Practically every Democratic and Republican candidate will tell us economic growth is the only possible path to prosperity, and it’s at the top of their list of priorities. For that matter, there are a number of Green candidates who will say much the same thing. Perhaps, if they actually believe it to be true, then technically it’s not bull$#!+. It’s still wrong.
Economic growth was the path to prosperity as recently as the 1960s. Since then, it’s been working less and less well. The value of real wages went flat in the 1970s, and was erratically flat for decades. More recently, the trend in real wages looks more like decline than flat, in spite of claims of economic recovery since the financial crisis of 2008. All the reporting of inequality shows that benefits of growth have gone to the top 1-10%, with the burdens of decreasing wealth being carried by the bottom 90-99%. Some studies draw the line for benefits at 1% 2% or 5%, but 1-10% is the range of results.
There are many sophisticated economic theories as to why this has happened, but we don’t need to know much about economics to understand the basic situation. Climate change, ocean acidification, radioactive contamination and other industrial pollution have consequences, such as the current “sixth extinction” that is happening daily.
In economic theory, when a voluntary transaction between two parties affects a third party, producing some sort of harm to an innocent bystander, the damaging byproduct of the transaction is considered an “externality.” The emissions and pollutants that industry dumps into air, water and land are deemed externalities. So many externalities have been allowed for so long that all together they are destroying the web of life everywhere on the earth. There’s no such thing as an economy on a dead planet.
The oxygen we breathe and the food we eat is created by other living beings with which we share the planet. That’s what the web of life does for us. If the other living beings are thriving, then we can be thrive. If they are going extinct, then we also are headed for extinction. There are a lot of innocent third parties being harmed by our industrial economy. We are also being harmed. We are not innocent third parties here. We are the guilty first and second parties.
That’s not to say that there are no individually innocent human beings. Children who are powerless to stop industrial damage are innocent. Adults who understand what’s happening and who do have the power to stop it – that’s us – do not get off so easily. There may be some excuses, but there’s no escaping the consequences. All of the things that were free gifts to our economy – soil, clean water, minerals, fish in the sea, passenger pigeons, buffalo – are at best harder and more expensive to find, and this declining environment means directly declining real wages, no matter what is done with the money supply.
Our industrial economy could be pictured as an unhealthy, obese person. Most of the health problems are self-inflicted by a combination of over-eating and under-exercising. Getting healthy will require developing lean muscle mass and losing 100 pounds or more of fat. No sane person would say that growth, simple indiscriminate growth, is the path to restored health.
It’s exactly that simple and indiscriminate recommendation of economic growth that “mainstream” candidates and many of their opponents say is the path to prosperity. Green Party candidates ought to be more discriminating.
Clean, renewable energy – mostly wind and solar – is one part of the economy that should be grown as rapidly as possible. Organic farming (which might be called permaculture or many other names) is another. By whatever name, farming that eliminates pesticides, herbicides, genetically modified plants and animals and the consumption of fossil fuels while building up the soil can provide lots of work whether it’s done in the cities or in the countryside. These are the major components of the lean muscle mass that should be developed.
Minimizing fossil and nuclear fuels with the long-term goal of phasing them out entirely is the part where it’s difficult to shed the fat. This part won’t be easy and it will not happen suddenly. It will require commitment, effort and sacrifice. If the smiles of the contestants who have survived “The Biggest Loser” are an indication, it should be worth the effort.
Now, let’s not push the analogy too far. We’re talking about transforming the society, not about one person losing weight. The essential part of getting from the wasteful, damaging economy to the goal of an equitable and life-supporting economy is to ensure that displaced workers do not become discarded workers in the process.
That means we have to start by ensuring that nobody in this society is discarded into a life of poverty, illiteracy and homelessness. yes, social justice is intimately connected to creating an economy that does not push us toward extinction. Transforming this economy, with all of its jobs in car production, construction, tourism and all the other activities that burn so much energy not provided by sunlight, into one where these jobs are eliminated will never happen if the people holding those jobs understand they will be abandoned.
None of this program is an easy sell for Green candidates: “Business as usual is not just failing. It’s killing us slowly. We can help each other to live peacefully in this world, but it will take a lot of work and there is lots of damage to be repaired.” It’s not a simple, catchy slogan. We can only hope enough people have learned where simple, catchy slogans lead, and they are not willing to go there. When enough people see what’s needed, democracy works.