The limits to growth

Stein’s Law: If something cannot go on forever, someday it will stop.

I’ve completed a series of posts about China’s technological and economic progress, and how the United States may be falling behind.

The problem with framing things in this way is that, in the long run, there are limits to economic growth and someday the race will have to come to an end.

So maybe, instead of asking how we Americans can avoid being overtaken and left behind by the Chinese, I should have been asking how to disconnect from a economic system that requires ever-increasing consumption and create one based on sustainability and security.

Can we disconnect from an economic system that requires ever-increasing consumption and create one based on sustainability and security?

Even though I am not particularly extravagant by American standards, a sustainable world would require a greater degree of austerity than I have ever experienced.

I am one of the lucky ones.  Millions of Americans live in dire poverty even by world standards and millions more live in a precarious state where they could sink into dire poverty at any moment.  How could they be expected to embrace austerity.

Any political program based on shared sacrifice because “we’re all in this together” requires a certain basic economic justice in which there is no gross exploitation, and a certain economic security in which nobody has to fear being without food, shelter or medical care.

This would only be a starting point, and we Americans are a long way from this starting point.  And time is running out.

I think the pandemic, severe storms, wildfires and other emergencies of the past few years are just the beginning.

We as a nation are not coping well with these emergencies.  People on the left and right are losing confidence in our governing institutions with good reason.

I hope for reform that will create a better-functioning government and a greater degree of social justice, and then it will be possible to tackle the long-range issues. 

Of course none of this can be accomplished unless we bring a stop to the forever wars.

A long, complicated and difficult agenda!

But the alternative is a slow decline, followed by a sudden collapse, followed by something else.

The something else might resemble Bolshevism or fascism, evolving into something resembling ancient despotism or medieval feudalism. 

Ideally, the something else could be radically decentralized democracy, with communities providing for most of their own basic needs.

Or maybe something good will happen that I can’t even conceive of.  One can hope.

I admit I don’t have any personal plan for dealing with what I foresee except to continue to enjoy my pleasant life and hope that the crisis doesn’t happen during my lifetime.  (I’m 84.) 

I do not act on what I think I know.  Do not follow my example.

The World Economy Is Suddenly Running Low on Everything by Brendan Murray, Enda Curran and Kim Chipman for Bloomberg Businessweek.

The world has become dependent on complicated global supply chains, created to minimize cost and maximize profit.  The pandemic disrupted those supply chains, and caused failures of businesses that were links in those chains.

The lesson is for nations and communities to become more self-sufficient than they have been, recognizing that total self-sufficency is impossible.  But even this will mean less abundance and higher prices, but (hopefully) less waste.

Will There Be Resource Wars In a Renewable Future? by Michael Klare for TomDispatch.  Hat tip to Steve from Texas.

During much of the 20th century, geopolitics was a struggle for the world’s oil and gas resources.  But solar panels, wind turbines and other sources of renewable energy also require scarce raw materials, especially lithium, cobalt and rare earths.

The world could be in for a global struggle for control of these raw materials.  Or, as Klare wrote, the chief consumers of these products, especially the USA and China, could cooperate.

They could join in establishing new mines and processing facilities for critical minerals, in developing substitutes for materials in short supply, in improving mining techniques to reduce environmental hazards, and in recycling of vital minerals from discarded batteries and other products.

One can hope.


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