Moving Toward an Ecological Infrastructure. Part I: From Growth to Development

Economists are often confused by their own wallowing in esoteric but useless mathematical formulations of unquantifiable human complexities. But we just can’t afford their foolishness anymore. Investment in infrastructure is desperately needed, but not by merely restoring the infrastructure of the old growth economy. That needs to be replaced by a new viable infrastructure for an ecological society. This paradigm shift will require re-thinking core economic ideas to transform economic and social relations.

Great Recession Redux
Old notions die hard. Case in point: the recent/current “Great Recession” of 2008 was/is the inevitable outcome of endless-growth economic policy – which is also destroying the ecosphere upon which we depend. Yet political and financial elites cling to their failed economic ideas. Some politically ignored but eminent economists have cut through that veil of illusion. Paul Krugman, Dean Baker, and especially Joseph Stiglitz – only two of whom are Nobel laureates – see right through it. No complex mysterious forces of economic nature beyond human understanding were at work. Just centralized financial power and greed were enough.

More important, the political-economic response protected the perpetrators and perpetuated the economics of ecological disaster. I love Joseph Stiglitz’s metaphor on how it went down. A deranged paramedic rushes the DWI culprit to the hospital, leaving his victim to bleed out on the street. Similarly, Wall Street’s gamblers were bailed out while the American people were left with a newly bloated national debt. Time for a paradigm shift.

Responding to Crisis
The same accelerating concentration of wealth, and faltering employment and wages that accompanied the housing bubble continue today. The “solution” proposed by most economists is either to “grow” our way out or cut government spending — more plutocratic ideology. The real solution is clear: Resuscitate the victim and charge the perpetrators for their crimes. Neither has happened or is about to. As the combined climate-disruption and economic-instability crisis intensifies, we may see a surge of interest in an ecological economic policy that can slow climate disruption while stimulating a viable economy.

Aside from prosecuting Wall Street criminals, let’s look at the economic-ecologic mess that we’re in and how it might be fixed. With a trillion dollar loss in housing wealth, the American unemployed and under-employed cannot engage in the spending that would stimulate the economy. And the financial geniuses of Wall Street can still borrow from the Fed at near zero interest with “quantitative easing.” They can “lend” that money to the government for a few percent more. It’s a totally secure investment for the plutocrats using none of their own “reserves.” Don’t look to Wall Street for a solution.

The biggest corporations have no incentive to invest their huge cash reserves in the faltering economy. Without evidence of demand, they will hold onto their cash. As a bonus, they get to keep hundreds of billions of their cash income overseas and avoid income tax. Bottom line: neither the corporate nor financial elite will solve the crisis they created. These scofflaws will act to increase their power and wealth until the government bails them out of the next crisis they cause.

Ecological Infrastructure
Both the Keynesian and ecological economists would invest in infrastructure to improve both employment and economic health. This would stimulate demand in the economy and give the corporations a reason to invest in production. But just stimulating “economic growth,” without an ecologically grounded industrial policy would be like a band-aid without adhesive, or worse. Instead, a public investment policy heavily weighted toward investment in the replacement of carbon-based with carbon-neutral energy production is necessary. Throw in a living wage as public policy and the result will be a vibrant economy with minimized climate disruption.

Part II of this essay will discuss how infrastructure investment can energize the economy, but not by inducing unfettered “growth” for its own sake. Instead, we need big investments in stable ecologically viable development that simply retires the old fossil-fuel energy production and builds new industry for an ecological economy. Significant displacements of existing economic institutions will accompany such change, but they are necessary. The societal rewards will be immense.

So Much Stuff, So Little Time!

This past Christmas morning, as I watched children opening presents to the point of their exhaustion, I had the urge to write something about the surfeit of “stuff” in our lives – to use George Carlin’s term for the myriad of personal possessions in modern life. I held off. Now looking back as Spring begins, stuff looms more prominent in my mind. The holiday season things-we-don’t-really-need overload is but a magnified symptom of the core cultural defect that supports and is driven by the economy of endless resource extraction, economic growth and waste, all year long, relentlessly, every year.

All that plastic packaging often costs more than the various gadgets and trinkets of international manufacture, mostly from china, that it holds. Fun at first, disturbing by the end of that annual morning ritual, only later did that small epiphany gain full power. It was not the absolute excess of commercialized gift giving that was most disturbing – after all, I had grown up with it. The connection of the customs of everyday life as we know it to the larger problem of an economic system of financial gluttony, international aggression, and resource waste for profit is far more disturbing than the distorted orientation to “stuff” in the form of endless impulses to consume driven by manufactured desires rather than by need.

Holiday season overload is merely the peak of the constant pressure imposed by media-driven consumerism. We are all familiar with the critique of consumer culture – the externalization of the self in the objects of consumption, the personal identification with corporate images, the depersonalization of social relations, etc. But a much greater danger now lies in the fact that the role of consumerism is so central to keeping the growth economy going – right to the inevitable collapse of the economy and to political chaos as well. The greatest danger, we now understand, is not just the degradation of a culture. It is now clear that the leviathan of ever-growing industrial extraction-production-consumption-waste is destroying the very biosphere on which it and we depend for survival.

