I have never really expressed the core problem that well, despite having thoroughly convinced myself of it.
And to be honest, I’ve always preferred stellar, gonzo, Taibbi – Sterling – Tom Wolfe – Andrew Sullivan – type nonfiction writing to the careful, prosaic and accessible. But some ideas are important enough that they need to be expressed in the simplest possible terms. Lester Brown is not in the gonzo category at all. Here is how he explains the cruel hoax:
Today, China consumes more basic resources than the United States does.
Among the key commodities such as grain, meat, oil, coal, and steel, China consumes more of each than the United States, except for oil, where the United States still has a wide (though narrowing) lead. China uses a third more grain than the United States. Its meat consumption is nearly double that of the United States. It uses there times as much steel.
These umbers reflect national consumption, but what would happen if consumption per person in China were to catch up to that of the UNited States? If we assume that China’s economy slows from the 10 per cent annual growth of recent years to 8 per cent, then in 2030 CHina’s 1.46 billion people will need twice as much paper as is produced worldwide today. There go the world’s forests.
If we assume that in 2030 there are three cars for every four people in China as there now are in the United States, China will have 1.1 billion cars. The world currently has 860 million cars. …
By 2030 China would need 98 billion barrels of oil a day. The world is currently producing 85 million barrels a day and may never produce much more than that. There go the world’s oil reserves.
What China is teaching us is that the western economic model – the fossil fuel based automobile-centered throwaway economy – is not going to work for China. If it does not work for China it will not work for India, which by 2030 may have an even larger population than China. Nor will it work for the other 3 billion people in developing countries who are also dreaming the “American dream”. And in an increasingly integrated global economy, where we all depend on the same grain, oil, and steel, the western economic model will no longer work for the industrial countries either.
The overriding challenge for our generation is to build a new economy – one that is powered largely by renewable resources of energy, that has a more diversified transport system, and that reuses and recycles everything. We have the technology to build this new economy, an economy that will allow us to sustain economic progress. Can we build it fast enough to avoid a breakdown of social systems?
Well, I question “an economy that will allow us to sustain economic progress”, actually. What does that mean? If it means “growth” in dollar value without inflation, it’s sort of inconceivable. Although socialism is notoriously hard to get right, parks are in principle better and cheaper than lawns (ask the French), trains are in principle better and cheaper than cars, and in a growth economy BETTER AND CHEAPER IS WORSE. That’s why, although socialism is notoriously hard to get right, lots of people still pitch in to make it even harder.
But it doesn’t matter. I’d rather you blame Bush than Obama for the sheer abruptness and disarray of the thing, but in the end it was coming, and every president since Carter gets a slice of the blame, along with most other world leaders. The growth thing has to end, and as the Club of Rome figured out, that would happen sometime in the first half of the 21st century. So we’re a little early; that may actually help make it look more like a fizzle than a crash.
But we can’t fizzle indefinitely. At some point, we take sustainability seriously or we fail to sustain. One way or the other we reach the zero-sum world. Oil I burn is oil you don’t get to burn. Carbon I emit is carbon you don’t get to emit. Fish I eat, water I drink, fertilizer that I cause to be consumed… you get the picture.
One of the numerous disasters we have to look out for is a world where cynical colonialism re-emerges; where some countries prosper explicitly at the expense of all the others. This may be obviously unethical put in such raw terms, but we are seeing anew how populations can be riled up to hate and blame each other.
But we can’t just put up a world of constraints as an alternative. We need to repair the gap between inventiveness and sustainability. We need to drop the cultural caricatures and explore less consumption-crazed ways of valuing our lives and competing with each other. We need to revive the notion of progress.
“Economic progress”? If that means “full employment” or “recovery” or “growth” or ever increasing “wealth”, no. We have reached peak wealth. Half our economic activity cheapens and trashes the world. We need to lose that half, and preserve as much of what we’ve got as we can.
So, like Bruce says, let’s have a positive vision of the future, because we really have no choice.
We have to continue to offer excellent rewards for creativity and productivity, to encourage the best possible thinking from the best minds. But we can no longer punish unemployment. Many of our “jobs” are not helping. There is plenty to go around, but in our mad rush for growth we are damaging it, not preserving it.
Progress is progress toward a world where work is optional, where we can retire modestly but safely at 35 after a few years of grunt work, where we get to learn to play the fiddle, where we are not driven by hostility and jealousy, where we have time to take the slow boat to China, where perpetual student is not an embarassing career.
No? And, exactly, why the hell not?