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Rethinking the economy

Author and Post Carbon Institute Fellow Richard Heinberg writes that the current debt limit showdown is actually less important than a larger fundamental trend that few national leaders are acknowledging.

The even bigger, and most important, context is that we are entering a new historic era. Oil prices are high due to the ongoing depletion of giant, easy-to-produce oilfields discovered back in the 1950s and ’60s, and the substitution of expensive oil from deepwater drilling and tar sands. Other non-renewable resources are also becoming scarcer. On top of that, the climate is changing and weird weather is helping drive up food prices. Oh, and let’s not forget, the oceans are dying. Altogether, it seems reasonable to conclude that economic growth—fueled during past decades by cheap energy and raw materials, but also made possible by a stable climate—is coming to an end.

So here we are, facing an enormous, unavoidable long-term problem (the need to transition the economy to a sustainable post-growth mode while minimizing the human suffering that is likely to ensue in the interim); a medium-term need to deal with a recession that could at any moment relapse to 1930s levels; plus an optional short-term crisis (the fight over raising the nation’s debt limit).

Neither Republican nor Democratic leaders are aware of or willing to admit what’s really happening.

The reality is that we now have a post-growth economy, whether we like it or not. Adapting to this new reality will require more of our leaders than political theater, name-calling, and blame-gaming. Radical adjustments to our economy are required—even more radical than a sovereign debt default. We’re going to have to rethink the economy’s goal (up to now its goal has been simply to grow). We’re going to have to engage in an honest national discussion about how much inequality is socially sustainable in a shrinking economy. We’ll have to re-invent money and finance so they’ll work in a non-growing economy. We must adjust to rapidly tightening energy and resource limits while dealing more effectively with the environmental consequences of our recent industrial growth binge.

That’s some serious work, and it will require cool heads and considerable intelligence. Are we, as a nation, up to it?

One would like to think so, but the signs emanating from Washington right now are not encouraging.

Read the whole article, Debt tantrum on a sinking ship.

 

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