The Ecology of Economic Growth

Posted January 22nd, 2014 in Blog, Featured, Zine 1 Comment »

Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on Culture and Meaning

by Margaret Swedish

A couple of stories really hit home this week about the point I want to make in this post: like nature (and nothing exists outside nature), economic growth has an ecology. Ecology is about the interconnections, the interrelatedness of dynamic forces and energies playing off one another creating ever new confluences and shaping reality. Ecology is about the whole of which we are a part and never apart. In fact, it is impossible to live apart from all that impacts our lives or to avoid how our lives impact all we touch – all our actions and non-actions have effects that go out into the whole, helping to shape the whole into what it is.

The part that gets really hard in a pathologically individualistic way of life (pathological because it’s trying to live as if this is true when it is in fact impossible) is to shift this errant point of view to seeing  how responsible we are in every aspect of our lives for everything around us.

If toxic chemicals and invasive species are part of Lake Michigan’s new ecology, that’s because we use toxic chemicals and flush them into the lake, or bring invasive species in on ships because it’s too expensive (say the shipping companies) to sterilize ballast. If I do anything that involves consuming things that end up with residual waste flowing into the lake (like depending on coal for any of my electric power, a lot of which is brought into port on ships), I am part of that ecosystem. If I buy a ticket on the SS Badger to enjoy a slow ride across Lake Michigan, I am supporting the company’s refusal thus far to stop dumping toxic coal ash into the lake with every crossing.

If I buy a smart phone or an iPad, I am ecologically connected to the toxic contamination and human exploitation involved in rare earth mineral mining, a growing threat as our technology consumption makes more and more demand for these minerals.

This economic ecology is as true as the ecology within which I plant a seed in the ground, nurture it by compost in a rich soil that grows in the environment that includes water and sunlight, producing a harvest that I put on my table and eat and which then becomes part of my body. It is as true as the hydrological cycle that draws moisture off the earth high into the atmosphere where clouds form and with the help of air currents and jet streams drops rain on my vegetable garden.

Our economics of growth have an ecology, a set of complex interrelations that feed it, dynamic forces at work that when not fully appreciated make it hard to see where the problem is – the problem of our ecological crisis – the one where the logic of economic growth is leading us to planetary disaster.

So, here’s the headline from an AP article printed in the local paper today that really caught my attention:

Consumers seen as key to growth in 2014

It’s an obvious point made over and over again – economic growth within the current paradigm of the global economy depends upon consumers consuming more and more – and then more.

Hopes are rising that consumers will drive stronger growth in 2014 after they stepped up spending at the end of last year in the United States and Europe…

Several trends are boosting consumer spending in developed countries: Inflation is low, enabling shoppers to stretch their dollars, euros and yen. The Federal Reserve, the Bank of England and other central banks are keeping interest rates super-low. Those low rates have made it easier for borrowers to afford higher-cost items such as cars and appliances.

Yes, and smart phones and computers and all the technology, screens, Bluetooth, internet access, and GPS that are now part of the car-shopping experience. Toyota’s Prius  contains lanthanum, neodymium, and other rare earth minerals, and producing them requires metals and factories to assemble them. Wind turbines also make demands on these minerals. All part of the ecology of economic production and growth. You cannot grow in consumption without taking more and more from the planet – including fracking for the oil and gas all these industries need to produce the stuff that we consume.

That is as true as the rain my garden needs to grow tomatoes.

 With more consumers willing to open their wallets, businesses will also likely start spending more on machinery, computers and other equipment, Hensley said, providing an additional spark to growth.

Here’s the other article that leapt off the page of my newspaper this morning:

2013 was 4th hottest on record

I love the way this article begins because we all remember the record-breaking heat of 1988.

The sweltering year of 1988 first put global warming in the headlines and ended up as the hottest year on record. But on Tuesday, it was pushed out of the top 20 warmest by 2013.

Last year tied for the fourth hottest and 1988 fell to 21st.

So, if there are still global warming deniers out there, well, I don’t know what to say about them anymore. Even a good dose of reality doesn’t seem to shake them from their conviction that everything will be okay. That’s also part of the ecology of economic growth – the reluctance to believe that it’s the economic system itself that is the pathology here, the threat to our future on this planet.

Now, we spend a lot of time worrying about our individual consumption, but it is important to realize, once again, that while each of us lives within the interlocking ecologies of economic growth and nature, there is just so much impact that my individual consumer choices can have. Yes, by all means we must radically simplify our lives. But ultimately it is systems that need to be changed fundamentally and that is a political, social, and cultural work – an ecological work, a work with regard to the logic of the systems that jeopardize our future.

Our individual consumer choices do not absolve us from that larger engagement, that larger responsibility to radically overhaul the values of a culture that puts consumption at the center of its framework of meaning.

One last example – the reports about how China’s smog does indeed impact the air quality of our West Coast.

Pollution from Chinese factories is harming air quality on U.C. West Coast

Here’s the ecology part:

…much of that air pollution is being caused by the manufacture of goods in China for export to the United States and Europe.

“We’ve outsourced our manufacturing and much of our pollution, but some of it is blowing back across the Pacific to haunt us,” said Steve Davis, a University of California at Irvine scientist and a co-author of the study. “Given the complaints about how Chinese pollution is corrupting other countries’ air, this paper shows that there may be plenty of blame to go around”…

A decrease in manufacturing in the United States in recent years has led to cleaner air in its Eastern regions. But pollutants wafting in from China have harmed the West, according to the study.

What goes around comes around – because that’s how nature works. Sure, it’s been a cold winter here in the Upper Midwest, and if that’s all you see you can make jokes about global warming. But when you look at it ecologically, you see how the system of polar air in which we have been trapped for weeks now is related to record temperatures and extreme drought in California and nation-melting heat in Melbourne, Australia, and the heavy rain and temps in the low 40s in parts of Alaska – 30-40 degrees warmer than Milwaukee this week.

When we look at the ideology of economic growth ecologically, we get a pretty good sense of what the problem is – and how hard it will be to address it. Ecosystems develop their own dynamisms and this one, this industrial economic growth engine, is pretty fierce right now in its momentum. Putting obstacles in its way, challenging its logic at its core, these are challenges that we must face, and quickly.

We need to find ways to force our people’s attention to what it really is – which is not growth at all, but rather depletion, a system of “using up” everything it can as fast it can. We are not growing – we are diminishing – in quality of life, in the hope for a future of well-being.


Tags: , , , , ,

One Response

  1. Barbara Richards

    Transition Milwaukee is gathering energy to discuss “simplify” as a means to withdraw support of the economic ecology (EE) to facilitate its collapse. (See Holmgren) Whether this is at all possible the point has been raised. Is there such a tipping point in EE and can it be reached? What will the consequences be: social in particular? Is this an “obstacle” we can put in the way of growth? I ask myself, should I go ahead and have a solar audit from Sierra Club? It seems to me I am just adding to the consumer pot!
    It does not seem that we can reach beyond the choir without drama. Are we just impatient? Hard not to be when one feels in the belly what is coming. Thanks for your message.