November 29, 2012

Limits to Growth

Queen Elizabeth 1st took a bath once a year – whether she needed it or not.

Many people now take 2 showers - a day. This is very relevant to our current stage of consumption.
Consumption of our resources such as water, land, clean air and fossil fuels is now at an unsustainable level. 

At the time of Elizabeth 1st the world population was about half a billion. Today it is 10 billion. That is a lot of showers. Clearly there have been many improvements since the year 1500: we are now more hygienic, warmer, better fed and more healthy, but the way we have gone about improving our lifestyles has come at a price. And although we might think everything is quite expensive enough already, we are not actually paying the full price.

The full price would include the cost to the environment. Trees don’t bill us for their loss of forests, endangered animals do not bill us for their loss of habitat. The oceans ask no price for the pollution humans pour into them, and the air will not send us an invoice for the extra greenhouse gasses it has to burden. If the fish and whales took us to court for murder of their family members we would at least have more life left in the sea.

In 1972 a group of eminent scholars, called the Club of Rome, published a book called Limits to Growth.  They spent years pulling information together, then modelled it to create a future trend scenario. Their conclusions were that we were using up the natural resources of the planet too quickly, and if we did not change our ways, collapse was inevitable. Limits to Growth was an early warning siren. Sadly few people listened. 

Please do look at this very good explanatory graph and updated info here:

In essence, they estimated that if human beings continued to consume more than nature was capable of providing, global economic collapse and abrupt population decline could occur at around 2030. In other words humans are taking too much, and not giving enough back, and sooner rather than later there is going to be a very big problem.

Governments baying for economic growth at all cost are digging us deeper into the quagmire. They pursue this because they measure success in money, not in wellbeing or protection of the ecosystems on which we all actually depend in order to stay alive. 

Ever more dangerous and unwholesome methods are being used to extract fossil fuels. Tar sands are huge wasters of energy and put more CO2 into the atmosphere in their extraction than when they are burnt. Fracking - or hydraulic fracturing – pumps toxic chemicals into the ground to release small pockets of gas, deep sea oil drilling has an abysmal record, but still they do it.

But there is another way of doing business. Growth is still possible, but only if we invest in technologies such as renewable energy supplies, allocate money for innovation and research so that we can overcome our dependence on dirty fuels and convert to clean energies such as wind, tide and sun. We need to stop wasting so much, and stop polluting the air with CO2 and poisons from incinerators and dirty industries. We need to reuse more of what we have, and recycle more of what we need such as metals and plastics. Recycling leaves more in the resource pot for the next generation.

If you had the choice between a car burning fossil fuels, and a long and healthy life for your children, which would you choose?

Limits to growth was updated in 2008, and the data was found to remain relevant. Update document can be read here

June 02, 2012

Avarice is a vice, the exaction of usury is a misdemeanour, and the love of money is detestable. - John Maynard Keynes

Poised on the brink of economic meltdown as we are, governments all over the world are baying frantically for growth. But growth is not the answer to our problems.

Way back in the 1700’s Adam Smith recognized a limit to economic growth. He predicted that in the long run, population growth would push wages down, and natural resources would become increasingly scarce. 
Consider a steady state economy - an economy of stable or mildly fluctuating size, minimal chance of the boom and bust cycle, less opportunity for outright greed. The term can apply equally to a national economy, a local, regional, or global economy. To be sustainable, a steady state economy must not exceed ecological limits, and that is it’s most important attribute.

Our recent and unprecedented growth in economic activity has significantly shifted the balance of nature with potentially disastrous consequences for the ecology of the planet, for our own well-being but particularly for that of the next generation. It is a mistake to believe that more growth will diminish our problems. In the long term more growth would be a disaster, as continuous growth is completely incompatible with sustainability.

A steady state economy does not imply a stationary state of human improvement. There would be as much scope as ever for all kinds of mental culture, and moral and social progress; as much room for improving the Art of Living (and a bigger likelihood of it being improved), when minds cease to be engrossed by the shallow art of obtaining more money.

The human economy is embedded in nature, completely. Without the natural world to draw upon, there is nothing to make money from. But we have been perverse. We have exploited nature to its very limits, maybe beyond its ability to absorb our delinquency. Economic processes are actually biological, physical, and chemical processes. Humans don’t create anything, they transform it into something else – plastics, cars, toxic waste.
Economic growth cannot be relied upon to alleviate poverty either. On the contrary, economic growth has polarized wealth – mostly into the hands of the few. If the pie isn’t getting any bigger, we need to cut and distribute the pieces in a fair way. Poor people who have trouble meeting basic needs tend not to care about sustainability - how can they when the priority is finding the next meal. At the other end of the scale, excessively rich people tend to consume unsustainable quantities of resources. Fair distribution of wealth, therefore, is a critical part of sustainability and the steady state economy.

60 years ago, John Maynard Keynes said “The day is not far off when the economic problem will take the back seat where it belongs, and the arena of the heart and the head will be occupied or reoccupied, by our real problems – the problems of life and of human relations, of creation and behaviour and religion.”

Economic collapse is extremely painful. But environmental collapse - the collapse of the planet's support systems which sustain life on earth as we know it - that is truly unbearable.

Governments have their heads stuck in the past. They can only think of recreating what has been – growth. But the future will be different. The future needs the fairness and sustainability only steady state economics can bring.

February 10, 2012

Redefining Prosperity

50 years of incessant advertising and lies has made us think that prosperity means having more money to buy more ‘things’. Yet each of us knows that beyond a certain level, the ownership of ‘things’ makes us no happier and certainly no healthier. There is a perception that a bigger car or house increases our social status, but that perception is marginal at best. It does not make for a better human being.

Prosperity is defined as being flourishing, thriving and successful. To be a flourishing, thriving and successful human being depends more upon health and happiness than the size of your bank balance. The misplaced clamour for economic growth has put many economies into decline, and economic notions of prosperity are at last being seen for what they actually are – a negative impact on personal and national self esteem.  It seems that we have mistakenly equated the acquisition of monetary wealth with our feelings about ourselves.

If the crazy drive for economic growth has got us where we are – a society becoming less equal by the day, public borrowing at levels in excess of £1 trillion in the UK (US $15 trillion), shrinking tax receipts and rising unemployment - why oh why is the government baying for more growth?

Our socio–economic order is rotten. Greed and irresponsibility have fuelled little but disaster. Yet still we hear the cry for a return to ‘business as usual’. Certain groups and individuals know exactly what to do, because they know how much they have to gain from it. A return to the old order – as if that was possible – would continue to magnify the wealth of the few. We now know that the problems facing communities right now are a result of ‘growth’. We do not want a return to the old order. 

We live in a world of finite resources. No matter how deep we dig, the fossil fuels will eventually disappear, so for starters an oil based economy does not make much sense. Uranium too is a fossil fuel, and its supply is finite. Gas, coal – all the fossil fuels can only be mined for so long, and they will be no more.

Life for us all is poised to change. There are a lot of mouths to feed, so we must look to ourselves and our communities for the answers. Big Money and Big Corporations will be dragged screaming into their own decline, because the last thing they want to see is ordinary people managing their  our own way into the future – and it could be a lot better than the past.

A sensible government would be looking to real prosperity. It would be using sustainable energy sources and guiding us towards non-financial goals such as family life, health and community. The Buddhist definition of prosperity is based on collectivism and compassion, and that is not a bad place to start.