The Impossibility of Growth

Battle of Actium

Battle of Actium

British political and environmental activist George Monbiot addresses the excellent question of why industrial nations all believe that economic growth is a necessity, at The Guardian:

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(1).

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(2). 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(3). But coal broke this cycle and enabled – for a few hundred years – the phenomenon 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…

[continues at The Guardian]

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  • Oginikwe

    “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell.” Edward Abbey

    • erte4wt4etrg

      Damn you beat me

      • Oginikwe

        I never touched you. ;)

  • BuzzCoastin

    The way up
    is the way down.
    Heraclitus

  • Rhoid Rager

    “Economic growth is an artefact of the use of fossil fuels.” This is balderdash. It’s as if economic growth is some natural outcome of increased access to energy–I hear this knee-jerk statement from the peak oil crowd almost as much as I hear cries of overpopulation. Growth of human civilization doesn’t occur outside of the human context; growth is relentlessly driven by humans because it is the cover noise of the usurious wealth pump. Growth seems like a mandate because charging interest pervades society, and dependence on the core (the gravitational singularity that sucks all wealth towards itself) is the fatal choice we are all forced to make. Betraying our young through false education, and condemning each other by relying on the core’s money (the piping for the wealth pump), rather than our own goodwill and wits–this is exactly the opposite of what humans evolved to be all those thousands of years ago.

    • kowalityjesus

      I like the imagery behind your thoughts. I always think about how I am at some level a whore for living near one of the fiat pipelines here in Chicago. I position myself on the inside edge of glut and inflation, and validate the monster by my aptitude.

  • Simiantongue

    Calling Monbiot an environmental activist is like claiming bankers are anti poverty activists because they help poor people keep their money safe.

    Fukushima made him a believer in nuclear power, he can kiss my ass.

    • pk

      there really is no benefit from people who are concerned about the environment to quibble and argue over diverging beliefs. Fukushima was of course an unmitigated disaster which shows how much more research needs to be done before nuclear is deemed a viable alternative, but thats what humans do. The future is in new technologies, not fossil fuels

      • kowalityjesus

        Nuclear power is still absolutely the future. Fuck fusion. We have incredible advances in nuclear technology that would kick the arse of fossil fuel sources, and not present any impossibly long-lasting radioactive waste just a few hundred years.

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  • B.J.D

    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(1).

    There’s a gaping hole in this argument. GDP and wealth aren’t
    just measure in the physical volume of possessions but in their capabilities. For example, my phone has more processing
    capability and memory than a room full of Univac 2’s.

    • kowalityjesus

      good point! that’s not to even mention all the imaginary “growth” in stock portfolios and fiat currency.

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