The BRIC countries (Brasil, Rossiya, Bhārat (India) and Zhōngguó (China)) and their economic areas of influence.
Today I attended an invitation-only forum on the future of Canada. It was attended by many of Canada’s business and political leaders, and had a speaker’s roster so exceptional that one of the speakers (a household name) actually sponsored the event (apparently to ensure a seat on the podium).
Keynote speaker was Fareed Zakaria, one of my favourite political and economic commentators, despite his willingness to work with (and hence provide a bit of credibility to) mainstream media networks. I was impressed at his grasp of the current financial crisis (he blew away the rest of the speakers both in his eloquence and his imagination), a subject he has not talked or written about much.
He had five recommendations for Canada and Canadian business leaders:
- Manage for uncertainty and change: Nothing lasts forever, and trends tend to “regress to the mean”.
- Focus on opportunities, not threats: Canada is uniquely positioned today, strong in both natural and intellectual capital, with a better health system than Americans’ and the healthiest banking system in the world.
- Encourage your kids to learn a foreign language: English is not enough in the 21st century.
- Think laterally: Be agile, and innovative. The old solutions won’t work any more, if they ever did.
- Look to and listen to struggling nations for ideas: They’ve had to deal with problems we’re facing now, and without the resources we have at our disposal. And now that struggling nations make up half of the world’s productive capacity, they’re not going to just accept our models and rules anymore.
Some of his other key insights:
- Brasil, India and China (and perhaps Russia) are the future world economic leaders, because their domestic markets alone are sufficient to sustain them, and because they’re surrounded by other countries that are now economically outperforming the affluent nations. China is no longer co-dependent on the US, and now they know it — despite the collapse of US orders in the last year, they will still grow by 6% this year. These countries have studied affluent nations’ economic systems and endured the rigors of IMF/World Bank scrutiny, and they know what they’re doing, perhaps better than we do.
- The advice given by the IMF/World Bank to Asia on what to do when their economies imploded in the 1980s is the exact opposite of what affluent nations are now doing in the same situation. As a result the IMF/World Bank has lost the last of its credibility.
- In North America, 60-75% of science program graduates are immigrants. Our future as innovators, and as countries that actually produce anything of value, is almost entirely dependent on generous immigration policy.
What was sobering about all of the discussion of the day, including Fareed’s, was the assumption that the objective of all the current bailouts, interventions and government actions on the economy should be to stimulate rapid growth of consumer spending. The word ‘growth’ was mentioned by four panelists no fewer than 40 times in an hour-long discussion.
When will economic and political thinkers realize that growth is the problem, not the solution?
World population is still growing at a 50-year doubling rate, when we already have far more humans than the planet can sustainably support. These struggling nations, in order to have a reasonable quality of life, are aspiring to increase their per-capita wealth and consumption by a factor of ten, at which point we will be going through the Earth’s resources at twenty times sustainable level, like a horde of locusts stripping everything in sight bare. Yet all the economic thinking is aimed at bringing about precisely this outcome. This is short-termism carried to its extreme, and it’s exceedingly dangerous. The belief that it is somehow attainable is magical thinking, an ideology of growth.
Why is it that normally intelligent people are so stupid they don’t get this?
There seems to be several (lunatic) assumptions underlying this ideology:
- Human population will magically level off at the level of resources sustainably available on the planet. Daniel Quinn has shown the absurdity of this assumption, which is fueled by the fact that, in recent times, birth rates have fallen as wealth has risen. This has not been true throughout history and there is no basis to believe it will continue. In fact, most women in both affluent and struggling nations want more children than they’re actually having, and it is their relative poverty, not their wealth or education, that they cite as the reason for not having as many children as they want.
- Struggling nations, in the interest of preserving the planet, will give up their ambition to live at the same standard of living as affluent nations. The nonsensical assumption is baked into immigration forecasts and forecasts about what struggling nations will do to help combat climate change (i.e. much more than their share).
- We can live, forever, beyond our means. Our debt levels (expenditures over income, consumption over production, use and loss of resources over restoration and regeneration), debt levels in our personal and corporate and government accounts, debts at the expense of our environment and future generations, are at unprecedented levels and accelerating out of control. But still we think we can print more money, borrow more, spend more, consume more, use more, and never have to be accountable for the excess.
- Human ingenuity will always come up with ways to accommodate perpetual growth. This is the most fantastical assumption of all, since it runs counter to all evidence from history (civilizations always collapse, and usually collapse suddenly and spectacularly when they become unsustainable). This assumption runs counter to the laws of thermodynamics (somehow we’re going to be able to increase the total amount of energy on the planet, forever). It assumes that we will be able to produce more and more heat without ever changing the climate of the planet (when in fact evidence is the opposite). It assumes that problems of energy production and climate change that the most knowledgeable scientists on the planet virtually unanimously agree are beyond their wildest dreams to imagine and conceive of viable solutions to, will be solved, and soon, and without unforseen consequences.
The enemy, as always, is short-termism, the fact that it is in the nature of humans (and indeed all creatures) to be preoccupied with the needs of the moment, and leave ‘tomorrow’ to take care of itself.
So once again we are distracted by today’s crisis (Enron, 9/11, Katrina, and now the financial system meltdown) and our solution, in each case, is to do everything possible, at any cost, to restore things to the way they were before the crisis.
In the meantime, the debts mount up, the pressures on the systems wound ever tighter grow more intense and frequent, our whole way of life becomes more leveraged and more fragile, and we remain oblivious. There is no significant difference between the Ideology of Growth and the Ideology of the Rapture. Both are reckless, religious, fantastical, mythological, and ultimately nihilistic. They’re manifest in the acedia that Gene McCarthy warned about 40 years ago, and in the anomie of today’s young people that Michael Adams alerted us to three years ago.
It’s been going on for thirty thousand years. I guess we should be used to it by now.