Sunday, May 10, 2009

Limits to Growth Revisited

Saturday's article by Catherine Rampell in the Economics section of the New York Times sounded another encouraging note for those of us who have come to realize that constant economic growth spells doom for the planet. (A segment of the article was reprinted without a byline in the Dallas Morning News this morning, on p. 13A.)

In the essay, "Shift to Saving May Be Downturn's Lasting Impact," Rampel notes that "a culture of thrift" is emerging that may well last beyond whatever Wall Street and Pennsylvania Avenue determine signals a recovery. I've already noted that thriftiness and a real frugality (beyond the coupon-clipping, bargain-hunting at Nieman's Last Call norm already in place) have become more and more commonplace, and practices that resemble those engendered by the Great Depression are making their way into our collective modern consumer consciousness. But the longer the recession lasts, the more likely, it seems, we are to discover that saving gives us the same rush that buying once did, and that having the money to pay for something before we actually purchase it may become a genuine all-American habit. Even pop-culture Sunday paper mainstays like Parade Magazine are printing stories by well-known writers, like Alix Kates Shulman, about "Finding Joy in Frugality"--in which the author wryly notes that what used to be called stinginess is now considered a virtue.

But the real impetus for this post comes from an article I read in Seed magazine earlier in the year (Issue 20, February 2009): Benjamin Phelan's "The Ecology of Finance," which got me to thinking back to the '70s and the Club of Rome's publication, Limits to Growth (an update of which is available in .pdf with tables that compare 1970s predictions with data from 2000. A recent article in New Scientist summarizes the results of the newer studies.) Using the principles of ecology in order to understand the market offers a useful, if limited model. At its best it can provide some real insights into how economic systems resemble natural systems; like all useful metaphors, however, it doesn't fit perfectly, but where it doesn't, it might be even more helpful.

One of guys who does this best is Herman Daly, professor of ecological economics at the University of Maryland (and former senior economist in the World Bank's environment department). His 2008 special report for New Scientist, "Economics blind spot is a disaster for the planet," made the best use of the metaphor I've seen yet:

The economy is like a hungry, growing organism. It consumes low-entropy natural resources such as trees, fish and coal, produces energy and useful goods from them, and spits out high-entropy waste such as carbon dioxide, mine slag and dirty water. Mainstream economists are mostly concerned with the organism's circulatory system, how the energy and resources can be efficiently allocated, while tending to ignore its digestive system.

I should probably stress here (again; this is one of the points on which I rant frequently) that the root of both "economics" and "ecology" are the same: the Greek oikos, or "home" or "dwelling place." Economics refers to the nomos, "that which is in habitual practice, use, or possession" of the home, sometimes used in the sense of a law or convention. The logos in "ecology" is a little harder to pin down (it takes up five columns or two and a half pages in Liddell & Scott's Greek-English Lexicon), but the first examples of usage in Greek have to do with accounts or reckoning--keeping tabs on the home, in a way. But it's also the root of "logic" and of all those "ology" words that refer to sciences (geology, biology, archaeology) in the sense of "study of." Other definitions include "reason," "explanation," and "rule." (This is why we need to know where our language comes from--so we can actually understand all the nuances of what we're saying.) At any rate, both of these words involve knowing something about the world in which we live, as well as something about those who share it with us.

We are, of course--humanity itself--the perpetrators of limitless growth and the use of metaphors to describe it. The very notion of economic growth is based on an analogy with the natural processes of biological organisms. But beings have a finite existence: birth, growth, decline, death. Modern economic theory is predicated on a model of constant growth when it would better be served by analogy with steady-state systems. True sustainability requires both growth and death--not one without the other.

One thing to be said for us as a species, is that we're really good at taking over the oikos, because we do seem to like to spread ourselves around. Perhaps the most successful adaptive strategy developed by homo sapiens sapiens is our ability to fill an enormous variety of niches, and to take them over successfully, often to the detriment of existing occupants. This happens both on a biological scale, in terms of supplanting species already adapted to a given biome, but also sociologically, in terms of phenomena like the gentrification of city neighborhoods, in which original occupants are supplanted because property values rise and they can no longer afford to live there.

This latter success is frequently welcomed by city governments, especially if it results in the revivification of "blighted" communities. Sometimes inhabitants are shunted into low-income housing, but often they end up in homeless shelters or on the streets--or in jail. A better solution would involve moving into a neighborhood that needs to be revitalized and helping to improve and sustain it without tearing apart whatever might be left of the original community.

A good example of our adaptive abilities can be seen in the continuing dilemma--currently slowed by the mortgage crisis--of urban sprawl. Evidence of sociobiological "success" is apparent in the spillage of suburbs into deserts, onto mountainsides and into canyons, and onto flood plains. These at-risk habitats that owe their existence to the forces of nature (heat, fire, avalanche, seismic activity, flood, and numerous other events) are not particularly friendly to human beings, with our attachment to permanent dwellings and infrastructure, coupled with general ignorance of the processes that produce the sheer beauty that makes these places desirable in the first place.

But deserts need artificial sources of water to support golf courses. Hillsides, especially those populated with species of fire-climax vegetation (chaparral, jack pine, etc.) and the seductive banks of rivers, lakes, streams, and oceans all require constant management: fire suppression, or at least controlled burns, flood protection (dams and levees), artificial jetties, beach renewal, and myriad other engineered "solutions" to "problems" that wouldn't exist if people weren't trying to live where they really shouldn't, and if people who should know better weren't encouraging them to do so.

Unlike the effects of other "industrious" species, such as the beaver, human transformation of landscape seldom results in improvement in the ecological sense. Beavers dam streams and create meadows and feeding grounds for other species; but when we dam a river, we destroy indigenous habitats and force other species to adapt or perish. And we do it not to ensure our continued existence, but to magnify our comfort. The market for human commodities (houses, food, goods) is driven by desire, and we really need to be more conscious of how to accommodate our true needs without killing the proverbial goose. Or beaver. (Sorry, sometimes the metaphors get out of hand.)

It's not that we can't be more sensible. We're perfectly capable of figuring out how to live more harmoniously with our environment. Human populations in the past have adapted to desert living, for example, with little impact on their surroundings. But most modern, industrialized nations have failed to limit their growth in any meaningful way, resulting in precipitous extinction rates and habitat destruction, in addition to the manifold increase in the use of fossil fuels and other limited resources which further stress our poor, beleaguered planet.

It's probably ironic (the word is highly overused these days as a synonym for "coincidental") that the economic downturn may in fact kick us in our collective butts and get us to rethink traditional market capitalism. Perhaps what we really need is an ecological analysis of the world economy to help ameliorate the current situation. As Phelan points out in his Seed article, the stock market crash of 1929 forced an overhaul of the financial system; some of these changes prevented the wholesale collapse of the world economy this time around. If only we could learn to use these big brains of ours to figure out how to live within our means, both economically and ecologically, we might not have to worry so much about how our grandchildren and great grandchildren are going to survive what we have wrought.

Photo credit: Earth at night, showing the spread of light-generating cities throughout the world. The image is a composite of hundreds of pictures made by U.S. Defense Meteorological Satellites Program (DMSP) compiled from October 1994 - March 1995. NASA image via Wikimedia Commons. For a better version, click here.

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