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How long can economic growth continue in a finite world? This is the question the 1972 book The Limits to Growth by Donella Meadows and others sought to answer. The computer models that the team of researchers produced strongly suggested that the world economy would collapse sometime in the first half of the 21st century.
I have been researching what the real situation is with respect to resource limits since 2005. The conclusion I am reaching is that the team of 1972 researchers were indeed correct. In fact, the promised collapse is practically right around the corner, beginning in the next year or two. In fact, many aspects of the collapse appear already to be taking place, such as the 2008-2009 Great Recession and the collapse of the economies of smaller countries such as Greece and Spain. How could collapse be so close, with virtually no warning to the population?
To explain the situation, I will first explain why we are reaching Limits to Growth in the near term. I will then provide a list of nine reasons why the near-term crisis has been overlooked.
Why We are Reaching Limits to Growth in the Near Term
In simplest terms, our problem is that we as a people are no longer getting richer. Instead, we are getting poorer, as evidenced by the difficulty young people are now having getting good-paying jobs. As we get poorer, it becomes harder and harder to pay debt back with interest. It is the collision of the lack of economic growth in the real economy with the need for economic growth from the debt system that can be expected to lead to collapse.
The reason we are getting poorer is because hidden parts of our economy are now absorbing more and more resources, leaving fewer resources to produce the goods and services we are used to buying. These hidden parts of our economy are being affected by depletion. For example, it now takes more resources to extract oil. This is why oil prices have more than tripled since 2002. It also takes more resource for many other hidden processes, such as deeper wells or desalination to produce water, and more energy supplies to produce metals from low-grade ores.
The problem as we reach all of these limits is a shortage of physical investment capital, such as oil, copper, and rare earth minerals. While we can extract more of these, some, like oil, are used in many ways, to fix many depletion problems. We end up with too many demands on oil supply–there is not enough oil to both (1) offset the many depletion issues the world economy is hitting, plus (2) add new factories and extraction capability that is needed for the world economy to grow.
With too many demands on oil supply, “economic growth” is what tends to get shorted. Countries that obtain a large percentage of their energy supply from oil tend to be especially affected because high oil prices tend to make the products these countries produce unaffordable. Countries with a long-term decline in oil consumption, such as the US, European Union, and Japan, find themselves in recession or very slow growth.
Figure 1. Oil consumption based on BP’s 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy.
Unfortunately, the problem this appears eventually to lead to, is collapse. The problem is the connection with debt. Debt can be paid back with interest to a much greater extent in a growing economy than a contracting economy because we are effectively borrowing from the future–something that is a lot easier when tomorrow is assumed to be better than today, compared to when tomorrow is worse than today.
We could not operate our current economy without debt. Debt is what has allowed us to “pump up” economic growth. Consumers can buy cars, homes, and college educations that they have not saved up for. Businesses can set up factories and do mineral extraction, without having past profits to finance these operations. We can now operate with long supply chains, including many businesses that are dependent on debt financing. The ability to use debt allows vastly more investment than if potential investors could only the use of after-the-fact profits.
If we give up our debt-based economic system, we lose our ability to extract even the oil and other resources that appear to be easily available. We can have a simple, local economy, perhaps dependent on wood as it primary fuel source, without debt. But it seems unlikely that we can have a world economy that will provide food and shelter for 7.2 billion people.
The reason the situation is concerning is because the financial situation now seems to be near a crisis. Debt, other than government debt, has not been growing very rapidly since 2008. The government has tried to solve this problem by keeping interest rates very low using Quantitative Easing (QE). Now the government is cutting back in the amount of QE. If interest rates should rise very much, we will likely see recession again and many layoffs. If this should happen, debt defaults are likely to be a problem and credit availability will dry up as it did in late 2008. Without credit, prices of all commodities will drop, as they did in late 2008. Without the temporary magic of QE, new investment, even in oil, will drop way off. Government will need to shrink back in size and may even collapse.
In fact, we are already having a problem with oil prices that are too low to encourage oil production. (See my post, What’s Ahead? Lower Oil Prices, Despite Higher Extraction Costs.) Other commodities are also trading at flat to lower price levels. The concern is that these lower prices will lead to deflation. With deflation, debt is strongly discouraged because it raises the “inflation adjusted” cost of borrowing. If a deflationary debt cycle is started, there could be a huge drop in debt over a few years. This would be a different way to reach collapse.
