The Coming Economic Contraction

Economic contraction, the lowering of material wealth standards especially for the middle classes, is more complex than the simple redistribution of tiny increments of wealth from the multitude to the aggressively rich. There is a more serious process in play. It is that those peoples and nations using more than an average of about 2.5 hectares per capita of the earth’s productive capacity must bring down their use (1 hectare = 100 meters by 100 meters = 2.47 acres): this can be done with some equity and social justice or it can be done in dynamic struggle to keep present levels, increase use on the old pattern, if possible, and push want and despair off onto others. (search “Ecological Footprint Atlas 2010” and “2010 NFA data tables” for most resent data)

Put another way, this can be done with some serious efforts at fairness or it can be done catastrophically. Our opening efforts, while not irrevocable, seem pointed toward catastrophe. At present the need to reduce average consumption is occurring at the same time as the world’s wealthiest people are increasingly using their power advantage to gather up (steal from other humans and the rest of the living world) and control as much real wealth as possible.

Much of the analysis, in the developed countries, of our changing life styles, living standards and material well-being has been done with the unstated, underlying assumption that any reduction in personal wealth is an unnecessary, dreadful and unacceptable loss – this is a very dangerous foundational belief, and suffers from a variety of errors of thinking and living.

The biggest danger is that the rich use this way of thinking to justify what are, from any reasonable point of view, excesses that do violence to other humans and the living space. The other major and nearly equal danger is that those living beyond the earth’s productive capacity, though not rich, not only use this argument, but are encouraged in it by all that find it appealing, and thus make it impossible to have the serious consideration of our future that is needed.

The belief that the value of one’s life is dependent on material measures is at once too easy and too deeply incorrect to be satisfactory, but the ease has trumped the inaccuracy. The great distance that our human lives have moved from the forming and effective experiences of our origins have left a vacuum of meaning and purpose to be filled. The shame is that we have filled that need with garbage – if not true garbage to begin with… all the ‘stuff’ ends up as discarded in the end.

This cycle of filling, inappropriately, the needs of meaning and purpose with disposable material objects, discarding and replacing them as they are superseded by other material objects and claiming this to be a fundamental and obligatory way of life is about to come to an end; and we are completely unprepared. Not only are we unprepared for having less stuff, being required to do more for ourselves and facing material uncertainties; we are not prepared to replace these losses with the human contacts, supports and communities that have eased humans through material hardships for the many tens of thousands of years that the species has been on the earth.

About half of the world’s people will have their material standard of living reduced over the coming years. It will either be the half that uses more than “their share” of the earth’s capacity – they will have less excess, their status systems will have to be reformed and a number of social dislocations adapted to – or it will be the half that are using “their share” or less than their share. These people would die off in great numbers since there would be nothing left for them to adapt to.

At the moment the developed nation’s “middle” classes, those who use between 3 to 15 or so hectares of productive capacity are being squeezed by the wealthy, people using many 10s of hectares to support their consuming behavior; though neither group is looking at events in these terms. They, for the most part, see money wealth and all the convoluted machinations that the clever and insane1 have constructed around it; they see money wealth being carved away from the middle classes in a theft of a thousand appropriations. Complex stratagems to use tax collection, transaction charges, debt and interest, political power, social pressure and the emptiness of modern life to capture the labor and tiny bits of wealth of the masses and transfer it to the massive piles of the wealthy. And more: the blatant blackmail and robbery of national treasuries, accumulated retirement and pension funds and the wealth of the national commons represented by public lands, health services, education and Social Security systems.

The natural tendency is to fight back on the established model, to try to regain the ground lost. Those who are cheated of their 10 hectare life style demand its return and would rather gain a little in the bargain. Those who have lost their 4 hectare consumption, who are pushed into the socially ‘unacceptable’ poverty of 3 hectare consumption look for someone to blame rather than try to find life’s meaning, value and opportunity beyond the material loss.

Clearly two different, but related, processes are conflated. First, the Great Many are being stolen from by the psychopathic and situationally sociopathic rich. That theft needs to be stopped and economic equity restored. But secondly, the productive capacity of the earth has been exceeded by at least 50 percent, and actually a good deal more if ecological stability and biodiversity are considered, requiring a reduction in consumption. This reduction looks and feels the same whether it comes from the theft of labor product by the economic elite or from the adaptations required by the overuse of earth’s resources.

