Is the quest for perpetual economic growth the witch-burning of our times, and could this be the year we start to challenge it?
Johannes Kepler was one of the major figures in the 17th century Scientific Revolution. In his day, people were grappling with the question of whether the earth was the centre of the universe, as the Church said it was, or whether it was just another planet, revolving around the Sun, as Copernicus had said it was. The heliocentric model (with the Sun at the centre) eventually overcame the geocentric model (with the Earth at the centre), but at the time, the geocentric model was a) unthinkingly accepted by almost everybody; b) seen as ‘common sense’; c) taught by all mainstream educational establishments; and d) difficult to criticise (if you valued your career, and maybe your life).
Kepler’s greatest contribution to astronomy was to explain the abnormalities in the movements of the planets, showing that their motion was elliptical, rather than circular. Kepler was a true giant in the history of human thought. He was consulted by Galileo, and worked with Tycho Brahe. Without Kepler, Newton could not have produced his Principia Mathematica.
Kepler’s mother was a herbalist and a healer, who nursed him through childhood smallpox, and who took him, aged six, to a hill top to view the great comet of 1577. She sounds like a caring, independent woman, and (probably because of this), in 1617, she was accused of being a witch. The accusation was based on hearsay, that she had poisoned someone with an ‘evil brew’, but nevertheless, her trial lasted fourteen months, during which time she was imprisoned and given graphic verbal descriptions of the tortures that awaited her if convicted. She must have been in constant terror, and Kepler gave up his studies to defend her.
She was eventually acquitted, but Kepler must have despaired at the irrationality of his fellow humans. When we look back at the wicked stupidity of the witch-trials, which resulted in tens of thousands of innocent women being executed with no evidence of any wrongdoing apart from confessions extracted through torture or unusual birthmarks, we marvel at the absurdity of the trials and the gullibility or malevolence of those who took part in them. But at least we can look back. Something is happening today that is equally absurd, but much worse, in that if unchecked, it will kill not just innocent old women, but all of us. That something is the quest for perpetual economic growth.
Witch-burning reinforced the greatest power in the land at the time – that of the Church. The quest for perpetual growth reinforces the greatest power in the land in our time – that of money. Because of this, it is a) unthinkingly accepted by almost everybody; b) seen as ‘common sense’; c) taught by all mainstream educational establishments; d) difficult to criticise, if you value your career (fortunately, criticising the quest for perpetual economic growth nowadays is unlikely to get you killed as readily as criticising the geocentric model back in the day).
There is an ecological crash coming that we may not survive as a species. Whether you believe that or not depends on whether you believe that peer review is the best way to provide evidence. Peer review is often criticised, but no better alternative is ever put forward, because there isn’t one. Anecdotes, revelation and ancient texts were the basis of the ‘evidence’ provided in witch trials, and they certainly won’t cut it now.
We’re already past the material limits to the size of the human economy that the planet can support, so we need to shrink and then stabilise the material human economy (roads, cars, ships, urban areas, consumer goods, plastics, pesticides, plantations, airports etc.) if we are to stop the slide towards extinction.
Some people think that:
a) technology will solve the problems that growth causes;
b) we can continue to grow the economy in ways that allow the material economy to remain the same size.
However, a) is false because new technologies (nuclear fusion and space mining are the potential saviours most commonly mentioned) and the reources and waste required to implement them will increase economic growth (and therefore ecological damage) even more quickly, and hasten our demise.
And b) is false, because economic growth always increases overall spending power (otherwise it’s not economic growth, it’s just something that devalues the currency), and there’s no way to ring-fence this increase in spending power so that it’s not spent on material things; therefore if we are to stabilise the material economy (and we must), we need to stabilise the entire economy.
