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Growth is Obsolete –Society needs to realize growth does not equal prosperity

Just published on Chris Martenson’s Peak Prosperity site:
Read it there. Good layout. Nice links….

by James Howard Kunstler

The word that sticks in the craw of many who cogitate over economics is growth. The condition that the word refers to has proven disturbingly problematic in recent years, especially as world’s population continues to expand exponentially and the global ecology suffers in response. In fact, Thomas Carlyle (1795 – 1881) called economics “the dismal science” in direct reference to the work of the Rev. Thomas Malthus, because the Malthuisian conclusions were so unappetizing — that sooner or later rising human populations would outstrip the world’s capacity to provide for them.

Now it happened that the Reverend Malthus’s notorious Essay on the Principle of Population was first published in 1798, which was about exactly the take-off moment for the industrial revolution. That extravagant melodrama was about marshaling mechanical invention with fossil fuel. The first act ran on coal and allowed populations to expand because it extended the extractive reach for resources by colonialist nations. The second act featured exploitation of oil, which was more powerful and versatile than coal. It also lent itself much more directly than coal to being converted into food for people.The use of oil powered farming machines, oil and gas (an oil byproduct) based herbicides, insecticides, and fertilizers, and oil based long distance food transport, has allowed us to convert oil into food pretty directly. This has led to the “hockey-stick” swerve of population growth that took human numbers worldwide from under 2 billion in the year 1900 to more than 7 billion today.

We are in the third act of the industrial melodrama now where the dire sub-plot of peak oil has taken stage. Despite the wishful thinking and happy-talk propaganda lighting up the media-space, we have arrived at the problematic point of the story: the end of cheap oil. This is poorly understood by the public and, apparently, by leaders in business, politics, and the media, too. They misunderstand because they insist on thinking that peak oil was simply about running out of oil. It’s not. It’s about running out of the ability to extract it from the earth in a way that makes economic sense — that is, at a price we can afford in terms of available capital and energy invested (and also ecological destruction). That dynamic is now exerting a powerful influence on modern civilizations. We ignore it — even at the highest levels of intellectual endeavor — because we have made no alternate plans for running the complex operations of everyday life, and because the early manifestations of the dynamic present themselves in the realm of finance, which is dominated by academic viziers and money-grubbing opportunists who benefit from obfuscating reality….

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About James Howard Kunstler

View all posts by James Howard Kunstler
James Howard Kunstler is the author of many books including (non-fiction) The Geography of Nowhere, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, Home from Nowhere, The Long Emergency and the four-book series of World Made By Hand novels, set in a post economic crash American future. His most recent book is Living in the Long Emergency; Global Crisis, the Failure of the Futurists, and the Early Adapters Who Are Showing Us the Way Forward. Jim lives on a homestead in Washington County, New. York, where he tends his garden and communes with his chickens.

8 Responses to “Growth is Obsolete –Society needs to realize growth does not equal prosperity”

  1. K-Dog October 16, 2013 at 5:46 pm #

    That car in the field at Chris Martenson’s Peak Prosperity site at the top of your article needs a horse in front of it.

    I could not read the whole thing as I’m not enrolled but I read enough to make an appropriate comment.

    I read Poverty and Progress by Richard G. Wilkinson recently. It is old but it is gold. The book premise backed up by numerous examples is that innovation never happens spontaneously. Innovation happens as a result of population pressure depleting resources and stressing the existing way of doing things so that a new way of doing business must be found to keep going. If needs are met by current technology then there is no new innovation, it isn’t necessary.

    Looked at in this way money-grubbing opportunists who benefit from obfuscating reality and committing accounting fraud are behaving this way because making big profits can no longer be sustained by honest work. The population pressure of too many people in the financial industry thus results in the technical innovation of fraud and deceit. Unearned riches become the soup de-jour because that’s the only way left to get rich.

    Fraud and deceit is as old as man but it was prohibited by legal consequences from the financial industry until now. Consequently fraud and deceit in the financial industry can be considered something new. It is a new innovation needed to support the expansion of Wall Street. The department of Justice looks the other way because if they don’t the whole system collapses tomorrow. This is unacceptable to those who enjoy a good lobster for then they would be forced to eat chicken like everyone else.

