ecostory 18-2007
After me, the deluge - On the deadly sin of economic growth as a societal principle

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After us - the Deluge

'Anyone who believes exponential growth can go onforever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist. ' -Kenneth Boulding

One obscure nineteenth century critic of unregulated free market capitalism wrote in 1865 that, "The watchword of every capitalist and every capitalist nation is, "After me, the deluge!" (Apres moi, le deluge.).

He meant that the inexorable compulsions built into the short-term profit-seeking imperatives of the unregulated capitalist system compel capitalists everywhere to engage in business practices that inevitably produce both environmental and human degradation. "Every capitalist," the critic wrote, knows of the coming degradation of the human race, but each hopes that the crash may fall on the head of his neighbor, after he himself has caught the shower of gold and placed it in safety. He continued, "Only under the compulsion of society, that is, only under democratic political control and direction," does an economic system motivated by self-interest behave otherwise.

Now, over one hundred years later, it should be apparent to everyone that we cannot continue to have this cancerous "economic growth" eating away at our communities and our planet. As presently defined, "economic growth" simp1y means more, more, more, of anything and everything that enters the marketplace to be bought or sold. Any adverse impact on the environment is irrelevant in the formula employed in totaling up the Gross National or Domestic Product. In fact, and according to the prevailing economic wisdom, the economic costs of toxic disposal sites and environmental clean-ups also contribute to "economic growth" and the elevation of the GNP as it is now measured.

In contrast, public provision for clean air, pure water, public education, parks and playgrounds can in fact lead to a lower GNP than would be the case if the civic entity did none of these things, but instead concentrated on producing and selling more and more goods and services while ignoring and degrading its environment. But a lower GNP is defined as "bad thing" to be avoided at all costs, even if it means a better life for ourselves and our children and the preservation of the planet. It would be funny were it not so tragic.

Common sense and our awareness of the already seriously damaged environment tell us that the process we know as "economic growth" will inevitably befoul and destroy our own nest, the planet Earth. Many business executives themselves recognize the consequences of their behavior. But again as has been pointed out, "The coercive laws of the free market system dominate every individual businessman." Without "social compulsion," that is, businesses must willy-nilly engage in socially destructive actions.

It is "cost effective" for business to ignore the environment.

In short, we cannot allow "The Market" or "Big Business" to care for our common destiny. They cannot and they will not do so on their own.

There are countless examples of this behavior and its consequences before us. Our daily TV and newspapers offer reports of the horrible environmental and human consequences of unregulated "economic growth." And the reports most emphatically include American examples. However, the media rarely link these events and developments together, in order to show their systemic nature. Rather, they treat them as isolated exceptions to a generally "Good Thing," namely, unplanned, unregulated economic growth.

A recent New Yorker article illustrates one example of this reality. It chronicles the ongoing devastation of Ecuador's eastern (Oriente Amazon) province and the imminent destruction of yet another tribe of indigenous people because of the totally unregulated exploitation of the region's oil resources by American corporate interests. And all in the cause of "economic growth."

But note this important point: the New Yorker report continues: the "economic growth" involved in this wanton and permanent destruction of irreplaceable human and natural resources, "over the next twenty years ... will extract enough raw crude from the Huaorani lands to meet the United States' energy needs FOR ABOUT THIRTEEN DAYS" (emphasis added.) Would not the majority of Americans, indeed, the majority of the world's peoples, if given the chance, choose to forego some creature comforts, some few "goods," in order not to destroy this environment and its inhabitants?

Unregulated growth degrades both the environment & humanity

The unregulated pursuit of economic growth inevitably degrades both the environment and humanity. China today is being touted as yet one more "economic miracle," with the highest economic growth rate ever recorded. But at what cost to her environment! Vaclav Smil's study, China's Environmental Crisis: An Inquiry into the Limits of National Development (l993), documents the horrific price being paid for this "development." He writes: "The reality for tens of millions of Chinese in the worst-affected areas will be a desperate effort to survive for the nation as a whole, the continuing decline in environmental quality will mean a steady narrowing of future developmental options and inexorable lowering of possible goals. For the world, China's environmental debacle will be yet another intractable destabilising factor." Even, with, or because of its economic growth, China will have almost one million unemployed people in the year 2010.

And because it is gobbling up its arable land for factories, roads, and other structures, while its population continues to soar, China will soon enter the world grain market to buy food which under the best circumstances that market cannot supply.

Only global cooperation and planning, Smils writes, can halt this slide into environmental decay and social disruption. But his words are lost in the cacaphony celebrating China's free market economic growth.

