Debt Rattle Apr 22 2014: What Is The Earth Worth (6 Years Later)?

By The Automatic Earth

Edwin Rosskam Workers and hurricane shelter in tobacco field, Puerto Rico January 1938
Once more for everyone who’s got even the lightest slightest shade of green in their thoughts and dreams and fingers, I’ll try and address the issue of why going or being green is a futile undertaking as long as it isn’t accompanied by a drive for a radical upheaval of the economic system we live in. Thinking we can be green – that is to say, achieve anything real when it comes to restoring our habitat to a healthy state – without that upheaval, is a delusion. And delusions, as we all know all too well, can be dangerous.

It’s not possible to “save the planet” while maintaining the economic system we currently have, because that system is based on and around perpetual growth. It’s really as simple as that, and perhaps it’s that very simplicity which fools people into thinking that can’t be all there is to it. Switching to different fuels, alternative energy forms, is useless in such a system, because there will be a moment when the growth catches up with all preservation measures; it’s not a winnable race. There will come a time when a choice between preservation and growth must be made, and the latter will always win (as long as the system prevails). It would be very helpful if the environmental movement catches up on the economics aspect, because it’s not going anywhere right now. It’s a feel-good ploy that comforts parts of our guilty minds but won’t bring about what’s needed to eradicate that guilt.

If you’re serious about preserving the world and restoring it to the state your ancestors found it in, it’s going to take a lot more than different lightbulbs or fuels or yearly donations to a “good” cause. That, too, is very simple. You won’t be able to keep living the way you do, and preserve the place you have in your society, your job, your home, your car. That is a heavy price to pay perhaps in your view, but there is no other way. Whether you make that choice is another story altogether. Just don’t think you’re going to come off easy.

What makes it harder is the question whether we, as a species, are capable of pulling this off in the first place. Still, if we can’t even get it right as individuals… But trying to answer what it would all take, in reality, is still preferable than telling ourselves, and each other, and your children, a bunch of fiction-based lies on a daily basis. At least, that’s my take. Either we make an honest attempt or we say “after us the flood”. Trying to find a snug and comfy but cheating place somewhere in between is an insult to ourselves, our ancestors and our progeny.

I read a number of things this morning that, in typical fashion, all sort of touch on all this, as so many do all the time, but still fall short of the logical conclusion. For many, that’s because perpetual growth is a hard to grasp concept, and an economic system based on it is even more difficult, but it’s a terrible shame that it leads to all those well-meaning people producing what is in the end really little more than gibberish. Jeremy Brecher gets it partly right for the Nation,

‘Jobs vs. the Environment’: How to Counter This Divisive Big Lie

While concrete, on-the-ground solutions are essential for knitting together labor and environmental concerns, our movements also need to evolve toward a common program and a common vision. We can present such initiatives as exemplars of a broad public agenda for creating full employment by converting to a climate-safe economy. There are historical precedents for such programs. Just as the New Deal in the Great Depression of the 1930s put millions of unemployed people to work doing the jobs America’s communities needed, so today we need a “Green New Deal” to rebuild our energy, transportation, building, and other systems to drastically reduce the climate-destroying greenhouse gas pollution they pour into the air.

Such a shared program would end the “jobs versus environment” conflict because environmental protection would produce millions of new jobs and expansion of jobs would protect the environment. Such a program provides common ground on which both labor and environmentalists can stand. Such a program can also be the centerpiece of a larger shared vision of a new economy. After all, just expanding the kind of economy we have will just expand the problems of inequality and environmental catastrophe our current economy is already creating. The ultimate solution to the “jobs vs. environment” dilemma is to build a new economy where we all have secure livelihoods based on work that creates the kind of sustainable world we all need.

… but the notion that expansion, any kind of expansion, would protect the environment is dangerous. Expansion is part of the other side’s vocabulary. And using their vocabulary is not a good thing. George Monbiot quotes George Lakoff to make that exact point:

Can You Put A Price On The Beauty Of The Natural World?

George Lakoff, the cognitive linguist who has done so much to explain why progressive parties keep losing elections they should win, explained that attempts to monetise nature are a classic example of people trying to do the right thing without understanding frames: the mental structures that shape the way we perceive the world. As Lakoff points out, you cannot win an argument unless you expound your own values and re-frame the issue around them.

