Today, as I listened to Hillary Clinton on the radio, I heard something profoundly more troubling than rote populist verbiage or party line politics. I heard her tout this statistic, and I paraphrase, “Our Economy is a 70% consumer economy; therefore, the more expendable income everyone has the better the economy can be for everyone.”
Of course this comment surfaced while she was waxing eloquently about black employment rates, the disproportionate pay of men to women, the lack of good paying jobs post the “great recession,” the role that employee unions play in securing benefits and pay for their members, etc. It was a speech on the economy she gave while campaigning in North Carolina.
Besides the ideology she seemed to be dousing upon herself , the statistic she shared was abruptly disturbing. So disturbing, in fact, that I listened to little else she was saying. The statistic took me back to David Harvey’s text (see my previous analysis) The Enigma of Capital and Richard Heinberg’s text The End of Growth.
To provide a little context to this, earlier today I read about the bleaching of the world’s coral reefs. It was shared by one of my more intellectual facebook friends who never fails to recommend a thoughtful read. Thanks for the read Ashton.
I don’t know if you know this, but, we are apparently in one of the largest bleaching events in recorded history. Bleaching is the means by which coral attempt to save themselves from rising water temperatures or other changes to their environment that threaten them. To do so, they release the algae that grow on them and provide them with life. If conditions do not change, the algae is released and never returned. The coral will die.
As best as scientists can tell, the bleaching is a result of rising water temperatures across the globe. For ecosystems as fragile as coral reefs, even a half a degree rise in water temperatures can make a sizeable negative difference. Coral reef bleaching is not new. In fact, it has been around as long as coral have been around, presumably thousands to hundreds of thousands of years. What is new is the scale we are witnessing and rapidity with which it is being repeated.
The culprit scientists are suggesting? Carbon. Our world, functioning as a greenhouse, is causing these temperature fluctuations and in return can also cause fragile ecosystems to become disequilibrialized and in return die.
What generates Carbon? Well, lots of our machines and manmade activity causes carbon. The issue isn’t carbon per se; the issue is too much carbon. Nature cannot adequately deal with the amounts we are now producing. Yes, there have always been cow flatulence and forest fires and other natural phenomena that can cause carbon. The issue is not that since cows cause carbon we should therefore kill cows or keep them from farting.
The issue is we are producing too much carbon for our existing carbon reducers (aka Forests) to handle and the over abundance is causing the world to heat slightly more than multiple ecosystems can sustain. I really don’t understand how this is a conservative or a liberal issue but I do see how ideology can blind a person to the common sense of this.
This rise in ocean temperatures is one issue, nevermind the acidification of oceans and pollution that is causing changes we have yet to feel as land sharks.
Bleaching of coral reefs are not the only issue we have in the oceans. Apparently, garbage can form islands the size of Texas and who really knows how bad or good all that garbage is for the oceans. Just google “garbage island.”
Back to Hillary’s quote. We live in a 70% consumer economy. 70%! Do you realize how large that number is and what it means?
What it means is that the only way our economy can grow and the only way wealth can be grown, redistributed, whatever, is for the human race to make more things, buy more things, waste more things, dispose of more things, and deplete natural resources for more things.
There is no other way. All matter has mass and takes up space…and the production of things to consume will follow this law as well.
As a consequence of all this “making” we will be producing a lot of carbon. Machines make things. Burning forests allows us to make things. Creating toxic chemicals that cannot be absorbed into the earth is the result of making things. Making things requires industry, especially if we are talking the scale that is 70% of the US economy and this not to mention what all this making would mean for the economic demands of the rest of the world.
A byproduct of all this making? Carbon.
The United States Gross Domestic Product last year was roughly 17.8 TRILLION dollars. GDP is how we measure our economy and its health. It is the measure of everything our country makes and sells, either at home or abroad.
GDP is also built on the assumption that infinite growth of 3% each year is “normal” and “healthy.” Politicians, particularly those infatuated with Ronald Reagan, love to bandy this 3% around as if it’s as absolute as John 3:16. Forecasts for 2016 is a 2% growth rate OVER that 17.9 Trillion, so around 18.4 Trillion. Astonishingly, the forecast of GDP by 2026 is a whopping 27.6 TRILLION GDP. Just take a look at these CBO projections for yourself. Wow. Just wow.
There is nothing to scale that can sustain our global economy in a carbon free way and do so at such percentages. The technology simply isn’t there. In order for America to continue on this trend we will be making lots of things, running a lot of machines, creating a lot of waste, and in turn, having an even larger impact on the planet then than we do now. To think we can just recycle everything as some infinite remainder that can be dealt with really means we do not understand what an infinite remainder is.
I know the naysayers: The planet has always changed. Seasons come and go. Etc. Thanks for the anecdotal nursery rhymes Sean Hannity…
This is true, but it’s also equally true that this planet has never had as many people on it as it does today. There has never been as much global activity as today. It doesn’t mean we’re special or that we have to buy into some weird notion of manifest destiny. It’s just a fact. There is simply nothing analogous about our current global situation to the past…thus all analogies must fail.
They may, however, allow you sleep better at night.
Thus we come full circle with Hillary’s statement and the reality of a world where coral reefs are bleaching and garbage islands appear ex nihilo, both as a product of human activity and a planet changing faster than anyone can comprehend.
Welcome to the Anthropocene everyone. (If you don’t know what the Anthropocene is, this may help)
May we ask a few questions at this point?
What exactly is the consequence of putting all of our marbles in this economic model that requires we CONSUME in order to live? What have we done to ourselves to place ourselves in such a tragic situation? A situation that doesn’t seem to have many large scale answers OTHER THAN RUIN! What happened to a time when people USED things for needs instead of consumed things out of desire? And is this economic model, as taxing as it is on natural resources and the economic strophes it creates, not somehow also akin to what it means to say the world has fallen from grace? Could it be that this unbridled desire that has “created wealth” is actually a wolf in sheep’s clothing? Are we finally seeing the eclipse of Andrew Carnegie?
Yet for some sins, even forgiveness will not be enough.
We most certainly are not in Eden any longer…and in fact, a great irony has occurred. We long for Eden, yet in order to get back to Eden we are seemingly hell bent on destroying it in the process as we quest for what Eden is supposed to look like. We are so far removed from a sense of Edenic contentment that all our quests now are simply idols.
70% consumer economy.
I fear for the world my children and their children will inherit. Those percentages at compounded rates and those rates compounded by population growth should cause us all to pause and consider our daily routines and contemplate what a 70% CONSUMER economy really means.
May God help us because I fear there is no turning back from this precipice especially if the world continues to lack the global will to change it.