17 July 2010

Growth and death

By Rupert Read

Death. Death. Death… Have I put you off yet?

We don't like thinking about death. We'd rather think about life. But death is of course an inevitable feature of life.

At least: of individuals' lives. Our hope for our species, and for this wonderful living planet, is that it will go on and on. That our individual lives (and deaths) are just part of the story of that common life without end.

I've been reading a fine book lately: Jeremy Rifkin's The empathic civilisation. Rifkin argues, controversially, that human civilisation is marked by a gradually increasing level of empathy for our fellow beings. The problem is that this increasing empathy has tended to fuel and be fuelled by increasing energy-use, increasing pollution – what the physicists call increasing 'entropy'. Because, as people's fellow-feeling spreads from their local area further afield, they want to go to those places, to trade and communicate with them, and so on. The huge challenge now facing us, according to Rifkin, is to turn a corner never turned before: to increase levels of mutual empathy, while decreasing the energy-use, resource-use, and pollution that is killing our planet. We have to achieve a new level of empathy with people living in vulnerable tropical locales, with many many species of non-human animals whose well-being is tied inextricably to our own, and (most crucially and most challengingly of all) with future people, those generations not even born yet. Unless we achieve an empathy – a genuine solidarity - with them, we will surely not do enough to reduce the entropic burden we are currently producing, that threatens to snuff them out before they are born…

The biggest obstacle to doing what is necessary to achieving this solidarity with our own descendants is the 'common sense' that our economy must keep growing and growing. We need to ask the question: What is our economy growing into? Well, as the economy grows, it eats up more and more of the Earth, colonises more and more of its treasures, and turns them into (harmful) junk and waste.

Something that has to keep growing in order to survive – whether it be a capitalist economy, or a cancer – cannot be indefinitely sustained.

Why are we so reluctant to countenance an end to economic growth? Why aren't we thinking more, at this time of profound ecological (and financial) crisis, of creating a new, prosperous economy that can be sustained indefinitely, a 'steady-state' economy that is not like a shark, but more like a stable woodland or a peaceful people, changing without needing to grow, without needing to invade more and more of the planetary ecosystem?

Jeremy Rifkin has a fascinating answer to this question. He believes that the idea that 'You can't stop 'progress'', and the connected idea that 'Growth is good' are tacitly ways of trying to avoid death. If we invest our - secular, materialist - faith in the fantasy of endless material 'progress' and endless economic growth, then we can distract ourselves (at least temporarily) from the harsh truth: that nothing can go on growing forever; that we as individuals are destined to die; and that if our society tries to go on growing, then it will destroy itself, through killing off its 'host', the living Earth.

We don't like to think about death – so we escape into New Age fantasies about reincarnation, or materialist fantasies about endless economic growth / 'progress'. There is a better way. Through empathic feeling and solidarity-in-action with one another, and with those who have come before us and those who will come after us, we can be part of something deathless. A 'steady-state' society, which will be able – wonderfully - to go on, indefinitely, giving new life to our children's children, and new hope to our imperilled civilisation.

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