Impossible dreams

We will be using twice the planet’s capacity; that’s physically impossible. And that’s our collective dream.

Mathis Wackernagel, Executive Director of the Global Footprint Network.

Eternal growth is the central dream of capitalism. The promise of profit informs investment, invention, industry. It’s possible that it’s impossible to find the political will for any project that seriously threatens growth.

Today is Earth Overshoot Day – the day when humanity has used the total amount of resources that the Earth can regenerate in a year. All resources used beyond this point dig too deep, damaging the Earth’s ability to provide for us in future. Every year, Earth Overshoot Day comes a little earlier though this year, it came two days later than in 2008 – long may the recession continue >< ).

This is the price of dreams of limitless growth: you run past the very real limits, and then you pay the price.

In the early days of the 20th Century, there was the very real threat that the Western working class would rise up and overthrow capitalism. Hard to imagine these days I know. Thing is, they lived (by our standards) in abject poverty. The world had just gone through a period of economic liberalisation (sometimes referred to as the first round of globalisation), the welfare state didn’t exist. Unions were massive, militant, and revolutionary. Economic growth was an important part of the New Deal, which defused the tensions over class inequality by guaranteeing that all would benefit from a growing economy, with the extra value spread around through progressive taxation and a welfare system. In addition to being the source of economy-wide profit, economic growth also relieves the tensions of inequality in our class system.

So what happens when the economy has grown to fill all the space available? When all natural resources are fully exploited (or rather, overexploited: we already use more than the earth produces, and dump more than it absorbs).

The first thing to realise is that this is not an abstract question, nor one that sits safely in the distant future. It’s already happened countless times, though on a local scale far less disastrous than the present crisis. The Mediterranean, famous for thousands of years as a fertile cradle of civilisation, has suffered massive desertification. The ‘fertile crescent’, between the Tigris and Euphrates, the ‘historical garden of Eden’, is better known these days as the dust-blown, bomb-pocked desert backdrop of the occupation of Iraq.

This is not a drill. Exceeding the carrying capacity of one’s environment has brought down countless civilisations throughout history, and there is every sign it will end ours, too. Malnutrition alone already claims millions of lives each year, even leaving aside lack of other resources like healthcare. Now, you could say that this has nothing to do with the limits to economic growth, that it’s a problem of distribution. Yes, the USA throws away more than enough food to feed all of Africa. But this leads to the second point.

We live in a radically unequal society. Different people will run out of different resources at different rates, and unequal distribution will accentuate the burden on the humanity’s poorest. The system will eventually hit a wall, but rather than an abrupt twisting of flesh and metal it will be a prolonged affair. Most of our awareness of it will be awareness of the suffering of distant others.

This inequality produces all sorts of pressures, and once we can no longer hold out the promise of growth and improvement, many will find the pressure intolerable. In addition to civil unrest, we will see migration out of resource-starved areas (well, more: we already see a lot of this), wars over resources (again, I’m not actually predicting anything new here) and deepening class divisions (ok, I don’t have a single original thought).

Happy Earth Overshoot Day.


A range of tools for approximating your ecological footprint.

Global Footprint Network.

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Filed under Climate Change, economics, Food

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