If we pay even the most casual attention to what is happening around us, we observe enormous ecological destruction. Recent events in the ‘100% pure’ ‘clean and green’ tourist paradise of Aotearoa New Zealand reveal industrial pollution dumped on marginalised urban communities, wetlands drained and forests logged to make way for dairy farming, rare species killed by introduced predators, rural river courses reduced to stinking drains by dairy farming run-off, and well-advanced plans for remote valleys to be mined for coal or dammed for hydropower … I could go on.
Should we consider each one of these incidents in isolation? They are very often treated this way, both in their reporting and in the responses to them – isolated and independent events that vividly demonstrate the ignorance, greed and stupidity of certain individuals or corporations. However, much of the writing on wellsharp has aimed to move beyond this sort of interpretation, to show that individual acts of ecological destruction are far from disconnected. They are intimately connected through an underlying systemic cause – capitalism and its pathological growth obsession.
But how is one to prove this? Getting a handle on the relationship between environmental performance and capitalism as a system is far from easy, but doing so in a way that moves beyond theorising is essential if the argument is to convince a wider audience. Ilgu Ozler and Brian Obach of the State University of New York at have taken up this challenge.
A friend recently expressed to me one of the essential conundrums of contemporary capitalist society: “I can see growth can’t continue, [because of the environmental impacts] but I can’t see how we can stop it without the whole system falling over like a stack of cards.”
One good answer can be found in the recent report of the U.K Sustainability Commission, titled Prosperity Without Growth. But I thought I might also give a much shorter answer that comes at it from a slightly different angle, in the hope my friend and others might find it helpful.
Let’s look at why economies grow, and why capitalism (as we know it) depends on growth, because then we will quickly discover our answer as to how – in principle – we might create a no/low growth economy that doesn’t collapse and doesn’t produce social disaster.
The National Government has shown a disdain for environmental concerns and sustainability initiatives (even when those initiatives save money and make good fiscal sense). In fact, they seem to be gleefully heading in the opposite direction – favouring road-building and allowing the construction of a new gas-fired power-plant, while dithering and delaying about the ETS (admittedly deeply flawed, but so far New Zealand’s centrepiece policy aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions).
John Key & Bill English are obviously not going to listen to an obscure greenish blogger. Perhaps they might listen to a relatively conservative Professor of Economics?
Prof. James Hamilton’s latest research paper “Causes and Consequences of the Oil Shock of 2007-08” (summary available at his blog here) has this conclusion about what drove the spectacular rise in oil prices through 07-08 and the subsequent and equally dramatic fall:
But while the question of the possible contribution of speculators and the Fed is a very interesting one, it should not distract us from the broader fact: some degree of significant oil price appreciation during 2007-08 was an inevitable consequence of booming demand and stagnant production. It is worth emphasizing that this is fundamentally a long-run problem, which has been resolved rather spectacularly for the time being by a collapse in the world economy. However, the economic collapse will hopefully prove to be a short-run cure for the problem of excess energy demand. If growth in the newly industrialized countries resumes at its former pace, it would not be too many more years before we find ourselves back in the kind of calculus that was the driving factor behind the problem in the first place. Policy-makers would be wise to focus on real options for addressing those long-run challenges, rather than blame what happened last year entirely on a market aberration. (empahsis added)
We have a window of opportunity – let’s use it.