We all kind of know that the system of economic growth we are hooked on is not sustainable. However, it is so pervasive in how we understand the world that envisioning life without it is almost impossible. Take the concept of ‘economic growth’. Put simply, without growth we stagnate. Without an overall increase in the stuff we consume, own, or waste year on year, quarter by quarter, our economy is seen to be failing. In fact our politics dwells in the ever present fear of the spectre of of this terrible thing called recession. So much so that we allow them to sacrifice support to the poorest and weakest of our number by cutting social supports in the name of ‘stimulating growth.’
There was a brilliant article by George Monbiot in The Guardian yesterday in which he said this;
Let us imagine that in 3030BC the total possessions of the people of Egypt filled one cubic metre. Let us propose that these possessions grew by 4.5% a year. How big would that stash have been by the Battle of Actium in 30BC? This is the calculation performed by the investment banker Jeremy Grantham.
Go on, take a guess. Ten times the size of the pyramids? All the sand in the Sahara? The Atlantic ocean? The volume of the planet? A little more? It’s 2.5 billion billion solar systems. It does not take you long, pondering this outcome, to reach the paradoxical position that salvation lies in collapse.
To succeed is to destroy ourselves. To fail is to destroy ourselves. That is the bind we have created. Ignore if you must climate change, biodiversity collapse, the depletion of water, soil, minerals, oil; even if all these issues miraculously vanished, the mathematics of compound growth make continuity impossible.
Put like that, the whole pursuit of economic growth is madness right? Monbiot says more than this however, he points out this kind of economic growth was only ever possible because of the fossil fuels that we have been burning for the last 300 years or so;
Economic growth is an artefact of the use of fossil fuels. Before large amounts of coal were extracted, every upswing in industrial production would be met with a downswing in agricultural production, as the charcoal or horse power required by industry reduced the land available for growing food. Every prior industrial revolution collapsed, as growth could not be sustained. But coal broke this cycle and enabled – for a few hundred years – the phenomenon we now call sustained growth.
It was neither capitalism nor communism that made possible the progress and pathologies (total war, the unprecedented concentration of global wealth, planetary destruction) of the modern age. It was coal, followed by oil and gas. The meta-trend, the mother narrative, is carbon-fuelled expansion. Our ideologies are mere subplots. Now, with the accessible reserves exhausted, we must ransack the hidden corners of the planet to sustain our impossible proposition.
How do we stop this? Monbiot thinks that first of all we have to SEE it, but most of us simply do not;
The inescapable failure of a society built upon growth and its destruction of the Earth’s living systems are the overwhelming facts of our existence. As a result, they are mentioned almost nowhere. They are the 21st century’s great taboo, the subjects guaranteed to alienate your friends and neighbours. We live as if trapped inside a Sunday supplement: obsessed with fame, fashion and the three dreary staples of middle-class conversation: recipes, renovations and resorts. Anything but the topic that demands our attention.
Statements of the bleeding obvious, the outcomes of basic arithmetic, are treated as exotic and unpardonable distractions, while the impossible proposition by which we live is regarded as so sane and normal and unremarkable that it isn’t worthy of mention. That’s how you measure the depth of this problem: by our inability even to discuss it.
Step forward then the politician who is prepared to say that economic growth is no longer desirable nor advisable, and that we need to learn to love what we have, to mend stuff, to share stuff and to live within our localities.
Who is going to vote for such heresy?
Or shall we just blame it all on the immigrants?