Monday, February 25, 2008

Building an Alternative to Hierarchy: Rhizome Theory

This third essay in a five-part series, The Problem of Growth, looks at the theoretical requirements for a sustainable alternative to hierarchy. In the first two installments (1 2), I argued that competition between hierarchal entities selects for those entities that most efficiently grow and intensify, resulting in a requirement for perpetual growth, and that ongoing human dependency on participation in this system is the lifeblood of this process. At the most basic level, then, an alternative to hierarchy and a solution to the problem of growth must address this issue of dependency. My proposed alternative—what I call “rhizome”—begins at exactly this point.

Achieving Minimal Self-Sufficiency

The first principle of rhizome is that individual nodes—whether that is family units or communities of varying sizes—must be minimally self-sufficient. “Minimally self-sufficient” means the ability to consistently and reliably provide for anything so important that you would be willing to subject yourself to the terms of the hierarchal system in order to get it: food, shelter, heat, medical care, entertainment, etc. It doesn’t mean zero trade, asceticism, or “isolationism,” but rather the ability to engage in trade and interaction with the broader system when, and only when, it is advantageous to do so. The corollary here is that a minimally self-sufficient system should also produce some surplus that can be exchanged—but only to the extent that is found to be advantageous. A minimally self sufficient family may produce enough of its own food to get by if need be, its own heat and shelter, and enough of some surplus—let’s say olive oil—to exchange for additional, quality-of-life-enhancing consumables as it finds advantageous. This principle of minimal self-sufficiency empowers the individual family or community, while allowing the continuation of trade, value-added exchange, and full interaction with the outside world.

It should be immediately apparent that "dependency" is the result of one's definition of "need." Total self-sufficiency in the eyes of a Zimbabwean peasant, even outright luxury, may fall far short of what the average American perceives as "needing" to survive. As a result, an "objectively" self-sufficient American may sell himself into hierarchy to acquire what is perceived as a "need." To this end, what I have called "elegant simplicity" is a critical component of the creation of "minimal self-sufficiency." This is the notion that through conscious design we can meet and exceed our "objective" needs (I define these as largely experiential, not material, and set by our genetic ontogeny, not the global consumer-marketing system) at a level of material consumption that can realistically be provided for on a self-sufficient basis. I've written about this topic on several previous occasions (1 2 3 4 5).

Leveraging “Small-Worlds” Networks

How should rhizome nodes interact? Most modern information processing is handled by large, hierarchal systems that, while capable of digesting and processing huge amounts of information, incur great inefficiencies in the process. The basic theoretical model for rhizome communication is the fair or festival. This model can be repeated locally and frequently—in the form of dinner parties, barbecues, and reading groups—and can also affect the establishment and continuation of critical weak, dynamic connections in the form of seasonal fairs, holiday festivals, etc. This is known as the “small-worlds” theory of network. It tells us that, while many very close connections may be powerful, the key to flat-topography (i.e. non-hierarchal) communications is a broad and diverse network of distant but weak connections. For example, if you know all of your neighbors well, you will be relatively isolated in the context of information awareness. However, if you also have weak contact with a student in India, a farmer across the country, and your cousin in London, you will have access to the very different set of information immediately available to those people. These weak connections greatly expands information awareness, and leverages a much more powerful information processing network—while none of your neighbors may have experienced a specific event or solved a particular problem before, there is a much greater chance that someone in your diverse and distant “weak network” has.

In high-tech terms, the blogosphere is exactly such a network. While many blogs may focus primarily on cat pictures, there is tremendous potential to use this network as a distributed and non-hierarchal problem solving, information collection, and processing system. In a low-tech, or vastly lower energy world, the periodic fair or festival performs the same function.

Building Rhizome Institutions

The final aspect of the theory of rhizome is the need to create rhizome-creating and rhizome-strengthening institutions. One of these is the ability of rhizome to defend itself. Developments in fourth generation warfare suggest that, now more than ever, it is realistic for a small group or network to effectively challenge the military forces of hierarchy. However, it is not my intent here to delve into the a plan for rhizome military defense—I have explored that topic elsewhere, and strongly recommend John Robb’s blog and book “Brave New War” for more on this topic.

