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The Über-Lie

February 6, 2017

Our new American president is famous for spinning whoppers. Falsehoods, fabrications, distortions, deceptions—they’re all in a day’s work. The result is an increasingly adversarial relationship between the administration and the press, which may in fact be the point of the exercise: as conservative commenter Scott McKay suggests in The American Spectator, “The hacks covering Trump are as lazy as they are partisan, so feeding them . . . manufactured controversies over [the size of] inaugural crowds is a guaranteed way of keeping them occupied while things of real substance are done.”

But are some matters of real substance (such as last week’s ban on entry by residents of seven Muslim-dominated nations) themselves being used to hide even deeper and more significant shifts in power and governance? Steve “I want to bring everything crashing down” Bannon, who has proclaimed himself an enemy of Washington’s political class, is a member of a small cabal (also including Trump, Stephen Miller, Reince Priebus, and Jared Kushner) that appears to be consolidating nearly complete federal governmental power, drafting executive orders, and formulating political strategy—all without paper trail or oversight of any kind. The more outrage and confusion they create, the more effective is their smokescreen for the dismantling of governmental norms and institutions.

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There’s no point downplaying the seriousness of what is up. Some commentators are describing it as a coup d’etat in progress; there is definitely the potential for blood in the streets at some point.

Nevertheless, even as political events spiral toward (perhaps intended) chaos, I wish once again, as I’ve done countless times before, to point to a lie even bigger than the ones being served up by the new administration—one that predates the new presidency, but whose deconstruction is essential for understanding the dawning Trumpocene era. I’m referring to a lie that is leading us toward not just political violence but, potentially, much worse. It is an untruth that’s both durable and bipartisan; one that the business community, nearly all professional economists, and politicians around the globe reiterate ceaselessly. It is the lie that human society can continue growing its population and consumption levels indefinitely on our finite planet, and never suffer consequences.

Yes, this lie has been debunked periodically, starting decades ago. A discussion about planetary limits erupted into prominence in the 1970s and faded, yet has never really gone away. But now those limits are becoming less and less theoretical, more and more real. I would argue that the emergence of the Trump administration is a symptom of that shift from forecast to actuality.

Consider population. There were one billion of us on Planet Earth in 1800. Now there are 7.5 billion, all needing jobs, housing, food, and clothing. From time immemorial there were natural population checks—disease and famine. Bad things. But during the last century or so we defeated those population checks. Famines became rare and lots of diseases can now be cured. Modern agriculture grows food in astounding quantities. That’s all good (for people anyway—for ecosystems, not so much). But the result is that human population has grown with unprecedented speed.

Some say this is not a problem, because the rate of population growth is slowing: that rate was two percent per year in the 1960s; now it’s one percent. Yet because one percent of 7.5 billion is more than two percent of 3 billion (which was the world population in 1960), the actual number of people we’re now adding annually is the highest ever: over eighty million—the equivalent of Tokyo, New York, Mexico City, and London added together. Much of that population growth is occurring in countries that are already having a hard time taking care of their people. The result? Failed states, political unrest, and rivers of refugees.

Per capita consumption of just about everything also grew during past decades, and political and economic systems came to depend upon economic growth to provide returns on investments, expanding tax revenues, and positive poll numbers for politicians. Nearly all of that consumption growth depended on fossil fuels to provide energy for raw materials extraction, manufacturing, and transport. But fossil fuels are finite and by now we’ve used the best of them. We are not making the transition to alternative energy sources fast enough to avert crisis (if it is even possible for alternative energy sources to maintain current levels of production and transport). At the same time, we have depleted other essential resources, including topsoil, forests, minerals, and fish. As we extract and use resources, we create pollution—including greenhouse gasses, which cause climate change.

Depletion and pollution eventually act as a brake on further economic growth even in the wealthiest nations. Then, as the engine of the economy slows, workers find their incomes leveling off and declining—a phenomenon also related to the globalization of production, which elites have pursued in order to maximize profits.