The Culture of Economic Growth is, unfortunately, most deeply ingrained in the everyday life of Americans, but is also blooming around the world. It is hard to imagine how such an entrenched way of life with all its enticements can be radically changed, despite the fact that “life as we know it” is unsustainable. The anthropogenic character of climate change is now scientifically certain. All sorts of details in the process and impacts of global warming are uncertain. Far more important, the overall trend and its impacts on the biosphere are undeniable as the speed of their occurrence accelerates. But the biggest question now is how human perceptions of risk can be attuned to the reality we face, in the context of the regular ‘forcing’ of public perceptions by the mass media that shape public opinion and are so closely aligned with the economic interests that profit from the causes of climate chaos.

Some research has begun on public perception of risk as a function of the relationship of existing belief systems to levels of awareness of extreme weather events and continued anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gasses, for example, by The National Socio-environmental Synthesis Center and others. But we know from vast quantities of prior research in the social and behavioral sciences that belief systems are highly resistant to change and that new information that contradicts them tends to be dismissed or ignored until overwhelming evidence forces a change in consciousness, a “paradigm shift” that is very hard to predict. (The evidence is well established, but is being blocked from the public by the mass media.) The big question now is whether such a powerful change in consciousness can occur in time and produce a “tipping point” in popular awareness sufficient to produce the massive social mobilization necessary. After all, we must overcome the resistance of the economic and political power elites that continue to profit from ‘climate denial.’ So far, they are limiting our collective response to small incremental improvements in carbon emissions that are clearly analogous to Band-Aids placed on a severed artery.

If civil society waits for the power elite to take actions necessary to experience its own paradigm shift to reach a transformative tipping point, then all is lost. Elites have so much to lose in short term profits and politics that they are blind to the long term consequences of their actions. The old sociological principle that consciousness is shaped by interests certainly applies here, particularly in the decisive short term. Only a massive civil uprising will get their attention. Even then, the elites have become so reliant on force or the threat of force in sustaining their power around the world and in the “homeland,” that they are likely to respond to broad public demands for rapid change by labeling them “terrorist” and attempting to suppress such demands by force. That is why non-violent civic action is the only hope left.

So much stuff, so much to change – behavior, culture, the political economy – so little time!

Tipping points need Paradigm Shifts: Paradigm Shifts are Tipping Points

If you are familiar with the history of science you have probably heard of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  In it, Thomas Kuhn describes how science progresses not by gradual evolution but by revolutionary transitions or “paradigm shifts” between “normal science” and new models of reality.  Normal science chips away at small areas of ignorance around the fringes to build out the basic accepted framework of knowledge. The new model or paradigm, on the other hand, incorporates all the information explained by the previous framework, but also explains incongruities in the old “normal” or accepted view, as well as incorporating new observations and problematic evidence that the previous paradigm could not explain.  A classic example would be the shift from Newtonian physics and Einstein’s relativity theory.

We very well may be at a point today where economics is undergoing a paradigm shift from the classical paradigm based on the assumption of perpetual growth, to a new ecological economics that takes into account the finite resource base, the ecological basis of human societies, and the planetary population limits that classical economic theory ignores entirely.

French mathematician René Thom developed catastrophe theory in the 1960’s to describe sudden transformations in natural systems.  Under certain conditions, a system will sudden transition into new very different kinds of behavior. This bifurcation value of the parameter is sometimes also called the “tipping point.”  The concept was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his immensely popular book by that name, in which he describes situations in everyday life in which such sudden fundamental transformations occur.

Today, we appear to be at or very near a “tipping point,” in our relationship to the earth system of which we are a part.  Much evidence now supports the idea that if we do not experience a cultural tipping point immediately, we will shortly find ourselves at a catastrophic ecological tipping point – beyond human control – that will lead to a fairly rapid slide into conditions that will force species extinction in a matter of a few decades.

What will it take to turn the corner from the “business as usual” approach which attempts to apply old imaginary entities such as “free markets” and Adam Smith’s metaphor of the “invisible hand” in attempting to respond to the economic implications of climate disruption, which is fundamentally outside the old economic paradigm?  That is the question of our time.  Only by a rapid cultural paradigm shift in political economy will humanity be able to respond adequately to the catastrophic consequences of the old model on the biosphere.

As markets developed in corporate industrial economies, and as corporations and cartels extended their domination over economies, the concept of free markets became irrelevant of to actual economic systems controlled by a few corporations.  Yet, the “science” of economics, as well as the practice of corporate business held onto the concept as a useful ideological tool to maintain political power. But both the ideology and the practice of market economics are increasingly detrimental to any scientific understanding of the relationship of economic behavior and systems to the biosphere on which we all depend.

Tipping points and paradigm shifts are like chickens and eggs.  Tipping points in human systems are constituted by cultural paradigm shifts.  The evidence of the failure of classical economics to operate as an “invisible hand,” guiding an ideal distribution of income and wealth without political intervention is now overwhelming, despite the political and economic power of corporate and academic “free market” ideologues.  The evidence of the severe damage of corporate-industrial economies to the planet is now irrefutable.

Yet the existing institutional interests fight hard to retain their cultural and political control.  The consequent inability of the political economy to respond to the ecological crises it has generated is now so obvious as to be undeniable [except, of course, by Senator Inhofe and a few other corrupt science deniers].  Not only is the paradigm no longer defensible as a framework for economics, but its ecological consequences are no longer tolerable from the perspective of human survival.

It is increasingly clear that a massive reduction in resource extraction and a re-allocation of existing resources by means of a comprehensive reorganization of society to effectively change the ways in which we live – in order to drastically reduce carbon emissions –  is necessary in the near term.  Otherwise, global warming will continue to the point where human action becomes futile and human survival is no longer possible.