Sherlock Holmes, that immortal detective of Victorian England is perhaps among the best teachers of the methodology of research. As he proceeded to unravel one crime after the other, Mr Holmes left behind a treasure-trove of tools of investigation that stand any social scientist in good stead when he investigates human society. In the famous novel, Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes says, “The world is full of obvious things, which nobody by any chance ever observes,” and in Boscombe Valley Mystery, he observes, “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.”Let me begin today’s column with one such obvious thing, as we try to investigate the ideology of the cancer cell.
Economic growth has been the foundation of the mind-boggling advances human beings have made in the past two centuries or so. Compared to a few hundred years ago, human life today is an unparalleled achievement. The advances in science and technology, the expansion of our knowledge, the spread of the idea of democracy and social justice have all been predicated on this massive expansion of wealth led by constant economic growth. In the past few centuries, global GDP, or the sum total of all human productive activities, has risen so phenomenally that our world would be unrecognisable to our forefathers from 1800 AD. The desirability of economic growth is rarely ever contested and is among the few ideas where there is general agreement between the left and the right. Their quibble is on how and why the wealth generated by this constant economic growth is to be shared.
But the deceptive ‘obvious fact’, which rarely anybody ever acknowledges, is that constant growth in a planet of limited resources is an impossibility. Sooner or later, such growth will reach the material, physical limits of planet Earth. Only the cancer cell displays such unrelenting, single-minded, absolute growth, an unregulated growth that does not know when to stop and ends up killing its biological host by diverting all resources to its single-minded pursuit of bigger and bigger.
As that somewhat eccentric US environmental activist, Edward Abbey, had famously pointed out, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”
In the first decades of the Industrial Revolution, which set this pattern of unrelenting economic growth, the limit to economic growth was not visible. The imprint of human activity was yet relatively small compared to the size of the planet and its resources. There were some people even then who spoke against economic growth and its baneful influence on the planet but these were, invariably, romantics out of touch with reality and based their critiques of industrialisation and economic growth on a desire to retain the status quo of feudal stagnation and hierarchy.
The unrelenting growth of the economy unleashed by capitalism, especially in its industrial phase, has been responsible for the flowering of the productive and creative powers of the human race. It is not merely reactionary, but futile, to talk about a return to the pre-industrial past. Yet, one cannot escape the obvious fact that limitless growth is not possible in a planet of limited resources. The point is to be able, using the very technological and intellectual tools provided by the sustained economic growth of the past two centuries, to determine how this growth has impacted its biological host and whether we have reached the limits of such growth.
I would argue, based not on some longing for a return to an innocent pastoral utopia but on hard material reality, that we may not only have reached this limit, but are mindlessly breaching it, imperilling our very existence.
Today the world has close to seven billion human beings. To sustain our large numbers, human beings consume close to a quarter of the world’s Net Primary Production (NPP). NPP means the total biomass produced on planet Earth in a given period of time. On this NPP survive the million of species of living organisms that call Earth their home. Today one species, homo sapiens, consumes almost a quarter of the primary production that is available on Earth for the sustenance of all living creatures. This figure in itself indicates the high level of unsustainability of our present economic system.
The industrial revolution released us from the shackles of agriculture and primary production. Humans harnessed the power of coal and petroleum (and later the atom) to fuel industries and the industrial economy. It is estimated that today only about 20 percent of the energy requirements of human beings are met from primary production. The other 80 percent comes from fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are primarily massive stores of the NPP from millions of years ago. They are a fixed deposit that cannot be replenished. One litre of petrol comes from more than 23 tonnes of prehistoric plant matter and is, as we all keep chanting, non-renewable.
So that is the present balance sheet of the growth of the human economy. We consume 23.5 percent of the Earth’s NPP, but that satisfies only about 20 percent of our energy needs. The rest comes from a ‘non-renewable’ bank of prehistoric NPP, which we are consuming at an ever faster rate. To stand up against further economic growth is not merely correct in terms of ethics and morality, it is the only option we have if we are to survive as a biological species and let our biological host, planet Earth, survive too. These levels of resource and energy consumption are nothing but a cancer on the body of this planet.
Marxists and other left critics of capitalism have spoken out against the exploitation, oppression and waste inherent in this economic system based on private property. They have produced robust and resilient critiques of the system and identified alternatives that are non-exploitative and humane. But even the most Marxist of the critiques, including Karl Marx himself, were unable or unwilling to challenge the idea of unrelenting economic growth. The entire burden of their critiques has been on the redistribution of wealth and the fruits of economic growth. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, economic growth and human consumption had not reached levels that would imperil the very existence of the Earth’s biosphere and humans as a species. But today the warnings are stark.
Today it is, I would argue, impossible to build a critique of capitalism that does not recognise this obvious fact. Unless we question the need and desirability of further economic growth, the left will fall into the trap of hunting for more energy and more resources. The unlimited nature of human desires is a self-serving myth of market economies. Today we have achieved productive powers and generated wealth that can sustain human beings in comfort, health and freedom if properly distributed. Therefore, the battle for the proper distribution of wealth and resources is crucial. But while that is the necessary battle, it is not sufficient. We need to take a stand against unrelenting, unstoppable growth. Unless the left finds the political and intellectual resources to do that, its battle for redistribution will remain trapped in the capitalist logic of continuously expanding the economy, irrespective of the human and environmental costs.
The environmental limits to economic growth provide the left with the material conditions on which to build its politics in the present century.
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This article was published in my weekly column in The Post, on 12 September, 2007 under the title The Ideology of the Cancer Cell.