The stationary economy

I recently rediscovered the October 2008 issue of New Scientist magazine, entitled ‘The folly of growth’. One article, entitled ‘How our economy is killing the Earth’, reminded us of days when economists still had scruples. John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), one of the founders of classical economics and author of Principles of Political Economy, argued that once the work of economic growth was done, a “stationary economy” should emerge in which we could focus on human improvement. Mill says, “It is scarcely necessary to remark that a stationary condition of capital and population implies no stationary state of human improvement”. My goodness, how enlightened. Well, it was 1848 and the wonders of oil were as yet unknown. Today those of us who dare mention the end of growth economics are pilloried for wanting to end civilisation, return to the dark ages and other complete distortions of what the green movement is (or should be) about. What changed? The commercial exploitation of oil unleashed a glut of energy which we have spent the last 150 years using to develop this complex society in which we live. Stationary growth is here, I would argue, but it’s not been planned as Mill suggested – it has been imposed by nature and we simply are not up to taking that message on board. Too many are in denial and what we are denying is that the growth economy has had its day.

In an interview in said issue, David Suzuki recalled asking a top ecologist at Harvard University how many humans Earth could sustainably support. The answer was “200 million if you want to live like North Americans.” Bummer – I thought 1-2 billion was me being pessimistic! OK, so assuming that we would gladly forego living like Americans to enable a few more of us to survive, what would our ‘standard of living’ actually be? What would we do without so that others might live? iPods? All-year-round tomatoes? Flushing toilets? Where would we draw the line? I doubt that we could ever agree on where to draw the line. How could we when we can’t even agree on the folly of continued reliance on fossil fuels?

If we are really serious about social justice and eliminating poverty such questions need to be asked, along with “what standard of living could 6.8 billion people have if everything was shared equally and sustainably?” Given that the industrialised world has only 20 per cent of Earth’s population but uses more than 80 per cent of the resources, I’d imagine that we in the industrialised world might be in for a bit of a shock, which is probably why such questions remain taboo. We talk about creating a better world for all without understanding what we have to share around and what stops us from sharing. Like Government targets, it’s just talk. We’ve lived through 150 years of accumulating wealth from oil yet the gap between rich and poor has never been wider. We are, as a species, greedy and self-serving. If you’re gasping at this, get a grip! Obviously not every individual is greedy and self-serving but as a species we are. Take a look around you – the world is the way it is because we, collectively, make it that way or at least allow it to be that way. We are so self-centred – we think we can extract and exploit the Earth’s resources as fast as we want, that we can use the land, the air and the oceans as waste dumps, that we can alter biological cycles, which took billions of years to get us to where we are today, without consequence. We think the Earth exists for us – even the name is anthropocentric. As Arthur C. Clark said, “How inappropriate to call this planet earth when it is quite clearly Ocean”.

People can be amazing though – altruistic, ingenious, creators of awesome art (and a lot of pish, granted) but people (indeed any species) are at their worst when they are scared. Not much useful work can be done when you’re panicking and deciding which of the ‘flight or fight’ options to resort to. Denial is one response to fear. Deny that the problem exists and it no longer needs your attention. Forgetting unpleasant truths, perhaps events from childhood, is often a useful coping strategy but not when the unpleasant truth is hurtling towards you at 100 miles an hour. Many people from all walks of life do understand the crisis. I just learned today of renowned marine biologist Sylvia Earle, who was interviewed on Radio 3. Sadly, the interview is only available til 12 July but it’s really worth a listen. She describes (38 minutes in) the knowledge base which we have accumulated thanks to fossil fuels. She is not deluded, like some, into thinking that all these modern advancements just came about because we’re smart. They came about because we’re smart AND we had the energy to use and waste in pursuing them. But our squandering of this precious natural resource will only have been beneficial if we learn from it, if we take the knowledge that fossil fuels have provided us with and realise that there are limits to how far we can go. The advancements we have made in the industrial age will only be beneficial if we act on what we know. Some intelligent creatures may live for 200 years and must be aware that their environment is changing but they have no idea why. We do. They don’t know what to do about it. We do. It’s up to us. Earle believes that the next 10 years are likely to be the most important in the next 10,000 years and I tend to agree with her.

There are groups of people who are well aware of the energy crisis but even their reactions vary. Transition Initiatives focus on increasing local resilience to the energy shocks which are on their way. The movement has a feeling of inclusion and fairness – a bit fluffy, you may say (I love them!). There’s an interesting article by Rob Hopkins here on Cameron’s ‘The Big Society’, which reminds us that localism, as promoted by the current administration, still takes place within the wider context of globalised economic growth, which in turn drives energy dependency and carbon emissions. Or there’s Michael Ruppert’s Collapsenet, which also uses the term ‘transition’ but is decidedly more angry about the whole situation. Those who “automatically and unquestionably believe in the principle of infinite growth and are incapable of conceptualizing other life paradigms” are referred to as ‘zombies’ and zombies are excluded from the Collapsenet project. While I agree with the ‘zombie’ sentiment, this is too ‘us and them’ for me and while agreeing with much of what Ruppert has said over the years, he is just a bit too up himself for me. Then there’s the Post Carbon Institute, which “provides individuals, communities, businesses, and governments with the resources needed to understand and respond to the interrelated economic, energy, and environmental crises that define the 21st century and which envisions a world of resilient communities and re-localized economies that thrive within ecological bounds”. And finally, for there are many more examples, the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) recently produced zerocarbonbritain2030, which they say is “a positive, realistic policy framework to eliminate emissions from fossil fuels within 20 years”. Maybe it is. We are not short of ideas or knowledge. But we are short of collective will to absorb ‘the truth’ out of the mass of information out there and agree on the problem. Growth will end.

So it’s time to choose your delusion – perpetual growth, the future’s bright, techno-fixes will work, sustainable equity for all, it won’t affect me, it’s the end-times but god will save me (I’m sure there are more) – or abandon these delusions and realise that the stationary economy is upon us and we need to embrace it fearlessly.


About The Cheery Pessimist

Waiting for some sign that we will change our ways before it all comes tumbling down...still, you've got to laugh
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3 Responses to The stationary economy

  1. Margaret says:

    Good blog!

    Love it. I got so fed up with mainly guys in their twenties telling me I needed a new, better phone. Rubbish! I do have to admit I quite like the confused looks when I asked them why though. None of them were very good at defining the word ‘need’!

    Honestly, did each of us discover Pythagoras Theorem or were were taught by a teacher who arrived at school in the morning thanks to fossil fuels, a school building built thanks to fossil fuels, and worked our equations using jotters produced by fossil fuels? Pencils created by using fossil fuels were used too, not quil pens! Dwarfs standing on the shoulders or giants, or more fully:

    We are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.

    I’ll listen to the Sylvia Earle piece later when I’m done listening to RFK Jnr kicking into a certain oil company.

  2. Brian Orr (of Brent, NW London) says:

    I wonder what is the key factor that enables the likes of you and me to ‘see the obvious’ (delude ourselves completely?) while others miss it entirely (see it for the folly it is?).

    It can’t be in the content. I’m left with ‘there’s none so blind as those who won’t see.”

    • mandy meikle says:

      If I knew the answer to that…! Thing is, while the folly of destroying the planet which sustains us may be obvious to us ‘greens’, it just isn’t obvious to others. I’d guess that the key factor is advertising and the media. So many people get their information from poor sources – or they just filter out anything which doesn’t fit with their delusion about how the world is and the future will be. As awful as it is, I really don’t think we’ll change en masse until there’s no other choice, which doesn’t bode well for averting tipping points. However, I can only hope that I am wrong!

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