Philosophy for the End of Growth

“Lord Growth, by your grace, grant me, I pray thee the power to conceive in my mind and to execute that which I desire to do, the end which I would attain by thy help, O Mighty Growth, the one True God who livest and reignest forever and ever. Grant me power to attain more wealth, which I can use to reign over others in thy Name. Manifest before me so that I may accomplish my desired end. This I respectfully and humbly ask in Your Name, Lord Growth, may you deem me worthy, Father.”

The end of growth and the ensuing long decline, which is already well underway in overdeveloped societies, will punch an enormous hole in the collective consciousness of the West. It has not yet made its absence obvious to the well-to-do, who in some form or another still believe in the return of O Mighty Growth, and simply cannot imagine any other mode of operation than a relentless pursuit of ever larger numbers on a virtual spreadsheet.

Our entire financial and banking system is predicated on growth as a result: without it the only way to pay back loans would be to print money. In other words, inflating everything into oblivion — which is rarely considered among the most popular options. The other way, even less palatable for the masses, is to try and create a mini-recession via rising interest rates and thus force some debts to default… praying (hard) all the while that it will not spin out of control immediately. If this sounds like we are in 2007/8 again, you are not entirely mistaken… The ruling elite has now found itself in a deadlock, one that could only be resolved by the return of O Mighty Growth.

Given this context, as the saying goes, “it is now easier to imagine the end of the world, than the end of capitalism”. Thus we are awashed with end-of-the-world stories, most of them depicting the world as a barren wasteland, with unwashed survivors wondering among the smoking ruins — looking for food or busy fleeing enemies. People would be living ‘nasty, brutish and short’ lives, hiding in caves again, but this time made of concrete and steel.

My essay 2052, invokes this image for a reason: to show how the mindless pursuit of growth, together with the denial of overshoot and our material constraints on a finite planet causes far more damage than it ought to do... But it doesn’t have to be this way. Yes, the transition to a low-tech world won’t be a joyride and will bring about a large deal of suffering. However, the sooner we realize that upholding growth (or the current status quo for that matter) is impossible on the long run, the better we are positioned to weather the widening discontinuity between our past and present.

Using Alex Steffen’s definition: discontinuity describes what we experience in our human systems as a result of many interlocking planetary crises: “a watershed moment, one where past experience loses its value as a guide to decision-making about the future”. Taking his concept one step further, this is an equally excellent definition of what we are experiencing right now as a result of hitting planetary limits to growth. Price hikes. Supply shortages. A global energy crunch. In other words: discontinuity all over the place. Where old tactics stop yielding results, no matter how hard they are tried.

‘What limits?! There are no limits to human ingenuity!’— comes the usual retort. This is where we have to pause a little and take a deeper look. We have created a set of planetary scale crises (pollution, climate change, ecological collapse — just to name a few) unprecedented in human history. There is no place left to hide from our problems. No second hemisphere (i.e.: the Americas) to plunder for resources. No more first peoples to kick out from their lands or to enslave. We have outgrown our pale blue Petri-dish — by quite a substantial margin. We are now in a permanent state of overshoot, something only temporarily experienced by our ancestors. We have already crossed the limits.

A nice little Petri-dish — too bad that now it’s full of humans. Image source: Pixabay

Human Exceptionalism — as Tom Murphy wrote in his brilliant essay— is a plausible explanation to “why our peril is so hard to grasp”. We tend to place our species into the center of our stories: all life and all of Earth’s bounty is here to support us, the “prime” apes of this blue orb floating in an otherwise endless space. We are placing humanity at the pinnacle of all natural forces, capable to control any situation. Of course we have to overcome all obstacles since we are destined to succeed! And the only way to succeed — of course — is through more technology.

This is where our current economic discontinuity stems from. We still like to think that we are the ruling force on this planet, and that we can get a hold of any resource we desire by throwing more technology (thus higher energy use) and more money at it. Back in the real world however the growth in net energy supply (1) has quietly slipped out from under our feet, due to a perfectly natural cause: the ongoing depletion of once rich reserves.

This has left us with an ever increasing pollution and debt problem: we had to invest in digging and drilling (thus polluting) more and more every year to replace lost resources… Just to stay in place, let alone to grow. Let’s face it: contrary to popular economic myths, we have failed to decouple real material growth (including growth in “renewables”) from fossil fuel use, and with a looming peak in their extraction (2), we face a real prospect of a long decline ahead (3).

