Monday, January 16, 2012

The Faustian Bargain that Modern Economists Never Mention

Gary Peters writes at Our Finite World:

Historically people have shifted their belief systems in various ways. The Greeks and Romans believed in numerous gods and goddesses and attributed all kinds of powers to them. Then the great monotheistic religions came along and people began to believe in just one god, though they honored him under different names.

Recently, beliefs have shifted again, with people worshipping just one part of a god, the invisible hand. Thanks to Adam Smith and those who followed him, especially the current neoclassical economic theologians, we have seen such an increase in the world’s wealth and sheer numbers that it is hard to imagine life before the industrial revolution, with its shift from mostly human and animal muscle power to the energy dense fossil fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas. It is also hard to imagine that humanity could someday slide back into another age of scarcer and more expensive energy, but that is a possibility that cannot be excluded from our thinking.

The Faustian Bargain

What about the Faustian bargain? It remains deeply hidden from view because its exposure by the high priests of modern economics would force us to rethink how we live and why we live this way, as well as what we’re planning to leave for future generations. The Faustian bargain goes something like this: Thanks to the discovery and exploitation of fossil fuels, humans (really just a small minority of them) are able to live richer lives today than even the queens and kings of yore could have dreamed of.

Furthermore, we’ve used some of those finite resources to increase food supplies and to expand the human population, which provides the economic system with both more workers and more consumers, a necessity to keep the economy growing under our current economic model. The world’s population increased from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 7 billion today, and we add about 80 million more each year. Humans have quickly become the most numerous megafauna on the planet.

The other side of the bargain, the side hidden from view and never mentioned in economics texts is this: At some undetermined time in the future, one that creeps ever closer, this economic system, fed by energy and other resources at ever increasing rates at one end and spewing out waste products at rates that cannot be absorbed by Earth’s ecosystems at the other, is unsustainable. What that means is simple enough: Industrial society as we know it cannot go on as it has forever—not even close.

Our economic system must exist within Earth’s finite limits, so recent and current generations have sold their soul to the devil for temporary riches, leaving the Devil to collect his due when the system falls apart under its own weight and the four horsemen of the apocalypse ride again across the world’s landscapes. None of this will happen tomorrow or this week or this year, but our economic system is faltering at both ends.

For many, if not most, of the world’s population life may become more difficult, incomes lower, and uncertainty greater. It does not mean the end of the world, as some predict for 2012, but it will mean that future generations probably will not live like current ones. Rather than admit that the current system cannot be sustained, the affluent and powerful will do everything possible to maintain the status quo.

The Fallacy of Long-Term Economic Growth

Economic growth remains a mantra for politicians and corporate leaders, including the banksters who brought us the Great Recession. Even President Obama, like presidents before him, speaks regularly about “growing the economy.” But nothing in the real world suggests that economic growth can continue forever. Nor does much evidence support the notion that economic growth has been a good thing for either the planet or billions of its human residents. It looks more like a colossal Ponzi scheme.

One of the most optimistic supporters of modern economics and its marvels is Tim Harford, who wrote, in his book The Logic of Life, “The more of us there are in the world, living our logical lives, the better our chances of seeing out the next million years.” This may be the dumbest thing an economist has ever written and he shows not even the slightest understanding of the planet on which we live. Homo sapiens has only been around for about 200,000 years, so another 800,000 years at the rate we’re going seems absurd. If our population were to continue to grow at an annual rate of only 1.0 percent, slightly less than our current growth rate, then our numbers would increase to over 115 trillion in just the next thousand years. You can play with the growth rate if you wish, but you cannot escape the cold hard fact that human population growth must stop. Only economists seem to miss the fact that economic growth must stop.

Among the high priests of modern economic theology, Paul Krugman came closer than anyone to admitting that growth could not go on forever on our planet. In an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times (12-26-10) he wrote, “What the commodity markets are telling us is that we’re living in a finite world [my italics] ….” He went on to mention the possibility of peak oil production and even climate change, both of which threaten the modern economic system, but then, returning to the faithful fold, he wrote, “This won’t bring an end to economic growth….” He admitted that our lifestyles might have to change but gave no clue about where and how that might come about or where it might lead.

Economic reality and economic theology don’t fit together very well. In 1988 Edward Abbey wrote, in his book One Life at a Time, Please:
It should be clear to everyone by now that crude numerical growth does not solve our problems of unemployment, welfare, crime, traffic, filth, noise, squalor, the pollution of air, the corruption of our politics, the debasement of the school system (hardly worthy of the name ‘education’), and the general loss of popular control over the political process—where money, not people, is now the determining factor.
Today, 24 years later, virtually every word of Abbey’s statement is truer than ever, yet politicians and economic theologians continue to preach that if we can just grow the economy (local, state, national, and world) then all will be well again. You need not look far or deeply to see how wrong they are and what price we’ll pay when the Devil comes looking for our collective souls.

Among economists, Herman Daly is one of the few who has tried to reveal the Faustian bargain for what it really is, as is apparent in this statement from a Dec. 26 article, Rio+20 Needs to Address the Downsides of Growth:
Even though economies are still growing, and still put growth in first place, it is no longer economic growth, at least in wealthy countries, but has become uneconomic growth. In other words, the environmental and social costs of increased production are growing faster than the benefits, increasing “illth” faster than wealth, thereby making us poorer, not richer. We hide the uneconomic nature of growth from ourselves by faulty national accounting because growth is our panacea, indeed our idol, and we are very afraid of the idea of a steady-state economy. The increasing illth is evident in exploding financial debt, in biodiversity loss, and in destruction of natural services, most notably climate regulation
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