I read an article on climate change and economic growth the other day which really struck a chord with me. It looks at the impossible link between tackling climate change and sustaining economic growth. It also tackles the issues of another impossibility… sustained economic growth.
It a proper essay but it’s well worth a read. Just to preserve the text (as links won’t always get back to the right place over time), i’ve copied the first half to this post! Enjoy…
‘Six weeks from now, in Cancun, Mexico, the world’s nations will gather under the auspices of the United Nations (the UNFCCC) to again discuss how to alleviate climate change. They’ll try to pick up the broken pieces from last December in Copenhagen, where we witnessed tortured dances by government leaders trying to avoid the realities of our time, and the profound conundrums we face as a society. They accomplished nothing, and may reprise that performance in Cancun.
Take the case of President Obama. He generally signals a serious desire to address climate issues, but, like the leaders of all the developed industrial nations, has been caught in a terrible dilemma. He tries to argue for lower emissions limits, both globally and in the US. But he is simultaneously desperate to revive rapid economic growth and stimulate a sluggish industrial economy hampered by rising costs of energy, rapidly diminishing resources and venal bankers.
So, while Obama talked climate change in Copenhagen, he pushed for accelerated growth and consumption, emphasising such climate-deadly industries as private automobile production, new road construction, nuclear power generation, and continued coal extraction (including horrendous “mountain top removal”) while extolling an entirely theoretical “clean coal”. He was also for expanding manufacture of heavy industrial equipment, and for more export-oriented industrial agriculture, as well as “new housing starts”, increased oil drilling in deepwater zones – such as BP’s – and for deadly tar sands development, all in hopes of growth, profit and jobs.
Watching his performance from a distance, we really don’t know if he understands the contradictions in this pattern, how one goal cancels the other, or if he has simply made a “safer” political choice. If so, it’s safer only in the very short run, as the entire economic system, and possibly industrial-consumer society itself, face intrinsic systemic problems, which may not be solvable. Trying to save an old economic model that is near collapse, he may sacrifice the opportunity to mitigate climate change and save the world.
Does Obama know this? If so, wouldn’t it be “safer” politically to tell the truth about it? Some enlightened political leadership would be really helpful right now. But for the moment, the main point is this: in a choice between addressing the stresses of the planet and addressing the stresses of corporate capitalism, President Obama chooses the latter, while undermining the former.
Let’s be fair. Obama is not alone. The leaders of nearly all governments of the world – and their opposition leaders – exhibited similar internal conflict and timidity in Copenhagen. Even those with true desire to cut carbon felt that their priority was to also stimulate economic growth for their own industries, at all costs. Without growth, big businesses die, and so do national economies, and jobs. The whole system is threatened. That’s really all anyone talks about now.
Whether it’s the political left or right, Obama, or Cameron, or Sarkozy, or Putin, or Wen, or Harper or Miliband or Gingrich or Palin, or any political candidate for any office, they’re all talking about the necessity to stimulate growth. The media does, too, whether it’s the Guardian or the Murdoch press, the Financial Times or the New York Times. They all agree on the one thing: growth, growth, growth. That’s the lifeblood of the system. Everyone is hunting the magic elixir to revive rapid growth. How to build and sell more cars? How to increase industrial production, from computers to heavy equipment to industrial agriculture? How to increase exports?
But there’s a missing link in the discussion, ignored by nearly everyone in the mainstream debate: nature. They speak about our economy as if it were a separate entity, its own ever-expanding universe, unconnected to any realities outside itself, not embodied within a larger system from which, actually, it emerged and can’t escape. Nature cannot be left out of the discussion. It may be the most important detail of the entire conversation. Leaving it out of consideration is, well, suicidal. Here’s the point: never-ending growth on a small planet with finite resources is a profound impossibility. It’s an absurdity. A fantasy. It’s time to wake up.
