Saturday, May 21, 2005

Growth or collapse? Or something else? Some reflections after reading Jared Diamond

Beneficiaries of the present social and economic arrangements, and economists, who are its theologians, like to suppose that economic growth produces the best of all possible worlds--but I think that's just plain, flatly, not true.

Money and wealth are not what make people happy. You'd think everyone would understand that.

But economists play dumb on this matter. If someone says that economic growth does not maximize human happiness, and moreover that growth in a global market economy imperils civilization and maybe mankind, the standard economist response is that everyone knows growth is good and that interference with the market leads to inefficiencies and distortions, and that planned economies and communism have failed.

That's what's called a non-sequitur. Pointing to a bad solution to a problem does not confirm that we have chosen the right way of solving the problem.

Such pointing is evasive about the serious question raised. But beyond the non-sequitur is a failure of imagination. Economists are trained to think of the economy as a thing, in and of itself, but obviously the economy is part of a larger world. We have a planet.

Economists, by training and preference, engage in magical thinking, believing in something logically impossible, an endless expansion of the economy and an endless availability of resources .

But the planet is finite and non-expandable, and it is the only place we will ever have to live. This is so profoundly obvious that most economists don't notice. For one thing it does not conform to their only experience, which is of growth. In that they are no different from the rest of us. Growth has been the experience of humankind, from the beginning of history till now.

But in a certain sense, economic growth is already illusory. When we take stuff from the larger environment to grow the economy, then of course the economy grows, but the larger environment, does not, indeed it is diminished in some way. But if you look only at the economy, all you see is growth.

There are two problems with economic growth. One is the well-known problem of what economists weirdly call "externalities", such as, pollution, turning the Amazon rain forest into a bulldozed smoking pasture for cows and the Rocky Mountains into a string of open pit coal mines, and so on. Economists now at least recognize this problem, though they don't like to because it presents a difficulty to the neoclassical self-regulating best-of-all-possible-worlds mythology about how the market (ideally) works.

Presently, the people who create the externalities like mercury in the coal smoke, the destruction of natural beauty, global warming, and so on, are subsidized by being able to escape the cleanup costs, which they offload to someone else. Or else the shit is not cleaned up at all, and it diminishes the quality of life for the rest of us. Though economists are at least thinking about how to fix this, fixing it within the present market system seems to be very difficult.

The other problem is the fact of actual limitation--the economy cannot continue to grow indefinitely, because the world from which it takes its stuff is--limited. What you see is what you got. A blue and white sunlit marble in a large expanse of black space. What's on the planet, and the sunlight, are the only sources of everything we use. And its worse than that-- indeed, some resources are more limited than others, they do not all diminish at the same rate. We will use up our oil and natural gas before our coal.

In principle the planet's resources are not enlargeable.

Unexpected technological advances may give us some breathing room, but we have used such respite badly in the past.

There is only so much farmland. There is only so much water. There is only so much air. Peak oil, if it is actually occurring now, would in my opinion be a godsend, because it will force us to deal with the end of growth while it is still possible for humanity, and hopefully civilization, to survive.

But it will be a hard time, because nobody knows how to live with a non-growing economy. Growth, of the population, of the economy, and of energy use, has been a fact of life from the beginning of human memory until now. It is hard to imagine its end. But it looks to me like were gonna have to imagine it pretty quick, because the end of growth is soon going to be upon us, ready or not.

Like other primates, we have intense emotions about fairness, and perceived unfairness has in the past created unrest and revolution, unpleasant and sometimes totalitarian solutions to the unfairness.

The modern free-market way of dealing with this unrest problem is to grow everyone's slice of the pie, without diminishing Bill Gates's slice. This supposedly makes everyone happy.

But it doesn't. Mr. Gates, unimaginably, but nevertheless truly, still wants a _bigger_ slice, God knows why, and and even though the rest of us, on average, have twice as much wealth as we had at the end of WWII, we are not in the slightest happier than we were then. I don't know Mr. Gates personally, but I doubt if his second 20 billion dollars made him any happier than his first. It's hard to see how it could.

So growth, even while it is occurring, does not solve the problems of social discontent, in the absence of fairness and some semblance of equality. And when growth begins to end, but the unfairness does not, we are in for a time of trouble, I believe.

Right now we have postponed the idea of fairness and banished the idea of equality. This is very shortsighted.

What is it that people really live for? Usually it has to do with their family and friends. Almost by definition it has to do with emotion. Love. Friendship. Fun. Beauty. Meaningful work. Excitement. Sensual pleasure. Spiritual uplift. These kinds of things. These things don't necessarily depend on wealth. But in an important way they do depend on fairness and equality.

To the extent that our present growing economy makes people toil like dogs and leaves them no time or opportunity for the stuff that's important--indeed, actively maximizes personal fear and insecurity, makes people sick, destroys natural beauty, leaves people with no time for what they actually care about, and causes them to feel (very reasonably) that they are treated shabbily and with contempt--we have an economy that works against what an economy ought to have been created for in the first place.

I'd say the end of growth is not necessarily a catastrophe, if it is met in a sane and just way. Jared Diamond, in his book _Collapse_, which I have just finished reading, finds that societies faced with a crisis like the one we will inevitably face, sometimes react in ways that are adaptive, and sometimes not. Hopefully, we will adapt to new conditions in an adaptive and livable way. I try to be an optimist about here. Magical thinking of my own, perhaps.

In any case, it will be the end of the Republican Party as we know it.

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