What if you can’t bake a bigger pie?

Every once in a while I read something that sums up the basic premise of this blog, and I found such a quote in Andrew Simms’ Cancel the Apocalypse, which I reviewed a while back. There are actually several passages I could have quoted, but here’s one:

In a physically limited system where growth is ultimately constrained, simple logic dictates that to increase the material standards of living of the poor must require better, more equal distribution. If you cannot bake a bigger pie, you must get better at sharing what you have, otherwise you either condemn the poor to go without or crash the ecosystems that livelihoods depend on through overburdening them.

That’s pretty much the overarching theme of what I write about. One of the main reasons I started writing about it was because I didn’t know anybody else who was, so it’s always nice to find those on the same track.

Of course, the usual response to these concerns is to protest that this isn’t a zero-sum game – one person having more doesn’t necessarily require someone else to have less. But this is to take a lesson from financial wealth and wrongly apply it to natural wealth. Fresh water, land, fossil fuels, the atmosphere, these are all finite, and we cannot be complacent about how they are distributed. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why we’re so determined to deny the existence of any limits. If there are limits to growth, we need to learn to share better. And as I am reminded every time I take my son to nursery, we’re not very good at sharing.


  1. Take it from us:

    “It is only when wealth begins to concentrate in the hands of a relative few at the expense of billions of others who are denied even a small share of finite wealth that trouble starts and physical, human suffering begins. It does not have to be this way. Massive greed and consequent massive human misery and suffering do not have to be accepted as a givens, unavoidable, intractable, irresolvable. Just changing the way business is done, if only by a few companies, can change the flow of wealth, ease and eliminate poverty, and leave us all with something better to worry about. Basic human needs such as food and shelter are fundamental human rights; there are more than enough resources available to go around–if we can just figure out how to share. It cannot be “Me first, mine first”; rather, “Me, too” is more the order of the day.”

    We didn’t write books, we JFDI

      1. What out founder is saying, I believe, is that a minority of businesses operating for social purpose can balance the failure of capitalism to distribute wealth to those least able to compete. That was in 1996 and he’s now dead, but the concept of taking business to social objectives has evolved. .

  2. I agree about equality, redistribution etc, but we also need shrinkage, through lower birth rates, and right now we’re failing at that: for example the UK since 2001 has had more births than deaths each year.

    1. I hope you have only had one child otherwise you are responsible for destroying the planet!!!!!!. Do you hate me for having two?

      1. Six exclamation marks, is that really necessary? And do you think I’m the kind of person who would ‘hate’ someone else for having children? I have two by the way, so calm down.

        1. Jeremy, look more carefully. This is in reply to John McKeown’s comment, not your own. It isn’t just about you. And I’d have thought 6 exclamation points is pretty clearly an intentionally exaggerated reply. I wonder why people don’t think lefty environmental types have a sense of humour?

          1. That’s what comes from reading comments by email and out of context. By all means sling your ironically punctuated faux outrage at John.

      2. We have two children and that seems OK to me, but I’m happy to praise people who limit themselves to one child. Bill McKibben wrote a book titled “Maybe One?” about that.

        1. Supporting population reduction but having a replacement level number of children suggests at best you don’t believe what you preach. Environmental politics is one of the few types where how you live now makes the biggest difference. If I want immigration reform I have to work for a government that bring about those policies, I can do nothing now other than campaign. If I want to reduce consumption or lower population levels can control what I consume or issue personally as well as campaign.

          1. Devonchap, it was 13 years ago, and awareness of difficulty of other approaches to remedying ecological crisis has changed since then.

          2. Devonchap – not quite so – if all married (or equivalent) couples averaged 2 children then population shrinkage would be achieved because a significant percentage never marry, and some infertile, etc.

            Lifestyle consumption differs in that a person can choose to change (e.g. last time I travelled by air was 20 years ago), and reduce from one year to next. By contrast reproduction cannot be undone – so it needs extra-careful thought, but often happens when one is young and perhaps influenced by cultural “autopilot” assumptions.

