30 January 2008

Qualitative Rather Than Quantitative Growth

Heavy footprint weighs down U.S. empire
Paul Hanley, The StarPhoenix
Published: Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Is the decline of the status of the United States a result of its heavy ecological footprint? A strong argument can be made that the fading of the American empire is fundamentally an environmental issue.

In his book The Upside of Down, Canadian political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon devotes a lot of space to an environmental analysis of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Interesting in itself, it is also meant as a cautionary tale, not only for the U.S., but also for all industrialized nations.

The main source of energy for Rome was biomass -- grain for people, fodder for oxen and fuels like wood and olive oil. Indirectly, all are forms of solar energy. As the city of Rome expanded, more and more energy was needed to support the growing urban population and build infrastructure. (The book includes a particularly fascinating study of the embodied energy in the Coliseum.) Thus, Rome had to expand its empire in order to control enough land to produce all the biomass energy it needed for its capital.

In order to build an empire, soldiers were needed, more and more as the empire expanded. All had to be fed and provisioned. The empire also needed tax gatherers and civil servants. These armies and bureaucrats had to be supported by the empire. Expansion was also necessary to get booty and other forms of wealth, such as gold, to pay for the Roman lifestyle and the costs of expansion itself.

All this supported a vicious cycle of expansion to gain land followed by a build-up of soldiers, civil servants and debt, then more expansion.

Meanwhile, the intensive farming and forestry resulted in a deterioration of the environment, particularly through erosion and salination, meaning lower productivity. Once again, the land base had to be expanded to make up for lost productivity. This meant more soldiers and longer supply lines. Gradually, the whole environmental-military-political-financial system became exhausted and the barbarians had their day.

The U.S. is the modern equivalent to Rome, though its energy sources are mainly coal, oil and natural gas. National reserves of oil and gas began to decline decades ago and the U.S. became increasingly dependent on foreign oil. This dependence required a foreign presence with a military backing that is unparalleled in the history of the world. As everyone knows, and former chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan finally stated once out of office, wars like Iraq are oil wars, just as Roman conquests were -- in large measure -- about access to biomass energy.

All this oil is needed to support the most lavish lifestyle the world has ever known. The American lifestyle has a very heavy ecological footprint indeed, sucking resources from throughout the world and sending fewer and fewer products out to the world. Consumption is built on a mountain of personal and national debt. The U.S. national debt is a staggering $9 trillion, about $30,000 per person. Much of this is held in foreign countries, mainly China. Meanwhile personal debt is also soaring, yet Americans won't stop spending.

As U.S. Comptroller General David Walker describes it, the numbers on debt just don't hold up. America may not have a "heart attack" in the next few years, but it's been diagnosed with "fiscal cancer." What lies ahead will be worse than any recession, and strains in the American economy will have ripple effects worldwide, as is currently evident.

To maintain its extravagant lifestyle, America is relying on the world's reserves of limited and non-renewable fossil fuels and running on debt. This is a recipe for collapse, very similar to that of Rome's.

Benefiting from history, America should be able to see where this is going and do something different. The solution, of course, is to build a sustainable society. America, and everyone else, will have to convert to an economy based on renewable resources and learn to limit consumption to amounts that can be supplied sustainably by ecosystems. To achieve this, we must switch to a concept of growth that is qualitative rather than quantitative.

(c) The StarPhoenix (Saskatoon) 2008


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