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Our Solution Is Our Problem and Its Name Is Growth

Energy

Richard Heinberg

Part 2 of 3 of an update to Richard Heinberg's 2011 book The End of Growth: Adapting to our New Economic Reality

 

The U.S. blues

Surely there’s cheerier news to be gleaned from the world’s biggest economy, that of the U.S. This nation is ostensibly in recovery, though (as discussed in chapter 2 of The End of Growth) most if not all post-2008 GDP growth has been attributable to Treasury and Federal Reserve actions—borrowing, spending and bailouts.

The real current status of the American economy is a matter of controversy. There are several relevant metrics—including GDP, unemployment, house prices, durable goods orders, government deficits, trade deficits, new debt, personal income and personal spending—and some numbers look better than others. Which ones are more important? You can describe the glass as half-full or half-empty, depending on your preferences and how you cherry-pick the data. Still, just about everyone agrees that the statistics show persisting weakness. Job growth and GDP growth are both slowing. And the ratio of U.S. government spending to government income rose to 1.46-to-1 in calendar year 2011. Immediately on the horizon is a gradual curtailment of extended unemployment benefits for the millions who lost their jobs after the 2008 meltdown: this will decrease the buying power of consumers just as the economy struggles to gain altitude.

But it’s not so much the monthly numbers as the deep, structural trends that are the greatest cause for concern. The unsustainable bubble of household debt built up over the last 30 years still has a long way to go in order to deflate back to realistic levels, while tranches of toxic assets still lurk in the asset portfolios of major banks. And Wall Street appears to have learned nothing from the 2008 crisis, as shown by JPMorgan’s recent $2 billion trading loss. If European sovereign defaults occur on a large scale, derivatives contracts will be triggered—contracts written (in most cases) with Wall Street investment banks, which will quickly be sucked into the whirlpool.

Of equal concern is the highly dysfunctional U.S. political system, which now seems incapable of solving even the most trivial of problems, and is apparently intent on exacerbating just about every crisis the nation faces. Substantive policy appears to emerge not from the public deliberations of elected leaders, but from unaccountable government agencies and private interest groups with highly disparate agendas. One of the two U.S. political parties has evidently taken leave of reality altogether, preferring to exist in its own hermetically sealed ideasphere in which climate change is a hoax and all economic problems can be solved by cutting spending and taxes, and in which everyone who disagrees with that agenda is by definition a Communist-terrorist-Muslim. The other party, which spends most of its time shoring up the allegiance of its traditional constituencies, takes mostly center-right positions on issues, is ineffectual, and has no realistic strategy for coping with the economic unraveling. It’s probably safe to say that most dinner conversations these days among knowledgeable journalists, social scientists and retired public figures eventually devolve into expressions of the opinion that the U.S. is showing all the signs of an empire in steep decline. Heads nod wearily until someone changes the subject.

Larimer, CO food bankThere’s been no more relevant and disturbing symptom of this national political incapacity than last year’s showdown on the debt ceiling, which Republican House Speaker John Boehner has voiced intentions of restaging this year. In 2011, the crisis was defused only with a joint agreement to a series of mandatory spending cuts that are scheduled to kick in soon after this year’s presidential election—unless nearly inconceivable budget reforms are achieved. Erskine Bowles, co-chairman of President Obama’s budget-deficit commission, recently described the series of “cliffs” the country faces at the end of 2012, when the George W. Bush tax cuts expire and the mandatory cuts begin. “If you add all those up,” said Bowles, “it’s probably $7 trillion worth of economic events that are going to occur in December. And there’s been little to no planning for that.” The Congressional Budget Office is now warning that the economy will shrink by 1.3 percent in the first half of next year if these measures go into effect.

It’s likely that last-minute negotiations will keep the country from going over the cliff solely as a result of the mandatory spending cuts. But America appears to be careening from crisis to crisis, and the stopgaps are losing efficacy.

By now skeptical readers may have concluded that we are cherry-picking the evidence to confirm our hypothesis that global growth is ending. An argument against that hypothesis would surely start with data from China, whose economy has continued expanding at about 9 percent per year in recent years even in the face of deepening worries elsewhere.

But China is slowing too. And its problems may end up being just as deep as those in Greece or the U.S. Beijing has built the world’s preeminent export economy—and now some of its biggest foreign buyers are losing consumption capacity. Loaning even more money to the U.S. won’t help much.

Shipbuilding is down. Government investment in railways is down. Electricity consumption is down. Housing sales are down. The amount of new loans is falling. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard writes in the Telegraph: “All key indicators of China’s money supply are flashing warning signs. The broader measures have slumped to stagnation levels not seen since the late 1990s. Narrow M1 data for April is the weakest since modern records began. Real M1 deposits—a leading indicator of economic growth six months or so ahead—have contracted since November. They are shrinking faster than at any time during the 2008-2009 crisis, and faster than in Spain right now ... If China were a normal country, it would be hurtling into a brick wall. A ‘hard-landing’ later this year would already be baked into the pie.”

