This is What Denial Does

This is nothing. Well, nothing by comparison to what’s coming. The financial crisis for which we must now pay so heavily prefigures the real collapse, when humanity bumps against its ecological limits.

As we goggle at the fluttering financial figures, a different set of numbers passes us by. On Friday, Pavan Sukhdev, the Deutsche Bank economist leading a European study on ecosystems, reported that we are losing natural capital worth between $2 trillion and $5 trillion every year, as a result of deforestation alone.1 The losses incurred so far by the financial sector amount to between $1 trillion and $1.5 trillion. Sukhdev arrived at his figure by estimating the value of the services – such as locking up carbon and providing freshwater – that forests perform, and calculating the cost of either replacing them or living without them. The credit crunch is petty when compared to the nature crunch.

The two crises have the same cause. In both cases, those who exploit the resource have demanded impossible rates of return and invoked debts that can never be repaid. In both cases we denied the likely consequences. I used to believe that collective denial was peculiar to climate change. Now I know that it’s the first response to every impending dislocation.

Gordon Brown, for example, was as much in denial about financial realities as any toxic debt trader. In June last year, during his Mansion House speech, he boasted that 40 per cent of the world’s foreign equities are now traded here. “I congratulate you Lord Mayor and the City of London on these remarkable achievements, an era that history will record as the beginning of a new golden age for the City of London.”2 The financial sector’s success had come about, he said, partly because the government had taken “a risk-based regulatory approach.” In the same hall three years before, he pledged that, “in budget after budget I want us to do even more to encourage the risk takers.”3 Can anyone, surveying this mess, now doubt the value of the precautionary principle?

Ecology and economy are both derived from the Greek word oikos — a house or dwelling. Our survival depends upon the rational management of this home: the space in which life can be sustained. The rules are the same in both cases. If you extract resources at a rate beyond the level of replenishment, your stock will collapse. That’s another noun, which reminds us of the connection. The OED gives 69 definitions of stock. When it means a fund or store, the word evokes the trunk — or stock — of a tree, “from which the gains are an outgrowth.”4 Collapse occurs when you prune the tree so heavily that it dies. Ecology is the stock from which all wealth grows.

The two crises feed each other. As a result of Iceland’s financial collapse, it is now contemplating joining the European Union, which means surrendering its fishing grounds to the Common Fisheries Policy. Already the prime minister Geir Haarde has suggested that his countrymen concentrate on exploiting the ocean.5 The economic disaster will cause an ecological disaster.

Normally it’s the other way around. In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond shows how ecological crisis is often the prelude to social catastrophe.6 The obvious example is Easter Island, where society disintegrated soon after the population reached its highest historical numbers, the last trees were cut down and the construction of stone monuments peaked. The island chiefs had competed to erect ever-bigger statues. These required wood and rope (made from bark) for transport and extra food for the laborers. As the trees and soils on which the islanders depended disappeared, the population crashed and the survivors turned to cannibalism. (Let’s hope Iceland doesn’t go the same way.) Diamond wonders what the Easter islander who cut down the last palm tree might have thought. “Like modern loggers, did he shout ‘Jobs, not trees!’? Or: ‘Technology will solve our problems, never fear, we’ll find a substitute for wood’? Or: ‘We don’t have proof that there aren’t palms somewhere else on Easter . . . your proposed ban on logging is premature and driven by fear-mongering’?”7

Ecological collapse, Diamond shows, is as likely to be the result of economic success as of economic failure. The Maya of Central America, for example, were among the most advanced and successful people of their time. But a combination of population growth, extravagant construction projects and poor land management wiped out between 90 and 99% of the population. The Mayan collapse was accelerated by “the competition among kings and nobles that led to a chronic emphasis on war and erecting monuments rather than on solving underlying problems.”8 Does any of this sound familiar?

Again, the largest monuments were erected just before the ecosystem crashed. Again, this extravagance was partly responsible for the collapse: trees were used for making plaster with which to decorate their temples. The plaster became thicker and thicker as the kings sought to outdo each other’s conspicuous consumption.

Here are some of the reasons why people fail to prevent ecological collapse. Their resources appear at first to be inexhaustible; a long-term trend of depletion is concealed by short-term fluctuations; small numbers of powerful people advance their interests by damaging those of everyone else; short-term profits trump long-term survival. The same, in all cases, can be said of the collapse of financial systems. Is this how human beings are destined to behave? If we cannot act until stocks – of either kind – start sliding towards oblivion, we’re knackered.

But one of the benefits of modernity is our ability to spot trends and predict results. If fish in a depleted ecosystem grow by 5% a year and the catch expands by 10% a year, the fishery will collapse. If the global economy keeps growing at 3% a year (or 1700% a century) it too will hit the wall.

