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

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Economic Growth Must End, More!

I dislike repeating myself, and yet, the several years I spent teaching taught me that repetition, constructed in many different designs, is essential for both acquisition and comprehension, to wit: 

It is the best considered opinion of the world’s biologists, chemists and physicists (and those specialties arising out of these in ecology, climate science, oceanography, etc.) that the earth’s solar energy distributing systems, as well as life support systems, are being changed extremely rapidly, primarily by human activity.  Increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are increasing the amount of solar energy being stored up in especially the oceans, but also in the atmosphere and the land. 

Chemical changes are taking place in surface waters and the atmosphere at rates to which most living things cannot adapt, and so, complexity in ecosystems will be reduced (this is a ‘polite’ way of saying that many of the earth’s most interesting species will go extinct leaving simplified ecosystems of smaller, fewer, more generalized species).

There is but one way to avoid these effects; it is for human activity to both reduce and change in response to ecological principles.  This is so simple that one wonders at the difficulty accompanying its understanding: if the sink is overflowing, turn off the water; if the car is becoming dangerously unstable as you speed up, then slow down.

If economic growth exacerbates all of the human activities that are driving the individual details of environmental abuse, then it must be turned off.  Where is the ambiguity?  If increasing human numbers and increasing per capita demand on the earth’s productive capacity are the culprits in climate change, extinctions and biodiversity loss, environmental contamination and disruption of geochemical cycles, then they must cease increasing and begin to deduce.  Where is the confusion?

And yet all I read is that we must return to “healthy economic growth.”  China has “experienced nearly 10% economic growth over the last several years” – and this is a good thing that we should desire.  The middle class is being destroyed by the “economic downturn.” 

People, whom I otherwise respect, compartmentalize on this issue: yes, we must slow the rate of climate change; yes, the loss of habitat and biodiversity will ruin the quality of life, now and in future; no, we can’t tolerate low economic growth. How crazy is that? And then there are those who say, “How can you talk about the middle class having less when the rich capitalists are the culprits? Aren’t you making the austerity argument for the economic elite? We need to return to the American Dream of economic growth for the common man, not just for the wealthy.”

But, I compartmentalize on this issue in my own life.  I have arranged to live my remaining years on social security (a wealth storage system partially based in the commons into which I have been paying since the late 1950s) – about $40 a day in a world where half the people (3.5 billion) are living on $2 a day or less – even though the very construction of the Social Security System is growth based.

I live rather grandly with ample to eat.  I am warm enough in winter and cool enough in summer.  I have a rather good selection of tools (and what I don’t have my children do – either mine “borrowed” or their own) to repair my old car – that I would rather do without, but the distances and alternatives in the western U.S., almost, require a car.  I have a wonderful old motorcycle that I can take apart and put back together on a park bench; and so can go anywhere that a filthy gasoline engine will take me.

My wealth also includes, but is not limited to, two computers, several cameras, many many feet of books with the appropriate shelving, good guitars, two bicycles, a variety of secondhand furniture, camping and other recreational gear and a concession or two to media entertainment.  By my own choice I do not have heated water, cable or other connection to the media universe and have almost no association with the insurance or medical systems.  My children require that I have a cell phone with data link for my travels.

I am never bored or at a loss for how to spend my time; there has never been enough time in a day for me do, go, try, read, construct, repair, learn about, etc., all that I would like.  I would like to think that my accumulations of stuff only support my non-material interests, but that would be fooling myself; no, I am still part of the problem.

If most of the world’s people were to live at my level of “American” simplicity, that would require that either those wealthier than me would have to give up much or most of that wealth to those poorer than me or the world’s economies would have to more than double while devoting the vast proportion of that growth to the world’s poor; something that also has never happened before… and the world couldn’t stand in any case.

Which points out a seeming paradox of economic growth: even as the world’s total wealth has grown, the number of people deeply impoverished, to the level of being developmentally diminished, has grown faster.  So, not only has economic growth resulted in the abuse of the environment from which that growth comes, but it has produced and amplified the greatest tragedy of human suffering in human history.

These things are true.  There is no alternative data showing that people are actually healthy on low protein, vitamin free, low calorie diets.  Starvation in childhood is not an inconvenience that the highly motivated overcome.  It is time that we both realize and admit that it is the wealthy world’s pathological attachment to economic growth that is killing the planet and sustaining a measure of suffering that, if summed up as an audible anguished cry, would pierce the souls of all but the most dedicated psychopaths.

