Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Cherry-Picking Facts

You probably think I’m going to discuss the selective appropriation of information that many people engage in. Sorry. I’m actually going to share a few facts about real cherries that get picked by real people. Nothing metaphorical here today, unless . . . well, we’ll see.
I grew up in North Ogden, Utah, a semirural community that was taking the necessary strides to become the full-fledged suburb it is today. My parents built a house on property my grandfather subdivided and sold off when I was six. Our house stood in a clearing among the scrub oak where my mom had driven the family’s cows to pasture as a girl. In pioneer days, the North Ogden bench was known as Storeytown, named for my mom’s ancestors who had settled the area.
My dad was a CPA and worked for a mortgage and loan in Ogden. My mom’s dad was also a CPA, but on the side he was a small-time fruit farmer. He had two modest cherry orchards and another orchard where a few gnarled apricot trees grew. Because of his accounting prowess, he also served as secretary/treasurer for the Utah Fruit Growers Association. Grandpa was also my employer. I mowed his lawn and did other yard work, and he also let me help out now and then in his accounting practice. But in my early years, I picked cherries for him, as did most of my close friends. It was a way to pick up some extra spending money, and Grandpa relied on local kids to harvest his fruit.
When I got a little older, I managed the orchards for him, which involved supervising the kids who picked the cherries, moving ladders for the smaller pickers, sawing off high branches, weighing the crates when they were full, recording the weights in a notebook, and delivering the full crates at the end of the workday to the packing plant in Ogden. Grandpa’s cherries mostly got shipped by train to distant places back east. The packing plant was down by the Ogden railroad yards, and whenever I made deliveries I came away happy I didn’t work there, like my sister and her friends. The packing plant was right next to a facility where they burned turkey feathers. If you’ve never smelled burned turkey feathers, well, consider yourself blessed.
Sweet cherries aren’t like pie cherries that you just shake off the tree onto large tarps that funnel the cherries into huge wooden boxes. Sweet cherries are for eating fresh, and they have to be picked with the stems on, otherwise they leak juice and become squishy. So picking sweet cherries is a very labor-intensive activity, and when you pick them, you grab the stems and pull upward, against the branch. That way they come off clean, but after a while your fingers get pretty sore from pulling on the stems. Cherry season doesn’t last long, so you really don’t have much chance to develop calluses. Bings ripen slightly earlier than Lamberts, so we would pick the Bings first before moving on to the Lambert orchard. All told, though, the entire season only lasted two or three weeks. So you had to get all the cherries off the trees in short order, before they got too ripe to ship. And that meant you had to have a pretty decent picking crew.
Grandpa paid by the pound, and picking cherries was not easy work, but kids had been picking cherries in North Ogden as summer work for decades. The hours were also bad. Since cherries ripen during the hot days of midsummer, picking started as soon as it was light enough to see which cherries were ripe, which was pretty early in late June and early July. We worked until about two o’clock. By then it was hot enough that all the kids wanted to stop for the day. My friends and I were pretty hard workers. We would have a competition to see who could get the most pounds in a day. But some kids were apparently there only because their parents thought they needed the experience of working for their spending money. Lots of these kids were rather unproductive. Often they’d last a few days, earn a few dollars, and quit. When I was an older teenager and was running the orchard, these spoiled kids were just a waste of my time. I appreciated the hard workers.
Every summer from when I was old enough to pick until I left on my mission, I spent a few weeks in Grandpa’s orchards. And at regular intervals throughout the summer, I was responsible for the irrigating. So I spent quite a bit of time in the orchards. Then I went off to Germany, and when I returned, I came down to BYU and never was involved in fruit farming again.
But about the time I got married, my dad retired, and he took over the orchards. In fact, he bought a piece of property next to Grandpa’s Lambert trees and planted a peach orchard. But in nine years between when I left on my mission and when my dad took over the orchards, something interesting happened. The kids changed. They wouldn’t pick cherries anymore. I don’t know what it was, but I have my suspicions. At any rate, my dad had to hire what we called, in those days, migrant workers. Mexicans. Today we’d probably call them illegal aliens. The larger orchards had been hiring them for years. And they were hard workers. They could clean a tree in short order, much faster than the local kids had ever been able to.
