I don’t agree with everything that George Monbiot writes. Specifically, his views in nuclear power are at odds to mine, but this is possibly one of his finest pieces of writing – succinct and like a dart, it hits the target and points the blame.
Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell – Edward Abbey.
In this article, Monbiot starts off with an example of exponential growth. Popularised by Prof. Albert Bartlett amongst many others, exponential growth is where small increases, year on year or period on period can suddenly add up – what appears to be small, insignificant growth, rapidly becomes all consuming. Often the ‘signs’ do not present themselves until far too late. In the article, Monbiot talks initially about growth in possessions, but I believe he is indirectly referring to population growth, as possession growth is directly linked.
He also refers to a position I hold, which is that our current growth, lifestyle and population is only possible because of fossil fuels. Without the oil and the gas, we could not heat all our homes, get goods and food from across the world, sustain the agricultural revolution in terms of pesticide, herbicide and fertiliser (although there is much evidence that industrial agriculture is destroying soils).
Monbiot highlights how we, in the developed, powerful (ie guns and armies) countries continue to exploit others for their natural wealth. As traditional sources of fossil fuels etc become increasingly harder (either physically or politically) to get, we cast our net wider and encroach into the unspoilt, untouched and pristine places (of which there are precious few remaining).
As the earlier mentioned Prof. Albert Bartlett said, ‘Sustainable Growth’ is an oxymoron. We are consuming the life blood of our world. We are killing the very thing that keeps us alive. We have the ideology of the cancer cell and no amount of ‘techno fix’ will ultimately save us. Once again, history repeats itself and we fall into the progress trap – as we ‘solve’ one problem, we create another and so it goes on, until we have no resources left.
The inevitable outcome is surely not hard to comprehend. Even the most ardent capitalist must ultimately concede that without resources, our economies cannot grow. It’s clear, to me, where we are heading, but as Monbiot says, it’s a topic few want to discuss so we get distracted with spin, celebrity, fame, fortune and more. But face it we must…
You can also read it, fully referenced on his website, along with many other great articles: http://www.monbiot.com/
Why collapse and salvation are hard to distinguish from each other.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 28th May 2014
Let us imagine that in 3030BC the total possessions of the people of Egypt filled one cubic metre. Let us propose that these possessions grew by 4.5% a year. How big would that stash have been by the Battle of Actium in 30BC? This is the calculation performed by the investment banker Jeremy Grantham.
Go on, take a guess. Ten times the size of the pyramids? All the sand in the Sahara? The Atlantic ocean? The volume of the planet? A little more? It’s 2.5 billion billion solar systems. It does not take you long, pondering this outcome, to reach the paradoxical position that salvation lies in collapse.
To succeed is to destroy ourselves. To fail is to destroy ourselves. That is the bind we have created. Ignore if you must climate change, biodiversity collapse, the depletion of water, soil, minerals, oil; even if all these issues were miraculously to vanish, the mathematics of compound growth make continuity impossible.
Economic growth is an artefact of the use of fossil fuels. Before large amounts of coal were extracted, every upswing in industrial production would be met with a downswing in agricultural production, as the charcoal or horse power required by industry reduced the land available for growing food. Every prior industrial revolution collapsed, as growth could not be sustained. But coal broke this cycle and enabled – for a few hundred years – the phenomenom we now call sustained growth.
It was neither capitalism nor communism that made possible the progress and the pathologies (total war, the unprecedented concentration of global wealth, planetary destruction) of the modern age. It was coal, followed by oil and gas. The meta-trend, the mother narrative, is carbon-fuelled expansion. Our ideologies are mere subplots. Now, as the most accessible reserves have been exhausted, we must ransack the hidden corners of the planet to sustain our impossible proposition.
On Friday, a few days after scientists announced that the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is now inevitable, the Ecuadorean government decided that oil drilling would go ahead in the heart of the Yasuni national park. It had made an offer to other governments: if they gave it half the value of the oil in that part of the park, it would leave the stuff in the ground. You could see this as blackmail or you could see it as fair trade. Ecuador is poor, its oil deposits are rich: why, the government argued, should it leave them untouched without compensation when everyone else is drilling down to the inner circle of hell? It asked for $3.6bn and received $13m. The result is that Petroamazonas, a company with a colourful record of destruction and spills, will now enter one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, in which a hectare of rainforest is said to contain more species than exist in the entire continent of North America.
The UK oil company Soco is now hoping to penetrate Africa’s oldest national park, Virunga, in the Democratic Republic of Congo; one of the last strongholds of the mountain gorilla and the okapi, of chimpanzees and forest elephants. In Britain, where a possible 4.4 billion barrels of shale oil has just been identified in the south-east, the government fantasises about turning the leafy suburbs into a new Niger delta. To this end it’s changing the trespass laws to enable drilling without consent and offering lavish bribes to local people. These new reserves solve nothing. They do not end our hunger for resources; they exacerbate it.
The trajectory of compound growth shows that the scouring of the planet has only just begun. As the volume of the global economy expands, everywhere that contains something concentrated, unusual, precious will be sought out and exploited, its resources extracted and dispersed, the world’s diverse and differentiated marvels reduced to the same grey stubble.
Some people try to solve the impossible equation with the myth of dematerialisation: the claim that as processes become more efficient and gadgets are miniaturised, we use, in aggregate, fewer materials. There is no sign that this is happening. Iron ore production has risen 180% in ten years. The trade body Forest Industries tell us that “global paper consumption is at a record high level and it will continue to grow.” If, in the digital age, we won’t reduce even our consumption of paper, what hope is there for other commodities?
Look at the lives of the super-rich, who set the pace for global consumption. Are their yachts getting smaller? Their houses? Their artworks? Their purchase of rare woods, rare fish, rare stone? Those with the means buy ever bigger houses to store the growing stash of stuff they will not live long enough to use. By unremarked accretions, ever more of the surface of the planet is used to extract, manufacture and store things we don’t need. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that fantasies about the colonisation of space – which tell us we can export our problems instead of solving them – have resurfaced.
As the philosopher Michael Rowan points out, the inevitabilities of compound growth mean that if last year’s predicted global growth rate for 2014 (3.1%) is sustained, even if we were miraculously to reduce the consumption of raw materials by 90% we delay the inevitable by just 75 years. Efficiency solves nothing while growth continues.
The inescapable failure of a society built upon growth and its destruction of the Earth’s living systems are the overwhelming facts of our existence. As a result they are mentioned almost nowhere. They are the 21st Century’s great taboo, the subjects guaranteed to alienate your friends and neighbours. We live as if trapped inside a Sunday supplement: obsessed with fame, fashion and the three dreary staples of middle class conversation: recipes, renovations and resorts. Anything but the topic that demands our attention.
Statements of the bleeding obvious, the outcomes of basic arithmetic, are treated as exotic and unpardonable distractions, while the impossible proposition by which we live is regarded as so sane and normal and unremarkable that it isn’t worthy of mention. That’s how you measure the depth of this problem: by our inability even to discuss it.