A simple change in attitude
Thoughts after reading Herman Daly’s Beyond Growth
How to solve the equation between poverty and the planet’s capacity to sustain life on Earth?
The way forward is to recognize the limit – that we cannot expand the flow of matter and energy to meet our ever-growing demands, and indeed there are some who say that in reality it is necessary to contract.
If this is true – if the limit exists (forgive the conditional: it is obvious that it exists) – we face the second problem: how to give those who have nothing the comfort they deserve if we are unable to provide any further growth in these flows?
Very simple: through policies of distribution of income, efficiency and reduction of waste.
Here, the gains that we can make are gigantic. Our waste of matter and energy is monumental. It is estimated that in Brazil the gains from reduction of waste and inefficiency could avoid, for example, the need to build any new and potentially destructive power plants, even mini-hydro plants, and even so double the supply of energy.
Why do we always choose the most stupid and inefficient options?
Because we have not woken up to the fact that all the things we consider as a given – water, energy, climate, food – are under threat, and will disappear entirely, together with ourselves, if we continue to act in this way: as a cancer always growing in the closed system that is our Earth.
The scope that we have available for distribution of income and wealth is also gigantic. Just as it is not necessary for a multi-billionaire to have more billions, the concentration of riches, principally in the rich countries, is self-evident – even immoral, shameful. As an illustration, since the 1970s the only income that has risen in the USA (after tax and inflation) – indeed it has almost doubled – is that of the richest 1% of the population (a good book on this is Wealth and Democracy by Kevin Phillips).
The two poorest quintiles have seen their income, on the same comparison, fall by almost a quarter. And there are still people who believe in this model – which can only be explained by self-interest: because there is not only the concentration of wealth that exists, there are its beneficiaries. This is a small problem of ethics and responsibility, that we have not yet faced; and all the indications are that when we do, we may likely do so in the worst way possible.
To think that growth is the only way of solving the problem of poverty is to condemn humanity, and life on this planet, to death. To think that without growth we will crystallize the social inequalities is to invert the causal relationship: growth today, as it is effected and measured, is an important mechanism of social differentiation, not the reverse. This brings us back to the same error of thinking that the economy has no planetary frontiers, nor limits – economic ideas that govern the entire social-environmental world that is falling to pieces around us.
The challenge of change is very great. It begins with the minds of almost all of us – since by an impressive, interest-driven, daily and maniacal stupidity, in our present debates the only subject is the opportunities for profit and growth, which amount to a philosophy that “we cannot do without profit, but we can do without the planet”.
No-one is yet discussing – nor pointing out – who are the real beneficiaries of all this, and what is the true underlying social and environmental contract of this project.