So, where am I going with this? I think there’s an analogy for our society in this story. The Republicans have made illegal immigration a centerpiece of their presidential campaign, but in doing so they’ve oversimplified the situation with threats to build walls and deport millions of illegal aliens rather than doing the hard work of real immigration reform, which is desperately needed and would be the charitable response to the dilemma. In a sense, they are the political equivalent of the kids in North Ogden after my dad took over the orchards. But the rhetoric sells well on the campaign trail; not so well in reality. The simplistic political rhetoric is that undocumented workers are stealing American jobs. But many of those jobs, like the cherry-picking labor of my youth, are jobs that no American is willing to take anymore.
Agriculture jobs are not very plentiful in today’s economy, relative to other labor categories, but according to the Pew Research Center, agriculture is the industry where undocumented workers are most overrepresented. Sixteen percent of agricultural workers are undocumented, although they represent only 5.1 percent of the workforce. The other industries where undocumented workers are overrepresented are construction (12%), leisure and hospitality (9%), professional (7%), and manufacturing (6%).
Farmers in America have come to depend on undocumented workers to harvest their crops. Just as my dad’s cherries would have shriveled on the trees without the Mexican pickers, so would much of America’s produce today go unharvested without undocumented workers, who are willing to do jobs American workers simply refuse to take. It’s hard work, and it doesn’t pay well. So we depend on illegal aliens for a fair share of the food we eat. We apparently rely on them for other types of undesirable work, too. So rather than engaging in ridiculous political rhetoric, let’s address the realities of this situation. And rather than rewarding politicians for being both unrealistic and offensive, let’s demand of them that they deal with difficult issues.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Conservatives and Liberals

Catherine Rampell of the Washington Post had an interesting column last week. Her point was that the labels conservative and progressive (and its sister, liberal) have become meaningless terms in 2016. In many ways, I would have to agree, especially as we see how popular Donald Trump is among presumed conservatives even as his rhetoric flies in the face of what have been considered solid “conservative” positions on various issues. Says Rampell: “He picks and chooses positions that people like and want to vote for, or at least that sound good in the moment. (A lot of his views on trade, big pharma and ‘special interests’ sound similar to Sanders’s, after all.) To some extent this is what politicians have always done, though usually they’ve pretended to philosophical constancy more fervently than Trump has.”
This is a telling observation, both about politicians and about the degree of ideological consistency in at least one of the two major parties. But if we step back for a moment and look at what the words conservative and liberal mean at a more general level, maybe we can understand better what really divides these two very different outlooks on society and why it doesn’t make much sense to be consistently conservative or consistently liberal.

Two Different Worldviews
According to Webster’s, conservative means “tending or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions.” It also means “marked by moderation or caution.” Conservatism means “the tendency to prefer an existing or traditional situation to change.” Liberal, by contrast, means “broadminded . . . not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or traditional forms.” Progressive, as an adjective, means “making use of or interested in new ideas, findings, or opportunities.” As a noun, it describes “one believing in moderate political change and esp[ecially] social improvement by governmental action.”
In general, then, conservatism is a cautious and backward-looking philosophy or, at best, is resistant to change. It wants to preserve values, social conditions, and institutions as they are or have been in the past. Liberalism, or progressivism (if we lump them together), is more change-oriented and, therefore, looks to the future and is interested in progress and improvement.
Given the unique LDS doctrine of eternal progression, it is somewhat surprising that more Mormons do not espouse a liberal or progressive political view. In our early years, were anything but conservative. Joseph Smith was continually pushing for change, even to the point of breaking long-standing social mores. Especially in terms of marriage, economics, and doctrinal innovation, Mormons were far outside the “acceptable” societal norm. But as we were reined in by an offended American society, we morphed from a liberal, adventurous sect into a conservative, traditional, even static religion. Where Joseph’s revelations typically pushed the envelope, the revelations of the twenty-first century Church tend to be more in the institutional-preservation and boundary-maintenance mode.
