It’s NOT growth; it’s depletion

Posted March 27th, 2015 in Blog, Featured 2 Comments »

Just forget what the economists call it. If we keep thinking on their terms, we are going to miss the essence of the crisis we humans face.

Photo: Margaret Swedish

Economies are not GROWING. Of course, by the very narrow definitions they use, there is “growth,” growth in extraction and production, growth in consumption, growth in economic activity to service all that, investments, stock markets, etc. This occurs in tandem with, and in intimate relationship with, population growth – one feeds upon the other. What industrial and technological development has made possible (for what is going to be a very, very short period in the evolution of hominids) is stretching the capacity of the planet to support ever more of us with what we need in order to “develop” – to develop agriculture and cities and factories and universities and world travel and SUVs and smart phones.

But decades ago, this whole model of “development,” this approach to Nature as one big factory with raw materials to support this burgeoning species of homo sapiens sapiens, went wildly beyond the point of sustainability, or that point where the Earth’s living systems can continue to sustain themselves with humans within them living the way we do.

The essence of our problem is not global warming and climate change, or species extinctions, or the destruction of most of the world’s forests, or acidification of the oceans. Those are all the effects of the problem, the impacts, the results – which are getting worse by the day.

Rare earth mineral mine

Rare earth mineral mine

Which is why the crisis we face on this planet is also a crucial turning point. It’s not about changing how we consume or what energy sources we use. Those will help mitigate the symptoms, but will not cure the disease.  It gets quiet in the room at workshops when I point out that solar panels, for example, require rare earth minerals and other metals that must be mined from the earth somewhere, and those mines are huge and they are environmentally destructive. If we try to replace coal and gas with solar for all the buildings everywhere in order to continue this same economic growth model while lowering the global temperature, we may slow the growth of CO2 in the atmosphere, but we will be doing that at another cost that the planet cannot bear.

That’s not an argument against solar energy, it’s an argument against seeing it as a replacement to scale for what coal and natural gas provide to heat and cool all our buildings. It only works if it is seen as part of the process of scaling down human extraction and consumption on  a massive scale, of essentially transitioning out of the capitalist economic model which is based fundamentally on a model of “growth” in production and consumption for an ever-growing population of consumers.

And, of course, we have no consensus in the human world to make this transition, at least not yet.

video: What is ecological overshootGlobal Footprint Network

I ponder this as we pay attention to the growing intensity around the crisis of climate change leading up to what many consider the world’s last chance to address it collectively, honestly, and effectively before it is too late to stave off worst-case scenarios: the UN Climate Conference in Paris in December. Some decisions could be made there that would help address the challenge of fossil fueled greenhouse gas emissions and perhaps buy us some more time to keep global temperature rise within 2 degrees Celsius, though already that target seems impossible. 3C will already have catastrophic impacts and our current trajectory takes us far higher than that.

If the world cannot collaborate on a crisis that is this clear and obvious (despite what the fossil fuel corporations and their paid media pundits and politicians try to tell us), then what is the chance that we will go to the heart of the matter? Global warming has already changed the climate in dramatic ways and we aren’t at 2C yet! At the same time, the UN has been trying since 1995 to get countries to come together around this looming crisis, and still nothing of much significance has occurred other than the research of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that just keeps issuing reports on how much worse things are getting.

That conference was COP1. The next one in Paris is COP21. How many more will it take?

Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service

Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service

So it’s hard to go to the next level (though we must) to talk about how, even if we did address that challenge, we would still be in crisis mode – because beyond the crisis of loading up the atmosphere with all this industrial waste (CO2 being a waste product of industrialization), we are fast running out of everything this human venture needs in order to survive – at all – much less along the path of industrial growth economic models.

