Our Solution Is Our Problem and Its Name Is Growth
Part 2 of 3 of an update to Richard Heinberg's 2011 book The End of Growth: Adapting to our New Economic Reality
Surely there’s cheerier news to be gleaned from the world’s biggest economy, that of the U.S. This nation is ostensibly in recovery, though (as discussed in chapter 2 of The End of Growth) most if not all post-2008 GDP growth has been attributable to Treasury and Federal Reserve actions—borrowing, spending and bailouts.
The real current status of the American economy is a matter of controversy. There are several relevant metrics—including GDP, unemployment, house prices, durable goods orders, government deficits, trade deficits, new debt, personal income and personal spending—and some numbers look better than others. Which ones are more important? You can describe the glass as half-full or half-empty, depending on your preferences and how you cherry-pick the data. Still, just about everyone agrees that the statistics show persisting weakness. Job growth and GDP growth are both slowing. And the ratio of U.S. government spending to government income rose to 1.46-to-1 in calendar year 2011. Immediately on the horizon is a gradual curtailment of extended unemployment benefits for the millions who lost their jobs after the 2008 meltdown: this will decrease the buying power of consumers just as the economy struggles to gain altitude.
But it’s not so much the monthly numbers as the deep, structural trends that are the greatest cause for concern. The unsustainable bubble of household debt built up over the last 30 years still has a long way to go in order to deflate back to realistic levels, while tranches of toxic assets still lurk in the asset portfolios of major banks. And Wall Street appears to have learned nothing from the 2008 crisis, as shown by JPMorgan’s recent $2 billion trading loss. If European sovereign defaults occur on a large scale, derivatives contracts will be triggered—contracts written (in most cases) with Wall Street investment banks, which will quickly be sucked into the whirlpool.
Of equal concern is the highly dysfunctional U.S. political system, which now seems incapable of solving even the most trivial of problems, and is apparently intent on exacerbating just about every crisis the nation faces. Substantive policy appears to emerge not from the public deliberations of elected leaders, but from unaccountable government agencies and private interest groups with highly disparate agendas. One of the two U.S. political parties has evidently taken leave of reality altogether, preferring to exist in its own hermetically sealed ideasphere in which climate change is a hoax and all economic problems can be solved by cutting spending and taxes, and in which everyone who disagrees with that agenda is by definition a Communist-terrorist-Muslim. The other party, which spends most of its time shoring up the allegiance of its traditional constituencies, takes mostly center-right positions on issues, is ineffectual, and has no realistic strategy for coping with the economic unraveling. It’s probably safe to say that most dinner conversations these days among knowledgeable journalists, social scientists and retired public figures eventually devolve into expressions of the opinion that the U.S. is showing all the signs of an empire in steep decline. Heads nod wearily until someone changes the subject.
There’s been no more relevant and disturbing symptom of this national political incapacity than last year’s showdown on the debt ceiling, which Republican House Speaker John Boehner has voiced intentions of restaging this year. In 2011, the crisis was defused only with a joint agreement to a series of mandatory spending cuts that are scheduled to kick in soon after this year’s presidential election—unless nearly inconceivable budget reforms are achieved. Erskine Bowles, co-chairman of President Obama’s budget-deficit commission, recently described the series of “cliffs” the country faces at the end of 2012, when the George W. Bush tax cuts expire and the mandatory cuts begin. “If you add all those up,” said Bowles, “it’s probably $7 trillion worth of economic events that are going to occur in December. And there’s been little to no planning for that.” The Congressional Budget Office is now warning that the economy will shrink by 1.3 percent in the first half of next year if these measures go into effect.
It’s likely that last-minute negotiations will keep the country from going over the cliff solely as a result of the mandatory spending cuts. But America appears to be careening from crisis to crisis, and the stopgaps are losing efficacy.
By now skeptical readers may have concluded that we are cherry-picking the evidence to confirm our hypothesis that global growth is ending. An argument against that hypothesis would surely start with data from China, whose economy has continued expanding at about 9 percent per year in recent years even in the face of deepening worries elsewhere.
