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The Ecological Crisis of Capitalism: Why Humanity Will Come to Prosperity Only by Abandoning Economic Growth
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The Ecological Crisis of Capitalism: Why Humanity Will Come to Prosperity Only by Abandoning Economic Growth

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CALIFORNIA - February 13, 2019

If humanity suddenly disappears, the Earth will turn into an ecological utopia. After 500 years, the cities will lie in ruins and become camouflaged by grasses. The fields will be covered with forests and wild plants. Sea reefs and corals will be restored. Boars, hedgehogs, lynxes, bison, beavers and deer will walk across Europe. Bronze statues, plastic bottles, smartphone boards and an increased amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will be the longest-remaining evidence that people were ever there.

The question of what will happen if humanity remains on Earth is much more complex.

Environmentalists and climate experts say that today people need 1.5 Earths to maintain current consumption standards. And if developing countries rise to the level of the United States, people will need 3-4 planets.

In 2015, 96 governments signed the Paris Agreement, which aims to keep the global average temperature rising at 1.5–2° C. If the Earth's temperature rises by more than two degrees, it will lead to catastrophic consequences: cities flooding, drought, tsunami, famine and mass migrations throughout the world. To prevent this, it is necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels in the coming decades.

The Ecological Crisis is a Crisis of Capitalism

People can do without destroying humanity. According to Ralph Fux and other supporters of Green Capitalism, people don't even need to consume fewer resources. The problem is not in consumption but in the production mode.

Ants don't create environmental problems, although they are many times greater in biomass than humanity and consume as many calories as would be enough for 30 billion people.

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Problems arise when the natural substances cycle is disrupted. It took millions of years for the earth to accumulate the oil reserves that we burned in just a few decades. If people learn how to recycle waste and get energy from the sun, water and wind, human civilization will not only survive but will come to prosperity.

Techno-optimists believe that in the future people will learn how to capture excess carbon from the air and to degrade plastic using bacteria, eat healthy GMO food, drive electric cars and to fly on sustainable jet fuel. People will be able to break the link between the growth of production and the growth of greenhouse gas emissions, which led the planet to an environmental crisis. And then when the earth no longer has enough resources, humanity will colonize Mars and produce valuable metals from asteroids.

Others believe that new technologies alone will not help people -- large-scale social changes are needed.

According to World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern, climate change should be considered "the greatest example of market failure."

The cause of the climate crisis is not the carbon level but capitalism writes Naomi Klein in his fourth book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. The market economy is based on endless growth, and the possibilities of our planet are limited.

Suddenly it turned out that Adam Smith was not quite right: Individual defects don't lead to social virtues, but to environmental disaster.

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To survive, people need a fundamental change in social institutions and values, as many modern ecologists, activists and social theorists believe, and this opinion is gradually becoming mainstream. Global warming not only caused the melting of glaciers but also led to the emergence of a host of new projects to rebuild social relations.

Are There Limits to Economic Growth?

In 1972, the famous report "Limits of Growth" was published, which is still debated today. The authors built a computer model of economic and environmental development and concluded that if people do nothing to move to a more reasonable consumption of resources, humanity is waiting for an environmental disaster by 2070. The population will grow and produce more and more goods, which will eventually lead to the depletion of the earth's resources, rising temperatures and the total pollution of the planet.

In 2014, scientist Graham Turner of the University of Melbourne checked the report's predictions and found that overall they were coming true.

The desire to produce more and more material goods cannot continue without consequences. The economist Richard Heinberg called it "the new economic reality." The main problem of mankind for the first time is not the recession but the continued growth of the economy. Even if developed countries go to renewable energy in the next 20-40 years, it will require so many resources that the economies of these countries will not be able to grow further.

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People will have to choose between economic growth and the preservation of civilization.

In recent years, in Europe and the United States, there are activists and theorists movements who advocate a revision of the foundations of the existing economic system. Unlike supporters of "Green Capitalism,” they don't believe that the situation can be changed with the help of new technologies. The market system needs constant growth: Recession means unemployment, lower wages and social guarantees for it. Proponents of new environmental movements believe it’s necessary to abandon the installation of growth and productivity.

As one of the main ideologists of the degrowth movement Serge Latouche writes, "To believe in the infinity of economic growth, that is, to believe in the infinity of earthly resources can either a fool or an economist. The trouble is that now we are all economists."

But what will happen to society in this new economic reality? Probably nothing good. There are a lot of apocalyptic scenarios. Small groups are fighting for resources among the scorched landscapes in the spirit of Mad Max. The rich take refuge on remote Islands and in underground shelters, and the rest is a fierce struggle for existence. The planet is slowly being roasted by the sun. Oceans turn into a salty broth.

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Many scientists and futurists draw a much more pastoral picture. In their opinion, humanity will return to the local economy, built on natural resources. Technologies and global trade networks will exist and develop but without the profit installation. People will work less and start spending more time on communication, creativity, and self-development. Perhaps humanity will be happier than in the era of affordable hydrocarbons.

The Amount of Gross Product is Not Equal to the Amount of Happiness

It has long been known that GDP is not the best indicator of economic well-being. When someone gets into a car accident, the economy grows. When people go to jail, the economy grows. When someone steals a car and resells it, the economy grows. And when someone takes care of elderly relatives or engages in charity, GDP remains at the same level.

