What if there is no recovery?
Featured — By Eric Stiens on January 26, 2010 at 7:34 am
“Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist” — Kenneth Boulding
“The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.” — FDR
For years, economists and others have tried to avoid the question of what a just and fair distribution of wealth would look like by holding tight to the tacit assumption of unlimited exponential growth of both the US economy and the global economy. This is not only the worldview of trickle-down economics or of the American Right. It is also the worldview of poverty alleviation strategies (from the individual to international development) that rely on theories of change that move people up the existing economic ladder – as if, with the right combination of asset-building, credit, and education, all people can eventually become middle-class, or, with a little fiscal austerity and the right public policies, all countries can eventually consume as much per capita as the United States.
Even those strenuously arguing that we must change how we are cutting the pie slices rarely question the need for (or the ability of) the overall pie to grow. Yet the protracted global economic downturn must give us pause to at least ask, “What happens if the pie cannot grow? What happens if the pie must shrink?” What would justice and equity look like in a global economy that must go through a long and deep contraction? What if that contraction, in fact, is permanent?
Most of the debate around the recovery has been about what it will look like – V shaped or W-shaped, quick or slow, jobless or not. We have had discussions (but not enough) about what we must do to make sure that the various stimulus plans lessen racial disparities rather than exacerbate them. However, the presence of something called “recovery” has not been questioned. Instead, it has been taken for granted that this downtown is the result of the unwinding of a speculative bubble centered in real-estate and that it would eventually hit bottom and turn around.
Yet, in the great scheme of things, this is a small speculative bubble. The past hundred (or 300, depending on how you look at it) years have seen massive exponential growth in population, in resource use, in wealth – driven by our access to what has been nearly-free energy. We found a way to turns billions of years of fossil-fuels into a seemingly unlimited piggy bank and made up stories about unending progress, the triumph of technology, manifest destiny, etc to justify our use of it. The ruling class, acting as ruling classes do, found a way to siphon tremendous amounts of this wealth up to the top of the pyramid.
To put it bluntly, there is a chance (how large that chance is is left up to the judgment of the reader), that there will be no return to business as usual, no return to an economy driven by unsustainable amounts of debt and resource use, no way to return to the economic growth that we have come to view as essential. That between global climate change and the peaking of various resource extraction rates (oil the key one), we are globally stuck between a rock and a hard place. That there will be no recovery, at least if recovery is a synonym for a return to the ways things were two years ago.
Our reluctance to accept industrial collapse as a possibility comes from not only a shortsightedness that thinks the last 40 years can be repeated over and over without a Great Depression, but that the last 300-500 years can be replayed over and over – that industrial civilization and Western style capitalism and democracy is the pinnacle of human achievement and things are, with some lulls, always on their way up. It is, quite simply, a type of denial.
The incredible affluence of the American Empire and the process of Industrialization has always required systematic denial just as surely as it has required oil and the specialization of labor.
A denial of the slavery and genocide that it was built upon. A denial of limits to growth and ecological boundaries. A denial of the extreme wealth concentration it made possible, and the denial that we live in a society that much more closely resembles a plutocracy than a meritocracy.
A denial of the connection between wealthy white suburbs and concentrated Black poverty present in the inner-core of most cities.
A denial of the exploitation that has always gone hand in hand with expansion – coal miners dead of black lung, strikers shot by police, children working 15 hours a day in sweatshops, indigenous peoples the world over wiped out so we could have access to their resources.
A denial of the control apparatuses of the State – the military industrial complex and the prison industrial complex, with their disproportionate effects on communities (and nations) of color.
And lastly, denial of the incredible psychic and emotional toll that living so far out of balance with the earth and out of relationship with each other has created – the hollow emptiness of 21st Century affluence.
However, even if we are now in the decline phase of the industrial process, this does not give as an excuse not to talk about justice and equity. I am not proposing handwringing or absolving anyone of responsibilities (“Well, if things are that bad, there’s nothing we can do.”) If anything, it makes it more essential, and it may just make it possible to root this discussion in worldview that is less consumed by denial and desire and more in touch with the truths of being part of multiple communities – human and non-human.
I believe that, for those of us with privilege, much of our unwillingness to talk deeply and seriously about what a just and equitable world would look like comes from a deep seated fear that things are going to be taken from us. When it becomes clear that those things are disappearing whether we like it or not, it provides space to move beyond that fear into the world of possibilities behind it. As the myths and stories that have propped up the 20th century begin to crumble, we will have the opportunity to write new stories, to create new myths – to literally create new selves.
Over the next few months I hope to talk about what systems thinking and systems science methodologies have to offer racial justice activists and social scientists examining racial disparities. However, I would be remiss as a systems thinker if I did not use my first blog post to draw attention to the elephant in the room – limits to growth and the inevitable failure of any socioeconomic system that relies on unlimited growth to sustain itself.
N.B. While I was writing this post, this headline came over my feed reader. BBC – Economic Growth Cannot Continue
Written by: Eric Stiens on January 26, 2010.