Like taking candy from a baby: our war on the future

Earlier I lamented that growth — the human tendency to devour the Earth and “get it before the hoarders do” — has become enshrined in modern economics as the key metric of economic health. (Recently “biophysical economics” has objected to that dogma.)

The headline of this article in the US print edition was

If the lights are blazing, all’s well in a nation

Best measure of how well your country’s doing? Energy wasted lighting outer space.

But growth simply can’t be the answer in a finite world. It’s as if medical doctors saw their central mission as trying to increase the incidence of cancer or pituitary gigantism!

Google “mother of all bubbles” and you’ll get thousands of hits, but the true mother of all bubbles is the despoiling of Mother Earth.

According to Saul Griffith, echoing this,

Climate change is a ponzi scheme and this generation is the last one that’s gonna get a payoff.

According to Les Carter

The fundamental rule when managing complex systems is to supply the right information at the right time, which points the system in the right direction. At present, the world’s people don’t have this information. If they are going to make the right decision in time, our scientists, politicians and media need to stop lying to them. We don’t “need” more energy, we don’t “need” economic stimulus, we don’t even “need” jobs. What we do need is a stable climate.

Corporations are legally obliged to devour the Earth.

According to Cedric Griffiths

[Corporate] directors are legally obliged to put the interests of shareholders above everything else […] and can be held negligent if they do not put that return first.

I would suggest […] changing corporate law to include a “first do no harm” clause.

According to Lu Zhi

I recently went to a forum to brainstorm issues to be discussed at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. In one discussion there were 30 to 40 people focusing on the economy and me, with my focus on ecology. I looked out for how often they mentioned biodiversity or conservation. Neither term was mentioned. That was a reality check for me. I think the next step is to work with economists, otherwise we conservationists are just talking to ourselves.

Biodiversity? Conservation? Not issues on the mighty Planet Economist.

According to Adrian Barnett

Imagine a land where forests are so rich in game they resemble zoo enclosures, and where, in season, rivers have more fish than water. Precise ecological and historical sleuthing by Steve Nicholls shows that such reports from colonists in North America, long dismissed as fantasy, were true: in the 16th century, the continent really was like this.

Modern disbelief that nature was far more abundant in the past, says Nicholls, comes not from ecological impossibility but from a mindset that insists that only today’s abundances are possible, while refusing to admit that we inhabit an ecologically impoverished landscape. Finely written and elegantly researched, Paradise Found is a chilling portent of how even today’s richnesses will seem a cornucopia to biologically bereft future generations.

According to Linda Geddes

The film follows Clover as he asks top restaurants why they still serve critically endangered species like bluefin tuna, and speaks to industry whistleblowers about how our love of fish is driving some species to the brink of extinction.

This is investigative journalism at its best. More importantly, it is an engaging film that provokes anger and sadness in equal measure. Anger at the greed of multinational companies who seem intent on catching as many tuna as they can before stocks run out, and at the politicians who do little to stop them by setting their fishing quotas well above what scientists recommend. Sadness, too, at the loss of species, and the wasted by-catch casually tossed back into the sea.

It is only when you witness the might of industrial fishing fleets with their giant trawlers and high-tech sonar that you realise the oceans aren’t vast and inexhaustible after all.

According to this

In September 2008 Ecuador became the first country in the world to declare constitutional rights to nature, declaring that nature “has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution” and should be treated with parity under the law.

According to Tom Dixon

The presupposition conceals a fundamental question: why should any person make sacrifices for the benefit of others? In the absence of a religious or even utilitarian moral imperative there is no rational basis for demanding such a sacrifice. If climate change does not affect me personally, materially and directly, within the limited window of my remaining years, why should I care?

For the record, I don’t.

According to Rob Lyons

I have no regard for the welfare of most non-human living things (my cat is a noble exception). Even if the Earth were to meet some internationally agreed, dumbed-down definition of life, it would recognise that the Earth is alive in much the same way that bathroom mould is alive. That’s a very different thing from suggesting that we should care about the Earth for its own sake rather than for human interest.

and

Lovelock is 90 years old this year – and most people’s great-grandfathers are a mix of interesting experiences and wacky views.

I hope when I’m 90 years old that my views will be as “wacky” as Bertrand Russell’s were, who at that age was imprisoned for a week for his protests against nuclear weapons. (Being patronized comes with the territory of the older growing instead of just growing older. For example, according to Michael Ruse, “one fears that, like the aged Bertrand Russell, there are those who are using a man past his prime for their own ends”.)