However, capitalism can’t be stabilised, mainly because of the way money is created. This is a complicated subject, but very basically, money is loaned into circulation by capitalist banks, with compound interest attached. The money to pay the interest is not loaned into circulation, and so the only way it can be paid is if the economy grows. There are other reasons (the advertising industry, government policies, the unjustified status of the economics discipline, the desire for increasing returns on investments), but the money supply is the most important. Douglas Rushkoff explains this in more detail here.
Surely it’s obvious that tinkering isn’t going to work, and that capitalism needs to be replaced, rather than reformed. We can’t reform away its need for constant growth. We can’t replace it by voting, however, because in capitalism, money buys power. In a capitalist system, wealth is concentrated to the point that economic power captures political power, and renders it impotent apart from legislation that is beneficial or irrelevant to capitalists. So you can’t vote to stabilise the economy or to stop wars, and so we can’t vote to stop ecological collapse.
Rather, we need to replace capitalism a non-cancerous system that allows us to live without damaging ecology. And how do we do that, if voting won’t do it?
- Individual change: the way we live, eat, travel and provide our own energy, housing, employment and consumables – more here. Not enough people will do this, obviously (isn’t it?), and so we need more systemic changes, like:
- Change in land ownership: let’s take back the land – more here; there are wonderful groups mentioned in the article that are starting to do just that – and you can help them and / or join them.
- Economic change: changing where we shop and who we bank with, and where we get the essentials of life from; more here and here.
- Change in the political / decision-making system: there are plenty of ideas bandied about, but because the decision-making system is dominated by corporate money, we find ourselves in a Catch-22 situation as regards implementation. Always ask about implementation, and be prepared to be dismissed when you talk about system change; there are a lot of vested interests out there – persevere.
But initially, as regards the quest for perpetual economic growth, all you can do is start to refute it, to naysay, to question. There must have been some brave people who spoke out against the Church, and witch-burning did eventually end. It doesn’t take as much courage today to speak out against the quest for perpetual growth. It just needs intelligence and integrity. Happy New Year.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1nane January 1st, 2017
So …how do we do it, if voting won’t do it? – Love. Love of all humanity, and the whole universe. Of course, a bit of evolution is necessary to get us to that stage. In the meantime though, a sense of humour really does help. I’m sure that love would cause all our problems to dissolve instantly, if only we could access that love, which exists in every heart (yes indeed, EVERY heart, no matter how unlikely that may seem at the present.) So … let’ wake up folks and start evolving… Happy New Now.
2Steve Gwynne January 1st, 2017
I published this comment today which although does not focus on Dave’s piece specifically, I thought was relevant in the overall discussion of liberalism’s slow but sure collapse (post-liberalism) of which capitalism is a part. Therefore the failings of liberalism as identified in both mine and Kenan’s pieces are equally valid in relation to the failures of capitalism.
There are alot of contradictions going on with Kenan’s perspective in the article attached below which leads to the very paradoxical conclusion that liberalism needs to be able to combine both individual and community/collective rights in a peaceful ideally democratic way. This I guess is the ideal for any ideology since, as Kenan highlights, we are essentially social\community/collective beings that finds our individuality through others. However what Kenan is really alluding to here is how can liberalism and its bundle of values and beliefs triumph over other equally legitimate ideologies and so avoid moral pluralism.
Therefore, whilst the distinction and tensions between liberalism and democracy is a much needed analysis in these rather hysterical times, it must be noted that Kenan’s argument necessarily conflates solidarity and collectivism with progressive lefty liberalism whilst at the same time seeks to separate identity politics from collective movements in order to diffuse so called rightwing populism.
By doing this he wishes liberalism to be the vehicle by which individuals can express their democratic rights within an ever-enlargening progressive liberal community and thus co-opt both the individualism of the left and the commuitarianism of the right whilst simultaneously denounce and disregard individual and community rights that are not attached to liberalism.
Since Kenan’s only real interest is to promote freedom of movement or in other words a borderless world, his primary focus is in seeing only collectives that subscribe to a liberal view of the world as legitimate with other collectives being legitimate in so far that they only represent a ‘reactionary’ failure of liberalism to be liberal. He does not seem to see non-liberalism collectives as identities in their own right that are advocating a different world view and quite often a fundamentally different set of virtues to the liberal ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.
