Our chronic dependence on an invented system of growth-based capitalism that is destabilising the global climate system and laying waste to the natural world looks increasingly like a Faustian bargain, and metaphorical Mephistopheles is now knocking at the door looking for his due, as I explored in the Business Post in mid-July.
LIVING WITHIN a capitalist system increasingly feels like being in an abusive relationship. Deep down, we know it’s bad for us, but for now our abuser meets all our needs and wants, and the alternatives seem unappealing. So we find ourselves in the jaws of a series of ever more intractable progress traps.
Consider our relationship with fossil fuels. The discovery of how to extract almost boundless energy from aeons of stored ancient sunlight transformed civilisation, allowing humans to dominate the planet like no single species in a billion years of Earth’s history.
However, this Promethean gift contained a curse. While fossil fuels could lift much of humanity out of poverty and unlock unimaginable wealth, they could also destroy us unless we learned to use them sparingly. Today, unrestrained fossil fuel burning is dumping over 36 billion tonnes of powerful and persistent heat-trapping gases into the global atmosphere every year.
On our current pathway, humanity will, by mid-century, likely have irreversibly locked in enough heating to have triggered global famines and mass migration as the food system crumbles under the pressure of droughts, flooding, coastal inundation and lethal heat waves.
Globalisation and democracy will by then be dim memories as nation states collapse, and resource and water wars rage across the planet.
This dire scenario is unfortunately not the product of this writer’s apocalyptic fantasies, but is distilled from the best available scientific evidence on the consequences of the global average temperature rise breaching 2C or even 3C in the coming decades.
To deliver ourselves and our children into this fossil-fuelled inferno, all we have to do is continue with business as usual for another decade or so.
Capitalism has been spectacularly successful at converting natural resources into commodities and wealth. Yet “the capitalist system as it currently stands is neither designed for nor capable of consciously inhibiting its own propensity for unsustainable growth”, according to a 2015 paper by Dr Jonathan Park published in the Journal of Sustainable Development.
While in theory capitalism is about meeting human needs efficiently via the marketplace, the reality is very different. Trillions of euros are spent annually via advertising and marketing on creating and stoking demand for goods and services.
Much of this economic activity contributes little or nothing to human welfare while ratcheting up pressure on the natural world from which these resources are being plundered, and into which our wastes are carelessly discarded.
In just the last seven decades, the global economy has increased eightfold, yet nearly five billion people still live in grinding poverty, due to that bounty being shared unequally. The toll on nature has been far greater, with vast swathes of habitat destroyed, and the world’s total population of wild animals falling by more than two-thirds since 1970.
These numbers may be shocking, but they are not new. Corporations like Exxon Mobil and Shell knew more than 50 years ago that continuing fossil fuel burning unabated would lead to devastating global consequences by the early to mid-21st century.
Rather than act on the advice of their own scientists, they instead poured resources into funding misinformation campaigns designed to discredit climate science and greenwash their activities. They found many willing accomplices in the world’s media and in politics to help them.
After all, the relentless pursuit of economic growth and profits has fuelled the world’s major economies and largest corporations, so mere scientific evidence was never going to be allowed to halt infinite growth.
A paper from the European Environment Agency last year pointed out that our entire civilisation is “profoundly unsustainable”, adding that our survival would require “fundamental transformations to a different type of economy and society”.
Having set out the nature and scale of the predicament we face, this is the part of the article where the author is supposed to offer solutions. But frankly, I am stumped.
Tempting though it is to solely blame evil oil barons, corrupt politicians or mendacious media Svengalis for our woes, we are all to some degree implicated in clinging blindly to a system that both nurtures and threatens us.
Having wrestled with this conundrum for two decades, I find myself no closer to having a satisfactory answer. It is blindingly obvious that we need to abandon the pursuit of economic growth in favour of steady state economics and ecological recovery.
This would mean the end of cheap flights, fast fashion, most cars, tourism, livestock agriculture and much more besides, while winding back our overall consumption levels at least half a century.
What would such a radical transformation look like and, more to the point, what institution would have either the power or inclination to make this happen on a global scale? There are countless Hollywood movies depicting global Armageddon, yet can you think of even one that reimagined a stable, thriving future after capitalism?
Hands up who is in favour of permanent austerity? Even when the alternative is near-certain catastrophe, any politician promoting it would be wiped out at the polls.
There are economists, journalists and others in positions of influence in Ireland who fully grasp this existential quandary, but they have mostly decided to keep schtum, knowing that taking a strong public position on this would be deeply unpopular.
However, reality has a way of catching up with us all. While it may seem tempting, closing our eyes to our predicament will not make it disappear.