I’m not going to suggest, as some scoundrel who shares a name with me did on these pages last year9, that we should welcome a recession. But the financial crisis provides us with an opportunity to rethink this trajectory; an opportunity which is not available during periods of economic success. Governments restructuring their economies should read Herman Daly’s book Steady-State Economics.10

As usual I haven’t left enough space to discuss this, so the details will have to wait for another column. Or you can read the summary published by the Sustainable Development Commission.11 But what Daly suggests is that nations which are already rich should replace growth (“more of the same stuff”) with development (“the same amount of better stuff”). A steady state economy has a constant stock of capital maintained by a rate of throughput no higher than the ecosystem can absorb. The use of resources is capped and the right to exploit them is auctioned. Poverty is addressed through the redistribution of wealth. The banks can lend only as much money as they possess.

Alternatively, we can persist in the magical thinking whose results have just come crashing home. The financial crisis shows what happens when we try to make the facts fit our desires. Now we must learn to live in the real world.

  1. Richard Black, 10th October 2008. “Nature loss ‘dwarfs bank crisis’,” BBC Online. []
  2. Gordon Brown, 20th June 2007. Speech to Mansion House. []
  3. Gordon Brown, 16th June 2004. Speech to Mansion House. []
  4. Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, 1989. []
  5. Niklas Magnusson, 10th October 2008. “Iceland Premier Tells Nation to Go Fishing After Banks Implode,” Bloomberg News. []
  6. Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Survive or Fail (Allen Lane, London, 2005). []
  7. ibid, 114. []
  8. ibid, 160. []
  9. George Monbiot, 9th October 2007. “Bring on the Recession,” The Guardian. []
  10. Herman E. Daly, Steady-State Economics – 2nd Edition (Island Press, Washington DC, 1991). []
  11. Herman E. Daly, 24th April 2008. A Steady-State Economy. Sustainable Development Commission. []
George Monbiot is the author of the best selling books, The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order and Captive State: the Corporate Takeover of Britain; as well as the investigative travel books Poisoned Arrows, Amazon Watershed and No Man’s Land. He writes a weekly column for the Guardian newspaper (UK). Read other articles by George, or visit George's website.

21 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozhidar bob balkas said on October 14th, 2008 at 1:13pm #

    it is an excellent elucidation by monbiot. growing economy must one day stop if resources we use don’t rise by the same rate as our socalled progress.
    in add’n, those who expect or even demand constant growth of wealth, do not include the obvious regress let alone possible calamity.
    obesity, marital break ups, rage, hypertension, diabetes, cancer to avaricious people r just happening by itself, for itself; having no connection to pollution or 130,000 industrial chemicals in use today.
    thnx george.

  2. Donald Hawkins said on October 14th, 2008 at 1:27pm #

    George you said, ” the real collapse, when humanity bumps against its ecological limits”. You know the numbers and what it will take better than almost anybody. So the word when are you just being nice. It’s not when but humanity is now bumping up its ecological limits and I am sure you saw those last numbers.

    WASHINGTON (AP) — The world pumped up its pollution of the chief man-made global warming gas last year, setting a course that could push beyond leading scientists’ projected worst-case scenario, international researchers said Thursday.

    The new numbers, called “scary” by some, were a surprise because scientists thought an economic downturn would slow energy use. Instead, carbon dioxide output jumped 3 percent from 2006 to 2007.

    Then of course we will be up against this little problem.

    Nouriel Roubini, the professor who predicted the financial crisis in 2006, said the U.S. will suffer its worst recession in 40 years, causing the rally in the stock market to “sputter.”
    “There are significant downside risks still to the market and the economy,” Roubini, 50, a New York University professor of economics, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television. “We’re going to be surprised by the severity of the recession and the severity of the financial losses.”

    Then of course in the United States say Obama makes it his big plan is 60 billion over 10 years to solve this little problem.

    Nobody would have predicted 10 to 15 years ago that Greenland would lose ice that fast,’ Mr. Steffen said. ‘That revises all of the textbooks.’

    His take-home message: Forget the scientific modeling. Greenland is melting faster than anyone’s best guess.

    ‘How can you have an ice sheet so big and respond that quickly?’ he asked. ‘That is still part of the mystery, to be honest.

    Still time if we start today well maybe tomorrow but that’s pushing it and how do we get people on the same page? I don’t know the answer to that.

  3. wearechange said on October 14th, 2008 at 5:41pm #

    how perfectly ironic that the very same bush apologist who denies US government complicity in the september 11, 2001 attacks sees it fit to lecture the world on the detriments of ecological denial.

    george, i invite you to check out the state of the art of truth movement today. i also invite you to remove your head from your rectum.

