Grantham on the Environment

It’s been a while since I posted about one of my all time favorite people in this world, Jeremy Grantham.  There are two interesting articles from a sit down chat Leo Hickman had with Grantham. The topic was the environment, and Grantham’s efforts to help save it.  The first article is a summary version from The Guardian.  The second article is the full length interview from Business Insider.

As usual you’ll find my favorite excerpts below.  I especially like his balanced view that oil and gas aren’t entirely bad.  It’s a nuanced opinion but he has a point – for now they’re a necessary evil; try taking them away tomorrow and see what happens.

Part I: Jeremy Grantham, environmental philanthropist: ‘We’re trying to buy time for the world to wake up’ (The Guardian)

Part II: GRANTHAM: Capitalism Is Great, But It Assigns No Value To Your Grandchildren (Business Insider)

Excerpts from Part I:

Many deep-greens – who claim the root cause for our environmental woes is the slavish quest for economic growth – will recoil at the thought of a hard-boiled capitalist such as Grantham underpinning so much of the environmental movement. He is unconcerned. “Capitalism does millions of things better than the alternatives. It balances supply and demand in an elegant way that central planning has never come close to. However, it is totally ill-equipped to deal with a small handful of issues. Unfortunately, they are the issues that are absolutely central to our long-term wellbeing and even survival.”

More awkwardly, he insists his substantial investments in oil and gas don’t contradict his green views. “We need oil. If we took oil away tomorrow, civilisation ends. We can burn all the cheap, high-quality oil and gas, but if we mean to burn all the coal and any appreciable percentage of the tar sands, or even third-derivative, energy-intensive oil and gas, with ‘fracking’ for shale gas on the boundary, then we’re cooked, we’re done for.”

***

But “China is my secret weapon,” he says enthusiastically. His eyes widen with excitement, and he talks quicker and quicker. “The Chinese cavalry riding to the rescue. I have very high hopes for China because they have embedded high scientific capabilities in their leadership class. They know this is serious. And they are acting much faster now than we are. They have it within their capabilities to come back in 30 years with the guarantee of complete energy independence – all alternative and sustainable for ever. They have an embarrassment of capital. We have an embarrassment of debt. So they can set a stunning pace, which they are doing. And they could crank it up. To hell with their five-year plans, they should move up to 25-year plans. They would have such low-cost energy at the end of it they’d be the terror of the capitalist system. Low energy and low labour, that’s the ball game.”

But he argues that there is no reason why the west can’t compete. “Anyone who says government can’t do this, or can’t do that, I say a pox on you; have a look at the Manhattan Project. They did remarkable things. They stuck the brightest minds out in the desert. They were herding cats with great egos, but it worked. If we did that on alternative energy, we’d be home free.”

Excerpts from Part II:

[Continuing his point on where capitalism fails us…]

Unfortunately, today, they are the issues that are absolutely central to our long-term wellbeing and even survival. It doesn’t think long-term very well because of high discount rate structure.

If you’re a typical corporation anything lying out 30 years literally doesn’t matter. Or, as I like to say: QED, your grandchildren have no value. And they usually act as if that was true, even though I’m sure they are actually very kind to their grandchildren.

***

It has been remarked before that modern economics is belief in a perpetual motion machine. Capital and labour, but no mention of energy. Without energy the whole thing grinds to a halt and the whole theory is demonstrated to be totally false. I’m late in the game at recognising this.

One of my new heroes is an economist called Kenneth Boulding who, at 22, got a paper into Keynes‘s journal. At the age of about 50 he realised that economics was not taking its job seriously, that it was not interested in utility, in real serious improvement in the world, but that it was increasingly interested in new, elegant mathematical theories designed to get career advancement, over usefulness.

He said the only people who believe you can have compound growth in a finite world are either mad men or economists. He also said: “Mathematics has brought rigor to economics. Unfortunately, it also brought mortis.”

 

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