In this comment to the post below, Major Dad comments on my “faulty thinking” in suggesting that rich countries must be taking a poor country’s share when they grow richer. Major Dad, here’s my reply to you.

The mythical pie
OK, I’m going to drop my British diplomacy and be blunt about this for once: if you honestly believe that the world can cope with endlessly increasing consumerism and economic growth, you’re living in a dream world. It’s not possible.

Your remark about making a “bigger, better pie” for all reminded me of GW Bush’s famous “Make the pie higher!” quote. The reason why this very idea is nonsensical is a matter of basic mathematics and physical science, as well as economics.

(1) You cannot eternally increase wealth in real terms without taking from one area to give to another, thus leaving a deficit in one and a surplus in another.

(2) This is because the earth has a finite level of resources. For example, we cannot manufacture new oil. We can try to find alternatives, but we can’t just keep on truckin’ and expect nature to take care of our selfish overuse, because a refill is not going to appear within the next few thousand years. We can’t create new mature forests to replace the ones lost to logging, with serious consequences for our air quality over the next few centuries. We can’t conjure up new land to build giant shopping malls for everyone. We can’t ship in new ice from Neptune to replace our defrosting polar caps. And so on.

Technology is often cited as the answer to all our problems, by people who have no understanding of what technology actually is. When relied on as emergency measures, technological innovations usually result in an increased strain on the earth, not reduced. They keep the economic cogs turning – and our leaders love that – but don’t alleviate the problem they were designed to fix. This is true of supposed solutions like hydrogen-fueled cars, which still require fossil fuels to burn the hydrogen. It’s true of GM food production, which is designed to enrich large corporations like Monsanto, at the expense of small farmers and poor countries. Incredibly, Basmati rice was recently patented by a corporation, forcing Indian farmers to pay intellectual property fees to farm the very indigenous crops they have lived on for generations. The corporations claim they are solving world starvation problems, but this is deliberately disingenuous. The profit motive has no conscience. Encouraging companies like Monsanto to privatise plants only exacerbates the problems and ignores the true causes of poverty.

I’m sure nobody wants to read a lengthy analysis of neoclassical vs ‘true cost’ economics here, but a very accessible introduction to the unsustainable contradictions of traditional economics thinking can be found here. There are some videos discussing the impact of the global economy on other countries here. A simply-written guide to the problem of consumerism can be found here.

These sources are just a drop in the ocean (if you’ll excuse the eco-pun). There’s a virtually inexhaustible quantity of scientific and economics information out there if this piques anyone’s interest.

One major problem with the eternal economic growth paradigm is that our unit of measuring ‘progress’, the GDP, is highly inaccurate. Effectively, every time a transaction is made, the GDP increases. But it takes no account of the social, environmental or human costs of such transactions, only the fact that money is changing hands. This means that every time we declare war on another country, the GDP goes up. Every time we cut down a forest to make way for redevelopment, the GDP goes up. As one Adbusters ad memorably noted: every time someone is diagnosed with cancer, the GDP goes up.

Americans already overconsume to an unsustainable level which threatens planetary survival. As widely reported last year by environmental groups all over the world, if every person consumed the way Americans do, we’d need three more planets. Individual Americans can calculate what impact their own lifestyle has on the planet here. Japan is similarly over-consumptive and the member countries of the EU aren’t far behind.

The Kyoto protocol, which comes into law in February next year, sets limits on carbon dioxide emissions to attempt to reverse or halt the impact developed countries are having on the earth. Unfortunately, President Bush removed the US from the signatory list shortly after taking power. Bush says he won’t accept any possible impact on the US economy and is prepared to stoke the fires of international anger over the richest society on earth still brazenly taking a disproportionate share of the world’s resources. Even though the other major CO2-emitting countries, including Russia, have signed the Kyoto agreement, and even though the heavily compromised agreement still allows rich countries to exploit poor ones by buying parts of their quotas (effectively preventing them from ever achieving increased industrial development), Bush says he’ll never sign the treaty. The US sets itself apart once again on this and, in doing so, its government has even stopped pretending their much-vaunted moral values include a belief in universal human equality.

