As industrial civilization unravels, the illusion of abundance is taking a hit. With destabilized agriculture, climate, and ecosystems, all sorts of supply chains will experience growing unpredictability at levels we have yet to imagine. Then we must choose what we consume far more carefully than we do now.
The idea that the global industrial consumer economy can become ‘sustainable’ is just not plausible anymore. Without extreme human ‘downsizing’ of the global political economy and its production and consumption habits, societal collapse will follow the climate and ecological chaos that we can already feel accelerating.
The Decline of Quantity
The shortages during and after the height of the COVID-19 pandemic resulted mainly from disruptions in global supply chains due to lockdowns and loss of employees who produced, transported, and sold the goods and services we have all come to expect as normal. The only ‘new normal’ we can count on now is troublesome change.
As climate chaos disrupts normal flows of materials and interferes with production and distribution, we can expect more shortages of products, especially food internationally traded. Production and pricing will respond to growing ‘cracks in the system,’ a complex global system that is vulnerable to changing Earth System conditions.
We may soon experience food-security triage and worse. The global political economy of corporate growth cannot sustain itself under deteriorating conditions of ecosystem breakdown and climate chaos. The inevitable result is that quantity of goods and services we have come to expect may decline precipitously. Access to basic staples will no longer be taken for granted.
Life when the Industrial Consumer Bubble Bursts
Many pundits and most economists live in a cultural bubble in which they imagine the economy as independent and separate from Nature. They also imagine Nature as a mere source of materials or just a pleasant diversion to experience while on vacation. They are so very wrong. Despite our attempts to treat Nature as separate and controllable by our clever inventions, finance, and organization, we live in Nature because we are part of it. The illusion of separateness is fast fading.
Of course, the abundance of goods and services available during the latter decades of the Industrial Age has been profuse. Yet the benefits of industrial civilization remain grossly mal-distributed to an increasingly severe degree. The abundance of products matches both the irrelevance of many and the damage their waste causes. Some environmentalists and social critics believe that the world economy can produce abundance for all, if only we would manufacture ‘green’ products and distribute things more fairly. However, it is far more complicated than that.
The Abundance Illusion
The other problem with the ‘abundance for all’ imaginary is that it fails to acknowledge the structure of poverty and wealth. The vast majority of wealth generated by the colonial, neocolonial nations, and the industrial-consumer empire of the global north was created by exploiting the peoples and extracting the resources in the former colonies of the global south. The form has changed—from colonial administration after conquest, to the economic force of indebtedness—yet the relationship of domination and oppression remains intact.
The predatory extraction of materials and labor from south to north over centuries produced both wealth and poverty as parts of the same processes of dominance and oppression. The industrialized nations dominate world politics and effectively run the global economic system of growth. The flow of value moves mostly from the economically and militarily weak to the aggressively strong. Selective ‘wars of choice’ seal the deal.
The Extraction Contraction
As resource extraction approaches exhaustion, each new unit—barrel of oil, pound of copper, etc.—is more difficult and costly to obtain. And as ecological and climate systems destabilize, the prospects weaken for both economic stability and abundance .
In the marketing of products and services in the corporate global economy, finance capital has always prioritized volume of sales over quality of product as a greater source of profit. Now, both are problematic.
Techno-optimists dismiss scarcity as avoidable because they assume humans can fix every problem with technical innovation and new materials. They are wrong. The rising chaos in a destabilizing Earth System will cause increasing scarcity of the basics needed for survival. Shortages of all sorts of goods will increase. Soon we will ill afford to produce all but the most important products and commodities needed for survival.
In any new economy based on human needs and wellbeing, quality must supersede quantity as the primary economic value. Scarcity requires that production decisions give the highest priority to sustenance. In a humane economy, products and services most appropriate to basic human needs must be paramount.
Selling vast quantities of non-essential stuff cannot be sustained when food and habitat insecurity dominate our lives. The world’s power elites will find that very difficult to accept.
We have come to a turning point, a point of no return. Now we must decide what is really important and what we do not really need.
The Necessity to Discern Quality
In times of change, decisions are often hard to make. We are so used to all those choices that don’t really matter. I had twenty minutes to kill the other day while waiting to have a prescription filled. So, I walked around the supermarket with no purchase in mind. I just looked at all the display cases and the myriad choices within each of many categories. I didn’t bother to count, but it looked like I could choose between at least twenty varieties of yogurt.
As I walked along the back wall with hundreds of linear feet of refrigerated cases, I realized that almost every item in them was packaged in one of many varieties of single-use plastic. Not only are those endless variations on a single product unnecessary, each embodies a global pollution problem.
We must decide. We are on a singular track to destroying the world that sustains us. If we choose quality over quantity, in many different dimensions, we may survive and prosper, but not in the way that the global corporate political economy of growth keeps struggling to protect. The only sustainable economy for humans is the one we have not yet created.