International organizations, including the UN, are gradually moving to new ways of measuring human well-being. In 2006, the British New Economics Foundation developed the Happy Planet Index (HPI).

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The indicator reflects life expectancy, psychological well-being and the state of the environment. In 2009, the first place in the index was taken by Costa Rica, the United States was in 114th place, and Russia in 108th, according to the UN 2018 report, and the happiest countries were Finland, Norway and Denmark.

Degrowth supporters argue that human prosperity doesn't require constant economic growth. In theory, growth is necessary to create new jobs, pay off debts and ensure the well-being of the poor. It is necessary not just to abandon growth, but to restructure the economy so that all these goals can be achieved without pollution and a depletion of resources.

To do this, activists propose to rebuild society on the principles of joint consumption and the priority of human relations over material well-being.

One of the main theorists of this direction Giorgos Kallis suggests that the main producers of goods in the new economy should be cooperatives and non-profit organizations. Production will move to the local level. Everyone will be provided with an unconditional basic income and a number of the most necessary public services. Production for profit will take a secondary place. There will be a revival of community and craft organization of labor.

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The anti-growth movement has few followers so far, and they are mainly concentrated in southern Europe, in Spain, Greece and Italy. Although its main settings sound quite radical, they are already reflected in the intellectual mainstream.

In September 2018, 238 scientists and politicians wrote an open letter to the European Union with a proposal to abandon economic growth in favor of stability and environmental welfare.

To do this, scientists propose to introduce restrictions on resources consumption, to establish progressive taxation and gradually reduce the number of working hours.

In the current world political context, how realistic is that? One thing is for sure: No major political party is yet ready to make its slogan a rejection of economic growth.

Ambiguous Utopia

In 1974, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote the science fiction novel The Dispossessed with the original subtitle "An Ambiguous Utopia." In contrast to the mythical country with milk rivers and jelly banks, the planet Anarres has no material abundance -- its inhabitants are quite poor. Dust and rocks everywhere. Every few years, everyone goes to public works to extract minerals in the mines or to green the desert. But, despite all this, Anarres’ inhabitants are happy with their lives.

Le Guin shows that well-being can also be achieved in conditions of limited material resources. Anarres has many problems of its own: conservatism, rejection of new ideas, and the censure of all those who break out of the system. But this society doesn't suffer from the shortcomings of the neighboring capitalist Urras--inequality, loneliness, and overconsumption.

To discover a society similar to Anarres, it is not necessary to go to fictional planets. As anthropologist Marshall Sahlins has shown with his theory of original affluent society, many primitive societies were societies of plenty not because they had many goods and resources, but because there was no shortage of them.

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There are two ways to achieve wealth: to have much and to wish little. For many thousands of years people chose the second way, only recently moving to the first.

Primitive societies may have been happier and fairer, but no one wants to return to them today (except for a few primitivists like John Zerzan). Degrowth movement supporters don't say that we need to return to the primitive system. They say people need to move forward, but they don't have to do how they do it now. It will not be easy to abandon the consumer market economy, and no one knows how to do it. But people hardly have any alternative.

Ecologist and political scientist Karen Liftin of the University of Washington believes that society can learn a lot from modern ecovillages--communities arranged according to the principles of sustainable development: to consume as few resources as possible and recycle as much waste as possible. Many eco-settlements use the latest technologies of energy production and food cultivation. Eco-settlements exist not only in the wilderness but also in cities, for example, in Los Angeles and German Freiburg.

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Eco-settlements give people the experience of collective life, which is a kind of return to an anarchic commune at a new technological level.

Karen Liftin considers them life experiments in which new forms of social relations are developed. But she admits that all of humanity will not be able, and will not want to live in such communities. There are not so many fans to grow tomatoes in the world, no matter how environmentally friendly they may be.

Even the most reasonable and scientifically based program to reduce emissions of CO₂ in the atmosphere not always associated with new technologies. American ecologist Paul Hocken brought together an international team of 70 scientists to make a list of working solutions to the emerging environmental crisis. In the top of this list are new refrigerants for air conditioners (one of the main reasons for the destruction of the ozone layer), wind turbines and reduction of wood blanks. There is also an education for girls in developing countries. It is estimated that this will help reduce population growth by 1.1 billion by 2050.

The environmental crisis will affect social relations, whether we like it or not. And it is not a very favorable situation for the world.

If today the world suddenly ran out of oil, which environmentalists dream about, oil producing countries would lose half their budget. Fortunately, many still have cottages. If the world economy still collapses, people will have a place to practice new methods of crop production.

Among environmentalists there is a popular meme: "How deep is your ecology?" The first, the most superficial level of environmental belief: "We must take care of the planet and protect it for future generations." Last, the most profound: "Slow destruction is too easy of a way out for mankind. A terrible, imminent death will be the only fair solution."

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There are still alternatives to this solution. The problem is that it is very difficult for people to take seriously such big and abstract issues like global warming.

As sociologists’ studies show, awareness of climate change doesn't increase but reduces readiness for action. The safety of nuclear power plants is of the least concern to those who live right next to them.

Sacrificing something here and now for long-term consequences in the future is something our brains are ill-equipped to do.

If tomorrow it became known that North Korea was throwing dangerous chemicals into the air that could lead to human destruction, the world community would immediately take all necessary measures.

But the project called Global Climate Change involves all people. It is impossible to find the culprits here, and the solutions cannot be simple.

Author: USA Really