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Is the Political System Broken?

February 16, 2010

Our neighborhood paper, the Washington Park Profile, has an editorial by Paul Kashmann, in which he declares: "The political system as we have known it may not be completely broken yet, but it is definitely on life support." He describes his progress from "proud Democrat" just two years ago to "disgruntled, disenchanted Democrat."

I can sympathize. After a resounding electoral victory by a party acknowledging that climate change is an issue of central importance to continued human existence, what do we have? We have a debate between anemic half-measures and doing nothing and doing nothing is winning. We can speak out against the madness, but thanks to the Supreme Court, corporations can always speak louder than any of us. Oops, there goes the planet.

But Id like to shift this analysis just a bit. Lets consider not whether the political system is broken, but whether our social and economic system is broken. Our social and economic system is a consumer culture based on limitless expansion and domination of nature.

The real reason behind the financial crisis is that weve hit the limits to growth. Our economy runs on oil, and no one can get to Washington (or even the state capitol) without doing obeisance at the altar of perpetual economic growth. Shifting to a "green economy" will be vastly more expensive than people think, and if it just means that we will be ruthlessly exploiting neodymium (a "rare earth" metal used in wind turbines, mostly imported from China) instead of oil, its not going to last very long. Oil is not the only resource that is in short supply think about water on the eastern plains of Colorado, the rare metals required for electric batteries and solar panels, or topsoil, which is eroding 10 times faster in the U. S. than it is being formed.

You can talk endlessly about the "green economy," but no rhetorical spin can get us out of this basic fact: effective environmental action means an end to economic growth. The overwhelming preponderance of so-called growth comes from exploitation of the environment and greater use of fossil fuels, which come at ever-increasing environmental cost and are rapidly depleting.

If the country cannot handle the limits to growth, then it certainly will not thrive, and may not even survive. No clever words, fresh candidates, or third parties can alter this dynamic. Its as simple as that.