The economy is a subsystem of the ecosphere. It is therefore bound by its limits delinquent upstart that proudly calls itself Homo sapiens. The economy must conform to the rules set by the larger system in which it is embedded, or sooner or later cause its own destruction. The demands of the economy for resources and energy and for absorbing its waste products must not exceed what the larger system or its component ecosystems can provide in perpetuity. Further, the larger system is known to be non-linear, unpredictable and prone to sudden changes. The possibility of nasty surprises would suggest the kind of precaution that keeps wide margins.
Perpetual growth, someone once said, is the ideology of the cancer cell. Nonetheless, faith in endless economic growth and continual material expansion on a finite planet persists. The slightest mention of a “steady-state” economy, proposed by John Stuart Mill in 1848, typically triggers an avalanche of ridicule and disdain. The Limits to Growth, published in 1972, is still widely dismissed as irretrievably errant.
I suspect that beneath the surface of incredulity there is something more at work that critics are loath to confess. As long as economies expand we can defer difficult and contentious issues such as inequality, the effects of employment, and the content of the things we make and sell to each other. When growth, measured as rising quantity, ends – either because it collides with the finiteness of the Earth or because we can no longer manage the increasing complexity resulting from the massive scale of the growth economy – we will have to reckon with the many problems associated with the highly skewed distribution of wealth. We will also have to reckon with the fact that we are not nearly as rich as we presume ourselves to be. The prices we have been paying seldom reflect the full costs of things purchased. In Juliet Schor’s words, “When we finally and fully tally up the costs of fishery collapse, soil erosion, desertification, wildfires, loss of tropical forests, toxic releases, and a mass extinction of species, the price tag will loom large.” Some costs are simply beyond reckoning.
In the meantime, all of the economic indicators record indiscriminate expansion as if it could go on forever. But it won’t, and the reasons are well known. In contrast to all previous civilisations, ours is powered by the exploitation of a one-off endowment of fossil fuels. Virtually everything we make, use, eat, wear, build, refrigerate, light or transport depends on burning carbon. But fossil fuels also changed our experience of the world. Combustion changed how we think and what we think about.
It was, however, a Faustian bargain. The carbon moved from where geology had safely stored it to the atmosphere, where it will cause global havoc for a long time to come. But the deal was coming undone for other reasons as well. A century ago a hundred units of energy could be extracted for the expenditure of one unit for exploration, drilling, mining, refining and transport. The energy return on investment now ranges from 25:1 to
Resurgence & Ecologist