Now comes the hard part; so let us ease our way into it. The abuses being suffered by the world’s ecosystems and the abuses being suffered by essentially half the world’s human population are not natural occurrences like the weather, but result from the large and growing size of the human population and the technologically amplified uses of the earth’s productive capacity.  If ‘too many’ is the cause, then ‘fewer’ becomes an obvious solution.

But in a monumental and mad disconnection, agreement that ‘too many and too much’ is the cause is not followed by ‘less and less must be our goal’, rather the face goes blank, the eyes spin and pops from the mouth the recording, “We must grow our way out of this.”

Let it become an article of faith: we will not grow our way out of the economic and ecological dilemmas our incredible expansion has created.  The ultimate simplicity must become clear: the answer to too much is less, not more.

The only question is how to do less.  The tiny disturbance of our present economic systems is a clue; a system that has no way of dealing with slowing and reversing while continuing to perform its function is certain to fail with catastrophic consequences.  Just think of any physiological system: run and the heart goes faster, sit down and the heart goes faster, sleep and the heart goes faster, die and the heart tries to go faster!

If every human being who could do with less, essential 2 billion people who have ‘a little more’, were to consciously decide to use less; what would be the consequences?  If the great “Middle Classes” were to decide to redevelop the skills that being personally in charge of remaining alive required; what would be the consequences? [1]

The present tiny economic “downturn”, engineered by the economic elite for their own benefit, is a timely warning with these messages: The first is that most human beings are, by either acceptance or fact, at the (nonexistent) mercy of the present economic system; as long as people in general have no skills appropriate to meeting their actual biological needs, then they are at the mercy of who or what ever will supply them. The second is that the present economic system has no capacity for adjusting down, only up, and is designed to serve the interests of the most insane and inhumane among us.  The third is that most people actually understand this at some level and live in socially modulated states of terror (known as consumerism) as a consequence [2].

The forth is that there are no, zero, nada, efforts being made institutionally to understand or act on this most serious problem in the history of humanity.  Individuals, families, communities are on their own. The economic system, and increasingly the political system, is designed so that your own needs enslave you to them.  The first steps to emancipation are to use less – beyond tokenism.  And then take less from the economic world, less money, fewer products from the most economically and environmentally destructive sources.  Fill in the gaps with your efforts and skills.  Use and support the commons; parks, forests, libraries, public transportation.  Learn the skills to repair your house, your car and other things.  Grow a garden and learn to safely store its produce; use community gardens, or help create one if you have no access to land.

The goal is to free yourself from the economic system so that you are no longer a slave.  Even nations with more or less humane welfare systems still are growth dependent and require such a response.  If enough people try this with some small, consistent success, the economic system will adapt by either discovering ways to slow down without collapsing, or the attempt to be free of the economic system will be criminalized.  Either way the next step will begin to come clear. 

[1] There are, of course, the 1% users, the 0.1% users, who are taking the earth’s productive capacity at rates hundreds, even thousands, of times greater than the rest of us; these people are generally not right in the head and will never get with the program – the program will have to get to them.  As part of this understanding it should be clear that what we call the middle classes in the developed countries are in no way median or modal in the world.

[2] You say this doesn’t make sense?  Just think about the massive anxiety created by consumer-holidays like Christmas, birthdays, etc.  Think about the consumer-riots at reduced price sales.


Karl Franz Ochstradt said...

Muy bueno.

john said...

Interesting article, though I view the slowing down of economic growth not so much as a question of choice, but as an inevitability, and as such, the necessity to adapt being the critical concern. In this there may be room for optimism, because humans are certainly more adept at adapting than they are at making intelligent, preventive choices.

Still, I worry about the 1% eugenicists and their gas mask mentality.

James Keye said...


I agree that economic contraction is inevitable, but there are different ways of conceiving this. A leaking boat will inevitably sink, but the occupants might prepare and not drown. General and rapid economic contractions forced by resource limits, political and ecological collapses would result in the complete devastation of the planet’s surface – humans have the power to literally scorch the earth.

Adaptation has to occur within a system of interacting forces; in this case either within the living system as biological evolution or the consciousness system with the development, spread and acceptance of Story. The consciousness system is unique in its capacity to test out options before the fact. I have little hope that the species will avoid the adaptations forced upon it by events, but there is the possibility. And it is that possibility that I will argue for and model for the remaining years of my life.

Herr Ochstradt,

Gracias, mi amigo.

john said...

Well, you're talking about the survival of civilization(I, too, will vouch for that), as opposed to the survival of the nonrational animal.

It's possible that other "consciousness systems" could serve the nonrational animal if events so dictate.

Unless they are in the vicinity of dry land, those occupants of the sinking boat will drown no matter how well they are prepared.