  3. There are two types of growth, growth based on more resources and inputs, and growth based on using the existing resources and inputs better. If we use the same inputs to create more value we get growth. The only limit is human inventiveness, which isn’t in short supply.

    If the justification for redistribution is that grow will end, since growth won’t end the that justification for redistribution falls down.

    1. Yes, but your efficiencies need to run ahead of growth, otherwise you have relative but not absolute decoupling. Overall, no country has successfully decoupled economic growth from carbon emissions in absolute terms – at least, not without a massive recession. The economy is more efficient, but also larger, so there is no actual fall in emissions.

      If we can’t guarantee absolute decoupling, then we will have to learn to do without growth.

      1. I’m more optimistic than you. At current rates electricity generated by solar will be cheaper than any fossil fuels within 40-50 years. Could be a lot sooner (a decade or so if thing like the 40% efficient multi-junction cells work out). That will be a decoupling point since the oil will then just be left in the ground (rather like our coal was once our coal industry became uncompetitive).

        1. It’ll be sooner than that, there’s remarkable progress on solar power. There’s more to this than energy, it’s about land and water and resources. And again, we need to have absolute decoupling. Efficiency measures are subject to Jevon’s paradox, where efficiency leads to increasing use of a resource.

          1. If we can recycle a resource then I don’t think there is an issue. CO2 is a problem but we aren’t destroying water or resources, just moving them around. So I see this as a made up issue.

  4. Absolutely agree. It strikes me as very clear logic, because the geopolitical consequences of not sharing resources better are conflict. I feel this is already an issue in getting agreement on cutting carbon emissions between USA and India/China particularly.

    1. Yes Nathaniel, I too absolutely agree. Regardless of lower birth rates, limits or not, and inventiveness, the principle of ‘Love thy neighbour as yourself’ has more meaning than many appreciate.

  5. Sustainability isn’t about things being ‘destroyed’ DevonChap, but about using them at the rate at which they can be replenished. If we’re using water, timber, fish etc faster than they can be re-supplied, then we’re hitting an ecological limit.

    1. That’s the wonderful thing about the market, if we use something faster than it can be replenished then the price rises and we either use less of it by replacing it with something else or find a new way to get more. For example renewable energy has times it produces more energy than is needed and this needs to be dumped, this cheap energy can be used in desalination planets making them cheaper to run (along side other massive improvements in their efficiency that are happening now.)

      Certain things like large fish and hard wood from rain forests do have real limits because of the time to renew themselves, but we have substitutes for those and will use them if we price in the externalities.

      So at the margins there are ecological limits but we don’t have to recast our whole life styles. I still suspect that a lot of people use the ecological excuse in an attempt to justify a more left wing world. They wanted redistribution before the environmental movement, they will want it after. It damages the sensible environmental movement by linking it to one political view and thus alienating those who would support environmental protection but don’t want to see some form of green socialism.

      1. There’s an argument to be made for resources, but it doesn’t fly on carbon. There really is no way around that – we have to reduce our consumption.

        This isn’t socialism. This is the reality of development in a world with limits. The Royal Society came to exactly the same conclusions in their recent People and Planet report.

        1. Have you seen me suggest we shouldn’t curb carbon use? Just I think market solutions are the best.

          Since the last 20 years or so have seen the greatest fall in global inequality in history it seems what we are doing now is working.

          1. Have you seen me suggest we don’t use market solutions?

            There has been a fall in global inequality as poor countries have grown faster than rich ones, though within-country inequality has grown. The point is that if we wish to keep lifting people out of poverty without breaking the climate, we need to address ongoing consumption in those countries that already have plenty.

            I know that’s anathema to you, but it’s really just maths. If you want to insist that everything is fine as it is and be part of the problem, that’s your choice.

            1. I have seen you suggest that the market is just a tool like any other and that it shouldn’t therefore be our default option. I think they are the best, you seem more grudging and often are supporting the less market ones.

