Good Thing We're Going to Have to Live with Less Stuff -- We'll Stay Alive on Earth for Longer That Way

As the most serious economic crisis in 80 years rolls across the planet, financial panic has 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 have already been deferred or forgotten.

We Americans are now told that because our economy has been kept afloat for so long on borrowed money and borrowed time, "our" wealth and "our" jobs have gone to the other side of the globe, with India and China typically the scapegoats. We shouldn't cut our carbon emissions, we're told, until India and China cut back. If our food crops end up in landfills or petrol tanks, we're told, that doesn't affect hungry people; rather, eating habits in the Eastern Hemisphere are the real key to the food crisis. (For example, at the height of the early-2008 global food shortages, President George W. Bush said of India, "Their middle class is larger than our entire population. And when you start getting wealth, you start demanding better nutrition and better food. And so demand is high, and that causes the price to go up.")

In all such pronouncements, the message is consistent: "We in the West have gotten what we want. Now, if the rest of you try to do the same, you'll spoil things for everyone." Where I live, there appears to be little awareness of the grotesquely contorted positions that such arguments require their proponents to assume. I lived in India in the early 1980s and the late 1990s, married into an Indian family, and have returned for months at a time in recent years. I have cheered on those Indian citizens who are going against the grain, urging respect for nature and sufficiency for all, and showing how both can be achieved. That's in contrast to the model of the traditional industrial powers, which translates to efficiency for the few and deficiency for everyone else. But government and business elites, both East and West, continue working on the assumption that India, China, Brazil, and other emerging powers will follow the same destructive road to wealth that Europe, Japan, and America continue to travel.

Too much more of that lopsided growth will make 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 recent analysis by Minqi Li, economics professor at the University of Utah, the world economy must contract at a historically rapid clip -- 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 nightmare scenario in which warming could start feeding on itself in positive-feedback loops and lead to who knows what. 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 a range of scenarios going from dramatic to modest improvements in energy efficiency and alternative technologies. But in all scenarios, however rosy their assumptions, economic growth will have to be thrown into reverse or else. Everything depends on how that economic contraction is handled.

The US economy declined by about 55 percent in just four years 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 all live in a better, cleaner world. But when recession-plagued economies contract chaotically, prompting governments and industries to cast about for new ways to restore rapid capital accumulation, almost everyone's environment deteriorates.

There is still time to cure the malignant economic growth that we've unleashed, 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'd should be ready; the unsettled times that lie ahead may offer the opening we've been looking for.


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