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The last days of economic growth


In the preface to "The last days of economic growth: Green clash over worldviews" (2007), Björn Forsberg describes how the book emerged from thoughts and ideas that did not fit his Ph.d. thesis in political science. The whole book, but especially the first few chapters, are written without any trace of mercy as Forsberg pummels his pro-growth ideological opponents. Even if the environmental and climate challenges are central to the book, Forsberg’s furious accusations are primarily addressed at the "root of evil" – a society based on the idea of endless economic growth. This book is the fourth book I write about in my blog, and it so happens to be the first book that is written in (and is only accessible in) Swedish. It is probably pretty safe for me to state that this is the only place where you can learn about this book unless you happen to know Swedish.

Forsberg is very aware of peak oil, and behind his criticism of the growth cult there stands a man with an eye on the global and national energy situation, and with full knowledge of the fact that we will move towards more and more expensive energy in the coming decades. I happen to agree with Forsberg about much of what he writes, and when I read the book it felt like he had managed to beautifully formulate what I myself - with peak oil as a starting point - tentatively had begun to write about elsewhere. Therefore, this text will basically be an abstract of Forsberg’s book, even though I basically only treat selected parts of the book.

The cover photo (above) shows a picture of Las Vegas, an impossible city that may also serve as a metaphor for an impossible society and an unsustainable civilization. Las Vegas shines, flashes, beeps and sounds 24/7. A completely artificial environment where nifty watchmakers have even managed to "stop time" in order to entice guests to stay and gamble some more. And no one is cheated as all actors willingly play their roles on the Las Vegas scene while at the same time, this city in the middle of the desert, is a fragile colossus on clay feet, a city that could not exist without enormous subsidies of energy, food and water.

According to the prevalent green rhetoric, there is today consensus about the environmental objectives of [Swedish] society – because “we all want what is good for the environment". In addition and according to the same "narrative", we don't any longer only think the environment is important, but actually prioritize the environment in our actions.

Forsberg rejects these two "truths" utterly and completely, and his whole book treats the fundamental conflict between the environment and the (growth-based) economy. Forsberg assumes that economic growth necessarily ("demonstrably") means increased pressure on ecosystem resources, and argues convincingly that economic growth is always given priority when it comes in conflict with concerns about the environment. New technologies with significant economic potential, such as genetically modified crops or 3G phone networks always take precedence over the principle of precaution and over considerations about possible adverse health effects. Forsberg illustrates the problem with an example that is so obvious that it does not really merit any further comments:

"During only five years, from 2001 to 2006, the amount of electronic waste in Sweden tripled. [...] According to business professionals, part of the explanation is the sales boom for flat-screen television sets [...] and the trend towards an ever-shorter life span of consumer electronics products, white goods and other household technologies. That spells bad news for the environment, but, as we all know, it also means growth."

The conflict between the environment and the economy, and the systematic subordination of the environment vis-à-vis growth, leads to a situation where measures to improve the environment are possible and acceptable only if all of the following conditions are fulfilled:

1) Measures are not perceived as troublesome, as something that requires sacrifices.
2) Measures are not financially burdensome.
3) Measures do not threaten economic growth.

These conditions alone make many actions impossible, including the most effective ones, like reduced consumption of energy, transportation and goods. The basic problem is simply that it is impossible in our growth based society to cope with, or win legitimacy for measures that threaten economic growth. The measures a growth based society can cope with, and which today's environmental policies focuses on, instead meet one of the following four criteria:

- The measure is beyond the economy's vital interests and are not associated with any major expenses. Thus it is acceptable to protect remote and inaccessible nature reserves with low economic potential (note: the protection status of a nature reserve may be reviewed at the same moment it is discovered that the area contains some exploitable, economically valuable resource).

- The measure has a relatively marginal cost. It is possible to prohibit specific, particularly hazardous chemicals (DDT, PCBs, CFCs, etc.), since such regulations are limited to few products and the negative economic impact is only borne by a small number of firms and industries (note: serious efforts to try to limit CO2 or other greenhouse gas emissions would affect many sectors and companies negatively and the costs are thus perceived as too high).

- The measure is obviously necessary to protect long-term economic interests. The introduction of fishing quotas in order to prevent fish stocks from collapsing is an example of this (note: the fishing industry is routinely protesting loudly about such limitations).

