Three Distinct Crises now Point to the Urgent Need for a New Economic System

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The current economic system, where money is created as interest bearing debt by banks, is coming to the end of its useful life. Three distinct movements all tell us this – those concerned about climate change, those concerned about global declining economic growth (the ones who understand its connection with peak oil), and those who know that rising private debt is dangerous and sure to end in tears.

1. The Demand for Economic Growth means Climate Change is not tackled properly.

In 1972 the world’s first whole-country environmental party, the New Zealand Values Party, questioned whether economic growth was making us better and happier. Economist Richard Douthwaite in his book The Growth Illusion wrote about the need for economic growth to be at least as high as the interest rate banks charged on money. Charles Eisenstein eloquently outlined the way the growth imperative financialises and thus depletes both our natural and our social capital. “The financial crisis we are facing today arises from the fact that there is almost no more social, cultural, natural, and spiritual capital left to convert into money.” 

The politics of climate change has highlighted the unfortunate situation where, given the choice between doing something meaningful about climate change and championing economic growth, governments will always opt for the latter and claim it is a matter of “balance”. The need for economic growth always trumps the need for climate action. As a result, according to the former United Nations climate chief Christiana Figueres we now only have three more years to turn around emissions or we will not reach the targets of the Paris Climate Accord. Carbon dioxide levels are flat at the moment, but an unprecedented effort is needed from all parties in the next three years.

Naomi Klein in her ground breaking book This Changes Everything says:

“Our economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.” 

2. We have reached peak efficiency in getting energy from using energy

We seem to have forgotten peak oil issues. Globally conventional oil production peaked in 2005 and unconventional oil peaked in 2015. But peak oil didn’t play out as we expected. We had omitted to factor in debt; because they had to spend more energy to get energy, fossil fuel firms had to go into debt and this kept growing. Two authors worth reading on this topic are Nafeez Ahmed and actuary Gail Tverberg. The former writes articles like this. It says we need a new economic system because we can no longer get the required economic growth. This is because the energy return on energy invested (EROI) has been on the decline since the 1940s. We used to get 50 times the amount of energy out of using 1 barrel full of oil to extract it. We now get only about 15 times that amount. This number will continue to decline. And it’s the same for gas and for coal. The decline is irreversible. The consequences for the global economy are profound and widespread.

Because we need more and more energy to keep the system going, less is left for the real economy. Tverberg carefully concludes that declining productivity growth is a result and also stagnant wages. Ahmed says James D Ward of South Australia argues that, although it was widely believed we could, GDP growth cannot really be decoupled from environmental impacts. Ward says what has happened is that we have financialised the GDP through the creation of new debt without increasing material or energy throughput. (That was done by Quantitative Easing. CNBC said it was a total of $12 trillion, and you can expect that to have a huge effect on the global economy. It did.) He also notes growing inequality of income and wealth. He demonstrates that GDP cannot be sustained indefinitely.

As far as growing inequality of wealth is concerned, Ward hasn’t yet spelt out that this is caused when we have a huge blowout of credit from QE at the same time as we fail to collect the land rent on rising land prices. The huge asset bubble created by QE has blown up house prices and the sharemarket. With a tax system that fails to tax assets (or at least land and natural resources) the wealth gap continues to rise.

Those without access to land and natural resources and natural monopolies fall into poverty and homelessness. Add the fact that wages remain low, jobs precarious and a punitive benefit system, many are in abject poverty.

All these factors combine for political instability resulting in the election of Trump and in Brexit. The growing section of population with casual work or precarious work are called the Precariat. Those with low wages with house buying beyond their wildest dreams are desperate. During elections they will now be clutching at straws, as there seems no hope for progress.

So we are now getting scholars who understand the fossil fuel energy issue and its effect on global growth saying we need a new economic model. This is new.

3. The third movement is those who know about the consequences of creating money as interest bearing debt. It produces instability as outlined by economists who follow the late Hyman Minsky.  The Minsky moment is the point at which excess private debt sparks a financial crisis. Minsky said that such moments arise naturally when a long period of stability and complacency eventually leads to the build up of excess private debt and overleveraging. At some point the system collapses and it can happen quickly.

Followers of the new economics movement are generally aware that there has to be a big system change and have been saying this for decades now. However with the demand coming from three different directions, it is  just a guess as to which will prevail. Maybe with the rise of the basic income movement something may change. Those who recognise the irony of politicians who turn a blind eye to $12 trillion dollars appearing from nowhere to rescue banks yet say we can't afford a basic income will push this thing forward. Maybe environmentalists will stick to their environmentalism and monetary reformers will continue on recommending the same thing decade after decade while the planet burns and fascism threatens. . 

