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It is now imperative that we quickly find our way to a steady-state economy

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Richard Clark     Permalink
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Our current social order is no longer sustainable. Our economic system is based on a tragically flawed set of premises, namely that we can extract all we want from the environment, pump all the waste we want into it, and make most of our wealth, as a nation, by speculating financially. An oversimplification? Yes. But it refers to an important and dangerous trend which will here be laid out and explored.

We are taught to assume that our societies must forever continue to grow both in numbers of persons and amount of consumption. But this is a monstrous lie. Why so? Simply because the world is finite and we have already greatly exceeded the amount of resource consumption that is compatible with our continued avoidance of economic and ecological collapse. Explanation: This avoidance of economic and ecological collapse requires that the functioning of our society does not threaten the existence of the vast majority of the biota biota on which we are totally dependent. As things stand now, however, the way our political-economic system is arranged, and the consumption it promotes even requires -- has already triggered the sixth great extinction event, and is in the process of precipitating the economic and ecological collapse we had hoped to avoid.

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What is ironic about this is that we are one of the species that is now threatened in this sixth great extinction event. This is because our existence depends, as already stated, on the basic biotic arrangement that has existed for the last many million years, and we are destroying much of that biota and causing the rest of it to undergo major rearrangements. In short, our actions have set in motion slow but inexorable forces that will accelerate the degradation of the natural world on which we are so dependent.

That may well take many centuries to fully play out, but what will happen very much sooner is that we will loose our capacity to do the kind and amount of economic work that has been the hallmark of modern civilization, and upon which our civilization utterly depends.

Here's how it will happen: Our world, even the less developed nations, runs on fossil fuels and our available supply of fossil fuels is starting to decline. Oil is declining at an alarming rate and oil is the kingpin fossil energy source. Why? Because it takes diesel fuel to mine and transport coal. Hence, all fossil fuel energy sources will go into decline with the shortage of oil and diesel, even though there will still be lots of fossil fuels left in the ground.

And because of this, our current form of social organization, our forms of governance, our economic processes, and our approaches to education of the younger generations cannot continue for much longer. We are therefore on the verge of a kind of social and economic collapse that will probably come within the next decade.

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Several Keynesian economists, most notably Paul Krugman and Robert Reich, have called for more and massive spending on job creation to thereby put money into the pockets of people who will go out and buy more stuff. But think about this in terms of the already excessive consumption we have already seen to be leading to economic and ecological collapse. In the face of this potential collapse (from excessive consumption), how then can the so-called health of our economy be viewed, by these economists and just about everyone else, as being based on the growth of consumption?! "If we don't consume enough," their reasoning goes, "there won't be enough work for other people, to make the stuff (or services) that we want. Then there will be more people out of work, less spending, etc."

What kind of corner have we painted ourselves into here?

Do these economists really believe that the maximized growth scenario can go on forever, even as our resource base goes into rapid decline?

At the center of this conundrum is the way we define and relate work, jobs and access to basic goods and services. For example: If there's a shortage of work, but also a shortage of basic goods and services for all, yet also an ecological danger stemming from the consumption of too much of the superfluous, why not give anyone who wants it the opportunity to find decently compensated work in the production of just the basic goods and services they need? Why instead force them to work on the production of ye more, ever more, in the way of superfluous goods and services?! If they produced only basics, they could be paid not in dollars but in some kind of labor credits, on a special credit card, the value of which could be redeemed only by purchasing some of the basic goods and services that they and their millions of government-paid co-workers had helped bring into being. This would completely eliminate the by-now obscene requirement for the corporations of our society to produce ever more in the way of superfluous goods and services, one of the ostensible purposes of which is to try and generate the numbers of jobs we need for our growing army of the unemployed. (Five Americans now look for every available job. America lost many millions jobs as a result of the policies of President George W. Bush and his administration.

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Another reason for corporations producing so much in the way of superfluous goods and services is that American capitalism is driven by the need to grow profits to satisfy investors who are looking for the maximum return on investment. The average investor no longer buys stocks for the long haul. If a share price doesn't move upward soon enough, they move their investment money somewhere else. And of course Wall Street profit margins benefit from the churn of all this investment activity. In addition, this quest for short-term profit advantages forces companies to continually squeeze labor by reducing labor costs, and occasionally cut corners re: worker safety and environmental protection, and get creative in their accounting practices. .

In the old days, we used to think competition in the modern capitalistic economy was a good thing. It drove innovation in product development. It gave us more choices. And it helped drive prices down. But that was then. This is now. Today it's getting harder and harder to come up with true innovations in products that actually fill basic or fundamental needs. Why? Because today's capitalist economy is operating primarily in product areas where it is mainly filling wants (e.g. electronic gadgets like iPhones) rather than fundamental needs.

But even that realm, of superfluous product innovation, may have topped out of late. For now the only real innovation in the marketplace, except at a few companies like Apple, is in terms of creating bogus investment vehicles (CDOs and the like) that promise extraordinary gains. Yes there is some innovation in advertising, where the trick is to get people to think they need some glitzy gizmo, so that the producer can go on growing its sales and profits. On such wastefulness the growth and "success' of our economy depends?!

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Several years after receiving my M.A. in social science (interdisciplinary studies) I was an instructor at S.F. State University for a year, but then went back to designing automated machinery, and then tech writing, in Silicon Valley. I've (more...)

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