Is the End of Fossil-Fueled Economic Growth Upon Us? (Video)


Photo credit: Don Hankins via Flickr/CC BY

You've probably heard this case made before, and it's a solid one: That cheap fossil fuels are the main driver of economic expansion, and have been ever since the industrial revolution. This video, put together by the Post Carbon Institute, argues that today's stagnant economy isn't just a slump -- it's the new reality, thanks to the burgeoning demand for and shrinking supply of cheap fossil fuels:

Essentially, the case is that standard economic theory -- and thus the set of assumptions that govern the global free market economy -- is predicated on a fallacy. That fallacy is that there's a limitless abundance of cheap fossil fuels and natural resources, which allows economic growth to continue unperturbed indefinitely.

That's not the case, of course. Attempting to pursue such unlimited growth would lead not just to mass resource depletion and economic conflicts between nations, but economies that sputter out along with their access to cheap energy. That's what we're seeing today, the Post Carbon Institute argues: Industrialized nations have organized their societies around expectations of continued growth (employment, state revenues, etc are contingent upon it), and we're feeling the pain of the discrepancy between those expectations and the sputtering economic machine that's running out of its fossil fuel.

All of this is oversimplified a bit, but you get the gist. Finally, the PCI argues that we've got to adapt to this new reality of stagnant 'growth' and do away with the old models and the GDP fetishizing. It's also, coincidentally, where the argument falls flat.

I generally agree with the diagnosis (though neoliberal optimists could pin their hopes on abundant clean energy in the future, or cheaper ways of extracting dirty sources of fossil fuel in tar sands and so forth), but I have to say that I find the proposed alternative entirely unconvincing. Granted, it's left a little vague to keep the tone consistent with the rest of the video, but just calling for a paradigm shift in cultural values, and asking everyone to appreciate freedom, happiness, and family fun over GDP is, for lack of a better term, grade A weak sauce. How would this change occur, practically speaking? It's as if I were to propose a solution to halting the advance of the military industrial complex by arguing that everybody should just be nicer to each other.

So is, in my opinion, this call for "localized economies" -- something that many folks, including the great Bill McKibben, have been keen on for a while as well. It's a nice idea, but it's a) horribly, horribly unsexy; it's too wonky to get most folks fired up about the concept as a locus for change. And b) given the power and influence of multinational corporations in the current global political landscape, it's as much of a Utopian pipe dream as an actual Utopia -- just without actual Utopian ideals of social and economic egalitarianism built in.

Essentially, this is a critique of capitalism itself, despite the absence of the term (you can't actually be critical of capitalism in public in America without being declared a Bolshevik terrorist). And the call is for massive structural reform to constrain the system's more destructive byproducts. But the cutesy correctives prescribed here hardly seem capable of taming such a beast, or even inspiring the public to want to do so in the first place.

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