Friday, May 16, 2008

The jig's up

Ronald Wright’s 2004 book A Short History of Progress
ought to be read by everyone. Read it and teach it in
schools. Distribute copies at Chamber of Commerce
meetings. Hand it out on street corners, whatever. It is
indeed short (just 132 pages of main text, though the
notes at the end are compendious) and it’s highly
readable. Picking up on themes first comprehensively
articulated by Alfred Crosby in the less accessible
Ecological Imperialism
(1988), Wright argues that, like
many a civilization before us, we in the “West” today are
in a progress trap, slaves to runaway consumption,
waste and pollution that will bring us to ruin—unless we
act now to avert it. Which, one has to say, does not look
very likely, notwithstanding various hand-flapping
gestures by politicians. We may think, says Wright, that
somehow we’ll muddle through, but the difference
between us and the Roman Empire, say, is that we are
consuming not just the past (fossil fuels) and the present
(air, water etc) but our future (the resources that our
descendants—not just regionally but globally—might
have hoped to sustain themselves by). It's no accident,
I might add, that the global financial markets are based
more and more not on production and work in the real
economy but on tradeable futures; in that respect, too,
we are becoming, in the words of Tim Flannery's
memorable book title, future eaters.

Wright is particularly good in showing how the
Industrial Revolution that raised the West to such
prosperity and political dominance was funded by
the looting of North and South America.
Consequently, he writes,

We in the lucky countries of the West now regard our
two-century bubble of freedom and affluence as normal
and inevitable… Yet this new order is an anomaly: the
opposite of what usually happens as civilizations grow.
Our age was bankrolled by the seizing of half a planet,
extended by taking over most of the remaining half, and
has been sustained by spending down new forms of
natural capital, especially fossil fuels. In the New World,
the West hit the biggest bonanza of all time. And there
won’t be another like it…


So. The jig’s up. The party’s over. There will now be
a period of, at the very least, adjustment. Hang onto
your hats.

3 comments:

Truth Seeker said...

One way back to relative plenty would be to stop incenting people to have more babies than they would otherwise have. Current population trends would see a gradual reduction in population in many countries if policy makers would only allow it to actually happen. The pyramid scheme currently operating says each generation coming up must outnumber the one before it in order to be able to "afford" the relatively narrow window when the passing elders have ceased work. In reality, we baby boomers will likely work until we drop and the imagine cost may actually be much smaller than we have been warned of.

If we work to alleviate crushing poverty and allow women globally to control their fartility, all the evidence to date shows that the trend in population will be a downward one. A world 200 years from now with 1 or 2 billion people could be a harmonious place of relative plenty. The REAL problem today is human population and it's almost impossible to have a rational discussion on the matter without people irrationally leaping to scenarios of genocide, mass murder and coercion.

Truth Seeker said...

Um...."fertility". A most unfortunate typo.

Anonymous said...

I don't mind, as long as the adjustment can be delayed fifty years I won't care cos I'll be dead.