Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Growth Dogma

Just read an article in Swedish magazine Effekt about the connection between what's happening in the Middle East and the currently dominating "growth dogma". In short, the writer suggests that world leaders are hesitant to support the people of the Middle East in their uprising, because this might lead to a severe rise in oil prices - and that rising oil prises, while being a potential problem for households, is a major problem for an economy based on eternal economic growth. Our current economy essentially runs on access to cheap oil. One question posed in the article is why the issue of growth (or rather, the critique of our current "growth dogma") is so taboo. I have some thoughts.

It would seem obvious that eternal growth in a world of finite resources is, to say the least, unsustainable. In fact it is entirely impossible. So what gives? Common arguments are that we have no alternative. That despite problems, the way our economy functions at the moment is the only viable alternative. Well, it isn't. I'm certainly not saying a transition to a different arrangement, a different kind of economics, would be easy. But it is not the only viable alternative - because it simply isn't a viable alternative at all.

Another argument is that our current economic model is somehow inevitable. That it's somehow rooted deep in human nature - we might wish to change it, but we simply cannot. That's ridiculus. Our current economic system is man-made, it runs on values and towards goals that are set by man (or perhaps I should say "men"). It stands to reason that if we could chose these particular set of guiding values, we could also chose another. The economic system is not given by "God" or "nature".

Some claim that our current system is a good system, since it's taken us so far. And I won't argue that it hasn't vastly improved the living conditions of millions of people. It has. But look at the cost. Look at the flipside - in many countries we enjoy a standard of living which even former kings and emperors could only have dreamed of, while at the same time millions, even billions, of people suffer hunger, disease, wars and exploitation. Not only is this a regrettable side-effect of our current system - it is a prerequisite. Because just as the economic system hinges on cheap access to oil, it also hinges on inequalities - both social and economical.

Our economic system is geared towards profit maximization, towards facilitating the accumulation of vast wealth in the hands of a few. Essentially, our global economy functions like a pyramid scheme. And the justification for this is that the rich are supposed to pull the poor up along with them, so that any raising of living standards for the few is also reflected in a raise of living standards for the many - even if it isn't as big a raise. The argument that even if the rich are getting richer, the poor are also getting (ever so slightly) richer as well. And here's the problem. This entire argument is based on the fallacy of eternal economic growth. Because what happens when the people at the top hit the proverbial ceiling? When there are no longer any more resources to suck into the pyramid?

We've in fact been at that point for some time now, it's just that for the most part we in the rich (Western) part of the world don't see it. This is because we've been busy sucking in resources from the rest of the world. Of course, no one wants to hear this - and not just the people at the top in, say, Sweden. Because it isn't just the people at the top expoliting the rest - Sweden, as a whole, is part of the "top" on a global scale.

I believe this is closely tied to another problem - one which I keep coming back to. Because at the heart of the "growth dogma" we find the "dominator mindset". The critique of eternal growth isn't just a critique of the economic system - it is a critique of fundamental core values which have guided our social world for thousands of years. The idea that mankind is essentially and intrinsically geared towards domination - of an outside world and of each other. This is often met with the argument that it's simply "human nature" - but again, that is not a valid argument. Humans can change - there is no such thing as a given "human nature". We are what we chose to be.

It is time we woke up to that.

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