Monday, January 05, 2009

SAVING THE GLOBE VS. GROWING THE ECONOMY

James Gustave Speth, Nation - It is no accident that environmental crisis is gathering as social injustice is deepening and growing inequality is impairing democratic institutions. Each is the result of a system of political economy--today's capitalism--that is profoundly committed to profits and growth and profoundly indifferent to nature and society. Left uncorrected, it is an inherently ruthless, rapacious system, and it is up to citizens, acting mainly through government, to inject human and natural values into that system. But this effort fails because progressive politics are too feeble and Washington is more and more in the hands of powerful corporations and great wealth. The best hope for change in America is a fusion of those concerned about the environment, social justice and strong democracy into one powerful progressive force. This fusion must occur before it is too late.

Sadly, while environmentalists have been winning many battles, we are losing the planet. . . All we have to do to destroy the planet's climate and biota and leave a ruined world to our children and grandchildren is to keep doing exactly what we are doing, with no growth in the human population or the world economy. Just continue to release greenhouse gases at current rates, impoverish ecosystems and release toxic chemicals at current rates, and the world in the latter part of this century won't be fit to live in. But human activities are not holding at current levels--they are accelerating dramatically.

The world economy has more than quadrupled since 1960 and is projected to quadruple again by mid century. At recent rates of growth, it will double in fifteen to seventeen years. It took all of human history to grow the $7 trillion world economy of 1950. We now grow by that amount in a decade. Societies face the prospect of enormous environmental deterioration just when they need to be moving strongly in the opposite direction. . .

Mainstream environmentalism has proved largely incapable of coping with these forces. It works within the system--raising public awareness, offering responsive policies, lobbying and litigating. America has run a forty-year experiment on whether this environmentalism can succeed, and the results are in. The full burden of managing accumulating environmental threats has fallen to the environmental community, both in and outside government. But that burden is too great. The system of modern capitalism will grow in size and complexity and will generate ever larger environmental consequences, outstripping efforts to cope with them. . .

The never-ending drive to grow the economy undermines families, jobs, communities, the environment, a sense of place and continuity, even national security--but we are told that, in the end, we will somehow be better off. . . In affluent countries we have what might be called uneconomic growth, to borrow Herman Daly's phrase, where, if one could total up all the costs of growth, they would outweigh the benefits.