Marc, if technological complexity keeps increasing, and externalities keep piling up, you'd probably have to have a steady population decrease in order to stave off collapse. I suppose that would make a fun science fiction story: the last human being alive in a future hyper-high tech society, whose Jetsons lifestyle imposes so many costs on the biosphere that there can only be one of him. Then the robots come to him and very politely let him know that the next round of technological progress will impose such drastic externalities on the planet that it won't be possible to support any human beings at all, and would he mind ingesting this cyanide pill so that progress can march on without him?

John Michael Greer said...

Justin, excellent! I was wondering when someone would comment on that. A good close look at the monument might be in order, too. And of course there's this very nice picture of an early water-powered blivet factory...

Paulo, of course -- none of us can have clean hands. That's a given; the question is simply what we choose to do, once we've discarded the fantasy of moral superiority.

Justin, thanks for the tip. I may actually read that one someday.

Marty, if it wasn't those specific individuals, it would be others; fixating on the individuals makes it easy to lose sight of the deeper causes of dysfunction. As for ephemeralization, in theory, it's a great idea; far more often than not, in practice, things look simpler because the real costs are being externalized elsewhere.

Witter, very funny. You're in the contest!

Lynnet, good. Yes, that's a solid example.

Oilman2, I'll be discussing that in upcoming posts. Stay tuned!

Wolfgang, exactly. Nature always wins in the long run; the best way to thrive in the short to middle run is to figure out how not to be on the receiving end of her harsher balancing measures.

Josh, excellent. I'd also point out that citing individual technologies out of context, and usually with no reference to their supply chain and whole systems cost, is a standard bit of cornucopian rhetoric, and very misleading to those who aren't used to thinking in terms of whole systems.

Dave and William, of course there are always externalized costs, even among nonhuman organisms. My point is that limitless progress leads to a rising tide of externalities on the whole-system level, leading to collapse. It's the change in externalities over time that matters, not the mere fact of externalities.

Wolfgang, good. One of the core methods of social control in industrial societies is the propagation of the belief that "progress" (meaning: doing what the beneficiaries of the existing order want you to do) is not something you can choose or not, it's mandatory. I'll be talking about that as we proceed.

Scott, that's certainly a useful way to summarize it.

John Michael Greer said...

Oilman2, good. And of course most people forget, when the word "efficiency" is used, to remember that the question that has to be asked is "efficient at what?"

Twilight, it was a combination of the two, in most cases. Old societies, in particular, tend to be very defensive of a way of life that works, because they've had plenty of exposure to ways of life that didn't.

Indus56, excellent! Yes, those are exactly the questions that need to be asked.

Ember, exactly. One question to consider is whether the second set of regressers can be helped to use their temporary access to wealth to establish patterns that others, without that, can follow. I'll be talking about that as we proceed.

Howard, just one of the services I offer!

Indus56, it's been way too long since I read Latour. Thanks for the reminder.

Stacey, that's one of the reasons I'm not a Tennyson fan. I prefer the ancient Greek story that after he got back to Ithaca, he walked inland with an oar over his shoulder until he found a place where nobody knew what the odd piece of wood was, and settled there with Penelope for the rest of his days.

Shhh, I think both of those have a place, but I think there may be other factors as well: it's not just that archetypes haven't kept pace, it's that the core archetypal narratives -- oh, all right, let's be honest and call them myths -- that govern most thinking in this society are based on a very specific lie. I'll be talking about what that is further in this sequence.

1ab, I think the UFO cult was a first draft of what a wholly non-material cult of progress would look like. Stick progress in another galaxy and hope that the aliens will bring it to us someday -- yes, that might work. It certainly beats hoping against all experience that the next round of shiny new technologies will be less flimsy and tawdry than all the others have been.

GHung, I've talked at some length about why I think that response is so common. When you know in your gut that you've flushed your great-grandchildren's future down the loo in order to buy a few more years of extravagant living, owning up to that fact in public is not going to be easy.

Ember, those are worthwhile perspectives. I keep returning, though, to this point: we're not going to see changes in society until we see them being modeled, first, by individuals. How will you change your life today to decrease your externalities? To my mind, that's the question that matters.

Jcummings, no argument -- it's the underlying narratives and ways of thinking that shape the whole pattern, and actions unfold from those. That's why this blog focuses so tautly on changing ideas and narratives.

John Michael Greer said...

Dammerung, that's why I put that pesky little word "tends" into my summary. Of course every change doesn't necessarily increase externalities. Most increases in technological complexity, though, do.

Denys, by all means take it to Green Wizards -- the forum's moderated but it certainly has a lot more flexibility than I can get away with allowing here.

Yupped, oh, granted. Stopping technological progress from driving a society into the externality trap isn't a solution to everything that can go wrong with a human society -- it's just a step back from one particular abyss.

Sukey, I'm curious. Did you know that this blog has been discussing personal responses to our predicament for almost nine years now?

Varun, I hope so. Actually, I'd be happier if we were building a future that didn't have a special field of study called economics, in that what we now call economics was wholly incorporated in the larger and more honest field of human ecology.

Friction Shift, back in the day, the standard response to a blivet maker (etc.) who went broke was to say, "Well, that's too bad. I sure hope he can find something else to do for a living."

Changeling, yep -- that's a solid example.

Clay, and of course the ratepayers never think about the fact that they're externalizing costs onto the utility by using all those difficult-to-remove compounds.

CJ, there are human societies that have deliberately put a lid on technological expansion and let Malthusian factors take care of population growth, so yes, we can be different than yeast. The insistence that we're not strikes me as another way of excusing the status quo.

Beatrice, by all means concentrate on your life on the land, but consider doing something to help someone else make a similar choice as well. Do you take in WWOOFers, apprentices, or the like?

Øyvind, ah -- has someone redefined the word "commons," then? I think the phrase Hardin used, especially later on, was "unregulated commons."

Escape, ahem. Did you notice that little word "tends"? Also, are you factoring in the power and resources consumed by the smokestack scrubbers?

John Michael Greer said...

William, thank you for that input! Also for the recognition that "theoretically possible" doesn't mean that it will ever happen...

Kirby, that's part of it, yes. "...and piles up there" is the other part.

Trippticket, thank you. In your place, I'd buy the Chinese bottles while continuing to look for an affordable local source. Perfect purity isn't an option, as I see it; all any of us can do is work out the compromises that allow us to do the most good.

Cathy, I do indeed. Yes, I'm impressed by the squirrely intellects we've got here! ;-)

Avalterra, hmm! You may be right. I'll have to work out how that combines with my earlier theory about Fermi's paradox.

Greg, that's exactly the kind of regress I'm suggesting. Welcome aboard!

Max, thank you -- that wasn't a term I'd encountered. I may be able to have some fun with it as we proceed.

Anton, exactly! You get tonight's gold star for speaking one of our culture's unspeakable truths.

Lewis, hmm! I'll have to look for those one of these days.

Shawn, glad to hear it. Ask your electronics engineer friends what they think of this one.

Myriad, yes, that's also a factor, but I wanted to tackle the externality trap in terms that would be easy to grasp, and waste does that one well. You're in the contest, of course -- I liked the anagrams!

JimK, okay, got it. Yes, that does seem to follow.

Bogatyr said...

Combining the themes of creativity and returning to an earlier technology, this blog post - For the love of typewriters - by Suw Charman-Anderson will likely appeal to many readers here!

John Michael Greer said...

Iuval, and since people's values at present don't support such actions, we need to look at the narratives that seem to justify current bad practices.

Hhawhee, it's been a while since I heard that, too. I suspect that as the Great God Progress becomes less and less forthcoming with His blessings, people are getting more and more edgy about such casual blasphemies...

Scythe, exactly.

David, your personal barrel of blivet waste will be delivered to your doorstep next Tuesday. Remember to pour it into your drinking water; I have a study here, funded by the Blivet Council, that proves that drinking blivet waste is good for you.

LatheChuck, it startled me that all of northern Arizona could be cut off from the internet by severing one fiber optics cable. I wonder how many other places get their internet service via some such bottleneck.

BeaverPuppet, I'll have some things to say about asymmetric warfare with that in mind, down the road a bit.

Kyoto, I won't argue.

Indus56, no doubt that's something the ecotechnic societies of the far future will understand very well indeed.

Marin, glad to hear it. A weather eye for gobbledygook is worth having these days.

Dwig, many thanks for the heads up!

Agent, I don't believe I said that one causes the other. If I were pressed, I'd say that increased technological complexity tends to make increased externalities possible, while market forces push economic actors into exploiting as many possibilities for externalizing costs as they can.

Jo, I agree.

Horoscope, yes, it's a warning sign. I expect many more like it as we proceed.

ed boyle said...

