A growing number of us are stuck trying to maintain what we have while laying the groundwork for a new lifestyle that is more sustainable. Maintaining what we have typically involves supporting an economy that has become dependent on perpetual and inherently unhealthy growth. The lifestyle we seek would allow us to thrive without such an economy. Given this dichotomy, it’s no wonder we’re stuck.
Perpetual growth demands unlimited resources, unlimited efficiencies, or both. If these conditions cannot be met, the number of people must decrease; but with the theoretical (but totally unrealizable) limit of one person having everything. If we value life, and appreciate the fact that natural law prohibits both access to unlimited resources and unbounded efficiency, then we must reject the goal of perpetual growth.
The economy’s perpetual growth requirement stems from its built-in rewards for increasing the amount and configurations of resources available to its population. As the number of “pioneers” seeking these rewards has become large in proportion to the total population, acquiring and consuming more has become the norm rather than the exception. To reverse this trend (or create an alternative), most pioneers must become settlers – learning to live with a fixed amount of resources that, by necessity, are replenished at a fixed rate. Given these facts, the goal of “maintaining what we have” must be changed to “maintaining what our environment can afford for us to have.”
Unfortunately, many of us – including our governments, and by extension their citizens -- have already promised to pursue more growth as a condition for basic survival. This takes the form of debt, which increases exponentially until it is paid off by the rewards of being a pioneer. A trivial, and therefore least likely, solution to this dilemma is for creditors to forgive all debt and for everyone to commit to the creation of a more sane economics. The least acceptable solution is for debtors to simply leave the economy, which has already started due to deprivation of alternatives for earning the money they need, and the predations of creditors who value property more than people. Perhaps the most doable and generally acceptable solution is to make money less usable for consumption or spoiling of physical resources.
The implementation of this last solution would need to be done carefully to avoid some very negative consequences, such as slavery. For example, society could encourage investment of the money in businesses that are more efficient, or use more renewable resources, or clean up pollution. This is already being done, but still with the implicit goal of unlimited growth. To keep from merely delaying our demise, we must choose a limit to how far we will go along this path, and a good place to start is to incur no more debt.
At the same time, we can join groups (“social units”) where some members focus on keeping the creditors happy while an increasing fraction develop the ability to freely and voluntarily meet each other’s needs with a fixed, environmentally sustainable amount of resources. Instead of everyone trading with everyone else, groups would interact – peacefully, and with minimal exchange of resources. Such interaction will ultimately be critical to the process of converting to a fully sustainable world by helping to relocate the world’s population to regions where people can meet their basic needs.