Assassinate Growth: Part I

It’s interesting to me to think about money. Not because I’m some greedy bastard, but because I find it fascinating. What I find even more fascinating is its role in our culture. When you think about it, money is strange. It’s not intrinsically valuable. It’s paper, metal coins, or in this day and age, signals in a computer. Even gold and silver aren’t intrinsically valuable. Sure gold is a good conductor and can be used in special applications, but if you want to talk precious metals, let’s talk about copper. Trust me, no one wants to live in a world without copper. But this isn’t some diatribe on gold bugs, or our fucked money system. This is a look at wealth on a more basic level.

Technically speaking, a dollar in your pocket is representative of some real value. At one time, that was gold or silver, but even the gold and silver was representative of some value. Possibly the value of labor required to mine it? It doesn’t really matter. The only things that truly have value are capital resources. A river: It can provide water, irrigation, possibly hydro-electricity. Farm land: It can provide a place to grow crops, or raise animals. Oil: concentrated and stored solar energy essentially–we all know the value of that. Minerals: Copper, iron, carbon, etc all crucial components in things we need and use. Finally, people: Human labor is a form of capital resource, but it’s a special form. It’s the only one that can grow (on human time scales). All the copper that ever was or ever will be is already here. All the oil that ever was or ever will be is here.

So those capital resources are true wealth. Natural resources that can be turned into goods (which obviously have value, because you have to pay for them). Spend 100 dollars on some copper, and now you have a bunch of copper. The person you bought it from now has 100 dollars. Each of those dollars is representative of some subset of that copper. Probably human labor too at some point in the supply chain. Those dollars can then go on to buy other things, and exchanged around, but the copper still exists, and the intrinsic wealth contained therein is represented by those dollars. Essentially, the number of dollars (or whatever) in existence, should be in some fixed ratio with the amount of natural resources available. There’s a fixed amount of resources available (our planet isn’t gaining any mass), so there should be a fixed amount of dollars (with the potential for increase as resources are extracted and developed).

How much are the earth’s resources in their entirety worth? I’m not sure anyone knows, but it really doesn’t matter. It’s some fixed number. How can this align with our money system that depends upon growth within itself year after year? It doesn’t. I don’t care how many PhDs you have, how many books you’ve written, or how much you’re paid to spout your nonsense. That’s basic mathematics and you can’t talk your way out of it. Oh sure, we can grow the money supply until we run out of paper and ink, or power for our computers, but the intrinsic value represented does not increase. This is so simple, it boggles my mind that so few people fail to recognize it. Intrinsic wealth! It’s not hard!

Wildcard: Resources don’t grow. They can be replenished at varying rates (oil, millions of years, copper/elements, millions or billions of years), but they don’t grow. We might discover more for a while, giving the appearance of growth, but eventually it will stop. Vegas won’t even give you odds on that because it wouldn’t be a fair bet. Human labor resources can grow, to a certain extent. Obviously, to sustain x number of humans, you need y number of resources (food, air, water, shelter, etc). But see what category those resources required are in? Yup, the non-growing kind. So even human labor resources are limited by outside forces.

This just is how it is. We were certainly sold a great capitalistic story, but I’m afraid the ending is no fairy tale. I don’t know when it will end, nor do I really care. If by some miracle, we’re able to advance so far, so fast as to take to the universe with our greed for growth, are we expecting to find more universes when this one is used up? It will be used up. Earth will be used up. It’s only a matter of time. It’s a mathematical certainty.

What are the alternatives? Well, growth in “wealth” doesn’t have to be how we do things. We could work for growth in happiness, or well being, or anything. Or we could work towards stability in wealth, or whatever we want. We’ve got this terminally ill patient and we’re ignoring the hospital full of people with sniffles.