THEImagine that in 3030 BC. J. – C. the totality of the possessions of the Egyptian people occupied a cubic meter. Suggest that these possessions increase by 4.5% per year. How big would this reserve have been during the Battle of Actium in 30 BC? That’s the calculation made by investment banker Jeremy Grantham.
Come on, guess. Ten times the size of the pyramids? All the sand of the Sahara? The Atlantic Ocean? The volume of the planet? A bit more? That’s 2.5 billion billion solar systems. It does not take you long, reflecting on this outcome, to reach the paradoxical position that salvation lies in collapse.
To succeed is to destroy oneself. To fail is to destroy yourself. This is the bond that we have created. Ignore if you must climate change, collapsing biodiversity, depletion of water, soil, minerals, oil; even though all of these problems have miraculously disappeared, the mathematics of compound growth makes continuity impossible.
Economic growth is an artefact of the use of fossil fuels. Before large amounts of charcoal were mined, every increase in industrial production would collide with a decline in agricultural production, as charcoal or the power required for industry reduced the land available for food crops. All previous industrial revolutions collapsed because growth could not be sustained. But coal broke this cycle and allowed – for a few hundred years – what is now called sustained growth.
It is neither capitalism nor communism that made possible the progress and pathologies (total war, unprecedented concentration of world wealth, planetary destruction) of the modern era. It was coal, followed by oil and gas. The metatrend, the mother story, is carbon-fueled expansion. Our ideologies are just side plots. Now, with the accessible reserves exhausted, we must trash the hidden corners of the planet to support our impossible proposition.
On Friday, days after scientists announced that the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet was now inevitable, the Ecuadorian government decided to allow oil drilling in the heart of Yasuni National Park. He had made an offer to other governments that if they gave him half the value of the oil in that part of the park, he would leave the substance in the ground. You could see this as blackmail or fair trade. Ecuador is poor, its oil fields are rich. Why does the government think it should leave them untouched without compensation when everyone else sinks into the inner circle of hell? He asked for $ 3.6 billion and received $ 13 million. The result is that Petroamazonas, a company with a colorful track record of destruction and dumping, will now enter one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, in which a hectare of rainforest contains more species than it does. there are none on the whole of the northern continent. America.
British oil company Soco now hopes to enter Africa’s oldest national park, the Virunga, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; one of the last strongholds of mountain gorilla and okapi, chimpanzees and forest elephants. In Britain, where we have just identified a potential of 4.4 billion barrels of shale oil in the south-east, the government fantasizes about transforming the leafy suburbs into a new Niger Delta. To that end, he amends trespassing laws to allow drilling without consent and offer lavish bribes to locals. These new reservations do not solve anything. They do not end our thirst for resources; they exacerbate it.
The compound growth trajectory shows that the stripping of the planet has only just begun. As the volume of the world economy expands, wherever there is something concentrated, unusual, valuable, will be sought and exploited, its resources extracted and dispersed, the diverse and differentiated wonders of the world. world reduced to the same gray stubble.
Some people try to solve the impossible equation with the myth of dematerialization: the claim that as processes become more efficient and gadgets are miniaturized, we, on the whole, use less material. There is no sign of this happening. The production of iron ore has increased by 180% in 10 years. The professional body Forest Industries tells us that “global paper consumption is at an all time high and will continue to grow.” If in the digital age we don’t even reduce our paper consumption, what hope is there for other raw materials?
Look at the lives of the super-rich, who dictate the pace of global consumption. Are their yachts getting smaller and smaller? Their houses? Their works? Their purchase of rare wood, rare fish, rare stones? Those who can afford are buying ever larger homes to store the growing supply of things they won’t live long enough to use. Through unnoticed accretions, more and more of the planet’s surface is used to extract, manufacture, and store things we don’t need. Perhaps not surprisingly, fantasies of space colonization – which tell us we can export our problems instead of solving them – have resurfaced.
As philosopher Michael Rowan points out, the inevitability of compound growth means that if the global growth rate forecast last year for 2014 (3.1%) holds up, even if we miraculously reduce the consumption of raw materials by 90%, we are delaying the inevitable in just 75 years. Efficiency doesn’t solve anything as long as growth continues.
The inevitable failure of a society based on growth and its destruction of Earth’s living systems are the overwhelming facts of our existence. As a result, they are hardly mentioned anywhere. These are the great taboo of the 21st century, the subjects for sure to alienate your friends and neighbors. We live like we’re trapped in a Sunday Supplement: obsessed with fame, fashion, and the three dull staples of middle-class conversation: recipes, renovations, and resorts. Everything except the subject that requires our attention.
The obvious bleeding statements, the results of basic arithmetic, are treated as exotic and unforgivable distractions, while the impossible proposition we live by is seen as so sane, normal, and mundane that it does not deserve to be mentioned. This is how you measure the depth of this problem: by our inability even to discuss it.
Twitter: @georgemonbiot. A fully referenced version of this article is available at Monbiot.com