The haves and the shall-not-haves

Yesterday, Couze Venn, the editor of Theory, Culture & Society, came to speak to the department. His talk, ‘Protocols for a new economy’, began with a premise that I largely agree with: the argument that an economic logic which uses growth as the sole yardstick of wellbeing and prosperity is by its very nature at odds with ecological understandings of sustainability and equilibrium. From there, though, we didn’t get very far. Venn tested out the concept of ‘throughput’, but left me unconvinced that the term is anything more than a fashionable reworking of the economist’s ‘externalities’. Beyond that came a vague series of blame cast on the usual lineup of villains: deregulation, globalization, climate change, and so on. There was nothing here that I disagreed with; but there was nothing much to agree with, either—the ‘protocols’ for the new economy seem to be nothing more than Things which are bad and we do not like will go away.

I asked during the questions whether there is not a certain tension between the ecological argument (from Malthus and Ehrlich) that the world simply cannot carry consumption patterns at first-world levels for everyone and the economic-justice argument (from, well, almost everyone) that individuals deserve, if not total equality of outcomes, at least an equal right to a decent standard-of-living. Even if the first-world were to remarkably halt its consumption patterns at 2011 levels, the underdeveloped world could never be allowed catch up, barring an as-yet-unforeseen technological bonanza. So, I asked, how do we make hard decisions between our environmental and our economic-justice goals without drifting into the world of fantasy?

He first suggested that I was making ‘assumptions’ about, first, the terms ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’, and, second, about the goals of the underdeveloped world. Well— postcolonial sensitivities aside, there is a developed and underdeveloped world. I don’t much care whether the underdeveloped world is called the Third World, the ‘Tricontinental’ world, the ‘subaltern’, or what-have-you. To say otherwise is no different than to say the people of Africa enjoy living in destitution, and have elected to do so since they have not yet been brainwashed by the materialist ethos of the West. I suggest that those academics holding this view ought to live for some time on several dollars a day in an unelectrified hut, and then consider whether their rush back to their temperature-controlled offices and wine receptions is hastened by imperialist brainwashing or something else entirely.

So if we hold that the people living in the underdeveloped world would consume at American levels if they could, then we must decide either that they cannot be allowed to, or to face some very difficult questions about consumption. Venn replied to me with a complaint that commoners in Nigeria do not see any of the profits of oil extraction, as corporations and élites concentrate this wealth in a small number of hands. Well— yes. I wholeheartedly agree that Nigerian (and British, and American) economies are plutocratic and unjust. But this isn’t an answer to the consumption question. Indeed, redistributing Nigerian oil wealth would likely increase demands on the environment rather than decrease them, since spending would be transferred from, say, ten Rolexes (expensive but not materially burdensome on the environment) to ten thousand color televisions (which use quite a lot of electricity).

I hold that all forecasters of the future must subscribe to at least one of these beliefs:

1. Science and technology will deliver huge productive windfalls that reduce the amount of arable land and physical resources necessary to sustain first-world consumption habits.
2. The vast majority of the world’s population that currently lives at a fraction of Western levels will remain living at or near poverty forever.
3. Western societies will slash their consumption habits dramatically and voluntarily.
4. Natural disasters and famine will lead to rioting, warfare, critical resources shortages, and the end of modern civilization.

Conservatives I believe subscribe to the second. Neoliberals of the international class subscribe strongly to the first, and perhaps slightly to the second, though they quitclaim it in public. And what do leftists of Venn’s stripe believe in? I cannot say, really. At some level I suppose they hope for the third, while wringing their hands over the fourth. But, as yet, the ‘protocols’ for steering towards the former and avoiding the later look very flimsy indeed.