According to Bertrand Russell

A stupid man’s report of what a clever man says can never be accurate, because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something he can understand.

According to Alison George, regarding 83-year-old David Attenborough

As a species, he says, we need to learn modesty, that we can’t overrun everything. “If I had more intellectual athleticism I would tackle the problem of why I think other creatures have a right to live. I do think that, but can’t justify it in a very convincing way.”

and

Though he alludes wistfully to his younger days, he also seems to be enjoying the chance to relax more. “When you get to your 80s, the lust to stir your stumps isn’t as great as it was. I think, ‘Great, I don’t have to do anything today’.” Even so, later this year he will be off to the Antarctic and the Arctic to film his next epic for the BBC, The Frozen Planet.

As for retirement: “No, I will go on. It’s having things to do that have grit in them, and unpleasantness — and people who want you to do them because they want to see the results. That’s what work is. The thought of not having anything to do like that is awful.”

According to Jonathan Gottschall

But even if Miller, like many a marketer who came before him, flogs his product too hard, his broadest point is well taken: We are awash in an ocean of consumerism, and we can’t fully understand that ocean (much less struggle out of it) until we recognize that it wells up from evolved biology as well as culture. We live in a turbulence of signals and counter-signals, with every human madly displaying his personal qualities, tribal affiliations, and social position at all times.

According to Eric Hoffer

You can never get enough of what you don’t need to make you happy.

According to Lenny Kravitz

I got more than I can eat
A life that can’t be beat
Yet still I feel this heat
I’m feeling incomplete
What am I buying?
My soul is crying

According to Trevor Corson

Strolling the streets of Helsinki, the capital, I noticed a lack of grand architecture and opulent homes, and an abundance of modest cars. Helsinki was a nice enough city, and it had some gems of modern design, but part of me felt that Finland was a bit dull. And, strangely, some of the Finns I met seemed to take pride in this.

Finland seemed even duller on my next visit in July. The weather was glorious, but Helsinki felt like a ghost town. I learned that most Finns take a five-week summer vacation, and that many of them disappear for the entire time to tiny, bare-bones cottages in the woods. Curious, I wrangled an invitation to visit one of these secluded cabins. It was meticulously cared for, but lacked any creature comforts. I quickly realized that there was nothing to do and no one to see.

After a couple of days at the cabin I was a convert. It was marvelously relaxing, and I realized the Finns were on to something – a form of luxury that had little to do with high-end products, the quest to acquire them, or the need to show them off. While some Finns pursue the material trappings of success, most seem to feel that the pleasures of time and solitude are more precious.

According to Keith Thomas

What we see during the 17th and 18th centuries is the gradual emergence of a new ideology, accepting the pursuit of consumer goods as a valid object of human endeavour and recognising that no limit could, or should, be put to it. Consumption was justified in terms of the opportunities it brought for human fulfilment. The growth of a consumer market, unrestricted by the requirements of social hierarchy, offered increasing possibilities for comfort, enjoyment and self-realisation. Poverty was no longer to be regarded as a holy state; and there was no need to feel guilt about envying the rich; one should try to emulate them. Or so the advocates of laissez-faire commerce would argue. Goods were prized, for themselves, for the esteem they brought with them, for the social relationships they made possible. To interfere with the process of acquisition by sumptuary laws was what Adam Smith would call ‘the highest impertinence and presumption’; it threatened liberty and personal happiness. The labourer had the right ‘to spend his own money himself and lay out the produce of his labour his own way’.

To buy something is to throw it away.

According to Colin Beavan

What if we only had to buy our possessions once? Our telephones, once. Our computers, once. Our furniture, once. Our watches, once. Our teddy bears, once.

Maybe the objects we surround ourselves would end up being like old friends. Maybe, with having to manufacture so much less, we’d end up with is a more healthy planet along with a lot more fond memories.

According to Debora MacKenzie

An effective universal vaccine that is cheap enough to be widely used worldwide could even eliminate annual flu epidemics and occasional pandemics, though unvaccinated people will still occasionally catch the virus from birds and other animals that carry flu.

That is a huge prize, one you might think that countries and researchers around the world would be working together to achieve. But there is no concerted effort.

[…]

the better a vaccine works, the less you sell. Companies have little incentive to invest in products people will only take once or twice.

