Citizen Action Monitor

Is Humanity Inherently Unsustainable? Pt 10/13: Myth of perpetual economic growth in a finite world

No 27, Posted by fw, June 19, 2010

In Pt 9, Rees produced evidence of human over-exploitation of the world’s fishery, leading to the collapse of the cod industry. And his graph showing how much each species eats revealed that gluttonous humans are eating a couple of hundred times more stuff than species at the 95th percentile. Pt 9 concludes with Rees introduction of the concept and power of myth.

In Pt 10, below, Rees looks at some examples of the myth of perpetual economic growth and its potential horrific consequences. The transcribed excerpts that follow are from Part 6 of the You Tube video, which you can watch by going to the end of this post, or by going to You Tube at UBC Ecologist Bill Rees Part 6.

Myth of perpetual economic growth on a finite planet

What GDP doesn't measure

“So here are a couple of examples or statements of the current increasingly global cultural myth. This is one that emerged with that explosion of the post-enlightenment industrial revolution in Europe and is now spreading around the world – it’s the perpetual growth myth. The myth of progress. The idea that you can have unlimited growth – economic material growth – on a finite planet.”

‘There are no limits’ Lawrence Summers (1991)

“Lawrence Summers said: ‘There are no limits to the carrying capacity of earth that are likely to bind any time in the foreseeable future . . . . The idea that we should put limits on growth because of some natural limit is a profound error [with] staggering social costs.’

“Summers was the president of The World Bank when he made this statement in the early 1990s. Does anyone know his current position? That’s right. He is President Obama’s chief economic advisor. He is the chair of the US president’s Council of Economic Advisors.”

“Now it has staggering social costs because we use growth as the means by which to solve the problem of poverty. If we can grow sufficiently so that even the thinnest slice of the pies is large enough to keep people going, then they won’t bug us to share.”

So growth becomes a means by which we can avoid the question of more equitable distribution of the world’s biological and economic output.

‘Technology exists to produce inexhaustible quantities’ Julian Simon (1995)

“And just to show that he’s not alone, a couple of years later – and today, you know, still one of the most frequently quoted individuals is the late professor Julian Simon from Maryland University, the University of Maryland School of Business:

‘Technology exists now to produce in virtually inexhaustible quantities just about all the products made by nature. . . . We have in our hands now the technology to feed, clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next 7 billion years.’ “

“Now, again, not a modest statement. The point is these kinds of statements are repeated over and over again by people who believe in the progress myth and the myth of infinite growth.

‘Our economy demands we make consumption our way of life’  Victor Lebow (1955)

Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.’ Lebow

“This is a statement by a marketing expert in the mid-50s. In the post-war period there was a lot of idle factories and idle labour, returning soldiers who didn’t have enough to do and factories that had been making tanks and guns and ships. Let’s employ that capital in a productive way. In order to do that we had to bring people out of the conserver habit that they had gotten into. So that people who had gone through the depression, that had gone through the rationing, that had gone through the Second World War – they were getting used to living on very little. And by the way, they had never been happier. Suddenly, we’ve got a big problem. People aren’t working hard enough. There’s under-employed capital. So let’s organize to create a new social mythology explicitly on purpose to make people into consumers.

“This is one of the most prolific writers of the period. He was a marketing expert. And so began the history of the so-called consumer society. A deliberate social construction that gave birth to the modern advertising industry. And the compulsion that we now all seem to have to go to the store. The single most popular spare-time activity in North America is shopping at the mall – if you interview people in a certain age group. They were very successful in creating consumers of us all and this is now spreading around the world.”

“As consumption increases, because we now have an increasing number of billions of consumers, and population is still growing at about 1% per year, then the impact measured by the ecological footprint is population times per capita consumption, this is continually rising, it passes carrying capacity. That’s the Malthusian dilemma. We don’t notice because we can appropriate goods and services from all over the planet after we’ve used up all of our own. So we overshoot. And the question is: Is this decline going to be a planned, reasonable, slow soft landing or is it going to be a crash imposed by real limits when we hit the wall?”

March 7, 2011 UPDATE: I have recently discovered that a full transcript and mp3 audio recording of Rees’ lecture is available on The Radio Ecoshock ShowClick here to access these free downloads.


End of Part 10


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