Why couldn’t others see the problem that is now at our door step?
1. The story is a complicated, interdisciplinary story. Even trying to summarize it in a few paragraphs is not easy. Most people, if they have a background in oil issues, do not also have a background in financial issues, and vice versa.
2. Economists have missed key points. Economists have missed the key role of debt in extracting fossil fuels and in keeping the economy operating in general. They have also missed the fact that in a finite world, this debt cannot keep rising indefinitely, or it will grow to greatly exceed the physical resources that might be used to pay back the debt.
Economists have missed the fact that resource depletion acts in a way that is equivalent to a huge downward drag on productivity. Minerals need to be separated from more and more waste products, and energy sources need to be extracted in ever-more-difficult locations. High energy prices, whether for oil or for electricity, are a sign of economic inefficiency. If energy prices are high, they act as a drag on the economy.
Economists have missed the key role oil plays–a role that is not easily substituted away. Our transportation, farming and construction industries are all heavily dependent on oil. Many products are made with oil, from medicines to fabrics to asphalt.
Economists have assumed that wages can grow without energy inputs, but recent experience shows the economies with shrinking oil use are ones with shrinking job opportunities. Economists have built models claiming that prices will rise to handle shortages, either through substitution or demand destruction, but they have not stopped to consider how destructive this demand destruction can be for an economy that depends on oil use to manufacture and transport goods.
Economists have missed the point that globalization speeds up depletion of resources and increases CO2 emissions, because it adds a huge number of new consumers to the world market.
Economists have also missed the fact that wages are hugely important for keeping economies operating. If wages are cut, either because of competition with low-wage workers in warm countries (who don’t need as high a wages to maintain a standard of living, because they do not need sturdy homes or fuel to heat the homes) or because of automation, economic growth is likely to slow or fall. Corporate profits are not a substitute for wages.
3. Peak Oil advocates have missed key points. Peak oil advocates are a diverse group, so I cannot really claim all of them have the same views.
One common view is that just because oil, or coal, or natural gas seems to be available with current technology, it will in fact be extracted. This is closely related to the view that “Hubbert’s Peak” gives a reasonable model for future oil extraction. In this model, it is assumed that about 50% of extraction occurs after the peak in oil consumption takes place. Even Hubbert did not claim this–his charts always showed another fuel, such as nuclear, rising in great quantity before fossil fuels dropped in supply.
In the absence of a perfect substitute, the drop-off can be expected to be very steep. This happens because population rises as fossil fuel use grows. As fossil fuel use declines, citizens suddenly become much poorer. Government services must be cut way back, and government may even collapse. There is likely to be huge job loss, making it difficult to afford goods. There may be fighting over what limited supplies are available.What Hubbert’s curve shows is something like an upper limit for production, if the economy continues to function as it currently does, despite the disruption that loss of energy supplies would likely bring.
A closely related issue is the belief that high oil prices will allow some oil to be produced indefinitely. Salvation can therefore be guaranteed by using less oil. First of all, the belief that oil prices can rise high enough is being tested right now. The fact that oil prices aren’t high enough is causing oil companies to cut back on new projects, instead returning money to shareholders as dividends. If the economy starts shrinking because of lower oil extraction, a collapse in credit is likely to lead to even lower prices, and a major cutback in production.
4. Excessive faith in substitution. A common theme by everyone from economists to peak oilers to politicians is that substitution will save us.
There are several key points that advocates miss. One is that if a financial crash is immediately ahead, our ability to substitute disappears, practically overnight (or at least, within a few years).
Another is key point is that today’s real shortage is of investment capital, in the form of oil and other natural resources needed to manufacture the new natural gas powered cars and the fueling stations they need. A similar shortage of investment capital plagues plans to change to electric cars. Wage-earners of modest means cannot afford high-priced plug in vehicles, especially if the change-over is so fast that the value of their current vehicle drops to $0.
Another key point is that the alternatives we looking at are limited in supply as well. We use far more oil than natural gas; trying to substitute natural gas for oil will lead to a shortfall in natural gas supplies quickly. Ramping up electric cars, solar, and wind will lead to a shortage of the rare earth minerals and other minerals needed in their production. While more of these minerals can be accessed by using lower quality ore, doing so leads to precisely the investment capital shortfall that is our problem to begin with.
