Sunday, August 21, 2016

Define "Normal"

As I've explored issues from globalism to climate change, one aspect that stands out is our concept of "normal." What is normal?

It's curious how quickly and resolutely we embrace ideas as orthodoxy, imbuing them with the status of some law of nature. Take GDP growth. Western leaders (and most others) see steady, constant GDP growth as a measure of their nation's economic health and a testament to their own prowess at governance. It's as though GDP growth was inscribed on tablets someone brought back from a stroll up some mountain. That's bollocks.

GDP growth is a concept hatched in the wake of WWII. It wasn't "a thing" when the Wright brothers took to the skies or when Dillinger terrorized the mid-west. No, it was a post-war idea. That's a good thing. Why? Because our enshrined goal of 3% annual GDP growth is lethally exponential. 3% annual GDP growth over 50 years expands the economy by a factor of 4.4. After a century your economy has swelled by a factor of more than 19 times. A century and a half and your overall production and consumption is 84 times greater than your GDP in Year One. Two centuries and it's 369 times greater. You, your society, your economy - it's all going to implode and it's not going to be pretty.

We think this concept of continual GDP growth is normal but it's not. It's self-defeating, self-destructive but you won't find a leader in the western world who is not committed to growth as the solution to all problems. You can't blame them all. It was a fine idea back when there was a huge surplus of resources and demand never exceeded supply.  We didn't know it at the time but we passed that point somewhere in the early to mid-70s. Since then our idea of normal has been steering us into trouble.

Our leaders continue to cling to globalism as normal. Even Trudeau is toying with the Trans Pacific Partnership. He'll do whatever the Americans do. You, you're just a pawn, inconsequential.  These are solemn deals between world leaders to surrender elements of national sovereignty to the globalized corporate sec tor for supposed benefits that do not materialize where they're promised. These deals were supposed to benefit the general public - more jobs, better wages. Instead they delivered fewer jobs, lower wages, economic stagnation for most, massive wealth redistribution for the benefit of the few and yet our leaders failed to act. Even as the International Monetary Fund rebukes globalism as a rotten system that stagnates economies and fuels inequality, our leaders keep their pens at the ready to ink the next toxic deal. It is, after all, their "normal."

The Weather Network has a story today about a NASA report on Arctic sea ice that speaks to an emerging term, a "new normal."

“A decade ago, this year’s sea ice extent would have set a new record low and by a fair amount. Now, we’re kind of used to these low levels of sea ice – it’s the new normal.”

Surely it robs "normal" of all useful meaning if it doesn't reflect elements of equilibrium, permanence.  Merriam-Webster suggests as much with this definition:

a : according with, constituting, or not deviating from a norm, rule, or principle b : conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern.

What's going on in the Arctic isn't a matter of conformity to any norm, rule, or principle. It is a process of deviation from normal, a small component of a far greater, all-encompassing deviation from what we ever knew as normal.

Exponential GDP growth isn't normal. There's no equilibrium or permanence to it. We're running out of stuff, running into walls. That can't be normal. Nothing that's inherently self-destructive, including globalism, can be considered normal. To the contrary, it's the foundation of chaos, now and to come.

How perverse is it that our political caste should treat as normal models that are so inherently chaotic and self-defeating? To me they resemble nothing so much as these sailors who failed to let go of the mooring lines of the USS Akron.

Needless to say, hanging on too long was a death sentence for those sailors. Hanging on too long to outdated and failed models of trade and other "normal" policies by our leaders will have different consequences but they'll be visited upon the population as a whole.

There is no normal to climate change either. We are transitioning from one geological epoch, the Holocene, to a man-made geological epoch, the Anthropocene. We have gone from one steady-state that lasted an abbreviated 11,000 years but it will take centuries, if not millennia, before we reach the next steady-state. Even as we toy with ideas for reclaiming control of our environment, through geo-engineering perhaps, it races further beyond our reach.

Humans like certainty, I understand that. Yet, when you're in an indefinite era of chaos, what good can come of even trying to define normal?