Not only has Mormonism’s position on the liberal-conservative spectrum shifted over time, but political conservatism has also changed drastically, especially in the past couple of decades. All we have to do is look at the great conservative of the latter part of the twentieth century, Ronald Reagan. He would be very uncomfortable in today’s Republican Party. Indeed, he would be viewed as a RINO by the ideological purists of today’s conservative movement, even though they repeatedly invoke his name. So, why has conservatism changed so much in recent years?

The Agenda of Fox News
In a 2014 article for CNN’s website, David Frum, a neoconservative and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, takes a close look at the philosophy behind Fox News. He starts by quoting Chet Collier, one of the founders of the conservative news network: “Viewers don’t want to be informed. Viewers want to feel informed.” Frum then makes this observation: “Fox is the most-watched cable news network, and yet, some surveys suggest that people who rely on Fox as their primary information source know less about current events than people who watch no news at all.” Explaining this phenomenon is the purpose of Frum’s article.
Roger Ailes, the man who shaped Fox News into what it is, didn’t focus on the perennial question news programmers had always asked: “What is our product?” He focused instead on a new question: “Who is my product for?” The answer, says Frum, is an aging generation that is feeling increasingly estranged in a rapidly changing country and yearns for the good old days: “The largest generation in American history, the baby boomers, were reaching deep middle age by the mid-1990s. They were beginning to share an experience familiar to all who pass age 50: living in a country very different from the one they had been born into.
“Fox offered them a new virtual environment in which they could feel more at home than they did in the outside world. Fox was carefully designed to look like a TV show from the 1970s: no holograms, no urban hipster studios, lots of primary colors.”
Not only does Fox News offer this aging generation a refuge from a frighteningly unfamiliar new world, but it also feeds their mistrust of government, especially government by the party that favors change. I don’t watch Fox News much myself, but my dad does, and my mom did too before she passed away a couple of years ago. I still remember a conversation I had with her in which she tried to express her disapproval of the current president. “I just don’t like Obama and all his czars,” she exclaimed. In the variety of news sources I keep tabs on, I had never heard about Obama’s “czars.” “Mom,” I suggested, “you need to stop watching so much Fox News.” But I knew my suggestion would fall on deaf ears. Fox provided them with a comfort zone in which they could find hope for the return of a world they once knew.
“Here, on this station,” writes Frum, “the chosen market segment could enjoy security and validation. Out there was depicted a hostile world of threats, danger, crime, and decaying values.” As mentioned above, conservatives, by definition, are cautious, change-resistant, and backward-looking. Fox feeds that mind-set, often with misinformation and doctored statistics. But it is very effective. “Like talk radio before it, but even more intensely,” Frum concludes, “Fox offered information programmed not as a stream of randomly connected facts, but as a means of self-definition and a refuge from a hostile external reality. Fox is a news medium that functions as a social medium.” And we cannot underestimate the influence it has exerted on its regular viewers.
Perhaps Frum’s take on Fox News partially explains why the conservative movement has lost its intellectual bearings. It has been hijacked by a slanted news network and conservative talk radio, which have pushed the fear button, the paranoia button, and the reactionary button in an attempt to shape the conservative agenda.

Conservatives and Conservation
Over the past couple of decades, conservative positions have often diverged not just from previous conservative positions, but from common sense and rationality as well. Perhaps the poster child of all irrational conservative transformations has been the Republican Party’s opposition to the certainty of human-caused global warming. This should not be a partisan issue, but for various reasons, none of them valid, the GOP has thrown its weight behind the same sort of misinformation campaign that the tobacco companies used for fifty years to confuse people about the dangers of cigarette smoke. How much of this baffling move is the result of the GOP’s devotion to Big Oil and how much is a consequence of the compulsion to simply oppose everything the Democrats favor can be debated. But what cannot be debated is the validity of the science and the overwhelming consensus among climate scientist about the danger human-caused global warming presents to the human race and almost all other species. While some of today’s Republican presidential candidates will, if pressured, admit that they believe in the reality of global warming, they are reluctant to say it is caused by human action and even more reluctant to take any steps to combat it. The Republican Congress is probably even more reluctant, if not in complete denial. As the facts mount, though, fewer Republicans will be able to maintain this particular form of science skepticism, but don’t look for them to become rabid proponents for renewable energy anytime soon.
