A Basic Lesson in Biology: Why Our Economic System is Decimating The Planet

With the recent news that the Earth has lost 50% of its wildlife in an astonishingly short 40 years, one would think the powers that be would start to think very seriously about what has gone wrong. While we have green energy commitments, panels on climate change, and policies to prevent the decimation of wildlife, there is an elephant in the room that few leaders are willing to acknowledge.

It’s a truth so obvious that it cannot be mentioned given it undermines the entire basis of Western capitalism and the philosophical paradigm we’ve been living under for the past 500 years.

The current global economy has been carefully designed by nation-states and large (usually financial) institutions with one goal in mind: growth. We measure a country’s success by its growth and we measure a company’s success by its growth. If you’ve ever dealt with serious investors, they’re sole objective is fattening your company to sell it off for far more than they paid. They want 10 times growth, and won’t do deals for less. Africa is apparently the “hottest growth opportunity of the century,” with investors lining up to make 100, 1000 or 10,000 times their money.

And how do companies or countries grow? Generally speaking, they create more product and look to expand into untapped markets. Coca-Cola wants to sell more drinks to more people than it did last year, Apple wants to sell iPhones to more customers than it did last year, and China wants to sell more coal to more countries than it did last year. To do that, they need to make more drinks, make more iPhones, and make more coal. Of course that means more raw materials to make them all, and they need to be extracted from our natural resources. Therefore, capitalism is inconsistent with environmental sustainability.

As far as scientists can understand, our natural environment is a finite system. That means there are a limited amount of resources available, and eco systems can only exist in a state of equilibrium. Take too much of one thing and an ecosystem can easily collapse, creating a ripple like effect across other interdependent eco ystems. As hunters well know, certain animal populations can become incredibly destructive to their natural environments, sucking up food resources and destroying other species in the process. For example, after 24 rabbits were introduced to Australia by European settlers, their numbers exploded to 600 million by 1950 causing almost catastrophic damage to native wildlife. If one errant species starts to take more of its far share of resources and begins to grow too rapidly, like a cancer, it ultimately kills its host and therefore itself.

While we don’t like to see ourselves as animals, the laws of biology say otherwise, and our overpopulation and consumption habits are wreaking havoc on the planet’s ecosystems. The vegetation we cut down to make way for the livestock we eat deprives thousands of species of a vital link in their food chain, and the grain we feed them comes from land that would otherwise support a much more diverse array of vegetation. We are literally eating our way through the planet while depriving millions of species of food in the process.

Nevertheless, restaurants want to keep expanding, food manufactures want to explore new growth markets, and as a consequence, human population growth is to be encouraged  given more people means more economic opportunity.

Clearly this cannot go on. Taken to its logical conclusion, the exponential growth of human consumption means the end of humanity itself. If we wreck the ecosystems responsible for giving us food, then we will have eaten our way into oblivion, and ironically starved ourselves as a last hurrah.

The truth about our economic system is that it is built on fantasy, not reality. You cannot base an economy on infinite growth if you are operating in a finite system. The sooner our culture begins to understand this irrefutable law of nature, the sooner we can get around to building an economy that actually sustains life rather than eradicates it.

Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.