There is only one way up a ladder, but there are two ways down. I have always preferred to climb down carefully – actually more carefully than climbing up – because of the alternative method for descending. This is also true for economic societies. Economic growth is the way up, but thus far we have really only tried economic collapse as the way to get down. We have not yet learned how to or the need for climbing down with care.
In fact, human economic systems are not designed to climb down, and so, new sections of ladder must be added at the top forever. The Mesopotamians got into trouble with Yahweh (or a brother) for a form of this absurdity by building the tower of Babel; we (meaning We) are getting into trouble with the infinitely more potent Biophysical Reality for our absurdity.
It should be clear to even the casual observer (but is not) that economic growth cannot continue either forever or even very much longer. It should also be clear (but is not) that, like any good physical system, actions have their opposing forces: one must push down to climb up and economic growth of the developed world has been made possible by pushing down on the backs of the undeveloped world.
Humanity is facing, or rather is hiding its face from, the reality that it must begin to climb down the ladder of economic growth or fall from it. What is completely unclear is how to do that. Have you ever seen a dog climb a ladder? It can go up, but when reaching some height it cannot come down. The dog begins to shake with fear, some will bite those who try to help and they will fall unless rescued. It is not a pretty sight: a friendly family pet turned shaking, whining and vicious; suddenly just striking out as though it could walk on the air and tumbling, bone-breakingly, down the useless rungs of the ladder .
Humans are not dogs. We have mastered ladders; our climbing limbs and prehensile thumbs let us ‘thumb our noses’ at gravity’s best work. But can our brains and cultures perform as well? With them we have climbed to great heights of energy use, material manipulation and real wealth extraction and sequestration. The consequences are becoming unavoidable and we must begin to climb down.
Human beings must begin to slow the rate of the increasing consequences of our presence on the earth, stop increasing altogether and then begin to reduce human impact on every measure. Ultimately the other things – revolution in Egypt, the legal structure of social security, the proliferation of lies we are told – don’t really matter, they are acne on a terminal cancer patient. Economic growth must end; we must begin to climb down.
But, of course, these other things do matter because they prevent us from being able to see the real source of our danger. These things are the unavoidable product of growth and our coming to the end of growth, of having climbed as high as we are going to go and facing the immediate and multiple prospects of falling; but they are also smoke screen to hide these very same facts.
But like a dog at the top of a ladder, we have absolutely no way down; every official option for “correcting” our present troubles is some form of ‘returning to economic growth.’ Demand must be increased. Production must be increased. New products must be developed. This or that industry saved. Wealth must be created. Mines must be dug. Ground must be cleared, tilled and planted. Water must be pumped. Salaries must be raised. Inflation must be adjusted to incentivize growth, not too much, not too little. There is no plan to climb down and there has never been one.
First we need the ideas, the imaginings, and then the search for how to manifest the imaginings. There can be no change in policy from the very top of the ladder where all that glitters is gold. What will be required is a change in understanding, a change in how certain concepts organize our actions and experiences; changes that glimmer for a moment in ten thousand different places until enough can happen all at once to bring the light to see.
Property, wealth, community, social responsibility, excess, these and other concepts have been formed around a process of conquest and domination: first to the immediately surrounding regions, then geographical domains and now the whole biosphere and all that inhabits it.
Property must be seen, not as possession, but as responsibility. Wealth seen as the capacity to meet the needs of community, and as sourced in the environment not in individual human beings. The goal of life must become the finding and expressing of the full measure of our biological and consciousness order natures. Trivializing the remarkable living and consciousness states by equating them with buying personally useless and environmentally damaging objects is ignoble beyond comprehension.
The metaphor of climbing down gives some guidance; there is the changing direction of all motions, the feelings are all different, the focus is different. There is so much that we do not need. There is so much that we waste. There are so many things that we each personally need to be able to do: competencies that we have lost, capacities unexplored and unfulfilled.
A ladder gives only one direction to go in; two, if you count climbing down. Once you make it back to the ground you can go anywhere.
 Some dogs have been trained to climb down ladders without falling just as some humans have personally discovered how to ‘climb down’ the economy without catastrophe, but these are far from the common examples. It is even unclear what we can learn from them. It is perhaps best that dogs not climb ladders in the first place! In fact most dogs cannot be made to climb a ladder, showing a wisdom that should make a sapiens blush.