In the past when I have attempted to discuss limits to economic growth and the destructive nature of consumerism as a primary driver of human social activity I have been told that there is no point in talking in this manner since if I am believed I will induce despair and depression rather than effective action. I have been told that we need a positive vision of the future rather than a negative one if we wish to create a mass movement supporting social transformation.
I am definitely in favor of using positive energy to drive our society towards an ecologically sane mode of operation, but the question arises as to how an unending exponential increase in the flow of money has come to represent the only possible positive vision of humanity’s future on earth.
The most obvious example of a system with long term productive creativity based on constant recycling of resources is the earth’s biosphere. Current thinking holds that life was present on earth 3.5 billion years ago as evidenced by stomatolites, a kind of limestone formation created by ancient mats of oceanic algae. In spite of this enormous length of time no evidence exists that biological processes are exhausting the earth’s resources or degrading the ability of the earth to support further biological activity. I would be a mistake to regard the ongoing evolution of life on earth as a strictly linear unidirectional progress, but nevertheless the ongoing creativity of life in adapting to the conditions of its environment has been extremely impressive. Most people who appreciate life’s creativity are more impressed by its variety, intricate complexity, and beauty rather than by the sheer amount of biomass present in a certain ecosystem. Of course life has made certain impressive large steps forward in its utilization of earth’s resources which did result in greatly increased biomass. Perhaps the two most impressive example were the development of chlorophyll based photosynthesis about 2.4 billion years ago and the colonization of land which began about 500 million years ago. It might not be immediately obvious that the colonization of land would lead to a huge increase in biomass since land represents only 29% of the earth’s surface. However, it turns out life on land can make more effective use of nutrients than life in the sea so that the net primary productivity per unit area is three times higher on land than in the sea.
Life has proved to have extraordinary long term resilience. Earth has undergone a series of mass extinctions (at very wide time intervals) of plant and animal species most probably driven by episodes of super-volcanism. But life has survived all of these episodes and has subsequently produced a vast new array of plant and animal species. Constant recycling of resources driven by the energy of the sun has been the key to the extremely long run of creativity. So perhaps humanity can learn from this example and initiate its own long run of qualitative creativity based on similar principles.
Now some people might look at the idea on going qualitative creativity and regard it as an opportunity for unlimited money making. After all the value we place on goods and services has a large subjective component. So who is to say that we can not squeeze exponentially more value out of human productivity even in a period of relatively constant resource use? The suppositious people in this example are not merely theoretical. I once had a discussion on an Internet forum with a man who made precisely these arguments. He acknowledged the reality of climate change, the finite nature of the earth’s resources, and the truth that ecological considerations put certain limits on human economic activity. But he insisted that the outward forms of the money chase could not be significantly altered without disaster. People would be depressed and unhappy without the prospect of exponential growth in monetary flows, and private credit markets represented a definitive end point in the evolution of human social creativity. When I pushed him hard about how continued exponential growth in monetary flows could made consistent with ecological limits he insisted that value was subjective so that by valuing the right things we could chase exponentially increasing money flows forever (or at least for so long that no one now living need worry about any economic alternative) while living in an ecologically sane manner.
In my experience monetary theory is an intellectual realm in which anything can be asserted and nothing can be proved. Therefore I am not going to claim that I have certain knowledge that this vision of green growth is destined to short term failure. However, it is not hard cast doubt on this conception as a reasonable model for long term ecologically sane creativity. Consider an individual engaging in creative production for personal satisfaction. Consider for example a home vegetable gardener. A truly creative and enthusiastic vegetable gardener does plant an identical mix of plants and cultivate them with an identical methodology year after year. They experiment with new varieties and with new methods of growing old varieties. To the true enthusiast gardening is an endless creative process which produces new pleasure and occasional pains as certain experiments prove to be unsuccessful. No home gardener of this type would ever dream of measuring their success by assigning a quantitative value to 1 kg of each type of garden output and then adding up the product of these values with the masses of each product and then subtracting the value of all the effort and labor (translated somehow into the same universal scale) used in the production of these outputs. And in point of fact to a person in love with gardening the time and effort spent in growing vegetable may very well be a source of pleasure and satisfaction rather than a negative factor which needs to be subtracted from the pleasure of eating fresh vegetables. The negative aspects of gardening are more likely to arise from the fact the home gardeners have other interest outside of gardening and obtaining life satisfaction requires obtaining an appropriate balance between multiple spheres of action. But again, at the level of an individual producing of his or her satisfaction the idea of reducing this balancing act to calculating a single bottom line number and the exponentially increase this number into the indefinite future is an absurdity.
Therefore the question arises that if the exponential growth of a single bottom line number is not an appropriate model for individual creativity, what reason is there to believe that the model is appropriate for society at large?
When I suggest that chasing exponentially increasing monetary flows into the indefinite future may be poor strategy for creating an ecologically mature society I do not mean to suggest that money should be eliminated as an economic tool. Money has functions which are indeed valuable. I would like to keep money as a medium of exchange and as means of measuring the efficiency of various production processes. However, I think that the chase after unbounded increases in monetary flows as a means of gaining future security of consumption and a means of gaining social status should be eliminated. Human creativity and consumption growth need to be decoupled if we are going to create an ecologically sane society. My book Eight Economic Truths is an attempt to think about means of keeping the useful functions of money while eliminating its destructive aspects.