Wednesday, November 3, 2010

It's the Economy That's Stupid

In my previous post, I mentioned that I thought that seriously curtailing fossil fuel consumption and contracting the economy were the best choices we could make for the long-term future. Today I want to elaborate a bit on that idea.

Many people are in agreement that we should reduce fossil fuel consumption, maybe because of fears of global warming or other types of pollution (the BP disaster is far from over), or a concern that we are headed for a major accessibility crisis, summed up by the term "peak oil."

Most people who are aware of these threats envision living much as we do today, maybe with more attention paid to conservation, simply substituting renewal energy sources for fossil fuels. In this scenario we can continue to grow economically. As the less-developed countries catch up their birth rates will drop, and the total human population will stabilize at a sustainable level.

There are a few problems with this.
First of all, renewable sources simply cannot replace fossil fuels at current energy demand. Fossil fuels, especially oil, are convenient, concentrated, and thus far abundant. They are the accumulation of many millions of years of photosynthesis. Renewable sources are diffuse (solar, wind) or localized (geothermal, hydro). For more on why renewable energy is not a replacement, but still worthwhile, the archives of the Archdruid Report, especially this post, are a good resource. A lot of it boils down to the concept of energy returned on energy invested.

Second, a good portion of the wealth and energy in the developed world are there due to exploitation of the developing world. So they never can catch up without the developed world giving up its advantage. This is the dynamic that has reigned since the dawn of European exploration and conquest over 500 years ago. Each incremental advantage in technology has led to more advantages in access to resources and allowed Europeans and their descendants to control much of the planet by the turn of the 20th century. Though direct political control has been handed over, much of the economic and military control still lies with the richest nations.

Third, there are other physical (i.e. not political/social) threats to our way of life. Even without burning fossil fuels, 6 billion humans put a serious strain on the planet. In fact, without fossil fuels it will take a lot more work, and probably more land, just to feed everyone. Fresh water must be protected and conserved, and the biodiversity must be maintained to prevent ecological collapse, and maybe because other species have a right to exist too.

There are some who say that in its current state the planet can't even support a billion humans sustainably, and the over-burden on the system is continually lowering this sustainable level, or carrying capacity of human population.

Compounding the population problem is what William Catton called, in his 1980 book Overshoot, the "prosthetic man." Armed with technology, cheap energy, and global resources, one human living a modern life in the developed world has a much larger impact than one living a subsistence existence in the developing world, making him a larger extended organism in terms of his ecological footprint. The carrying capacity for prosthetic humans is naturally less than it is for non-prosthetic humans. Prosthetic humans are now growing in size and number in the most populous nations of China and India, though the Americans are still the biggest.

All of this is background for what appears to be the central issue in the last two election cycles: the economy. Where is the recovery? Why so much unemployment? Who can we blame? Who will save us? In 2008 the resurgent Democrats were pretty good at convincing the voters that the Republicans, or at least the Bush administration, were to blame, and that Obama, with the help of a Democrat-led bipartisan Congress plus all of us, could deliver. This year the energized Republicans were even better at convincing the voters that Obama's plans were doomed to fail, and would lead to the end of all that is good and profitable.

With unemployment in double digits and homes being foreclosed faster than the banks can process the papers, it is easy for people to forget that this is the same old campaign game, played every two years and much of the time in between, for the last 220 years. Take all the credit, pass all the blame, and try to make Joe Sixpack and Jane C. Public believe you will work hard for them, meanwhile raising enough cash to be seen and heard.

But if the unemployment and housing crises are just symptoms of a deeper systemic crisis, one that has ecological roots and won't respond to the old economic fixes, then the campaign rhetoric is all noise and the economy is just a distraction.

We need to have a dialog on the root causes in the hope that a paradigm shift can occur and we can do all that is possible to turn a crash into a soft landing. The first step might be to stop trying so hard to recover the economy, and instead learn to adapt to the reality of limits.

If economic recovery means hastening ecological collapse then lets have a depression instead. Learn to live simply, live locally, and live in community. Give up the cars and the televisions. Grow food instead of grass. Accept less food, less money, less opportunity, perhaps less time in this life.

I don't say this lightly. I know economic depression means real hardship. Real hunger, real suffering, real death. We will have much to grieve. Some have said, "there is no bright future ahead." Probably true from a purely material perspective. On the other hand, I expect there will be many opportunities for meaningful and fulfilling experiences, perhaps of a more spiritual nature than we are used to these days. But I have no delusions that life will be easier.

Yes, I'm a hypocrite. I make a million choices each day that help preserve business as usual. I still have a foot on my meager corner of the hamster wheel. Part of me still hopes for better material opportunity for myself and my children. I am still enamored of technology. The simple life is hard, and I don't know if I'm ready for hardship. But I'm trying to keep my eyes open and prepare for a time when I may have no choice.

I still appreciate the dimension of human liberty that is only possible in a world of relative abundance. This expectation is deep in our psyche, dating back to the 18th Century enlightenment thinking of privileged Europeans. I don't relish the ugliness that can manifest when humans feel confined and deprived.

But I still believe it is ultimately more important to leave a livable planet for the 7th and 700th generations than it is to earn a few extra toys, enjoy a few extra liberties, or live a few extra years in this one.

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