The words conservative and conservation come from the same root. One would think that a party that claims to be conservative would also have conservation of resources and preservation of the earth as a high priority. But “conservative” arguments against both global warming and pollution rely heavily on the false claim that moving toward cleaner, more sustainable energy would damage the economy. As if destroying the environment wouldn’t in the long run yield far greater damage to the economy.

A Fractured Party
Among other issues that should be nonpartisan but aren’t are reasonable gun control, immigration reform, investing in infrastructure, regulating Wall Street, ensuring the well-being of the elderly and disadvantaged, providing health care for all Americans, and bringing in enough tax revenue to pay for government services that almost all Americans agree are necessary or desirable. Part of the reason for this brand of partisanship is that in recent decades an extreme and often confusing ideology has hijacked the Republican Party. At its core are:
• a mistrust or even hatred of government combined with an almost religious devotion to big business;
• a belief (that has been thoroughly disproved) that decreasing taxes will somehow result in increased tax revenue;
• a refusal to compromise (even if it means shutting down the government);
• a determination to build up a military that already spends as much as the next ten countries combined; and
• a single-minded devotion to the free market (including the incredible notion that businesses can be trusted to regulate their own behavior).
But into this supposedly undeviating ideology steps Donald Trump, whose seemingly random devotion to conservative positions has shown that, as Catherine Rampell suggests, Republican voters aren’t in actuality anywhere close to being converted to the “conservative” agenda. Mostly there is a lot of anger, but it is largely undirected. And any focus it has is fickle and not based on any sort of consistent philosophical foundation.
So, what does it mean to be a conservative in today’s America? Good question. In some ways, it still means being resistant to change and looking for answers in the past. But the philosophical subtlety that undergirded conservative politics in the past century has been swept away, and what is left is a fractured, rudderless movement that seems to be coming apart at the seams. Trump has shown where the fracture is. It runs jaggedly between the Fox News/conservative talk radio crowd (who are determined simply to oppose President Obama) and those who are merely angry about lots of things and want change, although the list of changes they favor don’t follow any sort of logic. What Trump rants about makes sense on a certain level. He is, if anything, a shrewd judge of public sentiment (or perhaps a shrewd shaper of it), at least among the less educated.
It will be interesting to see what comes of this fracture in the conservative base. Perhaps it will heal. Personally, I doubt it. A party built on either anger or obstruction is not a stable edifice. And the latest threatened obstruction over Atonin Scalia’s replacement merely highlights how partisan, irrational, and even unconstitutional the Republican Party has become. They are an airplane without a pilot. Self-destruction seems likely, but time will tell.

What about the Liberals?
On the other side of the political coin, the liberals are still pushing for change in ways they believe will improve the lives of Americans. Although Bernie Sanders is trying to drum up a revolution of sorts and has gained popularity because he has shined a bright light on the uneven playing field designed by our corporate overlords, most liberals, if asked, would probably agree to the following list. They support:
• government restraint on the excesses of big business;
• greater equality (in a variety of ways, including economic equality);
• various efforts to reverse global warming;
• reasonable laws to keep guns out of the hands of terrorists, criminals, and other troubled individuals;
• investment in infrastructure;
• access to health care for all citizens;
• a practical solution to illegal immigration; and
• a willingness to tax those who have benefited disproportionately from wealth-friendly policies, in order to help create a more equitable and just society.
Some suggest that the liberals have moved to the left just as far as the conservatives have moved to the right. But the evidence doesn’t bear this out. Indeed, to put this in some sort of international perspective, Bernie Sanders, who claims to be a “democratic socialist,” is considered a moderate by the British. In terms of health care, gun control, global warming, taxation, business regulation, and a variety of social issues, our liberals are really not so liberal when compared with our neighbors in the industrialized world. Bernie isn’t proposing anything that hasn’t already been tried and found successful in Europe, where even the conservatives would never trust their health care to “the market.”