Definitely entertaining. Reading some of the professional comments above I see the transformation, as in Germany, of the state roll, from protecting industrial interests, to including unions, to environment as in their party systems. The saving of money and cleansing of the environment by capture of wastes at source is wise economically and politically in a densely populated environment. The latest I recall on this is end product take back at end of life cycle, as in cars. If they
were exported around the globe, as is usual, that would be hard, usually scrap metal or West African used car lot(what a talented mechanic can acheive).

So progress is a concept in general which changes to accommodate the problems we create. We have been bootstrapping since time began and will continue to do so.

I have a jingle in my head recently, ca. 1977
Rock on by David Essex.
It is full of nostalgic Elvis, jimmy dean, and film references, plus sexual relationship changes(girls in blue jeans)but these lines stick out.

where do we go from here?
which is the way that's clear?

So late 70s boomers saw technology(film, pop music), social changes(youth and sexual rebellion) of past culminating in their present and were worried about what would come.
How would the consensus redefine progress. We know how that turned out. Reagan as sock puppet of Chicago boys gave us free money, fantasy world, growth. China got all factories India got computer, accounting, telephone advice jobs. Unions are dead, except public which bankrupt the states and cities as the tax base is otherwise gone(through job export or legal tricks). I did an MBA by correspondence in 90s, was inspired by Nafta, Asean and other trade agreements, globalization, free trade. We now know that the rising tide raises all boats is wrong. As long as one country has a tax loophole, lower social or environentsl protection then all production will move there. Funny was the closing of a German Nokia factory to send to Romania. The workers in Romania callec in often sick, apparently they were taking care of their dachas, animals. Sounds like preppers here, one foot in system, one out. When the capitalists think workers are cheap somewhere, maybe it is because they have regressed to an earlier state so slave work mentality is gone. These people are self reliant.

1977 was several years before the 20 year regular conjunction of saturn-jupiter. In such times energy, new ideas in a society are gone. We are rumnng on a repetition of ideas fron the start of the phase. We see that nowadays clearly. Everything in the world springs from the source of the 9/11 crisis and the security mind set it engndered. Reagan era was free trade,"tear that wall down". Now both are coming together. USA TPTB want global control desperately but it is beyond their grasp. What they learned from previous eras, coups, dirty tricks will be used against them.

We are going into the downward phaseuntil 2020 shock conjunction. This is when society gets elecroshocked out of its lethargy by new and unexpected energies and events in general, music, movies, politics. We will see if progress will be redefined in terms of collapse named in article or self control of penible german mind set or simply doing without self reliance of romanians, russians. I suspect America as bull in china shop is making no friends. Its concept, described by JMG, Reagan, Chicago boys ideas are at their end. Chinese recognize they are destroying their environment and India as well. They are coming together. Walmart/Wallstreet is not the future but silk road/silk ocean,Eurasia.

Sky said...

Early in the Industrial Revolution in England, for instance, Josiah Wedgewood and other industrialists paid their workers subsistence wages. Through various acts of enclosure, from 1660 to 1845, 14 million documented, double that if undocumented common land could be included, acres of commons were privatised. Add this to the rights of primogeniture encoded to ensure that real estate passed to the eldest son, and you find hundreds of thousands of people with no other option than to accept subsistence wages. Finally, I’ll come to the point. Thanks to this post, I now see that those pitiful wages were actually a form of externalisation because the poverty workers found themselves required support from elsewhere to enable them to maintain a healthy enough state to show up for work. It is quite easy to build family capital when you pay out in pennies and sell for pounds.

Gloucon X said...

John Michael Greer said...I keep returning, though, to this point: we're not going to see changes in society until we see them being modeled, first, by individuals. How will you change your life today to decrease your externalities? To my mind, that's the question that matters.

People can’t follow models that they don’t see. Can you give us some models you have seen, say starting with yourself, since you have been at this longer than most? It sure would be useful to me, and I’m sure to many others to see the model of the master green wizard himself. The details of the monthly and daily routines, household expenses, estimated energy use, costs of establishing a homestead, etc. would be most useful, especially for those getting started.

Øyvind Holmstad said...

The etymology of the word "commons":

"Alain Lipietz, a French political figure and student of the commons, traces the word "commons" to William the Conquerer and the Normans - not the English, interestingly. The term "commons" supposedly comes from the Norman word commun, which comes from the word munus, which means both "gift" and "counter-gift", which is to say, a duty.

I think this etymology gets to the nub of the commons. We need to recover a world in which we all receive gifts and we all have duties. This is a very important way of being human. The expansion of centralized political and market structures has tragically eclipsed our need for gifts and duties. We rely on the institutions of the Market and the State for everything, leaving little room for personal agency or moral commitment. And so we have largly lost confidence in what Ivan Illich called the vernacular domain, the spaces in our everyday life in which we can create and shape and negotiate our lives." - David Bollier

Odin's Raven said...

Progress used to be a moral concept, as in Pilgrim's Progress. Now it has become a euphemism for greed.Greed, like 'Progress' has no known limits, but it can be constrained by Fear, which is supposed to be dispensed in due measure by moral,legal and judicial authorities.

When these authorities themselves fear to offend the greedy, the eventual correction may unleash an awful lot of fear, and it will go everywhere - the moral equivalent of economic externalities.

FiftyNiner said...

One tiny blurb about "going back to simpler times": my dear friend and neighbor about three years ago was rummaging around on ebay and found a pristine IBM Selectric typewriter and he just had to have it. He had used one when he took a course called "Typing" in high school in the seventies. He could not wait for UPS to bring his prize package. In the interim I was told daily how wonderful those typewriters were and how he could achieve almost unbelievable speeds at turning out copy.
Cut to the chase: When it arrived it was in perfect working order, but after wrestling with it for two days, my friend had to admit that he could no longer type on the machine. His disappointment was palpable. Today's computer keyboards are so different and let's face it so much easier to type on! His considerable monetary investment was saved by his sister who bought it for the company where she worked: they needed it for a very specific task. Never did hear what that was.

sgage said...

@ BeaverPuppet wrote:

If the civilization to my left is developing tanks and aircraft, can my civilization choose to keep things simple and expect to be safe? "

What a coincidence! That is precisely what the military-industrial complex in that civilization says about the civilization to their right!

Remember the 'Missile Gap'? And the 'Bomber Gap' before that? Hey, more profits for the MIC!

Caryn said...

I was introduced to this concept of externalities about 6 years ago, by my son. At aged 10, he was shown, in school a (now well known) video called "The Story Of Stuff", by Annie Leonard.

Thanks for the more in depth, grown-up version! I loved "The Story Of Stuff", especially that it is aimed at and accessible to children. It's a massive step in the right direction that they learn these concepts now. Unfortunately, she does not come to any really well-thought out end result. I wish you were wrong in your final conclusion, but I don't think you are.

Thanks from a follower in Hong Kong.

Kutamun said...

I have been making some biodiesel in my wool shed , the byproduct of which is glycerine and methoxide . The feedstock is canola oil which has been used to cook fried food in local cafes . The glycerine i can turn to soap , which leaves me smelling like fish and chips , and apart from the cats chasing me down the road with my fragrant smelling tailpipe ..its all good ! . My local municipality wont handle the meth oxide , however , so i am going to take it to a waste disposal place in the nearest regional town ... I wonder what they will do with it ? ... I am externalising my meth oxide , while i feel as though i am a wondrously mystical eco quantum greeny ; still, i suppose it beats factoring in the entire u.s military , F16 s , predator drones , special forces , navy ships , the whole shebang to source my kerosene ! ... Please , nobody burst my bubble !

Mark In Mayenne said...

It would be interesting to consider the necessary and sufficient requirements for externalities to be properly costed and priced.

James Fauxnom said...

BeaverPuppet- Technological "superiority" isn't the showstopper Progress makes it out to be. How many civilizations get overrun by those rascally barbarians on horseback? The winner of asymetrical war usually isn't the side with the brightest technology, it's the side that can absorb the most punishment. Complexity is the weakeness.

Bruno Bolzon said...

JMG, as I write to you as of this moment, a major strike is happening amongst the truckers in Brazil, due to the rising fuel and living costs their economic sector is facing. Not only they are not working, but major roads are being blocked everywhere. As a consequence, no shipments by land are being made, specially of fuels such as ethanol, diesel and gasoline. Thus, gas stations are running out of fuel all over the country, whereas others, that still have some, are charging prices up to a hundred percent higher than standard fare. Now, I haven't used my car for days now, because I happen to live within walking distance of most of my daily affairs...a decision I made two years ago, thanks to your writings. No doubt that will not be the last round of peak-oil related disruption I'm going to see around here. So thank you for the advice.

Odin's Raven said...

We may already see the future of a de-industrializing society, not in the US, or in the UK, but in the Ukraine! It's not an orderly process of prudent reversion to simpler levels. The thieves and crazies are looting everything they can, whilst 'ignorant armies clash by night,'and the breadbasket of eastern Europe runs out of food.
Ukraine loses industry
Reserves stolen

Troy Sanchez said...

