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The need for growth

Yesterday, a friend sent me over this graph, which shows the levels of carbon dioxide emitted by the USA over the last twenty years. As the accompanying report explains, it shows that 2009 was an ‘exceptional’ year – exceptional in that emissions levels fell by more than they had fallen in a single year since 1949. The reason? The economic crash.

US energy-related emissions (EIA)

It’s not news, of course, that greenhouse gas emissions are intimately linked with economic success. To a degree, it’s basic common sense. Industrial economies run largely on fossil fuels. To understand just how dependent on those fuels we are, and how ‘renewables’ and even nuclear are currently nowhere very significant on a global level, have a look at this breakdown of global energy use:

world-consumption-2006-abcSource: Edro

The global economy, in other words, is fossil fuels. To put it another way, it is climate change. Economic growth equals more emissions. Economic collapse equals fewer. The most famous example of this was the collapse of the Soviet empire after 1990. Its economic apocalypse caused a huge drop in greenhouse gas emissions. To this day, the former USSR still doesn’t pollute as much as it did at the height of its economic pomp.

FSU_CO2Source: Chris Vernon

What to make of this? Well, if you’re Derrick Jensen, say, the conclusion you draw is that industrial society itself is inherently toxic and must be destroyed, in order to save the biosphere. From the point of view of global ecological health, as opposed to human happiness, there’s clear merit in this argument. It’s clear that the global human economy is an engine of ecocide. The trouble is, of course, that even if you can make yourself comfortable with the massive human costs of bringing down industrial society, there’s no conceivable way of actually doing it. When we interviewed Jensen for issue 1 of Dark Mountain, I thought he did a good job of unintentionally demonstrating this. It seems to me that most people in industrial societies, and perhaps outside of them too, will always choose human comfort and safety above what they see as some vague concept of ‘ecological health’. If we are asked to choose between giving up our cars today and giving up the existence of coral reefs in two decades, I think I know what we’d choose. I think we have already chosen.

What to do then? Another approach – far more fashionable and on the surface more ‘realistic’ – is that of ‘eco-pragmatism.’ Eco-pragmatism is very much the in thing right now. Assuming that some grand shift in human consciousness is unlikely, that most people on Earth seem to aspire to Western levels of affluence and over-development and that this is hard or impossible to stop, especially in democracies (and even in dictatorships – look at China), its proponents therefore put their faith in two things: techno-fixes and ‘decoupling’.

The techno-fixes are easy enough to understand: they’re everywhere, and the mainstream green movement has abandoned most of its other aims in order to shill for them. Whether they be giant windfarms or solar arrays in Cornwall, the idea here is to get enough renewable energy sources up and running quickly enough to replace fossil fuels as a significant energy source, and thereby prevent the worst impacts of climate change. I find this narrative utterly unconvincing for a number of reasons we’ve covered here before, and of course I’m not the only one. But questioning it right now is almost impossible; we may have to wait until its proponents hit the brick wall of their own over-excitement before we can have a proper discussion about it.

The second part of the eco-pragmatist equation is the idea of ‘decoupling’ economic development from both emissions and, more broadly, from the material intensity of the economy. As the human economy grows it consumes more stuff. It consumes more fish, wood, ore, fossil fuels, animals, plants, metals and the rest. Some of these are replaceable, some are not, but all of them, taken from the Earth and consumed by us at current rates, has a knock-on effect on the health of the biosphere, of which climate change is only the most all-encompassing example. And it will get worse, for sure. If the projected global population, by 2100, was to live the same kind of lives we currently live in countries like the UK, the global economy would need to be 40 times bigger than it currently is. That’s right: 40 times bigger. It has been calculated that if the world economy grows at a rate of 3% between now and 2040, we will consume in that period resources equivalent to all those we have consumed since humans first evolved. Think about that. Sit back and really think about it.

So – runs the eco-pragmatist argument – this being the case, we need to work out how to develop without doing all this bad stuff. Obviously we need to develop, because it’s everyone’s right to have a telly and a dentist. So we need to work out how to run an economy that doesn’t constantly need to grow, and therefore strip-mine the world.

This argument – that we can ‘develop’ in much the way we are now developing without economic growth – has become a kind of last redoubt for the rhetoric of ’sustainable development.’ Those who push it are well aware of how destructive the human economy is, how democracy colludes in it, and how rising population growth and rising human wants are combining to eat the world. But they see no real way out of the capitalist, materialist society we have built, and they see discussion of alternative systems as ‘unrealistic’ – which often they are. So they alight instead on attempting to maintain the garden of earthly delights that we call modern civilisation without the engine of its creation – economic growth.

It sounds tempting, but I’m not really convinced. For starters, though I’m no economist, I know that the modern economy can’t currently function without growth. Amongst other things, growth is needed in a capitalist economy to offset labour productivity – in other words, to provide new jobs for people made jobless by the economy’s relentless drive towards increasing labour efficiency, which itself is stimulated by the need to grow in order to outcompete others. How you get around this, I don’t know, though various learned people who know a lot more about economics than me think it could be done.

But I think they’re missing something. I think our current societal worship of economic growth, while posing as a piece of economic rationalism, is nothing of the kind. For some reason, this thought crystallised in me this morning when, reading the John Fowles novel The Magus, I came across this short passage, spoken by the central character to his young, idealistic, egalitarian protege:

But are we never to have palaces, never to have refined tastes, complex pleasures, never to let the imagination fulfil itself? Even a Marxist world must have some destination, must develop into some higher state, which can only mean a high pleasure and richer happiness for the human beings in it.

This, I think, is what we believe growth will give us; it’s why we cling to it as to a liferaft. Far from being simply a boring but necessary component of a capitalist economy, growth has become the defining purpose of our political leaders. Nobody sensible questions it, and anyone who does is immediately dismissed as a ‘Luddite’ who wants to ‘have everyone living in caves.’ I see growth as an offshoot of progress, or perhaps a new, more contemporary version of it. Progress – the idea that the future is always better than the past, that everything always improves and will continue to do so, that we have ’some destination’ which will take us to ‘a higher state’ – is the defining myth of the modern world. It is beneath all our skins, and without it we are lost. We have nothing to believe in; nothing to strive for.

Our pursuit of growth is not rational – it is atavistic. I don’t think this is just a dry-as-dust debate about how to decouple energy intensity from job creation. I think it is the potential toppling of one of our founding myths, and I think it will take more than pragmatism to knock it off its pedestal.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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