It’s simple. If we cannot change our economic system, our numbers increase | Georges monbiot

THEImagine that in 3030 BC. AD the totality of the possessions of the Egyptian people occupied one cubic meter. Suggest that these possessions increase by 4.5% per year. How big would this reserve have been during the Battle of Actium in 30 BC? This is the calculation performed by investment banker Jeremy Grantham.

Come on, guess. Ten times the size of the pyramids? All the sand of the Sahara? The Atlantic Ocean? The volume of the planet? A bit more? That’s 2.5 billion billion solar systems. It does not take you long, reflecting on this outcome, to reach the paradoxical position that salvation lies in collapse.

To succeed is to destroy oneself. To fail is to destroy yourself. This is the bond that we have created. Ignore if you must climate change, collapsing biodiversity, depletion of water, soil, minerals, oil; even though all of these problems have miraculously disappeared, the mathematics of compound growth makes continuity impossible.

Economic growth is an artifact of the use of fossil fuels. Before large amounts of charcoal were mined, every increase in industrial production would collide with a decline in agricultural production, as charcoal or the power required for industry reduced the land available for food crops. All previous industrial revolutions collapsed because growth could not be sustained. But coal broke this cycle and allowed – for a few hundred years – what is now called sustained growth.

It is neither capitalism nor communism that made possible the progress and pathologies (total war, unprecedented concentration of world wealth, planetary destruction) of the modern era. It was coal, followed by oil and gas. The metatrend, the mother story, is carbon-fueled expansion. Our ideologies are just side plots. Now, with the accessible reserves exhausted, we must trash the hidden corners of the planet to support our impossible proposition.

On Friday, days after scientists announced that the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet was now inevitable, the Ecuadorian government decided to allow oil drilling in the heart of Yasuni National Park. He had made an offer to other governments that if they gave him half the value of the oil in that part of the park, he would leave the substance in the ground. You might think of it as blackmail or fair trade. Ecuador is poor, its oil fields are rich. Why, argued the government, should it leave them untouched without compensation as everyone descends into the inner circle of hell? He asked for $ 3.6 billion and received $ 13 million. The result is that Petroamazonas, a company with a colorful track record of destruction and spills, will now enter one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, in which one hectare of rainforest contains more species than exists on the entire North American continent.

Yasuni National Park. Murray Cooper / Minden Pictures / Corbis

British oil tanker Soco now hopes to penetrate Africa’s oldest national park, Virunga, in the Democratic Republic of Congo; one of the last strongholds of mountain gorilla and okapi, chimpanzees and forest elephants. In Britain, where a potential 4.4 billion barrels of shale oil has just been identified in the southeast, the government is fantasizing about turning the leafy suburb into a new Niger Delta. To this end it is change trespassing laws to allow drilling without consent and to offer lavish bribes to the local population. These new reservations do not solve anything. They do not end our thirst for resources; they exacerbate it.

The compound growth trajectory shows that the stripping of the planet has only just begun. As the volume of the world economy grows, everywhere that which contains something concentrated, unusual, precious will be sought and exploited, its resources extracted and dispersed, the diverse and differentiated wonders of the world reduced to the same gray thatch.

Some people try to solve the impossible equation with the myth of dematerialization: the claim that as processes become more efficient and gadgets are miniaturized, we, on the whole, use less material. There is no sign of this happening. Iron ore production increased by 180% in 10 years. The commercial body Forest Industries tells us that “Global paper consumption is at an all time high and will continue to grow.” If in the digital age we don’t even reduce our paper consumption, what hope is there for other raw materials?

Look at the lives of the super-rich, who dictate the pace of global consumption. Are their yachts getting smaller and smaller? Their houses? Their works? Their purchase of rare wood, rare fish, rare stones? Those who can afford are buying ever larger homes to store the growing supply of things they won’t live long enough to use. Through unnoticed accretions, more and more of the planet’s surface is being used to extract, manufacture, and store things we don’t need. It is perhaps not surprising that the fantasies of space colonization – which tell us that we can export our problems instead of solving them – have resurfaced.

As philosopher Michael Rowan points out, the fatalities of compound growth mean that if the global growth rate forecast last year for 2014 (3.1%) holds up, even if we miraculously reduce the consumption of raw materials by 90%. %, we delay the inevitable by barely 75 years old. Efficiency doesn’t solve anything as long as growth continues.

The inescapable failure of a society based on growth and its destruction of Earth’s living systems are the overwhelming facts of our existence. As a result, they are hardly mentioned anywhere. These are the great taboo of the 21st century, the subjects guaranteed to alienate your friends and neighbors. We live like we’re trapped in a Sunday supplement: obsessed with fame, fashion, and the three bleak staples of middle-class conversation: recipes, renovations, and resorts. Everything except the subject that requires our attention.

Statements of bleeding evidence, the results of basic arithmetic, are treated as exotic and unforgivable distractions, while the impossible proposition we live by is seen as so sane, normal, and mundane that it does not deserve. to be mentioned. This is how you measure the depth of this problem: by our inability even to discuss it.

Twitter: @georgemonbiot. A fully referenced version of this article is available at

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