So in reality, far from there being a reduction in collective identity-based politics as Kenan argues, we are witnessing a flourishing ideological environment that enables a rich and diverse contestation of power. All of which was ironically brought about by liberal elites attempting to quarantine popular sovereignty.
Thanks to Brexit and populism, we have at present a build up of flourishing collectives that are aligned to conservatism, populism (self-determining communities), fascism (self-identifying communities), socialism, libertarianism, ecologism and of course liberalism. These ideological collective identities all have a different view of the world and each sees differently how different individual and community values shape the world in which we live and survive. In my opinion, this is a great philosophical time that we now live in compared to Kenan’s view that we live in pessimistic times.
So whilst I appreciate Kenan’s appeal for the Left to create an alternative to the eroded and almost extinct class-based identities that formed powerful collectives around proletariat labour, to do this around ideological values that promotes radical internationalism is not in keeping with the times.
The future of local, national and gobal politics will be framed within resilience and so rather than relying on an alternative that can replace a solidarity that is aligned to community-based manufacturing and extractive industries, politics, and liberalism in particular, will need to be more aligned to the principles of resilience which are all observations of how healthy ecosystems work. These being:-
Adaptive Capacity (liberty)
Managing diversity and redundancy (equality)
Managing Connectivity (fraternity)
This is why liberalism is dying, because liberalism cannot incorporate resilience thinking. On the other hand conservatism, populism, socialism, ecologism, fascism and even libertarianism can and does to varying degrees incorporate resilience thinking.
Hence for liberalism to take over the socialist mantle would not only require liberal elites to reframe liberalism away from liberty-based liberalism but towards a better balance between resilience-based liberty, equality and fraternity. Therefore, liberal elites would need to start accepting that managing diversity and redundancy and managing connectivity are essential principles for a Sustainable Future.
So however liberalism might be reinvented, if it cannot incorporate resilience thinking then democracy will always be the best platform to deliberate, debate and decide about our ever changing political and ecological environment peacefully. However, unfortunate for those that strongly identify with their chosen ideological beliefs and choose to form collectives to advance those beliefs, democracy does not allow you to get your own way all the time and thankgod for that.
So may 2017 be the year of civic democracy so that the people can deliberate, debate and decide on local issues and so remove the control that local, national and international elites have over our communities, whatever their preferred ideology.
3Dave Darby January 2nd, 2017
I agree that most people are loving, and would like to leave the world a better place than they found it. But I think that evolution will be guided by the systems that we have on the ground. At the moment, we have a global economic system that suppresses love and rewards ruthlessness. That isn’t going to put us on the path to an evolutionary step and a loving future. It’s much more likely to lead to extinction. So I think that the task of this generation is more prosaic – i.e. to replace our damaging economic system. Only then can we realistically think about a human society guided by love.
4Dave Darby January 3rd, 2017
Malik is one of the ‘Spiked’ (ex Living Marxism) gang, who seem to base their writings on anything that will be controversial and get them some notoriety and therefore, I suppose, money (alternatively, they might might be hoping that uber-neoliberalism and ecological collapse will be more likely to bring about revolution – but I doubt it). So they have a ‘line’ – which includes anti-environmentalism, pro fox hunting, pro fur trade, and anything else designed for maximum wind-up effect. ‘Democracy is in fine shape’ is clearly in that bracket.
To be fair, Malik seems completely reasonable compared to others in that gang, and pointing out that so many on the left put their faith in corporate institutions like central banks and the EU rather than in democracy was a gem – thus alienating themselves from their class base and consigning themselves to irrelevance. After that, I warmed to him.
