A Simple Recipe for the Future

The 64,000-dollar question these days is “Are we destroying the world?” Is man finally doing himself in after years of neglect, fulfilling the doomsday sandwich board message that “The End is Nigh?” With a NASA report on the loss of global aquifers, a scientific paper on the extinction of many more species than expected since 1900, and the Pope’s encyclical on global warming, all published last week, predicting the end is now a cottage industry. Hashtag doom.

Of course, no one believes sandwich board men, save for a few apocalyptic fundamentalists, not least of which because the end never comes. Life goes on, apparently in leaps and bounds with new development schemes and ever improving technologies. What will it take to see the light – a ten-year drought, a loss of 1,000 species in a single year, a continent-wide blizzard, the environmental equivalents of Slim Pickens hooting and hollering on a launched ICBM? One thing for sure, Mother Earth is showing the strains of unrelenting human development. And it’s all because of too much growth.

Indeed, we are told that growth cures everything. It’s a tragedy when annual growth forecasts are lowered, as the OECD did this month from 3.7% to 3.2%, prompting its chief economist Catherine Mann to lament, “The world economy is muddling through with a B minus average … a failing grade is all too possible.” When Chinese Premier Li Keqiang announced that China grew at only 7% last year, he disdained that the Chinese economy “still faces relatively big downward pressures.” You know you’re in trouble, when economic growth of 7% is considered a problem. No matter that a third of all big groundwater basins are in distress, 468 species have become extinct (including 69 mammal, 80 bird, 24 reptile, 146 amphibian, and 158 fish species), and more people live in poverty than ever before.

We can’t just blame China, though in a country with a population of more than one billion, that’s trouble with a capital T. To put the numbers in perspective, based on population alone, an increase of 5% in the four main BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) is equivalent to a 50% increase in the United States. If you think the U. S. had growing pains during its industrial adolescence, imagine how much worse it can get.

It gets worse. The International Energy Agency predicted that carbon emissions will almost double in the next 20 years, three-quarters of which will come from China, India, and the Middle East. China now emits twice as much CO2 from coal as does all of Europe. Strategic metals such as copper, tin, silver, chromium, and zinc could be depleted within four decades. A third more food will be required in 15 years and 50% more by 2050. Doom, gloom, and more gloom, unless you’re a game-playing economist.

In his 1973 book, Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, the British economist E. F. Schumacher noted that, “We are not in the least concerned with conservation; we are maximising, instead of minimising, the current rates of use.” What happened to living within one’s means or thinking globally and acting locally? If those in the West are starting to see limits to available resources, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

It’s as if there’s a collective “What, me worry?” mindset, a juvenile “ignore it and it will go away” solution to our multiplying problems. Life’s a party after all to a frat boy. No need to think about the hangover after the fun. But why are we so enamored by growth when growth is the problem, especially since the divide between rich and poor keeps getting worse?

One could ask if we are unhappy with who we are, as in a global mass loathing, permanently postponing needed action. Growth is always about tomorrow, that famous world our grandchildren live in and politicians like to extol. Perhaps we think we can’t make the world’s problems our own, each of us disconnected from the machine.

In A Christmas Carol, a redeemed future is presented for those who will see the errors of their past, whereas in The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus only a perpetual indebtedness exists. Margaret Atwood eloquently makes this comparison in Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. She notes that we are destroying the Earth with mono-crop farming, “which Nature has always disliked,” overfishing which is “really easy to do with megaships equipped with sonar for fast fish finding—and the eventual result is no fish,” biofuels, soil depletion, rain forest destruction, out-of-control carbon emissions resulting in thawing tundra, and superforce cyclones. In her version of Dickens’s morality tale, Scrooge ignorantly pleads with the last of the spirits who have come to rebuke him for his selfish ways: “We approach things rationally now, what with science, and cost-benefit analysis, and the use of debt as a sophisticated investment vehicle.” The Scrooge story is one metaphor that might scare us into thinking we can change.

But no one likes sad endings. We want to believe that the Emerald City is in reach, despite the obstacles along the way, perhaps because of the obstacles. Happily, Pope Francis has taken aim at pollution, global warming, water rights, biodiversity, and poverty in his encyclical, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, although as Andrew Stewart noted he is reiterating the Catholic playbook as cited by four previous popes, albeit this time with a better spin doctor in charge (“Climate Change: The Unfinished Agenda”). Will the Pope’s PR package make a difference? Can the new Jesuit man at the top get through? Or do we just change the channel, content that Superman, the Justice League, or four old guys in space suits will save the day before the final credits, as in every Hollywood fantasy?

Indeed, part of the problem is PR and how bad news is received. No one likes to be a doomsayer or preacher. But waste is waste. It is wrong to leave a room worse than how one found it. Call it bad manners at the very least. When it comes to polluting the Earth, however, leaving a room in the same state we found it is no longer sufficient. We must use less or become useless. We have to stop treating the Earth as a sterile machine and garbage dump.

The hill is steep, especially given the sceptics in high places, turning “global warming” into “climate change,” dismissed by George W. Bush to deter scrutiny about our own involvement and now by his Catholic brother Jeb to distance himself from perceived foreign influence: “I don’t get my economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope.” But we needn’t trust leaders who act only as guardians of corporate wills, and are more worried about how they will be viewed by posterity than about the future of Mother Earth.

