Opinion | Green on the outside and red on the inside
In 1972, as food prices were in the midst of a dramatic rise, the American environmental activist Lester Brown proclaimed that we were seeing the first signs of a food crisis. We had allegedly reached the limits for growth. The media went into a tizzy, but some observers pointed out that the rising food prices were the product of a number of unrelated factors all happening at the same time, including increased imports from Russia.
But the market and price mechanisms work. When prices rise, it becomes more profitable for the world’s farmers to grow more. And, as supply increased, prices fell in the following years. In the meantime, Brown had founded his World Watch Institute, which since then has unfailingly predicted the end of the world – or something approaching it – each time someone raised the alarm.
And, so it was on April 29, when the institute’s most recent report was released in Denmark. In it, you can read that the “results of rising prices for food, fossil fuels, minerals, and necessities … include food riots like those of 2008 and crippling power blackouts … economic growth seems to be bumping into its own limiting constraints”.
Yes, the prices of resources have, in fact, risen. And this time it is again the result of a chance coincidence of events – most of them positive. The most important of these is the rapid rise in wealth that pulls millions of people out of poverty each year in countries such as China and India and increasingly in Africa. With this increasing wealth comes increased demand and, as a result, higher prices. No doubt we’ll see the market react this time as well.
World Watch Institute’s annual ‘State of the World’ report this year asks the question: “Is sustainability still possible?” The institute invited a group of scholars to address the question. Their utopian sentiment was overwhelming. Sustainability can be reached if we change the way our society is put together and convince other countries to do the same. All rich countries, one of the authors states, will need to carry out “dramatic and rapid ‘demand contraction’” or “degrowth”.
Another of the authors explains that the concept of ‘growth’ is a social construction created (though we never find out by whom) in order to stimulate the world economy after the Second World War. This construction can, of course, according to the author be deconstructed.
A third author explains that in the zero-growth economy, we will need to implement policies regulating working hours as a way to make sure that available work is shared equally. Wage ceilings and wage floors will do their part to guarantee an equitable distribution of wealth.
Poverty in developing countries won’t be solved by promoting growth. No, it will happen through a global reallocation of wealth from rich to poor countries. Another of the authors recommends implementing a tax system with rates “asymptotically approaching 100 percent on marginal income”.
Our suspicions about where this is headed are confirmed on page 379, where it states that capitalism isn’t working well, and that we “clearly need a more realistic working economic system”. The ideological colouring of the report made me think of a watermelon: green on the outside, red on the inside.
According to another author, the South Pacific island of Tikopia, measuring 5 sq km, gives us the best model of a society we should adopt. A whole chapter is dedicated to praising Cuba: “Humanity will survive and can even thrive in a resource-constrained world if it learns from the Cuban example.” Given the direction of Cuban migration, you’d think it was Cuba that could learn something from us about creating a society where people thrived.