Of course, China is not a “normal” country—the government can restructure the economy at will. But does that mean China can escape the economic laws that apply everywhere else? Perhaps to a certain extent or temporarily, but not entirely.

The latest news: Chinese officials have said that they have no intention of repeating the massive stimulus spending of 2008-2009 in order to stoke more economic growth. Prepare for that hard landing.

India, Russia, Brazil, South Africa—all are seeing slowing rates of growth. India’s industrial output fell in March (according to the New York Times, “the rupee is falling; investment is down; inflation is rising; and deficits are eating away at government coffers”). Brazil’s car sales are down 15 percent on an annual basis and industrial production is contracting.

The overall picture is certainly not brightened much by Japan, the world’s third-largest economy. The country’s weak banking system, softening exports and lack of domestic energy resources are challenge enough. But the lingering Fukushima nuclear nightmare is surely Japan’s the biggest worry. The spent-fuel pool at reactor 4 is in a precarious state, such that a moderate quake could release far more radioactive cesium than Chernobyl did. Meanwhile, Japanese scientists acknowledge a greater than 90 percent probability that an earthquake of at least 7.0 magnitude will occur in the next three years somewhere near Fukushima-Daiichi. Japan and Tokyo Electric Power Company do not have adequate nuclear technology and experience either to defuse the situation in time (TEPCO says the soonest it can begin emptying the spent-fuel pool is late 2013), or to handle a disaster of the proportions that are at least conceivable, if not likely. The fate of the nation—and the health of millions in the Northern Hemisphere—may hang upon the fortuitous absence of significant aftershocks.

Our solution is our problem

We have not surveyed all the world’s nations. Some others are doing quite well, thank you (Qatar had a 2011 growth rate of 18.7 percent, Ghana 13.5 percent, Mongolia 11.5 percent). But if Europe, the U.S. and China falter, global GDP cannot hope to grow. The European economy alone represents nearly one-third of world GDP.

And so the hypothesis stands: Maximum world economic output is nigh. If that is truly the case, the most reasonable forecast would be for a significant decline soon, as debts default and as investors pull back. We may be in for a series of subsequent booms and busts (the booms never managing to bring us back to current output levels, the busts plunging us further into economic turmoil). Mere stagnation would be a benign outcome, one that would require considerable planning and effort to achieve, but even then resource limits (which we’ll get to in Part 3) would ensure contraction sooner or later.

Our solution is our problem and its name is growth. We can’t live with it because, as Herman Daly points out, most growth is now uneconomic—we’re actually worse off because of it. More growth just means more debt, more pollution, more loss of biodiversity and a further destabilization of the climate. And yet we can’t live without it: absent growth, there will be insufficient tax revenues and jobs, and existing debt levels will prove unsustainable in the starkest sense of that term.

The purely financial or monetary aspects of our dilemma will probably continue to take center stage in the public discussion. National treasury officials and central bankers will strive to stabilize the system, and may be able to do so for a while—probably a matter of weeks or months rather than years. They will need a long-term strategy, though, because eventually stimulus and bailout Band-Aids will lose adhesion. Yet there is little evidence of such a strategy.

Even more, they will need a sense of ecological and historic context, so that they understand that the current growth crisis is not just a momentary speed bump on an inevitably soaring ramp of progress, but an irreversible phase change for the economy and for civilization itself.

Visit EcoWatch's BIODIVERSITY and ENERGY pages for more related news on these topics.

 

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By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach

The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

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We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.


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The climate panel—co-chaired by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and former Secretary of State John Kerry—recommended that the Democratic Party commit to "eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035," massively expanding investments in clean energy sources, and "achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for all new buildings by 2030."

In a series of tweets Wednesday night, Ocasio-Cortez—the lead sponsor of the House Green New Deal resolution—noted that the Climate Task Force "shaved 15 years off Biden's previous target for 100% clean energy."

"Of course, like in any collaborative effort, there are areas of negotiation and compromise," said the New York Democrat. "But I do believe that the Climate Task Force effort meaningfully and substantively improved Biden's positions."

 

The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.

Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.

"It has always been a crisis that tens of millions of Americans have no or inadequate health insurance—but in a pandemic, it's potentially catastrophic for public health," the task force wrote.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and Sanders-appointed member of the Healthcare Task Force, said that despite major disagreements, the panel "came to recommendations that will yield one of the most progressive Democratic campaign platforms in history—though we have further yet to go."

 

Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."

Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."

"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.