Limits to growth are now here. Our economy used to work just fine but hasn’t been working so well for the past few decades. With limits to growth, it is now not going to work at all.
One failure is our way of dealing with social inequality. The only way that we have tried to deal with social inequality is through economic growth. We’ve assumed for some time that capitalistic expansion of the economy will solve problems of inequality. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” that is, a bigger economy will be bigger for everyone.
This approach didn’t ever work that well — remember “trickle down economics”? But by now it won’t work at all. Limits to growth means we can’t truly expand the economy. The only way to deal with inequality is to address the problem directly, by redistributing wealth. If we instead try to deal with inequality by expanding the economy, we’ll get just the kind of response we’ve seen recently to George Floyd’s murder.
The pandemic (remember the pandemic?) was originally caused by animal agriculture. The pandemic was an “accident waiting to happen,” and finally it happened. It is the natural consequence of bringing animals into increasingly close contact with each other and with humans. We had known about this for decades, but we didn’t do anything. Why? Because of the economy. Shutting down wet markets and factory farms would fix the problem but would cost businesses. The economy is more important than human needs and a livable planet.
This same principle is forcing the slaughterhouses to stay open, despite the fact that they are key sources, perhaps the key source, spreading COVID-19 around. It’s also the same principle used by President Trump to advocate increasing fossil fuel production and trashing environmental regulations.
None of this is going to work. We’ve postponed dealing with our vast and growing social inequality for too long, and when the pandemic sent the economy into Depression-level unemployment, people were just a bit upset. Businesses get billions in bailout money, but everybody else gets a check for $1200. Thanks a lot, guys! Shall I spend it on rent or on food? Then when yet another police murder came along, yet again captured on video, you have fully justified outrage.
The President’s handling of this issue should outrage everyone. This unrest has now spread to Denver, where I live. The protests over George Floyd’s murder started on Thursday, and since Friday Denver has been under curfew. This is the second time in my life that I have been in a city with an imposed curfew because of the threat of violence. The last time was in Nashville in 1968, after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. There are credible reports that white nationalists are the instigators of the violence in some places, including Denver, perhaps hoping for a race war. The White-Supremacist-in-Chief did his part by tweeting, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
How quickly things can go downhill! We can’t deal with poverty and injustice by expanding the economy. My favorite statistic, that I have been constantly quoting recently, is that average relative wages (your salary compared to the GDP) have been declining for decades. Not this year, not since last year, but since the 1960’s.
The only way to address inequality is to do it directly, by redistributing wealth. Raise taxes on the rich, and give it to the poor. Continue the payments of $1200 to each adult citizen, but make them every month and continue them indefinitely.
In the meantime, take measures to protect the environment by restoring the national parks and environmental regulations, and protect the public against pandemics by shutting down factory farms and wet markets. This should be the starting point of discussion about the economy, not something that we have to arrive at through “free enterprise.” Once we have guaranteed housing, food, and a livable planet for everyone, then we can talk about the economy.
Veganism is a positive, mindful response to limits to growth. It’s not the only thing we need to do by a long shot, but it’s essential to dealing with all of these problems. Instead of despairing that the loss of economic growth is the end of civilization, we should embrace these limits and get to work building a new society.