Friday, July 04, 2008

The Scourge of Growth

Tonight, as I spend the Fourth of July at home alone (Don't cry for me, Minnesota.), I'd like to finally tackle a subject I've alluded to before: the insanity of an economy that requires infinite growth. My fear is that my high-minded posts are boring, and you'd rather read my ruminations on the candy aisle at SuperAmerica. (Actually, my real fear is that nothing I write is interesting to anyone who doesn't know me.) While the candy aisle at SuperAmerica could be the subject of a great essay (I'll hafta add that to my list of blog ideas.), I hope my more serious pieces are at least as compelling.

I've developed a theory of how economic growth became the panacea of our time. Throughout history, groups of people have conquered or wiped out other groups of people. In the novel Ishmael, the catalyst of this phenomenon is identified as agriculture. Although Jared Diamond seems to contradict that idea in Guns, Germs and Steel with his depiction of jungle tribes in Papua New Guinea as being in a constant state of war. Whatever the origin of this impulse, history is littered with military conflict and its attendant carnage. The victors tend to be the societies with larger populations or more advanced martial techniques/technologies. I think this is the primary motive for growth: the need to grow a population larger than one's neighbors to provide for a larger army. Also, a larger population generally leads to greater social complexity, creating a niche for scientific specialists who can develop superior weapons and armaments. In the modern world this motive has more to do with economics. The larger a country's economy, the more influence it can wield politically.

The second motive for growth is greed. A society's elite, corrupted by power, usually increases its share of the wealth as the pot grows. The growth of the society exacerbates the corruption by making it more difficult to be discovered and rooted out. For example, if you live in Minneapolis, and the decisions that really affect your life are made in D.C., it's a lot tougher to check up on the politicians than it would be if they worked in St. Paul. The sheer size and complexity of the federal government hinder the average citizen's ability to correct its operation, i.e., to make it truly democratic. Thus corporate welfare continues to climb, while people welfare continues to dwindle, even though public opinion would like those trends reversed.

While I know this essay is already rife with digressions, I'd like to take a moment to elaborate on the corrupting effect of power. People on the Left, like me, keep wondering, "What is Bush thinking?" His actions seem so illogically harmful that their justification eludes us. (I'm sure the Right asks the same question about us.) I think the answer lies in the old maxim, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Rulers often become convinced that their own aggrandizement is the best way to help the country. In Bush's brain, he probably still believes that giving Big Oil huge tax breaks, drilling in ANWR and occupying Iraq are essential to our national security and prosperity. The fact that these policies also enrich himself, his family and his friends is just a happy coincidence. But I think his self-delusion only extends as far as the Iraq War's necessity. Its rationale must be crystal clear to him. When he talks about bringing democracy to the Middle East, I'm sure he knows it's just a convenient cover story. Sure, it'd be great if democracy spread through the region like an invasive species of mussel, but they really don't give a fuck as long as the oil is flowing (to the U.S., obviously).

Which brings us back to the problem of growth. Not only has Bush been brainwashed to believe that what's good for Big Oil is good for the country, he's also dead certain that economic growth is mandatory if you want prosperity. Unfortunately, every other politican seems to believe that too. They think our current economic model is the only viable option. Therefore we must keep growing the economy ad infinitum to appease the system we've got. Rather than the economy working for our benefit (its supposed raison d'etre), we work for the benefit of the economy, a.k.a., the Fat Cats. The political elites reject the idea that we can change the system to something that will work within ecological limits. Interestingly, they also profit the most from the current arrangement.

If I may self-consciously digress once more, the whole idea of people serving institutions instead of institutions serving people is one of the great plagues of civilization. On a nighttime constitutional to the Loon a few weeks ago, I saw the dark side of JFK's famous inaugural line, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." I'm pretty sure he meant we should help each other out, but underneath it lies a disturbing strain of nationalism. (Of course, when it's your nation it's called "patriotism.") From a humanitarian perspective, nations only exist to serve human needs. When a nation asks its citizens to do something contrary to their interests, that nation becomes a burden to be thrown off and, if necessary, replaced by a government that enacts the will of its citizens rather than dictates to them.

It's after midnight and my eyes are getting bleary, but I think I can wrap this up and still salvage some coherence. The reason I'm writing this is because economic growth has become an existential threat to humanity. Growth means increased pollution. Growth means increased consumption of natural resources. Growth means increased destruction of the planet. There may only be a few years left to avoid catastrophic Climate Change, according to NASA's James Hansen. Yet the politicians keep whining about protecting the economy, a human construct over which we have complete control, rather than protecting the earth, our only habitat, which has complete control over us. I'd hate to think our species could be doomed by a failure of imagination.

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