Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Economy of Earth

A recent newspaper poll asked its readers the following: What is more important: saving the economy or global warming? One could answer in three ways. a) Global warming was more important; b) the economy was more important; or c) no need to choose – we could save both economy and earth. I do not know how you would answer this question, but the readers voted 65% for the economy, 23% for both, and only 12% for our poor old planet.

It is not the answer that troubles me as much as the question. When the economy is crashing, I expect people to be worried about money. But to assume that money can be separated from the earth, that anything in life is separate from the earth, tells me how cut off we have become. The mere fact that anyone could prioritize in this way reminds me just how few people have absorbed the simple fact that if our planet becomes unlivable, it will not matter how much money I have in the bank, because without a livable planet, I will not be able to live.

As I look at the wasteful habits of the rich, I cannot help but think that money has a great deal to do with the present condition of our Earth. (Double click the chart below to see the link between wealth and carbon emissions.)
For decades, thinkers have been trying to tell us that industrialization, which has made a more comfortable life for many possible, is also one of the root causes of all our ecological woes. Traditional societies cannot support the population and consumption levels that industrialization has allowed us to reach. More people and more technology have made fortunes, but they have also caused pollution, escalating carbon counts, global warming, and because industrialization depends upon cheap labor, a three billion person underclass of people who live on $2.00 a day or less. That the disasters predicted by Malthus and Paul Ehrlich’s population bomb have yet to happen is no cause for capitalistic triumph. The operative word is “yet.” God is slow to anger, says the psalmist. We know something is very wrong, but the way we have been taught to live does not help us. There may be a way to live sustainably, but nothing in five hundred years of western expansionism gives us much of a clue how to do it. Individualists have little experience of the life giving power of a community.

Nor is there much real roadside help along the information highway. The media culture blurs fact and fiction, horror and horror movie. We see most of the world on screen, or if we are traveling, through the windows of cars, buses, planes and cruise ships. Action is action. A horror movie about global warming doesn’t look much different to our senses than a horror movie about Godzilla. Both lie outside my daily life. I have neither melting glaciers nor large reptiles in my back yard and so must take both on faith. Both coming to me on a wide screen in an air-conditioned theater, I am just as separated from both. Separation is one of the hallmarks of the “objective” science that my society tells me is true. When the goal is to conquer, the best tactic is to divide.

But that is not the only reason we go on blindly eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage as if nothing were happening. We go on as usual, because actually, for those of us in affluent America, we can see no convincing reason not to. We are the rich country. Even a poor person can force himself into an emergency room in the United States. In Malawi, by contrast, AIDS patients who could be treated for $1.00 a day are stacked four to a bed, and only a quarter of them can receive the medicine thanks to the “hard” realities of Malawi's debt and the priorities of the world banking system. Dirty factories that were once in Indiana are now in places like China, India and Guatemala. We still enjoy the products of these dirty factories, of course, but in nice, clean neighborhoods. The richest of us can “build green,” and live guilt free in a mansion. The old stuff gets buried in a landfill. Nor do the nice “green” neighborhoods see the ruined, clearcut hillsides that were sacrificed to provide sparkling new remodeled homes. I recently stood in a “green” conference room that cost $4,000,000 to build. How can I get my priorities straight in a $4,000,000 room? How many Malawians die of AIDS while I'm at a conference?

Brian Dumaine’s new book, The Plot to Save the Planet is an example of the kind of pseudo holistic thinking that passes for environmental responsibility. The plot to save the planet is really a plot to save global capitalism. New billionaires are just waiting to happen, says this book, if we just apply our good old know-how. There’s a green frontier out there to be conquered. The book’s cover shows a man’s chest in an ordinary shirt, but with superhero spandex underneath, hands pulling away at the buttons to reveal the hero within. We can have our endlessly growing economy and save our planet at the same time! You too can be a financial superhero like Warren Buffett or T. Bone Pickens.

Superheroes are about busting limits, but the new technology is not super. Windmills kill birds and bats and might disturb weather patterns if put up in large enough arrays. We don’t know what will happen should we install alternate energy generators at the scale needed to fuel America’s insatiable needs. Tidal generators may disturb sea life and further deplete already emptied oceans. Has anyone wondered about the negative albedo of a huge solar energy array? Or the fact that freeways are harmful to animal lives? Earth is not an infinite cash cow. We have certainly been able to expand her carrying capacity, but that does not mean we can go on as we were. We cannot take without giving back.

The real green frontier is Alaska. But upon encountering a living wilderness, the entrepreneurs can only yell, “Drill, baby, drill!”

Perhaps the current financial crisis is Earth’s way of telling us we’ve reached her credit limit. Our note is due. Which is why it may not be possible to save the planet while glibly reengineering the economy. Earth’s economy is not a market economy. Earth works in cycles, in growth, maturity, decay, death, rebirth. In the market economy, cycles are not acceptable. The economy of earth is flow. There is no waste in the natural world. Wind, water, oxygen, carbon dioxide, nutrition, toxics, all flow in and out, never still, recycling, passing back and forth.

The market economy, on the other hand, always skims a commission whenever something changes hand. It is not exchange. The rest of us can only wonder why we are paying more and more and getting less and less, just as the animals who are the jewels in the earth’s economy, wonder what has become of their food supply, their abundance, their homes.

Earth was never meant to provide systematic surplus. In nature, surplus is a momentary bounty, the celebration of autumn, an unexpected catch. In capitalism, surplus is the constant that keeps all the rest going. Capitalism is like oil refining: taking out what you will not put back. The money does not circulate back to the source. Africa is bled dry of resources and left with crippling debt. The average American worker donates 1/5 of his or her pre-tax productivity to executive compensation and shareholder enrichment.

Again, most of us do not see this. The United States of America is today the most segregated society on earth. It is not race or religion that separates us, it is economic class. The poor and the rich do not live anywhere near each other any more, and the choicest holdings of the very rich are so gated that we are not aware of them. Each of us hangs out almost exclusively with our own social class. We can read statistics of how much of the world’s wealth this small group controls, but we cannot experience these statistics. Yes, we all know that Bill Gates has enough money to send every eighteen year old to college for four years, but it’s too abstract a statistic to arouse our outrage, just as the melting of ice in a continent we have never seen is too abstract to cause immediate alarm.

Therefore, it is easy for me, like the newspaper, to separate economy and environment, just as I separate body and soul, religion and science, home and work. The paradox is that such separation runs completely contrary to the global world that our economy has built. Perhaps the real question is, in such a world can our gated imaginations for long endure?