If I were a deity I would not consider giving humans the key to infinite or massively efficient energy. Look at what the 30% efficiency of the internal combustion engine has done to the planet!

Matthew Casey Smallwood said...

Ivan Illich calculated the real cost of automobiles:
The main notion of Ivan Illich is the concept of counterproductivity: when institutions of modern industrial society impede their purported aims. For example, Ivan Illich calculated that, in America in the 1970s, if you add the time spent to work to earn the money to buy a car, the time spent in the car (including traffic jam), the time spent in the health care industry because of a car crash, the time spent in the oil industry to fuel cars ...etc., and you divide the number of kilometres traveled per year by that, you obtain the following calculation: 10000 km per year per person divided by 1600 hours per year per American equals 6 km per hour. So the real speed of a car would be about 3.7 miles per hour." Approximately the same speed as walking. Ugh.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Avalterra and JMG, I think calculations about Fermi's Paradox don't take into account that human interest in space travel and interstellar communication arises from aspects of human psychology that are not likely to be particularly common elsewhere.

Psychological quirk #1: Human beings evolved as hunter-gatherers, collecting resources by moving about. That disposes us to exploration and travel. An intelligent mushroom species would collect resources by staying put and modifying its immediate environment to suit its needs. An intelligent symbiont would not dream of going anywhere without its partner. Among such species and many others interest in physical exploration will be a rare trait and one that is not regularly rewarded. Their cultures are not likely to back exploration to the extreme of building starships.

Psychological quirk #2: For millions of years, human beings have stared into the night sky and wondered about the lights up there. Are they pinpricks in a metal bowl with light shining through from the other side, or separate fires, and how far away are they? Do the patterns mean anything?

We can go out in the dark sometimes without dying, we have sense organs that can detect some wavelengths of stellar radiation and distinguish one source from another, we don't live under the sea or inside rocks or under permanent cloud cover or a canopy of vegetation without any breaks. We aren't orbiting around a binary that floods out the starlight most of the time. No rule says that intelligent life only evolves under those particular conditions.

Our moon is extraordinarily large and so bright it can be seen in daytime, but half the world's people have never seen the Milky Way because they never get out of the city. If it weren't for TV shows and movies about aliens, I doubt city dwellers would give any thought to life on Mars. If ordinary people could not observe any extraterrestrial objects via their own senses, but only were told about them by scientists who detected them with special equipment, who would care about those worlds? Who would dream of visiting them?

donalfagan said...

Off topic, but according to a paper in Science Magazine, soon the climate may begin warming faster.

Odin's Raven said...

Does this count as internalizing an externality?
Toxic airtravel

blue sun said...

It strikes me that Jonathan and you have hit on something very insightful here! Wow. This is a bold new idea as far as I can see.

I think your argument could be extended to suburban sprawl as well. In other words, the 'project of suburbia' (as J. H. Kunstler so fondly calls it) could be considered a technology. It externalizes the costs of urban living (the overpopulation, wastes, crowding, the Ralph Kramden apartment that started it Kunstler so eloquently explains....) that would otherwise be borne by the city.

These costs get spread onto the surrounding farmlands and wild places, slicing and dicing them up with roads, single family houses, cul de sacs, single occupant vehicles, and what have you, which reduces these lands' value to humanity as well as to other inhabitants of our ecosystem.

Maybe I'm stretching your metaphor a bit, but I see a parallel here.

Maybe a better way to describe it is the *diffusing* of costs (as opposed to the concentrating of costs....the solution to pollution is dilution), rather than the externalizing of costs, because I think there's a dawning realization, even deep in the darkest recesses of corporate board rooms, that we can't really "externalize" anything when we all live on the same planet.

blue sun said...

As a matter of fact, when I think about it, I believe the economic jargon has yet to catch up with reality (will economics ever catch on?)... I always thought the economic term "external costs" was rather simplistic. Even your example of the blivet factory was simplistic in this sense. I'm not saying your argument was simplistic. Far from it. What I'm saying is that the cat is out of the bag, so to speak. Nobody really believes anymore that industrial waste is "just going away." Even your average American, be he or she familiar with Love Canal, or the local Superfund site, is aware of this. What's fascinating to me is that the venerable economic professors of our land seem to be the last to know. And we have a very simplistic toolkit of words and phrases to use when describing economic concepts. So in a sense, your argument is hamstrung by the very lack of words in the English language to describe what you're trying to say.....Just a thought....I think we need to see some "progress" in the field of economics......

Moshe Braner said...

In today's news, a classic case of spreading externalities:

"As the collapse of oil prices threatens North Dakota's shale drilling rush, state regulators are considering a move they say could save the oil industry millions of dollars: weakening the state's laws on disposing of radioactive waste."

Ed-M said...


I must say, you certainly laid out a concise explanation why progressive (in the sense of this post and not in the sense of liberal) cultures and societies eventually destroy themselves, utterly. But in your outline, I'd like to posit a point "g."

g) In a market economy, all participants are compelled to externalise as many costs as possible. Usually, it's the providers of goods, services and capital that seem to get the upper hand and, in competition with each other, adopt ever more complex technology that externalise more and more costs. Eventually, the one who externalises the most costs wins, resulting in business monopolies or near-monopolies, and tha pauperisation of the masses -- and the middle classes. This process appears to work in command and control societies, too. Example: the Soviet Union.

Now on to blivets: did you know that the industrial manufacture of these things results in the creation of Black Holes as waste, I. e., millions and millions of microscopic Black Holes? Yes, for someone from another set of dimensions appeared to me last night, showed me a typical M. C. Escher blivet, and said that his world met an apocalypse, as the quadrillions, quintillions and even gillions of the waste Black Holes finally merged as one, and consumed everything in sight. Luckily for this person, he created a dimension transfer machine (or so he says) and got out just in the nick of time. He also reported that right before he left, everyone heard the cry, "O Joy Unbounded!" just before everything started to disappear.

J Thomas said...

For example, it could be argued that progress doesn’t have to generate a rising tide of externalities. The difficulty with this argument is that externalization of costs isn’t an accidental side effect of technology but an essential aspect—it’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Every technology is a means of externalizing some cost that would otherwise be borne by a human body.

Progress doesn't have to generate a rising tide of externalities.

Sometimes new technology actually does pay off, by providing more for less.

Sometimes new technology is actually simpler than the old technology.

It doesn't have to always depend on externalities.

The problem is, externalizing costs is the way to bet. It's usually easier than making a real improvement. Easier to find opportunities to profit by externalizing costs.

So my quibble is not very important. Progress does not have to externalize costs, and it does not have to depend on externalizing costs. But mostly that's what happens.

Agent Provocateur said...


“I don't believe I said that one causes the other”. No, you didn't. And I didn't mean to imply you did either. Sorry for the misunderstanding.

Let me explain. After reading the statement in question, it seemed likely to me that there was a causal relationship. So I began drafting my comment to demonstrate that increased technological complexity did in fact cause increased externalities. Half way through, I realized I couldn't do it. Of course, you were not specifically making such a point in the first place. Nonetheless, it is true that some technologies do indeed facilitate externalizing the stuff (physical and otherwise) no one wants and the existence of this technology goes hand in hand with the creation of the bad stuff in the first place.

The best I could do towards demonstrating technology causes externalities was to show that if an increase in technological complexity involved using more energy (and often it does), then we can expect more bad stuff. To be more accurate: increased energy use (without compensating increased thermodynamic efficiency) always leads to creating more stuff no one wants. This stuff is then “externalized” by those in a position to do so. They are in a position to do so precisely because they have the tools, i.e. the tech, to do it. Its only at that point that the bad stuff becomes an “externality”. So in this sense, your “technological complexity tends to make increased externalities possible” is certainly correct.

In truth, nothing can really be completely externalized though it can be put out of sight and out of mind for a time by those who don't want to perceive it or have it harm them immediately. Even using the terms “externalized” and “externalities” feels wrong. No being is separate from the biosphere. Such words as “externalized” and “externalities” are part of the language of the dark one.

Oh! The dump is open tomorrow. After a month of reducing, reusing, and recycling, I always have some actual garbage to get rid of. I'll use my dad's tech, I mean truck, to … err … externalize it.

Agent Provocateur said...


Regarding your “... while market forces push economic actors into exploiting as many possibilities for externalizing costs as they can.” Absolutely. And we are all economic actors.

Another personal example is my decision to limit what type of organic food we buy. We just can't afford to buy all organic. I'm growing as much as I can instead, but I still have to buy some food. By buying non-organic food, I am subsidizing the poisoning of the environment (and myself). Market forces (price) pushes me into “externalizing” the cost difference. The Devil made me do it!

More than one commenter has asked for advice on how to deal with this basic predicament that we are all in. I would suggest to them to look very carefully at return on effort. Don't swim against the current of your culture (you can swim across it though!), do no try to beat the machine (physical or metaphorical), put effort where there is the greatest return for yourself and family, and finally do not be too idealistic (suicide reduces one's carbon footprint to zero, but each of us has a right to exist).

