Beware of Growth: Getting the economy growing has been the refrain of the Obama administration and the justification for every bad deal, budget cut, and unbalanced compromise it's made. The desperate effort to grow the economy to solve our economic woes is what keeps Timothy Geithner at the helm of the Treasury and is what stalls the regulation of greenhouse gasses. It's why we are told we must sacrifice environmental quality for pipelines and why young men and women are sacrificed to protect access to oil, the lubricant for an acquisitive economic engine. The financial empire of the one percenters and the political order it has shaped are predicated on easy and relentless growth. How, we are asked, will there be enough for everyone if we don't keep growing?
The fundamental contradiction of our time is this: we have built an all-encompassing economic engine that requires unending growth. A contraction of even a percent or two is a crisis, and yet we are embedded in ecosystems that are reaching or have reached their limits. This isn't complicated: There's only so much fertile soil or fresh water available, only so many fish in the ocean, only so much CO2 the planet can absorb and remain habitable.
Yes, you can get around this contradiction for a while by exploiting your neighbor's habitat, using technological advances to extend your natural resources, and stealing from the future—that is, using up soil, minerals, and water your grandchildren (someday to be part of that same 99 percent) will need. But the limits to those familiar and, in the past, largely successful strategies are becoming more evident all the time.
At some point, we'll discover that you can't exist for long beyond the boundaries of the natural world, that (as with every other species) if you overload the carrying capacity of your habitat, you crash. Warming temperatures, chaotic weather patterns, extreme storms, monster wildfires, epic droughts, Biblical floods, an avalanche of species extinction… that collapse is upon us now. In the human realm, it translates into hunger and violence, mass migrations and civil strife, failed states and resource wars.
Like so much else these days, the crash, as it happens, will not be suffered in equal measure by all of us. The one percenters will be atop the hill, while the 99 percent will be in the flood lands below swimming for their lives, clinging to debris, or drowning. The Great Recession has previewed just how that will work.
An unsustainable economy is inherently unfair, and worse is to come. After all, the car is heading for the cliff's edge, the grandkids are in the backseat, and all we're arguing about is who can best put the pedal to the metal.
Occupy Earth: Give credit where it's due: it's been the genius of the protesters in Zuccotti Park to shift public discourse to whether the distribution of economic burdens and rewards is just and whether the economic system makes us whole or reduces and divides us. It's hard to imagine how we'll address our converging ecological crises without first addressing the way accumulating wealth and power has captured the political system. As long as Washington is dominated and intimidated by giant oil companies, Wall Street speculators, and corporations that can buy influence and even write the rules that make buying influence possible, there's no meaningful way to deal with our economy's addiction to fossil fuels and its dire consequences.
Nature's 99 percent is an amazingly diverse community of species. They feed and share and recycle within a web of relationships so dynamic and complex that we have yet to fathom how it all fits together. What we have excelled at so far is breaking things down into their parts and then reassembling them; that, after all, is how a barrel of crude oil becomes rocket fuel or a lawn chair.
When it comes to the more chaotic, less linear features of life like climate, ecosystems, immune systems, or fetal development, we are only beginning to understand thresholds and feedback loops, the way the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. But we at least know that the parts matter deeply and that, before we even fully understand them, we're losing them at an accelerating rate. Forests are dying, fisheries are going, extinction is on steroids.
Degrading the planet's operating systems to bolster the bottom line is foolish and reckless. It hurts us all. No less important, it's unfair. The 1 percent profit, while the rest of us cough and cope.
After Occupy Wall Street, isn't it time for Occupy Earth?
Chip Ward co-founded and led Families Against Incinerator Risk and HEAL Utah. A TomDispatch regular, he wrote about campaigns to make polluters accountable in Canaries on the Rim: Living Downwind in the West and about visionary conservationists in Hope's Horizon: Three Visions for Healing the American Land. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.