by Lin Jensen
When the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) rises, we are supposed to be pleased because a higher GDP means that production and consumption have increased. That’s good, isn’t it? Both major political parties and virtually all economists, corporate CEOs, business owners, workers and random consumers agree that up is good and down is bad.
So the more we make and sell, the greater the wealth of the nation — and this might be true were it not for the fact that the earth’s capacity for production and consumption is entirely dependent on the rate and limit of available sunlight reaching the thin layer of soil that blankets the molten core of our planet. Check the dirt under your feet and you’ll know what sustains you. Take up a handful of soil and you’ll hold in the palm of your hand the only sustainable economy for those of us here on this earth.
We must all earn a livelihood one way or another. To do so here in the United States is to participate in a capitalistic economic system founded on principles set forth by Adam Smith in his 1776 publication, “The Wealth of Nations,” where he proposed an economic system that depends for its survival upon an ever-expanding growth in the production and consumption of goods.
That virtually everyone these days agrees with the need for growth was clearly demonstrated in the congressional debate concerning whether or not the recent Republican tax reform bill would stimulate growth. Supporters of the reform said that it would, while critics argued that at best it would only promote growth for a handful of the richest Americans. But no one in the debate seemed to doubt but that growth itself is a good thing — despite the fact that a policy of sustained economic growth is an obvious formula for bankrupting the earth.
For those among us still clinging to the illusion of sustained economic growth, let me spell out the absolute truth of it as it applies to this exact place and time here in the 21st century. And the absolute truth is what it’s always been — namely that the limit of wealth and growth is finite, governed by photosynthesis, wherein plants and other organisms convert light energy into the only life possible on this planet, a primordial process without alternative and over which we have no lasting control.
Even more, we are so intricately intertwined in this natural process that whatever we do, whatever choice we make of speech or act, however insignificant it may seem, is rife with consequences felt throughout the whole earthly organism of which we are an integral part.
For most economists and for those engaged in economic activity, increased production and consumption is tantamount to an increase in the wealth of a nation. If I can buy more goods, I’m obviously wealthier. This perception is underscored by the stock market’s favorable response to reports of increased consumer confidence.
“When the fields go fallow… there will be no winners, only losers.”
Yet anyone who lives off the land (which, incidentally, includes all of us) knows to not deplete the pantry faster than its essential wares can be restored. It ought to be clear at this juncture that the United States — a nation frequently touted as the world’s richest, is, in its quest for sustained economic growth, busily depleting the whole earthly pantry.
And it ought to be equally clear that empty shelves in a pantry makes you poorer — not wealthier.
The question of economic growth is profoundly ethical. There’s simply a right and wrong way to make a living, and the right way is making a living in a way that does not inadvertently or intentionally harm others. Instead we have adopted an economic principle based on the pursuit of self-interest in the form of person-to-person competition. The idea being that if all participants and nations of participants do their best to win, their efforts will equalize each other to the benefit of all.
But despite Adam Smith’s assurances to the contrary, our present free market economy fails on all accounts to self-regulate, resulting in a limited number of winners and a profound body of losers.
And that’s where the harm comes in. The pursuit of personal and national economic growth is ethically wrong not only because it feeds our capacity for greed, but also because it is violent. It’s violent because the rate of per capita consumption here in the United States can’t be duplicated; there simply isn’t enough to go around, and that means, and has for long time meant, that the unfortunate victims of our national over-consumption are left with little or nothing to live by.
The world’s poor must watch their children suffer and die from lack of health care, protective shelter, and food enough to keep their bodies alive. Meanwhile, those with more than enough to eat and more than enough of everything else are blissfully eating up the planet’s seed grain. When the fields go fallow and there’s no seed to plant, there will be no winners, only losers.
Yet, despite the abhorrent cruelty and folly of a capitalist growth economy, we still witness the spectacle of economists disputing the mechanics of growth — without ever doubting the efficacy of growth itself.
Those who truly care for the earth will watch what they put in their mouths and in their garages. They’ll live within what the earth provides without asking for more. They’ll know their neighbor’s needs, both those next door and those on the far side of the planet.
We are all consumers: even the poorest among us must buy something- and every right purchase reinforces the essential distinction between a sustainable income and the currently lavish expenditure of finite capitol. Before you buy, consider your dependence on the living soil that brings us forth and upon which we all depend.
Lin Jensen is a community activist, a writer and a Buddhist.