It is unfortunate that the system is rigged to exploit others, but few of us asked for or deliberately created that situation. At this point, all a person can do is reduce their contribution to this exploitation while at the same time not sacrificing their own basic needs.

sv koho said...

Very fine article on the concept of externalities and how it relates to technology and societal complexity. Examples to support your thesis are rampant. An obvious example right now is the attempt going on in the ND Legislature to weaken the standard of radioactive fracking waste disposal by 90% . Goodness knows those frackers need to keep their hard earned cash and having to pay for the consequences of their actions is simply going to cost too much now that oil prices are lower.
Or how about the TBTF banks who made some bad bets 10 years ago and in order to avoid insolvency went to the politicians who cheerfully sold out the voters and made the citizens pay for their losses, the so called democratization of gains and socialization of losses.
One does wonder how much longer this scam can continue, probably a lot longer than we would expect.

Daergi said...

An interesting and thought provoking post as usual. I had spent the days after your previous post thinking about the costs (externalities) loaded into our economic system. To see you take it up as this weeks post was a nice surprise. I had been thinking of these costs, that we and the environment pays, as subsidies benefiting the manufacturers, and had come to the conclusion that capitalism, and it's earlier iterations, never worked without them. The system 'works' because it is subsidized at every level; by cheap or slave labor, by cheap resources usually stripped away from somewhere other than where they are consumed and of course by your example of pollution and degradation of the environment. Capitalism is not and has never been sustainable.

In my mind I had seen the externalities as a problem of our system, which never wants to pay the tab for anything, and not as an inherent result of increasing complexity in technology. I do agree that if the true cost of our complex gadgets were paid by the consumer then the consumer would find a more appropriate and less costly technology to get their tasks done.

The computer is a good example. An item that was once quite expensive and built in relatively small numbers which, through subsidies, is now cheap, over consumed and utilized for mostly silly purposes. I've read many times that the number one use of computer devices is to access the internet for porn. The number two use must certainly be social media and dating sites to help people hook up. Do we really need such complex tech for these purposes? There is plenty of low tech available to help someone become aroused or to acquire a mate. But... is the computer not an appropriate technology in certain instances? Especially if the costs are not externalized? In reality the computer is not a toy, but that is how it is largely consumed.

I recently read 'The Beak of The Finch' by Jonathan Weiner, on evolution, and the data collected for their research couldn't have been sorted through and understood without a computer. Data collected by soil scientists and climate scientists require computers to crunch the numbers. There are hundreds of examples. For me, science, medicine and the acquisition of knowledge has value. It's our obsession with commoditizing everything, the belief that something only has a value if it can be sold, that is a problem. National forests were only worth the value of their timber until it was demonstrated that they had monetary value for ecotourism and didn't need to be chopped down to be consumed. But for me, both of these views of the forest ignore it's other, non-monetary values. Both views arise out of capitalism, which reduces everything to a consumptive evaluation.

Technology is no different than a forest in respect to being relinquished into the hands of of a capitalist (or in the hands of the other political systems that exist today). While more complex tech may have higher costs, that is in itself not an absolute argument against them. In appropriate quantities, for appropriate uses, many complex technologies would be worth their higher costs. Your own measure of if the costs of the tech are worth their benefits seems logical to me. Certainly computers incorporated into our mating and courting rituals will fall by the wayside, but maybe some computers will survive in centers of learning for the benefits they provide.

Derv said...


Fascinating post. I haven't read every comment yet, but I do have to add my voice to a few small critiques.

First, I think you are absolutely on to something here. The theory is sound, it makes logical sense, and it has strong explanatory power. This is some serious next-level kind of stuff - the stuff that can be put onto one page, that everyone can understand, and yet can change the way whole societies think. I really do think that this idea, if expressed correctly, is a "Declaration of Independence" or "Glass-Steagall" type of idea. It captures in one small argument huge swathes of the problems we all see in modern industrial civilization. So kudos to you. I critique after this in hopes of helping to refine a great notion.

There are two distinctions that absolutely must be made here, one of which Mark brought up first. This trend is, as you said, not always true. But this needs to be specified and narrowed.

The example that first came to mind for me, at least, was the cotton gin. This is ironic, given that it had exactly the sort of terrible consequences that you criticize here, but there is nothing inherent to it that would cause this. It was not more resource intensive than previous technologies and did not produce additional waste. There is, in fact, a whole category of technologies that don't fit this model. You may categorize them all as "simple" technologies, and I'd largely agree with you, but there has to be a distinction made here.

There are two options that come to mind. First, you could try to narrow down the terms you're defining such that one and only one category of technologies are included, but I don't know the term for that or where the boundaries are drawn. My guess is there is some fundamental line that can be found, but it would require some thought.

Your other option would be to add a human element to the idea; the cotton gin et al. do not of themselves have these effects, but increases in efficiency through technology leads to centralization or exploitation, that does. So the consequences are the same regardless. An additional explanation for how this would factor in would be required, though, and it muddies the waters a bit.

Secondly, I love the term "externalities of scale," and think that this adequately explains a good 90% or more of our current system's pseudo-growth and economic structure. But again, I think it must be admitted that economies of scale do exist and can exist. Yet here I think a distinction can easily be made; real economies of scale are NOT the product of technology, but of non-technological forces. Economies of scale are a product of better organization, efficient system structuring, the existence of market power, and so on.

I'd love to discuss it more in-depth with you, but I'd guess you're quite swamped. I just think this is a brilliant idea that, with a little refinement, could be a game-changer. If you have the time, feel free to email me, otherwise I look forward to your response here.

Myriad said...

@trippticket: Given the option (either online or in a store), I'd buy your insect repellent product in a "refill" package and put it into my own repurposed spray bottle. Maybe you already offer that option (I can't tell because traffic from your comment appears to have brought your site down). Your current typical retail customers might not appreciate that option, but I bet the potential customers from this site (for instance) would.

If I were a local retail customer, I'd also appreciate an option to get containers refilled or return them for a small refund (remember "deposit" beverage bottles?), but to get the retailers cooperating with that you'd have to internalize their externalities, i.e. compensate them for the costs and effort of collecting trade-ins and getting them back to you.

@indus56: I like the thinking in your comments. I've found that assessing the true internalized cost (or just the energy cost) of anything is fiendishly difficult. Security, roads, universities, and all the other elements you mentioned do have to be taken into account, but their costs also have to be (somehow) apportioned among all their uses, or else you quickly reach the conclusion that the true internalized cost of a box of paper clips from the stationery store is the entire gross world product. (Which might be true in some vague poetic sense, but not very useful for comparison or decision making).

As far as I've been able to tell so far, most U.S. food prices "internalized" would be about double what they are, manufactured consumer goods about triple, and fuels a bit higher than that, so your concerns about the real internalized viability of natural gas conversion are valid. Arriving at firmer numbers would be a massive undertaking, unless there are tools available that I've overlooked.

@all the "squirrely intellects" in attendance: I'm impressed too, but not surprised.

Derv said...

Oh, and my posts the last week that was deleted referred to a documentary called "All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace" by Adam Curtis. The second episode talked about how ecological concepts (that were later proven false, about nature being in static equilibrium) were used to engineer social systems and ideas that are now in play politically.

I found it very interesting, and thought readers of this blog would too. You can find it online, but I won't link to it for fear of being junked again.

Michelle said...

I was driving my son to school today, and we happened past a construction project in town. It's a monstrosity, several stories too tall to fit in, poorly designed, located across from a public park that took years to acquire, and has no parking associated with its 100+ apartments.

My son commented, "Looks like they're making progress on that."

And we were off! Boy did we have a great conversation on the notion of 'progress' and whether that construction project's work completed to date qualified as such, and under what terms.

EntropicDoom said...

The greatest burden of externalities shifted onto the public will be the Credit Default Swaps that are piling up to astronomical heights. These are financial arrangements that shift the risk of investments to others and create bets that are counter to the initial investment. The total today and into the near future are well beyond anything that all the governments of the world could monitor, adjudicate or resolve.

When that dam bursts it will submerge us all into economic chaos.

The pattern promoted by our political leaders has been to yield to pressure and to void the laws passed after the depression got underway to control the excesses of Wall Street. Those laws have been gutted and the market is as wide open as a frontier town with no marshal or sheriff. The innocent will be blindsided, the economy will be sacrificed and the banks will be ground into dust. The result will be martial law and chaos. Money as an accepted cultural fantasy will be gone.

All because risk was transferred as an externality to the public sector for the Wall Street gamblers.

The second biggest threat from externalities is the snowballing effects of carbon emissions and pollution on the environment. Fracking poisons will not be monitored. Spent nuclear fuel will not be handled safely and the infrastructure for public utilities will not be maintained. What we take for granted today will be a faint memory in the near future. We have put off dealing with the necessary in order to play with with the moment's fetishes.

