Every year, every quarter, every month, the conventional economists either praise the increase in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or anxiously wring their hands because the economy has not expanded enough. Expansion requires two key elements: a constant search for the lowest possible wages and an unending supply of raw materials – particularly fossil fuels, but also fertile soil and fresh water, and sometimes, creatures who live on the earth and in the seas.
While there are still places on the planet where people will take any job they can get, the ability to extract more energy resources gets riskier, and the environment’s capacity to absorb more waste is fast approaching zero. Reaching the outer limits of expansion threatens all of life on the planet. That reality is why many people are now calling for an “ecological civilization” as an alternative to more exploitation and extraction, one that offers another pathway for human civilization to take.
More Americans believe in angels than in climate change. Still, a poll released earlier this year indicated that more Americans than ever now think that climate change is happening, that it is caused by human activity and that world leaders have a moral obligation to do something about it.
So why are we getting so little action? If a large majority of people actually thinks our only home, the Earth, suffers from human behavior, then shouldn’t our personal and public actions reflect that reality? Oh, sure, lots of people drive electric cars, but lots more drive SUVs. I know that California has implemented a “cap-and-trade” program that will limit the future growth of carbon in the air, but the state has not banned fracking, which wastes water and hurts our air quality. And I know that the federal government has been setting higher goals for vehicle mileage —
My wife Susan and I have just returned from a three-week trip to the East Coast. The journey included a week or so in Washington, D.C., which Susan had never seen and which I have not visited in a couple of decades. Our purpose was to witness the graduation of a nephew, but we also had time to visit the various monuments that cover the core of the city. These memorials invariably quote some of the masterpieces of our heritage, a reminder of the values that ground the American experiment in democracy.
We left Los Angeles as Baltimore’s social upheaval was erupting – during the same week that marked the 23rd anniversary of the so-called Rodney King riots here. It felt appropriate that on our first night, following dinner in a gentrifying neighborhood of the Capitol, a friend took us to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. He said it was best seen at night,
The religious spring festivals of Passover and Easter are behind us. We’ve paid our taxes. Congress has passed another bill to give the top two-hundredths of one per cent another windfall. I think a big-picture look at the structure of this economy might help us all take a deep breath. If my guess is correct, we’ll need it for the work ahead. This kind of economy stands on three legs: raw materials, cheap labor and as little regulation from government as possible.
Raw materials were the reason why Europe’s empires stumbled across the Western hemisphere in the first place. Looking for an easier route to the profitable spice markets of the East Indies, the Spanish found the West Indies and began a centuries-long exploration and exploitation of everything it uncovered. Extraction of natural resources – from tomatoes to gold to, one day, black gold – led those powers to exploit South and Central America as well as Africa,
Sometimes the conventional narrative the media tell about a news story feels so wrong I can’t stand it — but I don’t know why until the story’s over. The recent coverage of the labor dispute at the West Coast ports — including Los Angeles and Long Beach — is a case in point. News reports focused on the long, drawn-out negotiation process as an economic disaster waiting to happen, and blamed the entire situation on those dastardly workers and their unions.
The narrative included several key arguments: A union slowdown at the ports was causing a backlog of shipping containers carrying everything America buys, putting all importers at risk and causing a plague on American shoppers. There would be long-term economic damage to our region as a consequence. With the eventual opening of the widened Panama Canal, shippers would skip the West Coast and head to other ports.