One institution that I do wish to explore here is the notion of anthropological self-awareness. It is important that the every participant node in rhizome has an understanding of the theoretical foundation of rhizome, and of the general workings of anthropological systems in general. Without this knowledge, it is very likely that participants will fail to realize the pitfalls of dependency, resulting in a quick slide back to hierarchy. I like to analogize anthropological self-awareness to the characters in the movie “Scream,” who were aware of the cliché rules that govern horror movies while actually being in a horror movie. When individual participants understand the rationale behind concepts like minimal self-sufficiency and “small-worlds” network theory, they are far more likely to succeed in consistently turning theory into practice.

Additionally, it is important to recognize the cultural programming that hierarchal systems provide, and to consciously reject and replace parts of this with a myth, taboo, and morality that supports rhizome and discourages hierarchy. Rules are inherently hierarchal—they must be enforced by a superior power, and are not appropriate for governing rhizome. However, normative standards—social norms, taboos, and values—are effective means of coordinating rhizome without resorting to hierarchy. For example, within the context of anthropological self-awareness, it would be considered “wrong” or “taboo” to have slaves, to be a lord of the manor, or to “own” more property than you can reasonably put to sustainable use. This wouldn’t be encoded in a set of laws and enforced by a ruling police power, but rather exist as the normative standard, compliance with which is the prerequisite for full participation in the network.

Finally, institutions should be devolutionary rather than accrete hierarchy. One example of this is the Jubilee system—rather than allow debt or excess property beyond what an individual can use, accumulate, and pass on to following generations--a system that inevitably leads to class divisions and a de facto aristocracy--some ancient cultures would periodically absolve all debt and start fresh, or redistribute land in a one-family-one-farm manner. These specific examples may not apply well to varying circumstances, but the general principles applies: cultural institutions should reinforce decentralization, independence, and rhizome, rather than centralization, dependency, and hierarchy.

Is This Setting the Bar Too High for All?

I’ll be the first to admit that this is a tall order. While the current system—massive, interconnected, and nested hierarchies and exchange systems—is anything but simple, its success is not dependent on every participant comprehending how the system works. While rhizome doesn’t require completely omniscient knowledge by all participants, the danger of hierarchy lurks in excessive specialization in the knowledge and rationale supporting rhizome—dependency on a select few to comprehend and operate the system is just that: dependency. Is it realistic to expect people to, en masse, understand, adopt, and consistently implement these principles? Yes.

I have no delusions that this is some perfect system that can be spread by airdropped pamphlet and then, one night, a switch is flipped and “rhizome” is the order of the day. Rather, I see this as the conceptual framework for the gradual, incremental, and distributed integration of these ideas into the customized plans of individuals and communities preparing for the future. I have suggested in the past that rhizome should operate on what Antonio Negri has called the “diagonal”-- that is, in parallel but out of phase with the existing, hierarchal system. There may also be lessons to be incorporated from Hakim Bey’s notions of the Temporary Autonomous Zone and the Permanent Autonomous Zone—that flying under the radar of hierarchy may be a necessary expedient. Ultimately, this will likely never be a system that is fully adopted by society as a whole—I tend to envision this as analogous, in some ways, to the network of monasteries that retained classical knowledge through the dark in Western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. In a low-energy future, it may be enough to have a small rhizome network operating in parallel to, but separated from, the remnants of modern civilization. Whether we experience a fast crash, a slow collapse, the rise of a neo-feudal/neo-fascist system, or something else, an extant rhizome network may act as a check on the ability of that system to exploit and marginalize the individual. If rhizome is too successful, too threatening to that system it may be imperiled, but if it is a “competitor” in the sense that it sets a floor and for how much hierarchal systems can abuse humanity, if it provides a viable alternative model, that may be enough to check hierarchy and achieve sustainability and human fulfillment. And, if this is all no more than wishful thinking, it may provide a refuge while Rome burns.

The final two installments in this series will address concrete and practicable steps that individuals and communities can take to erase dependencies and adapt a rhizome structure.

Suggested Further Reading: I've written several other essays on a rhizome structure for humanity: Envisioning a Hamlet Economy, Rhizome & Central Place Theory, Rhizome Communications, and Creating Resiliency & Stability in Horticulture.

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Hierarchy is the Result of Dependency

This second essay in a five-part series, The Problem of Growth, attempts to identify what causes and sustains hierarchies. Humanity has long been trapped in a cycle of treating the symptoms of hierarchy—here we will attempt to discern its cause in order to treat it directly.

