So, two months ago, I promised that I would talk about what I personally think we need to do to attack the social issues of our time. I told you all that it was time to stop using nineteenth century philosophies to fix twenty-first century problems. Then I promised to share potential alternatives to these outdated philosophies.
Then my computer broke in a way that requires new parts from the factory, and BestBuy let it sit on a shelf for a month instead of ordering said parts. After that, I went for eye surgery. I’ve been recovering for the last few weeks.
Now it’s time to make good on my promise.
This isn’t the kind of topic that I can cover in a single post. Social issues are complex, and they require a lot of analysis. You have to begin by defining the problem, by determining the precise reason why the current policies aren’t working. That means looking at the motivations and unstated assumptions behind those policies. In a way, that’s what this blog has been doing since day one. That being the case, I’m going to rely heavily on previous entries.
Dr. Albert Bartlett, a former professor of physics at the University of Colorado, discussed the problems that arise in a society that is centred around the concept of perpetual growth. No ecosystem can support a population that is continually growing. Inevitably one of two things happens: either the population stabilizes and lives within the carrying capacity of the ecosystem, or the population dies out.
The biggest issue, according to Bartlett, is the fact that governments and industry leaders consistently ignore the mathematical realities of living in a finite ecosystem and pursue policies of aggressive growth and expansion. These policies are unsustainable.
In addition the environmental damage of our hydrocarbon economy threatens to cause a warming feedback loop where warmer temperatures lead to melting of the permafrost, which leads to the release of more greenhouse gas and even warmer temperatures. More economic growth means more reliance on hydrocarbon energy and therefore more pollution. The rate of change in temperature also follows an exponential curve. (Meaning that we will have very little warning before a sudden temperature spike).
If the warming feedback loop begins, much of the Earth’s surface will become uninhabitable. Put these things together and you have a recipe for social collapse.
Why am I opposed to both capitalism and socialism? Because both philosophies are centred around the concept of growth. Both require growth as a justification for their own existence. As demonstrated in my last post, the Earth needs eighteen months to replenish the resources that we use in a single year. We are living above the planet’s carrying capacity.
Economists like to use terms like “efficiency,” the the unfortunate truth is that our economy is anything but. In fact, the only thing that the western world does that can be described as “efficient” is generate waste. Electronic waste.
Before we go on, let me offer one caveat. It is not possible to live in a world with absolutely no waste whatsoever, and this is especially true when it comes to food. However, it is possible to dramatically improve the recycling process.
These insanely high levels of waste are not an unfortunate but unavoidable side-effect of living in an industrial society; they exist by design. I’ve already examined the phenomenon of planned obsolescence where products are deliberately designed to fail withing a certain time frame. This phenomenon exists because capitalism requires constant cyclical consumption to keep the economy going.
It’s not enough for Apple to sell ten million iPods this year. If all of those iPods last as long as is technically possible, there won’t be enough demand for iPods next year to keep the company profitable. Some people will upgrade because they have to have the latest model, but most people aren’t willing to part with a couple hundred dollars simply to have a product that does the same thing as one they already possess.
Now, Apple – and GM, IBM, General Electric, etc – could do the environmentally smart thing: which is to produce a large volume of a new product on its initial release and then dramatically scale back production when demand starts to dwindle. They could make their products as modular as possible, so that people could simply buy a new battery or memory card instead of a whole new iPod. And they could only release a new product when there is a significant technological leap forward. This would reduce waste and resource consumption considerably.
But it would also reduce profits.
That means fewer jobs, less money circulating and economic decline. So if you’ve ever felt that there’s a tension between those policies that create more jobs and those policies that preserve the ecosystem, that’s because there is. One inevitably comes at the expense of the other. To create more jobs, we have to increase consumption to justify greater levels of production, which means we have to use more resources at a faster rate, expend more energy and create more pollution. To reduce pollution and conserve resources, we have to scale back production, which means fewer jobs.
That’s why you don’t see any real push toward better environmental policy outside of the band-aid solutions of mandatory recycling programs and legislation that requires office buildings to turn off their lights after a certain hour; policy makers know that any real progress on this front would require a fundamental shift in the way we think about economics.
That’s why people cling to the status quo.
Liberals like to tell people that we can have the best of both worlds, that it’s quite possible to go green and still make a buck. They’re wrong. Sure, there’s the odd story of the genius who made a killing by developing a biodegradable alternative to Styrofoam, but preventing an environmental disaster means change on a societal level. It means minimizing waste.
Conservatives like to tell people that we have to choose between the green agenda and a healthy free-market economy. They’re wrong. We don’t get a choice. Conservative logic, when applied to medicine, would look like this.
A man in his late thirties is diagnosed with skin cancer and offered a range of possible treatments by his doctor. Instead of choosing a treatment plan, he decides to insist that cancer doesn’t exist. He’ll be fine because there’s no such thing as cancer. All those MRIs and biopsies were just an elaborate scam to rob him of his hard-earned money.
He can deny the existence of cancer all he likes; that doesn’t change the fact his body is rotting form the inside out. He will die, and without treatment, he will die soon. Global warming and resource depletion are hard, fast, immutable realities. They cannot be changed by wishing them away.
So how do we deal with the fact that saving our planet means destroying our economy?
Stay tuned, kids.
More on that next week.
Hey, looking for some great fiction? Check out Symbiosis, the book reviewers have called the illegitimate love child of Star Trek and Buffy.
Now available on Kindle
It’s had some great reviews!