Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Dec 15 16:11:06 MST 2002

Even though you will find sharp criticisms of Brian Czech's "Shoveling Fuel
for A Runaway Train" in this review, I do want to state at the outset that
this book should be required reading for anybody concerned about the
environmental crisis. I also want to thank Brian for sending me a review
copy. As I always do in such instances, I take the trouble to pull my
thoughts together and publish them on the Internet, the People's Medium.

Although Czech is a trained economist with a PhD from the University of
Arizona, his background is not that of a typical academic one and rather
evokes Gary Snyder and other beat generation members who took jobs in the
wilderness in order to rediscover the kind of experience found in Thoreau's
"Walden Pond". In a series of jobs as firefighter, logger, commercial
fisherman and wildlife conservation expert, Czech gained a first-hand
exposure to the sorts of problems that would impel him to try understand
what lied at their root.

In a stint with the National Marine Fisheries Service on the Bering Sea, he
witnessed the kind of irrational behavior that industrial fishing
encourages, as well as getting close--too close perhaps--to nature:

"From Wyoming, I went to work for the National Marine Fisheries Service on
the Bering Sea. I had never been at sea, and wouldn't you knowthe worst
storm of the winter hit during my first three days out. I was on a
fifty-seven-meter Japanese stern trawler, and for three days it went 'BAM .
.. BAM ... BAM' in ten-second intervals as thirty-foot waves crashed
against the hull and swept over the decks. Periodically there was a 'BAM .
. . BAM . . . BA-BoiyoiyoiyoiyaaAAAAng' as the ship got way out of rhythm
and got quartersided by a giant concave wall of water. No one could eat or
sleep because of the constant, violent movement and booming noise, and even
the Japanese who had spent years at sea were vomiting liberally. Worse yet,
no one else spoke English, leaving only my imagination to interpret the
structural impact of those unsettling hull reverberations.

"But then the seas settled, we ate like hell, and fishing commenced. I'll
never forget that first catch, the largest of the whole two-month stint. I
logged it in at ninety-nine metric tons. We're talking hundreds of
thousands of fish, almost all of which were pollock. I started to wonder
how we could stay out very long, because surely the holds couldn't store
many catches like this. Then I saw how it worked. Male fish were summarily
tossed to the floor, sloshed by the ship's movements into the bilge pumps
and back out to sea as a sort of ichthyological hamburger. Females were
treated the same, except that their egg sacs were taken prior to tossing.
We had hit the peak of spawning, and while it lasted, supply and demand
called for this type of wanton waste. This was my firsthand introduction to
the 'invisible hand' of the free market. I didn't think of it in those
terms yet. I only termed it a hell of a lot of waste and damn sure wrong.
But out of sight, out of mind, at least until days of retrospection."

Gradually, Czech began to reflect on the irrationality of such shortsighted
exploitation of nature that was being conducted under the rubric of
"economic growth". When Presidential candidate Jack Kemp's stated during a
debate on October 9, 1996 that "We should double the rate of growth, and we
should *double* the size of the American economy," he found those words to
be a challenge to everything wrong that he saw firsthand in the wilderness
and moreover a symptom of a basic flaw in the way mainstream economics
operates. He put it this way:

"At face value, the argument that economic growth is good is hard to deny.
After all, the economic growth of a nation is taken to mean that its
citizens will be better fed, dressed, housed, educated, transported, and
entertained. More MacDonald's and Antoine's, more Fords and Fiats, more
jeep trails and ship sails. For rich and for poor, more quantity of more
things. Twice as much, if we elect Jack Kemp. So economic growth leads to a
better life, at least a better material life. This argument will be left
intact for the time being. I mention it here only to explain the esteemed
status of economic growth in the American psyche."

Although the daily newspapers are filled with alarming reports on global
warming, depleted fish stocks, water shortages, inability to cope with
industrial or human waste, toxic byproducts of manufacturing, mining or
drilling, etc., the mainstream economists continue to either deny the
problems exist or assume that a fix is possible under the current system.

 From the neoclassical economists, you get a kind of intellectual
self-deception that is based on the notion that 'substitutability' can
resolve the problem of resource depletion (even if it does not address the
problem of toxic wastes, global warming, etc.)