The first installment in this series identified the reason why hierarchal human structures must grow: surplus production equals power, and entities across all scales must compete for this power—must grow—or they will be pushed aside by those who do. But why can’t human settlements simply exist as stable, sustainable entities? Why can’t a single family or a community simply decide to opt out of this system? The answer: because they are dependent on others to meet their basic needs, and must participate in the broader, hierarchal system in order to fulfill these needs. Dependency, then, is the lifeblood of hierarchy and growth.

Dependency Requires Participation on the Market’s Terms

Take, for example, a modern American suburbanite. Her list of dependencies is virtually unending: food, fuel for heat, fuel for transport, electricity, clothing, medical care, just to name a few. She has no meaningful level of self-sufficiency—without participation in hierarchy she would not survive. This relationship is hierarchal because she is subservient to the broader economy—she may have negotiating power with regard to what job she performs at what compensation for what firm, but she does not have negotiating power on the fundamental issue of participating in the market economy on its terms. She must participate to gain access to her fundamental needs—she is dependent (consider also Robert Anton Wilson's notion of money in civilization as "bio-surival tickets").

Compare this to the fundamentally similar situation of family in Lahore, Pakistan, or a farmer in rural Colombia. While their superficial existence and set of material possessions may be strikingly different, they share this common dependency. The Colombian farmer is dependent on a seed company and on revenue from his harvest to fuel his tractor, heat his home, and buy the 90% of his family's diet that he does not grow. The family in Lahore is dependent on the sales from their clothing store to purchase food—they cannot grow it themselves as they live in an apartment in a dense urban environment. They are dependent on participation in hierarchy—they cannot participate on their own terms and select for a stable and leisurely life. The market, as a result of competition between entities at all levels, functions to minimize input costs—if corn can be grown more cheaply in America and shipped to Colombia than it can be grown in Colombia, by a sufficient margin, then that will eventually happen. This requires the Colombian farmer to compete to make his corn as cheap as possible—i.e. to work as long and as hard to maximize his harvest. While if he were participating on his own terms, he may only wish to work 20 hours per week, he may have to work 50, 60, or more hours at hard labor to make enough money off competitively priced corn to be able meet the basic needs of his family in return. He is in competition with his neighbors and competing entities around the world to minimize the input cost of his own efforts—a poor proposition, and one that is forced upon him because he participates on the market’s terms, all a result of his dependency on the market to meet his basic needs. The situation of the family of shopkeepers in Pakistan or the Suburban knowledge-worker in America is fundamentally the same, even if it may vary on the surface.

The Blurring of Needs and Wants

Why not just drop out? It isn’t that tough to survive as a hermit, gather acorns, grow potatoes on a small plot of forest, or some other means of removing oneself from this dependency on the market. To begin with, “dropping out” and becoming self-sufficient is not quite as easy as it sounds, and just as importantly, it would become nearly impossible if any significant portion of the population chose that route. But more fundamentally, humans don’t want to drop out of participation in the market because they desire the enhanced consumption that is available—or at least exists in some far-off-promised land called “America” (fantasy even in the mind of most "Americans")—only through such participation. It may be possible to eat worms and acorns and sleep in the bushes, but this would be even more unacceptable than schlepping to work 40+ hours a week. Most people cannot envision, let alone implement, a system that maintains an acceptable “standard of living” without participation in the system, and all but the very lucky or brave few can’t figure out how to participate in that system without being dependent on it.

There is certainly a blurring of “needs” and “wants” in this dependency. Humans don’t “need” very much to remain alive, but a certain amount of discretionary consumption tends to increase the effectiveness of the human machine. From the perspective of the market, this is desirable, but is also an input cost that must be minimized. This is the fundamental problem of participating in the market, the economy, the “system” on its terms: the individual becomes nothing more than an input cost to be minimized in the competition between entities at a higher organizational level. John Robb recently explored this exact issue, but from the perspective of the local community--the implications are quite similar.

