The Crisis Cocktail
If only Thomas Robert Malthus would have been around to see this, I often think. During his lifetime, and even more so after it, he became famous for warning that if human population continued to grow at that rate sooner or later there would not be enough agricultural output to feed it (of course he said many more things, but this is what he’s famous for). What he didn’t foresee, was that through ingenuity and innovation people would find a way around that limiting factor by digging up coal and later oil which would spur on the Industrial Revolution and eventually lead to the Green Revolution of an industrial, mechanized agriculture feeding the billions of people who are currently more or less enjoying their presence on planet Earth.
I wonder what Malthus would have said, had he foreseen the transformative power of all that hidden energy underground. Would he have said: “Right, that’s it, I was wrong, humanity and its economies can grow indefinitely”? Or would he have said: “Sure, my timing was poor, this discovery will prolong things by quite a bit, but in the end it will only make the crash that much bigger”. We can never be sure what he would have said, but I’m quite certain it wouldn’t be the first. And just a look or two around the globe seems to confirm he would be right to do so.
In Malthus’ time the question revolved around the problem of enough food for everyone and not much else. But while mankind has more or less resolved that problem for the time being by subjugating Nature through sheer fossil fuel power, the palette of global problems has extended in manifold ways. If, for instance, we look at agriculture, we can see that much of the arable land has been over-ploughed, over-fertilized, over-irrigated and over-sprayed. The emphasis on monocultures (one type of corn, cotton, wheat, rice, etc) has reduced diversity and thus makes huge amounts of acreage around the world extremely vulnerable to resistant pests, which leads to a more extensive use of more aggressive pesticides that are in turn weakening the indispensable pollinators, such as bees, who are massively dying off around the globe, and in combination with synthetic fertilizers lead to widespread topsoil erosion, because basically all the microscopic life in the topsoil has been reduced in such a way that the soil fertility and cohesiveness is close to zero, whilst aquifers worldwide are being drained much too fast, leading to salinisation of groundwater that is simultaneously getting more and more polluted by said fertilizers and pesticides.
When these chemicals reach the oceans and seas they cause low-oxygen coastal dead zones that are getting bigger every year, putting extra stress on fish stocks that are already suffering worldwide from overfishing by the enormous fishing industry, as well as by synthetic debris that floats around and ends up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, not to mention the slow but inexorable acidification of the oceans due to the excess of atmospheric carbon dioxide that the water is taking up and causes microscopic creatures at the bottom of the food chain to have an increasingly tougher time forming shells, just like coral reefs are enduring more and more stress due to bleaching events that they have more and more difficulty recovering from, coral reefs being the gigantic forests under the sea that host most of the world’s subaqueous biodiversity.
Hold on, I’m not finished yet.
The forests above water are in many places dying off due to pests like the bark beetle, besides the ongoing problem of illegal (and legal) logging and more rampant forest fires, and also due to ozone pollution (one of those things one never hears about). I’ve said ‘rampant forest fires’ and I’ve said ‘ozone’, a greenhouse gas, and thus I can no longer delay naming the great enhancer of all the problems named so far: Global Warming.
The enormous amounts of energy that have been added to the coupled system of oceans and atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution will increasingly lead to the rapid disruption of the atmospheric patterns under which human civilization managed to flourish in the last couple of millennia. I’m not talking 1 or 2 degrees Celsius warmer, I’m talking freak weather, like droughts, heatwaves, flash floodings, stronger hurricanes, rising sea level, disappearing glaciers. This has an indelible and inevitable effect on all those ‘little things’ I just mentioned (and there are more, such as desertification, landfills filled to the brim and species extinction in general).
Now of course some of these global problems may not turn out to be as bad as they seem, but even if they are half as serious, it’s the combination of them all and their synergistic interrelations that makes me conclude for the moment that human civilization has a Crisis Cocktail on its hands. Here’s an interesting picture from a New Scientist special report with a collection of graphs that illustrate my point:
So what do these graphs have in common? Of course, they are all showing a growing trend, and this brings us to the point of this article. Sorry it’s taking me so long, but first I have to offer doom and gloom and then show why I believe things are as they are and how this understanding is a first step towards potential solutions.
The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences. Winston Churchill, November 1936
All these problems seem to be getting bigger rather than smaller every year and for every single one of them there are hosts of organizations clamouring for attention and offering solutions to the problem. But the more I read and think about the problems as a whole, the more I become convinced that they are all in fact symptoms and not causes in themselves. Trying to remedy a symptom is almost always useless if the root cause is ignored. Obviously all the problems have to do with human activities, and these activities have to do with the context they are taking place in, the economic context to be precise. This economic context is determined by the dominant economic concept, and in our case I think it is safe to say that for many decades now the neoclassical economic concept of infinite growth has been shaping the economies of developed nations.
The main problem of this concept is its assumption that growth is always good and that growth can and should be infinite. In theory it sounds great, but unfortunately there is a big chasm between theory and practice. In practice nothing can grow forever in a finite system. This is a simple natural law which also applies to the finite system of this planet. Earth has a finite amount of resources, its ecosystems can supply a fixed amount of free services, such as clean air and water, and the solar energy that reaches the planet surface is fixed and constant. Once an organism such as the human global economy starts and continues to grow exponentially it will start to bump into limits (that was what the doom-and-gloom part of this article was about). The emerging global problems I described, are all symptoms of the disconnect between the economic concept of infinite growth and biophysical reality.