- The measure creates a lot of goodwill and economic growth. If an environmental protection measure has the potential to become an engine of growth for the environmental technology industry (so-called "cleantech" or "greentech"), and lead to increased export incomes, an irresistible "win-win" situation may occur (note: if an environment protection measure does not imply opportunities for (future) economic gains, or even restricts the industries' profit opportunities, it is relegated to the dunce’s corner).

In the rare cases where a (relatively radical) proposal for regulation (finally) is presented, powerful forces are immediately mobilized and will - with mechanical precision - claim that competition will be distorted, that the Swedish industry will risk collapsing, that the government should not interfere with the free market, and so on.

Forsberg's conclusion is that environmental issues nowadays have a prominent position in speeches, in policy statements and in political moves - but that this only gives the appearance of action, since the political will to actually back up these fancy words does not exist. What we have in abundance is an important but rarely noticed difference between what is said and what is actually done.

What is actually done is to commission a steady stream of environmental inquiries whose findings, conclusions and recommendations are then scrupulously ignored. Inquiries and investigations pile up and their ample existence as measured by the number of pages written provide an alibi and a semblance of national mobilization for the environment. Forsberg himself has participated in several such inquiries and questions the usefulness of his contributions to "the mountain of infrequently read and negligibly influential reports which are the harsh reality of environmental commissions".

Responsibility for this pitiful situation does not all fall on the shoulders of our politicians. On the contrary, no one is without blame, and apparently it is perfectly fine for me as an individual to demand “solutions” from politicians while at the same time refusing to accept environmental reforms which will have any direct consequences for me and my lifestyle! In summary, there is a "barrier of individual comfort, powerful special interests, economic short-sightedness and other layers of resistance that prevents a transformation of society."

Another blameworthy actor is the mainstream media. The supposedly serious morning papers have difficulties rising above their daily time horizon. The built-in dramaturgy of news media simply does not allow for long-term monitoring of complex issues. Sudden crises and disasters (like a couple of recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile) are better at driving sales, and thus get a higher coverage. Current events spread across multiple pages, while decisive trends are dealt with in short paragraphs near the bottom of the reader's attention span.

As readers we are lulled into a feeling that everything is (more or less) in order. Accidents certainly happen on a regular basis (usually at a comfortable distance), but we do not have to be confronted with stories that compel us to reconsider our way of living here and now. I propose that 9/11 and Katrina created such a trauma for Americans precisely because it was, for the American public, something that happened to "us" instead of (only) to "them". Forsberg gives an example of media's miserable coverage of important issues in the context of a two-day seminar in 2006 about how Sweden could cope with a future without oil:

"A participating economy reporter from the TV channel 4 honestly explained that the subject of our seminar was too ‘long- term’ for the evening economy news. The workshop could only become a news story for TV if we could also comment on short-term winners and losers of the increase in oil prices that happened to take place the previous day. The issue of long-term consequences of increased scarcity of oil [...] on the other hand, was not perceived as an economically relevant issue in the editors evaluation of economic news."

Forsberg’s conclusion is that (commercial) media only conveys messages that do not come into conflict with the current economic system and with powerful economic interests (advertisers). Maybe the editors of the evening newspaper do not even notice the contradiction between asking what politicians are doing about climate change and, on the same spread, encouraging readers to fly to Rome for 200 Swedish Crowns (less than 30 USD). Forsberg states that if a newspaper claims to take the climate issue seriously, while at the same time encouraging readers to fly on weekend trips or participate in "petrol revolts" (tame Swedish protests against the petrol taxes - usually involving nothing more than signing your, or a fake, name to a list - no Tea Party protests hereabouts) - then the newspaper is not a credible actor and it is a part of the problem rather than the solution.

Furthermore, society is permeated by a newspeak which tends to lead us astray, reduce the problems and mentally bind us to an ecologically destructive social order:

- A detergent is marketed as environmentally friendly, when it in reality is actually only less environmentally unfriendly. If the detergent was really environmentally friendly, then it ought to improve the environment, so that we would like to pour as much of it as possible into the Baltic Sea (compare this jargon with the term "green car").

