IImagine that in 3030 BC. J.-C., the totality of the possessions of the Egyptian people fills a cubic meter. Let’s say these possessions grew by 4.5% per year. How big would this reserve have been during the Battle of Actium in 30 BC? It’s the calculation by investment banker Jeremy Grantham.
Come on, guess. Ten times the size of the pyramids? All the sand of the Sahara? The Atlantic Ocean? The volume of the planet? A bit more? That’s 2.5 billion billion solar systems. It doesn’t take long, as you reflect on this result, to reach the paradoxical position that salvation lies in collapse.
To succeed is to destroy oneself. To fail is to destroy yourself. This is the link we created. Ignore if you owe climate change, the collapse of biodiversity, the depletion of water, soil, minerals, oil; even though all these problems have miraculously disappeared, the mathematics of compound growth makes continuity impossible.
Economic growth is an artifact of the use of fossil fuels. Before large quantities of coal were mined, every increase in industrial production was met with a decrease in agricultural production, as the charcoal or power required by industry reduced the land available for growing food. All previous industrial revolutions collapsed because growth could not be sustained. But coal broke that cycle and enabled – for a few hundred years – the phenomenon we now call sustained growth.
Neither capitalism nor communism made possible the progress and pathologies (total war, unprecedented concentration of global wealth, planetary destruction) of the modern era. It was coal, followed by oil and gas. The meta-trend, the parent narrative, is carbon-fueled expansion. Our ideologies are just side plots. Now that the accessible reserves are exhausted, we must ransack the hidden corners of the planet to support our impossible proposition.
On Friday, days after scientists announced that the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is now inevitable, the Ecuadorian government decided to allow oil drilling in the heart of Yasuní National Park. He had made an offer to other governments: if they gave him half the value of the oil in that part of the park, he would leave the stuff in the ground. You might see this as blackmail or fair trade. Ecuador is poor, its oil fields are rich. Why, argued the government, should it leave them untouched without compensation as everyone sinks into the inner circle of hell? He asked for $3.6 billion and received $13 million. The result is that Petroamazonas, a company with a colorful record of destruction and spillage, will now enter one of the most biodiverse places on earth, in which one hectare of rainforest is said to contain more species than exist on the entire North American continent.
The British oil company Soco now hopes to penetrate Africa’s oldest national park, Virunga, in the Democratic Republic of Congo; one of the last strongholds of mountain gorillas and okapi, chimpanzees and forest elephants. In Britain, where a potential 4.4 billion barrels of shale oil has just been identified in the southeast, the government fantasizes about turning leafy suburbs into a new Niger Delta. To this end it is change trespass laws to allow drilling without consent and offering lavish bribes to local people. These new reservations solve nothing. They do not end our thirst for resources; they make it worse.
The compound growth trajectory shows that the stripping of the planet has only just begun. As the volume of the world economy grows, wherever there is something concentrated, unusual, valuable, it will be sought and exploited, its resources extracted and dispersed, the diverse and differentiated wonders of the world reduced. to the same gray stubble.
Some people try to solve the impossible equation with the myth of dematerialization: the claim that as processes become more efficient and gadgets are miniaturized, we use less material overall. There are no signs of this happening. Iron ore production increased by 180% in 10 years. The trade body Forest Industries tells us that “Global paper consumption is at an all-time high and will continue to grow.” If, in the digital age, we are not even reducing our paper consumption, what hope is there for other conveniences?
Look at the lives of the super-rich, who dictate the pace of global consumption. Are their yachts getting smaller? Their houses? Their works? Their purchase of rare woods, rare fish, rare stones? Those who can afford it are buying ever bigger houses to store the growing supply of things they won’t live long enough to use. Through trivial accretions, more and more of the planet’s surface is being used to mine, manufacture, and store things we don’t need. It is perhaps unsurprising that the fantasies of space colonization – which tell us that we can export our problems instead of solving them – resurfaced.
As philosopher Michael Rowan points out, the inevitabilities of compound growth mean that if last year’s predicted global growth rate for 2014 (3.1%) continues, even if we miraculously reduce commodity consumption by 90 %, we will delay the inevitable of just 75 years old. Efficiency solves nothing as long as growth continues.
The inevitable failure of a growth-based society and its destruction of the Earth’s living systems are the damning facts of our existence. As a result, they are mentioned almost nowhere. They are the great taboo of the 21st century, subjects guaranteed to alienate your friends and neighbors. We live as if locked in a Sunday supplement: obsessed with fame, fashion, and the three sad staples of middle-class conversation: recipes, renovations, and resorts. Everything except the subject that requires our attention.
Statements of bleeding evidence, results of basic arithmetic, are treated as exotic and unforgivable distractions, while the impossible proposition by which we live is considered so wholesome, normal and banal that it does not deserve to be mentioned. This is how you measure the depth of this problem: by our inability to even discuss it.