Under the concept of substitutability, factors of economic production
(land, labor and capital) can be substituted among themselves. When a
resource like coal becomes scarce, another such as oil becomes a
substitute. And when oil becomes scarce, you can turn to gas, nuclear,
hydro and whatever else can be turned up. Unfortunately, the doctrine of
substitutability cannot come up with something as basic as water. Once the
Ogallala aquifer is dried up, it can't be replaced.

In addition, mainstream economists harp on 'efficiency' in their defense of
the status quo of doing things. Efficiency is very much associated with a
value-free understanding of economics within social science as a whole. By
focusing on the optimal combination of inputs, the sole criterion for
success is output per unit of input used, even if it is timber from the
Amazon rainforest wasted on lawn furniture. Success is measured on the
basis of how many loggers, chainsaws and bulldozers it takes to produce x
number of trees ready for the sawmill.

Using the analogy of a train ticket, Czech questions this approach by
posing two concerns that a passenger might have. He or she might ask where
the train was going, and how fast the train would take you to your
destination. Unless the direction of the train is established, it matters
little how fast it will take you to get there. If the train is going in the
wrong direction, or worse if it is a *runaway* train, we might prefer
getting on board an older, less efficient train going in the right direction.

In chapter four, Czech takes apart the methodology and data used by the
late Julian Simon, who minimized the environmental crisis while proposing
the free market system as the only sensible solution for those problems
that did exist. Best known for a 1980 bet with Paul Erlich over the future
prices of raw materials ten years later, Simon ended up as winner. After
drawing the conclusion from this that technology and willpower could
overcome all obstacles, Simon went on to write numerous books that were
meant to serve as a cudgel against the greens, especially any who repeated
what appeared to be Malthusian warnings about ecological limits.

In his rush to make his case, Simon was not above tampering with the facts.
For example, he asserted that there is no limit to the amount of seafood
that can be caught and brought to the table, when reports abound in the
daily press about the disappearance of cod, salmon and tuna. Rhapsodic
about the possibilities of nuclear power, he would automatically discount
any of the kinds of worries brought on by Chernobyl or Three Mile Island.
At one point, he said, "There is practically zero chance of a nuclear-plant
catastrophe that would cost the lives of tends of thousands of lives."
Among the other threats that were "disproved", Simon included DDT, PCBs,
malathion, Agent Orange, asbestos and the Love Canal contamination.

As an alternative to the substitutability/efficiency paradigm of the
neoclassicals and ideologues like Julian Simon, Czech urges us to adopt an
economics that has been synthesized with ecology. In defending this
approach, he calls upon the research of the late Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen,
an economics professor at Vanderbilt University with whose work I had not
been familiar.

In 1993 Georgescu-Roegen delivered a series of lectures that argued that
thermodynamics is really a "physics of economic value". If the first law of
thermodynamics posits that matter can be neither created nor destroyed,
then from the economics standpoint, an upper boundary to goods production,
enforced by the amount of matter on Earth, is implied. Proceeding to the
second law of thermodynamics, which deals with entropy and closed systems,
Georgescu-Roegen observed that one could only produce goods by depleting
energy. Consequently, an increase in utility in one sector is accompanied
by a decrease elsewhere. Lesser utility is a term that certainly can
describe the byproducts of the industrial system, which show up as
pollution or other forms of toxicity. Czech explains what this means in the
following terms:

"An example provided by Georgescu-Roegen is the refining of copper ore, a
relatively disordered substance of little direct utility to man. Through
the refining process, the highly ordered substance of solid copper is
produced. However, the major step in the refining process (smelting)
involves the loss of another highly ordered substance of direct utility
(natural gas or coal). The byproducts of smelting include mining slag and
atmospheric emissions, including greenhouse gases. A great many other
physical chemical exchanges are entailed from the ore body to the of
copper, but basically this sector of economic 'production' is a trade of
ordered goods and energy for copper."

