What is wrong, and why we can’t seem to fix it

Throughout most of my life I have been living under conservative governments, and the nicest way I can find to describe political conservatism is to say that it embodies the popular phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. However, as we all know there are many things wrong at present, and they need fixing. No amount of ignoring them will make them go away. This blog is about those awkward facts of world that won’t go away and which political conservatism won’t make go away either.

What I’m going to aim to do is post a blog once a week, on a Friday, so you can digest it over the weekend. The next week’s blog will either be the next in my series, or a discussion of issues that have arisen from the comments.

I’m going to have a very strict comments policy, comment will only be accepted if they are intelligent and polite contributions to discussion around the topic of the post. Everything else will be moderated.

If you find a blog here sympathetic, you might consider reading the blogs from the beginning, as they are supposed to be a more or less continuous argument.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Why the argument that we should simply get as rich as we can and to hell with the consequences is flawed

In this post I want to deal with one beguiling argument that is usually trotted out in discussions of what to do about global warming, ecological decline &c.

(For a full treatment of the argument I refer to works such as Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves).

This argument states that:

  1. We can’t predict the future, we can’t be sure that actions we take now will have the consequences we intended in the future.
  2. Therefore, we shouldn’t worry about global warming or environmental protection, instead we should maximize our wealth in this generation and our heirs will therefore be better placed to deal with any problems that occur in the future.

The first point is plausible, at any point some stochastic event could occur which would complete devastate the planet, such as a large meteorite swinging past the Sun without being detected and, coming out of the Sun, slamming into the Earth. We would have a few hours warning of this, and if large enough the meteorite could destroy all life on Earth.

Or in another example, we could make all the changes I have been discussing in these blogs (though I think that the actual sacrifices involved would not be overwhelming), only for some development a couple of centuries down the track to completely negate them. For example we might have a global society with a sustainable population which was suddenly afflicted by a religious cult that reinvented nuclear weapons and started using them.

However, for the most part the laws of physics and the laws of ecology can allow us to predict pretty accurately what is going to happen. The laws of physics tells us that we are unlikely to discover any technology that provides us with abundant energy (the unlimited energy that powers all societies in science fiction, such as the Dilithium crystals in Star Trek), and the laws of ecology tell us that if we keep on degrading the planet’s ecological resources then our population will drop to a much lower level.

The second point of this argument ignores the fact that ‘wealth’ is crucially dependent on the ecological resources of the planet. It doesn’t matter how ‘wealthy’ a future society is if global warming is transforming its croplands into desert and its groundwater is disappearing. In such cases people would find that their wealth rapidly vanishing.

Indeed there is a sense in which wealth, other than ecological well-being, is delusive. A little fact I jotted down some time ago is that global financial transactions were 75 times global GDP in 2007 (ie before the GEC), up from 15 times in 1990. In other words wealth measured in stocks and shares is essentially overinflated. But, worse still, as I have argued before in these blogs, GDP is itself a delusive measure of wealth, since it fails to include many aspects of environmental degradation, and so overstates the wealth of a nation.

Any sort of wealth is crucially dependent on the social assumptions and support that it requires to maintain it. If I was an ancient Mayan merchant I would probably be extremely wealthy if I had a stock of Quetzal feathers, nowadays, I would (I hope) simply be under arrest for dealing with feathers from an endangered species. A Roman aristocrat of the C2 on his Gaulish estates was extremely wealthy and secure, protected by the Roman army. His descendant of two centuries later was a sitting duck as the barbarians flooded the frontier and his estates were taken away by the Germanic chieftains. Rich people living in gated estates in present day California are very secure in their lifestyles, and will be until the moment that the security guards fail to show up for work and the power for the electric fence goes down, at which point they will be easy targets for criminal gangs.

This argument can be extended from personal wealth and possessions to infrastructure. At the moment in Australia we are building a National Broadband Network (which I happen to think is a good idea). Once the Network is completed then most houses and businesses in Australia will have access to high-speed internet. However, if it turns out in the future that we cease to be able to produce microchips for electronic devices, then instead of a piece of infrastructure supporting and enhancing continued economic activity, all we will have a whole lot of optical fibre cables sitting uselessly in the ground.

Once the effects of global warming, peak oil and peak soil reach a certain point, then wealth in the conventional sense of personal monetary wealth and possessions and infrastructure loses all value. To call for the same sort of wealth creation that has sustained modernity for the last 2½ centuries is also to fail to recognise that this wealth creation is overrunning the capacity of the planet to absorb it.

We don’t know what the future holds, beyond knowing what we know about the laws of physics and ecology. However the view we have been discussing, the one that says we should simply get as rich as we can and to hell with the consequences and maintains that we should put the next generation in the best possible financial position we can, is incorrect—the best possible position we can put the next generation in is one where the work of undoing the damage that false wealth-creation in modernity has inflicted has already begun.

If we do this, then we have done our duty by posterity and we have the chance to be remembered as the generation of ecological saviours. If, on the other hand we continue to produce traditional ‘wealth’ in the destructive fashion it has been produced for the past few centuries, then we will either be deservedly forgotten, or deservedly remembered as the generation that just carried on the mistakes of the past despite having evidence that could have shown us a better way.

Next Week: Good Religion

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