In an article written in The Guardian, George Monbiot makes it clear that endless economic growth – whether driven by capitalist or so-called socialist governments – is inevitably destroying the world in which we live.
The problem, according to Monbiot, is the absence of discussion. If citizens are not aware of, or do not accept, the fact that perpetual growth is destroying both humanity and the planet, nothing will change.
He gives an example of a mathematical calculation to demonstrate the volume of growth, referring to the supposition of possessions in Egypt in 3030BC filling one cubic metre. If these possessions grew by 4.5% a year, he affirms, they would have filled 2.5 billion billion solar systems by 30BC. “The mathematics of compound growth”, he says, “make continuity impossible”. And this is a conclusion that economic elites in the world today wish we would not discuss. To stop the process of growth, they tell us, would increase poverty and destroy civilisation. At the same time, however, continuing with this growth is clearly destroying our planet, whilst failing to create a world of greater justice and equality.
Fossil fuels are partly responsible for the exponential growth of materialism in the world, with coal making the globe’s industrial revolutions possible. For a few hundred years, there was even ‘sustained growth’. Along with oil and gas, coal led to certain ‘progress’, but also to “total war, the unprecedented concentration of global wealth, [and] planetary destruction”. The ideologies that have governed the world’s nations in this period, meanwhile, have simply been “subplots” to the “mother narrative” of “carbon-fuelled expansion”. With the accessible reserves of fossil fuels rapidly disappearing, however, the world’s economic elites are now leading a neo-colonial re-conquest, ransacking the “hidden corners of the planet” in order to “sustain our impossible proposition”.
The collapse of the west Antarctic ice sheet is now inevitable, and the so-called ‘socialist’ government of Ecuador has decided to allow Petroamazonas, with its “colourful record of destruction and spills”, to begin drilling for oil in “one of the most biodiverse places on the planet” – the Yasuni national park. The attraction of such a project is indeed immense, as the country’s rich oil deposits could help to reduce poverty in the country significantly (though temporarily). With everyone else in the world “drilling down to the inner circle of hell”, the government sees no reason not to do the same (opposition from the indigenous people living in the area can easily be ignored in political and media propaganda).
In the Old World of capitalism, meanwhile, the UK oil firm Soco is licking its lips at the prospect of drilling in the DRC’s Virunga National Park (the oldest in Africa), which is “one of the last strongholds of the mountain gorilla and the okapi, of chimpanzees and forest elephants”. Such expansion of commercial enterprises into untapped territories of natural wealth, however, is a trend currently plaguing ‘developing nations’. In Britain (and elsewhere), meanwhile, the discovery of billions of barrels of shale oil under national soil is yet another attractive possibility. The so-called ‘democratic’ government of the UK is currently hoping to “change the trespass laws to enable drilling without consent”, whilst “offering lavish bribes to local people”. And, if such blatant steps are taken in one of the world’s ‘oldest and most stable democracies’ to ensure growth, just imagine what companies and governments are willing to do in ‘less democratic’ nations!
New reserves of fossil fuels, Monbiot emphasises, do not end our “hunger for resources”, but sustain and even increase it. Nonetheless, with the world’s population increasing and companies seeking to sell citizens more and more unnecessary luxuries, “everywhere that contains something concentrated, unusual, [or] precious will be sought out and exploited”. The natural diversity and beauty of the world, meanwhile, will be “reduced to the same grey stubble”.
Economic and political elites try to convince us not to worry by assuring us that, “as processes become more efficient and gadgets are miniaturised”, we will use “fewer materials”. However, Monbiot affirms that “there is no sign that this is happening”. While “iron ore production has risen 180% in 10 years, … global paper consumption is at a record high level and it will continue to grow”. And, considering we are currently living in a digital age, it seems illogical to expect the hunger for commodities to reduce if “we won’t reduce even our consumption of paper”.
The super-rich, meanwhile, “set the pace for global consumption”, buying more extravagant yachts, bigger houses, and greater quantities of “rare woods, rare fish, and rare stones”. In their greed for such indulgences, they are focussed on ensuring that “ever more of the surface of the planet is used to extract, manufacture and store things we don’t need”.
Those who speak of efficiency as a solution, meanwhile, are also deluding themselves, according to Monbiot. “While growth continues”, he affirms, “efficiency solves nothing”. The fact is that the economic elites of the world have no desire to save the world in exchange for reducing their endless exploitation (and the growing profits that this provides). The “failure of a society built upon growth and its destruction of the Earth’s living systems”, he says, is an “inescapable” fact. With the economic elites controlling both the policies of ‘democratic’ political parties and the information shared in the media, however, this fact is “mentioned almost nowhere”.
Demanding the end of ‘sustained growth’, according to Monbiot, is not ideological dogmatism, but “basic arithmetic”. Yet it is treated by many citizens in the world as an “exotic and unpardonable distraction”. At the same time, the “impossible proposition by which we live” is seen as something “so sane and normal and unremarkable that it isn’t worthy of mention”.
While colonising space might help humanity to export its problems (in the absence of solutions), it is realistically a long way off. Self-destruction, however, is not. So, what options do we have?
While eco-socialist Green parties, scientists, and environmental activists do their best to change the world from “within the system” (or sometimes with actions that are officially ‘illegal’ in the case of activists), citizens of the world still lack the passion or awareness necessary to implement profound, radical change – whether the economic and political elites like it or not. The Zapatistas in Mexico, however, provide an example of how, in spite of government aggression, citizens can take change into their own hands. Building their own autonomous society – with culture, education, healthcare, justice, freedom, and respect for nature – they present a real alternative to the neoliberal and neocolonial quest for endless economic growth. Their example should be used to inspire conscious citizens throughout the world to create their own autonomous communities from below and to the left – whether their corporate governments like it or not.
George Monbiot’s article can be found at http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/27/if-we-cant-change-economic-system-our-number-is-up