In an era of globalization, increased communications connectivity, and (despite the rising costs of energy) an ever increasing global trade network, this marginalization is accelerating at breakneck speed. Is your job something that can be done online from India? How about in person by an illegal immigrant? Because there are people with doctorates willing to work for ¼ what you make if you’re in a knowledge field, and people with high tolerance for mind-numbing, back-breaking labor willing to work hard for $5/hour or less right next door (or for $2/day overseas). If this doesn’t apply to you, you’re one of the lucky few (and, if I might add, you should be working to get yourself to into just such a position). Maybe they don’t know how to outsource your function yet, but trust me, someone is working on it. Participation in the market on its terms means that the market is trying to find a way to make your function cheaper.

This dependency on participation in the hierarchal system fuels the growth of hierarchy. Even if there is a severe depression or collapse, hierarchy will survive the demand destruction because it is necessary to produce and redistribute necessities to people who don’t or can’t produce them themselves. It may be smaller or less complex, but as long as people depend on participation in an outside system—whether that is a local strong man or an international commodities exchange—to gain access to basic necessities, the organization of that system will be hierarchal. And, as a hierarchy, that system will compete with other hierarchies to gain surplus, to grow, and to minimize the cost of human input.

Dependency on a Security Provider

One of the most significant areas in which people are dependent on hierarchal systems is to provide security. This seems to be especially true in times of volatility and change. While it may be possible to set up a fairly self-sufficient farm or commune and provide for one’s basic needs, this sufficiency must still be defended. If everyone doesn’t have access to the necessities that you produce for yourself, then there is potential for conflict. This could range from people willing to use violence to access to your food or water supply to governments or local strong-men expecting your participation in their tax scheme or ideological struggle. Ultimately, dependence on hierarchy is dependence on the blanket of security it provides, no matter how coercive or disagreeable it may be, and even if this security takes the form of “participation” in exchange for protection from the security provider itself.

Why this is Important

Virtually everyone is dependent on participation in hierarchal systems to meet their basic needs, of one type or another. This dependency forces participation, and drives the perpetual growth—and therefore the ultimate unsustainability—of hierarchy. If growth is the problem, then it is necessary to identify the root cause of that problem so that we may treat the problem itself, and not merely a set of symptoms. In our analysis, we have seen in Part 1 that hierarchies must grow, and now in this installment that human dependency is what sustains these hierarchies. Dependency, then, is the root cause of the problem of growth. In the next installment, we will develop a theory to remove dependency—and therefore to eliminate the growth imperative—while simultaneously maintaining, or improving, standard of living.

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Hierarchy must grow, and is therefore unsustainable

This first essay in a five-part series, The Problem of Growth, looks at hierarchal human systems and explains why their structures fundamentally demand continuous growth. The second installment will investigate what causes and sustains hierarchy. The third, fourth, and fifth installments will formulate an alternative to hierarchy that addresses its cause, not merely its symptoms, along with proposals to apply this alternative at both the personal and societal levels.

Why must hierarchy continually grow and intensify? Within the context of hierarchy in human civilization, there seem to be three separate categories of forces that force growth. I will address them in the order (roughly) that they arose in the development of human civilization:

Human Psychology Drives Growth

Humans fear uncertainty, and this uncertainty drives growth. Human population growth is partially a result of the desire to ensure enough children survive to care for aging parents. Fear also drives humans to accept trade-offs in return for security.

One of the seeds of hierarchy is the desire to join a redistribution network to help people through bad times—crop failures, drought, etc. Chaco Canyon, in New Mexico, is a prime anthropological example of this effect. Most anthropologists agree that the Chaco Canyon dwellings served as a hub for a food redistribution system among peripheral settlements. These peripheral settlements—mostly maize and bean growing villages—would cede surplus food to Chaco. Drought periodically ravaged either the region North or South of Chaco, but rarely both simultaneously. The central site would collect and store surplus, and, when necessary, distribute this to peripheral settlements experiencing crop failures as a result of drought. The result of this system was that the populations in peripheral settlements were able to grow beyond what their small, runoff-irrigated fields would reliably sustain. The periodic droughts no longer checked population due to membership in the redistributive system. The peripheral settlements paid a steep price for this security—the majority of the surplus wasn’t redistributed, but rather supported an aristocratic priest class in Chaco Canyon—but human fear and desire for security made this trade-off possible.

