Sunday, 5 June 2016

Business as Usual, Crunchiness and Woo, Part 2b: More on what's wrong with Business as Usual

In my last post I talked about some of the problems with Business as Usual (BAU), particularly that it is based on the Religion of Progress, which is nothing but woo (pseudoscience and magical thinking). That post was getting close to long enough and I still had quite a bit more to say about what's wrong with BAU, so here we are.

Pseudoscience in BAU

For some people the ongoing economic growth aspect of BAU has been a real bonanza. They tend to be the people in power and they aren't about to admit that anything is wrong or there is any need for change that would jeopardize their position. Much of the woo common to BAU is directly linked to the position in which these people find themselves.

They feel a huge incentive to maintain the status quo, to stay in their privileged positions. It's only natural these people want to deny things that would threaten their profits or require them to abandon the profit motive. They believe (and would have us believe) that there is no way to back down gracefully from a growth economy, and that the inevitable results of trying to do so would be disaster. This is pure woo, and it leads to some strange thinking and strange behaviour.

One example of this is the tobacco industry's response when the news about tobacco's health effects came out in the mid-twentieth century. They could have faced up to reality, reinvented their business in a less harmful form and been ahead of the game. Instead, they denied the findings of medical science, spent a lot of money to promote pseudoscience about tobacco's health effects and did everything they could to keep as many people addicted to tobacco for as long as possible.

Another example is the fossil fuel industries' response to the news about climate change, which they became aware of in the 1970s. They could have become leaders in a switchover to low carbon energy sources. Of course, this would have led to some pretty fundamental changes to BAU. The kind of changes that I am always advocating, actually. Instead they spent a lot of money to spread pseudoscience denying anthropogenic climate change and keep the demand for fossil fuels growing for as long as possible.

There are many other examples of BAU denying inconvenient facts so they can continue to make a profit in the short term.

Because many businesses are set up so that what really matters is the next quarterly report, they have a great deal of trouble taking a long range outlook on things. Probably the best example of this is the depletion of fossil fuels. Depending on how you interpret the resource and reserve numbers, we won't be running short of oil, for instance, for several decades yet. Of course, it may well end up being sooner and in the meantime what oil is left is more expensive, often disastrously so. The solution would have been to lead the switchover to renewable energy sources. As already mentioned, this would have led to some pretty fundamental changes to BAU. Seeking to avoid such changes the BAU response is that there is really nothing to worry about, by the time we get there, we'll have found a solution for that problem. And then they go on "as usual", not even starting to look for a solution. "We've got enough trouble making growth targets for this year, the next generation can worry about what is basically their problem anyway."

Continued economic and population growth means conversion of ever more of nature to human uses. BAU sees nature as something outside the economy, as source of material resources and a sink for pollution and wastes. Because BAU sees itself as separate from nature, what happens to nature has no consequences for BAU. Again , this is woo—the economy is in fact a subsystem of the natural environment, and relies heavily on "biosphere services"—thing like air, water, soil, forests, fisheries and so forth—without which it would be much more expensive to operate a business.

Neo-liberalism, the only remaining political party

Neo-liberal politics and the economics that goes with it is an organized effort to deny the problems with BAU and to continue on "as usual" for as long as possible, regardless of the consequences. This sort of politics has become the default for most developed nations and the ideal that developing nations are expected to strive for. According to this ideology the value of a thing is determined by its price in monetary terms and things which do not have such a price have no worth—if it doesn’t have a price tag on it, it’s not worth anything. More and more, even personal relationships are "monetized" and reduced to individuals paying other individuals for services.

That it would be "bad for business" is reason enough to avoid any change, no matter how vital, regardless of the damage to people and the environment.

Rich people are seen as superior to poor people, and poverty is seen as a moral failing. Financial success is everything. No unprofitable enterprise is worth pursuing, even if it provides great benefits that don't show up on the profit and loss statement. And all profitable enterprises are worth pursuing, even if they cause great harm to society and/or the environment. Economies must grow no matter what the cost.

The strategy of "externalization of costs" is used to reduce the expenses a business is held responsible for, and thus improve its profitability. Typical externalized costs are the effects a business' operation has on the environment or on the community it operates in. Usually those costs are transferred to the public (via government and taxation) or to future generations.

