How our quality of life has gone down the hill

Every year, brilliant economists churn out statistics to demonstrate the health of an economy be it in the developed or developing world. There is usually optimism that a year that follows the previous one might bring better fortunes.

Every year, brilliant economists churn out statistics to demonstrate the health of an economy be it in the developed or developing world. There is usually optimism that a year that follows the previous one might bring better fortunes. 

There is some kind of euphoria that greets every year. But as the year gets to a close, nothing spectacular seems to be happening. The euphoria of the yesteryear begins to fade like a façade.

But the economists insist that as long as the economy continues to grow, we imagine, the world will become a more congenial place in which to live.

Economic success in some parts of the world is taken as the yardstick for the poor to emulate. There is no basis for this belief.

If we take into account such factors as pollution for example in the west and parts of the east like China, the depletion of natural capital, we see that the quality of life picked for instance in the United Kingdom in 1974 and in the United States in 1968, and is reported to have been falling ever since. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that the west is going backwards followed sheepishly by the south.

The reason should not be hard to grasp. The West’s economic system seriously depends on never-ending growth, yet the westerners live in a world with finite resources. Their expectation of progress is, as a result, a delusion.

This is the great heresy of our time, the fundamental truth that cannot be spoken. It is dismissed as furiously by those who possess power and authority in the west today – governments, business, and media moguls— as the discovery that the Earth orbits the sun was denounced by the church.

Try to speak this truth in public today and you will be hounded and dismissed as a crank and a lunatic.

Capitalism – and I am not against it by the way – is a millenarian cult, raised to the status of a world religion. Like communism, it is built on the myth of endless exploitation. Just as we Christians imagine that our God will deliver us from death, capitalists believe that theirs will deliver them from finite. The world’s resources, they assert, have been granted eternal life! What a fantasy!

The briefest reflection would demonstrate that this is far from the truth. The laws of thermodynamics impose inherent limits on biological production.

Even the repayment of debt – I am not about to mention Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC), that catchphrase of indebtedness –, the pre-requisite of capitalism, is mathematically possible only in the short term.

As the famous economist Heinrich Haussmann has shown, a single pfennig invested at 5 per cent compounded interest in the year AD 0 would, by 1990, have reaped a volume of gold 134-billion times the weight of the planet. Capitalism seeks a value of production commensurate with the repayment of debt.

Now, despite the persistent denials, it is clear that the wall towards which the world is accelerating is not very far away. It is, for instance, estimated that within five to 10 years, the global consumption of oil is likely to outstrip supply; every year, up to 75-billion tonnes of topsoil are washed into the sea as a result of unsustainable farming, which equates to the loss of around nine million hectares of productive land.

As a result, we can maintain current levels of food production only with the application of phosphates, but phosphate reserves are likely to be exhausted within 80 years. Forty per cent of the world’s food is said to be produced with the help of irrigation; some of the key aquifers are already running dry as a result of overuse.

There is no doubt that a rising population is one of the factors that threaten the world’s capacity to support its people, but human population growth is being massively outstripped by the growth in the number of farm animals.

While the rich world’s consumption is supposed to be boundless, the human population is likely to peak within the next few decades. But population growth is the one factor for which the poor can be blamed and from which the rich can be excused, so it is the one factor that is repeatedly emphasized.

It is possible to change the way the west lives. The economist Bernard Lietaer has shown how a system based on negative rates of interest would ensure that the west accords greater economic value to future resources than to present ones.

By shifting taxation from employment to environmental destruction, governments could tax over-consumption out of existence. But those who hold power in the west today know that their political survival depends on stealing from the future to give to the present; which is contrary to the principles of sustainable development.

Overturning this calculation is the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced. There is need to reverse not only the fundamental presumptions of political and economic life, but also the polarity of mankind’s moral compass.

Everything we thought was good — giving more exciting presents to our children, flying to a friend’s wedding, even buying newspapers — turns out also to be bad.

It is, perhaps, hardly surprising that so many deny the problem with such religious zealotry. But to live in these times without striving to change them is like watching, with serenity, the oncoming truck in your path.

The writer is a consultant and visiting lecturer at the RDF Senior Command and Staff College, Nyakinama.