The New Scientist on “Why our economy is killing the planet”

In its issue of 18 October 2008, the New Scientist published a collection of nine short commentaries on the folly of growth. They are now on open access and make for essential reading for anyone concerned about the future of planet Earth.

For greens in particular, the articles provide welcome backing for a founding principle of the movement which has been eroded and undermined by relentless optimists (inside and outside the green movement) who would have us believe that ecological sustainability and economic growth are mutually reinforcing. The opening editorial piece makes it quite clear that ecological sustainability and economic growth are not at all compatible, observing:

personal carbon virtue and collective environmentalism are futile as long as our economic system is built on the assumption of growth. … if we are serious about saving Earth, we must reshape our economy.

Futile. It’s an uncompromising word. In choosing to use it the New Scientist editors can give no stronger assessment of the value of our current action on climate change, resource usage, species loss and habitat destruction.

As one might expect, the New Scientist usually relies on evidence produced by the scientific research community for a discussion on any issue it chooses to engage with, but here it moves into the world of political economy, with a group of high profile contributors. This move can suggest only one thing: the scientific evidence is overwhelming – now we need to engage with business and political elites to convince them of the folly of the present economic course.

The scale of the challenge faced in tackling these powerful elites is captured by Tim Jackson, who relates how

At the launch [in 2007] of our “Redefining Prosperity” project (which attempts to instil some environmental and social caution into the relentless pursuit of economic growth), a UK treasury official stood up and accused my colleagues and I of wanting to “go back and live in caves”.

This typifies the rabidly dogmatic response experienced by anyone who dares question the sanctity of growth, and only underlines that this is a debate of enormous importance. Well-known and highly regarded commentators like Herman Daly, David Suzuki and Susan George write with great knowledge and considerable insight, but I think the most forceful points come from an interview with James Gustave Speth and so I’ll restrict myself to summarising his views.

Gus Speth is not a name that was familiar to me before I read his New Scientist article but he has quite a CV: co-founder of the US Natural Resources Defense Council, advisor to President Jimmy Carter, head of the UN Development Programme, and now professor of forestry and environmental studies at Yale University. Here, it would appear, is a pillar of the establishment. This is what he has to say to interviewer Liz Else:

The economy we have is an inherently rapacious and ruthless system. It is up to citizens to inject values that reflect human aspirations rather than just making money…

My conclusion is that we’re trying to do environmental policy and activism within a system that is simply too powerful. It’s today’s capitalism, with its overwhelming commitment to growth at all costs, its devolution of tremendous power into the corporate sector, and its blind faith in a market riddled with externalities. And it is also our own pathetic capitulation to consumerism.

Even as the environmental community swims more strongly against the current, the current gets ever stronger and more treacherous, so environmentalism slips under. The only solution is to get out of the water, take a hard look at what is going on a figure what needs to be done to change today’s capitalism.

… Groups, whether they’re concerned about social issues, social justice, the environment or effective politics, are failing because they’re not working together. I want to see them join into one hopefully powerful political force.

Speth sees a previous example of this ‘coming together’ in the US civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. He is undoubtedly right in suggesting that people would have to be willing to take the kinds of risks the civil rights activists took and, I would suggest, be willing to take them in the face of what appear to be insuperable odds, just like the civil rights movement.

But let us take inspiration from the outcome of that activism: on 20 January 2009 the US will witness the inauguration of its first black president. Who in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 would have imagined that?

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