Will the Great Disruption Lead to a Sustainable Economy?


Image: Chris Tackett

Last week, I wrote about Occupy Wall Street and ecological capitalism and suggested we were on the verge of a new era of economics. Since then, a couple pieces in the New York Times and the global escalation of the Occupy movement have me thinking something different really is happening here. First, in a piece aptly titled, "This Time, It Really Is Different," Joe Nocera previewed an important new report from the New America Foundation called, "The Way Forward: Moving From the Post-Bubble, Post-Bust Economy to Renewed Growth and Competitiveness." Both Nocera's post and the report are must-reads, but in short, the report lays out an overview of what is wrong with the US economy and suggests a massive infrastructure project as one of a number of suggested remedies.

In the other piece, this one appropriately titled, "Something's Happening Here," Thomas Friedman looked at two of the theories for contextualizing what it is that is happening here. According to Friedman, depending on your outlook we're either experiencing "The Great Disruption" or "The Big Shift." Instead of explaining both ideas here, you should read Friedman's entire post.

I don't disagree that The Big Shift theory is probably happening in some form, but when I look at how the Occupy Wall Street movement has reverberated around the world and place it in context with everything we've been writing for years here on TreeHugger, I think what we're experiencing is much closer to The Great Disruption.

Here's how Paul Gilding, who is the author of "The Great Disruption," sums up our current situation:

"I look at the world as an integrated system, so I don't see these protests, or the debt crisis, or inequality, or the economy, or the climate going weird, in isolation -- I see our system in the painful process of breaking down," which is what he means by the Great Disruption, said Gilding. "Our system of economic growth, of ineffective democracy, of overloading planet earth -- our system -- is eating itself alive."

Joe Romm at Climate Progress has a post on this, as well, asking if "Occupy Wall Street a Sign of "The Great Disruption"?" It's worth reading, plus there are some great videos of Gilding explaining his idea in more detail.

It's not pretty. It's not a particularly pleasant thing to believe, but does that not sound like precisely what is happening? Maybe it's not. Maybe the financial pundits are right and this is just a normal dip and the global economy will somehow return to endless growth, but I call bs. In fact, I think the entire world is calling bs.

In January of 2010 - what feels like a lifetime ago in blog years - Mat wrote on TreeHugger about the impossible hampster as a metaphor for the theory of economic growth.

Here's how Mat introduced the above video:

"This is one of the funniest takes I've ever seen on what it is the single most important topic in the green movement. Forget climate change, forget renewable energy, forget peak oil, forget green gadgets, biodiversity loss, endangered species, and every other thing TreeHugger publishes. Without addressing the quest for never-ending economic growth--meaning ever increasing consumption of natural resources, beyond the ability of the planet to regenerate those--all of those other important, pressing issues will not be solved, full stop."

And in an earlier post from 2008, Mat points to a piece by Gus Speth. Writes, Speth (emphasis mine):

"This new politics must, first of all, ensure that environmental concern and advocacy extend to the full range of relevant issues. The environmental agenda should expand to embrace a profound challenge to consumerism and commercialism and the lifestyles they offer, a healthy skepticism of growthmania and a redefinition of what society should be striving to grow, a challenge to corporate dominance and a redefinition of the corporation and its goals, a commitment to deep change in both the functioning and the reach of the market, and a powerful assault on the anthropocentric and contempocentric values that currently dominate.

Environmentalists must also join with social progressives in addressing the crisis of inequality now unraveling America's social fabric and undermining its democracy. It is a crisis of soaring executive pay, huge incomes, and increasingly concentrated wealth for a small minority, occurring simultaneously with poverty near a 30-year high, stagnant wages despite rising productivity, declining social mobility and opportunity, record levels of people without health insurance, failing schools, increased job insecurity, swelling jails, shrinking safety nets, and the longest work hours among the rich countries. "

The TreeHugger archives are stocked with similar messages from sustainably-minded thinkers and you can go back decades farther to find people making the same points in the 60s and 70s. But things do seem different now.

Call me cynical, but I just don't see a long-term rebound happening within the confines of our current economic and political realities. Considering that Republicans have made it clear they would rather see Obama lose reelection than support any jobs or infrastructure investment, even if we could somehow overcome the political roadblocks currently stopping us from doing the "gargantuan investment" in infrastructure needed, as reported in the Washington Post today, the kind of investment that is being discussed is largely about repairing the infrastructure of our past such as bridges and roads. And it should be said that much of that is worth-doing, but what is being discussed is not the kind of future-thinking infrastructure we really need, like high-speed rail, rural broadband, a smart grid, winterization and solar and wind farms. And knowing US politics, we'll probably only get 1, maybe 2, big shots at an infrastructure investment on a scale such as this, so if we only go big with repairing our old ideas to get the economy spending and back to buying the same sorts of things we always have, after years of work and billions or even a trillion or more dollars spent, we'd then be back to facing the same problem of the intrinsically unsustainable nature of a system that depends on continuous growth!

So we need to step way back. If things really are different this time and if we are really in a moment of Great Disruption and if we really are on the verge of a new era in our politics and in our history, how will we ensure that what rises from the ashes of our current crises are the right ideas for creating long-term sustainability?

When I first wrote about the Occupy Wall Street movement, I thought of Milton Friedman and his point about how when rebuilding after a crisis people look to the ideas already laying around. So if things are changing enough that a new paradigm is possible, environmentalists, climate hawks and people interested in screwing up the planet less that we currently do, need to be thinking and talking about how we ensure that whatever this new era ends up becoming, whatever economic theory ends up as the winning idea to try next, that the new system incorporates ecological thinking and steady-state economics, so we can finally start making the right choices to help us become a sustainable society.

@ChrisTackett likes to tweet about these and other things.
More on Sustainable Economics
We Need a New Green Politics! James Gustave Speth on The Change Needed in the Environmental Movement
On Martin Luther, Steve Jobs & Ecologizing Capitalism
Why We Must Learn From The Biosphere To Build Green

Tags: Economics | longreads

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