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The basic facts of material existence PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 22 October 2004

George Monbiot recently delivered an excellent speech to the Enviromedia conference, Johannesburg, South Africa.  He spelled out some very real truths about energy.

--------------------------

Let me mention some of the founding myths of industrial society. These myths are dominant in both capitalist and communist thought.

The first one is that there is no limit to human potential. We can be anything we want to be, we can do anything we want to do. Our potential awaits only further economic and technological development. One day everyone will be able to run a four-miniute mile. One day everyone will live to be 200. One day, if we choose, we could all abandon the planet we live on and move to another one. As economies and technologies develop, we can expect to see the welfare of everyone on earth improve: what the neoliberal economists call the rising tide which lifts all boats.

This leads to the second myth: the confusion of progress with progressivity. In other words, the assumption that industrial and post-industrial development will automatically distribute wealth, rather than concentrating it.

Both these myths are entirely dependent on a third one: that the resources required to bring this utopia about are infinite. The world can keep providing for its people, however many there are, and however much they want to consume. In the capitalist mythology, the market will magically cause new resources to materialise when the old ones run out. In the communist mythology, the free development of each leading to free development of all will mystically discharge the same function. They are both variants of a far older belief: we might have messed up our chances of survival, but the Lord, or the gods, or the spirits will nevertheless provide. Today we say: technology will provide, the market will provide. We place our faith in them just as we once placed our faith in God. The industrial worldview, in either of its dominant forms, is entirely incapable of engaging with the problem of finity.

All these beliefs are plainly irrational, and bear no relation to what is actually happening on earth. They overlook some basic facts of material existence. Let me list a few.

Basic Fact Number One:

At any rate of use, non-renewable resoures are, by definition, depleted. They will not come back. As soon as you begin to use one, the clock starts ticking towards the day on which it becomes exhausted. This applies even to the non-renewable resource on which the entire modern economy is built: namely petroleum. Global oil production will soon reach its peak and then decline, at which point the Age of Growth will give way to the Age of Entropy.

Not immediately, of course, but unless another source of energy, just as cheap, with just as high a ratio of “energy return on energy invested” is discovered or developed, there will be a gradual decline in our ability to generate the growth required to keep the debt-based financial system from collapsing.

Those of us who are alive today have been lucky enough to have been brought up in an age of energy surplus. This is a remarkable historical and biological anomaly. A supply of oil that exceeds demand has permitted us to do what all species strive to do – expand the ecological space we occupy – but without encountering direct competition for the limiting resource. The surplus has led us to believe in the possibility of universal peace and universal comfort, for a global population of 6 billion, or 9 or 10. If kindness and comfort are, as I suspect, the results of an energy surplus, then, as the supply contracts, we could be expected to start fighting once again like cats in a sack. In the presence of entropy, virtue might be impossible.

Basic Fact Number Two:

Beyond a certain rate of use, renewable resources are depleted. There is no clearer example of the limits of human action than the paradoxical fact that the global resources which are running out first are not the non-renewable ones, but the renewable ones. Fisheries, forests, fresh water, soil. Their decline is our momento mori, our reminder of the limits of finity, of the fact that we and the resources on which we depend are mortal: a fact which all of us would prefer to ignore.

Basic Fact Number Three:

Beyond a certain rate of exploitation, renewable resources become non-renewable resources. If you hit them too hard, you destroy the ecosystem which permits them to regenerate. This we have seen already in certain fisheries and forests and hydrological systems.

Basic Fact Number Four:

The earth’s capacity to absorb pollution is limited. This applies to the atmosphere as much as it does to our rivers. Beyond a certain level of carbon dioxide emissions, human life becomes impossible. The upper limit for temperature rises this century predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is six degrees centigrade. The last time there was a global temperature rise of six degrees was at the end of the Permian period, 250 million years ago. The result was an almost complete collapse of biological productivity: the total mass of biological matter. Around 90% of the earth’s species were wiped out. No animal bigger than a medium-sized pig survived.

But already several eminent climatologists are challenging the Intergovernmental Panel’s figures: on the grounds that they are too low. Some are predicting an upper range of 7 or 10 or 12 degrees of climate change this century.

Basic Fact Number Five:

The system which governs our economic lives, which we call capitalism, is itself is a limited resource. Capitalism is a pyramid scheme. Let me try to explain this.

It is a built on a system called fractional reserve banking. Almost the entire money supply – generally, depending on where you live, between 90 and 95% of it – is issued not by the state, but the commercial banks. It is issued not in the form of notes and coins, but in the form of loans. Between 90 and 95% of the money supply, in other words, is debt.

To pay off the debt that is issued today, the banks must issue more debt tomorrow, and so on and so forth. In a world which is not based on material realities, the world which might exist, for an example, in a computer model, it could expand for ever. But in the real world, the supply of money is linked to material realities called collateral: the real wealth which gives the loans meaning, and without which the whole scheme would be exposed as a fraud. Eventually the amount of lending must inevitably exceed the availability of meaningful collateral, for the simple reason that the material world is finite while the possible issue of credit is not. That is the point at which the whole structure comes tumbling down.

Basic Fact Number Six:

The people who get hit first and hit hardest by any one of these realities are not the rich but the poor. The depletion of resources is inherently regressive: it might enrich the wealthy, but it makes the lives of those who are already poor still harder.

These are the realities, but the three great myths of the industrial era still prevail. Almost everyone on earth, to one degree or another, accepts them. Despite everything I know to be true, sometimes I catch myself believing them.

And this, I believe, is the result of an even deeper problem, an inherent human characteristic which long pre-dates the industrial era.

It is as follows. We do not live in a world of reason. We live in a dreamworld. With a small, rational part of the brain, we recognise that our existence is governed by material realities. We recognise that as those realities change, so will our lives. But underlying this awareness is a deep semi-consciousness. This absorbs the moment in which we live, then generalises it, projecting our future lives as repeated instances of the present. This, not the superficial world of our reason, is our true reality.

 

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