May 14, 2017 by

The Empire of Things: An Ecological Response


Roy Morrison

Is there a saving ecological response possible to the Empire of Things, the fevered consumerist trajectory traced by Frank Trentmann raging not only in shopping malls across America, but now in China and India?

I believe there is a clear path to escape ecological catastrophe as a consequence of both our  proclivities for consumption and the enormous infrastructure  requirements that supports it. Simply put, economic growth in the 21st century must mean ecological improvement. 

This is not an easy task. But, once examined, what’s needed  are two basic changes in business and pollution as usual. The good news is that these changes do not require an end to global desire for more, both in terms of individual consumption and the generation of profit.

We’ve made two logical mistakes that have made it hard to see other possible outcomes. First, the fact that the history of economic growth has meant  increasing pollution, depletion, and ecological damage under existing market rules, law, and practices does not mean that an alternative set of market rules, laws, and practices cannot lead to sustainable ends. 

Second, consumption to our heart’s delight is not limited to material objects. Consumption can follow a different path and continue almost limitlessly in information–in dematerialized software, data, entertainment, virtual reality, services, social networks, relationships that are already the high profit centers of the 21st century. The largest corporations by market capitalization in the U.S. stock market in 2016 are  Apple, Google,Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook. There’s the most money to be made by selling next to nothing. The marginal ecological consequences of the consumption of one more immaterial product via a renewably powered web is similarly next to nothing. We can find ourselves satisfied by unearthly delights. Greed and gluttony and envy now serving sustainable ends.

Economic growth can result in both profit and ecological improvement, the health and regeneration of natural capital as well as the growth of finance capital. To take one clear example, the global transformation to an efficient, renewable energy system replacing all fossil fuels and nuclear energy will require many trillions of dollars in productive and profitable investment and lead to enormous, and desperately needed ecological improvement, saving us from climate catastrophe.

Similar profitable and just-in-time ecological regimes to prevent ecological catastrophe can be instituted for agriculture, forestry, fisheries, aquaculture, ecological industrial production based on zero waste and zero pollution where all outputs become inputs for other processes.

The problems we face are not essentially technical, but political. Market rules, laws, commercial codes, consumer customs must mean that sustainable products become less expense, gain market share, become more profitable, while unsustainable products become more expensive,lose market share, and become less profitable. A range of ecological taxes, for example, an ecological value added tax placed on all goods and services can send clear sustainable price signals throughout the economy and be combined with a negative income tax to mitigate the regressive effects of consumption taxes. Yes this means that politically the power  of  polluters must be overcome and ecological norms embraced or our market system and our civilization will destroy itself. 

Laws can mandate a yearly reduction in amount of pollutants, such as carbon dioxide, for example, to reach a global sustainable level of around 21 gigatons carbon dioxide a year. In personal terms, this is about 3 tons of carbon dioxide per person per year globally (for a 7 billion population). We’d also need to remove carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in soil and biomass to return to the 300 parts per million carbon dioxide range, for example, by using CoolTerra biocarbon technology.

To make this happen we need to take advantage of zero pollution, renewable technologies and second law of thermodynamics efficiency improvements. And we each need understand  our personal, neighborhood , city, state, national level of carbon dioxide emissions, and how we can reduce it over time to sustainable levels. The global average is  now under 5 metric tons per person of carbon dioxide per person per year In China, its 7.6 tons; in  the U.S., it’s 16.4 tons according the the World Bank.  

Yes, to accomplish the transformation from our world of ruinous consumption toward sustainability will require a  comprehensive embrace of new market rules, laws, codes, customs. This must include  the transfer of capital and information and investment by the rich nations in poor nations.The world cannot escape ecological collapse in a system of a rich sustainable minority of  newly self-conscious eco consumers, and a desperate  highly polluting impoverished majority. The Chinese Silk road efforts, One Belt and One Road, for trade, financing, and investment in Asia, including HVDC renewable grid energy transmission, supported by a $40 billion fund and $100 billion Asia Infrastructure Development  bank are an example of  steps in the right direction.

The ice is melting. Temperature and the seas are rising. Carbon dioxide is now over 400 parts per million in the atmosphere. Water is now bubbling up in the streets of Miami at high tide. Coral reefs are bleached white and perishing from warming oceans. Unfortunately, what is happening relatively slowly today is not a guide for tomorrow.

At a certain point, just enough carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, combined with methane from melting permafrost, and an ice free Arctic Ocean in the summer will mean that climate change will become accelerated and non-linear. This is the straw that breaks the camels back. We will find ourselves struggling to survive in a new climate. The great processes of sustainability, of co-evolution between biosphere and planet in response to all influences that helps create and maintain conditions maximally favorable for all life will mean that life will survive yet another mass extinction and once again thrive. Whether humanity is one of those favored species is an open question. What is beyond doubt is that global civilization as we have known it will not survive if we do not take steps to mitigate the extent of climate catastrophe by changing our polluting ways before it is too late.

We can build a global order that is based on low pollution, high profit, and social justice where economic growth means ecological improvement and escape the worst consequences of an unmitigated Empire of Things. Whether we do so is an open question. It’s really up to all of us.


Roy Morrison’s latest book is Sustainability Sutra:An Ecological Investigation. Sustainability-Sutra- Investigation-Roy-Morrison/dp/ 1590793870

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