Wednesday, 28 May 2014

The Impossibility Of Growth Demands A New Economic System By George Monbiot

The Impossibility Of Growth Demands A New Economic System By George Monbio

The Impossibility Of Growth Demands A New Economic System
By George Monbiot
28 May, 2014
Let us
imagine that in 3030BC the total possessions of the people of Egypt
filled one cubic metre. Let us propose that these possessions grew by
4.5% a year. How big would that stash have been by the Battle of Actium
in 30BC? This is the calculation performed by the investment banker
Jeremy Grantham(1).
Go on, take a guess. Ten times the size
of the pyramids? All the sand in the Sahara? The Atlantic ocean? The
volume of the planet? A little more? It’s 2.5 billion billion solar
systems(2). It does not take you long, pondering this outcome, to reach
the paradoxical position that salvation lies in collapse.
To succeed is to destroy ourselves. To
fail is to destroy ourselves. That is the bind we have created. Ignore
if you must climate change, biodiversity collapse, the depletion of
water, soil, minerals, oil; even if all these issues were miraculously
to vanish, the mathematics of compound growth make continuity
Economic growth is an artefact of the use
of fossil fuels. Before large amounts of coal were extracted, every
upswing in industrial production would be met with a downswing in
agricultural production, as the charcoal or horse power required by
industry reduced the land available for growing food. Every prior
industrial revolution collapsed, as growth could not be sustained(3).
But coal broke this cycle and enabled – for a few hundred years – the
phenomenon we now call sustained growth.
It was neither capitalism nor communism
that made possible the progress and the pathologies (total war, the
unprecedented concentration of global wealth, planetary destruction) of
the modern age. It was coal, followed by oil and gas. The meta-trend,
the mother narrative, is carbon-fuelled expansion. Our ideologies are
mere subplots. Now, as the most accessible reserves have been exhausted,
we must ransack the hidden corners of the planet to sustain our
impossible proposition.
On Friday, a few days after scientists
announced that the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is now
inevitable(4), the Ecuadorean government decided that oil drilling would
go ahead in the heart of the Yasuni national park(5). It had made an
offer to other governments: if they gave it half the value of the oil in
that part of the park, it would leave the stuff in the ground. You
could see this as blackmail or you could see it as fair trade. Ecuador
is poor, its oil deposits are rich: why, the government argued, should
it leave them untouched without compensation when everyone else is
drilling down to the inner circle of hell? It asked for $3.6bn and
received $13m. The result is that Petroamazonas, a company with a
colourful record of destruction and spills(6), will now enter one of the
most biodiverse places on the planet, in which a hectare of rainforest
is said to contain more species than exist in the entire continent of
North America(7).
The UK oil company Soco is now hoping to
penetrate Africa’s oldest national park, Virunga, in the Democratic
Republic of Congo(8); one of the last strongholds of the mountain
gorilla and the okapi, of chimpanzees and forest elephants. In Britain,
where a possible 4.4 billion barrels of shale oil has just been
identified in the south-east(9), the government fantasises about turning
the leafy suburbs into a new Niger delta. To this end it’s changing the
trespass laws to enable drilling without consent and offering lavish
bribes to local people(10,11). These new reserves solve nothing. They do
not end our hunger for resources; they exacerbate it.
The trajectory of compound growth shows
that the scouring of the planet has only just begun. As the volume of
the global economy expands, everywhere that contains something
concentrated, unusual, precious will be sought out and exploited, its
resources extracted and dispersed, the world’s diverse and
differentiated marvels reduced to the same grey stubble.
Some people try to solve the impossible
equation with the myth of dematerialisation: the claim that as processes
become more efficient and gadgets are miniaturised, we use, in
aggregate, fewer materials. There is no sign that this is happening.
Iron ore production has risen 180% in ten years(12). The trade body
Forest Industries tell us that “global paper consumption is at a record
high level and it will continue to grow.”(13) If, in the digital age, we
won’t reduce even our consumption of paper, what hope is there for
other commodities?
Look at the lives of the super-rich, who
set the pace for global consumption. Are their yachts getting smaller?
Their houses? Their artworks? Their purchase of rare woods, rare fish,
rare stone? Those with the means buy ever bigger houses to store the
growing stash of stuff they will not live long enough to use. By
unremarked accretions, ever more of the surface of the planet is used to
extract, manufacture and store things we don’t need. Perhaps it’s
unsurprising that fantasies about the colonisation of space – which tell
us we can export our problems instead of solving them – have
As the philosopher Michael Rowan points
out, the inevitabilities of compound growth mean that if last year’s
predicted global growth rate for 2014 (3.1%) is sustained, even if we
were miraculously to reduce the consumption of raw materials by 90% we
delay the inevitable by just 75 years(15). Efficiency solves nothing
while growth continues.
The inescapable failure of a society
built upon growth and its destruction of the Earth’s living systems are
the overwhelming facts of our existence. As a result they are mentioned
almost nowhere. They are the 21st Century’s great taboo, the subjects
guaranteed to alienate your friends and neighbours. We live as if
trapped inside a Sunday supplement: obsessed with fame, fashion and the
three dreary staples of middle class conversation: recipes, renovations
and resorts. Anything but the topic that demands our attention.
Statements of the bleeding obvious, the
outcomes of basic arithmetic, are treated as exotic and unpardonable
distractions, while the impossible proposition by which we live is
regarded as so sane and normal and unremarkable that it isn’t worthy of
mention. That’s how you measure the depth of this problem: by our
inability even to discuss it.
George Monbiot is the author of the best selling books The Age of Consent: a manifesto for a new world order and Captive State: the corporate takeover of Britain. He writes a weekly column for the Guardian newspaper. Visit his website at
2. Grantham expressed this volume as 1057
cubic metres. In his paper We Need To Talk About Growth, Michael Rowan
translated this as 2.5 billion billion solar systems. (
This source gives the volume of the solar system (if it is treated as a
sphere) at 39,629,013,196,241.7 cubic kilometres, which is roughly 40 x
1021 cubic metres. Multiplied by 2.5 billion billion, this gives 1041
cubic metres. So, unless I’ve got the wrong figure for the volume of the
solar system or screwed my units up, which is eminently possible,
Michael Rowan’s translation looks like an underestimate. I’ll stick with
his figure though, as I don’t have much confidence in my own. Any
improvements, comments or corrections via the contact form gratefully
3. EA Wrigley, 2010. Energy and the English Industrial Revolution. Cambridge University Press.
12. Philippe Sibaud, 2012. Opening
Pandora’s Box: The New Wave of Land Grabbing by the Extractive
Industries and the Devastating Impact on Earth. The Gaia Foundation.
15. Michael Rowan, 2014. We Need To Talk About Growth (And we need to do the sums as well.)