Sunday, November 6, 2016

Jason Hickel - Our economic system is incompatible with life on this planet.

Soil is the second biggest reservoir of carbon on the planet, next to the oceans. It holds four times more carbon than all the plants and trees in the world. But human activity like deforestation and industrial farming – with its intensive ploughing, monoculture and heavy use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides – is ruining our soils at breakneck speed, killing the organic materials that they contain. Now 40% of agricultural soil is classed as “degraded” or “seriously degraded”. In fact, industrial farming has so damaged our soils that a third of the world’s farmland has been destroyed in the past four decades... As our soils degrade, they are losing their ability to hold carbon, releasing enormous plumes of CO2 into the atmosphere. There is, however, a solution. Scientists and farmers around the world are pointing out that we can regenerate degraded soils by switching from intensive industrial farming to more ecological methods – not just organic fertiliser, but also no-tillage, composting, and crop rotation. Here’s the brilliant part: as the soils recover, they not only regain their capacity to hold CO2, they begin to actively pull additional COout of the atmosphere

When it comes to global warming, we know that the real problem is not just fossil fuels – it is the logic of endless growth that is built into our economic system. If we don’t keep the global economy growing by at least 3% per year, it plunges into crisis. That means we have to double the size of the economy every 20 years, just to stay afloat. It doesn’t take much to realise that this imperative for exponential growth makes little sense given the limits of our finite planet.

Rapid climate change is the most obvious symptom of this contradiction, but we’re also seeing it in the form of deforestation, desertification and mass extinction, with species dying at an alarming rate as our consumption of the natural world causes their habitats to collapse. It was unthinkable to say this even 10 years ago, but today, as we become increasingly aware of these crises, it seems all too clear: our economic system is incompatible with life on this planet.

The question is what to do about it. How can we redesign the global economy to bring it in line with the principles of ecology? The most obvious answer is to stop using GDP to measure economic progress and replace it with a more thoughtful measure – one that accounts for the ecological and social impact of economic activity. Prominent economists like Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz have been calling for such changes for years and it’s time we listened. 

But replacing GDP is only a first step. While it might help refocus economic policies on what really matters, it doesn’t address the main driver of growth: debt. Debt is the reason the economy has to grow in the first place. Because debt always comes with interest, it grows exponentially – so if a person, a business, or a country wants to pay down debt over the long term, they have to grow enough to at least match the growth of their debt. Without growth, debt piles up and eventually triggers an economic crisis.

One way to relieve the pressure for endless growth might be to cancel some of the debt – a kind of debt jubilee. But this would only provide a short-term fix; it wouldn’t get to the real root of the problem: that the global economic system runs on money that is itself debt… read more: