Three years ago, hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. Amid the chaos, an unknown number of drug addicts were cut off from their reliable supply of narcotics. Even with plenty of unguarded businesses around, full of loot, there were no more drug dealers in the city who could be easily contacted to provide the next shot of heroin.
So many addicts broke into drugstores to ease their withdrawal symptoms with whatever they could find, no doubt shortening their life expectancies even further.
What a glorious opportunity they had; to get rid of their addiction and begin a new life, assuming they would survive the flooding, heat and violence plaguing the city. Yet it does probably not surprise us that their addiction achieved the upper hand.
There is little that a person addicted to hard drugs will not do to postpone the hellish pain of withdrawal for another day. The global financial crisis is presenting us with a tantalizing opportunity to break our addiction to economic growth.
But it seems obvious at this stage that governments are doing everything they can to smash the drugstore windows, or track down that last elusive heroin dealer, to kick-start growth once more and resume the exponential degradation of our natural environment. And in democratic countries, their electorate is breathing down their necks to do just that.
Proponents of growth (which is still most people you are likely to meet walking down the street) will point out that any drop in economic growth immediately leads to a loss of jobs and a decline in living standards with all the associated squalor; in this view, we are no more addicted to economic growth than we are addicted to food or water.
But what level of growth is required to maintain this comfortable situation?
In Finland, unemployment begins to increase when annual growth drops below 3%, even though this is based on former experience and the current´crisis seems to be breaking the rules on a daily basis. In China, growth has now finally dropped below 10% and officials fear civil unrest will begin to become serious if it falls below 7%.
In other words, China needs to run its brooms 7% faster every year to sweep its problems under the carpet, while Finland only requires 3%. With these differences between essentially capitalist economies, is it possible to conceive of a society that would remain stable with zero growth; or even negative growth if that is deemed necessary to ensure long-term viability?
We may be about to find out. The financial crisis has been attributed to everything from divine intervention to investors’ alleged fear of Barack Obama.
My own simplistic view is that humanity is beating its head against the Limits to Growth (yes, those proposed by the long-suffering Club of Rome). Economic growth may soon end, leaving us to figure whether we can maintain ourselves without it; and if economic growth equals food and water, we will need to find creative ways to break that causation.
Unfortunately, there are many more ways of damaging the prospects for Earth’s ecosystem, including our own species, than merely economic growth; just as there are many more ways of screwing up your life than heroin. But right now, we are all on heroin and reality is forcing us into an improvised rehab. We environmentalists will need all the mutual support we can give each other, to prevent the craving for that next dose from overshadowing all other considerations.