Declining wages have resulted in the upwelling of anti-immigrant and anti-globalization sentiments among a large swath of the American populace, and those sentiments have in turn served up Donald Trump. Here we are. It’s perfectly understandable that people are angry and want change. Why not vote for a vain huckster who promises to “Make America Great Again”? However, unless we deal with deeper biophysical problems (population, consumption, depletion, and pollution), as well as the policies that elites have used to forestall the effects of economic contraction for themselves (globalization, financialization, automation, a massive increase in debt, and a resulting spike in economic inequality), America certainly won’t be “great again”; instead, we’ll just proceed through the five stages of collapse helpfully identified by Dmitry Orlov.

Rather than coming to grips with our society’s fundamental biophysical contradictions, we have clung to the convenient lies that markets will always provide, and that there are plenty of resources for as many humans as we can ever possibly want to crowd onto this little planet. And if people are struggling, that must be the fault of [insert preferred boogeyman or group here]. No doubt many people will continue adhering to these lies even as the evidence around us increasingly shows that modern industrial society has already entered a trajectory of decline.

While Trump is a symptom of both the end of economic growth and of the denial of that new reality, events didn’t have to flow in his direction. Liberals could have taken up the issues of declining wages and globalization (as Bernie Sanders did) and even immigration reform. For example, Colin Hines, former head of Greenpeace’s International Economics Unit and author of Localization: A Global Manifesto, has just released a new book, Progressive Protectionism, in which he argues that “We must make the progressive case for controlling our borders, and restricting not just migration but the free movement of goods, services and capital where it threatens environment, wellbeing and social cohesion.”

But instead of well-thought out policies tackling the extremely complex issues of global trade, immigration, and living wages, we have hastily written executive orders that upend the lives of innocents. Two teams (liberal and conservative) are lined up on the national playing field, with positions on all significant issues divvied up between them. As the heat of tempers rises, our options are narrowed to choosing which team to cheer for; there is no time to question our own team’s issues. That’s just one of the downsides of increasing political polarization—which Trump is exacerbating dramatically.

Just as Team Trump covers its actions with a smokescreen of controversial falsehoods, our society hides its biggest lie of all—the lie of guaranteed, unending economic growth—behind a camouflage of political controversies. Even in relatively calm times, the über-lie was watertight: almost no one questioned it. Like all lies, it served to divert attention from an unwanted truth—the truth of our collective vulnerability to depletion, pollution, and the law of diminishing returns. Now that truth is more hidden than ever.

Our new government shows nothing but contempt for environmentalists and it plans to exit Paris climate agreement. Denial reigns! Chaos threatens! So why bother bringing up the obscured reality of limits to growth now, when immediate crises demand instant action? It’s objectively too late to restrain population and consumption growth so as to avert what ecologists of the 1970s called a “hard landing.” Now we’ve fully embarked on the age of consequences, and there are fires to put out. Yes, the times have moved on, but the truth is still the truth, and I would argue that it’s only by understanding the biophysical wellsprings of change that can we successfully adapt, and recognize whatever opportunities come our way as the pace of contraction accelerates to the point that decline can no longer successfully be hidden by the elite’s strategies.

Perhaps Donald Trump succeeded because his promises spoke to what civilizations in decline tend to want to hear. It could be argued that the pluralistic, secular, cosmopolitan, tolerant, constitutional democratic nation state is a political arrangement appropriate for a growing economy buoyed by pervasive optimism. (On a scale much smaller than contemporary America, ancient Greece and Rome during their early expansionary periods provided examples of this kind of political-social arrangement). As societies contract, people turn fearful, angry, and pessimistic—and fear, anger, and pessimism fairly dripped from Trump’s inaugural address. In periods of decline, strongmen tend to arise promising to restore past glories and to defeat domestic and foreign enemies. Repressive kleptocracies are the rule rather than the exception.

If that’s what we see developing around us and we want something different, we will have to propose economic, political, and social forms that are appropriate to the biophysical realities increasingly confronting us—and that embody or promote cultural values that we wish to promote or preserve. Look for good historic examples. Imagine new strategies. What program will speak to people’s actual needs and concerns at this moment in history? Promising a return to an economy and way of life that characterized a past moment is pointless, and it may propel demagogues to power. But there is always a range of possible responses to the reality of the present. What’s needed is a new hard-nosed sort of optimism (based on an honest acknowledgment of previously denied truths) as an alternative to the lies of divisive bullies who take advantage of the elites’ failures in order to promote their own patently greedy interests. What that actually means in concrete terms I hope to propose in more detail in future essays.

