Cassandra 2012 Headline Animator

Thursday, 3 May 2012

If Growth is the Answer ...

... you are probably asking the wrong question.

The political debate in Ireland, in the UK and, indeed, throughout the world is polarised between those who argue for so called austerity now - in order to stabilise budgets and support growth later - and those, mostly on the left, who argue that austerity is making things worse and we need growth now. No-one from the mainstream is prepared to face up to the possibility that growth has reached its limits; that maybe growth is the problem, not the solution.

There is however a growing number of people who argue not only that there are limits to growth but that we have reached them and that we need to find new definitions of prosperity that involve measuring the quality of life rather than material possessions. The idea has been around since at least the early 1970's. Those old enough will be able to remember the crisis in oil supply that occurred at that time. In Britain in 1973 and '74 the government introduced measures that included phased power cuts and businesses forced to operate for only three days each week. Some people began to wonder what would happen when the oil ran out altogether.

But new sources of supply were discovered and developed and the world fell back into its normal state of complacency. Governments continued to pursue growth as the means of ensuring ever increasing standards of living for their electors. Soon the developing nations began a game of catch-up which meant that their annual rate of growth was 2-3 times that of developed countries. In one of the books referred to in Tom Schueneman's piece, to which I provided a link above, its author points out that the price of crude oil peaked shortly before the economic crash of 2008. He suggests that the crash was as much a consequence of that spike in oil price as of the excessive borrowing that had accompanied it.

Four years on and growth is beginning to return in some of the advanced nations. And the oil price is once again increasing rapidly, the most visible evidence of this being the prices at the filling stations here in Ireland and in the UK. Meanwhile oil producers are developing increasingly costly and difficult ways of reclaiming the precious liquid from deep beneath the oceans, from shale and by fracking. Oil may be a long way still from running out but its price makes it economically viable to, as it were, scrape the bottom of the planet's barrel.

Oil is not the only problem

And it is not just the supply of oil that is reaching its limit. Demand for other important raw materials is, again as in the 1970s, ensuring that their prices too are increasing and new and more difficult sources of supply are being exploited, sometimes with potentially disastrous environmental consequences.

Perhaps the most worrying of all these pressures on resources is that on water supplies. We are fortunate here in Ireland to be blessed with an abundance of water. Some of it is arguably in the wrong place. There is anger in some quarters at plans to extract water from the Shannon and store it in a new reservoir in the Midlands to ensure security of supply for Dublin and its environs. That is a tiny scheme when considered alongside several gigantic water management schemes being undertaken in China.

There are those that believe that the wars that have plagued the Middle East throughout the half century of my adult life are bound to intensify in the future driven, not by a desire to control the oil supply so much as the need for access to the waters of the Jordan, Nile and Euphrates.

You will notice that, in identifying these dangers attaching to the continued pursuit of economic growth I have not mentioned climate change. The burning of fossil fuels that accompanies all our economic activity is changing our climate in ways the consequences of which are unpredictable. Droughts, storms and floods are part of it, so is the possibility of crop failure in parts of the world where food production is already on a knife edge.

Is there room for hope?

I argued in my second post of this series that austerity as experienced in Europe today would be viewed as luxury living by those who experienced the economic conditions that followed World War 2. Europe came out of that period with a programme of reconstruction that ensured two decades of near full employment.

Since the 1970s there have been varying levels of unemployment throughout the continent. It fell during the boom years, roughly 1997 to 2007, but even through that exceptional decade there remained a core of families for whom unemployment was the norm. Since 2008 unemployment has increased dramatically, at its worst in those places like Greece, Spain and Ireland, where the greatest debts accrued during those years. The fundamental question that needs to be faced is how to provide work for those millions without generating economic growth.

If all this sounds doom laden - and it is - I remain optimistic about the future, believing that humankind has the intelligence and the sense to adapt and respond to these unprecedented challenges. Sure, it will be painful for some, life is like that. But there are reasons to hope and I shall look at some of them in future posts.


1 comment:

  1. (This came from Tina Gregoire
    Frank, your post rocks. I agree with almost everything...and I rarely agree with any of my friends when it comes to politics. I don't know about your part of the woods, but in the states, I see very little difference between our two parties: Republicans and Democrats...though when forced, I think Republicans have a better grip on reality. I hope you have better politicians than we do.

    I think that austerity measures are impossible to avoid. The only alternative is probably printing money...which scares the crap out of me, but I don't know if the options are the same with the UK and Ireland. The only thing worse than austerity is worthless money. So, I see austerity as the lesser of two evils. (I'm not sure I'm talking about the same thing as your post. I'm looking at it from an America-centric viewpoint.)

    One thing I would like to add is that growth, while not being sustainable, might be darn near impossible. Where are the jobs supposed to come from. I love computers, of course, but computers have taken away a lot of jobs, such as secretaries, product reps, sales clerks, people who stock shelves...because we have spellcheck, online product orders, online shopping, and barcodes on grocery products.

    And, no...I'm not a Luddite. And, I realize that the computer age has helped create other jobs...but very few of them are for unskilled or semi-skilled labor. And, the factories are in China, anyway.

    As for water, we have already seen farmers fighting for water rights in the US...usually due to some small endangered snail. And, Los Angeles fights for its water "rights" from the Colorado River. I live in Seattle, which has plenty of water, but there will come a day when dry California will find a legal way to divert and steal our water. So, you are looking at something similar to what's happening in the US.

    I remember the oil crisis of the early 70s and the late 70s. However, people in America don't have the option of taking trains. And, I wouldn't want to be in Los Angeles when the fit hits the shan. Very insightful article...but I am hopeful that ingenuity will overcome most problems.