  4. t. patrick donovan said on October 14th, 2008 at 7:17pm #

    This is an excellent article. I am most strick by the competition among tribal kings to build bigger and bigger monuments. This might be a good time to propose that everyone within reading distance go out and get a copy of Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer-winning “The Denial of Death.” Because underneath all the greed, all the willful ignoring of trends, the overlooking of economic calculus, is human death anxiety and immortality striving. This is the only real explanation of how and why the irrational trumps the rational all the time.

  5. john andrews said on October 14th, 2008 at 10:48pm #

    I read a piece by Mr Monbiot last year, I think, where he referred to ‘the “p” word’, indicating, I assume, the extreme sensitivity around the subject of poulation control.

    It’s sort of hinted at once again here.

    It seems to me that when we discuss ecological and environmental issues it’s more important to grasp this particular nettle than any other. If the planet’s human population were half its size, and if it were naturally decreasing instead of exploding, the significance of environmental changes would be far less serious, and some of those changes would not be happening at all.

    I do not for one second propose some sort of eugenics or ‘master race’ programme; but what would be wrong with encouraging women, ALL women, to voluntarily chooose to have no more than two children?

    Population control must surely be at the heart of resolving the planet’s ecological time bomb.

  6. Hue Longer said on October 15th, 2008 at 1:55am #

    True, John

    What’s scary is that more than 2 children is being ENCOURAGED in many places. Australia “needs” growth, so there are incentives as well as campaigns for more births.

  7. Danny Ray said on October 15th, 2008 at 6:05am #

    Hue, I have to ask why just two why not one? we will not reduce the world population by keeping the population level steady, we have to let it reduce naturaly. If we are unable to reduce it ourselves it will be reduced ny good ol’ mother nature. and the results for the poorer parts of the world will be horrible. Should the enviroment fall apart there will be food shortages around the world. The countries who have been exporting will say “no we must feed our own”. There will be some armed attempted to make the rest of the world share what foods remain. But a hard fact is that hungry people do not fight well. unless Asia, Africa, and South America take some steps to lower their birthrate they are doomed. They will have no seat in the lifeboat. Nor should they.

  8. Donald Hawkins said on October 15th, 2008 at 6:31am #

    Denial is still right at the front. We have to slow down as we are out of time. Growth yes but tress and rivers and the natural systems need time. Human systems need to change and short term say eight years done quickly. It can be done and in many way’s much better for the human mind or go out in a big pile of garbage. That slowdown has already started but not because of reason but greed and the push is already on to bring the greed back to normal. Yes we must bring the greed back to normal at all costs. That is not reason but insanity. Again what is the answer well in the States about 20 million people in front of the Capital might get some attention. Could be a tipping point.

  9. bozhidar bob balkas said on October 15th, 2008 at 7:49am #

    let’s not forget that a child in some parts of the world gather dung/manure to fertilize dad’s field.
    may have one pair of shoes. has no toys; doesn’t
    ride, etc.
    his/her country has no wmd, rifeneries, warships, tanks, etcetc.
    in short, a child may be a plus effect on environment.
    a child in canada is a huge waster of resources, polluter, etcetc.
    so, i suggest only every hundreth woman in canada have one child.
    thnx

  10. Danny Ray said on October 15th, 2008 at 8:02am #

    Bob,

    Rousseau’s noble savage never existed, just who in the hell do you think is clear cutting the rain forest? Canadian Boy scouts? You are right that child in the third world has nothing, except 16 brothers and sisterswho can’t be fed or clothed.

  11. john andrews said on October 15th, 2008 at 8:09am #

    Hue,

    Of course one child per woman would reduce the population much quicker – but it would be a big thing to introduce and I’m not sure if such a rapid change would not cause more problems than it solved. In addition, there are quite a lot of women who choose not to have children at all, or who are unable to do so, or who sadly lose their children before they’re old enough to have their own offspring.

    Also I should say I’m not a big one for legislation, and personally would not support laws forcing women to have only one or two children – but I think it should be encouraged through social pressure.

    As for reducing only third world populations – I’m totally opposed. It cannot be right to expect poor families to control their numbers (especially when personal survival depends on family support) whilst the rich continue to breed like rabbits. Better by far for the rich to set the example they would hope others might follow.

  12. Danny Ray said on October 15th, 2008 at 9:14am #

    John,

    I do not believe that any one said that only third world populations should be controlled. However, the rate of population growth in the U.S. is at .09 percent and has remained stable for the last 20 years, the rate in Canada is slightly higher at 1.1 percent with approx. 20 % of this from immigration, Europe has an average of only .20 per cent and that would be negative without immigration from the former colonies.
    Now compare that to Nigeria that has a population growth of 10 % with a population density of 400 people per kilometer. The population of 100 million should double in the next 40 years. They are on the verge of not being able to feed themselves now. by 2050 they will be living on handouts.
    If we all continue, to grow there will be nothing for them and nature will reduce the population to a level sustainable for the area.
    In addition, if the choice is between a Canadian or American housewife seeing her own children go hungry or seeing children go hungry in the third world. Well what would you expect to se happen?
    .