According to a Pew Research Center poll (June 16), 68 percent of Americans believe the planet is getting warmer, although only 45 percent attribute such warming to human causes. Such thinking is typically limited by small sample sizes, even as small as the daily weather report. The argument goes something like “How in the midst of global warming can we have the coldest winter in years? I never remember it being this cold.” Rising sea levels are dismissed as doubtful since no noticeable effect is seen in any of the large cities where most people live. And how can a melting polar ice cap raise water levels to swamp an island in the Indian Ocean? (in fact, water expands because volume is proportional to temperature). The bolder sceptics even attribute “climate change” to methane-farting cows.

But there is no avoiding the report by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory “Study: Third of Big Groundwater Basins in Distress” (June 16), stating that “significant segments of Earth’s population are consuming groundwater quickly without knowing when it might run out.” Generated by gravity readings from NASA’s twin GRACE satellites, “researchers found that 13 of the planet’s 37 largest aquifers studied between 2003 and 2013 were being depleted while receiving little to no recharge,” eight of which were overstressed.

An equally damning report appeared in Science Advances, “Accelerated Modern Human-Induced Species Losses: Entering the Sixth Mass Extinction” (June 19), about the destructive influence of humans on the environment, including the extinction of species at rates more than 100 times faster than normal and unprecedented in 65 million years. The study noted, “that modern extinction rates are exceptionally high, that they are increasing, and that they suggest a mass extinction under way — the sixth of its kind in Earth’s 4.5 billion years of history.” Furthermore, crucial ecosystem services such as crop pollination and wetland water purification could be lost within three human lifetimes.

But is the main argument getting lost amid the finger pointing about the future – that endless growth is the problem? It’s a theology (“Go forth and multiply”), a statement of biological power (“My genes survive”), and an economic doctrine akin to playground competition (“My GNP is bigger than your GNP”). Indeed, growth was once essential in a frontier world, a needed mantra then, but no longer sustainable in a world of more than 7 billion people. And when the wealth of half of the world’s population is equal to that of 80 people, it is clear that the money men see a world full of workers not citizens worthy of dignified lives. Slaves essentially.

Take the United States, the world’s leading OECD nation. In the last 10 years, wealth inequality has doubled. Today, more than 40 million Americans live in poverty. Over the last 50 years, the share of the global economic pot to the poorest nations has decreased fourfold while world GNP quadrupled. It appears growth is not flat, but built on the backs of everyday workers. In his chilling book about supposed economic miracles, Dubai: Gilded Cage, which harkens back to the early days of industrial development, Syed Ali noted, “Construction workers in Dubai regularly work six-day weeks of eleven-hour days, and often another half day on Fridays. They work in dangerous conditions with more than seven hundred deaths on the job and ninety suicides per year.” Dubai is but one example, called Dubai, Inc., for its no-tax, no-foreign-exchange, no-capital restrictions. It would seem there is a flaw in the mantra.

It is hard to blame the economic game players, however, when the rules favor employing under-the-table workers at a fraction of the usual costs, trimming expenses by moving to cheaper labor markets, or obtaining preferential government subsidies at the expense of other competitors. Who wouldn’t take advantage? But the real costs are astronomical if a vast citizenry is kept from fairly participating in the world. And Mother Nature is destroyed.

As Atwood noted, “Maybe it’s time for us to think about it differently. Maybe we need to count things, and add things up, and measure things, in a different way. In fact, maybe we need to count and weigh and measure different things altogether. Maybe we need to count the real costs of how we’ve been living, and of the natural resources we’ve been taking out of the biosphere.”

Strange things are happening and getting stranger. We live in a world where it is good to waste. Over-consumption is praised. Winning at any cost is rewarded. The solution is simple: say “No.” Reduce, reuse, recycle, and don’t consume what isn’t needed. Beat the game players at their own game and force a change in attitude. We must reduce our daily demands.

Whether global warming is caused by sun spots, farting cows, or man-made excess, it is wrong to live without thinking of the consequence of one’s actions. Take a three-minute shower instead of a six-minute one, dry clothes outside in summer, eat smaller portions, do what makes sense to keep from wasting. Most importantly, ignore the calls to more. If lower consumption is at odds with modern economics, then our idea of modernity must change. We have to consider the consequences of consumption.

It’s been almost 60 years since the publication of Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking book, Silent Spring, about the effects of chemical pesticides on the environment, a book which helped bring about a change in attitude and practice. Here is the start of her last chapter, entitled “The Other Road.” The importance of change can’t be said any better.

We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road – the one “less traveled by” – offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth.

The choice, after all, is ours to make. If, having endured much, we have at last asserted our “right to know,” and if, knowing, we have concluded that we are being asked to take senseless and frightening risks, then we should no longer accept the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals, we should look about and see what other course is open to us.

It’s time to hear the voice of reason. It’s time to listen. The Earth is calling.

JOHN K. WHITE, an adjunct lecturer in the School of Physics, University College Dublin, and author of Do The Math!: On Growth, Greed, and Strategic Thinking (Sage, 2013). Do The Math! is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at: john.white@ucd.ie.

John K. White, a former lecturer in physics and education at University College Dublin and the University of Oviedo. He is the editor of the energy news service E21NS and author of The Truth About Energy: Our Fossil-Fuel Addiction and the Transition to Renewables (Cambridge University Press, 2024) and Do The Math!: On Growth, Greed, and Strategic Thinking (Sage, 2013). He can be reached at: johnkingstonwhite@gmail.com