Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The fate of a shark

It is said -- don't know if it's true -- that sharks can never rest; they must keep swimming to drive water over their gills, or they will suffocate. George Monbiot reminds us that we are in a similar predicament.

His point is that the greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts of Britons and Americans is not measured by what we spew from our own territory. It is measured by the global impact of our consumption. Much of the pollution we blame on China is actually generated to fill our own closets.

When I was a youth, working for Ralph Nader, I helped produce a conference on environmentalism, focusing specifically on energy. Yes, even then we were talking about renewable energy. Dr. Benjamin Spock came to talk about his own solar heated house -- in 1978. Hazel Henderson spoke about the fundamental error of confusing gross national product with human well being.I was the projectionist for a very nice little film called A Place to Live, about the Shelter Institute in Maine. I'm not sure they have the right idea after all -- country living, even if it's relatively energy efficient, can't be the option for most people. But the point is, even before a lot of people were thinking about climate change, we knew damn well that the fossil-fuel powered industrial economy could not just keep on growing forever.

Well, we also had a speaker from -- I think it was the NAACP, might have been another civil rights organization -- whose sole agenda was to let us know that calling for a "no growth" economy was a luxury for wealthy people. Economic growth was the only way to lift people out of poverty, and it had to be accelerated, not restrained.

As Monbiot writes:

Unsurprisingly, hardly anyone wants to talk about this, as the only meaningful response is a reduction in the volume of stuff we consume. And this is where even the most progressive governments’ climate policies collide with everything else they represent. As Mustapha Mond points out in Brave New World, “industrial civilization is only possible when there’s no self-denial. Self-indulgence up to the very limits imposed by hygiene and economics. Otherwise the wheels stop turning”.

The wheels of the current economic system – which depends on perpetual growth for its survival – certainly. The impossibility of sustaining this system of endless, pointless consumption without the continued erosion of the living planet and the future prospects of humankind, is the conversation we will not have.
 We have seen a reduction in the amount of fossil fuel consumed per unit of total output, but it has been overwhelmed by overall growth. The fact is that humanity as a whole is far wealthier than ever, but that wealth is more concentrated in few hands than ever before. We don't need more growth to lift people out of poverty, we need more justice. But we haven't a clue how to get there, and nobody is even talking about it. No, we can't keep on growing forever. It is a mathematical impossibility. Continued exponential growth, even at what we would now consider a fairly low rate, means that humanity will devour the solar system in a couple of hundred years. Since that won't happen, what will?


roger said...

disaster, calamity, all the methane under the arctic sea melting, plague, collapse of the food system, collapse of the ocean fisheries (oops, that one is already accomplished) and the ever popular war. it seems as plain as the noses on the faces of many billion humans that we won't get anything together to stop our madness.


Anonymous said...

We are like too many rats in a a box.

davidknz said...

There's plenty of evidence that the "intelligent design" hypothesis is , well, unintelligent. But your post (and rogers comment) suggest there is scope for a study of "unintelligent design" - that is, that the lemming like rush to self destruction is, in some way, intentional. I've seen this suggestion in the writings of Jung, and in mythology ( Thanatos, Lord Shiva) but not so far in the hallowed writings of scientific journals. The evidence seems to be obvious but there is a dearth of hypotheses to explain the observed phenomenon. The 'meme' conjecture of Richard Dawkins seems a little lightweight, and the book of Revelation, so revered by some, a hallucinogenic example of the depths of the insanity

Cervantes said...

Well, I don't see it as intentional exactly -- it's basically the pursuit of short-term, narrow self-interest. Evolution never equipped us to take a larger scale perspective because it wasn't available until recently. People would just use up the place where they were and then, if need be, move on to the next valley. We still have the same habit, but it doesn't work any more.