- When people talk about "accessibility" in relations to traffic, what they actually mean is accessibility for cars. The car is implicitly, but at the same time exceedingly clearly, the very model for how we "should" move around in society. Accessibility for cyclists or pedestrians is a subject that is most often ignored, and cyclists are by default treated as obstacles for (the cars’) mobility.

- Glass, newspapers and materials that can be composted are described as "garbage" or "waste" rather than "resources".

- In the midst of the Swedish election campaign in 2006, one of the biggest Swedish newspapers proclaimed that "The Green party harbors most eco-villains". The explanation behind this blown-up claim was that Green party voters on the average owned old cars than voters for other political parties. Being environmentally friendly was thus unproblematically defined as "owning a new car". But it is not unlikely that Green party sympathisers to a greater extent than others do not own a car at all (overlooked perspective). Nor is it unlikely that cars often play a smaller role in the lives of Green party voters’, making the voters drive less and therefore on average have older cars (overlooked perspective). Moreover, it is obviously better for the environment to lovingly maintain and use a car as long as possible before buying a new one (overlooked perspective). The claim could (should) just as well have been "Green party has the most eco-heroes".

- When fundamentally psychopathic companies locate their operations to countries that offer the best conditions (that is, countries that have the lowest social and environmental requirements), it is considered perfectly normal and a sign of "sound business strategies". On characteristics of psychopaths (equally applicable to companies?):

Psychopaths [...] do not experience shame, guilt, or remorse for their action. Psychopaths lack a sense of guilt or remorse for any harm they may have caused others, instead rationalizing the behavior [...] Psychopaths also lack empathy towards others in general [...] Psychopaths also have a markedly distorted sense of the potential consequences of their actions"

The framework for public debate and for our very thinking is formed in these and similar manners. To talk about limits to growth is regarded as character traits of a narrow-minded, fundamentalistic, reactionary person. Anyone who persists is dismissed and not allowed to participate in the "serious" public debate. Furthermore, he/she runs the risk of being labeled "eco-religious" or of being an "environmental Taliban". But, Forsberg asks, when was the last time you experienced an economist, business leader or growth-oriented politicians being called "growth religious" or a "growth fundamentalist"?

Gold Medal in newspeak, however, is awarded to the astroturfing company-funded networks and organizations that are responsible for promoting a growth agenda and obstructing and keeping the environmental issues away from public debate - but that gives the impression of working for the environment with names like "Information Council on the Environment" and "The Climate Coalition.” The former was funded by, among others, the National Coal Association, and in the list of members of the latter organization, you could find some of the world's largest oil companies (Exxon, Shell, Texaco, BP) and car manufacturers (Ford, GM, DaimlerChrysler). Forsberg quotes author Andrew Rowell:

"Since its inception in 1983, the Citizens for Sensible Control of Acid Rain has spent over $7.5 million attempting to defeat acid rain legislation, without a sensible citizen in sight, just some large electricity companies."

Forsberg's book addresses many other issues, such as the problems (the growth-oriented thinking) of the green movement and of the Left, the problems with a debate climate shaped by Right-wing growth worshiping think tanks and "lomborgians" (after the discredited Danish environmental skeptic Bjørn Lomborg), the problem of "ecomodernism" (the popular and politically viable idea that sustainable development and economic development go hand in hand and that environmental problems may be viewed as the next economic growth engine), the personal problems trying to decrease your environmental footprint in a society that is configured for a high-and-increasing level of consumption, and, the problems for a researcher to obtain funding for research that is non-growth-oriented or even critical to economic growth (for example relating to peak oil).

Forsberg’s thoughts and suggestions for possible solutions are mainly about localization (the opposite of globalization). Forsberg advocates "an economy guided by proximity and transparency", which is nurtured by positive social visions of a sustainable society. It is not possible to do justice to these ideas in a few short sentences and it is a pity the book has not been translated into English!

My only complaint is that the book sometimes feels slightly "messy". The sources to some of what I have written about above (media, newspeak) are found in at least two or perhaps three different places in the book. A text that has grown organically during a period of five years would have benefited from more help from an editor with a firm hand and an eye towards making the text better structured. Beyond that complaint I advice anyone (the few of you read this text and who can also read Swedish) to buy the book and read it for yourselves.
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