I’m afraid your comment about corporations is meaningless. If we lived under a system other than capitalism – and to imagine one is not necessarily to advocate one, it just means an intellectual acceptance that other possibilities exist – then the “little people”, as you call them, would not be living in a system where daily work in corporations was required to maintain a position in society. One perpetuates the other. Step outside the realm of direct experience and notice what the constituent parts of capitalist democracy actually are. You don’t need to oppose the system, but at least acknowledge what it signifies and what aspects of our lives are driven by it. Paid work exists because we live the way we do. It is illogical to talk about aspects of the capitalist consumer economy as invariable human experiences, given that they exist only in this form of society. Remember also that, under capitalism, employers must necessarily pay the worker less than their contribution is worth, because of the profit motive. Who stands to benefit most from this arrangement must be obvious.

As for your claim “Just because the American farmer can produce more food than we could possibly consume ourselves…doesn’t mean that people in Africa can grow less”: this couldn’t be further from the truth.

I must respectfully request that you look into the workings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation, and in particular the AGOA (Africa Growth and Opportunity Act), signed into law by George W Bush in October 2001. Rather than quote chunks of legislation, I’ll leave any who are interested to make their own enquiries. It professes to be a law encouraging African trade but is in fact an arm-twisting law designed to protect and privilege US trade to the detriment of the poor African countries who can least afford the unfair treatment. It ensures that, by using its preferential economic position and exercising unfair practices like dumping surplus goods at less than they cost to produce, the US will always be able to undercut African producers and thus leave African trade, and African economies, at an unfair disadvantage. Please do research the full implications of this Act independently.

And this is only one such one-sided trade arrangement. And you’d be hard pressed to find one which is any fairer. It is the imposition of bullying, coercive rules like this, by our governments, which has increased the level of poverty in Africa over the last twenty years. It is the existence of subsidised US/EU surpluses, discount-selling and punitive trade rules which stops developing countries even from maintaining self-sufficiency, let alone building their economies to our model.

When rich countries get more, it means by necessity that they’re taking from the weakest. Which is like the proverbial candy from a baby, because we’re already robbing those weak countries through punitive loan terms (hello again IMF) and holding them to ransom with ‘free trade’ agreements – which are effectively one-way freedoms designed to benefit the US and EU at poor countries’ disadvantage. The word ‘free’ used in this context is as much Orwellian doublespeak as it is when used in official discussions of US/UK motives in the invasion of Iraq.

Who’s the daddy?
Then you say: “We in the West have taken the steps we needed to take to build our “lavish” standard of living…but not at the expense of any other nations. This isn’t the colonial era anymore…”

Now this is either naive or a deliberate avoidance of the truth. Let’s be under no illusions: the old colonial era allowed the rich countries to barge their way ahead using violent force. Now we’re comfortably placed at the top of the heap, we need only use blackmail and coercion to stay in charge. Although we’ll gladly use violence if we meet too much resistance, or when a particular country’s resources or strategic position proves too tempting (e.g. Iraq). And that’s not much of a deviation from the old colonial ways, is it? Having pillaged their assets and plundered their wealth for several centuries, we now keep the poor multitudes down with mob tactics. It’s as simple and brutal as that.

The American Dream of perpetual over-consumption and endless increase in wealth is a nightmare for a large proportion of the world’s people.

And unless you’re Native American or the descendant of African American slaves, chances are your ancestors were probably colonial settlers on stolen land too, and your comfortable lifestyle comes from that historic theft of resources. This is the way the world works.

You’re at liberty to express approval of the present system if self-interest is your priority. But please understand the real implications of our world order. There’d be enough pie for everyone if we didn’t take extra helpings.