Thursday, March 20, 2014

how to be trapped


feasta |  For all sorts of reasons the possibility of a controlled orchestrated de-growth to some viable steady-state position is probably deluded in the extreme. I’ll just point to one thing, such a view tends to embody the confusion that because the globalised economy is human-made it is therefore designed, understandable and controllable – humans can do this in niches, but the emergent structure of multiple niches interacting on many scales over time is not. This mirrors the sort of argument made famous by William Paley in his Natural Theology who said that the existence of living organisms proved the existence of a divine creator/ designer by analogy with how the finding of a watch would lead one to believe in the existence of an intelligent watchmaker. Half a century later Darwin and then his followers showed that natural selection could do emergent design without a controller- the ‘blind’ watchmaker in Richard Dawkins words. But as believers in Man’s progress we seem to have taken on the role that Paley once ascribed to god- that is, as the creators of the complex globalised economy it is therefore designable and controllable and potentially perfectible if only the right people and ideas were in the cockpit. We find all sorts of confusion arising from this when attempts are made to take linguistic dominion over the economy by confusing complex interdependent emergence with intentional design (as in, the economy is capitalist/ neoliberal/ socialist, or, we need to change ‘the monetary architecture’). So even without getting into details about irreversibility in complex systems or the myriad practical problems with a controllable de-growth, the power of the belief in its possibility seems, to me at least, to represent Titanic hubris.

That said, a disorderly de-growth/collapse would bring us to a new era where we would end up with a much reduced capacity to access and use resources and dump waste. But we’d still have to respond to problems and that would generally require whatever energy and resources were at hand. For example, anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions would likely nose-dive, a good thing of course, although the effects of climate changes would continue to get worse because of lags in the climate system while our adaptive capacity compared to today would have been shattered. Thus the real cost of climate change would escalate beyond our ability to pay quite suddenly and much faster than conventional climate-economic models would suggest. The danger here is that in a state of poverty and forced localization our attempts to respond to such emergent stress and crises mean we start undermining our local environments and their on-going capacity to support us. So any form of steady-state economy in the foreseeable future is inherently problematic.

But in time some of us might be able to maintain a simple steady-state economy by acculturating to that new reality, at least for a while. Maybe a world where parsimonious poets and threadbare social nurturers are loved and admired, while an affliction for stuff would leave one pitied and dateless! I’m pretty sure there will people living good, meaningful and ecologically responsible lives long into the future.