If you adopt the language and values of your opponents “you lose because you are reinforcing their frame”. Costing nature tells us that it possesses no inherent value; that it is worthy of protection only when it performs services for us; that it is replaceable. You demoralise and alienate those who love the natural world while reinforcing the values of those who don’t.

And the rest of Monbiot’s piece is sort of alright, but his from the rooftops support for more nuclear (in Britain) shows that he, like so many others, only gets part of the story.

… the financial case for new roads in the United Kingdom, shaky at the best of times, falls apart if you attach almost any value to the rise in greenhouse gases they cause. Case closed? No: the government now insists [..] that climate change cannot be taken into account when deciding whether or not a road is built. Do you believe that people prepared to cheat to this extent would stop a scheme because one of the government’s committees has attached a voodoo value to a piece of woodland?

It’s more likely that the accounting exercise would be used as a weapon by the developers. The woods are worth £x, but by pure chance the road turns out to be worth £x +1. Beauty, tranquillity, history, place, particularity? Sorry, they’ve already been costed and incorporated into x – end of discussion. The strongest arguments that opponents can deploy – arguments based on values – cannot be heard.

This line of thinking should be applied not just to nature, but to all basic human necessities as well, food, water, shelter, and yes, even the energy that keeps us warm. I have often said that if you allow money into your political system, money will inevitably end up owning that system. And that is true for all resources too: in an economic perpetual growth model, money, if allowed to, will concentrate in just a few institutions and families and eventually own everything. Didn’t Marx, too, say something like that a while back?

And I could go on, but I already wrote it all several times, for instance on May 27 2008, and nothing has changed since. At least not for the good. And so here goes. I wrote this in reaction to an otherwise great article in Der Spiegel entitled: The Price of Survival: What Would It Cost to Save Nature?.

I still really like that Spiegel article, except that it’s wrong on many counts. Here’s from 6 years ago (and yes, I know there are things in it I have mentioned more recently as well):

What Is The Earth Worth?

Another great article from German magazine Der Spiegel. It has one huge problem, though: it is based on ideas and assumptions that are so wrong and misguided they can only do harm. We can not buy back our world, and we can not restore or save it with money. As long as we keep stating the earth’s value in monetary terms, we are irrevocably doomed. If you accept that you come from, and belong to, the world around you, and understand that Darwin has delivered proof that (wo)man has come from all that has been before, that 90% of our genes are identical to those of our pets and so on, than putting a dollar price on plants and animals and rivers and skies is identical to putting a dollar price on your own life, and on your children and loved ones. Everything alive is a part of you. Dollars are not.

In our economic system, based on debt, credit and interest, the future value of everything under the sun necessarily gets discounted over time. That is because currencies lose their value over time. It’s also in our genes: we prefer what we have now over what we might have later. Our ancestors were the ones who focused on immediate threats. Those who focused on future ones, in general didn’t live long enough to procreate.

There is an economist in this article who says: “Protecting diversity is much cheaper than allowing its destruction.” He’s wrong, because of what I just said: all future values are discounted, so destruction is more profitable than preservation. This economist has never grasped the essence of his own chosen field.

The article continues: “Biodiversity – and efforts to preserve it – could in fact become an enormous business in the future”. See, that’s the rub right there, in the word ‘could’, [sometime] in the future . In the here and now, using and destroying all we can get our hands on is the only thing that makes sense economically. If that is hard to wrap your mind around, wait till you get hungry, and you face the choice between eating or protecting diversity. You’ll eat.

The only things in the natural world that have a value in our economics are those that can be sold at a profit, today; and that is all the value they have. All else is luxury. Preservation only has a chance in times of plenty, and even then only in theory. After all, we are today coming out of the by far most plentiful time in human existence, but it has not exactly been a time of preservation. Quite the contrary, it has both led to, and was accommodated by, the worst destruction of the natural environment ever in history. That is not a coincidence; it’s destruction that gave us our riches.

Now, we are entering a much poorer time economically, and that will lead to an even worse destruction, if only because the riches made us multiply like so many rabbits.

As long as our world views emanate from an economic system based on perpetual growth, there is, after the short high we are now leaving, no way but down and worse. We would need to take food, water and indeed the entire natural world out of any and all profit calculations, or they’ll all be devoured in time by the ever-growing credit monster that requires us to pay interest over every breath we take, every plant we grow, every meal we eat, and every house we build. As long as we run our societies on that system, there is no other possible outcome than what we are witnessing today.

