Let’s Get Real: What is Sustainable in Markets, the Biosphere, and Society?

In a number of posts, I have discussed various social illusions such as the idea that the extractive industrial consumer economy could just keep growing permanently, as so many economists implicitly insist. That deeply flawed illusion rests on some equally defective assumptions.

Fracked Anthropocene Landscape.

Many people also believe that as industrial materials reach a state of depletion and what little is left is increasingly costly to extract, chemical and materials engineers will simply invent new ones to replace those no longer economic to mine. Fracked gas and oil cost much more in pollution as well as dollars.

Sure, innovation in materials science is not dead. But there are only so many elements in the periodic table. We have already combined many to produce new molecules and applied them to technology and industrial production. As with the extraction of oil and minerals mining, we have already achieved easy materials development. The further we go, the more costly and energy-intensive the process. Exhaustion of resources is real and not far off.

Unsustainable Industrial Civilization

At the global scale, neither industrialists nor financial elites accept boundaries. Way back in 1972, Donella Meadows and her colleagues at MIT projected resource depletion and planetary pollution for decades to come, based on then-current levels of industrial growth. Almost five decades later, their projections proved remarkably accurate.

SP500.moving.avg.2019“So what?” you may say, the stock market is humming along, beating all records for steady growth since the “Great Recession” of 2008-9 that precipitated a near worldwide financial collapse. Is the steady growth in the markets with an occasional minor blip ever since, sustainable? When wealth and income increasingly concentrate among the richest 1 percent of the richest 1 percent of the population, and more and more people enter the ranks of the poor, the overall economy is not healthy.

Contrary to popular belief, especially among financial elites, a steadily rising stock market does not mean that the economy is doing just fine. Wiser traders and market analysts, like Keith and Mish Schneider at marketgauge.com, understand the complexity of the economic and social systems involved. Mish’s financial bestseller, Plant Your Money Tree, is so successful because it is grounded in an understanding of the relationship of markets to everyday life. Contrary to conventional theory, markets are distinctly irrational, which is precisely why they are so hard to predict.

So long, Holocene

When will we get real about the biosphere? As with the intellectual dissociation between the markets and societal conditions, the utter dependence of humans on the biosphere is widely ignored by politicians and pundits alike. Humanity basked for over 11,000 years in the stability of the Holocene geological epoch that enabled us eventually to dominate the planet. Plunder is implicit in their notion of progress. Most are not even aware of the most advanced climate science or the heavily data-driven models that forecast that only two planetary futures are now possible given how far the global industrial consumer economy has already forced a world out of balance.

Research on past episodes of collapse of societies, such as those by Tainter and Diamond, reveals the sources of failure. First, the response to resource shortages and ecological destruction was some form of increased complexity, hastening collapse. Second, in every case, it was always some form of oligarchy that made the fatal decisions.

Does any of this sound familiar? It should because that is the direction the modernist oligarchs who control our economy and society are headed. Cutting edge climate scientist, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber predicts that if we do everything right, we will come to the extremely harsh conditions of a new Mid-Pliocene epoch, 2 to 3 degrees C above pre-industrial levels and sea rise of 10 to 20 meters. If we continue on our present trajectory, we will all die on a new Mid-Miocene planet rendered uninhabitable by 4 to 5 degrees Celcius temperature rise above pre-industrial levels and 10 to 60 meters of sea rise.

This is all because of past human decisions that were distinctly short-sighted. Some very hard decisions lie ahead.

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