A Scientist Presses for Action on Many Fronts: A review of The Need for a New Economic System
by John Scales Avery
The Need for a New Economic System by John Scales Avery is an important book for everyone concerned over the future of humanity. The urgent voice of the book stems from Dr. Avery’s seeing the discontinuity between the loving care that people bestow on their children and their failure to reduce the harm to their children from a destructive economic system, climate change, resource depletion, and war. This book of advocacy demonstrates the need for solutions to problems created under the present economic system. Political-economic analyses of the causes of the problems and of solutions are outside of the scope of the book. Scattered through the book are a few general policy suggestions. At the center is Avery’s assessment sector by sector of the critical problems that must be solved to avert disasters. The book first demonstrates the impossibility of sustaining growth economies on our finite planet. The central three chapters analyze the damage from climate change and war. Globalization, population growth, and the food crisis are the last problems Avery analyzes. He builds toward his conclusions by sketching the nineteenth century cooperative movement and Gandhian economics. The concluding chapter revisits the problems to advocate change. The premise of the book is that when people face up to the extent and nature of world problems, people can act creatively and effectively.
John Avery is thinker and writer. He earned successive degrees in theoretical physics from MIT and the University of Chicago, and a PhD in theoretical chemistry from the University of London. Now retired from the University of Copenhagen with the title of Lektor Emeritus, Associate Professor of Chemistry, his prolific research has resulted in more than one hundred scientific articles. His knowledge across scientific disciplines shows in his writing textbooks on such diverse subjects as Membrane Structure and Mechanisms of Biological Energy Transduction, Hyper spherical Harmonics, Information Theory and Evolution, plus editing seven volumes on topics ranging from Dimensional Scaling in Chemical Physics to New Methods in Quantum Theory. He has written a thoughtful history book showing the interrelationship of scientific advances and societal change. This book brings together and expands decades of Avery’s online publications aimed to provide education to spur action on many fronts. He has served as Denmark’s contact person for the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs from before the organization won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995. For a decade from 1988 he was a technical advisor to the World Health Organization. He continues to chair the Danish Peace Academy. From my early acquaintance with John Avery I know that he has been using reasoned argument to move people to social action since 1956. Then he spearheaded the founding of the University of Chicago chapter of World University Service. In the process of fund-raising for students in war-torn countries, he accurately observed to me that we could generate more money if we simply took part-time jobs. He firmly believed that soliciting contributions was the wiser path because we were educating the public.
Avery has taken several steps to encourage careful reading and reflection. At the end of each chapter are suggested readings, often reaching beyond one hundred items that are usually listed in the order that the chapter discusses the topics. The occasional charts and graphs show important relationships. Pictures of thinkers that Avery holds in high regard are scattered throughout the text, reminding the reader of the power of ideas. The citations to websites are available at the bottom of each page. The highly detailed index allows the reader to return to specific topics. Since Avery’s training and professional research is in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry, he mixes fresh thinking on societal problems with key points from activists, such as Paul Ehrlich, Noam Chomsky, and Naomi Klein. In calling for a new economic system he highlights the need to limit population growth by people in developing countries and the need to limit material consumption by people in the developed economies. He sets no limits to growth in services and in cultural enrichment. He calls for governments to set high taxes on fossil fuel consumption and to subsidize renewable energy production to reduce the shock of the end of the fossil fuel era.
Not constrained by the conventional wisdom of economists and political scientists, Avery builds his second chapter on the concept of entropy. This provides a scientific way of emphasizing the importance of replacing current energy use with energy more directly derived from the sun. He begins with a diagram showing the energy reaching earth from the sun in terrawatts per year compared to the energy potential of ten renewable and depletable sources. Among the comparisons found in this chart are that the annual total world consumption of energy is substantially less than the power potential in wind. He explains that entropy is a measure of the statistical probability of any state of a system and that the second law of thermodynamics holds that the entropy of the universe is increasing. That is, in the universe as a whole the probability that any part of it will degrade to become like other parts is inexorably increasing. Avery celebrates the flood of sunlight that makes the earth an open system where “we are able to create local order, and complex, statistically improbable structures, like the works of Shakespeare, the Mona Lisa, and the Internet.” Avery highlights the advocacy by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (Harvard Press, 1971) for a steady-state economy in the production of material goods in order to curb the transformation of natural resources (low entropy) into waste (high entropy).
