“to most of us the health of the economy seems far more palpable, far more real, than the health of the planet” (Bill McKibben, Deep Economy, 29).
And as Bill McKibben points out in this must-read book, economic health is indicated entirely by the growth of the GDP. Realize this: this economic “slump” is not a matter of us producing and consuming less this year than we did last year. It is a matter of our rate of increase slowing. I don’t follow the numbers closely, but I do not thing we’ve reached the territory of real contraction—just slowed growth. We’re still accelerating, just not as fast as before. And this is the cause of our economic “woes.” From the tenor of the discussion, though, it sounds like the bottom has dropped out. Why does a slowing in our rate of growth cause so much economic disruption, not to mention consternation? Why can’t we sit tight where we are, keeping the GDP where it is now, living in the same sized house with the same sized TV, and the same cellphone as before. I certainly don’t need more than I did last year. And our economic growth is not being used to spread our wealth more equitably. Quite the opposite.
What does this have to do with roof top farming? I’ll get to that. Just hear me out. Part o f the reason why we need constant growth, it seems to me, is that so much of our economic activity is initiated with borrowed money. In order to pay the interest, we need to expand business. I’m also guessing that the promise of future economic growth is why other countries, like China (to cite the one we most frequently hear about) are willing to lend us so much money, money that allows us to continually and perpetually live beyond our means, both nationally and–because the national debt subsidizes and externalizes so many other expenses–in all our households. It’s not that anyone is actually expecting us to pay back our staggering national debt. But as long as we continue to make our “monthly payments” the repo-man is not going to take back our stuff. The only thing that allows us to pay our increasingly high interest payments, and take out additional loans, is the promise of continued growth. We have to keep running and keep running more breathlessly and furiously, only to feel like we’re standing still. The growth paradigm is economic quicksand.
Which is why nearly all public discourse on economics never strays too far from the idea and ideal of growth. There is no viable political position in our nation that does not promise it, praise it, worship it, expect it, and depend wholly on it. Not even Cusinich would dare. I think this also explains the rhetoric with which our current economic situation is almost always explained: as a slump, a temporary slow-down, a deviation from a reasonable norm of 5% annual growth (or whatever that norm is). It might be a long deviation, we are warned, but things should be cooking again by 2010 according to some recent reports.
But just what does this mean? What does a return to economic growth entail? Does it include increasing consumer spending using borrowed funds? Our economy is supported largely by consumer spending, so does a return to economic health mean that we’re going to have to buy more stuff, whether we really need it or not, that we’ll have to landfill our i-phones because something oh-so much better and suddenly necessary has taken its place, that granite counter-tops will be out and we’ll have to update again, that the laptop I’m writing at will suddenly be ungainly large and heavy (and unable to run all the new necessary software)?
Maybe, just maybe, this isn’t a slump, but a correction. Perhaps, whether if only by some ham-handed economic mis-calculations by the Wall Street wizards, we are being shown what things look like behind the curtain, what things may look like with decreased economic growth? What if we are getting a glimpse, just a small measure, a soupcon of the sort of personal adjustments we might have to make if we begin to live more fully within our means and within the capacities of our planet? Are we going to listen and ponder the meaning of this vision? Or are we going to rush headlong back to the easiness of economic growth, the way it forestalls so many necessary and difficult questions about distribution, sharing, doing with less, trading in our dreams for new, uncertain and untested ones?
It is not precisely these questions, but a more vague wariness, a small but undeniable foreboding, a skepticism at this wizardry—it was something like that, that convinced me to start growing vegetables on my roof. Having our collective well-being and relative stability balanced precariously on the promise of perpetual growth made me wonder: what if this growth isn’t good, what if it isn’t sustainable, what happens if growth becomes impossible? What then?
Given the almost entirely parallel relationship of economic growth and consumption of fossil fuels, it seems clear that perpetual growth is not possible. How can it be? Find me any vision of continued, far-reaching future economic growth that does not also contain within it a technological fantasy.