Like a person swept away in the torrent of a flash flood and grasping for tree branches, you can try to cling to normalcy but it's an illusion abetted by our tendency to ignore the past. We cease to connect conditions 20, 30 or 50 years in the past with our notion of normal. In the process, normal loses most of its meaning and nearly all of its utility.

Politicians use the term "creeping normalcy" to refer to slow trends concealed within noisy fluctuations. If the economy, schools, traffic congestion, or anything else is deteriorating only slowly, it's difficult to recognize that each successive year is on the average slightly worse than the year before, so one's baseline standard for what constitutes "normalcy" shifts gradually and imperceptibly. 

If the embrace of normalcy has indeed become a potentially dangerous and disruptive illusion, perhaps it is time to adopt more agile frameworks better suited to conditions of chaos. This calls for taking a hard look and identifying what has outlived its usefulness. This would extend into all our modes of organization - political, social, economic, industrial and environmental. In each there are feet of clay - globalism, neoliberalism, consumerism and such that prevent us from responding quickly and effectively to sometimes rapid and dramatic change. Identify what doesn't work and why and then acknowledge that for ignoring it or kicking it down the road can be disastrous.

With enough time societies would move past globalism, neoliberalism and consumerism whether by choice or by necessity or both. The problem is that time was a luxury that may have been part of the Holocene but is in scarce supply in this transition to the Anthropocene. Time in the Anthropocene has become as precious as access to clean drinking water or clean air. We can't afford to waste it.


the salamander said...

.. great post as usual (normal?) (I could not resist..)
Another typical need to read & reread - reflect on 2-3 times
keep it coming..

As usual when absorbing or referencing to myself - these kinds of posts
I find myself thinking about The Upside of Down ..
a book I've pimped many many times..
Probably because it gets right at the practical real aspects
the culture, the biology, the crushing strength of reality
the logistics, the lack of food, the collapses

On a less serious but real note, Mound
I'm certain you're aware a new T-Rex skull was found in Montana
Approx 1.4 tons.. just the skull..
Possibly the apex land predator of all time
from an era science & biology says existed many millions of years ago
Like the cetaceous era

Now there's a problem for many of our politicians...
who truly & duly believe the earth is now just 6,000 yrs old
and change never happens.. its all about the GDP.. the economy ..
and the bitumen or natural gas we gotta get to Asia
come hell or highwater.. is therefore 6,000 years old at most
So what era would that be? The biblical era?

Lorne said...

Your logic here is compelling and, I think, irrefutable, Mound. However, the understanding of it requires a certain amount of knowledge and understanding of the world as it is, and that takes some effort. Contrast that with the ease and effortlessness with which people can listen to the soothing platitudes of growth and expansion.

All in all, it is a tough sell.

The Mound of Sound said...

@ Sal - thanks for the reference to "The Upside of Down." I've not read it but I did find a thoughtful review. I was especially drawn to this part:

"Homer-Dixon counsels that we must as a society become comfortable with change so that we can use imagination in adapting to new circumstances, rather than blindly trying to maintain the status quo. We must develop integrated, rather than compartmentalized,
solutions by bringing together experts of many different fields to develop proactive policies. Finally we must value resilience over efficiency with regards to our vital goods supply, like energy and food."

The reviewer writes that the author, Homer-Dixon foresees societal breakdown from the forces already tearing at our national fabric that can, if handled wisely, create the basis for "catagenesis" a creative renewal of our institutions, technologies and societies in the absence of a rigid bureaucracy.

This seems to convey, in a far more eloquent manner, my advocacy for abandoning these hidebound modes of organization that have outlived their utility, in favour of a more agile order capable of readily responding effectively to the change of chaos that will be with us for at least a few centuries to come. I must read the book. Thank you.

The Mound of Sound said...

Lorne, I'm sure you quickly realized that this was one of those "stream of consciousness" posts - rambling, less than tightly connected thoughts. It does "take some effort" as you suggest and that made we all too aware of the futility of this sort of advocacy.

Sal referenced "The Upside of Down," a book I've not read. I found a thoughtful review ( that contends the author sees a societal breakdown coming which may be the vehicle for breaking with the "feet of clay" models of organization that currently beset us to permit the adoption of new, less bureaucratic models that favour the agility and resilience we will need to adapt to this massive transformation.