At the present time most of the earth’s people use about 1 to 3 hectares of productive capacity per year with hundreds of millions using less than one hectare . The most gluttonous use hundreds of times that number; such use should be a crime against humanity. Canada and the USA use about 8 hectares per capita per year. The ‘TV life style’ presented as ‘normal’ and desirable represents about 15 or more per capita hectares per year of productive capacity.

We, in the high consumption regions of the world, must find new ways of being satisfied in life. Of course, we should not be stolen from and taken advantage of by the wealthy oligarchs of the corporate and political elites. These are almost a separate species of madmen and madwomen, humans who have lost their association with humanity – and who would accept, even engineer, the suffering and deaths of millions of their fellows to maintain high levels of consumption. They, like any dangerously diseased animal,2 must be appropriately responded to, first with attempts at a cure and then with segregation unless they can adapt to living with the rest of us without being a danger. This has always been the way of human communities; however, first there must be a community!

The fact is that whether the misbehavior of the rich is dealt with or not, whether humanity actually develops ‘humanity’ and approaches our future with some equity – or not – we are at the end of economic growth. The full force of economic contraction will come in its own time, driven by the various peak supplies of resources and ecological free services. It should be obvious that we have passed the peak of atmospheric absorption of greenhouse gasses, that peak oil is immediately upon us, peak water may have been passed, approaching peak food, well passed peak biodiversity (and the implications for ecosystem integrity) and several other peaks are being approached, achieved or passed. In other words, the earth’s productive capacity is beginning to force economic contraction.

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While these matters have general importance, it is the personal response to them that ultimately counts. Human action is never more than the summation of the actions of many individuals; and activity of the most vital importance is no action at all unless actually preformed in numbers sufficient to produce the necessary effect.

Individuals may move others to take actions, but acting only by themselves accomplishes only the smallest part. And so it is in the movements of the many that some change occurs. Margaret Mead was not wrong though: change does rise from the small and committed group, but by that group’s influence on the many, by engaging them in the imagination created, formalized and spread from a concentrated and incipient source.

This is where you come in; and me. We must begin to make adjustments. Fight the crimes of economic and power elites to be sure, but realize that we are not fighting to restore an unsustainable and profligate consumption: we cannot be about taking from the rich so that we can be rich; that is how we got into trouble in the first place. Our struggle must be for equity in our social lives and the humanity of specieshood in our personal lives. We can rediscover what is just barely hidden from us, ready on a moment’s notice to reappear. We can rediscover the capacity to help others and to receive help, the pleasures of making do in the company of others making do. We can rediscover meaning and purpose in life more fulfilling of our biology, history and human capacities.

There is much to learn that we already know, but have been made too frightened to approach. Some of you must become leaders in that risking, learning and doing.

  1. I am somewhat liberal in my use of the ideas of sanity and madness, but it is my argument that being in accord with many others is no defense against the charge of insanity. The concepts are grounded in the relation of behavior to biophysical Reality: behaviors and beliefs that are consistently at odds with Reality are insane, and it doesn’t matter if belief and action agree with a significant group of others. These definitions are especially true when Reality is laid out before us and must be denied or rejected to maintain non-comporting beliefs. By this way of thinking, whole collections of people, and even societies, can be quite mad. Today such madness is often our normal; far from a unique comprehension, but a reasonable one. []
  2. These people are not uniquely disordered, their direct removal would only leave the niches in the economic and political structure to be filled by others. Stable material possession requires a level of equity that I define as ‘mutual comprehensibility.’ Those with the least material possession and those with the most must not be separated by a distance greater than allows for their ability to fully understand and empathize with the other. The earth’s capacity and our large human population prescribe that the center point of such equity be at a place presently called poverty in the ‘developed’ world. Assuming that humanity successfully navigates the coming troubles, “growth” and “progress” will be redefined as increasing material well-being through population and impact reduction rather than increase. Our present habits will be seen, in the future, as incomprehensible – just as they are actually incomprehensible now. []

James Keye is the nom de plume of a biologist and psychologist who after discovering a mismatch between academe and himself went into private business for many years. His whole post-pubescent life has been focused on understanding at both the intellectual and personal levels what it is to be of the human species; he claims some success. Email him at: jkeye1632@gmail.com. Read other articles by James, or visit James's website.