Uninterrupted, sustainable economic growth is impossible. Those who support it are “Impossibleists”. They practice, preach, and defend to the death at times, “Impossibleism”. It is a universal phenomenon, practiced across economic, political, cultural, and social spectrums around the globe. Impossibleism is an umbrella philosophy that captures the insanity of any system that is completely unsustainable and obviously so, but charges forward regardless. Systemic insanity, if you will.
We are all living at the thin sharp point of always more, always bigger, always better, always new, improved and disposable. That much should be obvious, even though it is not. We want our homes to be worth more today than yesterday, we demand it to be so. Prices must always fall, wages must always rise, and our wealth must always increase. We must have more than our parents and we must ensure more again for our children. Standing still is failure. Going backwards is unthinkable. This is simply impossible to sustain, we all know it, but we carry on regardless. Impossibleism.
It’s a math problem, or more correctly, it is our collective ignorance of natural forces, and the tyranny of arithmetic behind them. In our civilized hubris, certainty is something malleable, something which we can and will in time conquer. A war on 2+2=4. The inevitable as the enemy. Invisible, exponential terrorists whose design it is to take away our cherished free markets, destroy our twin towers of freedom and democracy, and bust us all back to the dark ages before cars, coke, and plasma TV’s. Absolutely nobody alive today wants that.
According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), world output “collapsed” by 1.1% in 2009. That data point the official manifestation of what everybody already knew — that our world was in trouble and we were living with less. The value (in US dollars) of everything produced on our small blue planet in 2009 was about 60 trillion dollars — give or take a fish in Indonesia or the occasional bribe in Saudi Arabia. The American GDP is about 14 trillion dollars, where a ham sandwich is about five bucks — for purposes of scale. A contraction in production was both cause and effect of a serious economic “meltdown”, one which has squeezed our societies and cultures in fundamental and dramatic ways. It was, and is, a catastrophe. 1.1 % it turns out, is a lot.
The IMF forecast for 2010 is much rosier, as they predict a “return to growth” of about 3.1%. The consensus is that this is a good thing of course, growth being the only acceptable state of affairs, and by any measure. Absolutely nobody wants contracting production of stuff, nor do they want piddling increments of same. No, we all alive today want increasing production of stuff and nothing less, Amen. The only caution the IMF reserves is that our recovery is weak, and we must all be on our guard lest it slip back or sideways. And again, Amen to that.
In fact, it won’t be long before we just simply assume, as we had before, that growth is the natural order of things and forget completely the lessons of the great economic collapse. We will expect that growth is constant, and pay no heed to the annual IMF reports, just so much wallpaper in their dull, never changing prognosticating. A constant line of 2% growth our just reward for taming the earth and making it our own. Sustainable growth as many economists say, sustainable in the “we can keep this sucker moving” kind of way, not in the antithetic “can we keep this up?” heretical kind of way.
So we have a 60 trillion dollar world and it isn’t good enough it appears. We want a bigger world, a better world, and 2% a year should give it to us. That’s 2% compounded of course — we want our 2 % added to our current amount of stuff, and we want this to happen every 365 times the earth rotates on its axis — per annum, once a year. In 2010, we will be expecting to produce about 1.8 trillion dollars worth of “wealth” above and beyond the 60 trillion we have now (my apologies to economists who normally demand footnotes and qualifiers for this kind of thing. You get the point regardless). Maybe another 1.2 trillion or so the year after. We couldn’t be happier when our world GDP grows to 63 trillion USD’s in just two years. Good, sustainable progress we all can believe in, the effects of which we intuitively know will make us all healthier, happier, and richer. A lot of us anyway, or at least those of us who matter.
What is a 63 trillion dollar world going to look like? More jobs, more cars, more I Pods and I Phones. More people perhaps, more food we would expect, more industries and factories and technology. More of everything: poverty, stress, and Hollywood plastic. Three trillion doesn’t seem much against sixty, and it seems manageable. Certainly compared to a 120 trillion dollar world, which would be twice the amount of productivity we are churning out today. It’s much harder to imagine that. Spend a day out in the workaday world we all inhabit, and we can see what 60 trillion dollars looks like. Spend the same day trying to picture a 120 trillion dollar world… and it confounds the senses.
Of course, it is easy to forget that our current world is powered by the resources of the planet, and once reminded it makes for perfect common sense. More cars, industry, and flip flops require more coal, iron, and oil. It is reasonable to consider that a 3 trillion dollar increase in production worldwide will require additional stuff dug, scraped, or pumped out of the ground. This is concerning to many, as there is common understanding that raping the earth is morally and ethically to be avoided. We do it anyway of course, depending on our children to figure out a way to fix the imbalance for us. But a 120 trillion dollar world? Twice the oil pumped at twice the rate, twice the fish killed at twice the rate, twice the consumption with twice the debt. What about a 240 trillion dollar world? Four times the wealth, based on four times the resources our current world is built upon. Four times the rate and amount of extraction and consumption of oil than today. 85 billion barrels of oil in 2008, 340 billion barrels of oil consumed every day in a 240 trillion dollar world. And rising by design.
Impossibleists want unrestrained sustainable growth in the face of its inevitable impossibility. It is a mystery how they think this way, knowing as they surely do that eventually the bill will come due, and the engine will run out of gas — literally. Think about it — growth that never stops, ever. Even with limitless resources, it is simple intuition that eventually, somewhere, sometime…. But of course we don’t have infinite resources, another intuitive understanding even though it seems to us every day that we do. We know we don’t. Impossibleists will not reconcile these two basic intuitions, that all growth must eventually end, and that all resources must eventually tap out.
Impossibleism is a form of insanity, a shared delusional neurosis. It’s a party game of trick or treat all humans are invited to, a game where treats are redeemed by us in the present, and tricks are reserved for the ghosts of future people we will not know, and of whom we do not care. Not our children, nor theirs. The legacy of Impossibleism is the certain destruction of the future, the hope of the Impossibleist that he will not have to face the damned.
Pop quiz. How long will it take, at 2% annual growth compounded, to turn our 60 trillion dollar world into a 120 trillion dollar world? 35 years. If we do exactly what we plan to do, and everything goes swimmingly, and we have sustainable growth of 2% a year, our children will have a 120 trillion dollar world to deal with, and most of us alive today will live to see it. Children today of ten years of age will be alive and drowning in a 240 trillion dollar world, which by deliberate and calculated design will arrive in a single lifetime of 70 years. It’s a tyrannical feature of unflinching math called “doubling time”, a feature of exponential growth hidden in plain view.
The future ghosts are not just real, they are alive today and are our very own children. We have met — and love, and cherish, and protect — the very people we are cashing in the chits on, on whom we are knocking out the jams. Think about it, we are nurturing the very people — people who carry our names, our genes, and paradoxically our dreams — who will watch and live in and deal with a world four times larger than our own. We ourselves will breathe our last on a small blue planet that has to produce twice as much as today’s planet.
Progress, as we all define it, is impossible to sustain. Why? Leave the dogmas, politics, and bullshit aside and do the math. That’s why.