Making Sense of Economic Growth

When is a new road a good thing? Road building in Kenya.

Is a new road a good thing that will improve people’s lives, or is it environmental destruction in action? It is difficult to know using current economic measures. Road building in Kenya.

Here’s an abstract to help get us started today—though economic growth could wreck the planet, it is not necessarily going to do so. But it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between “good” growth and “bad” growth, in part because most indexes that we measure economic change with are too blunt. I’m going to suggest some alternatives here, which might bring some clarity to our understanding of economic growth, and which could help us navigate a path toward genuine prosperity.


Making Sense of Economic Growth

It is very common to read arguments about how dangerous economic growth is—how it is destroying the planet, how exponential growth can’t continue, and how it must be stopped. In fact, some environmentalists have long advocated various forms of “de-growth”. And yet, it is very clear that not all economic growth is bad. Growth and economic development will be critically necessary to bring poor nations out of poverty, and there are plenty of other examples of growth that simultaneously help people and help to protect the environment. On the other hand, there are certainly many cases where growth is indeed quite damaging.


Why Current Measures are Inadequate

Unfortunately, it’s often difficult to judge good growth from bad growth, and this is partly because the ways in which we measure growth are somewhat flawed. Since the 1930’s, growth has been most commonly measured as growth in total production of goods and services, in the form of Gross Domestic Product, or GDP. While never intended to be a measure of the overall social progress of a nation, it has been used as a proxy for that virtually since its inception (a good New York Times article about this: “The Rise and Fall of the G.D.P.“). Over the years, plenty of criticism has been directed toward GDP, as much of what it measures as positive growth is actually detrimental to society. Noted thinkers Frijof Capra and Hazel Henderson give a short summary of this argument in a report about qualitative growth

“Social costs, like those of accidents, wars, litigation, and health care, are added as positive contributions to the GDP, as are ‘defensive expenditures’ on mitigating pollution and similar externalities, and [yet] the undifferentiated growth of this crude quantitative index is considered to be the sign of a healthy economy…”

Another flaw of GDP is that it while it mostly ignores social costs, it completely ignores Continue reading

Me on TV

Ha, I’m famous! Ok, not really, but I did do an interview segment for the local community television show. It’s not my preferred form of delivery, I’d much rather write, but I suppose it turned out ok. So if you’re interested, here’s my balding head talking to the camera…

(I suspect this link might not stay linked to the right video—the frame below should be for “Middlebury Five-O, Today’s Guest: Taborri Bruhl”. I’ll try to keep an eye on it to keep it linked correctly.)

In other news, I think I’ve made some serious progress with regard to how we should think about economic growth. That post coming within a week…


Soil Erosion—A Crime Against Humanity?


Water has cut about 2-feet deep, right down the the hardpan.

Water has cut about two feet deep here, right down to the hardpan.

Take a look at these pictures of soil erosion that I took right here this week in relatively-progressive Vermont. I’ll just sprinkle them in liberally here…


Try running a plow over that stone. The more soil washes away, the close all of these stones are to the surface.

Try running a plow over that stone. The more soil that washes away, the thinner the topsoil becomes, and the closer these stones are to the surface.


It’s quite the string of pictures. These farmers plowed last fall, as they do every year. Since then it has rained enough times, and hard enough, to cause this. Tons and tons of fertile soil are GONE. Then, this coming year, I’m guessing these fields will get plowed (or disked) and harrowed again, and the remaining soil will be spread around so that these gullies are filled in, and… then the same erosion will happen again, a year from now. Year after year after year, more topsoil washing away. The loss will probably even accelerate— Continue reading


Wind power...

Wind power: more in store by 2050…

Times have changed. In years past when I gave talks about sustainable living I would spend considerable time, perhaps half of each presentation, trying to convince people that we do indeed have an environmental problem here on our green and blue marble.  Today, though, for better or for worse, most people don’t seem to need convincing. This could be because our problems are worse now, or it could be that there is an increased awareness and acceptance of the idea that we need to quit damaging the planet. Either way, what people could use today is some sort of hope that we can indeed do this thing; that we can surmount these huge challenges facing us. And, as I’ve written before, I’m more optimistic than I used to be. We have the tools and technology that we need; we don’t necessarily need new inventions or grand technological breakthroughs. What we do need, though, is a workable common vision of where we’re going.

So, let’s imagine where we could be by the year 2050, if we put our minds to it—even if no new technologies come along to help us. In no particular order, here are some things that we might see. Some of these will be more difficult than others to achieve; I’ll discuss some of the difficulties at the end.

(Click here to listen to John Lennon’s “Imagine” song—to me at least, it seems to set the appropriate mood.) Continue reading

Even RE Isn’t Free, and Other Thoughts

Beautiful berries---to ship or not to ship?

Beautiful berries—to ship or not to ship?