Still today, our fear of uncertainty and desire for stability and security create an imperative for growth. This is equally true of Indian peasants having seven children to ensure their retirement care as it is of rich Western European nations offering incentives for couples to have children in order to maintain their Ponzi-scheme retirements systems. Fear also extends to feelings of family or racial identity, as people all over the world fear being out-bred by rival or neighboring families, tribes, or ethnic groups. This phenomenon is equally present in tribal societies of Africa, where rival ethnic groups understand the need to compete on the level of population, as it is in America, where there is an undercurrent of fear among white Americans that population growth rates are higher among Hispanics Americans.

The Structure of Human Society Selects for Growth

The psychological impetus toward growth results in what I consider the greatest growth-creating mechanism in human history: the peer-polity system. This phenomenon is scale free and remains as true today as it did when hunter-gather tribes first transitioned to agricultural “big-man” groups. Anthropologically, when big-men groups are often considered the first step toward hierarchal organization. When one farmer was able to grow more than his neighbors, he would have surplus to distribute, and these gifts created social obligations. Farmers would compete to grow the greatest surplus, because this surplus equated to social standing, wives, and power. Human leisure time, quite abundant in most ethnological accountings of remnant hunter-gatherer societies, was lost in favor of laboring to produce greater surplus. The result of larger surpluses was that there was more food to support a greater population, and the labors of this greater population would, in turn, produce more surplus. The fact that surplus production equates to power, across all scales, is the single greatest driver of growth in hierarchy.

In a peer-polity system, where many separate groups interact, it was not possible to opt-out of the competition to create more surplus. Any group that did not create surplus—and therefore grow—would be out-competed by groups that did. Surplus equated to population, ability to occupy and use land, and military might. Larger, stronger groups would seize the land, population, and resources of groups that failed in the unending competition for surplus. Within the peer-polity system, there is a form of natural selection in favor of those groups that produce surplus and grow most effectively. This process selects for growth—more specifically, it selects for the institutionalization of growth. The result is the growth imperative.

The Development of Modern Economics & Finance Requires Growth

This civilizational selection for growth manifests in many ways, but most recently it resulted in the rise of the modern financial system. As political entities became more conscious of this growth imperative, and their competition with other entities, they began to consciously build institutions to enhance their ability to grow. The earliest, and least intentional example is that of economic specialization and centralization. Since before the articulation of these principles by Adam Smith, it was understood that specialization was more efficient—when measured in terms of growth—than artesian craftsmanship, and that centralized production that leveraged economy of place better facilitated growth than did distributed production. It was not enough merely to specialize “a little,” because the yardstick was not growth per se, but growth in comparison to the growth of competitors. It was necessary to specialize and centralize ever more than competing polities in order to survive. As with previous systems of growth, the agricultural and industrial revolutions were self-reinforcing as nations competed in terms of the size of the infantry armies they could field, the amount of steel for battleships and cannon they could produce, etc. It wasn’t possible to reverse course—while it may have been possible for the land area of England, for example, to support its population via either centralized or decentralized agriculture, only centralized agriculture freed a large enough portion of the population to manufacture export goods, military materiel, and to serve in the armed forces.

Similarly, the expansion of credit accelerated the rate of growth—it was no longer necessary to save first buy later when first home loans, then car loans, then consumer credit cards became ever more prevalent, all accelerating at ever-faster rates thanks to the wizardry of complex credit derivatives. This was again a self-supporting cycle: while it is theoretically possible to revert from a buy-now-pay-later system to a save-then-buy system, the transition period would require a significant period of vastly reduced spending—something that would crush today’s highly leveraged economies. Not only is it necessary to maintain our current credit structure, but it is necessary to continually expand our ability to consume now and pay later—just as in the peer polity conflicts between stone-age tribes, credit providers race to provide more consumption for less buck in an effort to compete for market share and to create shareholder return. Corporate entities, while existing at least as early as Renaissance Venice, are yet another example of structural bias toward growth: corporate finance is based on attracting investment by promising greater return for shareholder risk than competing corporations, resulting in a structural drive toward the singular goal of growth. And modern systems of quarterly reporting and 24-hour news cycles only exacerbate the already short-term risk horizons of such enterprises.

Why This is Important

This has been a whirlwind tour of the structural bias in hierarchy toward growth, but it has also, by necessity, been a superficial analysis. Books, entire libraries, could be filled with the analysis of this topic. But despite the scope of this topic, it is remarkable that such a simple concept underlies the necessity of growth: within hierarchy, surplus production equates to power, requiring competing entities across all scales to produce ever more surplus—to grow—in order to compete, survive, and prosper. This has, quite literally, Earth shaking ramifications.

