Consuming the Planet

Thomas L Friedman of the New York Times in an opinion entitled “The Inflection is Near?” continues his insightful questioning of our current worldwide economic predicament by asking what he calls a radical question. I don’t consider it radical at all and have been thinking the same thought for quite a while. The question is one of sustainability – is our current economy based on excessive consumption, throwaways, never ending growth and planned obsolescence part of the problem?

As Friedman asks:

“Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”

We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese …”

It’s time to rethink where the world is heading and whether it is where we really want to go. Many are now realizing that the idea of a “free market economy” really was just another campaign slogan for businesses to promote and maximize profits without reasonable oversight and regulation and that it cost us all dearly while a few made out for a while like bandits.

Growth is another one of those economic slogans that has had too little questioning but that has many consequences. Nature has checks and balances. If growth exceeds the carrying capacity of the environment, collapse of the population occurs. An economy based on ever increasing consumption can not sustain itself and part of the current economic collapse is the result of trying to set up ever increasing patterns of growth in consumption of material goods that are derived from limited resources and involve environmental cots. These costs now potentially include the very survivability of the planet and life as we know it.

Also an economy driven by ever increasing consumption that does not internalize the costs of its production but instead externalizes the costs of waste and pollution and throwaways onto the larger society is doomed to fail. While a few may reap short term economic benefits, such an economy ultimately will collapse because of its accumulated negative impacts on the environment and humans.

Climate change and polluted air and loss of drinking water and accumulating toxic waste are all part of a Faustian bargain driven by an economy run on greed rather than the common good. Eventually the unmitigated costs outweigh and will collapse a system that exceeds the carrying capacity of the planet.

Population growth is another one of those issues people don’t feel comfortable talking about. Yet looking the other way is not going to make things better. More does not mean better. Are we more free if we have more people competing for the same limited resources? More people competing for the same pie, means each of us has less.

This crisis can be an opportunity for paradigm changes in the way we do things. Let’s take some time to see if what we’ve been doing really makes sense before we just try to repeat the past.

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