Such stories could be and are today being multiplied ad nauseam. See, e;g., the Wall Street Journal (May 6, 1994) d report on the "Slick Alliance" between oil companies and the repressive government of Nigeria, an alliance that has brought "atrocities and the loss of hundreds of lives and livelihoods because of the rampant neglect and breaching of environmental limits."

As the forests and other natural resources are depleted, the soils are eroded away, the waters are polluted, toxic waste proliferates, ozone holes are growing, the earth is warming, species are disappearing, and humanity is degrading its home and itself.

What must be done? The successful businessman, Paul Hawken, writes in his book, The Ecology of Commerce (1993), that the behavior of the world's corporations today is unsustainable: "We know that every natural system on the planet is disintegrating. The land, water, air, and sea have been functionally transformed from life-supporting systems into repositories for waste. Quite simply, our business practices are destroying life on earth. He bluntly states, "Today's deteriorating culture, environment, and economy are the fruits of decades of corporate dishonesty, a dishonesty that we have created, sanctioned, and supported."

Echoing the nineteenth century critic quoted above, he writes, "Destructive business practices arise not from bad people, but from a misdesigned system."

Hawken advocates three essential actions that must be taken to reverse the destructive process.
The first step is to "eliminate waste." We must copy nature, Hawken says, and reduce as much as possible waste-producing practices and act like Nature, turn waste into usable materials. Our goal should be a "zero-discharge" system.

A second step he recommends is to shift our productive and consumption behaviors from carbon fuels to solar fuels, as rapidly as it is feasible to do so. Hawkens rightly sees this as a magnificent challenge to entrepreneurial genius and technological talent.

The third necessary step is to create accountability systems that make responsible behavior natural and profitable. As Donella H. Meadows explains, "That means proper pricing, which includes full environmental and social costs [of economic activity), and proper accounting, to keep track of natural assets as well as financial ones. It requires setting environmental standards based on what the Earth needs, and not what business wants. And it means encouraging diversity by favoring small, not large companies."

Please note: these steps do not demand the end of market capitalism. They do entail a change in the nature of capitalism. As Richard Douthwaite writes in his book, The Growth lllusion(1993), "We have forgotten that the people are the point of economic activity and [we have) behaved as if economic activity is the point of people. All this must change.

Society has to tell the capitalist system in which direction it wants to go. It has to give it signals in terms [the market] understands - prohibitions, taxes, and incentives - so that it takes us very quickly and efficiently, as it can do, to our desired end. Naturally, we have to agree what that end is...."

Once we as a people, as a nation, democratically and openly decide upon the desired end, namely the preservation of the environment for ourselves and our posterity, then we will be, able to send theappropriate and necessary "signals" to the market. Such signals will indeed stimulate that marvelously flexible and adaptable mechanism to operate so as to be a positive, or at least a neutral force in regard to nature.

What is necessary is not an all-out assault on "free market" economic rationality but rather, in the words of Andre Gorz, "a delimiting of the sphere in which economic rationality is allowed free play."

(The environment is not the only area in which "efficient" but ruthless economic rationality should play no role, another example is health care - but that is another story.)

We in America, as people everywhere, are facing the terrible consequence, of unregulated economic growth propelled by a ruthlessly "rational" economic process concerned only with selfish, short-term results. It is time for us to cast off the mystifying ideology that maintains that "free markets" all by themselves necessarily produce only economic-ecological benefits. We must adopt a more realistic and democratic political approach to what is after all primarily a social-political-philosophical issue. Economic growth and economic processes must be supervised, regulated, and guided in such a way as to preserve our environment, and to provide security for every citizen.

The deluge is upon us, and there remains but little time for us to salvage our planet and our humanity.
-GERALD CAVANAUGH, March 1995 (The Litiagraph, p. 9, Ashland, Oregon, USA)
This was written twelve years ago. What are we seeing today? China's big cities are suffocated in air pollution. The toxic dusts are even measured in California. Each country is scrambling to secure energy resources and other commodities. Biofuels are being promoted as a part-solution against climate change, although they destroy forests and compete with food production. Meanwhile the earth's fish stocks have dwindled, groundwater streams are being depleted. But populations and the economy continues to grow and search for more resources and water and energy and food. Where can it come from? We have only this one earth available - a planet that is already overexploited and polluted.

Nevertheless our self-acclaimed masters of society's wellfare - our economists - continue to preach economic growth. These ideologues, it seems, have no understanding of realities. They live in their institutional airconditioned offices. Power comes from the socket in the wall. Their reality is their brainworld of theory that denies anything that doesn't fit their comfortable nine to five existence.

Yet they will not be safe for the coming distasters, the impending collapse of society.

Why do normal thinking people not chase these ideologues out of their offices? Have we lost our democratic power to think for ourselves and set a different ecopolitical direction? When is enough enough? Helmut Lubbers

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