Altogether too much for planet earth?

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THE ECONOMY, SOCIETY, & CITIES
PUSH THE LIMITS.

Len Puglisi

Courtesy EugeniusD80 flickr CCl
Courtesy EugeniusD80 flickr CCl

Who remembers these songs and the circumstances in which they took hold of the public’s imagination?

When the lights go on again all over the world.

And didn’t London and Paris, swathed in light, look great in Griff Ryhs Jones’ TV presentations (June 2010)?

Oh give me land, lots of land, under starry skies above. Don’t fence me in. 

Daily, in our travel, real estate, and architectural media, we see reflected this obviously deep-seated desire for a broad spread and limitless horizons.

These historically-expressed yearnings, in their time made particularly poignant by 5-15 years of depression and wartime austerity, can be freely seen to persist today.

But, partly as a result of global capitalism’s ability to tap into desires such as these, partly as a result of its ability to sweep aside the restrained and frugal urgings of religious and humanist attitudes of previous centuries (see, for example, Daniel Bell’s The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism and Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age), we have now reached a situation in which we need to ask: 

 
Are we in the irreversible grip of a ‘Mainstream’ growth ethos, more strident than ever, beyond the wildest expectations of those earlier generations of songsters, but more damaging to the planet’s ecosystems than in human memory?
 
Let’s understand, firstly, what this Mainstream ethos is, and ask whether its outstanding achievements can be denied? Beguilingly, it is said, from a mere 150-year perspective, ‘economic growth works, or at least works better than any alternative’, and ‘the city is the growth engine of the future’. Then, with ‘the city’ as the ultimate ‘built environment’ (as Edward Glaeser calls this phrase in his recent book, The Triumph of the City), we go on to celebrate Mainstream’s great attractions.

To be fair, let’s describe some of its attractions, attempting to be positive about them.

There’s the beauty of well-designed and ample homes and gardens, the satisfactions of interior designing. We celebrate exquisite clothing, luscious meals and fabulous wines seen in programs that inform and acclimatise us to the world’s kitchens, breathtaking travel destinations, trips to catch up with widely-dispersed family and friends and our international professional connections.

A lot of us are not too happy with building ‘outwards’, although, whatever we do, we accept that we shouldn’t stop building and renovating, but should maybe go ‘upwards’ and multiply our roads, ports and airports to accommodate our infrastructure needs.

Shanghai, courtesy 'aldask', flickr CC
Shanghai, courtesy 'aldask', flickr CC

We have musical brilliance at our fingertips or through the importing of talent; the world’s art treasures are available here or where we journey to; cars are honed to eye-catching and ever-upgraded technical perfection; aircraft and ships can take us, literally, to the ends of the earth.  Premium goods produced from all corners of the globe can be on our shelves, thanks to increasingly unfettered trade regimes. And there’s the magic of communication and information technologies, as well as life-spans for so many not dreamt of a few years ago.

Shopping, of course, has a special place, and retail downturns are lamented as top news. And we expect all these goodies to be supplied at lower and lower prices.

OK then, we need to remind ourselves of these achievements and attractions if we are not to descend into some sort of judgemental or moralistic and maudlin criticism of ourselves and the people we come across in our daily lives. Surely, too, it will be necessary to work with many of these wonders if we are to undertake transitional arrangements to other societal and economic outcomes. And, most likely, many technological solutions, some not yet even ‘apps’, will form part of our considered solutions.

For example, Bill McKibben in Eaarth: Making a Life on a tough Planet (2010) speaks up for the enduring value of the Internet. And Edward O Wilson in Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge (1998) says that while we need to be careful because technologies can become our prosthetics, there are probably many we haven’t even concluded but which we may have to bring into use.

But these notes of caution about how we comport ourselves do not avoid for us all the stark question in many ways sadly to be addressed, and it is this:

For all the bountiful lifestyle benefits created for many, and for all the achievements of Mainstream civilization, when we add them all up, altogether, are they too much? Too much that is for ‘old Earth’s’ life systems to sustain according to the same evolutionary richness, the wealth of diversity and the abiding health of the Universe that were there at the creation of life and the emergence of human life?

Sadly perhaps for all of us who have benefited from the flowering of this abundance, the weight of scientific – and economic – evidence is that it is already too much.

Yosemite, ourtesy 'Aypho', flickr CC
Yosemite, ourtesy 'Aypho', flickr CC

To quote from just one composite line of analysis: “The myth of growth has failed us. It has failed the two billion people who still live on less than $2 a day. It has failed the fragile ecological systems on which we depend for survival. It has failed, spectacularly, in its own terms, to provide economic stability and secure people’s livelihoods.” (Tim Jackson, Prosperity without growth, Transition to a Sustainable Economy: Report to the Sustainable Development Commission, 2010).

So the realisation of a steady-state economy is no longer simply an academic economist’s speculation, but apparently a necessity: you can’t have economic growth forever on a finite planet!

In summary, then, can it honestly be doubted that society is in the now somewhat perplexed thrall of this Mainstream growth agenda, characterised by the dominance of economic solutions (‘production and consumption expansion need not be bounded’)?

And incorporated in these ‘solutions’ are attitudes to population growth (‘global, or at least local numbers and immigration levels are not a concern’), and techno-scientific pulses (‘techno-advances are an unquestioned blessing and can be the answer to any problems’).

Can it be doubted, further, that cities can be and are being looked to as the predominant cultural drivers of this agenda? 

And can it be doubted that all this must be called into question as a matter of urgency?

Coming back to our songs above, and no doubt many others, don’t city-dwellers, especially now they are the predominant inhabitants on the planet, have to learn again to love the dark, at least under the stars, so that they don’t interfere with the circadian rhythms of birds?

Or to make better use of any land within their keeping, at least as it teaches them the complexities of food-production, soil health, water availability and quality, the importance of climate, the companionship joys and needs of animals?

Or the arresting complexity of the myriad seascapes, landscapes, and creatures of the ‘other Australia’, unearthed for them by Mary E White, Peter M J Fisher, and others.

Or the wonder, beauty, and healing power of the deep-time scenes and landscapes lovingly evoked for all by the ever-unfolding Universe and Thomas Berry’s masterly instruction?

A (Len) Puglisi, moral@alphalink.com.au (for further development of these themes).

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