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Full Speed Against the Wind

by Wolfgang Neef Friday, Feb. 16, 2007 at 6:19 AM

"Whoever believes in continous growth in a finite world is either mad or an economist." (Kenneth E. Boulding)


Globalized economy: The stubborn belief in growth, competition and the salvation promise of technology is an existential danger for all of us

By Wolfgang Neef

[This article published in: Freitag 03, 1/19/2007 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

In the past weeks, the debate around protection of the atmosphere is finally stirring after climate researchers warned unsuccessfully for years of the further heating of the atmosphere through increasing CO2 emissions. The explosiveness of this theme is now also seen by politics and the economy. Massive funds should now be invested to compensate for the consequences of climate change. Other burdens are also repressed: the rapidly growing waste problem (for example, chemical wastes and electronic trash), the constantly new chemical-pharmaceutical products, their systemic effect on persons and nature and the drinking-water problem in countries of the South. That money can do little when the local (national and social) resources are exhausted, destroyed or poisoned is ignored.


Technical concepts dominate in the publically discussed proposals for solving the energy- and climate problem: immediate changeover to renewable sources of energy, CO2 emissions and atomic and nuclear fusion (EU project ITER). The perpetuum mobile is promised – as in the fifties. In 2000, science and technology promised 4000 to 5000 nuclear power plants would make electric meters superfluous. Carl-Friedrich von Weizsacker declared nuclear waste is not a problem. The waste can be stored in a cube 300 feet long. Today we have 437. Chernobyl, recently Forsmark and the disposal problem persist.

Despite the bad experiences with these salvation promises, technical solutions (genetic-, bio-, nano-technology etc) are propagated with dangerous doggedness. They are dangerous because nature cannot negotiate with itself or outwit itself in the long run. Doggedness appears because growth, market and competition despite their socially and ecologically disastrous are regarded as the sole causes of blessedness – even with the Greens as the “green market economy” shows. The Good News is that money can be made with protection of the atmosphere – after the climate was ruined for decades. New profits are scented with the repair projects. A technical patch-up job crystallizes out where neoliberal economics dominates. Its cost-cutting mania has damaged star technologies of the globalized economy like recall campaigns of cars, toll-collect, A380 and so forth. International cooperation instead of competition is imperative for the problems to be solved with technology.

Greed for money is the only drive in expansive capitalism. This economic system simultaneously lives from the wear-and tear of the person and nature – also unfortunately in the Keynesian form of the “social market economy.” This turns into the “senseless and brainless hamster-wheel of “working to consume more and consuming to work more.” There is no room for fantasy or for realistic and common action. This room is vital to develop the necessary new technical and social concepts.

Material growth has exceeded the limit of the “stability and reproductive power of the biosphere by 25 percent” (Living Planet report 2006, WWF). Thus the end of the flagpole is reached. This isn’t simple to communicate to people in industrial nations accustomed to a commodity- and transportation-intensive mode of life. That the resources are not adequate is even harder for the 80 percent of humanity in the South to understand since they desire the same prosperity. Forty years ago, 20 percent in the North were satisfied with a technology allowing 1.5-kilowatt output – corresponding to the living standard of a Swiss person in 1965. Projected to the whole earth population, this would stabilize the bio-system. Today every European uses around six kilowatts while every US-American uses an average of eleven kilowatts. Corresponding calculations are made for using the biologically productive ocean and land.

Thus our economic system with its growth- and competition paradigm has become an existential danger because it tries to uncouple from the natural conditions and influences our thoughts and plans with this illusion. This is not the first time in history but is now especially true through “globalization.” The whole humanity is affected, not only parts as for example the society of Easter Island that perished because its elites manically competed for ever larger statues and destroyed their own foundations of life. We also find this mania today with the mega-projects of technology with which our elites adorn themselves. The largely male competition over the largest aircraft, the fastest car, the tallest skyscraper and the smallest chip would be funny if it weren’t so dangerous.


As though we knew nothing of the dangers and destruction, we show a notorious optimism as to the feasibility of mega-technological dreams. Even if there are natural scientists and engineers who feed this optimism again and again because they earn good salaries that way, their professional standards are contradicted. First of all, these standards promote a solid analysis of the facts.. We renounce on securities in the current mega-experiment with persons and nature because the dominant economy requires this. The present hype about the super-economy and rising mass purchasing power is mad. We accelerate the drive to the wall.

What should be done? Since global material growth is no longer acceptable, the energy- and material-expenditure in industrial countries must be lowered 50 to 90 percent in the next decades, according to the Wuppertal Institute – as unrealistic as this may seem – to give the other countries the chance of escaping poverty. This is necessary irrespective of whether we use renewable or fossil energy because a quantity problem is involved, not only CO2.


To that end, we need radical changer of our technological guidelines. Instead of denouncing human workers as “costs” and replacing them at any price, even at the price of destruction of the natural foundations of life through energetic- and material resources (“predatory technology”), we should “dismantle” the production-technology where physical work endangers health. This is also true for every kind of transportation. Building or maintaining regional economies could avoid truck-, air- and car-transportation. At the same time strict international limits on consumption are necessary to ensure that the use of fossil sources of energy ends as quickly as possible. Energy for industry and industrial transportation should increase in price with growing consumption, i.e. taxed progressively (for example, through emission trade). Base consumption of private households for electricity and heating lowered to a minimum through energy-savings measures and techniques are excluded.

The accrued funds could be used for pension- and health insurance, for the accelerated development of regenerative energy transformation and for exodus from unsustainable dinosaur technologies including nuclear power plants and military technology.

That this is not possible with the capitalist system based on growth is manifest. Thus we must develop the alternatives of the “solidarian economy”: cooperatively and locally organized forms of economics that are not subject to the profit logic. In technology, projects already exist that rely on cooperation in networks instead of on competition, that strive for slowing down and durability instead of ever-faster change or wear-and-tear of goods, that seek contact between producers and users instead of serving globalized markets and structures and finally emphasizing the real practical value instead of exchange value on an anonymous market.

Two examples are “re-manufacturing” technical instruments, for example “ReUse-computers,” that is refurbishing older PCs and older hardware and “Micro-Energy International,” a project making available small, top-flight technical systems of renewable energy through micro-credits to people without electrical infrastructure in the South according to the model of the Grameen Bank…

Perhaps the power of the dominant economy can be overcome with these alternatives before it is too late. Natural scientists and technicians could support this if they self-critically abandon the earlier path of “predatory technology” and offer their professional acumen. “Whoever believes in continuous growth in a finite world is either mad or an economist” (Kenneth E. Boulding). But if we continue as in the past, the “competition” will become a war in which we are armed to the teeth against all the mad to fight for the remaining resources and everyone loses.

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