But China is slowing too. And its problems may end up being just as deep as those in Greece or the U.S. Beijing has built the world’s preeminent export economy—and now some of its biggest foreign buyers are losing consumption capacity. Loaning even more money to the U.S. won’t help much.
Shipbuilding is down. Government investment in railways is down. Electricity consumption is down. Housing sales are down. The amount of new loans is falling. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard writes in the Telegraph: “All key indicators of China’s money supply are flashing warning signs. The broader measures have slumped to stagnation levels not seen since the late 1990s. Narrow M1 data for April is the weakest since modern records began. Real M1 deposits—a leading indicator of economic growth six months or so ahead—have contracted since November. They are shrinking faster than at any time during the 2008-2009 crisis, and faster than in Spain right now ... If China were a normal country, it would be hurtling into a brick wall. A ‘hard-landing’ later this year would already be baked into the pie.”
Of course, China is not a “normal” country—the government can restructure the economy at will. But does that mean China can escape the economic laws that apply everywhere else? Perhaps to a certain extent or temporarily, but not entirely.
The latest news: Chinese officials have said that they have no intention of repeating the massive stimulus spending of 2008-2009 in order to stoke more economic growth. Prepare for that hard landing.
India, Russia, Brazil, South Africa—all are seeing slowing rates of growth. India’s industrial output fell in March (according to the New York Times, “the rupee is falling; investment is down; inflation is rising; and deficits are eating away at government coffers”). Brazil’s car sales are down 15 percent on an annual basis and industrial production is contracting.
The overall picture is certainly not brightened much by Japan, the world’s third-largest economy. The country’s weak banking system, softening exports and lack of domestic energy resources are challenge enough. But the lingering Fukushima nuclear nightmare is surely Japan’s the biggest worry. The spent-fuel pool at reactor 4 is in a precarious state, such that a moderate quake could release far more radioactive cesium than Chernobyl did. Meanwhile, Japanese scientists acknowledge a greater than 90 percent probability that an earthquake of at least 7.0 magnitude will occur in the next three years somewhere near Fukushima-Daiichi. Japan and Tokyo Electric Power Company do not have adequate nuclear technology and experience either to defuse the situation in time (TEPCO says the soonest it can begin emptying the spent-fuel pool is late 2013), or to handle a disaster of the proportions that are at least conceivable, if not likely. The fate of the nation—and the health of millions in the Northern Hemisphere—may hang upon the fortuitous absence of significant aftershocks.
We have not surveyed all the world’s nations. Some others are doing quite well, thank you (Qatar had a 2011 growth rate of 18.7 percent, Ghana 13.5 percent, Mongolia 11.5 percent). But if Europe, the U.S. and China falter, global GDP cannot hope to grow. The European economy alone represents nearly one-third of world GDP.
And so the hypothesis stands: Maximum world economic output is nigh. If that is truly the case, the most reasonable forecast would be for a significant decline soon, as debts default and as investors pull back. We may be in for a series of subsequent booms and busts (the booms never managing to bring us back to current output levels, the busts plunging us further into economic turmoil). Mere stagnation would be a benign outcome, one that would require considerable planning and effort to achieve, but even then resource limits (which we’ll get to in Part 3) would ensure contraction sooner or later.
Our solution is our problem and its name is growth. We can’t live with it because, as Herman Daly points out, most growth is now uneconomic—we’re actually worse off because of it. More growth just means more debt, more pollution, more loss of biodiversity and a further destabilization of the climate. And yet we can’t live without it: absent growth, there will be insufficient tax revenues and jobs, and existing debt levels will prove unsustainable in the starkest sense of that term.
The purely financial or monetary aspects of our dilemma will probably continue to take center stage in the public discussion. National treasury officials and central bankers will strive to stabilize the system, and may be able to do so for a while—probably a matter of weeks or months rather than years. They will need a long-term strategy, though, because eventually stimulus and bailout Band-Aids will lose adhesion. Yet there is little evidence of such a strategy.