On the danger of catastrophic climate change, Avery warns that the 4 degree Celsius rise in global temperature predicted by the World Bank is dangerously close to the 6 degrees above normal that initiated the Permian-Triassic extinction, which eliminated of 96% of all marine species and 70% of all terrestrial vertebrates. He observes that since the transition to 100% renewable energy must come within a century when extracting the remaining fossil fuels will be prohibitively expensive, it is better to act now. He then systematically discusses alternative sources of energy. Use of photovoltaic cells has risen over 25% per year thanks to their dramatic fall in price and government subsides. Wind generating capacity is rising at the rate of 20% per year. The book describes bio-fuel as belonging to three generations. The first is composed of food crops. Crop residues and cellulose from plants grown specifically as fuel form the second generation. The third generation, now in experimental stages, includes algae that have an oil content of 50% and algae under research at Berkeley that produce hydrogen, which could be used in fuel cells.
In documenting the problems caused by war, Avery takes up the colonial exploitation of people and natural resources and then transitions to third world indebtedness. He draws a parallel between the self-congratulation by Europeans a century ago for their civilizing mission and the American sense of exceptionalism that justifies support for dictators who make deals with large extractive firms. His most comprehensive chapter documents the costs of wars and the threat of thermo-nuclear war. The 17 trillion dollars that the world spends annually on armaments might have been spent for famine relief, health, education, and infrastructure. The half billion dollars that WHO needs to prevent the spread of a virulent form of TB is equivalent to 1.2 hours of spending on armaments. The nature of modern wars makes civilians 90% of the casualties. Although 140 nations have signed the Convention on Refugees, countries are evading their responsibilities. To put the environmental damage of war in perspective, Avery compares the oil spills of the 1990 Gulf War, 150 million barrels, which is 650 times larger than the spills of the Exxon Valdez.
The book delves into the multiple dangers from the presence of 16,000 warheads. They and bombs that can be made on short notice have explosive power 500,000 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb. He quotes the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which was founded by three Soviets and three Americans in 1980 and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985. “No public health hazard ever faced by humankind equals the threat of nuclear war.” Avery then proceeds to his home ground of nuclear physics to explain the devastation from a 5,000-megaton nuclear exchange. A “nuclear winter” is predicted by many independent studies. The dust from the explosions and the soot from the firestorms would block 99% of the sunlight for many months, possibly lowering the temperature at the northern and middle latitudes by as much as 50 degreed Celsius, while the upper layers of the atmosphere might rise by 100 degrees Celsius. Thus, the normal cycle of water evaporating from the oceans and then condensing as rain would be suppressed. Northern hemisphere forests would die from lack of sunlight, cold, and drought. Much ozone would be destroyed by the concentrations of oxides of nitrogen from the firestorms, thus making the ultra violet radiation in the returning sunlight dangerous to life. He concludes, “War was always the cause of unspeakable suffering . . . but today the development of all-destroying modern weapons has put war completely beyond the bounds of sanity and elementary humanity.”
The first problems of globalization that Avery discusses are child labor, pollution, especially by China, and the secret trade deal to create the fast track Trans-Pacific Partnership. He blasts President Obama for this anti-democratic action. He devotes a chapter to the global food crisis. As usual in this book, he goes back to early thinkers, here John Stuart Mill, to underline the need to restrain world population size. He celebrates the work of Norman Borlaug in breeding high yield grains, but warns of their dependence on fossil fuel. He constructs a graph plotting population size across 12,000 years against the use of fossil fuels use to emphasize the simultaneity of the population explosion with the fossil fuel spike. Avery presents data on six threats to crop production: temperature rise, decreased rainfall, unsustainable use of groundwater, glacial melting, topsoil erosion, and exposed tropical soil turning into laterite. After warning against a collapse of agriculture, he posits that a global population smaller than the present size could be supported comfortably by the resources of the earth and advances in technology.