Another key point is that electricity does not substitute for oil, because of the huge need for investment capital (which is what is in short supply) to facilitate the change. There is also a timing issue.
Another key point is that intermittent electricity does not substitute for electricity whose supply can be easily regulated. What intermittent electricity substitutes for is thefossil fuel used to make electricity whose supply is more easily regulated. This substitution (in theory) extends the life of our fossil fuel supplies. This theory is only true if we believe that coal and natural gas extraction is only limited by the amount those materials in the ground, and the level of our technology. (This is the assumption underlying IEA and EIA estimates of future fossil use.)
If the limit on coal and natural gas extraction is really a limit on investment capital (including oil), and this investment capital limit may manifest itself as a debt limit, then the situation is different. In such a case, high investment in intermittent renewables can expected to drive economies that build them toward collapse more quickly, because of their high front-end investment capital requirements and low short-term returns.
5. Excessive faith in Energy Return on Energy Investment (EROI) or Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) analyses. Low EROI returns and poor LCA returns are part of our problem, but they are not the whole problem. They do not consider timing–something that is critical, if our problem is with inadequate investment capital availably, and the need for high returns quickly.
EROI analyses also make assumptions about substitutability–something that is generally not possible for oil, for reasons described above. While EROI and LCA studies can provide worthwhile insights, it is easy to assume that they have more predictive value than they really do. They are not designed to tell when Limits to Growth will hit, for example.
6. Governments funding leads to excessive research in the wrong directions and lack of research in the right direction. Governments are in denial that Limits to Growth, or even oil supply, might be a problem. Governments rely on economists who seem to be clueless regarding what is happening.
Researchers base their analyses on what prior researchers have done. They tend to “follow the research grant money,” working on whatever fad is likely to provide funding. None of this leads to research in areas where our real problems lie.
7. Individual citizens are easily misled by news stories claiming an abundance of oil. Citizens don’t realize that the reason oil is abundant is because oil prices are high, debt is widely available, and interest rates are low. Furthermore, part of the reason oil appears abundant is because low-wage citizens still cannot afford products made with oil, even at its current price level. Low employment and wages feed back in the form of low oil demand, which looks like excessive oil supply. What the economy really needs is low-priced oil, something that is not available.
Citizens also don’t realize that recent push to export crude oil doesn’t mean there is a surplus of crude oil. It means that refinery space for the type of oil in question is more available overseas.
The stories consumers read about growing oil supplies are made even more believable by forecasts showing that oil and other energy supply will rise for many years in the future. These forecasts are made possible by assuming the limit on the amount of oil extracted is the amount of oil in the ground. In fact, the limit is likely to be a financial (debt) limit that comes much sooner. See my post, Why EIA, IEA, and Randers’ 2052 Energy Forecasts are Wrong.
8. Unwillingness to believe the original Limits to Growth models. Recent studies, such as those by Hall and Day and by Turner, indicate that the world economy is, in fact, following a trajectory quite similar to that foretold by the base model of Limits to Growth. In my view, the main deficiencies of the 1972 Limits to Growth models are
(a) The researchers did not include the financial system to any extent. In particular, the models left out the role of debt. This omission tends to move the actual date of collapse sooner, and make it more severe.
(2) The original model did not look at individual resources, such as oil, separately. Thus, the models gave indications for average or total resource limits, even though oil limits, by themselves, could bring down the economy more quickly.
I have noticed comments in the literature indicating that the Limits to Growth study has been superseded by more recent analyses. For example, the article Entropy and Economics by Avery, when talking about the Limits to Growth study says, “ Today, the more accurate Hubbert Peak model is used instead to predict rate of use of a scarce resource as a function of time.” There is no reason to believe that the Hubbert Peak model is more accurate! The original study used actual resource flows to predict when we might expect a problem with investment capital. Hubbert Peak models overlook financial limits, such as lack of debt availability, so overstate likely future oil flows. Because of this, they are not appropriate for forecasts after the world peak is hit.
Another place I have seen similar wrong thinking is in the current World3 model, which has been used in recent Limits to Growth analyses, including possibly Jorgen Randers’2052. This model assumes a Hubbert Peak model for oil, gas, and coal. The World3 model also assumes maximum substitution among fuel types, something that seems impossible if we are facing a debt crisis in the near term.
