All things bright and beautiful
I was reading one of my favourite blogs the other day when I came across this:
…we Americans use about 9.2 hectares per person to maintain our current life style. All the available hectares in the world total an average of 2.1 hectares per person.
I simply cannot see Americans or any other developed country voluntarily changing our lives sufficiently to downsize to using no more than our fair share.
The author has written on global warming before, and also on the financial crisis.
I suddenly realised how insidiously the two were linked together, and how much else they were linked to.
The world economy is in recession following the financial crisis, and the world wants to get out of it. The world will start getting out of recession when business confidence starts to return and banks start lending money to make money.
What does ‘business confidence’ mean? It means economic activity is worth pursuing and expanding, it means producers are willing and able to raise money to invest to buy plant and raw materials and pay people to produce things which people are willing and able to buy. People want to work to earn money to survive and to make a better life for themselves. All simple and obvious.
It is based on the assumption that everyone has a chance to achieve a better life. They may not have an equal chance, but they do all have a chance. A ‘better life’ will mean different things to different people, but it will generally involve ownership and consumption. Somewhere to live, a house, a better house, a better furnished house, a bigger house, a more frequently redecorated and refurbished bigger house, another house to provide rental income and/or choices about where to live. And warmer clothes, more seasonal clothes, more fashionable clothes, a greater variety of more impressive, exclusive and better quality clothes. And so on along just about every other dimension: food, drink, transport, holidays, education and training, home technology, entertainment and entertaining, communication, security, health, beauty, sport – the list, as they say, is endless.
But now there is not just global warming, but more generally the depletion of the planet’s resources and the depletion of its capacity to bounce back – the capacity of its surface to radiate excess heat, of its green plants to replace carbon dioxide with oxygen, of its rain to wash pollutants out of the air, of its micro-organisms to decompose pollutants into less harmful things.
Of course some goods and services which people buy and sell have a negligible carbon footprint, are renewable, or use up little or no physical resource anyway. But the majority fall outside safe categories like these. So the activities we want more of to get us out of recession will bring more pollution, more depletion, more climate damage.
All this is worrying enough. But the numbers of hectares per person give a final twist. If they are even broadly correct, then the world has already gone beyond its limit – and with its only remaining freedom of manoeuvre being to decide what limit or limits it has actually gone beyond.
Is it simply the limit to population growth? Even if it was feasible to reduce drastically the world birth rate, surely the result would be catastrophic, with a smaller and smaller world workforce supporting a proportionately greater and greater population of elders?
Is it the limit of economic growth? But the world economy is not structured to acknowledge a limit like this. When home markets are saturated foreign markets open up. Rising levels of wealth and expectation in South America, Asia and Africa create more consumers for everyone’s goods and services, and at the same time provide more productive capacity to invest in and raw materials for the supply end of the value chain to suck in.
But how can that work in a world where the expectations which drive it will never be realised, because there is literally not enough productive space on the planet to realise them?
In the years leading up to the credit crisis ‘home-owners’ (quotes intended) gambled on their future earning capacity to ‘buy’ as much real-estate as they could as early as they could so as to profit from the rise in real-estate prices which was itself fuelled by everyone gambling on their future earning capacity to ‘buy’ as much real-estate as they could as early as they could so as to profit from the rise in real-estate prices which was itself fuelled by everyone gambling on their future earning capacity…
Yet even without overheating like that, economic growth of any kind thrives on optimism. Without optimism there is no investment.
Perhaps it will not be universal doom and gloom. Entrepreneurs will continue to seek out pockets of optimism, populations with still-rising expectations which will provide the market growth their investment demands. Those pockets of optimism will be harder and harder to find, and more intensively fought over, but they will continue to exist. Perhaps.
Which brings me to my final limit. Are we already beyond the point where we can still fool ourselves that the lifestyle we enjoy in the developed world is in principle achievable in the developing world? Because that is the myth with legitimises Western capitalism. Western capitalism may not redress inequality directly, and it may even intensify it, but it does encourage the global creation and distribution of wealth – because that is what it relies on for its markets. No other method has been tried (the myth continues) which is anywhere near as effective in creating and distributing global wealth. The rich get richer, but so do the poor.
Or so we thought. We may have overshot a rather different kind of limit. Our ethical self-respect – whether from our Judaeo-Christian heritage or from more secular Enlightenment offshoots like the categorical imperative – rests on an assumption of universality. We may not feel compelled to give all our belongings away to anyone with less than we have. But we do consider our basic human rights are in principle shared by everyone in the world. They may not all be able to exercise those rights as freely as we do, but they still have them. More importantly, we do not (or did not) think we possess our rights at the expense of other people’s rights.
So although we know for example that the purchasing power of an average Western European or North American is many times that of an average Malian or Bangladeshi, we do not (or did not) think there was anything in principle preventing the economies of Mali or Bangladesh from improving to First-World standards. That is why we use expressions like ‘developed world’ and ‘developing world’. We may acknowledge that in practice there will always be a gap between the developed world and the developing world, because the developed world will never lose its head start. But we did not think there was anything to prevent the developing world from achieving – even if in the distant future – a level of development the developed world enjoys right now.
We would probably have gone further than this, and assumed that by continuing our economic growth in the developed world we would encourage growth in the developing world – by providing markets for raw materials and labour, by foreign aid, by foreign investment.
But the mathematics of scarcity means our real world could be one we thought we had left long ago:
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.
© Chris Lawrence 2009.