Now, of course there is nothing wrong with growth per se. It is an essential and universal part of nature. But normally things stop growing. Children stop growing when they reach adulthood, as do trees. Economic growth is a great thing when an economy needs to be developed, as we saw after World War II when Europe was in shambles. People needed housing and food, and putting economic growth on top of the agenda was the most efficient way to get all those things, fast. Developing nations such as India and China are doing the same as we speak. In principle there is nothing wrong with this kind of growth, but the idea that growth is always good and can be infinite is fallacious and dangerous. A thing that doesn’t stop growing, is cancer. Until it destroys its host, of course.
After most basic needs were met in the developed world somewhere around the 60’s and 70’s of the last century exponential economic growth stopped being a means and became an end in itself. This has not only had an external effect (the Crisis Cocktail), but an internal effect as well. Because if you want to make a success of your economic concept of infinite growth you have to get everybody to participate. This has far-reaching psychological consequences that shape culture and society. First of all, everyone needs to be convinced of the fact that producing and consuming are the main goals of human striving. This inevitably has consequences for the way knowledge is transferred from one generation to another, and is thus reflected in education in schools and at home. If you want everyone to endlessly produce and consume the subconscious psychological message will be something along these lines: ‘You do not have any worth if you do not produce and perform. People will not love you if you don’t. And besides, you will not be able to consume as much you like, and consume you must for it will bring you happiness.’
Mass marketing and peer pressure drive the messages home some more and slowly there emerges an erosion of culture, the foundation on which we depend to relate to each other. Every tradition or ritual from the past has been infiltrated by the need to consume to make unending, exponential growth possible. From birthdays to Valentine’s day, and from Thanksgiving to Christmas, all of it nowadays revolves around consuming large amounts of luxury foods and the uninhibited exchange of presents. And this has become pretty uniform all around the developed world. It’s all about what you have, what you do, where you travel to, in short: your identity. This mentality is instilled into children at an early age through various marketing techniques such as brand advertising. These customers of the future are conditioned in a way that benefits economic growth. We are conditioned to believe economic growth is our raison d’être.
But there’s a physical component to this as well. To consume means two things: Ingest food or fluids, and buy goods or services. As growth is deemed more important than public health, people have to be made addicted to unhealthy low-quality food, sugar, coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, drugs and so on. The products they buy often contain toxins that are released during production or even use. People get sick physically and mentally, children get fat, diabetes rates soar, as do other diseases. The irony is that this is good for economic growth as well. Sick people get to live longer through extensive medication and neverending professional help. I’ve read once that there is no better thing for the economy than a businessman with prostate cancer who causes a big car accident on his way to his divorce lawyer.
Another aspect of this need for endless, exponential economic growth is the way corporations have been shaped. Whether big or small, no matter how many employees they have, these corporations are treated as legal persons who need to do one thing: maximize profits for their stockholders, which incidentally is also very good for growing the economy. This set-up is almost an invitation for large-scale pollution such as the BP oil disaster, creative cooking of the books such as the Enron scandal or the complete financial meltdown and ensuing global recession we recently witnessed due to the subprime mortgage crisis. It is the main driver behind fractional reserve banking and the continuous inflation of the debt bubble that keeps individuals, municipalities and even whole states in a stranglehold.
And talking about strangleholds: the whole system that has evolved to keep the economy growing, has eventually led to the creation of giant multinational corporations that have become bigger than countries and wield enormous power in the area of policy and the political system itself. Thus we now have Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Agro, Big Sugar, Big Tobacco, Big Finance, Big Coal, Big Military and so forth, who through their lobbying, through their sponsoring of think tanks, and their direct financial contributions to politicians, make sure that their interests are served first. Never mind the fact that they have in large part taken over the mainstream media and thus control the narrative that is fed to the masses (their clients that have to continue mindless consumption to make their profits possible). To keep the economy growing for all eternity, because it can, because it’s good.
We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy?
Winston Churchill, May 1942
From Symptoms to Solutions
But it’s not good. It can’t be sustained, period. Of course, rich people will get even richer, and some poor people will be less so, but all in all this flawed economic concept will eventually cost more than it delivers. In fact, it already is. And it is making societies all around the world increasingly vulnerable and prone to collapse. So how can this be solved?
Like I said halfway through the doom and gloom you cannot solve a problem by eradicating symptoms. You can spray forests with pesticides that kill off bark beetles, but it only postpones the inevitable. You can try to set up rules for bankers and their bonuses, but they are only doing what the system demands of them. You could perform miracles and replace fossil fuels by renewable energy sources, but it is virtually impossible if you want the economy to keep growing as well (at best it leads to Jevons Paradox).
You cannot solve a problem if you only treat the symptoms, and you cannot solve a problem with the same thinking that caused the problem. And thus no solution will work until the economic concept of infinite growth is replaced by an economic concept that recognizes that there are limits to growth and that this is a good thing. A society that can be sustained in the long term, will most probably be healthier and more just for everyone involved, not just for the small group who can afford it. Last but not least, a problem can only be solved if it is understood completely.
I hope that I have been able to show convincingly that our current economic concept of infinite growth is at the root of all global problems. I believe that when this is realized by enough people, solutions will automatically start to present themselves. Perhaps some day I will write about what these solutions might look like, but if people don’t want to wait for that, I would suggest they pay a visit to the organization that in my view is the only one that really ‘gets it’: the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, or CASSE. If you like what they do (and I know I do), then please become a member, donate if you can and spread the word.
The first step is ditching the illusory economic concept of infinite growth.
Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
Winston Churchill, November 1942