According to Bob Black

Only a small and diminishing fraction of work serves any useful purpose independent of the defense and reproduction of the work-system and its political and legal appendages. Twenty years ago, Paul and Percival Goodman estimated that just five percent of the work then being done — presumably the figure, if accurate, is lower now — would satisfy our minimal needs for food, clothing, and shelter. Theirs was only an educated guess but the main point is quite clear: directly or indirectly, most work serves the unproductive purposes of commerce or social control. Right off the bat we can liberate tens of millions of salesmen, soldiers, managers, cops, stockbrokers, clergymen, bankers, lawyers, teachers, landlords, security guards, ad-men and everyone who works for them. There is a snowball effect since every time you idle some bigshot you liberate his flunkeys and underlings also. Thus the economy implodes.

Forty percent of the workforce are white-collar workers, most of whom have some of the most tedious and idiotic jobs ever concocted. Entire industries, insurance and banking and real estate for instance, consist of nothing but useless paper-shuffling. It is no accident that the “tertiary sector,” the service sector, is growing while the “secondary sector” (industry) stagnates and the “primary sector” (agriculture) nearly disappears. Because work is unnecessary except to those whose power it secures, workers are shifted from relatively useful to relatively useless occupations as a measure to assure public order. Anything is better than nothing.

Start noticing how the demand for growth, although long-term impossible, is rarely questioned.

For example, Tammy Erickson warns in her blog

Here’s the sobering reality we all need to consider as we shape personal, business, and policy decisions this year: demographics support a view of a slower-growing rate of consumption, not just for this year, but for at least the next decade or so in the United States, Europe, and even parts of Eastern Asia.

According to Nicholas Eberstadt

If these projections turn out to be relatively accurate—admittedly, a big “if” for any long-range demographic projection—the Russian Federation will have experienced over thirty years of continuous demographic decline by 2025, and the better part of four decades of depopulation by 2030. Russia’s population would then have dropped by about 20 million between 1990 and 2025, and Russia would have fallen from the world’s sixth to the twelfth most populous country. In relative terms, that would amount to almost as dramatic a demographic drop as the one Russia suffered during World War II. In absolute terms, it would actually be somewhat greater in magnitude.

Strikingly, and perhaps paradoxically, Moscow’s leadership is advancing into this uncertain terrain not only with insouciance but with highly ambitious goals. In late 2007, for example, the Kremlin outlined the objective of achieving and maintaining an average annual pace of economic growth in the decades ahead on the order of nearly 7 percent a year: on this path, according to Russian officials, GDP will quadruple in the next two decades, and the Russian Federation will emerge as the world’s fifth largest economy by 2020.

But history offers no examples of a society that has demonstrated sustained material advance in the face of long-term population decline. It seems highly unlikely that such an ambitious agenda can be achieved in the face of Russia’s current demographic crisis. Sooner or later, Russian leadership will have to acknowledge that these daunting long-term developments are shrinking their country’s social and political potential.

According to Matthew B. Crawford

A good job requires a field of action where you can put your best capacities to work and see an effect in the world. Academic credentials do not guarantee this.

Nor can big business or big government — those idols of the right and the left — reliably secure such work for us. Everyone is rightly concerned about economic growth on the one hand or unemployment and wages on the other, but the character of work doesn’t figure much in political debate. Labor unions address important concerns like workplace safety and family leave, and management looks for greater efficiency, but on the nature of the job itself, the dominant political and economic paradigms are mute. Yet work forms us, and deforms us, with broad public consequences.

According to Joint Venture Silicon Valley

What if we could turn the climate change crisis into an opportunity to build a better world? That is the promise of Climate Prosperity—creating a better, more sustainable world for our children and grandchildren—and what this Greenprint for Silicon Valley is all about.

We know the climate is changing. We know we need to reduce our use of fossil fuels and prepare for the consequences of a less predictable world. The new administration in Washington is likely to make climate change a priority, but it is up to us to take advantage of the new programs. It is up to us to turn the crisis into an opportunity to create new jobs, invent new products, save money, improve public health, and make Silicon Valley a highly attractive region to pursue these objectives. Together, we can show the nation the way out of the current recession and establish America’s global leadership position.

Climate Prosperity says we can have it all: growth in the economy, a thriving business environment, and a solution to the climate crisis. We can innovate, create jobs, train workers for new careers and we can reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, reduce air pollution, introduce meaningful transportation improvements, and save money.

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1 Comment

  1. Brad, this is a fabulous collection of views and thought.

    Since the 1980s, have been trying to get people to move to a less exploitative society, w/small success, although in last few years a groundswell is shifting perceptions and ideas.

    It takes a huge amount of time and effort to shift worldviews. Thanks for your work!

    Like

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