Lastly our current culture and our education of the young has not transferred any lasting knowledge to the next generation that will help them survive. They are a lost generation that can only play and be entertained.

The responsibility of teaching the young has been externalized to the media and a failing school system, which is now only a testing service with the police as hall monitors.

We have externalized the economy, the physical environment and our culture.

Robert Mathiesen said...

BeaverPuppet wrote:

"If the civilization to my left is developing tanks and aircraft, can my civilization choose to keep things simple and expect to be safe?"

Sure you can; just find another, more subtle means of slaying the leaders of the civilization to your left if they threaten you.

For example, one could update the Borgias' old approach to such problems. Turn some technicians loose to develop mosquito-sized plastic drones that can land on a human body and subcutaneously inject a very small, but lethal dose of some poison (which some other technicians have developed for that specific application). Better if the poison takes a few days to act, of course, so with luck the tiny drone will have been vacuumed up with the dust by the time anyone notices anything has gone wrong.

Since it's a poison, the target nation will start by looking for internal enemies. With uncommon luck, it may even destrroy itself looking for them.

And of course, use these drones very, very sparingly, to lengthen the time before your neighbors catch on to what you are doing.

If it's a matter of survival, Fighting fair is apporpriate only for *ritualized* combat, including our current forms of overt war, where all sides agree on the ritual forms.

Stein L said...

I spend a lot of my time in a cabin in the mountains. There is no light pollution here. I have solar panels and a wind generator, and get 230V AC current from that, but in the evenings I enjoy sitting in front of the fireplace, with an oil lamp and a few candles on. Doing that right now.

I see a wonderful Milky Way above if I go outside, and sometimes the starlight (no moon) is so bright that the snow crystals twinkle below.

Which is my lead-in to all the silly talk of humanity going into space. Just getting payload into low-orbit is ridiculously expensive, from the POV of energy consumed. And what we're sending up there are tin cans, basically. Quite frail structures, where a lot of thought has gone into making them as light-weight as possible. You want interplanetary space travel? You're looking at even more energy expended to reach escape velocity. (And sure, come with our space elevators, tethers and whatnot.)

Payload constraints are so strict that the personnel manning the ISS are drinking recycled piss, each others. Can't take enough fresh water up there. Check out what they have to do in order to perform "Number Two." There are YouTube videos on the topic.
All those movies with enormous space ships, with observation platforms, and the mass of a battle ship in WWII? It's fantasy. Never going to happen. Hey, they even have gravity on those behemoths, how did that happen?

This here little planet we're on is actually an amazing space ship, we just haven't figured out how to use it right. Work on that, not on destroying it and then leaving.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

By serendipity, after my early morning comment about city dwellers who have never seen the Milky Way, here's a personal account of community rediscovered and the night sky during a power outage in Brooklyn.

jonathan said...

blue sun-
thank you for your kind thoughts. your extensionof the reasoning to suburban sprawl is in no sense a stretch. on the contrary, it is a perfect example. "technology" includes not just machines and other physical objects, but also organizational systems. suburban living is just such a system and its externalities do include the things you mentioned and more such as flooding caused by all those impermeable roads, parking lots and roofs and increased travel times to jobs, schools and shops.

Autumn Crow said...

I'll echo what other commenters said about this entry crystallizing some things I'd been thinking of for a long time, but lacked words for. It rings true because I've experienced this phenomenon on a time-scale a little easier for an individual human to grasp.

As a tech startup grows, it splits into divisions and departments, and a focus on "keeping track" of costs takes place, ostensibly to keep people honest. One of the results when the so-called bean counters move in is not so much a reduction of costs, but increased externalization within the company itself. Infrastructure of all kinds tends to be crushed out, from the quality of facial tissue in the office cabinet to the support libraries that make complex software easy to write and manage, because the costs of not doing those things well are harder to measure.

The end result is very nice looking ledger sheets and miserable employees. More than that, it erodes the capability of the company to do what it is supposed to be doing, resulting in lost profits and a spiral of increased attempts to measure certain costs until so many costs are externalized from any one department or individual that noone can get anything done. The company then collapses, the people split off, and start new companies to begin the cycle over again.

The act of attempting to make costs legible and making decisions to reduce them without regard to the costs that can't be seen seems a core part of this process, as is the hubris implied ("All we need is to measure it better!").

So lots of well-meaning people get on the treadmill to attempting ever-finer measurements of what is going on, a process which has its own set of diminishing returns, when what people really seem to need is a story or mythos that enables good behavior without having to measure every single effect of everything. (The fact that corporations grow increasingly "soulless" as part of this process seems to dovetail nicely.)

Joe McInerney said...

This article on Grist takes a systemic look at externalities,
"None of the world’s top industries would be profitable if they paid for the natural capital they use"
By David Roberts on 17 Apr 2013

"Trucost’s third big finding is the coup de grace. Of the top 20 region-sectors ranked by environmental impacts, none would be profitable if environmental costs were fully integrated. Ponder that for a moment: None of the world’s top industrial sectors would be profitable if they were paying their full freight. Zero.

That amounts to an global industrial system built on sleight of hand. As Paul Hawken likes to put it, we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it GDP."

Joe McInerney said...

Journal Nature publishes study debunking EIA natural gas reserve claims.

"Instead, researchers say, the peak will likely come in 2020, and after that production will fall off dramatically. The findings are based on higher-resolution, finer-scale estimates of oil and gas reserves — in units of a single square mile — compared to the EIA's method, which lumps together all land within a single county."

Synopsis from Yale e360 digest.

Janet D said...

An article that spells out the externalities of manufacturing cheap plastic toys in China:

Tracing a Devastating Path: A Toy's Story

For sake of brevity, the first part reads as follows:

The extreme air pollution in Beijing, China was among the leading environmental news stories for the week of January 20, 2015. The smog-causing small particulate matter, PM2.5, reached twenty times the allowable World Health Organization limit as reported in the online edition of the Guardian. Although the Chinese government had committed to reducing PM2.5 by 2015, the current data suggests that efforts to date have been, for the most part, largely ineffective. These particles are small enough to lodge in the respiratory tract causing an increase in health-related respiratory conditions.

One of the major contributors of PM2.5 is coal-fired factories that are supported by the world’s over-consumption of material goods.

Developing nations such as China do not employ the same labour law practices, standards of pollution control, building codes or safety and health guidelines for their workers and businesses as do their Western counterparts. It is, in part, because of lax environmental codes that corporations often relocate their operations to developing countries to maximize profits. Often they do not want to take moral or financial responsibility for any environmental damage they cause. In this context, the concepts of both personal and corporate responsibility are sorely in need of re-evaluation....

Steve in Colorado said...

Hi JMG! I think there may be an important part to this analysis which deserves some contemplating.

I'd agree fully with the progress definition and its analysis, with one caveat: "as practiced in modern societies". Your descriptions and explanations are spot on regarding what humans have done under the name of progress for the last few centuries.

Still I strongly believe that technology itself is neutral. Neither good nor bad, it is just something we have learned how to do (and just because we know how to do something doesn't mean we have to do it). Technology does not create externalities; those are outcomes humans choose.

Perhaps a subtle difference, but an important one IMO. Because IF the real problem lies in human nature (either in general or just in the 1% or so of psychopaths in our midst) then eliminating technology or reining it in at whatever level won't solve anything. You will still have a group of humans willing to gain advantage over other humans by wantonly disregarding fairness, rules, and laws.

We've had these people/personalities long before the recent advances in technology, and all the way up as technology was growing. Likely we will have them on the backside of peak technology as well, IMO.

I guess I don't buy the "technology made me do it" excuse (although it has allowed them/us to make things worse a lot more quickly). We got to where we are by allowing people with no moral compass free rein in our society. Even if you roll technology back to sharp sticks and clubs, without mechanisms to control this problem, I don't see how it doesn't happen yet again...

The other Tom said...

I am planning to spend the month of May in the woods, on a long hike while practicing my foraging skills. Being green can be a hell of a lot of fun, for those of us who get the chance. I pity those who have already been buried under our collective externalized cost dumps. I doubt if anyone in Mumbai is going on a long hike, only because they feel like it.
What an extraordinary, frustrating, absurd, and tragic time we live in! Except for the most Paleolithic of us, we are all complicit in this growth and progress model that is really like an AI run amuck that nobody knows how to turn off: no political solution because anyone who speaks truth is marginalized as a dangerous lunatic, no economic solution because without endless growth the economy cannot work.
We have unleashed a growth system that must use up and destroy everything and everyone because that's what it was programmed to do and almost nobody wants to be without a "job." A phrase from Noam Chomsky comes to mind: "a philosophy of futility."
Maybe I'm oversensitive but when I first heard the term: "human resources" (was it the 80s?) it sounded creepy to me, like a subliminal way to get employees on the same level as coal or timber, something to be efficiently used up. I prefer the stodgy old term: "personnel."
What a fine mess we have made!
Nearly all discussion of "sustainability" I hear in person or in the media is about how we should sustain growth, not how we should stop it. It is impolite to say that feeding 9 to 15 billion people is improbable, that building large cities in the desert is insanity, that projecting American military power all over the globe while our infrastructure decays will doom us.
If we find more oil to keep it all going another 20 years it just enables the human population and environmental impact to grow bigger. It is like adding more lanes to an interstate highway: if you build it, more cars will fill it up.
I don't proselytize about our situation unless people show some openness to LESS. If they react with disbelief and revulsion when they hear I don't have a TV, for example, then any talk of externalized costs would be futile.
Would I be slipping into hyperbole, to suggest that our world is like Europe in the summer of 1914?

heather said...

