As we move into both State and Federal election modes a strong topic of debate is the financial capability of the various political parties, can they bring a budget into surplus and can they sustain growth? Back in 2011 I wrote an EarthCare titled Peak Growth and I think it’s time to revisit the conundrum that is western society’s obsession with growth on a finite planet. There is now a groundswell of thinkers, academics and even politicians who believe economic growth is the problem, not the solution. To some degree this change of heart has come about since the global financial crisis (GFC), resulting in economic growth declining in parts of Europe and the US, with little chance of recovery in the foreseeable future.
Mild mannered American Richard Heinberg, from the endearingly named Post Carbon Institute in Santa Rosa, California spoke recently in Queensland making the point; “You can’t continue to grow forever in a finite world, let alone a world faced with dangerous climate change”. He spoke on the speed we have consumed fossil fuels that took tens of millions of years to form; once it is all but used up there are no alternatives, so the way society does things has to significantly change. Economic growth is directly linked to oil prices; as oil goes over $100 per barrel global economies start to hurt, and with high price peaks countries go into recession. This is something we will have to get used to as oil becomes harder and harder to provide. Governments responding with economic stimulus packages, designed to promote spending and growth, is the worst response; because at best, this gives short-term respite whilst compounding the underlying problems. The irrefutable fact is that the planet cannot continue to supply more energy, more food and more space for more people expecting an ever-increasing standard of living for much longer because the planet is not growing. People are now starting to voice the view that we have reached the earth’s capacity. Fish stocks are being decimated, farmland is being depleted and people are moving to cities to survive.
Last year Senator Scott Ludlam gave talks on the concept of “Doubling”. This deals with the compounding effects of what appears modest growth, be that population, consumption, energy use or financial growth. For instance, with population growth at 4% doubling occurs in 17 years. A 4% annual population growth doesn’t sound like a problem, but put in terms of a doubling of population in 17 years or a quadrupling in 28 years is a scary concept and likewise, the demand for global resources doubles and quadruples. Australia has hooked its wagon to China, which has growth at around 7% resulting in a doubling in 10 years. 1.4 billion people growing to 2.8 billion by 2023 is a catastrophic and unsustainable trajectory that has to fail.
Last February Nicole Foss spoke at Fremantle Town Hall and scared half of Fremantle to death with her predictions of inevitable global economic meltdown brought about by the escalating oil price. Tim Jackson also visited Australia last year to promote his book ‘Prosperity without Growth‘ where he muses on how society can be prosperous without being addicted to economic growth.
I have previously defined economic growth as the world’s largest Pyramid or Ponzi scheme. It is inevitable global financial systems will become so top heavy that they crash and in so doing bring down society as we know it. Stark predictions! How can we insulate or buffer ourselves from this? We have to become resilient, Australia is blessed with plentiful resources, we have to plan their responsible use on an extended timeframe, not the 3 or 4 year election cycle used now, rather for 3 or 4 generations. We at least owe this to our children and grand children. We have to remove the arbitrary indicator of societal success that growth has become and introduce indicators that are meaningful to us as a society. Health and well-being, societal cohesion and inclusiveness are far more important than how banks and multinational businesses fair on the stock market. And we need to treat the world’s resources of food, water, minerals and energy as something special to be used wisely so there is some available for future generations.
Published in Fremantle Herald 2-3-13