“If we can’t change our economic system, our number’s up.”

mother narrative

Can growth continue indefinitely? Hm. Let’s think about what compound growth really means.

‘Let us imagine that in 3030BC the total possessions of the people of Egypt filled one cubic metre. Let us propose that these possessions grew 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 (not of Downton Abbey-fame) Go on, take a guess. Ten times the size of the pyramids? All the sand in the Sahara? The Atlantic ocean? The volume of the planet? A little more?’

Please, please, please read this article by journalist and environmental activist George Monbiot to find out (the above paragraph is shamelessly plagiarized from the article, in fact).

Or read my ridiculously concise summary. Here it is.

1) If we go on like this the planet is f…..

2) If we f… up the planet, we’re f….., too.

3) In other words: ‘If we can’t change our economic system, our number’s up.’

4) ‘The mother narrative to all this is carbon-fuelled expansion: Our ideologies are mere subplots.’ (cf. here)

5) Do the maths yourselves or read this article by investment banker Jeremy Grantham. It’s not very CSR, I promise.

6) Did you click the article? No? Why not? No interest? Bit embarrassed maybe? Not a topic for polite conversation?

7) Exactly the point Monbiot makes. We’re destroying the planet’s biosphere. It’s blindingly obvious to everyone who gives it a single, not particularly clever thought. But the one thing that cannot be sorted out later is the great taboo:

The inescapable failure of a society built upon growth and its destruction of the Earth’s living systems are the overwhelming facts of our existence. As a result, they are mentioned almost nowhere. They are the 21st century’s great taboo, the subjects guaranteed to alienate your friends and neighbours. 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. Anything but the topic that demands our attention.

Statements of the bleeding obvious, the outcomes of basic arithmetic, are treated as exotic and unpardonable distractions, while the impossible proposition by which we live is regarded as so sane and normal and unremarkable that it isn’t worthy of mention. That’s how you measure the depth of this problem: by our inability even to discuss it. (Monbiot 2014, my italics/bold)

Here’s an afterthought from the essay by Graham mentioned before. For the cornucopians who trust that super-smart technology will save our bacon. I hope it will, sure. But I think it would be super-smart to act as if it won’t in the meanwhile, just to be safe. Let’s just not forget we believe something others believed before: that we’re the chosen ones. Graham, super-smart himself, writes:

I was once invited to a monthly discussion held by a very diverse, very smart group, at which it slowly dawned on my jet-lagged brain that I was expected to contribute. So finally, in desperation, I gave my first-ever “running out of everything” harangue (off topic as usual). Not one solitary soul agreed. What they did agree on was that the human mind is – unlike resources – infinite and, consequently, the intellectual cavalry would always ride to the rescue. I was too tired to argue that the infinite brains present in Mayan civilization after Mayan civilization could not stop them from imploding as weather (mainly) moved against them. Many other civilizations, despite being armed with the same brains as we have, bit the dust or just faded away after the misuse of their resources.This faith in the human brain is just human exceptionalism and is not justified either by our past disasters, the accumulated damage we have done to the planet, or the frozen-in-the-headlights response we are showing right now in the face of the distant locomotive quite rapidly approaching and, thoughtfully enough, whistling loudly. (Graham 2011)

Let’s get our act together and outta that Sunday supplement.

Sunday supplements is where the truth lies.

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