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More Is Less?

Are Americans, pushed by Mother Nature, ready to accept that there are limits to economic growth? One of our country’s core values is the goal of increasing personal consumption, increasing personal wealth. We applaud the stories of our broke immigrant ancestors coming to these shores, working hard and prospering. The political mantra has been to multiply personal consumption opportunities, to “grow the economy”, and to increase the Gross National Product. Labor leader Walter Reuther expressed his successful organization’s goal simply as “More, More, More.” We have tended to equate achievement of government’s primary goal – fostering the personal happiness of its citizens – with high production and consumption of goods and services.

Scientists have listened to signals from Mother Nature that centuries of man’s treating Earth as a bottomless source of goodies, and as a huge waste dump, was endangering environmental balances man and civilizations have depended on for 10,000 years. Many economists from Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill on down have told us, as Mill put it, that “The increase of wealth is not boundless. The end of growth leads to a stationary state.” The Club of Rome expanded on that message in its 1972 book “The Limits of Growth,” and many other thinkers have confirmed the painfully obvious message that infinite growth is not possible on a finite Earth.

But climate scientists have mostly been ignored or belittled by the men and women governing this country, as underlined in last night’s debate among the candidates for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. Optimism is an attractive and a winning political message, as Ronald Reagan and others have proved. All the candidates accepted “growing the economy” as a primary goal for his or her presidency; none paid attention to what economists call “diseconomies” – the costs to the community and its natural environment of manufacturing and other economic activities, costs which are not included in the market prices of the goods or services. To acknowledge that there are limits to American economic growth would risk being labeled as a pessimist, which is often deadly to a candidate.

This blog has explored various psychological mechanisms which encourage each of us to ignore or to discount facts which do not fit within our set values and our views of the world. There is the “confirmation bias” which leads us to give weight only to new facts which fit comfortably within our own preconceptions. The idea of natural limits is arguably un-American; it conflicts with a culture which glorifies “conquest” of a continent and shaping a vast land to meet human needs. But, pause, there are some hopeful signs that increasing consumption is ceasing to be the gold standard for defining national and individual success. Part of the hope comes from the ancient Jewish-Christian tradition that accumulating physical wealth is not life’s primary purpose. Jesus, after all, was a homeless man. Pope Francis, in that anti-materialist mode, published a moving critique of destructive, accumulative capitalism last May in his 200-page encyclical Laudato Si. And while it is not apparent in any political messaging in the current presidential campaign, millions of Americans recognize that man’s consumption of Earth’s resources is changing the world and threatens all of us.

But the bottom line, for now, is that the American public and its political class have demonstrated a remarkable ability to ignore and discount warnings that climate science gives us, and both will likely continue to be bullet-proof to factual arguments for a time. It’s sad, but we know that even if intellectually-broadcast facts are not persuasive, acute pain is. That pain is the basis for Paul Gilding’s optimistic book, “The Great Disruption – Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring on the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World.” Gilding shares my belief that it is too late to prevent systems’ disruptions that will badly hurt most of us. He, however, has faith that humankind will respond to the pain climate changes will bring by creating a new world, societies in which consumption of material things will be of much lower priority, and human happiness will expand and thrive. He sees Western democracies’ responses to attacks in World War II as a model for energetic actions to build a brave, new world, but only after the pain of natural systems collapsing gets everyone’s full attention.

My father told me in about 1980, as I shared my environmental worries with him, “Aw, they’ll find some technological fix.” I’d like to believe he was right, and that Gilding’s collapse and rebirth is not a necessary part of our future.


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