We live on a finite planet, and it seems likely that we are nearing the limits of the Earth’s ability to support ongoing growth. Even if this limit is still decades or centuries away, there is serious moral hazard in the continuation of growth on a finite planet as it serves merely to push that problem on to our children or grandchildren. Growth cannot continue infinitely on a finite planet. This must seem obvious to many people, but I emphasize the point because we tend to overlook or ignore its significance: the basis of our civilization is fundamentally unsustainable. Our civilization seems to have a knack for pushing the envelope, for finding stop-gap measures to push growth beyond a sustainable level. This is also problematic because the further we are able to inflate this bubble beyond a level that is sustainable indefinitely, the farther we must ultimately fall to return to a sustainable world. This is Civilization’s sunk cost: there is serious doubt that our planet can sustain 6+ billion people over the long term, but by drawing a line in the sand, that “a solution that results in the death of millions or billions to return to a sustainable level” is fundamentally impermissible, we merely increase the number that must ultimately die off. Furthermore, while it is theoretically possible to reduce population, as well as other measures of impact on our planet, in a gradual and non-dramatic way (e.g. no die off), the window of opportunity to choose that route is closing. We don’t know how fast—but that uncertainty makes this a far more difficult risk management problem (and challenge to political will) than knowing that we have precisely 10, 100, or 1000 years.

This is our ultimate challenge: solve the problem of growth or face the consequences. Growth isn't a problem that can be solved through a new technology--all that does is postpone the inevitable reckoning with the limits of a finite world. Fusion, biofuels, super-efficient solar panels, genetic engineering, nano-tech--these cannot, by definition, solve the problem. Growth is not merely a population problem, and no perfect birth control scheme can fix it, because peer polities will only succeed in reducing population (without being eliminated by those that outbreed them) if they can continue to compete by growing overall power to consumer, produce, and control. All these "solutions" can do is delay and exacerbate the Problem of Growth. Growth isn't a possible problem--it's a guaranteed crisis, we just don't know the exact time-frame.

Is there a solution to the Problem of Growth? Can global governance lead to an agreement to abate or otherwise manage growth effectively? It's theoretically possible, but I see it about as likely as solving war by getting everyone to agree to not fight. Plus, as the constitutional validity and effective power of the Nation-State declines, even if Nation-States manage to all agree to abate growth, they will fail because they are engaged in a very real peer-polity competition with non-state groups that will only use this competitive weakness as a means to establish a more dominant position--and continue growth. Others would argue that collapse is a solution (a topic I have explored in the past), but I now define that more as a resolution. Collapse does nothing to address the causes of Growth, and only results in a set-back for the growth-system. Exhaustion of energy reserves or environmental capacity could hobble the ability of civilization to grow for long periods of time--perhaps even on a geological time scale--but we have no way of knowing for sure that a post-crash civilization will not be just as ragingly growth-oriented as today's civilization, replete with the same or greater negative effects on the environment and the human spirit. Similarly, collapse that leads to extinction is a resolution, not a solution, when viewed from a human perspective.

A solution, at least as I define it, must allow humans to control the negative effects of growth on our environment and our ability to fulfill our ontogeny. The remaining essays in this series will attempt to identify the root cause of the problem of growth, and to propose concrete and implementable solutions that satisfy that definition.

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Monday, February 04, 2008

The Tata Nano Strikes Back--Does Jevons' Paradox Apply to Productivity, Too?

Can improvements in energy efficiency “save” modern civilization as we face declines in world oil production? While the efficiency revolution may let us drive on half the gas, the productivity revolution may make it affordable to twice as many--or more...

One argument against the efficacy of improving energy efficiency is called Jevons’ Paradox. This suggests that, when we improve our energy efficiency, we also reduce our demand for energy from that same use. That decreased demand in relation to supply makes energy cheaper, which in turn makes us use more of it. It has been suggested that this “rebound effect” only accounts for 5-20% of efficiency gains, but I have written previously about the potential for a “shadow” rebound effect that potentially accounts for nearly the entire efficiency gain.