Chiming in on chickens:

I called our local feed store near the beginning of the month to see whether they had chicks in yet, to replace our aging laying flock. The clerk answered that they had indeed gotten their first shipment of chicks in on Thursday morning, but they were all sold out by Friday afternoon. He said he'd never seen a shipment of chicks go so fast. So the following Thursday, I got myself down there by noon and picked out some chicks, from the several hundred available in the new shipment. I returned on Friday for a new waterer (cheap, plastic one from a couple of years ago had cracked- bought a better quality metal one this year, in case the waterers start going like the chicks in future years!), and every last chick was gone.

I'm not sure if the shipments were smaller than in the past- it looked about the same to me as last year's bunch- but those chicks sure used to stay around longer, starting to get bigger and feather out some before they were all sold. I'm not sure what to make of the trend, but I'm actually hoping that one of my new chicks turns out to be a rooster, so I can try hatching out some eggs and starting my own locally adapted strain. Not sure I want to trust a shaky supply chain next year.
--Heather in CA

onething said...


I have to interject. I used to work in a typing pool and used that IBM Selectric -- that's the reason I have so much trouble typing on keyboards today. I am spoiled. Those keyboards actually worked, primarily for capitalization, which is a constant aggravation with computer keyboards.

I simply can't believe I would not quickly adjust back to it. I'd love to try.

Mark Rice said...

A bit off from this weeks topic:
I have been listening to the revolutions podcast. The leadup to the French Revolution looks a lot like what is going on now in the US.

Then they had aristocrats paying low taxes and pushing the tax burden onto those less fortunate. Now we have plutocats doing the same thing.

Then they had a King Louis XVI vascillating between being a very complient wimp and attempting to do some very autocratic actions. We have Obama doing similar vascillations.

Then the aristocrats fired up the masses with disinformation to try and get what they want. An example is the popular misconceptions about the Diamond Necklace Affair. Now we have Fox News.

One thing different is they had some bad years for crop harvests and this made food very expensive. People then believed conspiracy theories about aristocrats manipulating food prices. When our petrol was more expensive, we had conspiracy theories about the price of fuel.

I suspect one thing preventing us from having more domestic discord is the low price of fuel and food right now. This is due to the *Hydrofracking revolution and the attendent financial machinations that go with it. If petrolium was 150 or 200$ a barrol and food was way more expensive due to very expensive natural gas, we would be seeing some unrest right now.

In the case of the French Revolution, it looks like they reached that part of anacyclosis where strong leadership was needed but none was found. Let us hope that when the tight light crude goes into decline we are not stuck with someone like King Louis or Obama.

(* I realise there are some serious externalities associated with fracking. These externalities will eventually cost us in the long run.)

Cherokee Organics said...


It would be interesting to read your thoughts regarding the financial dimensions of externalising costs.

I've often suspected that the condition of near zero interest rates is either a swindle on the public purse or an acknowledgement that very little real world activities are actually profitable.

It was interesting that in a speech recently our Reserve Bank governor stated that we are near the point where further monetary policy ceases to be of use: The government is failing at the limits of monetary policy.

It is certainly a fascinatingly honest and frank assessment of the situation.

Speaking of which, I finished your book yesterday and really enjoyed it. It was a very hard book to put down and there was one day this week - that perhaps I shouldn't have, but did all the same - where I lingered a bit too long over it with a coffee and muffin. Good times!

Anyway, what surprised me about the story - and perhaps I'm naive - but the politicians and their advisers were calling the "Mission Statement" sort of top level shots and overriding their experienced military advisers. That seems kind of dysfunctional to me, as I would have thought that this was a role for experienced veterans? Dunno, but it seemed weird to me?

Anyway, a great read! Top work and I recommend your book: "Twilight's last gleaming" to all of the readers here.



Kutamun said...

Gday Daergi Mahn ,
Much of the coltan rare earth that is used for our porn surfing computer chips comes from the Congo , where the war that was fomented by our anglo business interests cost the lives of five million people in the early 2000s yet barely rated a mention in the western media ...yeah baby thoese writhing robots are drenched in blood ..
Somebody else mentioned that cities externalise their costs to the surrounding rural countryside...Theodore Roszak explores this at length in " where the wasteland ends" , kind of a philosophical dexonstruction of overshoot excellent read ..

Cherokee Organics said...


I should perhaps explain that my previous comment should be read with the understanding of Sun Tzu which I'm now re-reading. The man was a professional strategist for hire by any one of the many warring states at the time.

Perhaps his openness to changing employment opportunities was in fact his strength. He lived or died by his results.

One of the difference with advisers these days is that perhaps they are enablers rather than professionals that have to survive on their real world results? Dunno.



Cherokee Organics said...


Your quote: "whether the second set of regressers can be helped to use their temporary access to wealth to establish patterns that others, without that, can follow."

Not the only game in town, but certainly an important one! I've been actively working on that one with a whole lot of people today - and mostly people looked like they were having fun. I lured them in with free walking onions, and I literally gave away hundreds of the little blighters and added in fun discussions etc...

As the now dead voice of my generation once sung:
"Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us"

Probably that last bit wasn't relevant, but it seemed somehow apt to me. Sometimes, you have to put on the showman hat.

Who knows what onions may grow from such activities as today?



Matthew Casey Smallwood said...

Agrarian Man and Industrial Man
Ernest Gellner (1925-1995), Nations and Nationalism, 2nd ed. (Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2006), p. 50:

Agrarian man can be compared with a natural species which can survive in the natural environment. Industrial man can be compared with an artificially produced or bred species which can no longer breathe effectively in the nature-given atmosphere, but can only function effectively and survive in a new, specially blended and artificially sustained air or medium. Hence he lives in specially bounded and constructed units, a kind of giant aquarium or breathing chamber."
From Laudator Temporis Acti blog

Could it be that the big city metropoloi instinctively know that they are further down the actual, real ladder of evolution, and resent the fact? Maybe they just want to rub all this out. I'm not a fan of rural for rural's sake, but it seems like there's been a prejudice against "country" throughout much recorded history, stretching back to Aristotle at least.

Ron M said...

Love your blogs & books, JMG! Be it peak oil or magic, you are tops! Abundant thanks for the pearls of wisdom and unassailably logical arguments on “forbidden” topics that you so articulately share with your readers.

When reading your current entry, I briefly thought I had a small bone to pick with you regarding the claim that the old-fashioned blivet production method generates less waste than the modern blivet factories (assuming that total global blivet production is the same in either scenario), but then I accepted the assumption that industrial production methods tend to produce more waste than non-industrial methods even on a “per-blivet” basis as fair.

Please accept entry into the highly prestigious Great Squirrel Case Challenge (hopefully it gets in on time):

squizzler said...

Interesting post, but I would side with those who cannot think your definition of progress is really more of a useful term than a definition. For one thing this definition seems to require us to do something you warned about and cede the term "progress" to the the big corporates...

"A regulatory environment sufficiently strict to keep technology from accelerating to collapse would thus bring technological progress to a halt by making it unprofitable."

I refer to your previous conflation of "progress" as a religion, and as you mentioned in a previous post, religious zeal does not require financial reward. Also consider the "open source" movement, where quite sophisticated technology is developed in a decentralised way by volunteers.

Another point: the post and subsequent comments make a lot of the issue of complexity - as a bad thing. Complicated technologies are one part of it, but these complicated machines replace complexity in the industry that employs them.

So I argue that simplification is actually the enemy. The term used in business is "rationalisation". Banks, insurers, transport operators and retailers close their local offices to cut the costs. Customers are directed interact with the service via the relevant website. This simplification takes the form of the removal of a whole raft of middlemen. Businesses that were part of the community and could offer various bespoke services now offer only a streamlined selection of services. So the society not only copes with the same externalities as before but loses the secondary economic benefits of a large cadre of locally based company staff.

To use the given example, the artisan blivet maker working out the home was providing cash to supplement an already complex domestic economy with food growing in the back garden, the missus darning socks, and lots of barter with other households for products, services and skills.

