Economic Growth Takes 'American Dream' into Nightmare

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), June 19, 2011 | Go to article overview

Economic Growth Takes 'American Dream' into Nightmare


Byline: Tom Giesen For The Register-Guard

Americans, like people in most "developed" countries, tell pollsters they strongly support environmental protection, such as reducing carbon dioxide emissions. We also strongly support economic growth. However, growth increases CO2 emissions.

So two goals are at odds. We cannot support both, can we?

No. But supporting mutually exclusive goals appears to be the new normal, and that is pathological. We feel anxious about the state of the environment and really want the problems corrected. We also feel anxious about jobs, the cost of gasoline and general prosperity - and we want economic growth to continue.

We live each day with those powerful but opposing impulses. Do we really have to choose?

Yes. But so far we haven't chosen, and we are just coasting on inertia. Exponential growth in the goods economy still reigns supreme. No politician wishing to get elected dares to oppose growth in the economy, consumerism or population - those are all sacred. Economic growth and consumerism have been the context of our lives; they appear to have been the basis of the "American dream." But we are now more aware that exponential growth in the goods economy is unsustainable, and growth has become the "American nightmare."

At the same time, we also know in our hearts that we have not taken any significant and timely steps toward correcting our environmental crises - global warming, for example, or our global energy crisis, or toxic chemicals in our environment. We are in denial about the need to choose, unable to act.

Psychologist Kathy McMahon calls it "Panglossian disorder," when we know there's a crisis we must deal with but decide to go shopping instead. That is our new normal. Normal once was a comfortable place to be, but that is no longer true.

Conflicting goals are the new normal for politics as well. The government, under all administrations, supports growth. Both major political parties promote it. A fundamental function of our government and political system since our founding has been to support and facilitate economic growth.

Environmental protection is, in contrast, quite young. Most of our foundational environmental law is just 35 years to 50 years old, and it has been subjected since adoption to continuous attack - never more so than today.

Like individuals, our political system is torn. The political response is to continue to support growth while paying lip service to the environment. That lip service consists of, among other things, adopting symbolic legislation.

As an example, last year's House-passed climate change/global warming legislation used a mechanism (cap-and-trade) known to be corruptible, slow and inefficient, and it set very low targets and long schedules for emissions reductions, ignoring shorter schedules suggested by climate scientists. It was a symbolic effort at best - and it died in the Senate because it was "too radical" and might interfere with economic growth.

Another form of lip service is to have good environmental laws but fail to enforce them. That notably occurred under President George W. Bush, but in all other administrations as well.

Governments also use coded language and phrases; examples include "sustainable development" or "smart growth." In practice, so-called "sustainable development" is just more unsustainable economic growth. Of the three "legs" of so-called "sustainable development" - social, economic and ecological - the ecological leg is critical, enabling the other two to exist. A sustainable world requires an intact and robust global ecosystem. It is our life-support system.

We live in a world of symbolic actions and coded language, all functioning to sedate us, to allay our sense of insecurity and uncertainty in the face of unsustainable growth and our failures to address environmental crises. I suspect we have a level of willingness to be deceived, and want to hear that everything is OK. …

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