  • Daria Dorosh

    A straight forward solution would be for humanity to accept population growth as a global problem and agree to put the brakes on reproduction. Our lives have a “sell by” date and we can replenish the planet on a needs basis. We do have the option, and we use it all the time in other situations.

  • PTP

    Very thoughtful paper. I don’t like the neo-malthusian premises, as I think population growth has slowed dramatically. I also believe that growth is still possible, but is should be sustainable growth, and that requires change in the incentive system. But there is no denial that consumption has to be brought under control, principally to save our common environment. That is indeed the ultimate constraint. I suspect there is wide consensus on the depth of the problem, now we need to focus on policy issues to move forward. One such policy is looking at our own protective tariffs and subsidies that block the progress in the developing world. One such example is the support to cotton production in the USA. It was once very important; I am not sure it still is. It did have the effect of dramatically reducing the development opportunities in West Africa, where in some cases, cotton was the only export. So first we need to look at where ou own policies impact on the developing world. I would also like to advocate a return to international development as a policy to reign in immigration. Unfortunately our development efforts of the past were ill designed and had always to be directly profitable to our own countries. Now we need a more generous development effort to provide exciting opportunities to local populations so that they need not think of migration to escape poverty. Lets work at making the developing world more exciting for its own people, so that they need not think of emigration as the only option to the pursuit of happiness.

  • Henrik Nordborg

    I could not agree more. It is simply outrageous that the G20 nations still see the promotion of economic growth as their main priority, even though this is incompatible with maintaining a planet suitable for human life. Unfortunately, the GDP has acquired an almost sacred status, making any discussion impossible. It turns out, that the GDP is strongly correlated to environmental destruction but to very little else. We need a global carbon tax as soon as possible: http://www.giseco.org

  • http://farmerscrub.blogspot.com/ Norris Thomlinson

    Heinberg is absolutely right that we need to keep the big picture in mind. Trump is awful, but the entire economic and political structure was already hurling us into catastrophe. It’s not enough to oppose Trump; we need to dismantle the roots of the problems.

    The book Deep Green Resistance provides an excellent analysis of the big picture – our converging crises, the time we have available to head them off, our resources, and a strategy that may actually work. Highly recommended.

  • Michael Robles

    Why do you suggest a carbon tax in a community of ecologists that praise the rearrangement of a post-carbon world? Taxes do not stop carbon, they make it a commodity and raise it to the status of a luxury. It does not need more glorification, it deserves our contempt.

  • Baker

    A carbon tax doesn’t glorify the use of fossil fuels any more than other consumption taxes, such as on tobacco products and alcohol, encourage the use of those items. Just the opposite. By making a commodity more expensive, it discourages use of that commodity and encourages alternatives.

  • Dana Visalli

    Thanks Richard. You did leave out the U.S. military juggernaut; most of the current flood of refugees are coming from countries that the USA has destroyed, not from over-crowding.

  • Brian Sanderson

    Please add the mainstream media to the list of those who have propagated the great lie: “That population can grow forever”. And worse, they also state that: “Population growth will make the economy better!” Indeed, this latter statement is a pretty fair summary of what the Trudeau Government policy is here in Canada and what the CBC mindlessly and endlessly echo. Now everyone calls that government “progressive” and, of course, the CBC is “enlightened” and “progressive”. From where I sit, I don’t see “progressives” as progressing to anything different from where the “conservatives” would take us.

  • Ivan Johnstone

    “Sustainable growth” is an oxymoron.

  • MikeCarrick

    You bet it is! Some commenters are not familiar with all of Richard’s body of work. http://richardheinberg.com/bookshelf/the-end-of-growth-book

    We just lurched through another insipid Super Bowl. Commercialism is rampant, and endless in a capitalist society. It’s plastered on our schools, buses, and auditoriums from coast to coast.

