Monday, September 26, 2016

D is for Degrowth

Or it could also be for Depletion or Dieoff, which are related topics. The human species has been expanding rapidly since the Industrial Revolutions, but really took off in the 20th century. Masses of cheap energy in the form of fossil fuels allowed us to mine and exploit the planet's mineral, animal and plant resources as if they were infinite. We measured all of this activity by giving things a monetary value and measuring the rate at which primary goods (raw materials) were turned into manufactured products, supported by a web of services. We called this system of measurements "the economy".

Because we had an economy we had to have economists. These were the technicians and theoreticians who claimed they knew how to make the system function and grow. If the system was growing then material prosperity - or at least the promise of it - could be made available to more and more people. Banks made loans and lent money, governments issued bonds and initiated works of infrastructure, generals grew their armies and waged wars, and the common person got a credit card and a mortgage to buy a house. All of this economic activity went into the melting pot and was used to calculate a country's GDP (Gross Domestic Product).

This all worked well until the limits of growth were met. However, by that point, the system had evolved into one with no reverse gear. Booming populations, exponentially rising debt and an infrastructure designed and built on the assumption that there would never be any limits to growth had painted us into a corner. The economists, being only concerned with economics and not ecology, failed to recognise that the human economy is merely an artificially created system existing within the wider ecology of planet Earth. As a result of this minor oversight ecological systems are breaking down at an alarming rate. The planet is running out of capacity for dealing with the rising tide of waste from the human species,  just as it is running out of fresh water, fertile topsoil, biodiversity and a climate amenable to continued human civilisation.

This wasn't supposed to happen. Standard neoclassical economics says that when one good becomes scarce the free market will step in and - as if by magic - a substitute good will be found. This hasn't happened in the case of our biological life support systems and represents the ultimate market failure. But this hasn't worried the true believers, and the concept of infinite substitutability has now been taken to its logical conclusion ad absurdum with serious talk about moving to a new (as yet unlocated) planet.

So, given the huge footprint of the human species on a finite planet, there can only be one logical solution to save ourselves: to degrow the economy. This is not a popular option. For an economy geared for growth, and only growth, any backward step to a smaller and less complex state of affairs is calamitous. Financial ponzi schemes collapse, asset bubbles burst, people lose their jobs and governments find themselves unable to supply basic services. All of this tends to lead to riots, revolutions and wars.

And yet we don't have any choice. Given the basic mathematically impossible concept of continued growth in a finite space, it is inevitable that limits will be reached sooner or later. Yet we have engineered a system whereby continued growth is suicidal, and the opposite will be very painful. But given the choice between an outcome that is certainly fatal and one that is likely very painful but not fatal, most rational people would choose the latter, all other things being held equal.

But what would degrowth look like in practice? Imagine, for a moment, the existence of a far-sighted and benign government that wanted to look out for and protect its citizens (I know it's hard to do these days). It might, for example, make cars prohibitively expensive and invest in public transport and cycle lanes instead. It might pour subsidies into researching and developing more benign technologies for generating energy and it might equally focus on energy conservation. Young citizens would be taught at school how to conserve energy and how to decode advertisements. Far fetched? This is exactly what Denmark did in the 1970s following the oil shocks. Alas, being one of only a very small number of countries attempting to unhook themselves from fossil fuel addiction, it was always going to be difficult. Yet its efforts could act in some way as a template for a wider programme.

Is this going to happen? Common sense says it doesn't look like it. Any imposition of degrowth policies by governments would likely be viewed with extreme suspicion - the suspicion being that the brunt of any degrowth would be shouldered by the masses while the rich and powerful minority continued living with wild abandon. This would likely lead to outright rebellion and revolution, or at the very least a new government would be elected on an anti-degrowth platform.

But that doesn't mean individuals, families and groups can't attempt to wriggle free of the economic suicide belt. Sure, it might be difficult to do so, but it has its merits; increased resilience and empowerment being but two. After all, there is no choice in the end. Degrowth is already happening but they just haven't told us yet. All that is left of the world economy is a series of get-rich-quick schemes backed up by asset bubbles, crooked economic figures, a rising tsunami of unpayable debt and ponzi madness. Strip all of that out of the equation and you're left with an economy that is struggling for breath as it sinks beneath the waves, dragged down by falling real energy availability and an increasing complexity that has long since passed the point of positive marginal returns.

The only real question that remains is whether a chaotic and unplanned degrowth scenario will leave the planetary biosphere in an inhabitable state by the time we have returned to a state of sustainability. That, to an unknowable extent, is up to us.

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