Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Pernicious Myth of Perpetual Economic Growth

Nothing grows forever. The myth the economy can is destroying the biosphere.

By Dr. Glen Barry

Economic growth is destroying the biosphere
Economic growth is destroying the biosphere
The present human condition is predicated on one of the biggest lies ever – that the economy can grow indefinitely. In a self-serving logical contortion, economists in service to the oligarchy measure the well-being of a society by how fast the economy grows, with little regard to the state of natural capital, human inequity, the welfare of ecosystems and other species, or the extent to which people and society are happy. Natural capital is defined as Earth's stocks of natural assets including ecosystem services which make all life possible, which is unmeasured and thus undervalued by indices of economic growth.

Measures such as Gross Domestic Product utterly fail to tie increases in economic output to human and natural well-being. Spending on militaristic drone attacks and the rich's conspicuous over-consumption are equated with social expenditures to meet basic human needs. Clearcutting old-growth forests for toilet paper is of equal worth as providing homes and food for the poor. Ravaging Earth's last natural ecosystems for every last drop of oil is deemed economically beneficial (despite being terribly inefficient as externalities remain unpriced), while we are told restoring natural ecosystems is unprofitable because of large discounting of future benefits.

Living as if Earth's nature has no worth other than to be liquidated for consumption degrades ourselves and ecosystems, and can only end in utter ruin as first society, then the economy, and finally the biosphere collapses. It is blatantly obvious that infinite growth on a finite Earth is impossible. Yet we run our economy with this goal.

Earth is Everything
Earth is everything. Without ecology there can be no economy.
Economic growth is worshiped as if it were holy and divine, rather than acknowledging that growth can come at enormous economic, social, and environmental costs. There is little understanding of ecological overshoot and the limits to growth, as we seek ever more material possessions at the expense of all else, systematically degrading not only our habitat, but also our future resource base and potential for broad-based community advancement.

Growth appears to be benign and pleasant, iPhones and foreign travel are intoxicating, yet perpetual economic expansion comes at an unknown price whose deleterious impacts sneak up upon you. Such is the nature of exponential growth. The exorbitant costs of an exponentially growing economy are best illustrated by imagining a pond whereby the extent of lily-pad coverage doubles in extent every day, on the 30th day fully covering the water. On which day is the pond half covered? When is it a 10% covered? We shall return to this question.

By falsely equating exponential growth with societal well-being, capitalism may well be irredeemable. Its foundational idea of people coming together in markets to exchange their surplus has been bastardized to suggest that creating something of worth and selling it is the same as every manner of speculative financial trickery. Yet for markets to serve human's and nature's well-being, there are some basic out-right lies that need to be addressed now.

Firstly, growth cannot fully measure economic well-being; we need a richer measure that determines the extent to which economic activity is sustainable and widely beneficial. A much richer measure is the rate of economic growth per unit of natural capital (drawn down or replenished), and by the extent to which economic advancement is equitably shared. Such a truly green economy is said to be at a steady state, whereby both population and consumption are stable at a sustainable level. How dense are we to not understand that Earth is everything, and that without ecology there can be no economy?

Given the current state of ecological overshoot – as terrestrial ecosystems, climate, water, oceans and biodiversity are collapsing – achieving a steady state economy would require decades of degrowth and redistribution of wealth. Urgent measures would have to be taken to provide incentives that cap both population and disparities in consumption, even as aggregate draws upon natural capital are reduced to below replacement levels to allow for decades of ecological renewal.

[Finish reading essay by Dr. Glen Barry at EcoInternet]

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