Sunday, September 16, 2012


energybulletin | There are unprecedented and widely unappreciated dangers posed to public health, nursing, medicine and allied health professions by the ongoing global economic contraction. This is a multilayered and, frankly, emotionally difficult topic to digest. Before discussing how health systems are affected we first lay out the larger social-ecological context of modern society’s predicament. This includes a brief overview of the idea of degrowth,[i],[ii],[iii] which is a response to ecological overshoot and reaching the physical resources and ecological limits to growth, and why it must supplant growth as the cardinal metaphor of modern culture. Then we outline how the inability to perceive that the world has reached the end of growth –by mistakenly seeing the present as a Great Recession- threatens health systems.

Understanding economic contraction is not merely a cognitive process of evaluating arguments and evidence. The modern mind is ensconced in a mythology that sacralizes technological progress, mastery of nature and economic growth. These convictions make it difficult or impossible to see the unfolding socioeconomic descent as anything other than a deep economic recession that will end when the correct policy measures, stimulus, austerity or some combination, are enacted. As children and throughout adulthood we moderns learn in sublime, tacit and explicit ways that a constantly expanding economy is good, has no downside, validates our sense of self-worth, and is therefore the natural state of human affairs. (We also are socialized to believe that nature is passive and subject to the dictates of humans, meaning we can use our intelligence and technology to get out of environmental dilemmas such as peak oil and other resource depletion, climate change, overpopulation, acidification of the oceans and so on through the long list of ecological insults and damage we have wrought.)

For instance, French Premier Francois Hollande in June said, “If there is no growth then no matter what we do we will not meet our debt and deficit reduction targets. President Obama at about the same time told Charlie Rose, in an interview broadcast on CBS, that running for president is about laying out your “theory for how to grow the economy.” This year Prime Minister Steven Harper said, “… we’ve tried to focus on what we can do to sustain growth in the Canadian economy.” In short, economic growth is the quintessential policy goal of all Western governments. Imagine seeing any of these three leaders giving a speech announcing that humanity has reached the limits to growth and therefore will have to redesign the social world.

This brings us to our bedrock argument: economic expansion is thermodynamically impossible because there is no longer sufficient net energy flowing into the global economy to restart and sustain growth.[iv],[v] In support of abandoning the quest for growth ecological economist Tim Jackson points out: The global economy is almost five times the size it was half a century ago. If it continues to grow at the same rate, the economy will be 80 times that size by the year 2100.”[vi] This 80-fold increase will, of course, never happen. The two-part rhetorical question we have is, how long it will take and how much further damage will be done before this is absorbed into humanity’s collective consciousness?


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