As the most serious economic crisis in
80 years rolls across
the planet, financial panic has shoved
food shortages, public-health emergencies, and ecological disasters
background. With fantastic fortunes at
stake, the number-one priority of governments and businesses must be
growth; those "green" initiatives announced not long ago with such
already been deferred or forgotten.
We Americans are now told that because our economy has been
kept afloat for so long on borrowed money and borrowed time, "our"
"our" jobs have gone to the other side of the globe, with India and
typically the scapegoats. We shouldn't
cut our carbon emissions, we're told, until India and China cut back. If our food crops end up in landfills or
petrol tanks, we're told, that doesn't affect hungry people; rather,
habits in the Eastern Hemisphere are the real key to the food crisis.
(For example, at the height of the
early-2008 global food shortages,
President George W. Bush said
of India, "Their middle class is
larger than our entire population. And
when you start getting wealth, you start demanding better nutrition and
food. And so demand is high, and that causes the price to go up.")
In all such pronouncements, the message is consistent: "We
in the West have gotten what we want.
Now, if the rest of you try to do the same, you'll spoil things
everyone." Where I live, there appears
to be little awareness of the grotesquely contorted positions that such
require their proponents to assume.
I lived in India in the
early 1980s and the late 1990s,
married into an Indian family, and have returned for months at a time
years. I have cheered on those Indian
citizens who are going against the grain, urging respect for nature and
sufficiency for all, and showing how both can be achieved.
That's in contrast to the model of the
industrial powers, which translates to efficiency for the few and
for everyone else. But government and
business elites, both East and West, continue working on the assumption
India, China, Brazil, and other emerging powers will follow the same
destructive road to wealth that Europe, Japan, and America continue to
Too much more of that lopsided growth will make this planet
a very nasty place to live. If
greenhouse-gas emissions are to be reduced to a level that will avert
global warming, economic activity will have to shrink, not grow.
According to a recent analysis
by Minqi Li, economics
professor at the University of Utah, the world economy must contract at
historically rapid clip - at an annual rate of about -1 to -3.4 percent
now and 2050 -- if atmospheric carbon dioxide is to be held below the
threshold of 445 parts per million. That
range in negative-growth estimates covers a range of scenarios going
dramatic to modest improvements in energy efficiency and alternative
technologies. But in all scenarios,
however rosy their assumptions, economic growth will have to be thrown
reverse or else.
Everything depends on how that economic
handled. The US economy declined by
about 55 percent in just four years at the start of the Great
the well-known catastrophic outcomes. At
the -2 percent annual rate of contraction required by Professor Li's
'medium-green' scenarios, economies would eventually shrink by an
to that Depression-era 55 percent, but over a period of more than 40
If economic activity is scaled down rationally, in a fair
and humane way, requiring the biggest sacrifices from the most
could all live in a better, cleaner world.
But when recession-plagued economies contract chaotically,
governments and industries to cast about for new ways to restore rapid
accumulation, almost everyone's environment deteriorates.
There is still time to cure the malignant economic growth
that we've unleashed, but the solution won't come from those people and
institutions that have managed to wreck both the global economy and the
ecology. A new way of thinking and
acting will have to come from the bottom up, and from both hemispheres
ailing planet. We'd should be ready; the
unsettled times that lie ahead may offer the opening we've been looking