Profound Disappointment

The final presidential debate of 2008 should have been a time of celebration and re-dedication to the task of getting Barack Obama elected president. Both in style and substance, Obama came across as a prepared, optimistic yet firm leader who cared deeply about his country, while John McCain had all the appeal and wisdom of a modern-day Ebenezer Scrooge. Yet I felt deeply disappointed in both candidates, realizing that neither of them had even a clue just how much the world was likely to change over the next four years.

Over the previous few weeks, we all saw a hint of the crises to come in a barrage of economic upheavals caused by greed, poor public policy, and the unhealthy interdependence of institutions. Underlying this crisis was a core commitment to unchecked growth, an ideology that I now see behind most of the world’s problems. It is an ideology that the two candidates for president share; they just have very different ideas about how to promote it.

Several years ago I was exposed to the fact that exponential growth is unsustainable. As a hobby, I explored the dynamics of growth in population and resource consumption, both by reading and performing mathematical simulations. The results of my research are terrifying: the world’s population is likely crash in this century, and time is running out for us to stop it. According to my simulations, we may have already reached the first major milestone in the path to this disaster: a peak in the rate of growth in per-capita consumption, translating into maximum profit growth. The consequences of passing this peak resemble what we are experiencing in the current economic crisis.

The solution to the problem is simple, if difficult to implement. It involves globally keeping consumption from growing any more than required to increase the total amount of resources we can use, preferably by replacing the use of non-renewable resources with the use of renewable resources. Economically, this solution would resemble a recession as far as standard of living is concerned. A moratorium on environmental degradation coupled with repair and expansion of already-damaged ecosystems could possibly recover two-thirds of the necessary amount of renewable resources from Nature. Renewable technologies, especially relating to energy, would need to make up the difference. Any additional growth in our consumption would need to be matched by new resources.

It’s not hard to imagine the reaction of voters in the United States, among the richest people in the world, to the notion of voluntarily restricting what they buy while building up natural systems and renewable energy infrastructure: They would go ballistic. Our identity and human nature masquerading as common sense dictates that we do everything possible to increase what we can consume. “Limits” is a dirty word. The political Right would have a field day with “ultra-left liberals” and “tree-huggers” putting “nature before people.” Large corporations, unable to offer higher profits to shareholders, would put pressure on the government to “stop the insanity.” What political leader could stand up to such pressure?

Neither of the candidates for president has demonstrated either the awareness or the inclination to challenge the most basic value of our society, the “American dream,” which is creating the world’s greatest nightmare. I am disappointed, but not surprised, that this great country is unlikely to provide the leadership we need at this critical time.


© Copyright 2008 Bradley Jarvis. All rights reserved.