The penultimate chapter presents several alternatives to the dominant economic system. The cooperative movement begun by Robert Owen was developed in the 19th century by the Danish poet-bishop, N.F.S. Grundtvig, who also created a mass adult education system. A permanent resident of Denmark since 1973, Avery credits Denmark’s democratic socialist system as the source of the elimination of poverty and the generation of a high quality of life. He points to Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn as political leaders who seek to lessen the extreme inequality in their countries. He shows a parallel in Gandhi’s vision of an “India of villages” with the Transition Town movement of which Totnes Village is an exemplar. He applauds people growing all of their own food and as many of their other necessities as possible. He comments that our inherited emotional nature is especially adapted to small communities where helpfulness and social reciprocity are natural and close life-long friendships are the norm.
In his final chapter, concerning each of the major problems he has elucidated, Avery exhorts his readers to action. Stop using fossil fuels within the next few decades and transform economies built on growth into steady-state economies. Restore democracy. Avery is especially exercised over the Obama administration’s efforts to arrest Edward Snowden, over the electronic spying that Snowden revealed, and over the Insider Threats program from 2012 to prevent civil servants from whistleblowing. Decrease economic inequality. Avery quotes extensively the exhortation of Pope Francis, Evangeli Gaudium. “Can we stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? . . . Masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.” Break the power of corporate greed. Leave fossil fuels in the ground. Avery finds new hope in the Pope’s Encyclical, Laudato Si and in the exponential growth of energy from renewable sources. He adds a newly understood potential for climate disaster. If the oceans become too hot, the methane hydrate crystals deposited on the ocean floor release methane gas. The gigantic amount of crystalized methane is equivalent in global warming potential to 10,000 gagatons of carbon dioxide. Total world emissions of carbon dioxide since 1750 are estimated at 337 gagatons. Stabilize and ultimately reduce global population. Avery advocates strong government programs of family planning, education for women, and social supports for the poor to hasten the demographic transition to low birth rates and low death rates. Eliminate war. Avery suggests that the European Union provides a realistic model for achieving internal peace. Assessing the multiple causes of wars and suggesting how to end all wars are beyond the scope of the book. He offers the example of the abolition of slavery as an antidote to pessimism that wars are inevitable. He shocks his reader with a drawing of an efficiently packed slave ship and recalls the slave economic base of the great civilizations of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. “Can we not hope that our descendants, reading descriptions of wars of our own time, will be equally amazed that such cruelty and stupidity could have been possible?”
Avery ends by calling for new ethics to match new technology. He ends this book by quoting the view of history of the Nobel laureate biochemist, Albert Szent-Gyorgyi. “The story of man consists of two parts, divided by the appearance of modern science. . . In the first period, man lived in a world in which his species was born and to which his senses were adapted. In the second, man stepped into a new, cosmic world to which he was a complete stranger. . . The few hundred degrees of our flimsy terrestrial fires were exchanged for the ten million degrees of the atomic reactions that heat the sun. . . . Man’s survival depends on how well and how fast he can adapt himself to [the new world] rebuilding all his ideas, all his social and political institutions.” Thus, John Avery as a man of science calls upon all us to think rationally and to change the course of the future.
About the reviewer: Dorothy Guyot is a political scientist who has written on issues of development in Southeast Asia and on health care and police accountability in the United States. She met John Avery when she studied at the University of Chicago. Her research for a dissertation at Yale, “The Political Impact of the Japanese Occupation of Burma,” led her forty years later to return to Burma (Myanmar) with her husband, James F. Guyot, to create an educational
bridge to quality higher education outside of the military dictatorship. For the co-founding of the Pre-Collegiate Program the University of Chicago presented her in 2007 with an Alumni Award for Public Service.
The book can be obtained from the following link: http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/johansen_jorgen