    Keeping people in fear for their livelihoods really props up the whole stinking model.

  • SpacemanZack

    The United States didn’t destroy Syria or Pakistan or any of the host of North African countries that are contributing thousands to the immigrant streams flowing into Europe. These people aren’t coming just because of war, they’re coming because of poverty. The same with the US and Canada. Why did the Mexicans poor across the border to the US in the 80s, 90s, and 2010s? P-O-V-E-R-T-Y

  • SpacemanZack

    Population growth drives consumption.

  • SpacemanZack

    Reducing emissions via global cooperation. Sounds great, won’t happen. There’s no way in hell to get 7.5 billion humans to work together to blunt global temperature rise. The best we can do is hope the worst doesn’t happen.

  • Christopher Burrell

    Sustainability itself is a vague concept. Sustainable under what conditions and for how long? Ultimately, nothing is sustainable. The sun will consume the Earth in a few billion years and the universe itself may suffer uniform heat death, which may be the final state of sustainability. The lesson of our history is that things continue until they can’t and then they stop. The decline of the Roman Empire has many parallels with today’s circumstances and may offer some insight about what to expect as the collapse of industrial civilization continues. There maybe lessons about how to preserve knowledge for our distant descendants if we care about such things.

  • Peter Martin

    Thanks Richard, a font of wisdom as ever, badly needed here in Adelaide. Looking forward to the future essays.

  • http://www.EcoReality.org/ Jan Steinman

    The DGR book is available as a free download, although they suggest $5.

  • http://www.EcoReality.org/ Jan Steinman

    sustainable growth

    How can you write that without mind-shattering cognitive dissonance!

  • sabelmouse

    and there is poverty because???

  • sabelmouse

    only some populations.

  • Geoff Mosley

    We don’t use the term ‘military industrial economies’ for nothing.

  • Rosalie

    Which populations do not consume? We all eat, breathe, drink and wash. Most of us use electricity, and even “renewable” sources of electricity require use of non-renewable technology. Can you explain what you mean by “only some populations…” drive consumption

    Thanks Sabelmouse.

  • http://www.Greensuit.org/ Joseph Mitchener

    I feel the world’s best solution is DBV. That’s the abbreviation for Dan Brown’s Virus. In his book, “Inferno” a rich geneticist designs a cold virus that seems like just another cold. But the virus leaves 1/3 of those it infects sterile. We need DBV now. And we need it all over the world.

  • http://www.Greensuit.org/ Joseph Mitchener

    Unfortunately, that’s true. Throughout history, whenever population declines . . . the economy is lousy. I want to read a book about how a decent standard of living can be maintained during a rapid population decline.

  • sabelmouse

    if you can’t see the difference between the average usian, or even canadian, let alone the well of types, and people in the 3rd world, or even europe for that matter i can’t help you.
    do you think everybody on this planet has half hour showers, preferably with several shower heads?
    or luxurious baths?
    or heats/cools like there’s no tomorrow?
    or throws out food willy nilly?
    or drives a huge car for even short distances to get some milk?
    i feel like i’m proposing children’s book.

  • Mike Hanauer

    I wish PCI would talk much more about US Overpopulation. We grow by a Chicago each year. That is in the way of everything else.

  • http://www.spaceship-earth.org/ Roger Hicks

    I very much share the author’s perspective, and have done for a long time as I have watched our civilisation spiral towards its end.

    Once I realised that our leaders and their academic advisers were not facing up to the challenge of achieving sustainability on our finite, vulnerable and overpopulated planet, I put my mind to trying to understand why? How can such an intelligent animal as ourselves, capable of putting men on the Moon, in other respects be so blind and dumb – to the extent of bringing about his own self-destruction?

    It took a long time, but eventually I came up with the answer, a few years ago now, which I have since been trying to get across to others, especially academics, who are generally looked upon as authorities, even though, so far as the social and political sciences are concerned, they are not, because still stuck in a pre-Copernican, i.e. pre-Darwinian, dark age, which in a nutshell is the essence of my discovery.