Immediately after his discussion of Georgescu-Roegen, Czech turns to Paul
Erlich, who while coming out on the losing side with Julian Simon is
ostensibly far more reliable in describing the true environmental
situation. Unlike Simon, Erlich believes that society cannot transcend its
roots in nature. As a natural scientist, Erlich (specializing in butterfly
ecology) believes that man and animals are both subject to population
dynamics that involve carrying capacity. In its most simple terms, this is
what anybody who has ever tried to keep tropical fish has run into. A
ten-gallon tank can only contain a certain number of fish. You either have
to expand the size of the tank or reduce the number of fish in order to
sustain a healthy population. To even suggest that this is the case for
human beings as well as fish invites the charge of Malthusianism, as Simon
and his allies are quick to invoke.

But Brian Czech is not afraid that such charges will be leveled against
him. He boldly describes his goal as "steady state" economics, a term
coined by Herman Daly, and indeed promotes this approach on a website aptly
named On the home page is a picture of the bull
sculpture on Lower Broadway that serves as a symbol of Wall Street as well
as the economics of growth model that he rejects. Beneath the picture is
the caption "Bumbling, bloated Wall Street bull, spanning globe ... globe
is full!" Indeed, a full globe or a full fish tank amount to the same thing.

However, without a concrete examination of how different classes in
society, both nationally and on a global scale, participate in the
distribution of an admittedly finite number of products, you do open
yourself up to charges of Malthusian hostility toward the poor.

This issue was posed sharply when the Sierra Club was asked to endorse
restrictions on immigration by a group that included Herman Daly. They
argued that the rapid stabilization of the US population was urgent, both
through lowering fertility rates and through restricting immigration. "The
US will add 125 million people in the next 40 years if current birth and
immigration rates are not changed. The impact of this many Americans on US
and global ecosystems will be severe." The Carrying Capacity Network, upon
whose board Daly sits, sent a newsletter to its members urging them to
"help Sierra Club members demonstrate that immigration is an environmental

The Carrying Capacity website has a section on immigration that conjures up
the hostility of a Birkenstock-wearing resident of Marin County to a
carload of newly-arrived Mexicans:

"As an example, consider the impact of a typical family of seven,
immigrating from a country where their owning a car was highly unlikely.
When they come to America they are likely to acquire cars. For every mile
they drive, they pollute and deplete resources that could have been
relatively unaffected had they continued their prior lifestyle. The act of
border crossing enables them to make lifestyle changes that adversely
affect the environment; by becoming Americans they adopt the consumption
and pollution patterns of the world's most environmentally destructive
lifestyle." (

In the final analysis, we have to come to terms with the reality that the
planet Earth and a tropical fish tank have nothing in common except the
fact that they can both only support a finite number of inhabitants. In a
fish tank, a tetra and a guppy are free to enjoy the same amount of food
and space. On the planet Earth, a Mexican farmer in Puebla and an
investment banker in Marin County do not have an equal share of the
products that are sold on the market. Although Brian Czech is fully
cognizant of these class discrepancies and strongly endorses the insights
found in Thorstein Veblen's "Theory of the Leisure Class," it still
represents something of an unresolved contradiction in his thought when he
can refer to Daly as a "radical" in the economics profession.

Rather than seeing Daly as a challenge to the established economic order, I
find it more useful to see him, Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute,
Paul Erlich and other such "steady state" economists as the dialectical
opposite of Julian Simon, Virginia Postrel and other libertarians and
neoclassicals. By operating on the basis of a runaway train, the capitalist
system tends to squander resources and undercut its own ability to
replicate itself. Within the establishment (Daly was an economist with the
World Bank for six years), voices are articulated that call attention to
these contradictions without providing a cure that can go to the roots.
Such a cure involves abolition of private property and production of goods
on the basis of human need rather than private profit.

And it is the need for profit that governs this system rather than leisure
class consumption habits after all. When Detroit discovered that sports
utility vehicles produced the greatest profit, the dream-making machinery
of Madison Avenue created a need for them. To break the habit of wasteful
consumption, it is necessary first of all to eliminate the need for profit.
For that it requires a mighty worldwide revolutionary movement and no worse
obstacle can be put in its path than for progressives in the most wasteful
and wealthy planet on earth to put barbed wire up at our borders to keep
out those fleeing repression and economic misery.

Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list:

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