I’M CONTINUALLY stunned by how many seemingly sane people believe you can have infinite economic growth on a finite planet. Perpetual economic growth and its cousin, limitless technological expansion, are beliefs so deeply held by so many in this culture that they often go entirely unquestioned. Even more disturbing is the fact that these beliefs are somehow seen as the ultimate definition of what it is to be human: perpetual economic growth and limitless technological expansion are what we do.
Some of those who believe in perpetual growth are out-and-out nut jobs, like the economist and former White House advisor Julian Simon, who said, “We have in our hands now—actually in our libraries-—the technology to feed, clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next 7 billion years.” And showing that, when it comes to U.S. economic policies, insanity is never out of season, are yet more nut jobs, like Lawrence Summers, who has served as chief economist at the World Bank, U.S. secretary of the treasury, president of Harvard, and as President Obama’s director of the National Economic Council, and who said, “There are no . . . limits to the carrying capacity of the earth that are likely to bind at any time in the foreseeable future. . . . The idea that we should put limits on growth because of some natural limit is a profound error.”
Others are a bit more nuanced in their nut-jobbery. They may acknowledge that, yes, physical limits might possibly exist, but they also believe that if you just slap the word sustainable in front of the phrase “economic growth,” then you can still somehow have continued growth on a finite planet, perhaps through so-called “soft” or “service” or “high-tech” economies, or through nifty “green” innovations like a really neat nanotech gizmo that can be woven into your clothes and when you dance it generates enough electricity to power your iPod, ignoring the facts that people still need to eat, that humans have overshot carrying capacity and are systematically destroying the natural world, and that even something as groovy as an iPod requires mining, industrial, and energy infrastructures, all of which are functionally unsustainable.
Alongside the nut jobs, there are an awful lot of people who probably just don’t think about it: they simply absorb the perspective of the newscasters who say, “Economic growth, good; economic stagnation, bad.” And of course if you care more about the economic system than life on the planet, this is true. If, however, you care more about life than the economic system, it is not quite so true, because this economic system must constantly increase production to grow, and what, after all, is production? It is the conversion of the living to the dead, the conversion of living forests into two-by-fours, living rivers into stagnant pools for generating hydroelectricity, living fish into fish sticks, and ultimately all of these into money. And what, then, is gross national product? It is a measure of this conversion of the living to the dead. The more quickly the living world is converted into dead products, the higher the GNP. These simple equations are complicated by the fact that when GNP goes down, people often lose jobs. No wonder the world is getting killed.
Once a people have committed (or enslaved) themselves to a growth economy, they’ve pretty much committed themselves to a perpetual war economy, because in order to maintain this growth, they will have to continue to colonize an ever-wider swath of the planet and exploit its inhabitants. I’m sure you can see the problem this presents on a finite planet. But in the short run, there is good news for those committed to a growth economy (and bad news for everyone else), which is that by converting your landbase into weapons (for example, cutting down trees to build warships), you gain a short-term competitive advantage over those peoples who live sustainably, and you can steal their land and overuse it to fuel your perpetual-growth economy. As for those whose land you’ve stolen, well, you can either massacre these newly conquered peoples, enslave them, or (most often forcibly) assimilate them into your growth economy. Usually it’s some combination of all three. The massacre of the bison, to present just one example, was necessary to destroy the Plains Indians’ traditional way of life and force them to at least somewhat assimilate (and become dependent upon the growth economy instead of the land for their very lives). The bad news for those committed to a growth economy is that it’s essentially a dead-end street: once you’ve overshot your home’s carrying capacity, you have only two choices: keep living beyond the means of the planet until your culture collapses; or proactively elect to give up the benefits you gained from the conquest in order to save your culture.
A perpetual-growth economy is not only insane (and impossible), it is also by its very essence abusive, by which I mean that it’s based on the same conceit as more personal forms of abuse. It is, in fact, the macroeconomic enshrinement of abusive behavior. The guiding principle of abusive behavior is that the abuser refuses to respect or abide by limits or boundaries put up by the victim. As Lundy Bancroft, former codirector of Emerge, the nation’s first therapeutic program for abusive men, writes, “Entitlement is the abuser’s belief that he has a special status and that it provides him with exclusive rights and privileges that do not apply to his partner. The attitudes that drive abuse can largely be summarized by this one word.”
The relevance of this word applies on the larger social scale. Of course humans are a special species to whom a wise and omnipotent God has granted the exclusive rights and privileges of dominion over this planet that is here for us to use. And of course even if you subscribe to the religion of Science instead of Christianity, humans possess special intelligence and abilities that grant us exclusive rights and privileges to work our will on the world that is still here for us to use. Growth economies are essentially unchecked and will push past any boundaries set up by anyone other than the perpetrators: certainly the fact that indigenous cultures already are living on this or that piece of ground has never stopped those in power from expanding their economy; nor is the death of the oceans stopping their exploitation; nor is the heating of the planet stopping the exploitation; nor is the grinding poverty of the dispossessed.
And the truth is, you cannot talk abusers out of their behavior. Perpetrators of domestic violence are among the most intractable of all who commit violence, so intractable, in fact, that in 2000 the United Kingdom removed funding for therapy sessions designed to treat men guilty of domestic violence (putting the money instead into shelters and other means of keeping women safe from their attackers). Lundy Bancroft also says this: “An abuser doesn’t change because he feels guilty or gets sober or finds God. He doesn’t change after seeing the fear in his children’s eyes or feeling them drift away from him. It doesn’t suddenly dawn on him that his partner deserves better treatment. Because of his self-focus, combined with the many rewards he gets from controlling you, an abuser changes only when he feels he has to, so the most important element in creating a context for change in an abuser is placing him in a situation where he has no other choice.”
How do we stop the abusers who perpetrate a perpetual-growth economy? Seeing oiled pelicans and burned sea turtles won’t move them to stop. Nor will hundred-degree days in Moscow. We can’t stop them by making them feel guilty. We can’t stop them by appealing to them to do the right thing. The only way to stop them is to make it so they have no other choice.