The free market is held to have essentially magical powers to regulate the economy, when in fact it is mainly valued as an excuse to free businesses from cumbersome regulations (so they can be competitive) while at the same time they strive to control the market as much as possible to protect themselves from competition.

One of the consequences of all this is ever greater economic inequality. Despite its faith in human progress, BAU has relegated most people to the role of consumers/workers. We are encouraged to concentrate on our own individual success and gratification, rather than our relationships with other people. Our primary motivations end up being fear, greed and selfishness. This is not really what people need from the society they are living in. Still, this was "fine" (in some strained sense of that word) as long as growth continued and we consumers could rely on improved working conditions, better wages and better toys to spend our earnings on.

But as depleted fossil fuel resources began to supply less surplus energy, business had to turn to automation and globalization to stay profitable, leaving fewer and worse jobs for most people. Without work (and money) it is hard to fulfill one's role as a consumer. We are left wondering how long the leaders of BAU think this can go on. Clearly they have bought into the woo that it can continue forever.

The load we are putting on the environment, our reliance on the "biosphere services" it provides, has continued to increase while at the same time we are destroying more and more of the biosphere that provides those services. The result is that we are in an overshoot situation, using more than the planet can supply in any sustainable way. With our population continuing to grow, there will inevitably come a point where what's left of the environment won't support us and the human population will begin to collapse. BAU is blind to this, striving ever harder to use up more resources to support a growing population with increasing prosperity, regardless of where this may lead.

As we wait for this unpalatable future to play out, it becomes less and less comfortable for ordinary human being to live as part of BAU. We spent the last few million year evolving to live in small groups in which people mutually supported each other, providing for their material and psychological (spiritual, if you insist) needs throughout their lifetimes. We are ill suited to live in BAU where the needs of business must always come first and those of people second at best. It's hard on our sanity and it brings out the worst in us.

What's worse, it seems very likely that this is not at all necessary—people's needs can come first if we simply decide that is the way we want to live and apply our resources to that instead of generating ever increasing economic growth. But we are paralyzed by BAU woo that says we are already on the right path, the only path.

Author Daniel Quinn refers to what I've been calling "BAU" as "the culture of maximum harm". That would make Crunchies those who want to do less harm, to their fellow men and to the planet. This definition leaves room for a pretty wide range of opinions within this movement, and I think that is a very good thing.

In my next post I'll talk about some of the problems with Crunchiness and the challenges this leads to for those of us who would like to take a reality based approach to doing less harm.

Once again, thanks to my son Dan Mills for his help in writing this.

This is the third post in a series of six:


Neoagrarian said...

Allow me to be the first to comment:

Excellent post, Sir. Now all we have to do is bring some of these insights to the people!
I'm beginning to understand what you have deemed "woo". Essentially I think you mean delusional bulls**t!?
Reminds me of a public "Science" program we have here in Canada on CBC radio - I'm sure you know it -which recently aired a spot about our requirement to "eco-modernize" our role as managers of earth systems. They seem to be airing more of this stuff lately. Mars missions as our ultimate "destiny", self-driving cars "right around the corner" etc.

I think this qualifies as "woo". They really ought to know better. A lot of people become influenced by it.

Here is the 15 minute spot, entitled "The Earth In Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet's Future"

Irv Mills said...

Neoagrarian, I haven't had a chance to listen to that Quirks and Quarks spot yet, but you read me right: I can hardly express strongly enough my dislike of the Ecomodernists. They are near the BAU end of the spectrum of woo I've been talking about. Despite their unbounded love of technology, they really know very little about science, engineering or technology. It seems to be sufficient for them simply to wave their hands, utter some buzz words, and all the problems go away. To cite just two examples, their ideas of infinite substitutability and essential infinite decoupling are just plain wrong--dreams that aren't going to come true.
I don't like to engage in binary thinking, but at the other end of that sprectrum of woo are the brands of pseudoscience supported by the alternative medicine and organic farming/food industries. These are multimillion dollar a year industries that are motivated by greed just a much as their mainstream equivalents. My blog post after this one addresses that end of the spectrum:, focusing on the woo in crunchiness.
None of us is free from attachment to some sort or other of woo, and I am guessing that is the sort of thing you are into. But I don't want to make a big issue of it, since we are having such a nice conversation.
The thing is, binary thinking really isn't a good idea and focusing on woo of any sort is a good way of wasting effort that could be spent more gainfully. The way out of the mess we are in, such as it is, is in another direction altogether.