Creating a Better Future
Well, no matter who wins the nominations of the two major parties, it is likely to be a marvelously fascinating and instructive election. We’ll just have to wait and see which way the nation votes. The Republicans seem to believe that in a country that is moving further left (because younger voters and minorities tend to be more liberal) they can somehow win the presidency by nominating an ideologically pure conservative. This is, of course, pure horse hockey. Maybe it will take another landslide defeat to bring them to their senses.
Regardless, one idea I wish everyone could agree on is that it makes little sense to be 100 percent conservative or 100 percent liberal. There are values and ideas and institutions that we should keep. There are also values and ideas and institutions that we should replace or simply reject. There is room for disagreement on the details, but there should also be room for intelligent, informed discussion. Still, nobody in their right mind should claim to be a total conservative or a total liberal. Nobody should be looking solely to the past for answers or only to the future. We need to take the best of the past and improve upon it with appropriate changes that will give us a better future.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Corporate Religion (Part 4: When Speed Looks Like Growth)

Let’s look at another piece of the profit puzzle. Paul Hawken made this telling observation about life in corporate capitalism: “Nothing in the modern workplace, and very little in society at large, encourages us to take our time, or be satisfied with what we have. We’re being presented instead with a future where we will have to work harder, but have even less leisure than we do today, if we are going to maintain our way of life. . . . We are speeding up our lives and working harder in a futile attempt to buy the time to slow down and enjoy it.”1 Sometimes, as we get caught up in our frantic modern lifestyle, we fall for a very fundamental illusion: we mistake speed for growth.
Let’s look at this phenomenon more closely. Despite the reasoning expressed in the previous three posts, corporate capitalism views productivity improvement as a panacea. It enables companies to compete and economies to grow. But productivity improvement, at least in advanced economies like our own, is almost exclusively dependent on technological advances. New technologies allow an individual worker to be more productive. In other words, new technologies allow a worker to produce more product in a given time period. We can also express this relationship from another perspective. New technologies allow a worker to produce the same amount of product in less time. So, which is it? Does productivity improvement make the economy grow, or does it simply speed things up. The answer, of course, is yes.
If the time it takes us to produce a given quantity of goods steadily decreases, then we must also consume those goods more rapidly. Everything speeds up. In this sense, productivity does not make us wealthier as a society. We simply produce and consume at a faster pace. There is not really more wealth in the system. It merely appears so because money and products change hands faster. The real change is that our time frame has collapsed.
Much of what we call economic growth might be nothing more than the fact that money passes through more hands this year than it did last year. It could be that capitalist growth is not really growth at all. It is merely speed. When transactions slow down, as they did for a time after the meltdown of 2008, so does growth. The economy shrunk for nearly a year then began growing slowly because people and businesses were not purchasing as frequently as they once did. In this sense, growth is a function of speed, of what we call turnover. Money is not changing hands as often as it did. Could it be that when all is said and done, profit can be extracted from the system only when the flow of transactions is accelerating? If so, what kind of future are we constructing for our children and grandchildren?

Not Everything that Grows Is Good
Every solution offered by politicians or conventional economists for our economic woes begins with the assumption that growth is necessary for a healthy economy. Herman Daly and John Cobb observe that although economists, like other scientists, claim to be value-neutral, “their shared values are [in fact] easy to identify. They are, above all, for economic growth. To challenge that goal is to place oneself outside the community of [economists].”2 Or, as I would put it, outside the corporate religion. But what if it is a false religion? What if the answer is not growth? What if all the economists and politicians have been asking the wrong questions? If so, then their answers are not merely wrong and irrelevant, but undoubtedly harmful as well.
What if endless, unlimited growth is not only impossible but lethal to us as individuals and communities? David Korten, questioning the sanity of our growth fixation, made this observation: “Growth of healthy organisms is a natural phenomenon, but unregulated and unlimited growth is found in nature only in cancers that ultimately destroy their hosts and themselves. We are creating an unregulated economic system that has become the equivalent of a cancerous tumor, and its unfortunate host is human society. In the name of free markets, prosperity, and democracy, modern society is embarked on a path that ultimately can lead only to the destruction of all three.”3
The metaphor is apt. Cancers grow by stealing sustenance from healthy tissue, by fooling the immune system, by deceiving nearby cells into forming food-bearing vessels and producing growth-enhancing chemicals, and by opening new pathways for the malignancy to spread throughout the body. In essence, cancer tricks the body into contributing to its own destruction. The unlimited-growth assumption makes corporate capitalism similar in many respects to cancer. It creates economic growth at the expense of health in other areas of social concern. And as it becomes entrenched, it converts the surrounding society into a support structure for its continued growth. Everything else is absorbed into the economic system, and self-perpetuation becomes the guiding rule.
