2000s >> 2008 >> no-1251-november-2008

Pathfinders: Crisis? Which Crisis?

 A recent EU study headed by a Deutsche bank economist reveals that global economic loss through deforestation is vastly greater than economic loss through the current crisis in the world’s banks (Nature loss ‘dwarfs bank crisis’, BBC Online, 10 October). The study puts the estimated annual loss at between 2 and $5 trillion.

 Graphs of consumption or growth trends almost all follow a hockey-stick trend, largely flat for a thousand years until 1900 and thereafter rising rapidly to nearly vertical today. These trends include consumption of water, paper, rainforest, ozone, fisheries, and increases of motor car production, population, CO2 and global temperature, and species extinction. Not surprisingly, the trend for GDP follows the same pattern.

This is capitalism’s normal modus operandi, regardless of banking crises. This relentless consumer-driven growth goes on year in year out, without respite, and the trends climb higher and higher with no end in sight. The world is burning itself out in an apparently unstoppable quest for economic growth, and nobody seems able to do anything about it.

 Scientists can only do so much by reporting the facts. For instance, they can show that the Earth can sustainably support just 200 million people in a North American lifestyle, a figure which is not even large to account for North America’s present population. In answer to the much-loved argument that growth is the only way to lift the poor out of poverty, they can point to the fact that, during the 1990’s, the poor’s share of this growth was just 0.6 percent. According to this argument, for the poor to be even marginally better off, the rich have to become stupendously richer, so that “to get the poorest onto an income of just $3 per day would require an impossible 15 planets’ worth of biocapacity” (New Scientist, 18 October).

 Governments of course are very good at ignoring facts they don’t like. One scientist, Tim Jackson, professor of sustainable development at Surrey University, was accused by a UK treasury official of ‘wanting to go back and live in caves’. Herman Daly, formerly senior economist for the World Bank, describes how the first draft of its 1992 World Development Report contained a diagram showing the economy as a simple rectangle, with an arrow going into it, labelled ‘inputs’ and another coming out labelled ‘outputs’. When he pointed out that this implied that the inputs (resources etc) appeared to be coming from nowhere and the outputs (including waste) going nowhere, thus suggesting that the environment had infinite productive and absorptive capacities, the diagram was simply removed altogether from the draft. He remarks dryly that ‘mainstream economists are mostly concerned with the [economic] organism’s circulatory system … while tending to ignore its digestive system.” (New Scientist, ibid).

 The problem is that when scientists, for all the right reasons, try to get political, they don’t seem to realise that they are in serious danger of reinventing wheels and using them to cycle over old ground. Worryingly, they show under-informed prejudices that any socialist can hear any night down their local boozer, to wit, that a global revolution against capitalism is utterly out of the question, and that even if it wasn’t, it would be utterly undesirable.
 Here’s Susan George on wealth ownership: “Must we organise world revolution … to save Earth? Is there a single point of attack? If so, tell me the name of the tsar… Nor would anyone welcome the political systems that shrouded those vast areas where revolution did occur. Somehow… we need a third way between red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism and a worldwide uprising as unlikely as it is utopian.” Showing a similar knee-jerk horror of what he imagines socialism to be, Yale environmentalist Gus Speth: “I’m not advocating state socialism, but I am advocating a non-socialist alternative to today’s capitalism”, while Daly maintains that “shifting from growth to development doesn’t have to mean freezing in the dark under communist tyranny.” (New Scientist, ibid).

 So, having written off as utopia or tyranny any possibility of an alternative to the capitalist system, they are driven of course to consider how best to modify the system from within.  What they are left with is a mishmash of reforms which have either been tried in the past (Keynesian inflationary investment), are even more utopian than the ‘utopians’ (scientists as technocrats dispensing orders to the wealth class), or contradict the internal boom-slump logic of capitalism (zero-growth ‘steady state’ capitalism), or would bankrupt by capital flight any country which first introduced them (various taxes). At best, the reforms wouldn’t work. At worst, they could accelerate armageddon. If capitalism really could be run more equitably and sustainably, don’t they imagine that it would already be running that way? No, they don’t. They just seem to think that the correct solutions have somehow eluded the rest of us because we’re not as smart as they are.

 Still, all in all, it is undoubtedly a good thing that scientists are turning their attention to the question of free-market capitalism. They do at least have more credibility than politicians, priests or pop-idols, and one can only hope they don’t squander it by failing to sort through their various ill-conceived assumptions and prejudices. After all, that’s what the scientific method is supposed to be all about. The worst and most absurd assumption of all was always that science was somehow above politics, and that seems to be changing. What scientists need to do now however is recognise that they are latecomers to the political and economic debate, and that it is unhelpful to cloud the issues with careless ignorance of genuine socialist ideas, or to promote unworkable and possibly dangerous solutions which ignore capitalism’s known behaviour. Most of all, they would do well to recognise the importance of class in the debate, and their own class position as workers. If they don’t do that, they are always going to be so far behind other workers that they think they’re in the lead.

The original hockey stick. Figure 1(b) from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Third Assessment Report, 2001

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