Even more, they will need a sense of ecological and historic context, so that they understand that the current growth crisis is not just a momentary speed bump on an inevitably soaring ramp of progress, but an irreversible phase change for the economy and for civilization itself.
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By Gwen Ranniger
In the midst of a pandemic, sales of cleaning products have skyrocketed, and many feel a need to clean more often. Knowing what to look for when purchasing cleaning supplies can help prevent unwanted and dangerous toxics from entering your home.
1. Fragrance – Avoid It<p>One of the fastest ways to narrow down your product options is immediately eliminating any product that promotes a fragrance, or parfum. That scent of "fresh breeze" or lemon might initially smell good, but the fragrance does not last. What does last? The concoction of various undisclosed and unregulated chemicals that created that fragrance.</p><p>Many fragrances contain phthalates, which are linked to many health risks including reproductive problems and cancer.</p>
2. With Bleach? Do Without<p>Going scent-free should have narrowed down your options substantially – now, check the front of the remaining packaging. Any that include ammonia or chlorine bleach ought to go, as these substances are irritating and corrosive to your body. While bleach is commonly known as a powerful disinfectant, there are safer alternatives that you can use in your home, such as sodium borate or hydrogen peroxide.</p><p>While you're at it, check if there are any warnings on the label – "flammable," "use in ventilated area," etc. – if the product is hazardous, that's a red flag and should be avoided.</p>
3. Check the Back Label<p>Flip to the back of the remaining contenders and check out that ingredient list. Less is more, here. Opt for a shorter ingredient list with words you recognize and/or can pronounce.</p><p>You may notice many products do not have ingredient lists – while this doesn't necessarily mean they contain toxic ingredients, transparency is key. Feel free to look up a list online, or stick to products that are open about their ingredients.</p>
4. Ingredients to Avoid<p>We already mentioned that cleaners containing fragrance or parfum, and bleach or ammonia should be avoided, but there are other ingredients to look out for as well.</p><ul><li>Quaternary ammonium "quats" – lung irritants that contribute to asthma and other breathing problems. Also linger on surfaces long after they've been cleaned.</li><li>Parabens – Known hormone disruptor; can contribute to ailments such as cancer</li><li>Triclosan – triclosan and other antibacterial chemicals are registered with the EPA as pesticides. Triclosan is a known hormone disruptor and can also impact your immune system.</li><li>Formaldehyde – Causes irritation of eyes, nose, and throat; studies suggest formaldehyde exposure is linked with certain varieties of cancer. Can be found in products or become a byproduct of chemical reactions in the air.</li></ul>
Cleaning Products and Toxics: The Bottom Line<p>Do your research. There are many cleaning products available, but taking these steps will drastically reduce your options and help keep your home toxic-free. Protecting your home from bacteria and viruses is important, but make sure you do so in a way that doesn't introduce other health risks into the home.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.ehn.org/how-to-shop-for-cleaning-products-while-avoiding-toxics-2648130273.html" target="_blank">Environmental Health News</a>. </em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649054624#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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Twenty-five years ago, a food called Tofurky made its debut on grocery store shelves. Since then, the tofu-based roast has become a beloved part of many vegetarians' holiday feasts.
By Jessica Corbett
A leading environmental advocacy group marked Native American Heritage Month on Wednesday by urging President-elect Joe Biden, Vice President-elect Kamala Kamala Harris, and the entire incoming administration "to honor Indigenous sovereignty and immediately halt the Keystone XL, Dakota Access, and Line 3 pipelines."
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Returning the ‘Three Sisters’ – Corn, Beans and Squash – to Native American Farms Nourishes People, Land and Cultures
By Christina Gish Hill
Historians know that turkey and corn were part of the first Thanksgiving, when Wampanoag peoples shared a harvest meal with the pilgrims of Plymouth plantation in Massachusetts. And traditional Native American farming practices tell us that squash and beans likely were part of that 1621 dinner too.