              Also there is a contradiction in your argument. You accept technology is proceeding such that soon low carbon power will be the cheaper option (as with solar). In that case then we will switch to low carbon power without needing to radically change our way of life. Its not the consumption but the carbon powering it.

              I’ll pose my question in a different way. If we solve the carbon problem and can show that we can provide enough materials for a mass consumer society for all without breaking the planet, would you stop campaigning against consumerism? My hunch is you wouldn’t as you feel it is in some way morally wrong. Hence why I think the greenery is a bit of a smokescreen.

  6. I’m all in favour of letting the market do what markets do best. Where you and I disagree is that you think markets can do anything and everything.

    There’s no contradiction in my argument – the move to low carbon sources is not a direct switch. We need to dramatically scale back our energy consumption to make it possible, as the energy returns of fossil fuels are hard to match. Also, there is as yet no answer for oil-based transport. If you think the switch to low carbon is going to happen without radically changing our way of life, you’ve drunk the kool-aid.

    As for your question, I’m for human flourishing in a healthy environment, and against anything that stands in the way of that. The problems of consumerism don’t begin and end with carbon – see the factory collapse in Bangladesh last month. So no, I’d still need to write about consumerism if it decarbonised entirely.

    I don’t protest about consumerism out of some puritanical aversion to people spending money on things they want. There are serious injustices and some highly oppressive ideas behind the facade of consumerism, and I don’t think it’s acceptable to turn a blind eye to them. As Desmond Tutu says, to be neutral on matters of injustice is to choose the side of the oppressor.

    1. What ‘seriously oppressive ideas’ are behind consumerism? I can see some against it (reducing freedom whilst giving the anti-consumerists power over what people can and can’t do, keeping poor people in their place) but I’d be interested to see what oppressive ideas are in favour of it.

      1. High consuming societies rely on dirt-poor wages elsewhere to make cheap things for us. They rely on the endless creation of disatisfaction, and the constant throwing away and replacing of stuff. By encouraging people to define themselves by what they own, those who earn less aren’t valued. These aren’t healthy things.

        Who’s talking about reducing freedoms and telling people what they can and can’t do? I’m talking about giving garment workers a living wage, making things that last, and not advertising to children.

        1. The alternative to dirt-poor wages is no wages. In that option dirt-poor is good. Every developed country has gone through that stage (Lancashire cotton workers in 18th century).

          If you aren’t telling me what I can’t do, I can still pay low wages and make things that don’t last?

  7. No, the alternative to dirt poor wages is a living wage. The clothing companies could afford to pay better wages, they’ve just chosen not to. If you think that’s okay, then shame on you for valuing profit over people.

    1. If the employers don’t make a profit, they go bust. No jobs, no wages. Now if they raised wages they would employ fewer people to maintain a similar cost base (so for some of the current employees – no jobs, no wages). Given the employers need (and probably will now be forced to) spend more money on building safety they will have even less margin to raise wages.

      Wages in general are set by what the employee could earn in their next available job. In Bangladesh next to textile jobs it is subsistence farming. Compared to that poorly paid jobs in dangerous factories are the better deal.

      Britain went through a very similar thing in our industrial revolution. There has been some interesting research using autobiographies of pre-industrial workers and those who moved to working in the hell-hole factories. On the land there wasn’t enough work to go round and hunger was rife. The pay and conditions were better in the dark satanic mills. The movement of workers to the mills even raised the wages of those left on the surrounding land.

      I don’t value profit over people, I value what works over good intentions that will back fire on those who need it most.

      1. You’re talking nonsense again. Companies like Primark wouldn’t cease to make a profit if they paid a living wage. Have you seen the campaign that’s come out of the international garment worker’s union?

