Sunday, March 29.........Tegucigalpa, Honduras
Since being in this, the capital city of Honduras, I have met two non-Hondurans who say they quite like the place. For me, Tegucigalpa is much too noisy and polluted. Fifty years ago it was a clean city of 200,000 inhabitants, nestled in a lovely valley surrounded by forested mountains. Today, there are more than a million people, the city sprawls over nearly all the now denuded mountains, and a blanket of foul pollution lays heavy upon the land. The government is poor and they cant be bothered with environmental cleanup. The people are uneducated about these things and hardly even know there is a catastrophe brewing. The environmentalists are yelling at the top of their voices but no one is listening. Such is the situation in much of the third world.
Thinking about Tegucigalpa and a hundred other mega-cities I have visited, I began to reflect on a major dilemma of contemporary civilization. It goes something like this: Current sociopolitical thinking says that a growing economy is a healthy economy, and that economic growth is something to be desired and striven for by all modern countries. We are told that nations should make their economies produce more and more goods and services so that their people can attain higher and higher standards of material living. This message is expressed in the schools and the media, and nearly everyone has mindlessly assumed it to be an undeniable truth (including all the third-world students who come to study economic and political management in large US universities). But this is not a truth. Rather, it is a dangerous falsehood.
The basic problem with this message is its ignorance, or avoidance, of the fact that a growing economy is an economy fueled by - and thereby consuming of - natural resources. (Human economy does not really produce, rather it transforms. Humans take raw materials from the earth and transform them in various ways, usually leaving a massive amount of non-biodegradable waste in the process. Then, by merely distributing and selling these transformed items, humans delude themselves into thinking that they have actually created something.) The fundamental problem is that our current natural-resource extraction practices are not based upon sound environmental principles nor a recognition of the limits inherent in all ecosystems. Simply stated, we humans beings are consuming more raw materials than the Earth can continue to provide.
A widely used measurement, or indicator, of the strength of nations is called GNP, or Gross National Product. Expressed in monetary terms, GNP is the total value of all the goods and services that the people, corporations, and institutions of a nation produce in a given fiscal year. These GNP figures - billions, even trillions of dollars for the big nations like the USA - are calculated by the simple equation of subtracting expenditures from sales to yield profit. The professors of political science and macro-economics have defined "healthy and developed" nations as those that achieve yearly increases in GNP
These authorities, however, do not tell us that the "rich" nations like the US, Germany, France, and Japan (the ones that are presented to us as the best examples of successful and developed countries) are actually sowing the seeds of their economic distress and decline by not accurately entering into the above equation the total costs of doing business. What I mean by this are THE ENVIRONMENTAL COSTS. We humans have very conveniently assumed that the entirety of the natural world is here for us to use in whatever way we wish. We tell ourselves that we cant be charged anything for air, water, forests, or extinct animal species because they seem to be here for our personal use. As unconsciously as we take each breath of air, we rationalize the cutting of great forests, the "harvesting" of entire species of ocean fish, and the polluting of the atmosphere. We "modern" humans are rapaciously plundering the planets natural resources but are not subtracting these material costs from the cost of doing business. Consequently, the GNP figures given for all the worlds nations are grossly misleading. The published figures communicate that most nations are at least making money and that life is therefore "getting better" for people. But, in reality, nearly every single nation is already bankrupt and yearly going deeper into debt. If (even a fraction of) the costs of air, water, soil, and wood were incorporated into the goods and services equation, then we would very quickly see that we are indeed consuming far more than we produce. We are tipping the scales so far in one direction that we are sowing the seeds of our inevitable economic decline.
And yet, the so-called developed nations keep up the charade and encourage everyone else to do so. Everyone is in a frenzy to produce and consume. All over the world human beings are getting more and more addicted to the "goodies" of material culture. High-tech stereo systems with CD players; neat clothes in lots of different shapes and colors; specialty foods grown far distant from where consumers are living; fast cars that work until they dont work and then we just buy another. I have seen this frenzy first-hand in many places around the globe. It is an interesting subject to study. One thing I have particularly noticed is how countries at different levels of economic prosperity react differently to the consumption-addiction disease. The rich countries speak as if they are doing something about the environmental problems (but dont really do much beyond speaking). The poorer, "third-world" countries dont even bother with the rhetoric. They neither know or care much about the ideas of resource management and ecological sustainability. And, even more frightening, governments can not do very much to address these issues even if they want to.
The sheer momentum of the force of billions of humans intent on increasing their consumption is unstoppable by any governmental means. A very good analogy is that we are living in a house of cards, a beautiful house that we build higher into the sky each day, but one that is ever weaker at its base. We are eroding the Earth beneath our very feet. We are cutting off the branch we are sitting upon. We have always done this as human beings, but now, because there are so very many of us, we are doing it in far more destructive ways. Many thoughtful and highly educated environmentalists believe that our global state of consumption addiction will exhaust certain key resources within ten years. As the resource base of these key materials declines, powerful nations will become increasingly belligerent about getting and keeping those resources. And then, when the resources run out, entire sections of our industrial infrastructure will rapidly collapse because they no longer have raw material inputs.
I will not bore you here with tedious facts and figures to substantiate what I am saying. There are many good books written during the past twenty years regarding the environmental calamity that we are bringing upon ourselves. What really interests me is to look ahead and consider the implications of the destructive tendency of various human actions. By extrapolating these actions into the next twenty years it is eminently clear that many global problems are going to get a lot worse. The crucial issue then, is to strategise and prepare for the future. This is something I really enjoy doing; looking at various future catastrophe scenarios and then thinking about different approaches to address these problems. I have thought and read a lot about this matter and plan to share some of my thinking in sections of this journal soon to come.