"Credit crunch; economic crisis; financial meltdown…2008 became the year of monetary superlatives – and for good reason because, as far as most objective economic observers can tell, this is one event that is going to stretch well into the future, leaving no national or regional economy untouched. The Western capitalist economy is in meltdown – its financial rivers running drier by the month, it’s consumers having to climb higher and higher to harvest the fruits of their labours. Banks are swallowed, smothered or die. Chain stores cry out for customers. Politicians urge us to spend not save; to keep the wheels greased and the sputtering engine charged with just a little fuel. The media shouts as LOUD as it can: we are in CRISIS! Times are BAD!!
Meanwhile, in the Amazon rainforest, close to the Brazilian / Bolivian border, an undiscovered tribe of semi-mobile hunter-gatherers feel no pain from the downturn; sense nothing of the slump; are blissfully ignorant of the financial despair beyond their sensory horizon. Their world (rapidly being approached on all sides by the tide of "progress") has only one economy that matters: the economy that mattered long before money was ever exchanged, saved, spent and lost; long before interest, tax and inflation were ever conceived; and long before "resources" were extracted (stolen) and transported from far away to create the illusion we call growth. Their economy is simply the ability to manage what they need to live from day to day: no money, no interest, no tax, no imports and exports.
But for now we will, as we should, leave them alone and ponder the unreal economy, the Economy that was capitalised in the Industrial Revolution and has danced for the entertainment of the privileged few ever since.
A Troubling Fact
When you plot the Earth’s human population against the amount of carbon dioxide being created by that same population, there is an undeniable similarity in trend: as population rises, so does carbon dioxide production, up and up towards their twin tipping points. After a while there will be no return to a world where ice caps refroze in the winter and we could rely on the seasonal rains to water our crops: after a while the heat engine will start a runaway trip towards who knows what end. After a while there will simply be too many people to feed, to clothe, to shelter, to heal; but it’s not the raw numbers that are breaching the limits, however frightening they seem and crowded it feels. Population growth is slowing, but carbon growth is accelerating – there must be something else.
So Trade is the measure of the strength of the Economy and, as only a person immersed in an ocean of denial could refute, the production of Carbon Dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere, the oceans and the exhausted biosphere is a direct function of the power of that economic machine.
There is Money.
Take the graph of population against carbon dioxide and plot another line, this one showing the amount of trade between different Economies, and two of the lines start to take their partners in that privileged dance which has come to define whether nations and corporations are successful or not. Population has become a glowering wallflower, while Trade and Carbon twist and turn their way ever upward.
But why should this be the case?
It’s simple, when you think about it: trade is synonymous with Economic activity in the modern, globalized world. Unlike the self-sufficient Amazonian tribe that finds all it needs within walking distance, nations are no longer content to remain within their Economic borders: they cannot gain the diversity and level of growth they "need" simply by using (and exhausting) what they have, especially not if their consumers have become accustomed to a materially high standard of living. They must trade to create the necessary flow of materials, goods and capital to feed a growing Economy. More that just this, though, as corporations demand transparent borders and global channels, they – not the national governments – end up dictating the way the Economy operates: workers in China, raw materials in Uganda, oil in Saudi Arabia, customers in the USA – no problem! Who needs local economies when you can have a global Economy?
Contraction Is Good
At this point you will need to make a decision: do you value Economy (with a big "E") over ecology? Or, to put it another way, having seen that there is a clear link between Economic strength and environmental damage – and I haven’t even taken into account mining, deforestation, toxic dumping, agricultural pollution and slave labour – are you prepared to recognise that link, and accept that the Economy has to shrink?
I can’t make that decision for you, but I can help you a little by answering perhaps the one thing that, if you put aside the "growth is good" rhetoric that infects the civilized humanity like an endemic disease, most people will want to ask: will I be hurt by a shrinking Economy?
It’s a fair question, but relatively easy to answer: it depends on how much you depend on the Economic system to maintain your way of life, and how important the lifestyle you have become used to (or wish to attain) really is to you. This is because the real casualties of the economic collapse will not be the people who have modest needs and the ability to grow, make, cook, mend, discuss and think about the future. The real casualties will be those who depend entirely on the economic and political system for their "needs", especially those who have high-consumption lifestyles.
The loudest voices during any kind of economic downturn come from those people who have most benefited materially from economic growth: the urban and suburban rich, the corporate leaders and the political elites who judge the quality of their lives by the size of their house, the size and number of their cars, the expense of their vacations, the amount of consumer goods they own and the number of people they control. To them, recession means the unimaginable prospect of a more frugal and less powerful lifestyle; Economic depression is lifestyle meltdown. If their place in civilized society is threatened then the whole of society must be made to feel their own fears: by exploiting their position in the hierarchical structure, they manufacture a universal fear of Economic contraction. We become scared because they want us to be scared.
Fear is contagious.
That said, many people have become trapped in a way of life, perhaps through no fault of their own, that makes them entirely dependent on the System for their well-being: those in cities, living entirely on state support or working long hours in a poorly paid job, initially have a lot to lose should those mechanisms fail. But the surprising thing is, such people have had to develop many of the skills required to survive a lack of financial and material resources: essentially, the urban poor – the majority of whom have considerably more self-respect than the urban rich – like those brought up between the two World Wars with limited financial means, already have many of the skills to survive Economic contraction perfectly well. In the short to medium term there will remain a baseline of support from the state, and almost certainly sufficient work to go round to obtain the essentials of life; during which those that really want to get out of the state and corporate created poverty trap, will be able to create a new, more system independent life, away from the hellish cities and the corporate machine.
This is no Utopian dream: it’s simply a move towards a less dependent, less damaging way of life.
The rich and powerful have no intention of changing; they want things to carry on as they have done since Industrial Civilization was first created. For them, the worst thing that can happen is for the Economy that has fed their – and our – dreams to power down and fail. For the planet, and every single natural habitat, food web and species on it, the best thing that can happen is for that destructive thing called Economic Growth to be turned on its head, and buried for good."
I think I'm definitely on your side, but that means I'm very keen that you present your case as flawlessly as possible. In the graph you present of world trade, population growth and growth in CO2 emissions you suggest that the first and the last are in the closest 'dance'. But population growth and CO2 emissions are both linear to a first approximation and world trade is growing exponentially. So although we know that population growth is largely taking place in the developing world and CO2 emissions come mainly from the developed world the graph as such shows the strongest correlation between CO2 emissions and population growth.