Monday, April 28, 2008

Accepting our Limits: It's the Adult Thing to Do

An adult understands limits better than a child. Sometimes a little boy will eat too much candy because he doesn't know that his body can only stand so much sweets at any one time. Or he will stay up so late that he cannot function the next day. Children aren't able to anticipate limits and control their own behaviour because they have undeveloped prefrontal lobes in their brains. Adults know better, which is why they commonly impose limits on their children's behaviour.

When it comes to global limits though, it seems that economists are a lot like little children. They believe that we can keep consuming the earth's resources for as long as we like, in contradiction to the fact that the earth is a finite planet.
There is a concept called “substitution” which economists use to demonstrate this possibility. When the price of one resource goes high enough then all we have to do is substitute another that's similar enough to do the job. If we run out of cheap oil, we use ethanol, or methane, or hydrogen. If we run out of wild salmon, we raise genetically modified salmon in saltwater “farms”.

Economists can use all the fancy mathematics they want to prove their sustitution theory. The fact is, when we lose the wild salmon we will have lost something irreplacable.

Isn't it interesting that life itself has to live within certain limits else it won't survive. If you take three of the most common elements: Carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen – these three elements in various combinations, determine life's basic limitations.

Not enough carbon dioxide and the earth's temperature would be too low for life and water, which is part hydrogen and part oxygen, would always be frozen. Way too much carbon dioxide and the earth would be too hot for life, while all the oceans would boil away.

We know that plants require a certain minimum amount of carbon dioxide in order to grow, while all animals require a certain minimum amount of oxygen in order to breathe. If there was too much oxygen, then all the forests in the world would burn up in a matter of weeks.

Why is there just the right amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? We don't really know the answer to that question. We may well take breathing and livable temperatures for granted but the fact is, we cannot substitute anything else for them.

That's why I say economists are like little children. You tell them that if we keep on with business as usual it will have rather negative consequences and they will tell you, in free, unregulated markets demand will always equal supply, and the movement of prices will most efficiently change behaviour without denying people free choice.

The price may be right in terms of demand meeting supply, but if the costs of our activities to the earth's ecosystems are not taken into account in the price, then allowing free markets to do their thing will run us up to those limits too fast for comfort.
Because corporations with their huge economies and budgets have much to lose if certain government action is taken, they are interested in directly influencing the political process. Their powerful influence has caused the U.S. and Canadian governments to hinder and delay the essential assessment, planning, and action that needs to be done in order for our civilization to survive this crisis.

The idea that we can keep on growing, heedless to any limits is pure wish fullfillment and a sign of an overly childish trust in free markets. As adults we know we are responsible for more than just our own wants and desires. We are also responsible to our children and to future generations. If we continue to ignore earth's physical and biological limits we will end up running into these limits at full speed. We don't allow children to drive automobiles because of the destruction they could cause. If we want human society to sustain itself we have to grow up and take responsibility for where we're going and how we're going to get there.

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