The billet factory by contrast is a big building for one purpose only. The transactions are accordingly simplified to the minimum required monetary transactions with the material suppliers, and the customers of the product, the payroll, and the odd trade to maintain the building and plant.

This simplification is perhaps responsible for the pollution issues. In a production process modelled more on an ecosystem, waste heat may be used for district heating. CO2 makes tomatoes in greenhouses grow. Maybe blivet waste has its uses. But in the quest for simplification of the balance sheet the opportunities to work symbiotically with other businesses is lost.

indus56 said...

Nicely put observation of the difficulty of calculating otherwise externalized costs, so as to stop short of embedding the gross world product in a box of paper clips.

A couple of perhaps complementary or interlocking approaches come to mind:

1, working outwards from the most plausibly mis-excluded externalities, as per your note

2, working from embedded energy (of which fossil fuels are only a part) as a living planet's thermodynamic currency. In this case we ask how much of the planet's energy harvest we can appropriate without simultaneously impoverishing ecosystem services (or yield or gifts).

3, working from the costs of investments to restore the global ecology to health (or to pay down the ecological debt overhang, or overshoot).

None of these strikes me as any easier than the others to carry out to "their logical end" but there may be low hanging fruit associated with each approach.

Thanks for the "strengthening reading" as I think Gadamer once put it.

Nastarana said...

About the high cost of buying organic:

I have been dealing with this problem for decades, including many years as a renter with no access to garden space.

My solution, which I offer here as example of one possible strategy, was:

1. Shop at discount outlets. It is surprising how much organic and unadulterated product shows up at such places.

2. Cook from scratch and use only unadulterated ingredients.

3. Read labels and buy only products to which nothing except salt or named spices has been added after the food left the farm gate. Remember that the phrases 'natural flavors' and 'spices' indicate the presence of monosodium glutimate, a natural product in the sense that cocaine is natural. IMHO, sensible people ingest neither.

The biggest money saver, I am convinced, is to cook at home. Even factoring in the cost of utilities and water, you can save expense. To the above list I would now add, avoid GMOs, which can be accomplished by not using corn, soy or canola products or beet sugar. The hardest part of that is using only organic cornmeal for cornbread.

Some sort of good news is that social pressure for cultural conformity is much less than it used to be, mainly because few anymore can afford middle class status signifyers. Nowadays, if my kids were being ridiculed for homemade bread sandwiches, I would have no hesitation in confronting teachers and school admin.

indus56 said...

I was pleased if not surprised by your interest in Latour, who can be maddening and inspired once or twice a paragraph. Of things since _We Were Never Modern_, there is _The Politics of Nature (2004)_, mentioned earlier, but also--and I would be pleased to see an essay of yours arising from--"Will humans be saved, an argument in ecotheology" (2009).

One of the more helpful alternatives or antidotes to the tediously self-congratulatory atheism of modern Western intellectual life is Latour's criticism of its loss of expressive / interpretive capacity in spiritual matters:

" And yet, it remains extremely difficult to
apply to religion the same principle that has been applied to the other contrasts, that is,
to treat it on its own ground so as not to speak ‘of ’ religion but instead to speak ‘in’ a
religious tone, or, using the adverbial form, religiously. Speaking scientifically is not a
problem, especially for a scholarly profession like ours. Speaking legally is taught very
efficiently at law schools – and God knows how specific is this way of speaking. But
enunciating something religiously is terribly difficult because of the ease with which it
is explained or accounted for by other types of explanation, especially social explana-
tions. The precise truth conditions (or felicity conditions) that allow someone to speak
religiously (and not ‘about’ religion in another tone of voice) have almost vanished (the
same is true, by the way, of political enunciation)." (Latour, 2009, p. 461).

How he brings this to bear on the "strange question" of ecotheology is a breath of fresh air (and I say this as a interested agnostic), and resonates with some of your writings on the sickening of Western science (if I can put it that way):

" It is definitely not the case that science is about the concrete, worldly, matter of fact, present at
hand, domain of knowledge in addition to which another vehicle called ‘religious belief ’ would lead you to a ‘supernatural’ domain of spiritual entities. If anything, it is science which is an excellent vehicle to transport you to otherworldly domains which would be utterly inaccessible without the carefully arrayed chains of reference allowed by its more and more complex instrumentarium (and I hasten to add, to make sure I am not misunderstood, that these sets of mediations are made more and more accurate, sturdy, safe, and fully trustable every day); it is religion that attempts to access // the this-worldly in its most radical presence, that is you, now, here transformed into the person who cares about the transformation of the indifferent other into a close neighbour, into the nearby, into le prochain (Latour 2005b). " (pp. 464-465).

And who cares about the destruction of a living planet, not presented primarily as the domain of "Nature" but of "Creation".

Chester said...

I wanted to belatedly thank you, JMG, for your post earlier this month about William Catton's "Overshoot."

I was able to track down a copy at the local university library, and though I'm only about 20% into it, I can see many of the ideas you've related in this blog etched out by Catton many decades before.

It's stunning to see what in any sense would still be considered revolutionary changes in thinking about energy and sustainability etched out so cogently in 1982. And obviously, conditions have hardly improved since then!

I highly recommend it to other readers of this blog. I've already bought his 2009 followup Bottleneck, though I have to confess I had it sent to one of my favorite emblems of our flagging consumer paradise: my Kindle.

Iuval Clejan said...

Not everybody has values high up on their priority list that encourage externalizing costs, or violating ostrom principle #2 (proportional costs and benefits). I already cited the Amish as an example, and many readers of this blog (and JMG) are another example, as well as many of the cases studied by Ostrom (but some groups successfully share a local commons while externalizing costs to other commons). The system of values called Empire does have externalizing costs, passing the buck and general rape and pillage (aka tribute, taxation, austerity measures, etc) as priority values, and it controls the lower level meme of Progress. The question is whether all those people can actually cooperate to live their values more effectively and provide an alternative to Empire, as individuals do not an economy or a technology(many suites) make.

Are you saying that only industrial technology has this problem with externalities? I just read an essay saying it is the essence of life to maximize entropy production and dump it into the environment. I don't know whether this is true (it certainly does not follow from the second law of thermodynamics)

Derv said...

Just saw another story that may be of interest to people. Apparently many more craters have shown up in Siberia, which some say are from methane outgassing. Intriguing/alarming whether or not that's true.

Thomas Prentice said...

Rosetta Stone. This is the Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta Stone. And it has been promiscuously reposted as such.

May I suggest that republication be sought in other periodicals both print and online such as CounterPunch, TruthDig, AlterNet, NakedCapitalism, TruthOut, TomDispatch, UK Guardian,, AdBusters, the Syriza and Podemos publications and also give the new york times and the wall street journal the historic opportunities to turn it down ;) Although perhaps the economist and financial times as well as bloomberg might snap it up...

MawKernewek said...

@JMG: I suppose that would make a fun science fiction story: the last human being alive in a future hyper-high tech society, whose Jetsons lifestyle imposes so many costs on the biosphere that there can only be one of him.

I thought of Isaac Asimov's Foundation series novels there. There were two waves of colonisation from Earth, firstly the 'Spacers' who embraced advanced robotics and transhumanism, but who were relatively few in number and colonised only a few worlds in the solar neighbourhood, and the 'Settlers' who were more conservative and colonised the entire galaxy over a long period of time. I can't remember exactly where it was the reader meets one of the last remaining survivors of the Spacer worlds.

There are other aspects of the story which are in line with the themes of this blog in some ways, the decline of the Galactic Empire, abandonment of the periphery as outlying provinces become independent kingdoms and technological regression takes place.

Thomas Prentice said...

Define "Progress".

Since I was diagnosed with cancer fifteen years ago, dealing with chemo and radiation every year since except for 2014 and this year so far, I began to take a dim view of use of the word "progress" and of the word "progressive" as in the magazine of the same name and as self-described by some, including myself, and Vermont US Sen. Bernie Sanders.

In CancerWorld the term "progressive" means "Things Get Worse." The cancer will "progress" until the patient dies.

While there are, of course, multiple denotative and connotative meanings of words, the externalization of costs and the fact that that said externalization is the inevitable result of technological progress in a market economy leading to ultimate collapse -- well, all that makes one wonder if perhaps CancerWorld might actually have the right take on what the word "progress" might mean.

After all, General Electric's slogan for many decades was "Progress is our Only Product". I see the GE logo every time I get a CT or MRI scan and laugh to myself softly. Hell, I thought they had been talking about toasters.

Matthew Heins said...

Reading that second to last paragraph made me think: "Where is this place? It sounds nice. I would like to live there."

Several of your points argue against market economies as well. Could a society based on a competitive ethos derived (or causing, it is hard to tell) from a market economy indefinitely sustain sufficient political equality to restrain technological complexification? Can a society that does not guarantee general equality in property indefinitely prevent the rise of a competitive ethos and market dependence that leads to political inequality sufficient to undo the attempt at stabilizing or rewinding technological progress?

