By Steve Austin
In these days of economic, environmental and societal turmoil, I think that many people are trying to have it both ways. One way this can be illustrated is by a post that recently appeared on the thinkprogress website, entitled “How Economic Growth Can Save The Planet” by John Halpin.
The premise of the post is one so often used to justify our economic and environmental actions: if we don’t have economic growth, then most people will be poor, uneducated, sick and easily manipulated. Therefore, if you are against these things, then you must be for growth, for only with growth can we truly make social progress.
Halpin quotes Benjamin Friedman: “economic growth—meaning a rising standard of living for the clear majority of citizens—more often than not fosters greater opportunity, tolerance of diversity, social mobility, commitment to fairness, and dedication to democracy.”
OK, who is against the results stated that are created for the input? No one. But, I think it is a failure of imagination to think that it is economic growth, and only economic growth, that will ensure those things will occur.
Actually, after 200 years or more of economic growth, we can see instead that more growth is actually a detriment to those ideals. The results are clearly apparent.
Yes, initially, economic growth produced some positive results, primarily in western Europe and the US. But over the last 100 years? Lets see. Two biggies related to economic growth: two world wars, both of which had control of natural resources and social and racial intolerance at their core. Growth didn’t prevent those wars, instead it made them possible, if not inevitable. I fear that the exact same conditions are reaching a crisis point again.
In the US, after all our growth, we are not witnessing “greater opportunity, tolerance of diversity, social mobility, commitment to fairness, and dedication to democracy.” In fact, with the returning dominance of the far right wing, we are not only not seeing those increase, but instead we are witnessing a coordinated and politically sanctioned restraint of them in order that the few can continue to benefit from the crumbs of growth.
Yes, there are millions of people around the world who life affluent lifestyles now than would have been possible without growth. But at what cost? Climate change, resource depletion, environmental collapse, social exploitation of millions more. Those costs are too heavy to bear anymore. Is more economic growth worth the damage just so a few more people can have cars, monstrous homes, and crap they don’t really need?
How can more of the same lead to any different result than we are now seeing? To paraphrase Albert E: the kind of thinking that got us into this mess will not be the same as will get us out.
Still, many people continue to hope that if somehow we are all more sensitive, more “green,” we can turn things around and create the utopia that economic growth promised us.
Halpin’s post quotes Robert Reich:
“Growth is different from consumerism. Growth is really about the capacity of a nation to produce everything that’s wanted and needed by its inhabitants.
Growth doesn’t depend on plunder. Rich nations have the capacity to extract resources responsibly. That they don’t is a measure of their irresponsibility and the weakness of international law.”
While I like Reich, I think this quote is simply astounding. A nation that produces everything its citizens need, yes, but also everything they want? We’re right back in the consumerism trap that he says economic growth doesn’t have to be about.
Further, he states that if the rich nations would just be more responsible about resource extraction, all will be well. Right. We haven’t shown that yet. Honestly, if we extract resources responsibly, there is no more economic growth. There is only sustainability. At best.
This is because we are not at a point where we can make value choices. We are at a fundamental turning point in human history. This is not about going greener, being more responsible, more kind and gentle. For the first time, we are aware of what the planetary ramifications of our collective actions will be.
There is no way to square economic growth as we’ve know it with this quote from the great Chris Hedges:
“Humans must immediately implement a series of radical measures to halt carbon emissions or prepare for the collapse of entire ecosystems and the displacement, suffering and death of hundreds of millions of the globe’s inhabitants, according to a report commissioned by the World Bank. The continued failure to respond aggressively to climate change, the report warns, will mean that the planet will inevitably warm by at least 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century, ushering in an apocalypse.”
This is at the heart of my dissonance with Transition. If what people like Hedges say is true, then there is no time, let alone the luxury of personal lifestyle choice, to take the actions necessary to prevent apocalypse. It is not something that we can ease into, to learn and share and massage, to each his own, until it feels right. So which is Transition? A personal value choice or urgent demand? If it is personal, will it succeed? If it is urgent, will it seem like dictatorial elitism? Quite a conundrum.
Returning to the issue of economic growth, it is imperative that we separate the positive social results we desire – greater opportunity, tolerance of diversity, social mobility, commitment to fairness, and dedication to democracy – from the assumption that only economic growth – the exploitation of our planet and people – can provide them. We will have lost our collective soul if we believe growth is the only way to provide those things. Economic growth will end, our finite planet will see to that. We must ensure that our ideals do not end with it.