        1. The campaign argues for a higher selling price to pay for a higher wage. It does not say that the cost of the higher wage could be absorbed by the supply chain. How much is the cost of capital for the garment makers? How bigger a share of the manufacturers cost base is wages? How much do the raw materials cost? Transport? Insurance? Tax? Primark’s costs in the UK? Again I point out that the manufacturer’s costs are going to rise if they improve factory safety so that will eat into their profits even before a doubling of wages (which is what the TUC seem to want)

          If we force garment manufacturers to pay more then they may move to lower cost countries (Burma’s opening gives a new candidate) or if they stay they will seek to reduce wage costs by employing fewer staff. Either way, tell the ex-garment worker who now can’t afford to feed her kids that at least your concious is clear.

          I have to say your solution to everything is higher prices. Pay more for jeans, pay more for local food, pay more for low carbon power now, pay more for mortgages via the FTT….. And the poorest here will be those hardest hit.

          1. Can we stump up 2p somewhere along the line, whether it’s the consumer or the retailer or the manufacturer. Are you seriously suggesting, with your pedantic list of questions, that 2p cannot be found? Bollocks.

            Not sure why you’re trying so hard to come down in favour of screwing third world workers. There are plenty of companies proving it isn’t necessary.

            1. The fact you think my questions pedantic shows you know sod all about business. But don’t let that stop you from parading your moral superiority.

              Double wages you risk pricing out Bangladeshi jobs in favour of others countries that haven’t had this bad publicity. So the country finds it hard to haul itself out of poverty. Brilliant. Those sweat shops already pay 60% more than the average wage in Bangladesh. What will raise wages for all is when their garment industry grows so big that it runs out of willing workers so has to raise wages to attract and retain staff (the sort of thing that is happening in China). So best thing we can do here is actively buy Bangladesh made clothing rather than campaign and tarnish their garment industry’s reputation. Disney has already pulled out of Bangladesh due to fears of brand contamination.

  8. It’s all be said before,

    “An inherent assumption about capitalism is that profit is defined only in terms of monetary gain. This assumption is virtually unquestioned in most of the world. However, it is not a valid assumption. Business enterprise, capitalism, must be measured in terms of monetary profit. That rule is not arguable. A business enterprise must make monetary profit, or it will merely cease to exist. That is an absolute requirement. But it does not follow that this must necessarily be the final bottom line and the sole aim of the enterprise. How this profit is used is another question. It is commonly assumed that profit will enrich enterprise owners and investors, which in turn gives them incentive to participate financially in the enterprise to start with.

    That, however, is not the only possible outcome for use of profits. Profits can be directly applied to help resolve a broad range of social problems: poverty relief, improving childcare, seeding scientific research for nationwide economic advancement, improving communications infrastructure and accessibility, for examples – the target objectives of this particular project plan. The same financial discipline required of any conventional for-profit business can be applied to projects with the primary aim of improving socioeconomic conditions. Profitability provides money needed to be self-sustaining for the purpose of achieving social and economic objectives such as benefit of a nation’s poorest, neediest people. In which case, the enterprise is a social enterprise.’

  9. The responsibility lies with the clothing companies, since they’re the ones who decide where their products are to be made. They could choose to pay a living wage, and they could choose to stay put in Bangladesh. They’d either have to pass that cost on to the consumer, or take a tiny cut to their profits.

    The fact that there are dozens of clothing companies with good policies here proves that there is nothing inevitable about poverty wages. It’s just that your ideology forbids you to countenance the possibility that the market doesn’t always do the right thing.

    1. Are those good clothing companies paying $4 a day? Nope.

      Every country that has developed has gone through very similar stages of development. Those that stall often do so because they decide to go against the market and ‘do the right thing’. They impose costs on industry that they aren’t ready to bear and so strangle growth. It might seem harsh but bleeding hearts don’t beat poverty.

      I’m never going to persuade you, you just see “It’s only 2p!” and don’t see the risk to those you seek to help. My ideology is looking at what has worked in the past and doing it again. Wages should be based on the economic fundamentals (basically what value they add and what the worker could get doing something else). If you depart from those then you end up in economic la la land. Pennies add up to pounds.

