Before Occupiers swarmed Wall Street, and before Lehman Brothers fell, Richard Heinberg was writing about a growth economy with nowhere left to grow. His newest book, The End of Growth, is already in the hands of the Liberty Square protesters; and on October 18, Heinberg joined filmmaker Helena Norberg-Hodge and Orion staff for a live web discussion about the end of growth, and what it means for the #Occupy movement. Listen to an audio recording of the conversation, here. What follows is Heinberg’s recent message to the Occupiers.
Here’s a fact that’s hard for all Americans to swallow: economic growth is over. Given the finite nature of our planet and its resources, the recent trend of economic expansion was destined to end. No stimulus package or slashing of social programs is going to flip the economy back to an expansionary trajectory. We’ve hit the proverbial wall, and this will be the defining reality of our lives from now on.
The growth-seeking political-economic system has failed us—and that system is dominated by Wall Street. “Goldman Sachs rules the world,” trader Alessio Rastani told us in a now-viral BBC interview. I met people like Rastani in researching The End of Growth. At one lavish conference, eight hundred global investors packed a hotel ballroom to consider climate change. There was no talk of how to avert floods and droughts. Instead, the discussion turned on how to profit from global warming with—no joke—weather derivatives. These folks were just doing their job, despite any private feelings of concern, remorse, or dread. And each was getting paid enough to single-handedly fund a midsize school district.
Both Wall Street and Washington are trying to do something impossible: grow human consumption forever in a world of limited energy, minerals, water, topsoil, and biodiversity, while protecting and expanding the riches of the top 1 percent.
If economic growth is over, that means we can no longer count on a rising tide to lift all boats. Under these conditions, extreme income inequality is not just unfair, it is socially unsustainable.
It’s strategic to bring protest to Wall Street rather than Washington. We must go directly to the crime scene—not with a request for reforms, but with an arrest warrant from the people.
My main message to you courageous young people in the #Occupy movement is that you’re right to say that the system is broken, greedy, and unfair. But when the discussion turns to the question of what must replace the current system, we’ve got to embrace a bigger view of reality than the one held by stock traders and politicians. We need a post-growth economy that works both for people (all of them) and for the rest of nature—a localized economy based on renewable resources harvested at nature’s rates of replenishment, not a fossil-fueled global economy driven by the imperatives of ever-higher returns on investment.
There will be life after growth—and it can be a life dedicated to quality and integrity, rather than shareholder value.
Richard Heinberg is the author of ten books, including, most recently, The End of Growth. He is a Senior Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.