9. Nearly everyone would like a happy story to tell. Every organization from Association for the Study of Peak Oil groups to sustainability groups to political groups would like to have a solution to go with the problem they are aware of. Business who might possibly have a chance of selling a “green” product would like to say, “Buy our product and your problems will be solved.” News media seem to tell only the stories that their advertisers would like to hear. This combination of folks who are trying to put the best possible “spin” on the story leads to little interest in researching and telling the true story.
Wrong thinking and wishful thinking seems to abound, when it comes to overlooking near term limits to growth. Part of this may be intentional, but part of this lies with the inherent difficulty of understanding such a complex problem.
There is a tendency to believe that newer analyses must be better. That is not necessarily the case. When it comes to determining when Limits to Growth will be reached, analyses need to be focused on the details that seemed to cause collapse in the 1972 study–slow economic growth caused by the many conflicting needs for investment capital. The question is: when do we reach the point that oil supply is growing too slowly to produce the level of economic growth needed to keep our current debt system from crashing?
It seems to me that we are already near such a point of collapse. Most people have not realized how vulnerable our economic system is to crashing in a time of low oil supply growth.
America was not infinite; it only seemed that way to early European explorers, conquerors, and settlers for whom the size of the known world had suddenly doubled and the quantity of effectively unclaimed resources increased by far more than that. This sudden immeasurable and unearned abundance, it is clear, authorized a new set of cultural practices that would not have been deemed appropriate by a people confronted by visible boundaries and limits. But I am less concerned with past crimes than I am with the beliefs and expectations that lead us into the future. The stories we continue to tell ourselves about the discovery of America, its conquest and settling, the Enlightened awakening from an age of unreason are similar to those that helped develop and profoundly shaped a new way of thinking about the world whose main contours are still in place today. The remaining question is how deep beyond these specific practices and habits of consumption does the false image of the infinite run? Our way of life is clearly not sustainable; but what if our way of perceiving reality–our fundamental political, economic, even scientific categories—were also inalterably deformed by the false image of an infinite land? Is philosophical Liberalism compatible with a finite planet and a way of life designed to live on it? How fundamental are the changes we must make in order to recast the American way of life to fit on a finite, increasingly crowded, planet?
In his one and only full book, Notes on Virginia, Thomas Jefferson provide clear evidence to the first point, that American cultural practices were shaped by this terrible misconception of limitlessness, even if its most destructive and inescapable consequences might come home to roost only decades, even centuries later. In a brief aside in Notes on Virginia, Jefferson contrasts European and American farming practices. Unlike European agriculture, which he admits is more intensive and careful in its approach, the character of American agriculture is formed by the fact that a parcel stripped of its fertility can be abandoned for another: “The indifferent state of that [careful agricultural practices] among us does not proceed from want of knowledge merely; it is from our having such quantities of land to waste as we please. In Europe the object is to make the most of their land, labour being abundant; here it is to make the most of our labour, land being abundant.” This is an astonishing admission by Jefferson; and it is indicative of a remarkable culturally-, or perhaps geographically-conditioned lack of foresight, the apparent unimportance of the question: how much land we might really “waste as we please?” The same lack of foresight appears in most discussions over energy and the environment today, even as we can calculate their finite nature with considerable accuracy. Ours is a history of a certain kind of success enabled by a particular kind of miscalculation.
Am I making too much of an off-handed remark, a moment of hyperbole buried in an otherwise dry and rather boring recitation of fact and figures about the commonwealth of Virginia? I don’t think so and for a number of reasons significant to our topic. Jefferson’s statement about the wasting of land and the constant push westward to find new land was not an obscure sentiment, but was the basic policy and practice of Southern planters. George Washington’s description of plantation management was similar:
“a piece of land is cut down,” its forests stripped away, so that it can then be “kept under constant cultivation, first in tobacco and then in Indian corn (two very exhausting plants), until it will yield scarcely anything (quoted in Kennedy 17). At that point, it would be abandoned in favor of new land obtained at the ever-receding frontier. As historian Robert Kennedy shows in his book, Mr. Jefferson’s Lost Cause: Land, Farmers, Slavery, and the Louisiana Purchase, the life of colonial planters was far more mobile and unsettled than the image of old southern families would suggest: “the evidence of local records in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi indicates that the average planter family moved at least twice in a generation,” while the wealthiest planters engaged in ramped land speculation across the western frontier. The result, as Kennedy argues, was “a migrant agricultural capitalism with results deadly to humans and to the land itself.” “As the practice of working soil to death and slaves to exhaustion was repeated over and over again, the desolating army of King Cotton moved on a broad front across the South, drawing people away from home and leaving blighted hopes behind. By 1847, the first cotton lands planted in Georgia were already exhausted; the number of white farmers in Wilkes County fell by half in twenty years” (21, 14, 21-2). This practice was made possible by the low price of abundant land. As Jefferson remarked, “we can buy an acre of new land cheaper than we can manure an old one” (12).