    Liberty is not a dirty word in America but Equality is. We are a nation of I’ve got mine you get your own and leave me alone. Competition and lack of cooperation dooms us. It is not a matter of people being dumb though smart people would not tolerate the situation for a minute. It is a matter of our society being based on endless competition and nothing else.

    Another sad thing is that personalities which compete are incapable of seeing things any other way and do not understand those who prefer to cooperate. Those who cooperate have it up on those who compete because they can actually understand the competitive types but they don’t understand the game being played.

    In our society cooperation does not bring success but competition does. It could have been different; societies built on cooperation are possible but ours is not set up that way.

    People who are truly creative and intelligent are in short supply.

    From birth Americans are trained to compete,screw the other guy if necessary and not thing any more than necessary to win. Compete but always within limits defined by authority. Worship of law and order keeps the game under control but suppresses independent thought. With the now ‘necessary’ technical innovation of suspending law and order we become doomed and our society accepts it. Obama got Osama and resolution of problems by violence is inculcated on a minute to minute basis in all our media. We are Sodom and Gomorrah and soon will face the consequences. Americans tolerate murder so long as they are not a victim.

    I always thought looking back and being turned into a pillar of salt was unfair. Now I know better. Any nostalgia for our casino economy will be totally misplaced after the fall.

    Our demise has been baked in the cake for a very long time. Our system is a most effective way to plunder resources but it is also extremely inflexible. Education in America is seen as a way to get ahead and not as any way to cultivate better citizens. The way we live is fundamentally wrong.

    But consequences are ready for those who would attempt any change.

    • K-Dog October 16, 2013 at 5:51 pm #

      From birth Americans are trained to compete,screw the other guy if necessary and not think any more than necessary to win.

      • Arn Varnold October 21, 2013 at 8:14 am #

        From birth Americans are trained to compete,screw the other guy if necessary and not think any more than necessary to win.
        Couldn’t agree more. Growth is the bain of democracy. Competition is the bain of democracy. And U.S. capitalism is the bain of democracy.
        We are so screwed…

  2. Frankiti October 23, 2013 at 5:15 pm #

    It’s not only incessant growth that’s championed, but growth at any cost e.g., increased immigration, illegal immigration, higher birth rates, etc. What kind of system or economical model do we have, when, and I do not mean to use this term blithely, but just like a pyramid scheme, it only benefits the top by draining more and more of those below? The truth is, if the top does not have the ability to infinitely expand its revenue, the system is starved, and “growth” is stunted.

  3. K-Dog October 28, 2013 at 10:09 am #

    The problem has deep roots in human psychology / sociology and I’m not a-pullin this out-a-my-ass.

    For hundreds of thousands of years people lived in small groups in which they cooperated and that’s great. But when theses small groups bumped into each other they competed for resources and were ‘enemies’. Tribe meets tribe, war results but within the tribe peace and love rules.

    Having the big brains humans do the answer is easy. Think of everyone else as being in one big tribe. Problem is those at the top consider themselves to be not like us. They belong to a suit wearing gated community tribe and we become their subjugated enemy. Their slaves.

  4. Neon Vincent November 4, 2013 at 10:06 am #

    Here’s a key point from the rest of the essay over at Peak Prosperity:

    “But what do housing starts actually represent? These days they mostly take the form of new suburban housing subdivisions, which are inevitably joined by the kit of the strip mall, the big box store, and all the other furnishings of the highway strip. In short, all that glorious “innovation” by the banks produces more suburban sprawl and destruction of rural land, which is about the last thing this society needs when faced with the realities of peak cheap oil, since it is absolutely certain to make these things obsolete, and very soon.”

    And we all saw what happened when the housing boom went bust and, in slow motion, took the banks down with them, leading to the Great Recession beginning in 2008. There were several people who foresaw the boom going bust, including one who got a Nobel Prize for Economics the week you wrote this–Robert Shiller. At the time, not enough people believed him. Ah, well, better late than never.


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