As I write this, the most serious economic crisis in 80 years is rolling across the planet. Only time will tell if we are now going into one of history’s U-turns or if it’s all just part of the normal boom-and-bust business cycle. And no one yet knows how badly humanity and the ecosphere will suffer as a result. We do know that financial concerns have shoved food shortages, public-health emergencies, and ecological disasters into the background. With fantastic fortunes at stake, the number-one priority of governments and businesses must be economic growth; those “green” initiatives announced not long ago with such fanfare will be deferred or forgotten.
Green optimists will continue to ply their trade. But top economic decision-makers acknowledge privately that the world economy cannot support the endless expansion of wealth demanded by the investing class and the necessities required by the world’s human population without irreversibly degrading the ecosystems on which we all depend. In that, the greedy mega-capitalists are much more in touch with reality than are earnest green optimists. Nevertheless, in the rush to restore their fortunes, they will be more than willing to trample human beings and the rest of nature.
I have cheered on efforts by environmental, peace, and justice activists in Asia who go against the grain, urging or even putting into effect policies that show respect for nature and promote sufficiency for all. That’s in contrast to the model of the traditional industrial powers, which translates to efficiency for the few and deficiency for everyone else. Government and business elites, East and West, are working on the assumption that the whole world will follow the same destructive road to wealth that the old industrial powers continue to travel. The only difference is that this time around, everyone’s favorite color is chlorophyll green. Early in 2008, entrepreneur Eric Janszen declared in Harper’s magazine that the boom that will follow the housing-bubble crash — an alternative energy bubble — had already been “branded.” His projection: the eventual creation of $20 trillion in fictitious, speculative wealth, “money that inevitably will be employed to increase share prices rather than to deliver ‘energy security.'” And like any bubble, it will be doomed from the start.
In September 2008, just as the first signs of global economic chaos were becoming apparent, Korean President Lee Myung-bak bought into the green bubble. He announced a series of government-led plans for “low carbon and green growth,” covering areas such as biofuels, solar cells, fuel cells, nuclear power, “clean” coal, “green” cars, LED lighting, bio-medicines, and software design. If the plan succeeds, we will see yet another example of the Jevons Paradox: energy efficiency in the service of economic expansion will lead to even greater energy consumption and carbon emissions. Old-fashioned, headlong industrial expansion is being painted green and hung with high-tech ornaments.
In pursuit of their overriding yet unattainable goal — perpetual growth — economists, corporate leaders, and governments will succeed in making this planet a very nasty place to live. If greenhouse-gas emissions are to be reduced to a level that will avert runaway global warming, economic activity will have to shrink, not grow. According to a mid-2008 analysis by economics professor Minqi Li of the University of Utah, the world economy must contract at a historically rapid rate — at an annual rate of about 1 to 3.4 percent between now and 2050 — if atmospheric carbon dioxide is to be held below 445 parts per million (ppm). That is the level at which we could run into a doomsday scenario in which warming could start feeding on itself in positive-feedback loops. Much deeper cuts are needed to get down to 350 ppm, at which the planet will remain in a familiar and comfortable condition.
The 1 to 3.4 percent economic reductions required just to reach the more modest goal of 445 ppm were computed by assuming a wide range of scenarios. That range in negative-growth estimates covers several energy scenarios going from dramatic to modest improvements in efficiency and alternative technologies. But in all scenarios, however rosy their assumptions, economic growth will have to be thrown into reverse or else. For some period of months or years — no one knows how long — the badly shaken world economy could indeed go through significant shrinkage. And recessions historically have brought reductions in carbon emissions. However, as this book shows, rapid climate change is only one of the myriad forces threatening what we call “the environment,” something better conceived as a collection of almost 7 billion environments, one for each human. They vary from lush and luxurious to nightmarish depending on where you live, who you are, and what resources you have at your disposal.
Because of that, everything depends on how the coming economic contraction is handled. The US economy declined by about 55 percent from 1929 through 1933, at the start of the Great Depression, with the well-known catastrophic outcomes. At the -2 percent annual rate of contraction required by Professor Li’s “medium-green” scenarios, economies would eventually shrink by an amount close to that Depression-era 55 percent, but over a period of more than 40 years, not four.
If economic activity is scaled down rationally, in a fair and humane way, requiring the biggest sacrifices from the most affluent, we could improve everyone’s environment. But as we watch economies contract chaotically while governments and industries cast about for ways to restore capital accumulation to the desired level, we can expect almost everyone’s world to deteriorate instead.
There is still time to turn things around, but the solution won’t come from those people and institutions that have managed to wreck both the global economy and the global ecology. A new way of thinking and acting will have to come from the bottom up, and from both hemispheres of this ailing planet. We should be ready; the hard times that lie ahead may offer the opening we’ve been looking for.
Stan Cox is a plant breeder and writer living in Salina, Kansas. This article is taken from the foreword to a Korean translation of his book Sick Planet: Corporate Food and Medicine, first published in March by Pluto Press, coming soon from HarperCollins-India and Nanjange Books, Republic of Korea.