The Sky Is Falling!

sky falling

The Guardian, always a source of well-written news and commentary, carried an article on the looming reality of no-growth economies. This has been a central issue in my course, Exploring Sustainability, at Marlboro College Graduate Center. This trimester we are examining economic models consistent with sustainability, and reading about the new economics that the article refers to. The columnist takes a long view of the likelihood on maintaining continuing economic growth policies far into the future, and argues that it just isn’t going to happen. The author, Richard Heinberg, begins with:

The tide of economic growth that has flowed since the second world war may finally be ebbing. For politicians and most economists, this is like saying the sky is falling. Growth has become guidepost and grail, the sine qua non of economic existence. Growth is necessary to job creation and the health of businesses. Without growth the rolls of the homeless and jobless swell, requiring governments to shoulder more responsibility; yet at the same time tax revenues fall, making both new and existing government debt unbearable.

In spite of the hegemony of growth policies driving policy at all ends of the political spectrum, the appearance of fault lines may be starting to crack the foundations of growth. The inescapable limits of the Earth’s resources, long ignored by ever-optimistic (or simply blind and deaf) economists and the politicians they advise are showing themselves in increasing stark behaviors. The article continues by pointing out limits within the global financial system itself. Rising energy costs, that can only get higher as supply diminishes and demand grows, will make the cost of goods more expensive and damp down ultimate consumer demand, the primary driver in most growing economies.

Life will not come to a screeching halt, the article continues:

Still, over the longer term there will undoubtedly be life after growth, and it doesn’t have to play out under miserable conditions. With less energy to fuel globalisation and mechanisation there should be increasing requirement for local production and manual labour. We could meet everyone’s basic needs by prioritising jobs in manufacturing and agriculture while downsizing the financial industry and the military. We will also have to reduce economic inequality and corruption (as the rapidly spreading Occupy movement rightly insists).

The failure to provide individual “growth” through more economic goods can be offset, says Heinberg, by a focus on the quality of life. Easy to say, but hard to define and achieve, as I discuss in my book. The shift from quantity to quality is a critical and necessary move in keeping the world from falling into discord and decay. It is always good to see articles like this in the “mainstream media,” even if one has to travel abroad to find them, but it leaves out a very important part of the story. How do we get from here to there?

The desirability of moving to a low- or no-growth economy might be recognized by some world leaders, but no serious strategies that will not threaten large numbers of existing institutions and personal situations have come forth. Leveling the economic strata will produce many winners and losers, and will be opposed by those who wield power today, including politicians. The Occupy movement notwithstanding, the tea leaves appear to be telling me that the power of the hegemons and plutocrats is only going to increase in the future, unless some major upset changes the game. Paul Gilding, whose best selling book, The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World, believes that some major crisis will come before any significant policy changes will be made. He sees this a “necessary” step in coming to grips with the reality of both natural and human limits, and is hopeful (the only word to use in this situation) that human innovative capability will be able to contend with the challenges.

This kind of article only scratches the surface. Everything said is grounded, but only at the topsoil level, and fails to get down to the subsurface strata. Most reporters and analysts fail to ask enough questions about why this is happening. There is some resignation that shows up by blaming greed as an inherent human quality. I suppose I would be resigned too if I believed it. But I do not. We might get real about limits if the complexity of the world were to become the model policy makers rest on instead of the partial models in play. The same goes for the models of human behavior. Greed and its relatives have become reinforced by the beliefs, norms, and institutions of modern economies to the point of appearing fundamental and immanent. Care has been relegated to the “caregivers,” professionals who are trained to deliver care to various segments of society. The fundamental quality of care that I believe is the core of human existence has been buried by the same structure that elevates greed. Every article pointing out the dangers ahead, like the one I point to, needs to avoid dealing only with the superstructure and, at least, accept the necessity of digging much deeper.