Economics is not an unbiased academic discipline, it’s an ideology. Furthermore, economics is based on the false premise that perpetual growth is achievable. It is not, and the reason most people can’t see this is that they can’t see the connection between the size of an economy and its overall spending power. As an economy grows, spending power grows – real spending power, to buy more real things, that you can touch – cars, roads, aeroplanes, second homes and third homes, fridges for those homes, and boilers and TVs and computers and furniture and carpets and paint and curtains.
These things are material. It’s not possible to recycle 100%, and it requires energy anyway. Nobody has built a perpetual motion machine – but not because no-one’s worked out how to do it yet – it’s because it’s not possible in this universe. Similarly, perpetual growth in the activity of one species is not possible within a biosphere, and any species that is not kept in check will be eliminated. We’ve got to a position where there’s nothing to keep us in check – so we have to do it ourselves. It’s a waiting game now – to see if we can learn to behave differently to bacteria in a petri dish before it’s too late and we kill our host.
So growth can’t continue forever – that’s just physics. Any attempt to do it will result in a biosphere that doesn’t function any more, and that will be fatal for us. And for what – just so that some people can have more cars, and second homes and curtains etc? It’s not worth it.
If I had the power to achieve a change in direction, and I turn out to be wrong, what will we have lost? We won’t be able to have second homes, and third homes, and ever-more material possessions. That’s OK – not only will we survive it, it will be good for us. We’ll still be able to develop emotionally, and spiritually, artistically and intellectually. But what if I’m right – we’re looking at ecological collapse – and we won’t survive that. Even if I’m wrong (and I’m not), it’s not worth the risk.
I’m happy to debate here with anyone who thinks that we can have perpetual economic growth. If that’s you, you’ll probably see economics as a perfectly valid discipline, rather than the ideology it is, and you almost definitely won’t know anything about the current mass extinction event we’re slipping into as if into a plug-hole – so it will be difficult to find common ground.
I guess that this interview with Robert Constanza, on Yale University’s website, would be a good starting point. If you don’t understand those concepts, my position would be for you to go back and understand them before we can really debate.
I don’t agree with all of Constanza’s conclusions. I do agree that taxing bads and subsidising goods is an idea worth trying (although difficult to implement in a corporate-dominated system), but if we put a price on externalities, we’re extending the commodification of nature, rather than moving away from that mindset. Also, of course, it means that the more money you have, the more you can destroy the environment in pursuit of profit, which ultimately means in pursuit of more pleasure and possessions and crucially, more power.
But the fundamentals of what he’s saying are just that – fundamental. Ecology and economics have to be intertwined, or we’re in serious trouble. Empires have fallen before, but this one will take us all with it, by damaging ecology beyond its ability to support us. We can have debates about what we’re going to do about that, but if you can’t see the reason in the core of what he’s saying, we’ll be having two very different conversations.
I know that most people who visit this site understand the need for a stable rather than a growing economy. In which case, I ask those people – how do we communicate this obvious message, in the face of corporate control of the media, and increasingly academia, science and the political system?
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1Callum Nash February 3rd, 2016
Yeah man! V True – Marx mentions this, his communist manifesto and other writings are probably the most scientific and accurate depiction of capitalism that we have – and is now 150 years old! It’s more difficult for modern activists to understand capitalism for what it is, as all too often they look through a lens of engrained liberal biases.
2Dave Darby February 3rd, 2016
Hi Callum – yes, I agree. His analysis was pretty spot on. Not sure about his solution though – it didn’t really improve quality at the top of the hierarchy, and didn’t come close to removing the hierarchy. I suppose that’s what happens when you use violence to take power. You need violent people to do it, and they then don’t give it up, and there’s not much you can do about it. So the state never withers.