The Tata Nano: While the efficiency revolution may let us drive on half the gas, the productivity revolution may make it affordable to twice as many--or more.

Often, I find it difficult to apply the very theoretical Jevons’ Paradox to pragmatic thinking about our energy future. The recent launch of the Tata Nano, however, stands as an example of Jevons’ Paradox in action. Possibly of much greater importance, however, are two related issues: the feedback effect between increased economic productivity and increasing energy consumption, and the aspirations of an emerging global middle class.

On January 10th, Tata Motors introduced its new, $2500 “Nano.” The launch was well covered on The Oil Drum and many other sites: roughly 50 miles per gallon, four doors, and one windshield wiper. And the potential for the Nano to bring millions of new drivers to a world already trying to conserve energy and reduce carbon emissions was covered as well. And if you dig deep enough, there was even one blogger who raised the nexus between Jevons’ Paradox and the Nano. What I hope to do is to raise that issue here, and to expand the analysis to cover what I consider to be the even more pressing nexus between the Nano, productivity improvement, and world oil consumption.

But I’ve heard that today’s economy is far more productive per barrel of oil consumed than our economy was in the past—won’t a continuation of this trend decrease demand for energy?

The Tata Nano isn’t the world’s most fuel efficient car, and therefore it doesn’t suddenly brings the automobile within reach of potentially billions of new drivers purely because of fuel efficiency. Rather, the Nano is revolutionary because it is representative of another trend in the modern economy—our ability to produce more for the same amount of energy consumed, and it’s broader corollary, our ability to produce most everything more efficiently and cheaply. If you track economic statistics with much interest, you have probably noticed that the statistics covering “productivity” show a virtually permanent increase over the past few decades. The Nano is a prime example of exactly that trend—in real dollars (and accounting for subsidies), it is probably the least expensive four-door car every built by a considerable margin. Some of that comes from economy of scale, some from the ability to leverage processes and materials developed elsewhere, and some is simply the result of designing with precisely that goal in mind. But the result is the same: a car for less money means a car that more people can afford to buy. To the extent that we are dealing with energy-consuming products, greater efficiency of production seems effect energy consumption via a process similar to that described by Jeavons for energy efficiency. The more people who can afford to consume oil in their own car, the more that will. The larger issue is that increasing productivity—of exactly the type that led to the Nano—is a critical requirement for the growth that drives our economy. Economic growth id driven by three things: increasing population, increasing energy availability, and increasing productivity. It has long been assumed, here and elsewhere, that a focus on productivity is the only realistic way to maintain economic growth if we are to control population and deal with plateauing or declining energy supplies. Does the Nano throw a wrench in that analysis? Even if this unanticipated consequence of increasing productivity only serves to negate our gains in energy efficiency, this is enough to cast serious doubt in my mind over our ability to maintain economic growth going forward.

The Tata Nano is also emblematic of another trend—the rapid emergence of a massive, global middle-class. This middle class may not have the same standard of living or net worth of the “middle class” in the West, but it is significant none-the-less. Today, tens or even hundreds of millions of Chinese, Indians, South East Asians, and Latin Americans can comfortably and confidently provide for the basic necessities for themselves and their families with money left over. They’re spending—and (yes, America) saving—this surplus toward aspirational goals, one of which is to own a car. Car culture in China is thriving, and with the launch of the Nano it seems that industrialists are betting on it thriving in India as well. Can the world, its oil supply and environment, accommodate another 100 million cars? What about another two billion cars? The danger of an economy that seems adept at squeezing ever more productivity out of each hour of labor and barrel of oil is that this same trend that could help the West soften the impact of Peak Oil seems poised to exacerbate the global energy supply crunch by making energy consuming cars affordable to an ever greater portion of the world’s population. This development seems to carry with it the significant moral hazard (already a hot debate topic within the world of carbon emissions) in the possible “solution” of denying these efficiency gains, or their products, to the world’s poor. Where is the cut-off? Do we cap the “middle class” at one billion? Two billion? The possibility and morality of such a move are highly suspect. We may be stuck between the rock of 2+ billion new middle class consumers over the next few decades and the possibly much harder class and geopolitical situation of those 2+ billion aspirants realizing they will never become “middle class” because of the decisions and prior consumption of the 1 billion in the “West.”

What next, will these people want air conditioning, too?

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