Is there an alternative, though? Can we even imagine an economic system not dependent on perpetual growth? I suggest that we must begin to think along those lines because the growth assumption is fast reaching the end of its long, long rope. Let me introduce briefly two arguments against limitless economic growth.

The Environmental Argument
Kenneth Lux points out that our capitalist economic theory does not concern itself with human needs. In economics, need is a nonword. Economists are interested only in wants, or demand. “An important thing about wants,” says Lux, “is that they are ultimately infinite and therefore unsatisfiable.” Add to this the overall objective of conventional economics, which is to satisfy these wants, and a paradox emerges. Here is an extended version of a statement by Lux that I quoted in part 1 of this series:
It appears that economics has construed itself so as to attempt to accomplish the impossible: to satisfy that which cannot be satisfied. . . . From this we can start to see that economics, even at the level of its theory, may have something to do with why we are destroying our natural world.
We live on a finite planet. If human beings are defined as being made up of infinite wants, and the task of an economic system is to fulfill that infinity, then such a system will go on endlessly churning out goods in an attempt to reach what is from the beginning an impossible goal. When the infinite production of goods meets up with a finite planet there is bound to be a collision.4
Endless economic growth means accelerating the process of turning finite resources into products, which must then be consumed at an accelerating pace and ultimately turned into waste. This is how our market economy works. But, as economist Herman Daly has pointed out, viewing economic activity as a circular flow of production and consumption is like seeing an animal as nothing more than a circulatory system, ignoring the fact that it has a digestive tract that connects it to its environment at both ends.5 Similarly, our corporate system treats natural capital assets as if they were expenses and treats waste as if it had little impact on the earth. This is insanity, and we are in part to blame for not demanding greater depth and a long-term perspective from our elected leaders, particularly conservatives, who are notorious for not attempting to conserve anything and are primarily interested in selling a short-term vision for both the economy and the environment.
Economists, businesses, and politicians of both major parties have always operated on the assumption that the future will be similar to the past, that since the corporate capitalist economy has grown over time, it will continue to grow. They don’t consider the possibility that as the economy grows, it encounters constraints that were irrelevant or invisible when it was small. The minimal impact of industrialization on the environment when the earth was a seemingly infinite, sparsely populated place has little relevance to our present circumstances. Times change. We cannot logically expect the effects of the ever-expanding capitalist economy to remain negligible.
“If capitalism has one pervasive untruth,” declares Paul Hawken, “it is the delusion that business is an open, linear system: that through resource extraction and technology, growth is always possible, given sufficient capital and will. In other words, there are no inherent limits to further expansion, and those who wish to impose them have a political agenda. . . . [But] ever-expanding abundance is not a theory based on science, or history, or nature. It is based solely on self-interest.”6

The Natural Capital Argument
 New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman suggested that perhaps the economic crash of 2008 was sending us a message.
What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall—when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”
We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese . . .
We can’t do this anymore.7
I have left one piece of the profit puzzle until now for a reason. Because it is quite possibly the most relevant piece of the puzzle and may be the one that finally brings an end to endless growth. Perhaps all these things we’ve examined thus far fit together to give us a picture of why and how the capitalist economy grows: owners stealing from laborers, the introduction of innovations, the capitalist’s sabotage of the production apparatus with financial manipulations, the misalignment between revenues and expenses, expansion of the money supply, and the acceleration of the system caused by technology. But even all of these elements taken together do not complete the profit puzzle. One final element is necessary. As mentioned earlier, new resources must constantly be added to the economy. Without new resources, growth simply will not occur. The problem, as many observers have pointed out, is that a good portion of our resources are both limited and nonrenewable. So not only are we bumping up against debt ceilings and other economic limits, but we are also reaching some physical boundaries that we simply cannot cross.