To fully understand this, you need to shake off your dreams and illusions about preservation and doing good, and take a good hard open look at the numbers on extinctions and environmental degradation. People have been talking about saving the planet for a long time, but it all deteriorates. And not just that, the deterioration accelerates.

Groups like Greenpeace are almost religiously accepted as being highly beneficial, but in reality are some of the worst players around, since they facilitate the perpetuation of the lies and illusions about saving and preserving, while the house is on fire. Donating to them is like paying the church to be absolved of your sins. That makes them guilty, if not of perpetrating crimes outright, then certainly of aiding and abetting, of being accomplices to the foul deed. Good intentions don’t buy you salvation, not when they’re built on illusions that serve only to make you feel good.

If we are to save this planet, we will have to throw out the economic model. But that is an issue utterly absent from any green program. Green movements indeed are but modern religions, far removed from reality, unable to grasp what happens right before their eyes, focused instead on making those who donate feel good, on keeping the false idea alive that we can continue to live close enough to the way we do and save the planet at the same time.

Man is like yeast, which destroy their own living environment when given the chance. At least yeast have the excuse that they can’t think. Man can think, but is still incapable of understanding that thinking does not control his actions. What does drive us to do what we do, happen to be the same things that drive yeast: billion-year-old primitive instincts with no regard whatsoever for the future. We discount the future in the exact same way that our economic system does. That system is ideally fitted for how our brains function, and that will make it near impossible to get rid of it before it’s too late.

Being able to think equals being able to lie, to lie to ourselves and others about why we do what we do. That makes man both the most tragic and the most destructive animal ever assembled by evolution. As such, we are a unique success story.

I’ve often wondered why it is, and what it means, that man allows himself to destroy the world his children need to live in after he’s gone. What does that say about the idea of “love for your progeny”? It drags down that love to the level of some semi-automated, genetically predetermined (re-)action, like a cat that licks her kittens; but that’s where love stops, for man and cat. But yes, it can be puzzling at first glance: while they obliterate the natural world without which their sons and daughters have no chance of survival, most parents would die to save their kids from a fire today. And there is the essence: it’s about today. We are no better at “doing future” than yeast is.

“But now a revolution is taking shape in the way we think”, claims the article, citing the value of biodiversity to our economic model. “the economic weapon must shoot in the right direction.”But that weapon can only shoot in one direction, there’s no reverse, no steering wheel, and it’s short-range only. The sole chance we have is to take out that “economic weapon” altogether, not try in vain to point it in the “right” direction. We shouldn’t have multinationals giving money to the Congo, we should make sure no multinational ever sets another foot there. For every dollar they donate, they destroy a hundred; that is solidly engraved in the system.

I will gladly admit I cannot say this better than Herman Daly and Kenneth Townsend did in their 1993 book “Valuing the Earth” (note how similar the title is to those of this post and the original Der Spiegel piece):

“Erwin Schrodinger (1945) has described life as a system in steady-state thermodynamic disequilibrium that maintains its constant distance from equilibrium (death) by feeding on low entropy from its environment—that is, by exchanging high-entropy outputs for low-entropy inputs. The same statement would hold verbatim as a physical description of our economic process.

A corollary of this statement is that an organism cannot live in a medium of its own waste products.”

I know it’s the second time in a week that I quote Daly and Townsend, but that’s because I hope everyone will try to understand what it means: that in the end, it’s the use of energy, the amount, that counts, far more than what kind of it. Our present economic system depends for its survival on our using ever larger amounts, and we have the drive to do just that; it will take a very serious effort to resist that drive, and even then there’s no guarantee the rest of mankind will do the same. But anything else, any well intentioned green initiative, is useless and futile and in the end pretty stupid, good only for some instant gratification for that part of the brain that seeks to “do good”, a cheating way to feel less guilty about destroying everything around us, for telling our kids we love them and then leaving them only with smouldering remains, empty rivers and oceans, undrinkable water, infertile soil and sky high mountains of plastic, steel and aluminum. And I don’t know that we can do better than that, but we can at least start by not fooling ourselves into some tempting illusionary comfort zone. Or we can just give up, that’s an option too.

TLB recommends you visit for more great articles and pertinent information.

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