Dave Johnson over at Seeing The Forest (blogging for five years now, if you can believe it,) keeps this question at the top of his site: “Who is our economy FOR, anyway?”

I think it’s well understood by everyone, at least at some level, that when job cuts, decreased quality health care, longer working hours, pollution, gutting worker safety laws, destroying unions and keeping down wages are good for ‘the economy’, it doesn’t refer to our personal economies. Those personal economies require work, health, time with loved ones, rest, water and decent food.

The economy is talked about as if it has a right of personhood, and a person whose advancement according to certain measures is an inherent good. Yet what it really means as generally used in media discourse is the right of a very specific set of people to continue making a lot of money at the expense of everything and everyone else. Then when individuals talk about the economy, what they generally want to know is ‘am I going to have a job/healthcare/food for my family next year,’ and this gets mixed up with the resource hoarding of a very few people.

Since “the economy” is used interchangeably for both these micro and macro issues, pronouncements by environmentalists often run into trouble. For example, it’s reasonable to say that a lot of large scale economic activities have to fundamentally change in order for society to sustain itself. We must stop, for example, emitting so much carbon dioxide, and after we cut emissions drastically, we’re going to have to keep on cutting. That has a lot of serious, possibly terminal, consequences for certain large scale economic activities, which sounds like a world of doom and gloom. Though it doesn’t mean that no one will have a job, or that people won’t get to travel or have enough food; certainly, it doesn’t have to mean those things. Yet as the interests of the few who benefit from our current system have conflated their financial impunity with you getting your paycheck next month, people can be made afraid of the necessary next steps to take in our global crisis.

What people need to realize is this: Destroying the environment destroys economic productivity.

It’s that simple. Most of this, many of you probably know already. Yet discussions keep coming up about the need to balance the economy with the environment, as though there were some non-fictional separation possible between the two. I’m thinking there’s a missing connection somewhere. Read on to see what it took to finally make the Brazilian government wake up to the economic urgency of climate change:

… A number of recent events have led political leaders and ordinary Brazilians to conclude that they are not immune to climate change. First and foremost was a disastrous 2005 drought in the Amazon that killed crops, kindled forest fires, dried up transportation routes, caused disease and wreaked economic havoc.

Brazil sees itself as an emerging agricultural and industrial power, and global warming could have a disastrous impact on those aspirations. Scientists note that Brazil’s southern breadbasket flourishes largely because of rainfall patterns in the Amazon that are likely to be altered if droughts recur or climate change accelerates.

… Brazil also envisions constructing a large network of dams throughout the Amazon over the next several decades to supply electricity to its industrial heartland in São Paulo, 2,000 miles south of here. But those plans depend on water flows in the region’s vast rivers not drying up. …

Less water leads directly to having less power, less food, and poorer ecosystems.

Less predictable weather leads directly to having less food and fiber.

Poorer ecosystems, or less diverse communities of other living things, leads directly to disease and starvation, which means fewer, sicker human beings.

The truth is that our current economic system is destroying the basis of its own productivity, and everyone’s future livelihoods. It’s killing off the climate that supports our food production, the animal species we eat, the living communities that provide the air we breathe and our bulwark against disease. Consider that you can’t speak of having an economy on the moon. Nothing lives there. Yet the natural consequences of unrestrained machine industrialism are to make the earth progressively more and more like the moon. All clean, all bare, all dead. It would be very orderly, tidy, and efficient, but dead things don’t have economies, so who cares?

This is the bill of goods you’ve been sold: That things, mere objects, have inherent value. Things like money, and stock, and rocks and the things we make out of them. That things like ‘economies,’ abstract word games that we just invented in order to think more clearly about our activities, have value of themselves. They do not.

Value isn’t a property of things, it’s a creation of humanity or other resource-consuming critters, and at base, it’s only living things that have value or can assign it.

What is the value of the DNA sequence that converts sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into sugar? Effectively infinite, because without that DNA sequence, we wouldn’t exist. Free oxygen wouldn’t be present in our atmosphere, a gas that another set of DNA sequences can turn into eighteen times the cellular energy it’s possible to produce from phosphorus compounds without oxygen present. Without that 18-fold jump in efficiency, it wouldn’t be possible for multicellular lifeforms to have developed.

But back up, don’t miss this part: The atmosphere we have isn’t just affected by living things, it was originally created and is currently maintained by them. Remember that next time someone tells you that it’s arrogant to think humans can affect the climate.

If you’ve read this far, thank you. But also, what does this prospective decrease in resources really mean for all of us? How do we picture it? Let’s try a story.  

Matt Stoller was very on point the other day when he described what we’re being pushed towards as a state of nuclear feudalism. A state of technical modernism, but widespread poverty and functional slavery; because there would no longer, by any reasonable estimation, be enough to go around for everyone to have a decent life. This month’s Discover had an article in it about the collapse of healthcare in Iraq, but also an interview with scifi author William Gibson, the originator (as many of you may know, but just in case) of dystopian cyberpunk. He said, entirely apropos of this conversation:

… In Neuromancer – although it’s never dated in the book, I always assumed it was happening around 2035 – you glimpse the United States, and it’s not that great a place. There doesn’t seem to be any middle class. There’s nothing between these post-human superrich people and the Street, with a capital S. Nobody’s ever more than one door away from the Street. It’s quite grim and maybe it’s become a kind of cliche, but on the other hand, it’s exactly like Mexico City. It’s really similar to a lot of the Third World. And so I think that the cyberpunk future, if you want to generalize it, is a future in which globalization really does work both ways, and everybody – unless they’re very, very, very rich – winds up getting to be part of the Third World. …

And there, in much fewer words than I’d take to say so, is what will likely happen if we stay on the economically ‘productive’ path we’re on right now. Not quite the moon, but headed that way.

Dirtier air, less clean water, less that’s refreshingly green and productive of oxygen, less to eat, less varieties of things to eat. That’s what we’d face. A wholesale loss of the conditions that support life in all its richness, a marked decrease in the value of everything, because there won’t be as many living things to value it.

So. That’s my take. But then, I thought that the story of how cyanobacteria made life possible by creating the atmosphere was very exciting. I’m kind of funny that way.

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