I’ve started reading Michael Klare’s 2012 book, The Race for What’s Left, the Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources. I don’t know why I do this to myself, but since so much of my work is public speaking and writing, I have this mission to get my information right, to be accurate. That’s why my book, Living Beyond the ‘End of the World:’ A Spirituality of Hope, has many pages of footnotes. I hear those climate change deniers in elected office repeat that talking point mantra that “I am not a scientist,” as if this excuses them from knowledge about the policy decisions they make. I’m not a scientist either, but it’s not hard – you just do a little research, and voila! KNOWLEDGE!!

Anyway, Klare is one of our go-to guys on the issues of the fossil fuel industry and resource depletion. I’m about a third of the way through, and just want to say – go get this book.

The pursuit of untapped oil and mineral reserves in remote and hazardous locations is part of a larger, more significant phenomenon: a concerted drive by governments and resource firms to gain control over whatever remains of the world’s raw materials base. Government and corporate officials recognize that existing reserves are being depleted at a terrifying pace and will be largely exhausted in the not-too-distant future. The only way for countries to ensure an adequate future supply of these materials, and thereby keep their economies humming, is to acquire new, undeveloped reservoirs in those few locations that have not already been completely drained. That has produced a global drive to find and exploit the world’s final resource reserves – a race for what’s left.

As we approach the end of available resources for the global economy, rather than deal with it before they run out, apparently the powers-that-be will just go for it, compete in the big grab for energy, minerals, arable land, water – until the bitter end, the quick collapse.

And who will declare themselves winner then in the great competitive capitalist market system?

USA - living beyond the biocapacity of the planet

USA – living beyond the biocapacity of the planet

If this feels insane, that’s because it is. It is profoundly pathological. And because this global economic system is also deeply, deeply unjust, the other crisis we face is a moral one. We also know that global wealth is concentrating into fewer and fewer hands. It is one thing to leave out the majority of poor people in the world when that world still makes possible some semblance of village economies, of subsistence farming, of local access to water and land. Back when these things didn’t have “market value,” at least most people could survive their simple lives. But now no one has permission to live outside the market. Free (fixed) trade agreements are tearing villages and culture away from their ancestral lands, robbing them of water rights, buying up farmland for consumers in Saudi Arabia or China.

And so the majority of the world is becoming poorer, including within our own affluent nation. Even here, with all due deliberation of companies and policymakers, wages have been declining for decades, worker rights are being destroyed, voting rights are being whittled away bit by bit from the poor, elderly, urban African-Americans, and students, the kinds of voters that might take issue with the direction of things. Mining companies and fossil fuel corporations are being given more and more access to public lands, deep sea resources, fragile environments that are mineral-rich. Industrial agriculture swiftly erases the old farm economy and replaces it with mono-cropping and poisonous spraying. Developers are given access to rich farm land in suburban and exurban areas for more high-end development and retail…

Well, you know I could go on.

So here’s my point for the weekend. We need to correct this misleading language of the global economy: it is not growing, it is using up. And the faster it “grows,” the faster it is using up – using up all that life needs to flourish, using up and ruining the magnificent ecosystems of the planet with the voracious appetite of an economic model based on profit and wealth generation. Klare’s book is disturbing not because he is the first to write this – it has been known for decades. But his book is an alarming account of the scale and pace of the “using up,” what is driving it (scarcity), and how soon the day of reckoning is coming – this century.

But I find this not a message of despair (though it is terrifying indeed) but the basis for a mission, an urgent one. If I had to sum it up, it would be this:

Deny them our future.

Knowledge is one of our most important tools. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the mounting number of crises, we can peer right into the heart of the problem. When we do that, we begin to see our way out of the crisis. The path opens. It will take courage, yes. It means surrendering a lot of what we thought “the good life” to be. But there is another “good” life possible, and I would argue, with a whole lot more “goodness” than this one.

Margaret Swedish
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2 Responses

  1. Michael Dowd

    Margaret, this is a really, really excellent and important post.

    Thank you!!

    Together for the future,

    ~ Michael

  2. Margaret

    Thank you, Michael. Yes – for the future.

    Margaret