Wilful ignorance drives civilisation collapse

Sep 14, 2023
Hand of human is holding green leaf with carbon footprint.

In May 1971, I published a full-page letter in The Australian addressed ‘To Those Who Shape Australia’s Destiny’. It was signed by 730 Australian scientists including Sir Mark Oliphant and Sir Macfarlane Burnett.

The letter concluded with these words:

“For biological and ecological reasons civilisation based on the present western technology cannot survive much longer. Careful forethought and a willingness to embrace fundamental change are necessary if civilisation is to survive at all. Australia’s opportunity to examine and implement these fundamental changes before it is too late may be unique. The responsibility is great and the task urgent.”

1972 saw the publication by The Club of Rome of ‘The Limits to Growth’ (LTG) which expanded on ‘the concept of a society in a steady-state of economic and ecological equilibrium’ developed by Herman Daly, an American alternative economist. ‘LTG’ also said:

…the transition in any case is likely to be painful and it will make extreme demands on human ingenuity and determination…. Only the conviction that there is no other avenue to survival can liberate the moral, intellectual and creative forces, required to initiate this unprecedented undertaking.

Contrary to the misrepresentation given to LTG by many conventional economists it did not foretell an inevitable collapse of the existing social/economic order but pointed to the forces of continual growth and said that if humanity stayed on this ‘business as usual’ (BAU) growth course collapse would result. Dr Graham Turner, formerly of CSIRO, compared the LTG analysis of 1972 with the real-world data accumulated in the 30 years up to 2002. He found that we were on course for the BAU 1972 forecast, i.e., collapse during this century. He has since researched a 40-year follow up and we remain oncourse for collapse. Similar studies have been conducted by the authors of the 1972 LTG report as well as many others and all have shown the same disturbing conclusions.

In support of this prediction of civilisation collapse, over the decades there have been thousands of appeals, signed by hundreds of thousands of scientists, some directed at the worsening symptoms of impending collapse, but many directed at the underlying drivers of this unsustainable trajectory: growth of population and per capita growth in material consumption. Yet these are the drivers on which the recent Australian Federal Budget and the Intergenerational Report are based. P&I has published many extremely well written recent papers on this and related factors, something the mainstream media don’t do.

We are not living sustainably, requiring 1.7 Earths to meet our present environmental demands. If the whole world lived like Australians humanity would need four Earths to fulfill humanity’s demand. To Mr Albanese, Mr Dutton and all Australian politicians ‘How do you justify demanding an even larger share of Earth’s dwindling resources?’ ‘Do you really think Australians have some God-given right to an unfair and unsustainable share?’ ‘Does such a course lead to a safer, sustainable and more equitable world?

This begs a larger question, ‘how did we get on such a wrong and unsustainable path’?

Growth economics has its origins at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. Before then the inputs to production were regarded as land, labour and capital. Land was largely owned by a wealthy class who derived (unearned income) from rents. Henry George, an American citizen economist, recognised that this was seriously inequitable arguing that the land was owned by all Americans. Anyone who claimed exclusive ownership or use of a piece of that land should compensate his fellow Americans by way of a tax. In ‘Progress and Poverty’ which became a bestseller he argued for a tax system based on land. Not surprisingly the wealthy rent-taking landowners fought this proposal bitterly. They established faculties of economics in prestigious universities and appointed professors in these new faculties who taught that the inputs to production were capital and labour. Land, or more broadly defined as land/resources was excluded as an input.

Over the years these faculties of economics produced graduates with that embedded belief who spread and produced the graduates that now head our Australian Treasury and other influential bodies, including mainstream media. So pervasive has the exclusion of land/resources from economic considerations been, so universal has the consequent belief that the supply of resources is infinite (on a finite planet) that material resources receive little consideration in today’s economic discourse either in academia or the mainstream media.

Robert Solow, American economist born 1923, and winner of the misnomer ‘Nobel Prize for Economics’ (Nobel did not provide a prize for economics) redefined the inputs to productivity as capital, labour and technology. Resources played no part. Writing in 1974 he said ‘The world can, in effect, get along without natural resources’. There in just ten words is the origin of the civilisation collapse in which we now find ourselves. On the one hand we have the dominant but unsubstantiated belief/myth we can grow the economy for ever and on the other we have the real world described by science and scientists crying out in a wilderness of forced silence that we must accept the limits set by Nature and live well within those limits.

We have already exceeded the limits. Collapse is not something that is way off in the distance. We are living it and it will worsen.

In 1971–2, when the above-mentioned warnings were made, global population was 3.8 billion and Australia’s population was 13.2 million. Today global population has more than doubled and Australia’s population has doubled. Per capita global resource demand as indicated by per capita GDP has increased five-fold whereas in Australia it has increased 15-fold. Thus, globally environmental demand has increased 10-fold while Australia’s environmental demand has increased 30-fold. (Just one measure of rising inequality). Our governments, other social leaders, economic advisors and our mainstream media implicitly believe this trend can continue. Indeed, their main thrust is to drive it harder even while the evidence all-about is that our civilisation is collapsing. Collapse not about climate change which is just one of a myriad of indicators of our present unsustainable regression.

I share with Jem Bendell ‘Breaking Together – a freedom-loving response to collapse’ the hope that there may be ‘more intellectual companions who reject the hubris and bullshit of a culture trying to bargain with its own mortality’.

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