A Ponzi Scheme Wrapped in a Three Piece Suit of Respectability

“Once you sit down and draw a little picture of the economy as a subset of the larger ecosystem, then you’re halfway home as far as ecological economics is concerned. That’s why people resist doing that. That means you would have to say well, there are limits, we’re not going to be able to grow forever. That means the economy must have some optimal scale relative to the larger system. That means you don’t grow beyond the optimum.
How do we stop growing? What do we do?
These are very threatening questions.”
Dr. Herman Daly, Former World Bank economist and author of Ecological Economics

Fantasy Economics

I’m an architect and engineer by training, so when I began to write seriously about sustainability, I had no idea that the storyline would begin with a discussion of economic theory. Yet when one asks the question of what is sustainable or not sustainable relative to housing you are very quickly tossed into the stormy seas of “growth” and “limits”, and the conflict between neo-classical and ecological economics.

When it comes to our mainstream economic theory, it seems that we are not much removed from our ancestors who thought the earth was flat or at the center of the universe. The neo-classical economics currently taught in all of our major universities dominates both our world view and governmental policy making. Developed in a time of abundant natural resources, it assumes that non-renewable natural resources are infinite and ignores the environmental costs of their production and consumption. It is an economic theory that worships at the church of growth and blindly disregards it’s own existence within a closed ecosystem. Much like the 16th century catholic church that believed that the earth was the center of the universe, neo-classical economics believes it is the tail that wags the ecosystem. Herman Daly, the father of ecological economics, likens the current situation to a chain-letter swindle or ponzi scheme in which “The current beneficiaries of the swindle, those at the beginning of the chain, try hard to keep up the illusion among those doubters at the end who are beginning to wonder if there are really sufficient resources in the world for the game to continue very much longer.” This ponzi scheme would eventually play itself out in the U.S. housing sector in the form of energy guzzling McMansions, and mind numbing suburban sprawl.
The American Church of Growth
The concept of growth in America would be enshrined in our national psyche when Thomas Jefferson penned the words “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” into our declaration of independence. As the country migrated west, growth and development would take on a patina of virtue and goodness and become the religion of the land. Our pursuit of happiness would not always be as pure as the words of Jefferson, and our migration west would be equal parts courage, individual initiative, greed, and genocide. As we moved west we would both take and rape, arrogantly taking land from the native population and casually raping the environment of it’s natural resources.
The discovery of oil and the invention of the automobile would eventually morph our cities and towns into massive developments comprised of weak centers surrounded by a web of suburban wasteland anchored by multi-lane highways as each generation tapped into our balance sheet of natural resources in a mad pursuit of growth and prosperity. The happiness we sought in the rapid growth and development of our built environment would not be defined by Jefferson’s liberty, but by long commutes, road rage, pathological consumption, crushing debt, an epidemic of obesity and national dependancy on anti-depressants.
The impact of neo-classical economics on housing would and continues to be profound and pervasive. This ponzi scheme wrapped in a three piece suit of respectability would provide the hidden intellectual foundation for growing home sizes, suburban sprawl, and countless “cost benefit” studies that would shape the regulations that formed the basis of our inadequate energy codes. However we are now approaching an ecological tipping point and the current generation will find themselves the recipient of the scheme’s inevitable collapse.
Ecosystems self-correct with Unbiased Indifference
Ecosystems are naturally self-correcting and treat all populations that overreach with equal and unbiased indifference. It matters not whether the population is human, animal, plant, insect or microbe, any population that exceeds its natural carrying capacity is either forced to reduce its numbers or its level of consumption. The 2002 Limits to Growth report estimates that human “growth and development” has already exceeded the earth’s carrying capacity by more than 20% and it is evident that the earth’s ecosystem has already begun the process of adjustment and rebalancing. The economic theory and policy decisions that brought us to our current state will be quietly trumped by the natural processes that we have ignored.
The signs and warnings of this natural rebalancing are everywhere. Climate change, rapid species extinction, fisheries collapse, depleted aquifers, loss of arable land, $100/barrel oil, and monthly heating costs that equal mortgage payments are all evidence of natural limits in action. As the world’s largest per-capita consumer of natural resources, the U.S. has become the poster nation for ecological overreach and collapse. As a result we currently face an especially painful and traumatic transition to a more sustainable future.
“Future generations are always free to make themselves miserable or content with whatever we give them. We do not owe the future their happiness, but we do owe them an intact resource base.”
Dr. Herman Daly

add to del.icio.us : Add to Blinkslist : add to furl : Digg it : add to ma.gnolia : Stumble It! : add to simpy : seed the vine : : : TailRank : post to facebook


4 responses to “A Ponzi Scheme Wrapped in a Three Piece Suit of Respectability

  1. bring on the apocalypse, eh

  2. You may want to check out William McDonough’s Monticello Dialogues CD set to listen to a different interpretation of Jefferson.

    Although McDonough is a bit of a good growth pollyanna as well. Face it good news sells and there ain’t much good news.

    Otherwise, I pretty much agree with you.

    Glad to see someone finally linking sustainability and the housing bubble.

  3. I hate to sound like an apocalyptic preacher, but I agree with much of this. The housing boom (and long-term bust) so perfectly encapsulates our American appetites, and how hard it will be for many to adjust to living with less.

  4. The growth culture of which you eloquently speak, rooted in the dominant social paradigm, is culturally transmitted and protected. Schnaiberg’s “treadmill of production” clearly captures the interconnectedness of all to all within this system. Our vested interests stem from this paradigm and they are hard to extricate ourselves from. Just consider how expensive it is to purchase and install photovoltaics or get a cistern installed in the Northeast.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s