First, I just wanted to let everyone know that I accidentally hit “publish” instead of “save” on a partially-completed post yesterday, and then had to quickly delete it, but not before the program sent out the “new post” notices. So, if you got a “new post” notice with a bad link in it, that’s why. Sorry,..

Second, some thoughts on the packaging post. Mr. X had a really important observation that deserves mention. He agreed with the underlying ideas about efficient production, and to paraphrase his comments, “It would be better to grow strawberries in California and ship them to Arizona in self-driving vehicles powered by renewable power, and to put solar generation in Arizona and ship the power to California via high-voltage-DC lines…” But he took issue with my statement that the $2 price on the vinegar in the store reflects its entire cost, and he is indeed correct. That $2 price does not take into account all the costs that companies push off onto third-parties, the “negative externalities”. Whether it’s global warming from fossil fuel use, or downstream effects from plastic pollution, or abuses of workers through unfair labor practices, the jug of vinegar has costs that might not be reflected in its price on the shelf. Though, even if those hidden costs doubled the store price of the vinegar, my underlying point would still hold (and he agreed)—efficient production would be the least wasteful and therefore the most sustainable, within reason.

Again, this is another case where we need to focus on actual problems, and in this case the problem would be negative externalities, and the best solution for those is… good government. But, I digress…

A few other thoughts here. With regard to trade, packaging, and shipping—common sense still applies. The only way to get fresh blackberries in January in the US is to buy ones that have been flown up from South America. Despite the richness created in our lives when we can have fresh berries in January, it probably isn’t worth the cost. Even if the plane was somehow powered by renewable power, we need to realize that even renewable power has a cost—dammed rivers, land given over to solar farms, etc. So although using renewable energy is a goal, we need to balance it with the goal of reduced consumption.

The high-carbon way to get the berries...

The high-carbon way to get the berries… A 747 cargo flight in Anchorage, Alaska.

Related, while I think it’s better to choose packaged items over trying to make everything at home, it’s still a perfectly valid goal to strive for reduced packaging. And some home production can indeed make sense. An example in my life— Continue reading

The Packaging and Transportation Part

Moving cargo by sea is remarkably efficient in terms of carbon emissions per ton.

Moving cargo by sea is remarkably efficient in terms of carbon emissions—as low as 10 grams per ton per kilometer.

In my last, I argued that it might be a more sustainable path for people to avoid striving for self-sufficiency, and to embrace trade and efficiency instead. I’m a bit uncomfortable with this conclusion (two posts that led to this are here and here), because the quest for efficiency, when coupled with market forces, can have severe downsides. If efficiency is the only goal, then production often ends up taking a toll on people, animals, or the environment. But despite these problems that need addressed, I’m quite certain that the underlying  premise is a correct one.  This, in turn, leads to yet another logical conclusion—the “packaging and transportation” part of that last discussion.

Just to recap, here’s the train o’ logic so far—trade leads to specialization, which leads to efficiency and productivity, which leads to the group being better off. Efforts toward self-sufficiency run counter to this, and are nearly always inherently less efficient. Since efficiency is, by definition, “not wasting time, effort, or materials”, then it follows that its opposite—inefficiency—is wasteful, and (other things being equal) that the efficient path would be the more sustainable one. To expand on this, let’s look at two other common “sustainable” trends that are perhaps as prevalent as trying to be self-sufficient— Continue reading

Packaging, Transportation, and Doing-It-Yourself

Making apple cider on a small scale. Just one of many, many things you can do "yourself".

Making apple cider on a small scale. Just one of many, many things a person can “do themselves”.

And, drum roll, I find myself having ANOTHER thought about how efficiency and productivity affect our vision of what a more sustainable future might look like. Here’s the deal—there seems to be a very strong tendency, among those who endeavor to envision how future sustainable cultures and societies might function, to admire and strive for self-sufficiency, and to push for doing more things ourselves. In fact, it seems to be a near-universal trend in the world of “sustainable” ideas. It isn’t a totally bad inclination; “doing-it-yourself” often results in much more varied and interesting day-to-day work, more well-roundedness in terms of skills and knowledge, and more resilience in the face of adverse economic times. BUT, there is a huge downside—self-sufficiency and do-it-yourself activities run counter to some of those fundamental economic laws I keep talking about, namely that all-important idea that I’ve discussed before, that trade leads to specialization, which leads to efficiency, which leads to productivity, which leads to the group being better off. And when you violate those laws often enough, you can easily end up with the opposite, where things are going downhill.

So, let me give you some examples of this. When I give it some thought, I realize that there are a lot of things I can do myself. A lot. Just to mention a few, let me see… I can make pasta from scratch, fell timber and mill my own wood flooring, do all the plumbing and electrical in my house, pull and rebuild automotive engines, bake bread, can tomatoes, grow all manner of produce, train my dogs, build a barn, design solar systems, raise chickens and eggs, keep bees and raise honey, make hummus, and who knows what else.

Beekeeping, in the "things I can do" category.

