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Home > Blogs > Anthony Harrington > Collapse scenarios – satire or vision of the future? Part 4

Collapse scenarios – satire or vision of the future? Part 4

Natural capital | Collapse scenarios – satire or vision of the future? Part 4 Anthony Harrington

In Part Three of this blog series I looked at John Michael Greer’s argument in The Wealth of Nature: Economics as if Survival Mattered that natural processes provide three quarters of the input into virtually all industrial outputs. Greer bases his thinking on Ernest Schumacher’s argument that energy has to be considered as foremost among Nature’s goods when taking stock of what it is that we are starting with as “natural capital” – and depleting at a lunatic rate.

In his final chapter, Greer looks at the road ahead for modern industrial societies. Seen through his eyes, it doesn’t make for a pretty picture. He picks up on the arguments of the much vilified 1973 study, “The Limits to Growth”:

“An industrial economy pursuing limitless growth in a finite world, that study pointed out, will have to contend with a steadily depleting resource base and rising pollution generated by the process of industrial production. As resources deplete, the cost of keeping them flowing into the economy will increase in real terms, as more labor and capital have to be invested to extract a given amount of each resource; as pollution levels rise, in turn, the costs of mitigating their impacts on public health, agricultural productivity and other core economic factors go up in the same way and for the same reasons. Those costs have to be paid out of current economic output, leaving less and less for other uses, until economic output itself begins to fall and the industrial world begins its terminal decline.”

If we leap out of Greer for a moment to consider our age’s most vivid example of an emerging economy moving from low-tech to high-tech, namely China, it is already clear that the strain on the world’s resources imposed by China’s great leap forward is virtually non-repeatable. Add India into the equation and there really isn’t enough left in Nature’s bank for a third miracle leap forward on that scale. At least, not in the chaotic way that matters are now being carried forward. The spectacle of Chinese “acquirers” charging around the globe trying to corner the raw commodities China needs just for this year’s growth push should make that plain enough…

Half full or half empty?

If there is a weakness in Greer’s account of where industrial society is going, it is not with the general thrust, but with the sense that his arguments always move towards a conclusion that he has already reached. In this sense his book is polemical, which is no bad thing if, like him, you are trying to wake people up to a coming disaster. But it does mean he generates a momentum and a flow that dashes towards these conclusions and doesn’t admit of the fact that, well, markets react to feedback. Challenges, even environmental challenges, become fresh opportunities for new businesses to develop, bringing new services to market which are not necessarily going to be services of which he would disapprove. Hopelessly optimistic? Perhaps but, then again, perhaps not.

Greer is very dismissive of “alternative energy sources”, which he names as “nuclear reactors, solar thermal power plants, algal biodiesel or what have you”. It is hard to get more cavalierly dismissive of a hugely serious effort that cost many billions of dollars than his “or what have you…”. Personally, I would have wanted him to look a little more seriously at offshore wind, which is going to make available an impressively large amount of power in a very short (relatively speaking) time frame. A concept like the European Super Grid (which is worth Googling if you haven’t heard of it) has some relevance for his vision. Again, his arguments rush towards the inevitable conclusion that there won’t be enough resources left for these things to be built on a scale that can reverse “inevitable” industrial decline:

“This is the trap hidden in the limits to growth; once those limits begin to bite, the spare economic capacity that would be needed to build a way out of trouble no longer exists.”

Really? If you want to see a truly eye-popping engineering feat aimed at solving the Earth’s energy requirements in, say 35 years time, do a web search for ITER, the demonstration fusion reactor now being built in the South of France. Does this mean that we’re going to pull off a “with one bound Jim was free” leap out of our energy predicament? I don’t know, but hey, it’s at least interesting – or, to put it another way, at least as interesting as contemplating a return to low-tech living and zero tourism unless you can paddle across the oceans. I loved Greer’s book, but I really do hope he’s wrong. The Middle Ages weren’t that much fun, after all…

You can buy John Michael Greer's The Wealth of Nature: Economics as if Surivival Mattered from the New Society Publishers house website.

Further reading on sustainability and advanced economies:




Tags: alternative energy sources , China , China economy , collapse scenarios , depleted resources , Dmitry Orlov , Ernest Schumacher , European Super Grid , fusion , global collapse , industrial society , ITER , John Michael Greer , natural capital , offshore wind , sustainability , The Limits of Growth , The Wealth of Nature: Economics as if Survival Mattered
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