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Economic Growth Is Killing Us

We require an economic and political governance structure that ensures all human beings have access to basic necessities while reducing human pressure on the biosphere.

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We immediately require an economic and political governance structure that ensures all human beings have access to basic necessities while simultaneously reducing human pressure on the biosphere.

We are illusionists. There is very little that is physical in the world we’ve created and made ourselves to believe. From Friday to November to religious dogma to the boundaries of Russia to fiat currency to political parties … all are constructs – simplifications – to structure and order the world around us in our collective minds. We have the power to chart our future actions on this planet, and hence the flows of energy and matter that result from whatever rules guide our collective minds. If this is the case, then why do we fetishize a particular set of rules that understands human progress as continuous throughout (i.e. extraction, production, consumption and waste)? Why does the dominant human culture, which has extended to every corner of the globe, continually persist in advancing this goal, without comprehending the biophysical touchstone that allows such throughput to occur in the first place?

What we need now is nothing short of a revolution. One with a simple message that could kindle the hearts of billions of human beings on the planet: an economic and political governance structure that facilitates the distribution of wealth to ensure all human beings have access to basic necessities while simultaneously and immediately bringing down human pressure on the biosphere.

Why a Call for Mass Action Is Needed

Our economic system once was focused on what people did to natural resources and the labor necessary for transforming primary goods into products of value. Currency, as a simplifying means of ordering the process of exchange, was valued against a physical entity (be it cowrie shells or gold). The escalation of abstractions rapidly departing from biophysical reality started with the printing of money and proceeded towards the “bets” that the price of a good or service will rise or fall in the future. Indeed, whole fortunes and hence enormous consumptive pressure are built upon the invisible vagaries of speculation on price, rather than the physical quantity of the good itself. Somewhere along the line, the true value of natural resources fell completely by the wayside. The enormous imbalance between inflated economic demands on natural resources and the state of supportive ecosystems that are needed to feed material and energy flows into the real economy and serve as a waste repository has led to the environmental problems humanity faces. Biodiversity loss, deforestation, soil erosion, climate change, desertification, eutrophication, acidification, bioaccumulation of pesticides, overexploitation of fisheries and fossil fuel stocks, water pollution … all are rooted in a premise that an economy can and must grow infinitely.

Whole generations across the world are incessantly exposed to an individualistic, growth-based cultural norm. Cognitive neuroscience tells us that value systems are not easy to change once they become embedded. Children, even newborn babies, are indoctrinated by existing artifacts of social and economic institutions that structure how people live and relate to others. Loyalty to corporate greed is essentially being hard-wired into us. Perhaps the most frightening aspect of all lies in the enormous defense spending to ensure none of this logic ever changes. Yet human behavior has been shown time and again to be much broader than the narrow model of homo economicus as self-interested and concerned only with short-term material gain even within highly market-integrated societies.

As the untouchable few at the top of the economic ladder reap the benefits of a monistic globalized system working in their favor, the vast majority of us are not prepared to fight a very real threat to global survival by demanding immediate but relatively painless changes to modern lifestyles to avoid catastrophe. For those who might be inclined to make a call for change, there are sitcoms, shopping malls, celebrities and football to remind them that our life in the short-term is worth impending extinction. For the “bottom billion” on the short end of the economic string, daily survival means endless running by rules of the game and repeated losing. Indeed, the globalized economic growth engine has led to widening gaps between the rich and the poor both between and within nations, increased vulnerability by the poor to resource shortages and climate disasters and an increasing threat of economic instability in which one small speculative burst could send the whole precarious system falling down.

What do mainstream economists propose as solutions to these “external” problems?

The most commonly heard arguments are:

– Once there is sufficient economic growth, demand to remediate environmental problems will increase to fix the problems.

– Technological efficiency gains will reduce material input requirements and wastes released.

– Costs can be internalized by pricing impacts to the environment (e.g. carbon pricing).

The short answer to all three of these arguments are:

– Once there is sufficient economic growth, demand rises to shift environmental problems to other places on the Earth where they cannot be seen by those who can pay to have them shifted elsewhere.

– There may be efficiency gains, but these will be compensated for rapidly by lower costs and hence increased demand (e.g. flying).In addition, we shouldn’t overlook the delicate material and energy requirements to keep up with all these “gains” (e.g. rare earth metals for mobile phones or the energy demands of entire cities needed just to fuel Facebook’s computer farms).

– The true cost of the environment in economic terms is several times greater than the value of the world’s economy. This is pretty obvious, because without nature, there can be no economy. Hence, marginally pricing the environmental cost of a given product would collapse the economy. It should come as no wonder, then, why the full pricing of environmental costs doesn’t happen.

Demanding Change

Pulling ourselves out of the hole we have dug for ourselves requires action so drastic that the time to wait around simply to organize the next well-catered global conference of politicians and scientific experts may be too much. The economic growth ethic needs an immediate about-face. But only citizens, through mass protest, can orchestrate this kind of urgent action, given the circumstances. The problems we face are global and affect the human race. There is nothing partisan or ideological in this assessment.

Making such a transition requires economic pluralism that is regionally specific rather than a universal and dogmatic fixation on growth; heterodox measures of valuing goods and services and employment (yes jobs!) for people to use their skills to develop and experiment with locally appropriate and workable systems. Finally, we must remember that whatever we do may not be good for the “economy,” but the direction our “economy” is taking is itself far from good. We need not let ourselves face extinction. If we fail to get out onto the streets, the legacy of achievements of our past and the potential discoveries of the future will both be wiped away.

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