Sometimes irony offers a vision of opportunity. If we are aware of the tragic outcome of a contradiction between the intention and the effects of an action, we may escape tragedy. That awareness may provide a chance for something far better than the original intent. Ignoring such contradictions, we risk disaster and may never notice the opportunity they bring.
Dramatic irony can be traced back to the Greek classics. That is because the ancient Greeks had such a good grasp of the human condition. Human folly often results from continuing down a path our mistaken ideas dictate despite overwhelming evidence that it will lead to tragic consequences.
Today, we rush headlong into multiple converging crises. Power elites have institutionalized and marketed as “normal” the ironies of modern and post-modern life. Individual tragic outcomes of poor choices continue to unfold. However, the very culture of industrial society has embedded a deeper irony in the dominant institutions that shape our thought and control our lives.
We take the imaginary elements of mass consumerism as elemental, natural, and real. The propaganda that drives consumer “lifestyles” has succeeded. The irony of chasing an image of “individualism” by falling victim to mass advertising escapes most consumers. The opportunities to escape the treadmill of lower wages, consumerism, and debt, usually pass by unnoticed. They are not part of the culture, so we do not recognize them.
The Crises of Illusion
A key premise of the industrial economy that drives mass culture is that the answer to every economic problem is more economic growth. To get a sense of the general understanding of its role, I set up a “Google Alert” on “economic growth.” As a result, I get several “alerts” every day, each reporting dozens of media stories whose topic is economic growth. It is a popular topic in the mass media everywhere. I received far fewer alerts on the topic of “climate crisis.”
The almost universally central issue in such stories involves how economic growth can be stimulated, maintained, or increased. Stories about economic growth from all around the world, each assume that economic growth is the engine of human progress. I have yet to find a story via Google Alerts that poses economic growth as a problem for the future of humanity. Of course, I can find such stories by going to climate change websites or a growing number of books on the end of economic growth on a finite planet. Does anyone read books?
Therein lies the irony. The financial structure industrial economies of the world require continued growth in order to service growing debt and return profit on capital. Where there has been “room to grow,” that has worked out pretty well. However, some serious contradictions in that system and their irony are visible to those willing to look. Growth on a finite planet must have a finite limit.
The earth has limits and we are reaching them. Yet, economists such as Julian Simon claimed for decades that technical innovations, resource substitution, and free markets could overcome any such limits.They were believed, and many still hold to such magical thinking.
Growth did not happen so much from internal innovations in technology and economy as it did from exploitation of others. Technology did assist Western exploration and domination of the rest of the world through colonialism, then imperialism. Both provided the material and human resources to foster Western growth. Gunpowder, sailing ships, and the sextant helped get things started. The oppression of native peoples around the world continued for centuries under the guise of assisting in their development. In fact, the Western colonial and imperial nations were extracting their natural resources and exploiting their labor. That continues today, to the exhaustion of both.
Finally, present day regimes of neo-liberal international finance foist “structural adjustment” nations it has forced into debt, to assure their continued financial subordination and exploitation. The whole history of the economically “advanced” nations involves extraction of resources and domination of populations for expansion of economic control of the world. The economic growth of the West, touted for its cultural superiority, succeeded only by oppressing people in other parts of the world. Smug neoclassical economic ideologues bury such facts behind their pseudo-scientific theories that do not stand up to empirical observation.
The global consequences of the system and illusions of economic growth are emerging as a “catastrophic convergence” of multiple global crises. Growing problems of poverty, resource depletion, financial collapse, resource wars, refugee migration, and of course, climate destabilization all result from the juggernaut of extractive capital and the industrial growth it feeds. The contradictions of the global system of extractive capital are far more complex than Karl Marx could have imagined, but they do contain the seeds of its destruction. We must find ways to make that destruction creative.
Irony and Opportunity
Of course, everlasting economic growth is as much an illusion as a “perpetual motion machine.” Most people recognize the absurdity of a frictionless machine that can run forever without external inputs of energy. However, the ideology of endless economic growth as the source of human progress is a deeply entrenched imaginary in our economic culture. The corporate controlled mass media reinforce the image of “growth is good” daily and hourly.
Nevertheless, the earth is a relatively closed system with one external energy input – the sun. It is also a highly complex array of living earth systems we call ecologies and their living subsystems. Each is interdependent with the others. We humans are a once-small but dangerously overgrown part of that complex. We increasingly disrupt the stability of all the relations between complex ecological systems we barely understand yet need for our own survival.
The deepest irony of human experience resides in the effects of economic growth on the very systems it relies on for its energy and material resources – inputs that keep it going. We live on a small planet and we are not going anywhere, despite fantasies of escaping earth’s problems by space travel. Our problems and their solutions must be faced right here.
The profound irony of our hugely successful trajectory of economic growth is that its failure results from its temporary success. We have achieved, by application of fossil-fuel based energy to technological innovation in production, massive global economic growth. However, that growth in energy/materials extraction consumption, and waste, is disrupting the very earth systems that have sustained it.
Yet, the very same crises forced upon us by our perpetual extractive growth economy, now offer several windows of opportunity. We can solve those crises and save humanity by transforming our relationship to the living earth systems upon which our survival depends. However, that will require abandoning the very perpetual-growth system we convinced ourselves is necessary and inevitable – the endless-growth machine of extractive capital.
Another level of irony is involved. The global crises we created by trying to control our environment can only be averted by “creative destruction” of the system we accept as inevitable. A New Great Transformation of the human systems of economy and technology will happen. However, for human survival, both economy and technology must align with the natural requirements of our environment.
The irony of that opportunity presents a path to a new viable and sustainable relationship to the world we inhabit. To avoid our own species extinction as global climate and ecologies destabilize we must rapidly integrate human activity with the requirements for sustaining our living environment. Only then, living earth systems may re-stabilize. Otherwise, the New Great Transformation will be one of our extinction.
Ironically, the ever-increasing efficiency of industrial production has excluded many from participating in the rewards of the growth economy. Yet the sustainable system we need would do just the opposite. Our understanding of “rewards” must change as we face our condition. Only a vastly more equitable distribution of wealth can be made compatible with the stability of living earth systems.
In The New Great Transformation, we must rely on energy inputs other than fossil fuel, nuclear power, and so-called “bio-fuels.” Conversion to a new ecological economy will inevitably involve much more human energy inputs (work) than are found in the dying growth economy powered by energy stored in the earth. It will also draw upon capturing the boundless ongoing energy inputs of the sun. That new configuration will provide the valuable jobs that the stagnating automated production processes of the economic growth machine have taken away.
The opportunities we face lay in uncharted waters. Yet, take them we must. If not taken, these opportunities will surely disappear, leading humanity to join so many other species in the sixth great extinction now underway. Our crisis is our opportunity. Our greatest challenge offers the greatest opportunity ever for humanity. We must take it or die.
The New Great Transformation of humanity will be one of either complete disaster or a development unprecedented in all of human history. If we act correctly and quickly, we may be able to achieve a new ecological society, even among the ruins of the dying industrial leviathan. We have the knowledge, but can we organize it in effective collective action? We must take this opportunity even though, as is now inevitable, we must go through a period of immense chaos and pain. If we do not, we simply will not survive. Out of chaos can come great creativity. That is what we need now.