E. F. Schumacher, among others, has pointed out that corporations are behaving recklessly in one particular regard. They are treating certain natural capital assets as if they were expenses. Any business that uses up its capital will not last long. But our economy is using up certain forms of capital at a staggering rate. The most obvious and most critical of these capital assets is the one we have built our modern economy upon: fossil fuels. We have created an entire way of life that is totally dependent on plentiful and relatively cheap oil and coal. The average person travels many miles to reach his or her place of work. And at home or on the job, electricity generated largely from fossil fuels gives us light, heat, refrigeration, entertainment, and the millions of benefits and distractions computers provide. The necessities of life—not just furniture and soap and clothing, but most of the food we eat—come not from local producers, but from far, far away. I eat bananas from Brazil, grapes from Chile, oranges from Florida, broccoli from California. I wear clothing made in Honduras and wear shoes made in China. Other necessities come from other far corners of the globe. All of these must be shipped long distances to market. And the economy is becoming more global as time passes, not less, as corporations search the world for the cheapest labor. We are treating oil as if it were merely an expense. But it is nonrenewable and will soon or later become scarce. The BP gusher on the Gulf floor in 2010 was merely a sign of things to come. Increasing earthquakes and polluted drinking water from fracking are additional signs. Already the easily obtainable oil is insufficient for our insatiable needs. As we drill in ever more precarious places or use methods, such as fracking, that may have devastating long-term ecological consequences, we will see more environmental disasters. And soon enough, we will experience severe shortages. Today, with falling oil prices, we assume we are living in a state of endless glut, but our oil reserves are indeed finite. Soon, of course, is a relative term. Not long ago some experts were suggesting that we had already reached what is termed peak oil, “the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline.”8 More recent estimates, however, suggest that we now have 200 years of obtainable oil. We may conclude that this is good news, but what is the environmental toll we will pay for our ever-increasing use of carbon fuels?
Paul B. Farrell, a columnist for MarketWatch, a website sponsored by the Wall Street Journal, cites several sources to propose the radical notion that even though we have 200 years’ worth of oil, “using more than one-fifth of it will dump so much excess carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that by 2050 fossil fuel companies will kill the planet. And that’s exactly what they plan to do.”9 Farrell quotes Naomi Klein, author of Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, who claims that for “‘the fossil-fuel industry, wrecking the planet is their business model.’ And Wall Street knows why: Oil companies need to protect the $150 billion in profits they make annually.”
“So the battle lines are drawn,” writes Farrell. “The oil industry has enough reserves for a couple centuries of earnings. But environmentalists are warning that using more than 20% of that ‘five times too much’ fossil fuels reserves will destroy the planet. So 80% of the reserves must be kept underground, not drilled or mined or otherwise released into Earth’s air. However, the oil industry will never agree to the environmentalists’ demands. [Former J. P. Morgan managing director John] Fullerton warns: that’d be like ‘writing off $20 trillion in assets.’ Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson has no intention of keeping ‘his reserves in the ground.’ Just the opposite: His ‘company plans to spend $37 billion a year through 2016 (about $100 million a day) searching for yet more oil and gas.’”
So, while our politicians bicker over the best way to grow the economy, the economy by its very nature is slowly destroying the very environment in which it must exist. Over the long term, endless growth is simply an unsustainable economic philosophy. But we cannot come to terms with this truth, and so we keep asking the wrong questions, which can never yield the right answers. Some of the wrong questions, surprisingly, involve alternative energies, the assumption being that we will simply replace carbon-based fuels with renewable energy sources when they become cost competitive. But this is not just wishful thinking; it is simplistic and unrealistic. A growing global economy will require an increasing amount of energy.
The economic downturn that began in 2008 temporarily depressed demand for oil, and we are also getting better at conserving, but if corporate capitalism is to fully heal, it must grow, and that growth is dependent, ultimately, on plentiful oil. The global economy we have built up so relentlessly since World War II requires more and more oil as it grows larger and larger. And as more nations join the global economy, they will require more and more oil. Natural gas may alleviate some of the demand for oil, but natural gas, ultimately, faces the same future as all nonrenewable energy sources.
