Let us imagine that in 3030BC the total possessions of the people of Egypt filled just one cubic meter. Let us then propose that these possessions grew in amount by 4.5% a year. How big would that stash have been by the Battle of Actium in 30BC? This is the calculation performed by the investment banker Jeremy Grantham.
Go on, take a guess. The size of the pyramids? Ten times the size of the pyramids? All the sand in the Sahara? The Atlantic ocean? The volume of the planet? Perhaps even a little more?
The actual answer: 2.5 billion billion solar systems. Impossible you say? You doubt the abilities or the intellectual integrity of investment banker Grantham? Then do the math yourself. He's made no mistake. (Link).
And once you've accepted that fact, it should not take you long, pondering this outcome, to reach the paradoxical conclusion that in that particular kind of 'salvation' (i.e. continued economic growth, at 4.5% a year ), lies inevitable economic and societal collapse.
Therefore, to 'succeed' in this way is to destroy ourselves. And yet to fail at the tasks we've perversely set out for ourselves, is also to destroy ourselves, if only in a different way. (If we don't maintain a certain amount of production (of whatever), we can't create nearly enough jobs to keep sufficient numbers of people employed -- at least not the way the economy is currently arranged. Translation: Computers and automation are doing ever more of the work, so unless we reduce the length of the work day, work week, and/or work year, ever more people are going to fall into long term unemployment and poverty. The only alternative to this is steadily ramped-up consumption, and this, as we've shown, cannot end well!)
So this is the societal and economic bind we have inadvertently created. Ignore, if you will, climate change, biodiversity collapse, the depletion of water, soil, minerals, oil; for even if all these problems were miraculously to vanish, the mathematics of compound growth make continuance of this maximized growth system of ours impossible to sustain. The hyperconsumption, hyperproduction treadmill is in reality a death machine that, while it creates fabulous wealth for some, and considerable wealth for those who succeed in the increasingly difficult, mad scramble for a good education and a decent job, it keeps millions of the less-fortunate poor and sick, many (worldwide) without clean water and enough food. Only with continued warfare and periodic destruction of enormous amounts of wealth (and people), can we sustain this perversely sick system. But that way too will eventually destroy us.
Current economic growth is an artifact of the use of fossil fuels
Before large amounts of coal were extracted, every upswing in industrial production would be met with a downswing in agricultural production, due to the simple fact that the charcoal or horse power required by industry reduced the land available for growing food. So every prior industrial revolution collapsed, as growth could not be sustained. Then coal broke this cycle and enabled -- for a few hundred years more, at least -- the phenomenon we now naively call "sustained growth."
It was neither capitalism nor communism that made possible this progress, as well as the pathologies of our modern age (i.e. war, the unprecedented and damaging concentration of global wealth, environmental destruction). It was coal, followed by oil and gas that made this progress possible. This was, and still is (for the time being) a carbon-fueled expansion. Our ideologies are mere subplots. And now, as the most accessible reserves of coal, oil and gas have been exhausted, we must ransack the hidden corners of the planet, and take off the tops of mountains (thus ruining the valleys, creeks and rivers below) in order to sustain, for just a while longer, this mathematically impossible proposition of Ever More Economic Growth.
The easy-to-calculate trajectory of compound growth indicates that the scouring of the planet will eventually lead to collapse. As the volume of the global economy expands, then everywhere that contains something concentrated, unusual, precious will be sought out, exploited . . and ruined, its resources extracted and dispersed, as the world's diverse and differentiated marvels are destroyed. Visualize the poisoning and destruction of so much life in the Gulf of Mexico. Or the disaster at Fukushima, the eventual toll of which may well dwarf anything most of us now imagine. Or oil spills like that of the Exxon Valdez. Or the current die-off of so many species that some experts refer to it as the Sixth Great Extinction.
Some people try to resolve this quandary using the myth of dematerialization, i.e. the claim that as processes become more efficient and gadgets are miniaturized, we will use, in aggregate, ever fewer materials. Problem is, there is no sign that this is happening overall. Look at the lives of the super-rich, who set the pace for global consumption. Are their yachts getting smaller? Their houses? The quantity of their purchased artworks? Their purchase of rare woods, rare fish, rare stone, etc., etc., etc.? Those with the means, buy ever bigger houses and ever more houses, around the world if they can, in which to store the growing stash of stuff that they will in most cases, as workaholics, never have enough leisure time to much use. (It's a fact that the annual cost of mooring a yacht is much greater than the cost of renting one for as many days as the average owner actually uses or sails their yacht.) And so it is, by their (and our) accretions, that ever more of the surface of the planet is used to extract, manufacture and store things that we ultimately don't much need and, to an increasing extent, don't much have time to use.
As the philosopher Michael Rowan points out, the inevitabilities of compound growth mean that if last year's predicted global economic growth rate for 2014 (i.e. 3.1%) is sustained, then even if we were miraculously to reduce the consumption of raw materials by 90%, we would delay the inevitable collapse by just 75 years. In the long run, efficiency solves nothing, if economic growth is allowed to continue.
The inescapable failure of a society built upon economic growth and its inevitable destruction of the Earth's living systems are the two central and overwhelming facts of our time.
Yet they are mentioned almost nowhere in our corporate-owned and controlled mainstream media. They are the 21st Century's great taboo realities, and also the subjects guaranteed to alienate your friends and neighbors if you should make the mistake of talking about them. And so it is that we live as if trapped inside a Sunday supplement: obsessed with fame, fashion and the three dreary staples of middle class conversation: recipes, renovations and resorts. Even worse: the trials and tribulations of the beautiful, rich and famous. Anything but the topics that cry out for our attention, but which the large majority of us still cannot bear to face.
Statements of the bleeding obvious (as outlined above), which are the outcomes of basic arithmetic, are treated as exotic and unpardonable distractions from the pursuit of bourgeois happiness, while the insane proposition by which most of us live, i.e. continued economic growth and increasing consumption forever, is regarded as so sane and normal and unremarkable that it isn't worthy of discussion, challenge or even mention. And that's one good way to understand the depth of this problem: by the inability of most people (even those who are very well educated) to even discuss it or seriously consider it.