The Fork in the Road

Political Reality Versus Physical Reality

Most of us love fairy tales. Stories of alternative realities. Stories where all things are possible, even if they extend beyond the limits of reality. We want to believe. We want to believe that resources are inexhaustible, that technology will overcome all challenges and that an ever expanding economy CAN be sustained on a finite planet. According to Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute, this is our political reality, the foundation upon which our economic, social and political decisions are made. And to be a credible participant in todays’s society, one must believe in this fairytale. But the earth is now sending us strong wake up messages: physical reality trumps fairy tales.

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With world population now climbing beyond 7 billion, critical raw materials becoming increasingly scarce and energy production moving into extreme and destructive modes of mountaintop removal coal mining, natural gas hydrofracturing, deep sea oil drilling and tar sand extraction, we are now pushing real limits with our voracious consumption. The USEPA reports that humans have consumed more resources in the last 50 years than in all previous history. And of all the materials consumed in the U.S. over the last 100 years, more than half were consumed in the last 25 years. There is no sign of slowing this trend, our current economic paradigm demands it. In his recent article “Two Realities” Richard Heinberg states:

Our contemporary world is host to two coexisting but fundamentally different — and, in at least one crucial respect, contradictory — realities. One of these might be termed Political Reality, though it extends far beyond formal politics and pervades conventional economic thinking. It is the bounded universe of what is acceptable in public economic-social-political discourse. The other is Physical Reality: i.e., what exists in terms of energy and materials, and what is possible given the laws of thermodynamics.

Tim Jackson, author of “Prosperity without Growth, Economics for a Finite Planet”, writes that human prosperity has much broader dimensions than material fulfillment and argues that humans can and must flourish within the ecological limits of a finite planet. This will necessarily mean redefining prosperity in more social and psychological terms and decoupling economic progress from material throughput and environmental impact. Richard Heinberg in his book “The End of Growth, Adapting to our New Economic Reality” makes it clear,

The economy of the future will necessarily be steady-state, not requiring constant growth. It will be based on the use of renewable resources harvested at a rate slower than that of natural replenishment; and on the use of non-renewable resources at declining rates, with metals and minerals recycled and re-used wherever possible. Human population will have to achieve a level that can be supported by resources used this way, and the level is likely to be significantly lower than the current one.

Which Path Will You Follow?

Many would argue that we are reaching a fork in the road, where we must make a decision: follow the fairy tale path of unbounded economic growth and face the inevitable consequences of ecosystem collapse and human suffering, or select the road that leads to a steady state economy, minimizes environmental destruction and promotes a thriving culture living sustainable on the earth. Neither road is easy, but only one is real.

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