      1. And people were exploited in every one of those countries where sweatshops have played a part in the development story. I understand it fine – Disney have done something stupid and campaigners always say the answer isn’t to bail, but to engage. But it really isn’t inevitable. It’s a consequence of greed, but of course you don’t recognise that word.

        I know what you stand for. I also know you have one very fixed idea in your head of what works, and are ready to explain away any other opinions. So be it. Let’s stop wasting each other’s time.

            1. You can stop impugning the motives of others like some petulant teenager. We both want justice for the poor, we just disagree on how to do it.

  10. I’m afraid I don’t really believe you, as you leap to the defence of corporations’ right to pay poverty wages. there is such a thing as ethical business, and advocating that is not naive or morally superior. so let’s stop insulting each other and move along.

    by all means have the last word on this thread if you wish, I don’t intend to carry on with this indefinitely.

    1. Given the fact that the ethical businesses you cite don’t pay the wages you think are ethical I rather think this spasm of moral posturing is down to the fact you know you lost that argument.

      You are putting yourself on a pedestal. Your self regarding logic is ‘I am moral, I believe X is correct, anyone who doesn’t agree clearly isn’t moral’. As a Christian I’d have through that stuff about judging not lest you be judged or casting the first stone would come up, but clearly not.

      I think your prescriptions will harm the poor. Its no defence to say you did it out of good intentions. You don’t have to believe me but then I just see your posturing about ethics as puffing up your own ego – ‘I’m better than you because I care more’. Self serving nonsense! Repeatedly saying how much you care doesn’t make you right, especially whilst your ignoring or denigrating what has worked in the past and lifted millions out of poverty (including yourself). Read some actual history, maybe learn some economics.

      1. Okay, that was an opportunity to close the thread and move on, but since you’re bringing my faith into it, I’m not going to let that go.

        You’re the one who keeps wanting to make this into a moral issue. I’m trying to talk about facts. Here are the two that matter here:

        First, many people are being oppressed by corporations trying to squeeze every last penny out of developing world suppliers. That is a fact. Low wages, beatings, unpaid or forced overtime, sexual harassment, negligible health and safety, all of these are commonplace in sweatshop conditions. My faith demands that I don’t turn a blind eye to that.

        Second fact – it doesn’t have to be like that. All through the history of capitalism there are companies that have done the right thing, from Cadbury and Colman in the Victorian era to the Fairwear certified companies that I buy my clothing from today. You can choose to pay more without putting your profits through the shredder.

        Both of these things are true, and I’d like to see less of the first and more of the second. I don’t have any magic answers, I just don’t accept that things have to be the way they are.

        Now to my faith, since this is the second time in a fortnight that you’ve thrown my faith back at me. The Christian faith is about grace, about undeserved kindness – the whole point is that none of us get to say we’re better than anyone else. So no, I don’t think I’m better than you for believing what I do. Because I know that I am a hypocrite, and that no Christian in history has ever lived up to what they believe. But as I say, it’s about grace.

        1. You act like the alternative to corporations trying to squeeze every last penny of of developing world suppliers is enlightened companies paying higher wages in good conditions. The fact is that it isn’t. It is no corporations, no wages, low or otherwise and countries like Bangladesh remain dirt poor. This is why I point to the historical parallels with the UK and others. Every country that has developed has gone through the same stages. It is horrible but it is better than being a peasant. I’ve said this flippantly before but I am deadly serious. The only thing worse than being exploited by greedy capitalist bastards is not being exploited by greedy capitalist bastards. This is I think the TUC campaign to double wages for textile workers in Bangladesh would be harmful to the poor of Bangladesh. It is growth that will improve the workers conditions, not supposedly well meaning campaigns

          You impugned my motives, yet you are so fixed in your ideas you can’t see others of good intentions can disagree. That is your problem and I’ll leave it at that.

          1. So your position is essentially that there is no alternative.

            And mine is that there is always an alternative, even if nobody’s thought of it yet.

            A pretty classic disagreement really. Apologies for doubting your motives, will try not to do so again.

Leave a Reply to DevonChap Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: