Friday, August 21, 2015

Disasters, poverty and the paradox of limitlessness

I think that we, the human race, are in a bit of a pickle. The consensus seems to be that now is a great time to be alive. Those spreading such optimism trumpet the achievements of industrialisation and globalisation. Sure, the human population is soaring, but more people are healthier and happier than ever, aren't they? Limitless growth seems to be working.

As a result of humanity's rapid development during the 20th century, consumption has been exceeding the earth's ability to regenerate since the early 70's. Last week earth 'overshoot day' came earlier than ever before. We no longer live on the 'interest', but are eating into natural capital. The human population could hit 11 billion by 2100, exacerbating existing dilemmas in health, poverty, civil unrest. Per capita share of environmental resources must decrease as population increases, but as a minority of the human race consume more and more, there is less for the remainder. Much of the growth in the 21st century is projected to occur in Asia and Africa, regions that are largely still to fully develop (and reach consumption levels on par with the West). A bleak outlook, I know.

But honestly, the contamination of ecological systems is out of control. So called 'ecological debt' is growing rapidly, and regardless of the political posturing, serious measures are not being taken to avoid the disasters that will surely come as a result. The environmental, political and social ramifications could be world-changing. Will technology or human ingenuity save the day? Neo-liberalism has redefined the 'limitless' worldview, aided by a taboo on the discussion of population. However, this is not a technical problem. It is not even a population problem. If we propose technical solutions we will solve the wrong problem.

The real issue facing us is the ideology of limitless consumption and progress measured by economic growth. However, questioning the wisdom of perpetual economic growth is tantamount to heresy in a neo-liberal society. As Garrett Hardin posits, 'It has long been recognised that some of our most deeply held views are not neat, precise propositions but broadly "global" attitudes that act as the gatekeepers of the mind, letting in only those propositions that do not challenge the dominant picture of reality.' The ecological problems we face today reduce to balancing supply and demand. Ecological 'services' are limited, while demand is essentially endless.

The paradox of a growing global population that protects the 'limitless' worldview is astounding. I do not agree with everything Hardin writes, but his assertion that 'four centuries of sedation by the delusion of limitlessness have left humanity floundering in a wilderness of rhetoric' is difficult to argue with. Poverty has not ended, inequality is growing and we are killing the planet; and we feel entitled to carry on! Forced displacement due to conflict, climate change and disasters will create lasting impacts for countries both producing and receiving refugees. What is the plan? No amount of cruelty perpetuated on those escaping will actually stem the tide, much less address the actual problem(s).

It would appear that the limitless paradigm offers few solutions when it comes to the core issues facing the human race. Perpetual growth and boundless consumption might satisfy our desires in the present, but what are the long term impacts?

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