  13. Danny Ray said on October 15th, 2008 at 9:16am #

    john excuse me I failed to answer your question. . Population control has been being practised by much of the First world. and needs to continue to be so.

  14. bozhidar bob balkas said on October 15th, 2008 at 9:53am #

    danny ray,
    ab russeau’s “noble” savage. i haven’t ever callled any people “noble”.
    ab rain forests being cut, i do not know that much ab it.
    i don’t know who cuts them.
    i said that in some areas, like nepal, bhutan, kazakhstan, and elsewhere a child and even adult uses so little in comparison to how much a person in canda uses.
    to add, i wld say that if a family has 16 children, all of them may use less of world resourses than even one child in n. america.
    so, i don’t see how and why u went on tangents and putting words in my mouth.
    tell me what’s ur problem and maybe we can fixed.
    thnx

  15. john andrews said on October 15th, 2008 at 10:09am #

    Danny Ray,

    I don’t know about America, but here in England the ‘p’ word is never even discussed – sort of implying that’s it’s not a problem, and perfectly o.k. for Brits to have as many kids as they like.

    My point is until population control is recognised by first world countries as an important factor in resolving environmental issues, and acted upon by those countries – even by just taking the relatively mild step of raising it as a social pressure – the third world cannot reasonably be expected to follow suit.

    The fact that it is not so much of a problem in the first world is all to the good in making the idea easier to accept here. However, there will be stoic opposition. It flies in the face of powerful church influences, as well as being directly opposed to the teachings of More, The God of Plunder.

  16. Danny Ray said on October 15th, 2008 at 11:45am #

    John

    You are right of course, point well taken, I must admit that I have had little experience with England. I have heard pol’s discussing the falling birth rate in France, Italy and Germany. And this with some alarm.
    The only point I wish to make is that the Third world has to see that it is in their own best interest to lower the birth rate. the never ending flow of mana from the EU and North America may well , No, Probably will dry up some day leaving them in the lurch.
    I might be inclined to give the third world my seat in the lifeboat, but you will play merry hell getting Miss. Jones to give her child’s seat up.

  17. Danny Ray said on October 15th, 2008 at 11:47am #

    bozhidar bob balkas

    Sorry if you feel that I have placed words in your mouth. But if I did you should be overjoyed at least they would be legible.

  18. KR said on October 15th, 2008 at 12:29pm #

    It’s funny to read so many comments by men pondering how many children each woman should be allowed to have. What about men? Why don’t we pass laws – or just apply social pressure – on ALL men to cut back on heterosexual intercourse? That would be pretty effective, wouldn’t it? From now on, you can only screw once a year!

    Regarding the racism implicit in insisting on reductions in Third World populations, I think Robert Jensen expressed his nausea about this idea very well in his book Citizens of the Empire, as he recounts his conversation with a student who argued against providing life-saving medicines to Third World people as a way to ease the population “problem”:

    “I contained my anger, somewhat, and told the student that when she was ready to sacrifice members of her own family to help solve the global population problem, then I would listen to her argument. In fact, given the outrageous levels of consumption of the middle and upper classes in the United States, I said, one could argue that large-scale death in the American suburbs would be far more beneficial in solving the population problem; a single U.S. family is more of a burden ecologically on the planet than a hundred Indian peasants. ‘If you would be willing to let an epidemic sweep through your hometown and kill large numbers of people without trying to stop it, for the good of the planet, then I’ll listen to that argument,’ I said.”

  19. bozhidar bob balkas said on October 15th, 2008 at 12:53pm #

    at least some of us wldn’t have been born had it not been for the fact that our grandparents and their grandparents had more than 3 children.
    having 10 or 15 children just 60-70 yrs ago was not a rarity in europe.
    and tho families be large; everybody worked.
    people then did little damage to environment.
    and, anent our survival, it may have depended on just one or two dark girls for a clan or tribe to go on.
    while i do not know whether the people who wld like to restrict families; who use so little, to 2 children, r racist or not, i still say that poor people should have an opportunity to live on. thnx

  20. bozhidar bob balkas said on October 15th, 2008 at 12:55pm #

    danny,
    that is the last time i’ll read anything u write. obviously u have problem(s); i don’t.

  21. Hue Longer said on October 16th, 2008 at 1:29am #

    The Jensen quote is rational

    Breeding isn’t everything considering how 5 percent of the population uses 25 percent of the resources. I don’t think it’s an either/or equation– consumption and breeding are working hard together.

    Danny,
    Indians did not wake up one morning, swear allegiance to Euro/US hegemony and yell “burn it down” so that among other things, cattle could be cheaply raised for US fast food