All this might sound ‘pessimistic’ to some, but instead of dressing up natural processes in human emotions, and thus trying to make them look like opinions, I propose another approach. Rather than denying their existence, let’s accept natural phenomena as they are: natural phenomena. Viewed from this perspective, the exact timing of peak oil, gas or any other resource becomes irrelevant. It really doesn’t matter on precisely what date production will start to decline, when we know — and accept — that it will go away sooner or later. From this point of view — and especially from the perspective of a looming planetary crisis with abrupt climate change, ecological collapse, chemical pollution and the rest — praying for more growth is not that different from praying for our hastened demise.

Only after accepting that we are not the biggest force of the universe can we begin to act effectively and meaningfully. Instead of trying to stop these hundred ton rocks hurling in our way, we could — at least in theory — step aside. Instead of trying to deny depletion and double down on extraction, we could start rationing whatever is left of Earth’s resources. Plan ahead. Make wise decisions based on a solid understanding of science: what to build, and what not. Instead of letting capitalism ruining our lives, we could work on separating wealth from political power. Instead of hoping that someone will restore growth, we could stop aspiring fascists to grab power and claim rights over other people’s resources. Instead of waiting for someone to come up with fusion, we could start learning long forgotten skills on how to live with less, or even without electricity or gasoline. Why not starting to turn an increasing amount of land into a permaculture? How about building community resilience? Instead of trying to stop climate change — which is impossible in an industrial economy — we could be making wise choices together which places to abandon and where to move people before the next crisis hits.

Noticed how otherworldly these suggestions seem to be? How they cannot possibly be fit into our present narratives? How none of them is about more, but in fact less? How decentralized systems would emerge as a result? How they threaten the current political status quo…?

As Noam Chomsky told once (4):

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum — even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”

In our case, the debate about the future of energy (and eventually the future of our civilization) is strictly limited to using a mix of renewables, some old technologies labelled “green” and some not yet invented miracles. The basic tenets of our time remain unquestionable however: ‘we must maintain high-energy modernity no matter what and while it’s true that fossil fuels are polluting and will deplete in the future, we will switch to other technologies… and that will solve everything’ [fingers crossed].

What is considered renewable or green, is up to a lively debate, (see the case with nuclear and gas in Europe). What cannot be discussed outside marginalized groups however, is what do we need all this energy for? Is growth really that good, or even possible so late in the game? Are these resources really as clean — beyond being climate friendly and thus unquestionably “sustainable”— as they are touted? Is it even physically possible to make the change, without destroying the rest of life on Earth? Why do we need them in the first place, if they cannot be replaced, rebuild, recycled later? Is this energy transition really the “problem”, or is it a mere symptom of overshoot… the overall unsustainability of our demands on the planet?

These are the questions we need to ask, when thinking about our predicament. We are in a time of great discontinuity — let’s use it to experiment with new ways of thinking, instead of falling into narrative traps designed to keep us passive and obedient.

Until next time,

B

Notes:

(1) Net energy is what remains after energy extraction and conversion. It is the oil what remains after filling up the tanks of trucks, drilling rigs, pump jacks and the like, or the electricity what is available to do work, after powering all the mining, smelting, manufacturing and transportation activities needed to install those panels and turbines. This article is a very good place to start, if you would like to understand what impact net energy has on the economy.

(2) Oil supply has stopped growing in 2018, and has started to fall throughout 2019 — already one year before the pandemic has hit the streets. Now, two years after the first lock-down induced slump oil still struggles to climb back to where it was, and will most probably taper off a little below 2019 levels in the coming year or two due to perfectly natural causes: the depletion of rich, easy to extract reserves. Natural gas is now experiencing the same expansion vs depletion problem, and soon after oil, its availability also can be expected to decline. This has left us with burning more coal than ever in human history, causing to CO2 emissions to rise again (while bringing closer the depletion of the black rock too).

(3) One might say: oh, we are far away from that, but this is what see with fracking in the US, outside the Permian: there isn’t much space left to drill. The Permian itself is approximately 250 miles wide and 300 miles long, i.e.: not infinite and it is only a matter of time (a couple of years maybe) till we ‘enjoy’ a growing production there. For this very simple reason more than 80% of the countries around the world are now already experiencing a steady decline in oil production. All three big producers (USA, Russia, Saudi Arabia) are struggling to reach pre-pandemic levels of production, and there is a growing body of evidence, that none of them will be able surpass 2019 levels sustainably and thus face the same fate as the rest of the nations around the world.

(4) A big shot out to Caitlin Johnston for this quote, and for putting it into context.

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