In capitalism, wealth gets concentrated and power gets bought. That’s all you need to know about whether democracy is in ‘fine shape’ within capitalism. The big decisions are made in corporate boardrooms, and although there are some blips, Brexit and Trump won’t make the slightest difference to the neoliberal project. On the other hand, Syriza represented a real threat, if successful, as did Saddam and Gaddafi rejecting the petrodollar, and so those little projects had to be crushed immediately.
We can all wish for whatever we want, and I share your hopes for civic democracy one day, but there are no ‘elites’ other than money elites, and to have any kind of democracy at all, we’re going to need an implementable plan to replace our cancerous economic system and plutocratic political system, otherwise any good that is done is tantamount to sprucing up the Titanic.
5Andrew Rollinson January 10th, 2017
I am a Christian; and Christianity gives clear instructions about how to make the world better.
I like this Low Impact website, but I have often thought that it is sadly too often very like the Aesop’s fable: “Who will put the bell on the cat”. A lot of people write about what is wrong but very little is said about how to correct it. There is an emptiness and lack of direction in others which, as a Christian, I can clearly see.
Whether you believe that living a Christian way or not is a good approach to life is your own prerogative. But Christianity kept capitalism surpressed throughout the 18th, 19th and early parts of the 20th Centuries, not just with abolishing slavery, prison and social reform, but also environmental awareness – the famous ones like William Wilberforce, Lord Shaftesbury, John Howard, William Morris, but many lesser known engineers such as Robert Tasker who said that “God gave men brains to help his brother, not line his own pocket”, and others. Oh and it inspired scientists such as Newton, and Johannes Kepler by the way. It is only when politicians (likely driven by corporate greed) began to unravel Christianity in the latter part of the last century that times have begun to get noticeably darker, and no coincidence that scientific peer review has begun to corrupt as well.
I have worked with Muslims and Hindus and both religions also emphasise caring for others and the environment. It is not religion which is bad, but powerful people who use the guise of religion to justify their greedy actions.
Nane is right. “Love” is the general answer. But Christianity gives details, and the courage to stand up for what is right and just. There is no need for a new solution or a new Messiah.
6Dave Darby January 10th, 2017
Can’t agree that there’s very little said here about how to correct what’s wrong. There are millions of words here on what can be done. The problem is that most of it is about what individuals can do, but only a tiny minority are interested in doing them. I don’t think that anything can be done to change that. I think it’s always been the case that the majority of people don’t really care much about anything outside their families, job and social life. Societies change when a tiny minority get behind a plan, an idea. But that’s not enough either. First, and most importantly, the idea has to be implementable, and secondly, circumstances have to work in their favour. That moment for Christianity came when Constantine converted.
I was brought up a Christian, but lost faith as a child because I found the stories that were told to me absurd – about a boat containing two of all the world’s animals, virgin births, resurrections, water turned into wine etc; plus I realised that my family were Christian because we lived in England, and if we had been born in India, we would have been Hindus. It was only later in life that I really understood Jesus’s message of love (not to mention his fight against the Roman Empire, throwing the money-changers out of the temple and his willingness to die for what he believed in). I consider myself a follower of Jesus, but not part of a religion. I don’t agree that Christians suppressed capitalism. Christians massacred native Americans, tortured people during the Inquisition, burned innocent old ladies, stole India and Africa from Indians and Africans, owned slaves, ran (and still run) corporations etc. I think that Jesus would disapprove of most Christians, and can only imagine what he would think of Blair.
Love is the way, yes. But unfortunately we have a system that doesn’t reward loving behaviour – quite the opposite. It rewards ruthlessness and hunger for power, and therefore it has to go if love is to rule. However, this system won’t last forever. It will either render this planet uninhabitable by humans, or it will be replaced. I’ve sort of dedicated my life to the latter, as, I think, have you.
7Andrew Rollinson January 10th, 2017
I was born into a Christian society, like you Dave, and was either apathetic about it or actually had the same feelings as you. But as I got older I found that I could relate to it more and more, and I converted to Roman Catholicism about 15 years ago.
