By Kerryn Higgs for WOMEN = BOOKS

Posted on July 26, 2010

At a conference in Melbourne last year, where British sustainability theorist Tim Jackson spoke about his book Prosperity Without Growth, I met a feminist critic who railed against the power and limitations of “men in suits.”

It is, of course, men in suits who have led the push for endless economic expansion over several centuries. Men have directed virtually every aspect of the fossil fuel industry on which it rests. It is undeniably men who have conducted the conquest of nature.

But man or woman, everyone who shops—and especially those who shop obsessively—consents to the fossil fuel-based economy which is currently drilling closer and closer to the edge of catastrophe—for both people and pelicans. The Deepwater Horizon rig was just one of these operations.

I have been researching the history of"limits to growth" ideas for many years, since I came across a slim paperback in London in 1972 called The Limits to Growth , commissioned by the Club of Rome and written by a team of scientists from MIT. Donella Meadows, now deceased, was lead author.

Not a collection of left-wing greenies, the Club of Rome was made up of industrialists, bureaucrats, scientists, and politicians (mainly Europeans) who aimed to quantify what they called the "the predicament of mankind": How could growing populations, locked into ever-expanding industrialization, avoid immense (if not terminal) environmental degradation and exhaustion of the resources on which everything depended-and the social chaos that could result?

I read Limits,the best-selling environmental book ever published, with a sense of awakening to an unexpected but pressing reality. What would happen in the twenty-first century as resources grew scarcer and wastes proliferated? If it was neither materially nor ecologically feasible, how could the ongoing industrialization of the planet solve the destitution of the majority of its people?

Limits was treated with considerable respect in the early years-except by some of the economists. Jimmy Carter and Pierre Trudeau of Canada took it very seriously. By the 1990s, however, "Club of Rome" had become a term of ridicule. The idea of any limits to the triumphal march of the free market had been discarded as apocalyptic nonsense. This transition in the public imagination astonished me and became the key mystery that my current work set out to explore.

These days, we are more than ever locked into indefinite economic growth, as if this were a realistic prospect. Every government (except perhaps Bhutan), and all the international institutions like the IMF, OECD and G8-G20, predicate the future of everyone and everything on economic growth. As a result, audacious, one might say ruinous, projects are multiplying across the planet in pursuit of a growth we have no intention of moderating, let alone abandoning.

In the Gulf of Mexico, the costs are incalculable. The implications of the disaster unfolding there are many, but the complexity of dealing with it at its source flows from the spill's location a mile below the sea-with the oil field a further 2 or 3 miles under the ocean floor. Add to this the weather in the Gulf and the presence of a large methane reservoir in the vicinity of the well, and it's obvious we are attempting to fuel our future on the fringes of the possible.

This is drilling on the edge, drilling at the limits, something that's happening worldwide in pursuit of the energy resources on which the modern world has been built. These resources, despite industry denials of "peak oil," are increasingly difficult and expensive to recover. The expense in itself encourages the kind of corner-cutting that surviving rig-workers have described.

In Australia's Hunter Valley, not far south of where I live, open-cut coal mines have eaten up the entire countryside with its vineyards and horse studs, and are now threatening the Liverpool Plains, just over the Great Divide from the Hunter.This is some of the richest agricultural land in a country sparsely blessed with fertility.

In the Appalachians, mountains are blown to smithereens to get at the coal, and valleys are filled with the waste; communities and forests are buried. Throughout the United States, as the documentary Gasland is currently revealing on HBO, natural gas is being extracted by fracturing rock (fracking) with a cocktail of toxic chemicals, leaving grotesquely polluted water supplies and very sick people in its wake. Plans remain in place to use this technique in the catchment of New York City's water supply.

These, and the devastation unleashed in the Gulf, are but a small sample of the destruction we continue to practice in the pursuit of indefinite growth.

Are "men in suits" responsible for this stampede over the cliff? Perhaps so. But if the vandalism of modern economic growth is a feminist issue, we also need a profound critique of the conspicuous consumption that most of us consider normal.


Kerryn Higgs
is the author of All That False Instruction (1975), Australia's first lesbian novel, which won the inaugural Angus and Robertson Prize in 1973. It was reissued by Spinifex Press in 2001. Some of her environmental and political writing is indexed at Webdiary, including three articles on the relationship of the economy and the planet's living systems: Is the Economy Part of the Planet-or the Planet Partof the Economy?, A Brief History of Economic Growth and Economics and the Laws of Physics. She is a regular reviewer for WRB and is currently working on a book entitled "No Limits: The Rise of Growth Economics on a Finite Planet."



Read Kerryn Higgs's review of Her Brilliant Career: The Life of Stella Miles Franklin in the July/August 2010 issue of WRB.


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