What's the dominant religion of the past 100 years? The answer isn't Christianity with its 2.1 billion followers, or Islam with its 1.3 billion. It's the idea of economic growth, the Church of GDP.Holy moley!! That's Robert J. Samuelson, the bigshot economist, prolific pundit and TV guru.
When I saw Samuelson's words posted towards the top of the EnergyBulletin news clearinghouse's page I nearly had a heart attack. Could Samuelson actually be admitting anything even remotely approaching that his dismal science is nothing but religion?
Rather than continue reading the excerpt on EnergyBulletin, I clicked directly to the Washington Post to read the entire piece.
What a letdown. I should have known better.
Paraphrasing public health blogger Cervantes, Samuelson has set a little honey-trap for people looking for reinforcement of their prejudices. It obviously worked on me. He got me to read his piece. Trouble is, Samuelson's tactic only pissed me off. I now think less of him than I did before.
Samuelson's piece, which is a critique of a book by another economist making the case that economic growth is morally uplifting, does not even mention energy, resources, limits or exponentiation. It's just more of the same old bullshit.
After the disappointment of having read Samuelson's piece at the source, I returned to EnergyBulletin, where I found their take on Samuelson's piece further down the page. I agree completely with their reaction to Samuelson:
A profoundly irresponsible article from the Washington Post. Samuelson casts himself as a skeptic highlighting some counter examples, but is in fact in agreement with Friedman on the moral virtues of endless economic growth. He never mentions unfortunately, within this seemingly hard-questioning review, that we live on a planet with finite natural resources.I just started reading another economist's 1987 book, Thomas Sowell's "A Conflict of Visions - Ideological Origins of Political Struggles". I'm hoping for a little insight into the conflict between Samuelson's claptrap and the words of one of the 2006 Edge Question respondents, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, who responded to the question, "What is your dangerous idea?":
This is a classic case of 'fair and balanced' discourse where both parties share the same narrow framework of assumptions. Normally in a publication like the Washington Post 'growth is good' might be one of those shared assumptions. In opening this question up there is opportunity for some timely reflections on a fundamentally self-destructive — one could say completely deranged — thread through our dominant economic ideologies. But the question is opened only to be closed again more tightly. True reflection might be too painful. Endless growth on a finite planet is fundamentally impossible, and its pursuit (while an understandable enough response to the journey up the energy curve) is leading to mass extinctions, including possibly our own if we intend to try pursuing it on the downslope of the energy curve by burning up the Earth's remaining natural resources.
'The truth is so simple the mind is repulsed' to paraphrase Galbraith out of context.
Samuelson resorts to some outright doublethink: "Societies whose politics focus on the gaining and sharing of prosperity can promote their own stability." Sure, but how exactly can a system based on an unsustainable premise, (not to mention one emphasising competition rather than 'sharing') be considered in any way stable?
Peak Oil implies that we will be forced to embark on a period of economic contraction. But that does not have to mean the end of progress (by most definitions), positive social reforms, depth of human experience or moral virtues.
See instead Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, Richard Douthwaite's book The Growth Illusion, Clive Hamilton's Growth Fetish, or perhaps William Catton's writings on Overshoot.
The free market
Generally ideas are thought to be dangerous when they threaten an entrenched authority. Galileo was sued not because he claimed that the earth revolved around the sun — a "hypothesis" his chief prosecutor, Cardinal Bellarmine, apparently was quite willing to entertain in private — but because the Church could not afford a fact it claimed to know be reversed by another epistemology, in this case by the scientific method. Similar conflicts arose when Darwin's view of how humans first appeared on the planet challenged religious accounts of creation, or when Mendelian genetics applied to the growth of hardier strains of wheat challenged Leninist doctrine as interpreted by Lysenko.
One of the most dangerous ideas at large in the current culture is that the "free market" is the ultimate arbiter of political decisions, and that there is an "invisible hand" that will direct us to the most desirable future provided the free market is allowed to actualize itself. This mystical faith is based on some reasonable empirical foundations, but when embraced as a final solution to the ills of humankind, it risks destroying both the material resources, and the cultural achievements that our species has so painstakingly developed.
So the dangerous idea on which our culture is based is that the political economy has a silver bullet — the free market — that must take precedence over any other value, and thereby lead to peace and prosperity. It is dangerous because like all silver bullets it is an intellectual and political scam that might benefit some, but ultimately requires the majority to pay for the destruction it causes.
My dangerous idea is dangerous only to those who support the hegemony of the market. It consists in pointing out that the imperial free market wears no clothes — it does not exist in the first place, and what passes for it is dangerous to the future well being of our species. Scientist need to turn their attention to what the complex system that is human life, will require in the future.
Beginnings like the Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life Indicators, which focus on such central requirements as health, education, infrastructure, environment, human rights, and public safety, need to become part of our social and political agenda. And when their findings come into conflict with the agenda of the prophets of the free market, the conflict should be examined — who is it that benefits from the erosion of the quality of life?