In other words, our last best hope may lie in collapse. Daunting stuff to be sure.

Anonymous said...

What is normal?
Is this the new normal?

Absolutely effing reprehensible...
We really have lost all connections to sanity , reality and human dignity.
The divide between those that have and those that don't is marginal.
The divide between those that feel superior , regardless of political direction and those that choose not to participate !!!! is astronomical.

Fuck; am I ever so pissed off.


Anonymous said...

This argument puts the cart before the horse. All one has to do is Google GDP growth to see it has COLLAPSED.

Politicians say growth is the solution. Their solution for collapsed growth? MOAR of the same (failed neoliberal reforms.) Outsource more jobs, kill more demand for "evil" consumption, which will kill more GDP growth, eventually putting the economy in a deflationary death spiral. Senselessness through and through.

All growth/development is exponential. This is because new developments open new pathways to more new developments. James Burke shows these 'connections' in math, science and technological development in his series.

These recursive developments form a tree like structure. Here, a simple binary tree:

A(t) = 2^t

compound interest:

A(t) = P(1 + r)^t

continuous growth:

A(t) = Pe^(rt)

All exponential curves.

Human development is certainly a positive thing. There's no reason to believe it's not infinite or unbounded. Those who oppose economic growth are opposed to human development, just unwittingly.

There's sustainable development and unsustainable development. The solution to a sustainable economy is to simply eliminate unsustainable development (i.e., externalities; i.e., stealing from others or gambling with their money, livelihoods or future.)

The Mound of Sound said...

@ TB - I think you sum up the essence of our predicament with your comment on "human dignity."

The Mound of Sound said...

@ Anon 8:24. On your advice I did Google GDP growth. World Bank has it at at 2.4% for 2016.

IMF has it higher at 3.8%

This range is consistent with OECD projections. Not sure where you're getting your numbers but I've seen no evidence that one would expect to be manifest in a GDP collapse.

Owen Gray said...

"Hanging on too long." Sometimes salvation lies in letting go.

Anonymous said...

I'm talking about the collapse of GDP growth in Western economies. What economic theologians call 'secular stagnation.'

GDP growth is strong in many undeveloped countries as Western nations export more capital, jobs and GHG emissions. But if Western demand for imported goods and services dries up, the entire global economy will collapse into fascist revolutions and world war. (Which it is on the verge of doing.)

Junior says TPP will create jobs and wealth. This is an outrageous lie. In the 25 years before the first 1988 free trade agreement, the economy grew 176% or 4.2% annually. In the 25 years after, 74% or 2.3% annually.

Check out the numbers yourself at the Conference Board's Total Economic Database.

r = (A/P)^(1/t) - 1

Piketty shows the problem. When r > g (when the rate of return on capital or investments is greater than GDP growth) a tiny minority of plutocrats and trust-fund kiddies with dynastic wealth are trying to leech more money out of the economy than it's producing. Their rent-seeking, gouging and market manipulation schemes impede human development/growth (and wreak economic and political havoc.)

The solution is a return to progressive taxation and strong democratic government regulations, especially on GHG emissions (which must go to zero in 30 years at the most) and the financial industry.

Jill Stein knows the score. The only solution is a Green New Deal. (Funny how Dizzy Lizzy and the Dippers don't know Jack shit about any of this. All we have is establishment corruption and incompetence.)

The Mound of Sound said...

@ Owen - hanging on too long, indeed. Just as generals are faulted for always preparing to fight the next war as they fought the last, our civilian leadership seems to believe we're still in the 80s.

The Mound of Sound said...

@ Anon 7:10

I agree with most of what you contend. James Galbraith has an interesting take on what he calls the "looter class" that we previously knew as "rentiers" who have lately fallen into an accumulation mode (as opposed to their traditional investment mode) that more closely resembles the upper classes leading up to the Downton Abbey era. Is this a harbinger of an effort to restore some sort of economic feudalism marked by a sharp division between the gentry and the masses? That is not beyond the realm of possibility. It's becoming ever clearer why John Maynard Keynes favoured euthanasia of the rentier class.

Steve said...

the trouble with normal is its always getting worse - Bruce Cockburn