BEYOND CAPITALISM The great tragedy of the capitalist system is that it has failed to recognise that the Ear th has limits. In his new book Jerry Mander exposes the inherent contradictions of global capitalism
Every day we hear the economy discussed from all sides of the political equation in exactly the same way. Whether it’s Obama or Hollande, Putin or Hu, Fox News or NPR, Bill Clinton or John Boehner, Mitt Romney or Larry Summers, George Soros or Bill Gates, Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow, Paul Krugman or Alan Greenspan or even Robert Reich, everybody is now trying to figure out just one thing: how to revive and sustain rapid economic growth, which is equated with economic recovery and the bigger visions of continued ‘progress’.
Some say tax cuts, others say tax hikes. Some say stimulus, others say austerity; some say bailouts, others say jobs; some say investments, some say monetary policy, others say fiscal policy, and still others say public works. Everyone is grasping for a magic elixir to revive rapid growth because without it the mega-economic system that has functioned for more than a century will collapse. And so they all agree on that point. How to build and sell more new cars? How to have more new housing starts? How to expand energy supplies? How to increase investment and bank lending? How to increase exports?
And – perhaps most of all – how to increase shopping?
This is the case not only in the United States, but in China, Spain, Chile, Russia, and just about everywhere else. How to get people to spend more money? How to commodify as much of life as possible? How to privatise what remains of natural resources, especially water, forests, open lands, biodiversity;
and public services – here, in the States, social security, Medicare, the military, healthcare, prisons? Anything that has the potential to produce profits and increase economic growth.
But there’s an important missing link in the discussion, ignored by everyone in the mainstream debate: Nature.
People behave as if our economic system were a self-contained separate entity living in its own detached universe and unconnected to realities outside itself, rather than embodied
All of our economic and social activity depends on Nature. We are not separate, and we are not in charge in a much larger system from which it evolved and cannot escape. Nature cannot be left out. Which makes it the most important aspect of the entire discussion.
Growth is made out of Nature, transformed. What we call our economy is rooted in the process of transferring or transforming elements of the natural world into the tools and commodities, and then betting on the rates that we can continue to do this, non-stop, forever.
To leave the source of it all entirely out of our concerns is short-sighted. Wherever you are sitting right now look around you. Everything you see began as something from Nature, mined from the ground, or harvested.
The clothes you wear, your shoes, the chair, the book or Kindle you are holding, the bed you sleep in. The car you drive and all its tyres, wires, metals and engine parts. The phones you use. The walls and floor of the room, its carpet, the lights and the switches, the electrical line channelled into the walls, the metals in your kitchen. All were once minerals dug up from the Earth, shipped around the world, transformed, assembled and shipped again to a store near you, and then sold.
Or else they were living beings – trees, plants, animals, fibres and corals – that had their own role in a living ecological system. Even so-called chemicals and synthetics began as natural elements, later rearranged. Is your shirt made of polyester? Polyester is plastic. Plastic is oil. Oil used to be trees, plants, dinosaurs, sunlight. And the whole process of finding, recovering, and transforming these minerals, elements, energies and beings into commodities and given economic value, to be bought and sold and to wind up in our homes, is what we call economics.
The kind of economy we have come to depend upon – the capitalist kind – was until recently highly efficient at delivering transformations, mainly by using the profits from previous transformations to do more of the same. And then to wager (or bet) in financial markets on which part of these processes might grow and which might not. But how can this process go on forever? How can this possibly continue? Aren’t we running out of all those resources? Where will the metals and minerals
42 Resurgence & Ecologist