I doubt it. I'd guess that an indefinitely sustainable society will require an ecologically cooperative ethos and some kind of common control of production and distribution of needed goods and services. But also, once the needs of Life are met well enough to ensure the political equality needed to sustain social control of technological progress and therefore sustain the society itself, the needs of Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness can perhaps be met by a market economy in uneeded things. To explain succinctly, imagine a society where the technoprogress ceiling is set on various productions at various levels - such as time period for simplicity, but actually externalities of cost and waste - but beneath that, innovation is allowed, even encouraged, both in commonly controlled production to ensure basic needs and general equality, and privately controlled production to pursue individual or group happiness. Such a society need not be stifling to the individual or collective spirit even as it is restrained enough to be indefinitely sustainable. Mix in a disciplined, collapse-conscious, preservationist subculture or three and things are looking real good.

As long as that ecologically cooperative ethos holds up that is. And can such an ethos actually outcompete anthropocentric competition without a seriously nasty global collapse and what we might call a real dark age? We'll see.

sgage said...

@ Iuval wrote:

"I just read an essay saying it is the essence of life to maximize entropy production and dump it into the environment. I don't know whether this is true (it certainly does not follow from the second law of thermodynamics) "

This seems to me exactly wrong, and betrays a profound ignorance of both Life and Entropy. Life is the quintessence of negentropy. The sunlight beams down, and without Life would do nothing more than heat up the rocks, which would radiate the energy away. There's your entropy.

Life is a billion reservoirs, damming up the energy as it cascades down, as, of course it must. But Life slows down entropy, accumulates order. I mean, that's practically the definition of Life.

I remember once sitting at the edge of a wonderful freshwater wetland on a hot sunny Summer afternoon, and as the Sun beamed down, I could almost hear the hum of a billion little turbines in the plant life slowing down the Sun's energy on its way to wherever, detouring it into the whole ecosystem.

Whoever wrote the essay you are referring to did not, IMO, have any clue as to what he was talking about.

Paul Mineiro said...

Several commenters have noted that societies compete with each other, and just as externalizing business outcompete "responsible" ones, so do whole societies.

Not sure if there is any solution but hopefully you will comment on this in another post.

John Michael Greer said...

Bogatyr, I have a very nice Olivetti manual typewriter, and will be getting ribbons shortly so I can get back in practice. Thanks for the link!

Ed, I remember the song well.

Sky, exactly. I think a strong case could be made that the industrial revolution was only possible because of massive externalization of costs.

Gloucon, I'll pass; that way lies the sort of cult of personality that's wrecked so many otherwise hopeful movements.

Øyvind, etymology isn't the same thing as meaning. The English word "black" comes from a root meaning "white," also found in French "blanc."

Raven, an interesting hypothesis.

FiftyNiner, that's because your friend gave up after two days. How long it takes to get used to a typewriter keyboard varies from person to person, but two days is rarely enough. You also have to start slow, at a fraction of your normal typing pace, and pick up speed only after you've got the trick of hitting the keys correctly.

Caryn, thank you!

Kutamun, now find something constructive to do with the methoxide.

Mark, it would indeed.

Bruno, I hadn't heard of that; thanks for the heads up. I hope you're not having too much trouble with the water shortage!

Raven, it's a standard phenomenon of imperial decline: areas on the borderlands become stateless zones in a condition of anarchy. Coming soon to a border zone near you...

Troy, that assumes you were a merciful deity. If you were a wrathful deity, you might well say, "All right, you want that -- have it, and deal with the consequences!" A decent theological case could probably be made for the idea that that's the background of the industrial revolution...

Matthew, exactly. A lot of people were talking about that sort of whole systems analysis back in the day; it's only now that so many people have become so dumb about such things.

Unknown Deborah, that argument would require the assumption that human beings are absolutely unique among millions or billions of other intelligent species -- which is quite an ad hoc assumption. Most explanations for the Fermi paradox require equally far-fetched assumptions. It's far more parsimonious to suggest that known factors such as the limits to growth and the law of diminishing returns make limitless technological progress impossible for intelligent beings.

John Michael Greer said...

Donalfagan, I'm far from sure anybody knows exactly what the climate will do.

Raven, funny. No, it's the air travel industry externalizing its costs at the expense of its customers' health -- a very common practice these days in most industries.

Blue Sun, good. Of course we can't actually externalize anything; it's the economic fiction that we can do so, and should do so, because it doesn't really matter, that's driving our civilization to ruin.

Moshe, yes, I saw that. What a bright idea! Glowing with enthusiasm, even...

Ed-M, and everyone else tried to escape via emergency stairs.

J Thomas, well, yes, that's why I used "tends" in my discussion.

Agent, fair enough. To my mind, it's important to recognize that the drive to generate externalities is part of economic behavior; technology just enables that behavior, and progressing technology means that there's an ever-increasing supply of things to externalize.

SV Koho, if my theory holds, the process will go on until the degradation of the whole system stops it. The question is purely how soon that point arrives.

Daergi, that's why -- as I noted to Agent Provocateur -- it's crucial to remember that economic forces, not just patterns intrinsic to technology, guide the deployment of technology. If not for pictures of people with their clothes off, the internet would never have been able to pay for itself, much less expand to its current metastatic condition. Whether computers are useful tools for scientific research is frankly a less important question than whether a society can afford the immense investment in infrastructure needed to produce and maintain computer technology if the only people who use it are scientific researchers.

Derv, here again, it's crucial to factor in the economic sphere. Did the cotton gin require the production of externalities? No, but it made new externalities possible -- and the economic sphere saw to it that the new possibilities were exploited. Even very simple technologies can do that, given the right economic conditions -- or the wrong ones. As for economies of scale, of course there are some, but there are also a lot of externalities of scale, and it would require a very close study of a lot of data to sort out how many actual economies of scale there are. My guess is that they're actually fairly rare, but that's just a guess.

As for your post last week, I'm not at all sure why Blogger ate it -- a lot of people post links all the time, and I certainly didn't delete it. as I mentioned when you asked.

Michelle, good. Now just make sure the two of you both grasp that the world can "progress" to something worse...

John Michael Greer said...

EntropicDoom, well, yes -- that's basically what I've been saying here for getting on for nine years now, you know. The question that remains is what we as individuals are going to do in response.

Stein, no argument there.

Autumn Crow, hmm! Never having worked in the tech field, I don't have any personal experience of the process, but your description makes perfect sense. I've noticed how Google's slogan "Don't be evil" somehow morphed to "Go ahead, be evil -- it's good for the bottom line."

Joe, thanks for this! I'm surprised I didn't see it earlier. If that analysis is correct, we know for a fact that industrial civilization is self-terminating: if none of the 20 biggest industries in the world would make any money without dumping their costs on the biosphere, then in whole-system terms, none of them actually creates more wealth than they destroy -- they just steal from the future, and when that future arrives, they're toast. Thanks also for the link about the Nature study, which I had read of.

Janet, that's a great example.

Steve, you're missing one of the core parts of the argument. Of course technologies all involve some degree of externalization; so do your bowels and bladder, for heaven's sake. The point is that whole systems can generally work around a steady state production of externalities. It's technological progress, the ongoing and unlimited increase in technological complexity (and thus in demand for resources and production of waste), that generates the rising tide of externalities that eventually causes whole systems to degrade to the point of collapse. Once you no longer have progress, you no longer have that accelerating dynamic.

Other Tom, I loathe the term "human resources." What do you do with resources? You exploit them, of course!

Heather, please do get started raising chicks! You may have yourself a nice source of springtime income, among other things.

Mark Rice, if you haven't already, see if you can find a copy of JK Galbraith's book The Culture of Contentment, which draws quite a close parallel between France before the Revolution and the US today.

Cherokee, dumping financial costs on everyone else is the only way the banking industry can make money these days, so yes, they're doing it. As for the way the civilian-military relationship worked in Twilight's Last Gleaming, I based that on the way the US has handled every war since the second invasion of Iraq. Yes, it's a bad idea, and will probably end up costing this country in blood. Glad to hear about those onions -- it's certainly worth a try!

Matthew, what is this "ladder of evolution" you're talking about? Evolution is just adaptation to circumstances, with no teleology or innate direction.

Ron, you got in under the wire (of the squirrel cage)! As for your bone, it actually doesn't matter which mode of production yields more waste; the question is which one makes it easier for the manufacturer to externalize the waste rather than dealing with it and absorbing the costs himself.

Squizzler, I think you've missed the thrust of my argument in general, but you have a useful point about complexity. Notice, though, that what's happening is that technological complexity is being used to further social simplification -- and thus load social costs onto society as a whole.

Indus56, I'd forgotten entirely about his discussion of ecotheology! That's going to push him even higher up the stack of books to get to.

«Oldest ‹Older   1 – 200 of 228   Newer› Newest»