Is there an alternative to constant economic growth?
By Robert Wolff article link
August 18, 2010 | OpEdNews
Americans, and perhaps others as well, have become so used to thinking that growth is a necessity for a heathy economy that alternatives are impossible to imagine. We don't even have a word for not growing, or growing down. We lack the words to have a dialogue about the fact that on this planet indefinite growth is an impossibility. Even the warmth and light (energy) we get from the sun is not indefinite and varies all the time. Nothing on this earth grows without eventually dying. It is obvious but perhaps difficult to accept, that life is not possible without death. Does it not follow then that even in a manmade concept such as "the economy' there cannot be continuing growth. Yes, the human population of the planet is still growing, but on closer examination it is clear that it is now growing much less than ten or twenty years ago, and the present growth is more from people living longer than from more babies being born. There is an end to population growth. Demographers compute the end at somewhere between nine and ten billion people -- the current number of people is estimated to be close to seven billion. Within countries population growth is influenced not only by more, or less births than deaths but also by immigration and emigration. Economists and especially politicians assume a continuing growth of the population of the US, therefore requiring a continually growing economy. Figures I have seen, and therefore known by economists and even politicians show that during the last ten or more years the economy has kept up with population growth, but only if counting total incomes. Closer examination of those figures shows that income of the so-called "middle class' actually went down and the very richest 2% has gained enormously.
I do not understand much of the relationship between money. production, and consumption. Economists clearly do not agree on economic theories. Some economists say it is not possible to grow without increasing production, others say we must increase consumption even if what we consume is imported because we don't make much any more in this country except arms. But what exactly is measured when the experts measure growth? Is it how much we buy, how much we earn, how much the country's economy expands? Or is it an esoteric formula that puts all those and other factors together.
There is an organization, originating in Quebec, I believe, called Décroissance Conviviale. The organization spread to French speaking countries in Western Europe, and there was an attempt to get something going in the US, using a literal translation of the original: Convivial Degrowth. The French décroissance is an existing word, meaning un-growing, growing down, not growing but lessening -- but the concept is obviously so strange to English speakers that there is no word for it. We are so certain that growth can go on forever that we do not have a nice word like convivial for the opposite of growth. The American economy is based solidly on the idea that the economy can, must, ought to grow forever.
I cannot even imagine that anyone who knows anything about this planet can seriously accept the idea that something, anything, on this planet could grow forever. Growth without the balance of dying is an impossibility.
It Is now mid-summer 2010. The American economy is stagnant to use a nice word, not growing in any case. The President now and then gives a cheerful talk that there were some new jobs created last month, carefully not mentioning that more jobs were lost. The Republicans, and apparently the heads of the G20 countries, decided that we must tighten our belts because everybody has debts. Enormous debts because we were told it was a matter of life and death that the banks would be paid for their losses and, although nobody ever mentions that when talking about money, we are fighting two extremely expensive wars. As a result of our government's magnanimity last year the big banks and other financial institutions had their best year ever, double digit profits, huge bonuses. Now the banks are sitting on their money, holding onto trillions of dollars or whatever currency they hold money in. True, interest rates are low, but if they were higher nobody would buy bonds, and then the US (and probably other governments) could not pay their bills because they must rely on borrowing money to operate at all.
I try to understand economics, money, but it is beyond my capacity to understand. What's worse is that I have a suspicion that nobody else quite understands what is going on either. Economists are disagreeing with each other, often for political reasons more than economic "science' if there is such a thing as a science of economy.
What would a world, or a nation, look like whose economy is not expected to grow forever? Not hard to to imagine. That is how most of the world's people lived sixty years ago. We always lived sustainably naturally. Of course. We would not have survived otherwise. First we were hunter/gatherers, finding food where it grows naturally, leaves, roots, fruit. Building shelter with what we found around us, bamboo in the tropics, blocks of ice or snow in the arctic. In deserts we sought shade from trees. On low islands we found food in the lagoon. The greatest talent of humans was that we could adapt to an amazing variety of environments. First People for a long time were nomads, they never stressed any environment more than it could carry. We knew not to eat the whole plant, but leave some to grow back for next year. But even First Man knew greed: scientists think we eradicated the Mammoth, killing much more than we could possibly eat or use. And one kind of human eradicated another kind of human over a period estimated at 40,000 years -- Cro Magnon Man, our fore-parents, eradicated Neanderthal Man. We don't know why. There are a few hints that we may have cross bred. In any case the more aggressive kind of humans survived.
Then, perhaps ten thousand years ago (a short time compared to the time we have existed) we invented staying in one place, which meant we had to force more plants to grow to support us, domesticate animals that could be domesticated for food and free labor. We controlled nature, but slowly, softly, we learned how far we could go. What we now call indigenous people all over the world developed different but sustainable life styles. Rice growers made terraces to control water and sustained the same life style for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. It was hard work, but it worked. They grew what they needed to eat, they made what tools they needed, they built shelter from what was around or what they could make with what they found around them.
