Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Thomas Friedman on the Economics of "Stuff"

Questioning the concept of infinite expansion of consumption is receiving mainstream media attention.

In an article intriguingly titled "The Inflection is Near?" three time Pulitzer prize winning writer and New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman suggests we need to

...step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”
He then points out that:

We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese ...

We can’t do this anymore.

He then links this to the issue of climate change and long term sustainability.

“We created a way of raising standards of living that we can’t possibly pass on to our children,” said Joe Romm, a physicist and climate expert who writes the indispensable blog climateprogress.org. We have been getting rich by depleting all our natural stocks — water, hydrocarbons, forests, rivers, fish and arable land — and not by generating renewable flows.

“You can get this burst of wealth that we have created from this rapacious behavior,” added Romm. “But it has to collapse, unless adults stand up and say, ‘This is a Ponzi scheme. We have not generated real wealth, and we are destroying a livable climate ...’ Real wealth is something you can pass on in a way that others can enjoy.”
What I see him describing is the inevitable consequence of unrestrained globalization fed by the ever increasing consumption of energy during the latter half of the twentieth century. Everyone thought (and most continue to believe) that expansion of economic growth is not only inevitable but necessary. Few people, it seems, are satisfied with what they have and constantly search for more. It is what the western way of life seems to be built on.

Interestingly, though, Friedman has been a promoter of globalization in his books The Lexus and the Olive Tree and The World is Flat. Does this recent column represent a shift in his thinking?

The comments on this article are quite telling. More and more of us are starting to understand that we are on a freight train that is recklessly heading out of control in the fog. It is time to slow down.

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