Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Myth of Perpetual Progress

Well, as we enter yet another month in yet another year of the long crisis that is the new normal in the industrial and post-industrial West, I thought this would be as good a time as any to discuss one of the key problems with the entire paradigm in which we've been living these past several decades.

I'm talking, of course, about the foundational myth that is Perpetual Growth, of the economy, of the population, of the money supply, of, in short, everything. It seems odd to have to do this, but there are some, it would seem, who haven't yet gotten the memo, so I'll spell it out:

Nothing grows forever.

There simply isn't enough stuff, or, more accurately, enough high-grade stuff available at attractive prices, to sustain perpetual growth and expansion of the economy. At some point, you just run out of the needful - be it raw materials, skilled workers, or customers willing and able to buy.

Now, the sooner people understand and realize this, the sooner they prepare themselves to live and thrive in the Real World (from which we in the industrial and post-industrial West have been shielded for quite some time now), the sooner everyone can get back to living like normal human beings again.

Some folk call this the OlduvaiTheory; history tells us that this is just a fancy way of saying nothing lasts forever. In our case, we've been living through a high-on-the-hog period based largely on cheap energy in quantities sufficient to enable us to grow, feed, house, and employ, a massive population, and to sustain them, if not in luxury, then at least in an unprecedented level of comfort. Of course, with each passing year, there are more and more of them, and their energy needs increase, as do their wants and needs, and so ever-greater expenditures of energy (chemical, electrical, mechanical, but also social and intellectual) have to be invested in the project of social stability and progress.

Traditionally, the industrial economic model has allowed us to meet and even exceed these needs and demands, and so the system has chugged along in more or less apple-pie order for some time now. However, there is an abundance of evidence to suggest that matters will not be ever so, and, indeed, signs of a great unraveling are becoming more frequent and more difficult to ignore.

There are a number of scenarios that may play themselves out, but, at a minimum, individuals need to prepare themselves for the following possibilities:

1) A radical decline in their individual and national standards of living;
2) Ever-greater productive activity as a short-term quick-fix, doomed, ultimately, to diminishing returns over time, and so ultimately fruitless;
3) Outright collapse and anarchy - it happens every day in families faced with economic ruin, and we have no right not to expect similar things should the decline become more generalized.

My suggestion - and I'm not alone or even all that original or clever in this - is to scale back now. Store up the fruits of current productivity in anticipation of the lean years ahead; earn more, spend less, and try to ride the thing out as best you can.