Those who suggest that renewable energy will take the place of oil in our global economy are living in a dream world. Newsweek’s Sharon Begley cited the work of energy chemist Nate Lewis, pointing out the enormous challenge we face.10 The world used 14 trillion watts (or terawatts) of power in 2006. But even assuming minimal population increase, slow economic growth, and a staggering 500 percent improvement in energy efficiency worldwide relative to current U.S. levels, the world will use 28 terawatts of energy in 2050.
Where will this energy come from? Nuclear power? We would have to build 10,000 nuclear reactors, completing one every other day, to get just 10 terawatts. Wind? To get just 3 terawatts of power, we would need to erect a million state-of-the-art turbines, and we would also have to invent a way to store that power. Solar? “To get 10 terawatts by 2050, Lewis calculates, we’d need to cover 1 million roofs with panels every day from now until then.”
Are you getting the picture? Oil, natural gas, and coal are the only sources of energy that can enable us to maintain our current economic system. Renewable energy will not provide even enough power to keep up with a conservative increase in demand that will occur as global corporate capitalism seeks to grow endlessly. And as we use fossil fuels at an increasing rate, we will simultaneously cause environmental disaster. In other words, no source of energy known to us at this time can provide the amount of energy the corporate religion will need in order to enable its worship of growth and to survive without destroying the conditions capitalism requires to endure.
So what do we do? There is only one solution. We must stop growing. It is going to happen anyway. We are reaching both economic and physical limits to growth. We can either embrace a new type of economy—a nongrowth economy that is local rather than global, sympathetic rather than self-interested, and democratic rather than corporate—or we can live in denial. But we will be forced to change sooner or later anyway. The change will be much less painful, however, if we begin now and begin willingly with a spirit of unity and bipartisan cooperation. But in these dire circumstances, we can’t even get the Republican Party to stop denying what 97 percent of climate scientists are telling us. Such is our challenge.

So, is there a different path to heaven than the one our current economic religion offers? On the fringes of economics, certain voices in the wilderness are talking about something called a “sustainable” economy. This is supposedly an alternative to our current growth-based system and recognizes the inherent limits of living on a finite planet. Unfortunately, these voices are almost totally ignored by mainstream economists and by virtually all politicians, who are steeped in the myths and superstitions of a false creed.
Converting to a nongrowth, or sustainable, economy would be something akin to changing religions. If we are to succeed, we must give up cherished beliefs, even supposed deities, such as endless growth, and adopt different beliefs and new goals. The corporate system we have enthroned for so long now is reaching the end of its unfortunate life. It is no longer, pardon the double entendre, sustainable. Even though this appears to be heresy, we must cast aside our current economic theology and take a leap of faith.
1. Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability (New York: HarperBusiness, 1993), 126.
2. Herman E. Daly and John B. Cobb Jr., For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future (Boston: Beacon Press, [1989] 1994), 131.
3. David C. Korten, “A Deeper Look at ‘Sustainable Development,’” World Business Academy Perspectives 6, no. 2 (1992): 36; adapted by Willis Harman from “Sustainable Development,” World Policy Journal, Winter 1991–92, 157–90.
4. Lux, Adam Smith’s Mistake, 9.
5. Herman Daly, “Sustainable Development: Definitions, Principles, Policies,” 37–38, available at http://library.uniteddiversity.coop/Measuring_Progress_and_Eco_Footprinting/Ecological_Economics_and_Sustainable_Development-Selected_Essays_of_Herman_Daly.pdf.
6. Hawken, Ecology of Commerce, 32–33.
7. Thomas L. Friedman, “The Inflection Is Near?” New York Times, March 7, 2009; http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/08/opinion/08friedman.html?_r=1.
8. “Peak Oil,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peak_oil.
9. Paul B. Farrell, “Big Oil is Earth’s Public Enemy No. 1,” MarketWatch, August 3, 2012.
10. Sharon Begley, “We Can’t Get There from Here,” Newsweek, March 23, 2009, 48.