Summary

The New Economics Movement people who met between 2011 and 2015 to discuss a new economic system have produced ideas. These are crystallised to the best of my ability in my book The Big Shift: Rethinking Money, Tax, Welfare and Governance for the Next Economic System whose website is deirdrekent.com It can be bought here

Review of Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything, Capitalism vs Climate

Book Review by Peter Healy, Marist Priest of Otaki

This Changes Everything, Capitalism vs the Climate by Naomi Klein, 2014, $37

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This is a comprehensive and timely book. Klein says in part one, “If there has ever been a moment to advance a plan to heal the planet that also heals our broken economies and our shattered communities, this is it.” In the introduction she says “this is the hardest book I have ever written because climate change puts us on such a tight and unforgiving deadline.”

This book is about our “climate moment” with all its challenges and opportunities. First, Klein says we have to stop looking away. We deny because we fear letting in the full reality of a crisis that changes everything. The need to change everything is not something we readily accept. If we are to curb emissions in the next decade we need a massive mobilisation larger than any in history. She quotes the Bolivian Navarro Llamos who suggests it is time for a “Marshall Plan for Earth”.

The question is posed: What is wrong with us? What is really preventing us from putting out the fire that’s threatening to burn down our collective house? The global economy always takes centre stage. Market fundamentalism has systematically sabotaged our collective responses. Our economic system and our planetary systems are at war. We are faced with a stark choice: “either we allow climate change to disrupt everything about our world or we change pretty much everything about our world to avoid that fate”. We need a radical rethink for these changes to be remotely possible.

Our “climate moment” is accompanied by what she calls a “fossil fuel frenzy”. A wild dig is going on in most nations on the planet. Aotearoa/NZ being no exception. With the “fossil fuel frenzy” Klein says, “We have become a society of grave robbers, we need to become a society of life amplifiers, deriving our energy directly from elements that sustain life. It’s time to let the dead rest.” Our most important task now is to keep carbon in the ground.

To do all this we need to be thinking differently. A new worldview is required, “a project of mutual reinvention” has to be entered into. The door to 2 degrees of warming will close in 2017. We are in the midst of a civilisational wake-up call. This call is coming to us in the language of fires, floods, droughts and extinctions. We are being called to evolve, and the thing about a crisis this big is that it changes everything.

Wealthy nations need to start cutting emissions by 8-10 percent per year. They have to begin this now. We need to consume less and get back to 1970’s levels. Low consumptions activities like gardening and home cooking are good. Changing everything means changing how we think about our economy. Large corporations dodge regulations, and they refuse to change behaviours. No company in the world wants to put itself out of business, their goal is to always expand their market share. Klein talks about addiction rather than innovation when it comes to new methods of extraction. We need to keep all the fossil fuel we can in the ground, at the same time more extreme and innovative methods are being invented to get at whats left. The madness of “extractivism” is a relationship of taking with little care being given to regeneration and the future of life. As Klein says the market economy and the fossil fuel economy emerged at about the same time. “Coal is the blank ink in which the story of modern capitalism is written.”

There are no messiahs. The green billionaires will not save us, we have to change our lifestyles. Our most intoxicating narrative is that technology will save us, and this is one of our forms of magical thinking. There are some fascinating passages about Klein going to a geo-engineering conference in the UK. She describes the attendees as, “a remarkably small and incestuous world of inventors and scientists and funders.” It is all very risky, untested and dangerous stuff that they are proposing. The solution to global warming is not to fix the world, rather we need to fix ourselves.

The book has inspiring things to say about “Blockadia”. This is a broadbased grassroots resistance movement intent on shaking the fossil fuel industry to the core. Indigenous peoples are key in the Blockadia movement, their rights can be a great gift for the revival and reinvention of the commons we all love. Bolivia and Ecuador have already put “the Rights of Mother Earth” into their national statutes. Blockadia asks the question, “How come that a big distant company can come to my land and put me and my kids at risk and never ask my permission?” The corporations come from far away and go everywhere because the fossil fuel industry is one of extreme rootlessness.

Followers of recent global climate talks are well aware of failure and deadlocks. A Greenhouse Development Framework from the Stockholm Environment Institute is an attempt to deal with disparities within and between countries claiming the rights to develop and pollute.

In chapter 13 of the book Klein talks about her attempts to have a child while researching this book. There are some lovely descriptions of Klein coming to realise that earth is facing fertility challenges of her own. Many species are now against “infertility walls” and finding it hard to reproduce. Fertility is one of the first functions to erode when animals are under stress.

The challenge for the climate movement hinges on pulling off a profound and radical economic transformation. In extraordinary historical moments “the usual category that divides “activists” and “regular people” become meaningless, the activists are quite simply everyone”.

So this book is for you and me and everyone. We are all implicated in everything this book is about, so get hold of it, read it and pass it around. As a slogan at the recent climate march in New York said, “To change everything we need everybody.”

I found myself saying to someone the other day, “If any book will push us through and beyond the Great Transition that we all have to make, then this is it!” Along with the film that Klein’s partner is making on the same subject, we can take some hope. We still have our brief window of time. We are inventive and creative. We can join with the tangata whenua as guardians of Mother Earth.