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Miracle grow!

By Stan Cox
Prairie Writers Circle

(Thursday, May 15, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- The way the House and Senate have been battling over tax cuts and other money matters lately, you'd think some sweeping economic changes had been proposed. But when a debate becomes this boisterous, it's actually a sure sign that everyone is in full agreement on the fundamental issues.

Suppose the following resolution were introduced in Congress: "Resolved: Economic growth is good." It would pass both chambers without a single nay. An amendment stating, "And faster growth is better," would probably pass on an easy voice vote.

Politicians like growth because the problems of society appear to shrink in an expanding economy. For one thing, growth provides an excuse to ignore this country's widening rich-poor gap. Today, reports Inequality.org, the richest 5 percent of families own 60 percent of the wealth, while the average net worth of Americans in the bottom 40 percent is just about zero.

Redistribution of that wealth is not discussed in polite company. So when Washington politicians or Wall Street economists offer lower-income Americans their usual little sliver of the economic pie, they have to conjure up a dream of an ever-expanding pie offering bigger slices for everyone, sometime in the future.

"Dream" is the key word. Our economic system is grounded in the fantasy that consumption can grow forever and without limit, both in America and throughout the planet.

In his Earth Day statement in April, President Bush pretended otherwise: "We will promote energy efficiency and security, and improve and protect water quality, while encouraging economic growth." But that's a list of goals that clash, inevitably and often. When they do, Bush opts for growth, as do almost all politicians.

We have already carried this fantasy too far. Oakland-based Redefining Progress recently evaluated the ecological effect of people living in 146 nations. The organization estimated the average consumption per person in each country and compared it with the ability of that country's territory to provide the resources and handle the wastes.

In the United States , we consume and discard at a rate that exceeds our country's biological carrying capacity by 83 percent. We import resources from other countries to make this possible. So does the rest of the industrialized world: The populations of the 10 richest countries, including the U.S. , overshoot their carrying capacity by an average of 85 percent.

These numbers represent a much more troubling deficit than the merely fiscal shortfalls that now plague our federal and state governments. We gobble resources and throw off wastes at almost twice the rate that can be supported by our land mass and biological systems. And Redefining Progress' estimates are conservative; they do not include some hard-to-quantify damage like loss of biodiversity.

The World Bank reported in April that rich countries, with 15 percent of the world's population, account for half of all energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development says that because of economic growth in 30 advanced capitalist nations, their municipal waste output increased 40 percent -- almost twice as fast as population growth -- from 1980 to 2000.

Don't we just need more resource-efficient growth? We already have it, in some areas of the economy. The Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado reports that by the year 2000, the U.S. economy used 39 percent less energy to generate a dollar's worth of growth than it did in 1975. But that impressive savings has been almost entirely eaten up by headlong growth of the economy. Energy use -- overall and per person -- has risen steadily for the past 20 years. The typical American now consumes 6 percent more energy than in 1983.

Suppose a technology were developed that cut resource use in half. In the irresistible logic of capitalism, that would be a signal to double production, not to exercise restraint. Even if business were slow, we'd be much more likely to see "Buy One Get One Free" specials than "50% Off" sales.

Greater technological efficiency is needed, but we really won't stop the overconsumption of the world's resources without some very serious political and economic change. This planet is round, but if we don't wake up from the dream of growth we'll sleepwalk right over the edge.


Stan Cox is a member of the Prairie Writers Circle and senior research scientist at the Land Institute, a natural systems agriculture research organization in Salina, Kan. He holds a doctorate in plant breeding from Iowa State University .