Karl Franz Ochstradt said...


Footnote 2 is a big piece of the picture for me when I contemplate how bizarre things are going to get.

Addiction comes in all forms, it's not just booze-drugs-sex-gambling that are objects of addiction. Those holiday sale panics show an addiction to consumerism that's going to blow a lot of people's cools and minds and senses of stability when they can't get their next trinket-fix when the jones is on and riding high. When it happens for months on end, a lot of cracking is going to occur. We'll see more domestic violence, aggressive driving will become the norm for many, and people will generally stop being half-civil to one another.

That's before we get any widespread public (business or government or most religions) admission of what's happened.

Once it's admitted formally in some significant public way, even more people will crack. Their sense of identity, of their country and society and what they really ARE... boom!

Wild rides ahead for most.

Karl Franz Ochstradt said...

PS: Garth Turner's blog about fiscal stability and real estate in Canada is an interesting read for those who think that this is just some strange slump we're in, or that James's main entry above is over-reacting. Turner's blog is a little humorous too, so it's not a full-downer to read.


I don't know him; I'm not "boosting" or anything like that. Just sharing some indicia from across the northern border.

James Keye said...


I use as integrated system that includes physical, living (a specialized form within the physical order) and the consciousness system (a specialized form within the living order). It is in that sense that I use ‘consciousness’ or ‘consciousness order.’ In this way of thinking there is only one consciousness order, just as there is only one evolutionary process – though both have very complex details.

The understanding of rational v. nonrational is far from obvious.


I definitely see addiction as a part of the puzzle, but there are overlaps between addiction, habit and cultural Story. Without a grounding experience as part of everyone’s life much of this is moot. Thanks for the reference to Turner’s blog.

john said...

Some complex details

Karl Franz Ochstradt said...

there are overlaps between addiction, habit and cultural Story.

Yep. The addiction component/aspect is reinforced by, and/or caused by, an individual's habit(s) as well as the Story (or myth) the individual believes about his/her culture.

In America many believe that growth can be sustained eternally and this is a powerful myth within American culture -- this, and the parallel myth that growth is beneficial. I don't know many fellow American residents who are able to argue convincingly WHY growth is either positive, or sustainable into eternity. It's much more like a religious belief, less like a well-reasoned, thoughtful conclusion.

If one assumes that growth is both beneficial and forever sustainable, then it becomes really easy to believe that we need to invade Iraq, Iran, and every other oil-possessing nation so that the oil may be "shared for the progress and benefit of all" (or whatever soaring rhetoric is used to disguise the theft-by-force).

When most cultural signals are derived through media outlets owned by people at the top of the power pyramid, the signals are destined to reinforce what helps those atop the pyramid maintain their apex position.

James Keye said...


I thought those three words might strike your fancy. There are many analogs in physical systems for the behaviors of living systems precisely because living systems in their details are physical actions. It is in all of these details collected together and integrated in a global form and functional design that life resides. Central to this is that there be an information nexus specially and uniquely devoted to the total of form and function of the living system: the carbon-based system with which we are familiar has DNA/RNA/protein as its information Nexus (I generally shorten this to “DNA/Protein nexus”). If, by the most ‘impossible’ of impossibilities, the conditions of organization were to come together – or be made to come together – for many analogs of life, and that collection were to look ever so much like living substance, if that collection didn’t have the information nexus to select, store and implement all of the relevant information for that system, then it would still only be the puppet, not the boy.

The Consciousness Order is also a fully functioning system of order with its own forms and functions – and vitally, an information nexus, but a diffuse one that operates through a very plastic localized device (brain, computer or other actuator), very different in form from the highly structured localized information nexus of living things. But otherwise Consciousness has the major property of a complete system: it creates its own probability structure of occurrences. High probability occurrences for Physical systems are galaxies, stars, planets and atoms. High probability occurrences for Living systems are bacteria, bivalves and baleen whales. High probability occurrences for Consciousness systems are currencies, corporations and Chrysler LeBarons.


The only objection that I have to your vivid and, in my opinion, completely accurate portrayal of our current condition is the minor (but to me important) distinction between the way I use ‘Story’ and the idea of myth (see above). Story is the information nexus for the Consciousness Order; sometimes it comports with Reality and sometimes not. Effective adaptation requires that the main thrusts of Story align with Reality more often than not and human creative flair often ignites out of those times when it does not.

john said...

"High probability occurrences for Consciousness systems are currencies, corporations and Chrysler LeBarons."

Like I said in my original comment:

"...humans are certainly more adept at adapting than they are at making intelligent, preventive choices."