Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The impossible dream: or how economists don't understand physics

"Economists and politicians can’t admit it, but the laws of physics apply, no matter what the latest polls tell us. The Earth has finite resources that will someday limit our economic growth. The Earth cannot forever support 7 billion people consuming as much as Americans consume. And yet we’ve staked our future — individually, nationally, and maybe even as a species — on that impossible dream."

- Rex Nuttington, "The economy can't grow forever".

The economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment. Until we get that into our heads, we are not in a position to begin reflecting upon the challenges of global poverty in the coming decades. There is no healthy response to the needs of the world's poor that does not consider the ecological consequences of our present trajectory and present poverty-reduction strategies. A trickle-down model that relies on continued growth of the whole system driven (largely) by western consumerism may have made some worthy progress (depending how you measure it) over the last six decades or so, but cannot be extended into the future without wishful thinking.

Yet if we are not simply going to ask the poorest to shoulder the largest burden, then it is the richest (i.e. us) who need to. If we are going to leave ecological space for the poorest to get out of stupid and absolute poverty, then the section of the world living at levels of consumption that cannot be shared with all cannot continue on our present path. There will be no healthy response to our ecological and resource crises that does not involve a lower level of consumption for the richest. Joyfully embracing less is not simply a matter of personal preference, nor of "saving the planet", but at its root is an expression of love and concern for justice.


Milan said...

Another way in which economists (and especially journalists) often fail to understand physics is by failing to think well about issues of scale and the conservation of energy. Whenever somebody comes up with a process to turn banana peels or leftovers from whisky production into fuel for cars, you see breathless journalists arguing that this will solve our fossil fuel problems.

byron smith said...

Yes indeed - journalists love the silver-bullet solutions, especially if there is a quirky angle (whisky will solve our problems!). The amounts of energy we are talking about are truly staggering.