Read a piece in the March 08 Harper’s entitled “Fear of Fallowing: The Specter of a No-Growth World” (normally a subscription is required but it’s available here in PDF) by historical analyst, Steven Stoll. It’s a review of three books on the economy published last year. Economic growth as we know it is impossible.
Our trouble lies in a simple confusion, ont to which economists have been prone since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Growth and ecology operate by different rules. Economists tend to assume that everyday problems of scarcity can be solved by subsititution, by replacing tuna with tilapia, without factoring in the long-term environmental implications of either. But whereas economies might expand, ecosystems do not. They change–pines give way to oak, coyotes arrive in New England–and they reproduce themeselves but they do not increase in extent or abundance year after year. Most economists think of scarcity as a larger labor problem, imagining that only energy and technology place limits on production. To harvest more wood build a better chainsaw; to pump more oil, drill more wells; to get more food, invent more pest-resistant plants.
That logic thrived on new frontiers and more intensive production, and it held off the prophets of scarcity–from Thomas Robert Malthus to Paul Ehrlich–whose predictions of famine and shortage have not come to pass. The Agricultual Revolution that began in 17th C. England radically increaased the amount of food that could be grown on an acre of land and the same happened in the 1960s and 1970s, when fertilizer and hybridized seeds arrived in India and Mexico. But the picture looks entirely different when we change the scale. Industrial society is roughly 250 years old; make the last ten thousand years equal to twenty-four hours, and we have been producing consumer goods and CO2 for only the last thirty-six minutes. Do the same for 1 million years of human evolution, and everything from the steam engine to the search engine fits into the past 21 seconds. If we are not careful, hunting and gathering will look like a far more successful strategy for survival than economic growth. The latter has changed so much about the earth and human societies in so little time that it makes sense to be cautious than triumphant.
The whole piece is a useful church key to think about our present times. There is hope if you continue reading…