Saturday, December 24, 2011

Time to Break Our Growth Addiction

Imagine being trapped in a society that considers heretical the notion of living within its finite means.  That is very much the civilization within which you and I and the rest of humanity live.

Life on Earth, in all its many forms, lives within our biosphere which is today about the same size it was long before man as a species evolved.   Our unique traits allowed us to supposedly master and to manipulate our biosphere, to extract its riches and transform them to elevate our comfort and enjoyment.  But, rather than revere this biosphere as the very source of so much good, we instead turned it into our midden, our cesspit.

Now we stand in numbers unimaginable just a century ago, each of us consuming the bounty of our biosphere at levels undreamed of a century ago.   Compared to the beginning of the last century, we have grown from barely two-billion to seven while increasing our consumption levels to the equivalent of twelve billion or more.

During the 20th Century our per capita energy consumption grew enormously.  Buckminster Fuller created the concept of an "energy slave" to represent the output of a hard-working man that he figured at 150,000 foot pounds of work per day.   At the end of the century the average American had at his disposal the equivalent of 8,000 energy slaves.

"Moreover, Fuller pointed out, 'energy-slaves, although doing only the foot-pounds of humans, are enormously more effective, because they can work under conditions intolerable to man, e.g., 5000 F, no sleep, ten-thousandths of an inch tolerance, one million times magnification, 400,000 pounds per square inch pressure, 186,000 miles per second alacrity and so forth."

This cheap energy revolution also fueled enormous increases in America's population.   From barely 76-million in 1900 it closed the century at 275-million that has further swelled to 312-million in just the first decade of the 21st century.

Some, such as George W. Bush, lament that Americans have become "addicted to oil" when, in fact, oil dependence is a symptom, a manifestation of a much greater addiction - an addiction to growth.  It is our abuse of growth that has become modern society's heroin.

"The short-term effects of heroin abuse appear soon after a single dose and disappear in a few hours. After an injection of heroin, the user reports feeling a surge of euphoria (“rush”) accompanied by a warm flushing of the skin, a dry mouth, and heavy extremities. Following this initial euphoria, the user goes “on the nod,” an alternately wakeful and drowsy state. Mental functioning becomes clouded due to the depression of the central nervous system."

Growth gives us comfort, a warm euphoria and sense of well-being.   But it's illusory and short-lived.  Before long we crave more growth.   We must have more.  It's how we live.  It's a dysfunctional urge that turns increasingly ugly as our tolerance levels soar and our need for growth increases.

Hard core heroin addicts, especially the street variety, are known for resorting to all manner of anti-social and ultimately self-destructive behaviour to satisfy their addiction from prostitution to theft, sometimes even worse.  

Our hard core growth addiction reveals itself in similar, dysfunctional behaviour.   We embrace a promiscuous convergence of actual needs and insatiable wants.  We indulge wants to the point of overdose that eventually surfaces in garage sales, junkyards or landfills.  We steal to feed our addiction.   We steal from other peoples in distant lands by stripping the oceans, destroying their forests or corrupting our shared atmosphere.   We steal from future generations, bequeathing them a much worse future to supposedly improve our present.  We steal what we can, where we can, however and whenever we can.

We must steal if we are to feed our growth addiction because there's no other choice.   There is no other way.   There isn't enough to go around anymore.  We're stealing from our biosphere and we're stealing from each other and we're even stealing from generations not yet born.   For example, we're emptying our oceans of essential food species, depleting them beyond their baseline reproduction stocks.   And, as we fish one to the verge of extinction, we move on to the next most desirable species and find ways to market that.  We're draining our groundwater reserves to drive the hopelessly unsustainable Green Revolution and, in the process, subjecting farmland to massive amounts of fertilizers and pesticides that speed its exhaustion and transform it into useless desert.  With food scarcity already spreading through the world we're diverting vital farmland and increasingly scarce water to grow crops to make biofuels.

Yet we're beginning to hear voices calling for us to break our addiction to growth and end this madness.  We hear people like British scientist James Lovelock imploring mankind, especially in the West, to embrace what he calls "sustainable retreat", to become smaller.  Then there's former World Bank economist, Herman Daly, championing what he calls "steady state economics."

Daly's school of Ecological Economics departs from classical economics  in rejecting the delusional assumption of infinite growth.   The theory of economics idiots like our prime minister operate under are slaved to growth which is why their efforts are increasingly failing.

Economists like Daly argue that the myth of perpetual economic growth and "the iron cage of consumerism" are the chief causes of world economic dysfunction and environmental crisis -- and the biggest obstacle to our very happiness.

The problem, says Daly, is that the economy, once an inconsequentially small part of the natural world, has become so supersized that -- sort of like an ingrown toenail or an evasive Japanese knotweed bush -- it's now growing into the remaining ecosphere and jeopardizing our ecological life supports: things like drinkable water, fresh air and a stable climate.

...Those ideas can be found influencing, among other things, the slow money movement, D.I.Y. culture, modern barter systems, car sharing, and corporate sustainability rhetoric. They are also reflected in the views of ecologists such as Lester Brown and Jeremy Rifkin, the author, pundit and adviser to the European Union, as well as entrepreneurs such as Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, which ran an advertisement this holiday season urging consumers not to buy the pictured jacket and to think twice about making any purchases they don't really need. Even Unilever, the consumer goods conglomerate, has embarked on a corporate social responsibility campaign pledging to "decouple" its growth from its ecological footprint.

Obviously the threat of global warming is a powerful influence on Daly's "degrowth" movement but so are other drivers including resource depletion, the freshwater crisis, species extinction and overpopulation, among others.

A good deal, perhaps even most, of what we thought we understood or took for granted in the last century may not survive very long into the 21st, at least not if we're to live in harmony with our planet and with each other.  It is human nature to resist change, especially of this magnitude, but it's not a matter of choice and, from my own experience, I can vouch that getting smaller, doing with less, living more modestly, doesn't have to mean hardship. 


Anyong said...

There's an interesting article by Fred Pearce about "The New Story of Stuff: Can We Consume Less?" "A new study finds that Britons are consuming less than they did a decade ago, with similar patterns being seen across Europe. Could this be the beginning of a trend in developed countries? Might we be reaching "peak stuff"? You can find the article along with several others on Indeed, we certainly are capable of using less for we have learned to use and as you say, we are programmed to buy since it provides a high. Asking a family member not to give a Christmas gift, they went out and bought a dish not needed filled with baked goods I do not consume. It will take much to convince the public. Merry Christmas

The Mound of Sound said...

Hi Anyong. Thanks for the information. I'll try to track down Pearce's article over the holidays. I read something about the decline in UK consumption and, like you, I hope it could catch on. We have built such powerful consumer economies that finding new paths won't be easy.

I hope yours is a truly Merry Christmas.

Beijing York said...

Wishing you a happy Christmas weekend, Mound. Thanks for all the work you do to keeping us informed.

The Mound of Sound said...

Hi B.Y. and thanks. I hope you have a terrific 2012 - and that the damned Mayans are wrong!

Anyong said...

"Mayans are wrong!" The writtings say we are moving into the age of Aquarius..that is all.

AMS said...

Heh, careful, you'll be chased out for heresy one of these days.