The missing link
Look around you. The clothes you are wearing, the chair you are sitting in, the implements on the stove, the stove, the floor and walls of your room, its carpet, the lights and the switches, the electrical lines in the walls, your mobile phone, the road outside, the car you drive and all its tyres, wires, metals, glass, fabrics, batteries; airplanes, skyscrapers, tanks, missiles, computers … were all once minerals and metals dug up from the earth, then shipped around the world, transformed, assembled, shipped again to a store near you, and sold. Or else they were living beings: trees, plants, animals, fibres, corals that had their own independent existence. Even “synthetics” began as natural elements. Is your shirt made of polyester? Polyester is plastic. Plastic is oil. Oil used to be dinosaurs, trees, plants. All of it is nature. The entire material economy began as part of the earth, buried in the ground, or it grew from it, or it was alive before we transformed it. But it’s disappearing fast.
The whole situation is something new for capitalism, a shock. For two centuries it’s been like a closely guarded secret that the entire economic system we live in, and assumed was forever, is actually part of another larger system, but with only so many resources and dump sites. But the secret is out. We are eating up the materials that sustain us, and the feast is almost over.
During the great heydays of capitalism – the last two centuries of spectacular development and growth – we lived in what the great ecological economist Herman Daly called a “full world” of resources. We thought they were unlimited, some kind of permanent gift to the human race from God, so we could display our stewardship, or something. But it’s not a “full world” any more. Somebody should tell our leaders.
In addition to those climate impacts, we now face rapidly diminishing supplies of cheap oil and other fossil fuels. They call it “peak oil”. This is catastrophic for our system. Cheap fossil fuels were the primary engine that grew our society over the last two centuries. That’s soon over, and there is no combination of sustainable alternative replacements capable of maintaining industrial society at nearly its present level.
Perhaps ultimately even more important is the global scarcity of fresh water. The World Bank already predicts the next world war will be over water. Healthy topsoils are also seriously diminished, as are agricultural lands, converted to other uses, and global food supplies, which are ever more expensive. So are forests and their hundreds of crucial byproducts, as well as biodiversity of every kind, life in the oceans, coral reefs, and key minerals, including coltan (for your mobile phone), lithium, phosphorous, lead, zinc, tin, copper, gold, and hundreds of others. Following two centuries of voracious exploitation of every mineral, metal and biological resource, we will soon be facing what Daly calls an “empty world”.
Watch for the big announcement: THE PARTY IS OVER. Without ever-expanding resources, ever-expanding production and consumption, our economic growth model becomes a relic, instantly obsolete. But so far, no one in leadership roles (with one or two exceptions, as we will see) is admitting to that. If they know it, they’re too scared to say so.
• Jerry Mander is the founder of the San Francisco-based International Forum on Globalization. His books include Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, In the Absence of the Sacred, and The Case Against the Global Economy (with Edward Goldsmith) and Alternatives to Globalization (with John Cavanagh)
It seems that right now there is an increasingly urgent race to explore and find new sources of fossil fules (notably oil), with the Arctic areas now opening up, ironically due to the shrinking ice cover, due in turn to rising ocean temperatures. As the usage increases, the ice recedes faster and more warming occurs, along with higher sea levels. That’s a loop we’re all going to have to work VERY hard to break, sooner rather than later.
Anyway, the whole growth thing is quite bizarre, given that there is obviously a finite planet within which to grow, using finite resources. At the same time, the human population is increasing exponentially and the demand for those finite resources and space is also increasing. We would literally have to start shifting our population and damand to either the Moon or Mars, for this cycle to be disrupted or slowed.
I was thinking about the only infinite resource which humans have access to right now. That is the energy produced by the sun. Every other resource we have access to is finite. You’ve probably heard the following quote…
‘Enough solar energy falls on the earth’s surface every hour to power the whole of human civilisation for a year.’
Well, it’s the only energy source which can meet human’s demand for energy. It will be there until the sun dies (we’re talking billions of years) and everyone has access to it. Solar panels have now been specifically developed to work well in over-cast conditions. Right now, the only major block is electricity storage. If governments and private industry put as much effort and funding into this area of research, as they do for oil production and exploration, there would be a huge change of direction, affecting everyone on the planet, within maybe a generation.