    While the natural sciences have, over the past few centuries, developed extremely good models of material reality, which have made possible the wonders of modern science, technology and medicine, the social and political sciences have remained trapped in a pre-Darwinian dark age, not least, because of a taboo put in place by a previous generation of academics in overreaction to the Nazis have hijacked and abused, for their own evil purposes, the half-baked ideas of social Darwinism.

    I won’t elaborate further here, but provide a link to a blog in which I do: http://philosopherkin.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/civilisation-evolutionary-cul-de-sac.html

  • http://www.peakchoice.org peakchoicedotorg

    The Earth is not round and finite – it is constantly getting bigger, right? Soon our planet will approach Jupiter in its size … at least that is the mindset for our exponential growth economy.

  • Zipinparadise

    I nearly always agree with your opinions, Richard — and not just to be agreeable. They are well-thought out and based on historical and biological realities — unlike most political policies I’m afraid. In this case, I am in absolute agreement about the nature of the unsustainable lie of perpetual growth of desires and consumption. However, it appears to me that Mr Trump is the first leading American politician — whether by intent or pure hutzpah — to go against the tide of the long-standing liberal meme. Don’t you think this presents an opportunity for wide-spread progressive change that has not existed previously — and shouldn’t we be running with the ball to present our alternative to both Trumpism (whatever it ends up being!) AND the even more fatal consciousness of endless growth ideology? Thanks for speaking up and out!
    Richard in Honolulu

  • Jeanne Deaux

    Donald Trump “succeeded” because of the Electoral College.

  • Jeanne Deaux

    Poverty that we and Europe have played a huge role in causing. It’s called a history book, crack one sometime and check out our and their (Europe’s) involvement in North Africa and the Middle East sometime. For example (yeah, I’ll throw you a bone), Iraq only exists because the UK made it so. It did not have that name or that political structure prior to their involvement. A common meme here in the USA is that Arabs are incapable of getting along because they’re too tribal. But tribal people get along fine when they’re not forced to ally with one another because of common nation-state membership. They are autonomous and prefer to make their own choices and this is true no matter what race they are. It’s not gonna be a hippie utopia but we wouldn’t be seeing things like ISIS happening either.

  • Jeanne Deaux

    Most of that is immigration. People whose families have been here at least a generation or two find that their growth is at replacement rate or less.

  • SpacemanZack

    Don’t pretend you’ve read ever read history book. You argument is too simple and too familiar to have come out of any reputable history book. Blaming Europeans/America for all the worlds problems is in vogue, particularly among liberals. You’re repeating an old party line. Come back when have something new.

  • SpacemanZack

    “i feel like i’m proposing children’s book.” No. You’re just regurgitating a lie; the lie that growth can continue as long was we all accept a lower standard of living.

  • Dana Visalli

    Actually the USA did destroy Syria– along with Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and (currently) Yemen (the Saudi weapons are all-American). As Vietnam veteran Mike Hastie accurately observed, ‘The United States is a non-stop killing machine.’ When any part of the scientific community has the balls (or whatever) to acknowledge this blatantly obvious fact– it will have taken one huge step towards some level of maturity and relevance to the real world.

  • Matt

    The refugee crisis has far more to do with the 2011 Arab Spring combined with militant groups who are taking advantage of the power vacuum it caused. (Militant groups are mostly NOT using US manufactured weapons by the way – that is false) The US military is only tangentially involved at most. It’s always good reminder, correlation is NOT causation. The most you can really argue is that the US toppled the regime in IRAQ leaving a vacuum the partially accounted for the rise of ISIS. But that really not entirely true since ISIS started in Syria and later spread to IRAQ, the US military had nothing to do with the Arab Spring/civil war in Syria.

    If you have a more cops in a crime ridden neighborhood it doesn’t mean the cops are causing the crime (causation vs correlation). By the same token, the middle east has been in conflict almost continually for over 1000 years. The US is there to promote stability. Sometimes it hasn’t worked out (and I agree the invasion of IRAQ was a mistake), but it would require completely ignoring history to say the US is the main cause of the violence there. As one who as spent time in several countries in that area, I can assure you with complete confidence, if the US were not there or had never come in the first place, there would be far more violence and bloodshed than is there now.