Can modernisation be “ecological”? – Part 2

What is the problem with Modernity? The problem is that the accumulation of personal wealth has become the sole objective of many people in modern society; and perpetual growth is posited as a means whereby even the poorest might achieve it. However, the New International Version of the Bible records the Apostle Paul as having written, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil…” (1 Timothy 6:10); and economists and politicians have argued about this for centuries… According to Jon Elster, it was Karl Marx that coined the term ‘money fetishism’ to describe the belief that money (and/or precious metals) have intrinsic (use) value rather than just instrumental (exchange) value, which Marx felt was as misguided as the religious practice of endowing inanimate objects with supernatural powers (Elster 1986: 56-7). However, the terms use value and exchange value were first put forward by Aristotle (384-322 BC) who, according to Daly, also recognised the danger of focusing on the latter (i.e. whereby the accumulation of wealth becomes an end in itself). Therefore, Daly suggests that the paperless economy (where no useable commodities actually change hands) is the ultimate destiny for money fetishism (Daly 1992: 186). In 1987, the World Commission on the Environment and Development (WCED) was clearly keen to try and settle an argument and, therefore, made the following quite astonishing assertion: “Growth has no set limits in terms of population or resource use beyond which lies ecological disaster” (Brundtland et al 1987: 45). Instead, WCED gave us the much-touted – but ill-defined – concept of sustainable development (SD). However, in stark contrast to the WCED report, Carter much more recently observed that SD “…will require a fundamental transformation in attitudes to economic growth, consumption, production and work” (Carter 2007: 48). This appears to be a subtle acknowledgement of the legitimacy of Herman Daly’s insistence of the need for a move to a steady-state economy; precisely because infinite growth is impossible in a closed system. A basic tenet of Daly’s thesis is that economic activity does not take place in a vacuum and that economic – not just ecological – collapse awaits us unless we recognise the limited capacity of the ecosystem within which we operate: “Of all the fields of study, economics is the last one that should seek to be ‘value-free’, lest it deserve Oscar Wilde’s remark that an economist ‘is a man that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.’” (Daly 1992: 4). On 22 December 2010, the BBC broadcast a Panorama programme entitled “What Price Cheap Food” containing the startling revelation that, in the two years between 1 November 2008 and 1 November 2010, town planners approved applications for at least 577 new supermarkets across the UK. The programme also revealed that so-called “mega farms” (i.e. factory farming of cows and pigs – “dairy-go-rounds” and “sty scrappers” respectively) will be the next ‘big idea’ imported from the USA. The potential mega farm operators argue that there is significant scope for recycling and energy from waste schemes to be incorporated, although environmentalists would question (1) the wisdom of concentrating potentially polluting activities; and (2) the ethics of factory farming (which undoubtedly goes against the grain of green consumerism). However, although the potential for economies of scale cannot be denied, this could all be seen as symptomatic of what Daly called “growthmania“. Growthmania versus Limits to Growth One of the world’s most famous deniers of Limits to Growth arguments is Julian Simon, who once famously won a bet with Paul Ehrlich that the price of any commodity would reduce with the passage of time. Nevertheless, how can anyone deny that the Earth’s resource base or its capacity to accommodate human beings is anything other than limited? Quite easily, apparently: In 1994, Simon claimed that “humanity now has the ability (or knowledge) to make it possible to feed, clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next 7 billion years.” However, the stupidity of such a dangerously fallacious argument was exposed 2 years later by Paul and Anne Ehrlich, who pointed out that at 1994 growth rates, “it would take only 774 years for the 1994 population of 5.6 billion to increase to the point where there were 10 human beings for each square meter of ice-free land on the planet!” Furthermore, they pointed out that if growth did not decline from 1994 levels, it would take only 1900 years for the mass of the human population to equal the mass of the Earth! (Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1996: 66). Fortunately, the UN now believes (May 2011) that the human population on this planet will probably stabilise by the end of the current Century at somewhere between 10 and 15 billion. The only trouble with that is that, we may well have already exceeded the ecological carrying capacity of the planet, and are therefore causing extreme stress to the global ecosystem; of which the most obvious symptom is AGW. —————- References: Daly, H. (1992), Steady State Economics (2nd ed), London: Earthscan. Elster, J. (1986), An Introduction to Karl Marx, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Ehrlich, P. and Ehrlich, A. (1996), Betrayal of Science and Reason, New York: Island Press. N.B. Part 3 was published on 27 September 2011.


About Rick Altman

Possibly just another 'Climate Cassandra' crying 'Wolf' in cyberspace. However, the moral of the old children's story is that the Wolf eventually turned up!
This entry was posted in Climate Science, Consumerism, Ecological Modernisation, Economics, Environment, Growthmania, Limits to Growth, Modernity, Money Fetishism and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Can modernisation be “ecological”? – Part 2

  1. Pingback: Fables about population and food? | Anthropocene Reality

  2. Pingback: Can modernisation be “ecological”? – Part 3 | Anthropocene Reality

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