Beekeeping, in the “things I can do” category.

And, if I put my mind to it, there’s even more I’m sure I could learn to do, and/or would like to learn to do—graft fruit trees, make maple syrup, grind mustard seed to make mustard, butcher my own large animals, learn much more about permaculture and agriculture, get fluent in Spanish, sew my own clothes, spin my own thread, design websites, make yogurt, etc., etc., the list goes on. And there’s no end, ever, to how long this particular list might be.

BUT, there’s a problem. Continue reading

Efficient House Design and Construction, Part 2

The Bruhl-house living room. Note the "clothes dryer"--- the rail around the woodstove. An energy-efficient method, but also a source of indoor humidity.

The Bruhl-house living room. The very-tall interior flue (barely visible on left of photo) drafts exceptionally well, and we’re very happy with the overall performance of the woodstove. Note the “clothes dryer”— the rail around the woodstove. An energy-efficient method, but also a source of indoor humidity.

(Note— This is a continuation of a post from last year, “Another Tough Cookie: Efficient House Design and Construction“.)

Ok, a longish and slightly technical post here. But, it might pertain to, say, all those people out there who live in houses. To wit—the “topic-of-the-week” between me and Mr. X seems to have revolved around indoor air quality, and the problems that arise as buildings are made more efficient and air-tight. Particularly, the air-related problems the Bruhl house is having, and what exactly the best design going forward might be to remedy those problems. And all of this was triggered last week when I picked up the latest “Energy-Smart Homes” edition of Fine Homebuilding. It contains quite a few articles about air leaks and building durability, one which includes a photograph of a house in Minnesota with the siding off and the house wrap pulled back, which reveals enormous areas of rot and mold caused by air leaks.

energy smart magazin cover

The Winter 2016 edition of “Energy-Smart Homes”; well-worth the cover price.

To catch you up if you haven’t read the post from last April, our house is fairly tight, but has no dedicated ventilation system. Adding one has been on my “to-do” list for years, but it has become more of a priority as I have come to better understand this topic. We currently have fascia and trim boards in at least three places that are rotting from the back side due to air leaks, and the photo in the magazine really made me wonder how much damage is being done that isn’t visible.

So off I went on a reading-binge. And guess what? No real surprise; it’s complicated. In some cases, really complicated. But for the sake of clarity, let me skip rather quickly to some of my preliminary conclusions, and mention the complications briefly as I go.

Ok, the short version—our house is built with stress-skin panels around a post-and-beam frame, Continue reading

Cause for Optimism

Just one of many recent changes---practical electric vehicles for ordinary people.

Practical electric vehicles for ordinary people—just one of many changes in recent years.

If you haven’t noticed, things are changing out there.

I titled the letter to the editor that I wrote last month “A Call for Perspective“, and in it I argued that we all need to take a wider view on issues such as renewable energy, so that as we go forward we can head in directions that make long-term sense for the planet.  Well, the other week I was working with a student on renewable energy topics, and it occurred to me that we also need to keep things in perspective as we look backwards. When we do, we notice that there has been a tremendous amount of change in the last four or five years, and much of it is positive.

So, without turning this into a huge long post, let me just point out some changes, in no particular order. In the last few years, solar and wind generation have each more than doubled, both in the U.S. and worldwide. Solar prices have dropped by half, (and will likely continue to drop), PV cell efficiencies have gone up, and wind power is now one of the cheapest ways for utilities in many parts of the country to add capacity. Continue reading

Rob Greenfield on Recklessness

"Pounding each other's faces for the sake of entertainment" = reckless?

“Pounding each other’s faces for the sake of entertainment”—a form of recklessness?

You might not be familiar with Rob Greenfield, but he’s a young guy who lives with no money, travels the world on his bike, does as much good as he can for all the people he meets, eats free food from grocery store dumpsters, and writes about it on the internet. I admire the guy, even though I don’t think that we can all live quite like he does. I like his perspective on many things, and this bit that he wrote on “recklessness” really caught my eye. This was in a piece about why he doesn’t have health insurance, and I can’t say that I agree with him, necessarily, on that part. BUT—this part for sure is worth reading. I’ll paste a big chunk of it here; I don’t think he’d mind one bit. (Link to his whole article here).

Some would say I’m being reckless by not having health insurance, but I urge those who think this to assess the blatant recklessness of our society and question whether you are being reckless as well. To me being reckless is eating fast food, even on a weekly basis. To me being reckless is smoking cigarettes. To me being reckless is eating too much meat and too little veggies and fruits. To me being reckless is choosing to spend my days dormant and getting no exercise. To me being reckless is slaving away at a job that results in vast amounts of stress and relationship strains. To me the American culture is beyond reckless in so many of our simple daily actions. Recklessness is purely a matter of perspective.

We are reckless with our lands that we poison with herbicides and pesticides and strip of all the nutrients through industrial farming. Continue reading