Abundant Harvests<p>Historically, Native people throughout the Americas bred indigenous plant varieties specific to the growing conditions of their homelands. They selected seeds for many different traits, such as <a href="https://emergencemagazine.org/story/corn-tastes-better/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">flavor, texture and color</a>.</p><p>Native growers knew that planting corn, beans, squash and sunflowers together produced mutual benefits. Corn stalks created a trellis for beans to climb, and beans' twining vines secured the corn in high winds. They also certainly observed that corn and bean plants growing together tended to be healthier than when raised separately. Today we know the reason: Bacteria living on bean plant roots pull nitrogen – an essential plant nutrient – from the air and <a href="http://www.tilthalliance.org/learn/resources-1/almanac/october/octobermngg" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">convert it to a form that both beans and corn can use</a>.</p><p>Squash plants contributed by shading the ground with their broad leaves, preventing weeds from growing and retaining water in the soil. Heritage squash varieties also had spines that discouraged deer and raccoons from visiting the garden for a snack. And sunflowers planted around the edges of the garden created a natural fence, protecting other plants from wind and animals and attracting pollinators.</p><p>Interplanting these agricultural sisters produced bountiful harvests that sustained large Native communities and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/eam.2015.0016" target="_blank">spurred fruitful trade economies</a>. The first Europeans who reached the Americas were shocked at the abundant food crops they found. My research is exploring how, 200 years ago, Native American agriculturalists around the Great Lakes and along the Missouri and Red rivers fed fur traders with their diverse vegetable products.</p>
Displaced From the Land<p>As Euro-Americans settled permanently on the most fertile North American lands and acquired seeds that Native growers had carefully bred, they imposed policies that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr/87.2.550" target="_blank">made Native farming practices impossible</a>. In 1830 President Andrew Jackson signed the <a href="https://guides.loc.gov/indian-removal-act" target="_blank">Indian Removal Act</a>, which made it official U.S. policy to force Native peoples from their home locations, pushing them onto subpar lands.</p><p>On reservations, U.S. government officials discouraged Native women from cultivating anything larger than small garden plots and pressured Native men to practice Euro-American style monoculture. Allotment policies assigned small plots to nuclear families, further limiting Native Americans' access to land and preventing them from using communal farming practices.</p><p>Native children were forced to attend boarding schools, where they had no opportunity to <a href="https://doi.org/10.5749/jamerindieduc.57.1.0145" target="_blank">learn Native agriculture techniques or preservation and preparation of Indigenous foods</a>. Instead they were forced to eat Western foods, turning their palates away from their traditional preferences. Taken together, these policies <a href="https://kansaspress.ku.edu/978-0-7006-0802-7.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">almost entirely eradicated three sisters agriculture</a> from Native communities in the Midwest by the 1930s.</p>
Reviving Native Agriculture<p>Today Native people all over the U.S. are working diligently to <a href="https://www.oupress.com/books/15107980/indigenous-food-sovereignty-in-the-united-sta" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reclaim Indigenous varieties of corn, beans, squash, sunflowers and other crops</a>. This effort is important for many reasons.</p><p>Improving Native people's access to healthy, culturally appropriate foods will help lower rates of <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/aian-diabetes/index.html" target="_blank">diabetes</a> and <a href="https://www.apa.org/pi/oema/resources/ethnicity-health/native-american/obesity" target="_blank">obesity</a>, which affect Native Americans at disproportionately high rates. Sharing traditional knowledge about agriculture is a way for elders to pass cultural information along to younger generations. Indigenous growing techniques also protect the lands that Native nations now inhabit, and can potentially benefit the wider ecosystems around them.</p>
By Jake Johnson
Amid reports that oil industry-friendly former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz remains under consideration to return to his old post in the incoming Biden administration, a diverse coalition of environmental groups is mobilizing for an "all-out push" to keep Moniz away from the White House and demand a cabinet willing to boldly confront the corporations responsible for the climate emergency.