Christianity means doing as Jesus would do. I don’t agree with the examples that you give about the bad things done by people who were Christians. Jesus would not have done these acts and so they are not Christian acts. People, as I mentioned, do bad things, and they are done for selfish, greedy motives, like Blair. This is not Christianity.
One strong memory I have is during the Occupy movement when people were camped outside of (I believe) St Paul’s, and the head of the church there was putting pressure on them to move. Someone confronted him with a banner saying “what would Jesus do?”, and he resigned as a consequence.
Maybe “surpressed” is not the best word to use. Perhaps, “in check” would be better. But there is enough proof to confirm that Christian acts and the messages that avarice and greed, etc, are sinful kept a lid on social atrocities during the 18th and 19th Centuries, even though, as you mention, some still occurred. What we have now is a society with very little constraints so that these Christian values have been shut out, and so it is becoming more of a greedy free-for-all.
Although the system doesn’t reward loving bevhaviour, each of us has an individual choice to be loving, and to choose what we do, what we buy, and what we say. This will destroy the system. Doing this as Jesus would do, or as would make Jesus happy, is therefore I think the best way.
8Dave Darby January 10th, 2017
It’s a difficult one. I’m guessing that the conquistadors, inquisitors, British imperialists etc. would have disagreed with you that they weren’t Christian. But I agree with you that Jesus wouldn’t have done the things that they did. Jesus was a non-violent anti-imperialist, as am I. When I’m stuck, I often ask ‘what would Jesus do?’. My friends think I’m joking, but I’m not. I’m deadly serious – it usually helps me to work out the best course of action.
I obviously agree with you about individual choice – that’s what Lowimpact.org is all about. But it’s not going to be enough to turn things around, for two main reasons – 1. not enough people care, or ever will care (the system isn’t being destroyed by individual actions, it’s being strengthened by individual actions – i.e. by the levels of consumption and the desire to consume more – and that’s about to explode in Asian cities), and 2. this system allows non-loving people to rise to the top and therefore to steer us in the wrong direction. I think that Jesus would fight against the corporate empire in the same way that he fought against the Roman Empire. It’s all about ‘throwing the money-changers out of the temple’. Let’s help people to live sustainably, but as well as that, let those interested in systemic change talk about systemic change. If an implementable plan emerges, then engaging with it will become part of the package of things that loving individuals can do.
9Steve Gwynne January 10th, 2017
I dont mean to detract from the thread of this convo but does this make sense to you both.
The Earth contains finite resources. Wealth as asset ownership is determined by exchange value of finite resources. Hence wealth as asset ownership is finite. Therefore the rich/poor dichotomy is a zero-sum game.
I only ask in ref to Corbyn’s call to have a maximum wage cap which makes sense to me but he seems to a million and one critics who think this is a ridiculous idea which for me relates to the comment that individuals are strengthening the system (with their belief that growth and wealth can grow indefinitely and so infinitely).
10Dave Darby January 10th, 2017
Yes, that makes perfect sense to me. All wealth can ultimately be traced back to nature, which (on earth) is finite (as is the earth’s ability to absorb waste). So the amount of wealth sloshing around is finite. The most common objection to that is that the service economy is not tied to resources. But a) it is – all service industries use resources – paper, computers, electricity, travel to and from work, water etc. and b) they forget that more service work means more money paid in wages and salaries, some of which is going to be spent on material things – and then we’re back to finite nature. The second most common objection is that we can start mining asteroids and other planets, and put giant solar satellites in space, but nature is so damaged at the moment that the additional resource use and waste required to achieve that can’t be absorbed, and it would be insanely dangerous to try until we’re living within nature’s limits.
So yes, it’s a zero-sum game – you could explain it to a seven-year-old child, but not to an economist.
I think the reason people are criticising Corbyn is that they (rightly) see business going abroad if he attempts it, but the damage we’re doing to ecology is beyond them.