The industrial Revolution changed humankind. We were great inventors but very poor visionaries or planners. We did not foresee what the steam engine, or the telegraph, would do to change the way we live, or think. Even now we don't foresee how, for instance, genetically manipulated plants and animals will work out twenty years from now. Looking back twenty years we now know that many of the supposedly scientific advances turned out to be dangerous or poisonous and always had unsuspected consequences. Because now we rush ahead, anything and everything we dream up has to make money immediately. When we began to ruthlessly, without foresight, plunder the earth of what we now call resources, our world became unsustainable. For too long we allowed the powerful to steal from the less powerful and so doing not only eradicated cultures, rain forests, and rivers, but endangered the planetary ecology which is what allows us to live on this planet.
Our history is remarkably thin about how we used to live, but we know there were empires four or five thousand years ago. The latest empire, ours, seems to be trying to survive the usual few hundred years by at least a presence all over the world, guarding current and future resources we need to drive our extremely wasteful, unsustainable culture. Americans use twice as much electricity per person as, for instance, Europeans. Modern humankind uses five times what the planet can and does provide in the form of energy, food, water, breathable air. To continue our life style we would need five planets but we have only one.
We badly need to ungrow, not grow. We need to live much simpler lives, smaller more efficient homes, no cars or much more efficient smaller cars. We need not only better health care, but more simple healthcare that can catch chronic diseases before they become chronic and then very expensive to treat. We need less rather than more. Somehow we must learn to adapt to what there is again. We knew how for thousands of years, now we think we must adapt the planet to our wants. Obviously a foolish impossibility.
One of the peculiar aspects of American culture is our denial of other people's ways. There are quite a few countries in Europe, South America, Asia, that live very close to sustainably and yet have many of the gadgets we have, their people are happier than we are, live longer, healthier. Americans are so convinced of a sort of uniqueness that we look down on everyone who lives differently than we do. We refuse to learn from others, as we refuse to learn from our own yesterday's mistakes. And we are not aware, or don't want to acknowledge, that we have become alone in the world, waging unwinnable wars, spending half our national income (or worse, borrowed money) on wars and planning for ever more ruthless wars in the future. We the People cannot see, and are not being told, that without question we will get to a point where we either have to hugely cut our war budget and tax the rich in proportion to their wealth or cease to exist as a nation.
And, of course, our economy is not the only aspect of our lives that is threatening our survival. More important perhaps is our continuing fouling of the air and water of the planet, and the plunder of our and other people's resources. In the last sixty years we have made more changes to the planet than were changed in the previous 200,000 years. Our western so-called civilization has so changed the planet that the climate is changing, and changing much more rapidly than we thought twenty years ago, more even than what scientists thought last year. A warmer world, a warmer, more acid ocean are dangers that effect all Life. Perhaps what is most dangerous is the increasing reduction of biodiversity, caused by our thoughtless destruction of rain forests, fouling rivers and the ocean, all of which threatens the planetary ecology. America now is perhaps the only country in the world where more than half of the people do not believe in global warming, climate change.
We here can no longer deny that the climate on this island is changing. This is the rainy side of the island. And, because on this side we have very little soil yet-- much of the land is relatively new lava-- we rely on regular rain; there is no ground water. We had two consecutive months with a total rainfall of a meager two inches. Plants and trees stopped growing, made almost no fruit, or died. We are daily seeing that happening. Fruit trees are at least a month behind the usual season. Trees have died or are dying. I'm growing all my own vegetables (in big pots) but have to water them almost daily. My water tank --yes, our water here is rainwater collected from my oversized roof, stored in a tank -- is not dangerously low yet, but I am very careful. Temperatures are unusually high for Hawai'i, where, "in the old days', we rarely had temperatures above 80. This summer it has been 85 and more almost every day. The doubters say this is an El Niño year; from now on all years will be El Niño years.
Pakistan is experiencing floods never before known. Russia has very un-Russian temperatures that cause uncontrollable forest fires that haze the air in big cities. Our American East Coast had temperatures of over a hundred, not once but many days in a row. Australia had or still has a killing drought. And yet some of our politicians insist that global warming is a hoax? And politicians cannot even talk about laws that might reduce our spewing CO2 into the atmosphere.
Shame on us. Don't we pride ourselves on being the world leader? Aren't we supposed to be the example? How can we ignore that it was our banks that almost totalled the planetary economy. For a long time we were the greatest polluter of the atmosphere, which, after all, we share with all Life on earth. Now China has surpassed us with a fraction of a percentage, but their population is three times ours, and they are much "greener' than we are. Where are the millions of green jobs the president promised? What is going on? Are we all asleep? Is the minority party closely tied to Big Money more powerful than the political majority? It certainly seems that way. Can't we understand that the enormous unemployment figures might have something to do with the fact that we don't make anything any more, we have outsourced our manufacturing jobs. The enormous debt that politicians suddenly worry about must have something to do with the extremely expensive wars we have been fighting for the past nine years. Where is the will to do something for the 15 million or more unemployed women and men in the richest country on earth? (If we still are; probably not). Why can't we do something about the millions of foreclosures? What's wrong with taxing where the money is? When are we going to be honest about why we are fighting two or more wars and maintaining a thousand bases across the globe? Is the president actually going to do what he promised to do: change Washington?
Or, are we so scared by the one word answer to all questions, "security," that we keep quiet while the corporations plunder what they have left of our earth and by doing that wipe out our future?
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