Here’s an example: the only proposed way, probably the only possible way, to get the ailing auto industry back on its feet is to get people buying again. In other words, we need to get rid of our old cars more quickly and make sure more people have cars. An increase in bus riding will not save the auto-industry; light rail is its death knell. But can our planet sustain more cars? What will happen to the health of our planet if the auto industry rebounds and finds a way to see that there is a new chevy or ford in every driveway and that people across the globe who have no driveway to put one in, also get that? One could argue that the new cars will be more efficient, but I’m guessing the carbon footprint of manufacturing a new car and of disposing an old one take a while to pay back with a bit of fuel efficiency. And if the rest of the world aspires automobile travel the way we do (and who can blame them), what then?
Has anyone heard this sort of objection raised on any national media? I listen to a lot of NPR and haven’t heard a whisper of it there, so I’m guessing that you’re not going to hear about it on NBC, let alone Fox. And what about the New York Times: does it have lead stories about the impossibility of sustained economic growth given the limits of our oil reserves and our planet’s dwindling natural resources and capacity to absorb pollution? The truth of it is that in terms of any sort of national conversation, “the health of the economy is far more palpable, more real, than the health of the planet.” And most importantly the two are never, ever, juxtaposed.
If I could accomplish one thing with the roof-top farm, one thing at all, it would be to help in even the smallest way, this conversation–a conversation about economics that does not maintain as an unquestioned benchmark the promise of perpetual growth, a conversation that begins to figure out how we are going to make a transition, how we’re going to cushion all the falls, soothe the wounds, and maintain some peace and generosity amongst all the likely chaos.
What I hope is that every time the news turns to the Dow Jones, we cluck disapprovingly as we note that it can’t keep on going up forever; that every time we hear talk of this current economic disaster, we remember our unprecedented national wealth, the comparative and wasteful luxury that almost all Americans live in; that the words “economic growth” bring to mind its accompanying ecological havoc; that when we someone talks about the bad economy or economic hardship, someone else brings up our dwindling oil reserves and imminent threats from global warming; that everyone knows what “peak oil” is and that those of us who already do realize what it might mean to us in real and difficult ways; that we consider that this “downturn” might just be a course-correction and that we certainly need to correct course, if not now, then soon, and far more drastically and significantly.
Easy for you to say, rooffarmer! You probably aren’t affected by economic downturn, what with your little roof-top paradise. You’re hopes and plans aren’t really going to be affected, are they? You’re not losing your job!
I admit that simply by being an educated middle-class American, I’m relatively cushioned from many economic disruptions. My supportive family provides something of an additional safety net, at least for the sorts of recessions and “downturns” that we are familiar with as we review recent economic history. At the very least, I can maintain the expectation that I can land on my feet.
But these thoughts and reflections have come to me as I face the consequences both of a temporary economic downturn and, alternatively, a permanent course-correction. I am also deeply conflicted about my hopes and aspirations vis-à-vis these possibilities. As a small-business owner in the construction industry, I am used to being a “leading economic indicator” and the severity of the current ones have put into much greater relief, the planet’s leading ecological indicators. The gravity of the one has in fact increased the poignancy of the other.
For the first time in 10 years, I have been forced to make real layoffs. I believe they will be temporary, but I can’t guarantee that. Do I want the housing industry to rebound as the Dow begins to creep up? Of course I do. Five of us in my company have been together for almost 8 years now. My company is more than a job. I don’t take these things lightly. Like the hundreds of thousands of auto-workers whose lives and plans hang in the balance, like so many others around our country and the world who have begun to reckon with the possibility that their expectations for the future may not be achieved, I wait expectantly for good economic news, for the phone to ring with a message of new work, for the laid-off carpenters who are now competing with me for our mainstay repair and restoration work to be called back to their work in new-construction. Of course I do.
But I can’t ignore the ecologically consequences of an economic “upturn”. More real and palpable than ever is the health of the economy for me; but also more real and palpable, now, is the health of the planet. This is an uncomfortable place to sit. The roof top farm provides just a small, small measure of relief.