A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two
Sunday, June 26, 2011
Economic Growth Must End
You don’t have to be a biologist or medical doctor to know what happens if you run out of food or a Mercedes factory trained mechanic to know what happens when your car runs out of gas. And you don’t need to be an MIT or Chicago trained economist to grasp the personal implications of a slowing and reversal of economic growth – it means just what it sounds like: there will be less; less electricity, less gasoline, less natural gas, less food, less heat in winter, less cooling in summer, less water and less certainty that the water is safe to drink. And there will be less money, so everything that there is less of will cost more.
None of this means that there will be less need to do work. Less of everything means that greater effort will be required to obtain what is needed; this would be especially true in the period of adaptation. More effort to sustain ourselves with essentially less of almost everything is a frightening prospect, but there is no alternative; growth cannot continue forever in a finite space with finite resources.
Here are comments from several of the people who have been most invested in discovering the truth of our situation. Be clear, none of them are happy about what they have to say; these words are forced from them by the undeniable truths of their studies:
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“In the absence of enormous and ever-increasing NNR (Nonrenewable Natural Resources) supplies, the 1.2 billion people who currently enjoy an industrialized way of life will cease to do so; and the billions of people aspiring to an industrialized way of life will fail to realize their goal.” (Christopher Clugston)
“Over the course of your lifetime society will need to solve some basic problems: How to reorganize our financial system so that it can continue to perform its essential functions—reinvesting savings into socially beneficial projects—in the context of an economy that is stable or maybe even shrinking due to declining energy supplies, rather than continually growing.” (Richard Heinberg)
“Many who have looked at the combined challenge of energy and climate change have concluded that our civilization, having completed its exuberant, flamboyant phase, is headed toward a dramatic simplification and re-localization of life and the end of economic growth as we have known it.” (James Gustave Speth)
“If we cannot move at wartime speed to stabilize the climate, we may not be able to avoid runaway food prices. If we cannot accelerate the shift to smaller families and stabilize the world population sooner rather than later, the ranks of the hungry will almost certainly continue to expand.” (Lester R Brown)
“The global challenges in the offing, (…), are further complicated by our failure to communicate effectively about the potentially pernicious results that could be derived from having recklessly grown a soon to become patently unsustainable, colossal global economy, the one which we have artificially designed, conveniently constructed, and relentlessly expanded without enough conscious, intelligent regard for the biophysical requirements of practical reality.” (Steve Salmony)
‘Can the economy grow fast enough in real terms to redeem the massive increase in debt? In a word, no. As Frederick Soddy (1926 Nobel Laureate chemist and underground economist) pointed out long ago, “you cannot permanently pit an absurd human convention, such as the spontaneous increment of debt [compound interest] against the natural law of the spontaneous decrement of wealth [entropy]”.’ (Herman Daly)
“Any value for carbon in the atmosphere greater than 350 parts per million is not compatible with the planet on which civilization developed, into which life on Earth is adapted. Getting back to 350 parts per million will be very, very tough -- the toughest thing human beings have ever done -- but there is no use complaining about it. It's just physics and chemistry. That's what we have to do.” (Bill McKibben)
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Not only is continued growth not possible, it is not beneficial even if it were possible. The incentive structure of a growth economy moves relentlessly toward pressures for end users to use as much as possible, even as there are moderating influences on production processes for efficiency. Only in the using up, replacing and adding new to “consumables” does the economy grow in size. The simplest image of this is the correct one, that is, raw material being turned more and more rapidly into trash as it passes through the possession, use and spoilage of the user. Either the amount used must increase per capita or the numbers of users must increase or both.
Economies that last are not based on this principle, but rather by being incentivised to use as little as possible – to get as much utility from raw material as possible and to replenish raw stocks as a condition of using them. Such an economy does not grow in the sense that present human economies demand increasing amounts of raw stock in every iteration.
All of evolution has taken place on this second model, yet there has been growth in complexity to the point that a creature evolved the capacity of realization. At the physiological level a sponge or a jellyfish is essential equivalent to the mammals. At the broader biological level chimps and humans are almost indistinguishable. But, at the functional level in the environment each level of complexity has vastly greater powers. These differences were all come to in a no-growth natural economy.
This means that a human no-growth economy is possible, structured on incentives more like those of natural economies. Artistic achievement, scientific understanding, personal spiritual relationship with the universe and more could continue. The pace would be slower, more inline with the replenishment rates of natural systems. There would be less ‘stuff’, much less stuff. Dwellings would be constructed for utility. Life would be much more physically localized even as communication could be, if we don’t so completely trash our present world that little is left, global and remarkably interactive.
There are more and more complex arguments that can be and must be made, but it is a fairly simple thing that must actually happen. We must begin to use less energy and material, dramatically less. We must understand that economic growth, even if it continues, is no longer growth at all but the final and fatal parasitism of the living space by our species. The uncertainties and failures of our economic system are the direct consequence of overgrowth and will not be repaired with “new and innovative financial instruments”, we should have seen that clearly by now.
The militarism of one nation against another and, soon enough, against a hungry and demanding Great Many is the direct consequence of overgrowth; as is environmental destruction and bio-devastation. Yet, with these realities immediately in front of us, the madness that we can “grow our way” out of a growth created result is still the official “wisdom” or better ‘wise doom.’
The State and corporate powers will not lead us out of this dilemma; there is no profit and less power in it. A critical mass of people must begin to understand and act. There is no other way.