The End of Growth?
My views on the relationship between civilization and the environment have been fluctuating for the last couple of weeks, as enlightening conversations with various intelligent people tend to have that effect. I do not hold the things I have written here to be entirely true; they are mainly important considerations to be pondered over in the search for the truth of the matter. More will follow.
The history of Western Civilization has been one of increasing expansion and increasing growth; indeed, it appears that the two go hand in hand, and from this marriage of the gradual rise in population and wealth spring forth all the joys wrought by innovation, and all the curses wrought by decadence of plenty.
However, ultimately the human species must run into two distinct and interrelated problems. The first is known to all species, that of carrying capacity- fundamentally, America, as well as every other nation on Earth, will reach a point where it can grow no longer, due both to the limited resources and space of Earth and Mankind’s voracious usage of them. The carrying capacity of our continent, and someday our planet, will ultimately be reached (I’ve read we’re supposed to level out in about 2050 at around 9 billion) and at that time, unless we begin expanding into outer space, which seems to be a more distant possibility at the moment, we will find ourselves deprived of the blessings of economic and thus social and cultural flourishing based on population and, to a lesser degree, the consumption of natural resources. As a corrollary, it would seem that if human civilization were thus stalled in its growth, the standards of living and standards of progress we have known for five hundred years would immediately grind to a halt.
This second problem extends not only into the question of comfort, but indeed into the question of survival. The history of the world is replete with examples of nations which ground their resources into the dust and then fell with them. There are yet more examples of nations who have only slightly ground their resources into the dust, and thus weakened fallen prey to the predations of other nations. Without going so far as to suggest that the state of the environment is an issue of national security, I will insist that it is at least a geopolitical and macrohistorical baseline of success which any nation that would prosper must use and steward prudently.
And this being said, it is clear to any observer that the economic practices of most countries around the world today are not sustainable. Resource exploitation, habitat destruction, and pollution contribute directly; but the incredibly wasteful consumer culture of Western societies, the United States in particular, indirectly ensures that the wasteful practices listed above must continue indefinitely. Moreover, consumer culture is so incredibly cemented into American culture- with all its curses and blessings- that it is not clear that anything short of either individual self-discipline or catastrophic change can do anything about it.
The unsustainable culture of consumerism is something every American, however much they detest it, lives. Our incessant wastes of power, water, wood, plastics, metals, and more or less every other resource would impoverish us were we on the other side of the world, but as we comfortably live amidst plenty, we worry not. It is not clear, however, how long this can last, as the model of continuous growth is an unsustainable one- as most economic forecasters and public program planners tragically tend to forget, at the expense of entire financial systems.
Is there any way to combat this at the national level? We have certainly seen, at least since the 1970s, highly successful efforts by individuals, foundations, and local communities to practice conservation and maintain healthy local environments. But the only comparable nationwide program (on the resource conservation side at least) happened during World War II- the biggest crisis our country had seen since the Civil War, when its actual existence as a free republic was threatened. National efforts to recycle metals and rubbers, to conserve food and fuel, while maintaining a functioning market economy, resulted in a less liberal, less free system and society for the years in which they were implemented, but a system much more efficient, much more sustainable, and much more united than the country had ever seen before. It does not seem that this particularly stifled innovation, either, for shortly after the war the United States was leading the world economy, and new technological developments during the war continually advanced Allied supremacy.
But perhaps most shocking was the social effect this had on Americans in general. For years, the United States became the most disciplined free nation on the planet after the British, curbing their excesses and practicing the virtues of frugality and thrift. Indeed this was coerced, and after the war was over most immediately resumed their prior wastefulness and decadence. But the important thing is IT HAPPENED, and it proved that social discipline on a wide scale is possible, however troubling the implications may be for individual liberty.
But human nature being what it is, and nations behaving as they do, and the environment limited as it is, is it any question whether or not such a crisis awaits the nations of the Earth in this present day? Military crises will inevitably come and go. An ecological crisis, the likes of which have periodically shown up throughout history, would be no aberration, save a crisis in which the carrying capacity of the Earth was reached would be a crisis like no other. It would certainly engender conservatory policies in all civilized nations seeking to preserve their societies, probably ones much more draconian than those listed above. Desperation breeds radicalism.
In the end, it seems that the present social model, and the present standard of living, and the present economic projections, will not last forever. Nothing will forever rise; conservatives, disbelieving in human Progress, ought to hold this to be true, and condemn the decadence and consumerism modern society worships and runs on. It is simply not sustainable; it is the conservative thing to do to be wary of the future and all sirenic thoughts of golden destinies. There is no harmony with nature; but there is prudent usage of it, and it is a travesty that in the present day, those who would call themselves conservative tend to be those who believe in the phantom of infinite growth, and care not for the prudent management of resources.
Now, when Mankind expands to the stars, and when technology grows so sufficiently advanced as to render constant growth sustainable in various ways, perhaps we need not worry. But until then, it would appear that we will be forced to adapt a very different way of life than that which we have known for centuries, one more frugal, more sustainable, more disciplined. This may be both a curse and a blessing for innovation and happiness; it will be for individuals and nations to make of it what they will.