Sunday, January 2, 2011

Beyond Growth

It is imperative that we move beyond our pursuit of growth, elevated as the singular worthy pursuit that will in turn make everything else better. To a point, economic growth is imperative, liberating, uplifting. Beyond that point, more money and more stuff does not make us happier. Our plastic disposable culture is tenuous at best, propped up on propaganda and false rhetoric, revered and awed with a religious fervor. We are slaves to the free market, that untouchable fallacy that is neither stable nor free. As Bill McKibben describes it, the pursuit of Better must diverge from the pursuit of More, for these are two birds that no longer roost on the same branch, not even the same tree.

In Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, McKibben identifies three principal challenges to our obsession with growth. 1) Our growth-oriented economies, where more is always better, have produced more inequality and insecurity than widespread prosperity and genuine progress. 2) We do not have the energy to fuel growth for all, or the capacity to deal with the pollution it would create. 3) Growth is no longer making us happy.

While I agree that the market-based development paradigm has, at great costs, created a world of winners and losers, and I concur that all of our money and stuff has not made us more fulfilled or happy people, I must partly disagree with Mr. McKibben on his 2nd point. Burning fossil fuels, which escalates concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and causes climate change, whose effects are already being felt, drives economic activity and growth. As Dr. Nate Lewis, professor of chemistry at Caltech University, says in his talk on renewable energy (requires Flash player I think), "we didn't leave the stone age because we ran out of stone, and we won't leave the fossil fuel age because we run out of fossil fuels" (a quote from when he gave this lecture at BU in November, not sure if he repeats it exactly on the web version, but it is the same slides and lecture). According to Lewis, we have several hundred years of oil and natural gas supplies left and at least two thousand years of coal reserves remaining. If we wanted to, we could burn the black sooty stuff for millenia to come!

Certainly human activity is reaching all sorts of the earth's biophysical limits, but its supplies of carbon-intensive fossil energy are pretty extensive. Even though it is available, that does not mean we should use it. With the other technologies available, principally solar power, fossil fuels are outdated. We cannot afford to maintain our current trajectory of growth and energy consumption; as McKibben says, the costs, already very high, would overwhelm us.

Leaving the fossil fuel age behind us is much easier in theory than it is in practice. It is a necessary transition; however, and it will come hand in hand with a new deep economy of the kind that McKibben pushes for. Local, durable, community-based, self-sufficient, secure, and independent, with proper accounting measures that move beyond a tally of expenditures to provide a measure of the true wealth of communities, of their natural, social, and economic capital. This is where we need to go, and hopefully the rest of Deep Economy will provide the know-how.

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