This cycle of careless over-use, destruction, and self-displacement was repeated most rapidly by the wealthiest Southern Planters with huge land holdings and thousands of slaves, all of whom were focused on commodity crops such as tobacco and cotton. But these wasteful practices, and an accompanying ideology of short-term profit, can be seen throughout the American experience, from the first fur traders to the fracking industry today. In a chapter entitled “The Economics of Extinction,” in her beautiful Reflections from Bullough’s Pond, Diana Muir tells of the pre-colonial trade in beaver pelts, a trade driven by European fashion, the debt held by many early European settlers, and by the precarious and constant need to hold a surplus against the vicissitudes of life in a foreign land where, as Muir puts it, the Europeans, like us, believed that “one could never pile up too many goods” (11). Between around 1630 and 1675 all the beavers in New England were turned into coats and hats, hunted into extinction.
The loss of beaver however did not spell only the end of a lucrative trade, but the dying of an entire ecosystem that was responsible for the initial abundance experienced by the first settlers, as well as the entire way of life for the Native Americans. The beaver pond, after all, provides habitat for hundreds of species as well as an entire microscopic universe. As Muir describes it, the dead leaves that fall into the stagnant waters of a dammed stream creates algae, which in turn produces “food for the tiny creatures that feed the small fish that feed big fish that feed the majestic osprey. . . . Sedge, moss, arrowhead, pickerelweed, water milfoil—every plant between the ferns far up the bank and the duckweed floating on open water is home to some animal or its young, a necessary food for some growing thing” (6). But the loss of the beaver, nature’s greatest architect and landscaper, has an even greater geographical and hydrological impact upon the land, and in a way that directly affects an agricultural people. A beaver dam is a wonder of water management, moderating “the seasonal extremes of rainfall, trapping the rains of April to release them in slow, even seepage through the hot, dry days of summer and early fall” (6).
When settlers first arrived, Muir notes, New England was home to tens of thousands of beaver ponds. As important as the slow release of water, moreover, was the way millions of gallons were held behind the dams, creating a constant seepage into the ground. The result: a “reservoir of ground water so abundant that it burst in ever-flowing springs [even] on the beach,” a ground water source necessary to all “the abundance of every kind [that] impressed the first Europeans to reach these shores, abundance of strawberries in the fields and of deer in the woods, abundance of trees, and an astonishing abundance of fresh, clear water” (7). The beaver gone, the forests felled, the ground turned into fast-eroding fields, this became the hardscrabble New England that we know today. But it scarcely mattered to the European settlers; rivers could be turned into industrial mills and new land could be acquired further west, with little cost to this new economics of extinction that had great and varied abundance to churn through. Recalling Huber and Mills, the logic of the wealth retrieving machines of these new white Americans advanced much faster than the abundance retreated—over the decades, they closed in on the receding horizon.
If this economics of extinction was made possible by the cheap supply of land and the cheapness with which the lives of its inhabitants were treated, how was it justified? Most individual participants in any destructive form of commerce keep their noses down and, for the most part, are just trying to make a living or compete with their neighbors, or live up to some status-filled ideal; for them, no justification beyond immediate gain is required. But a “big picture thinker” with epic ambitions like Jefferson, one who was designing a new way of life, would require something more. This is where the notion of the infinite or the limitless scale of the Americas comes in, a notion that appears repeatedly throughout Jefferson’s work and, more significantly, informs the sort of expansionary policy that Jefferson inaugurated and that has become one of the few political solutions that has proved successful decade after decade ever since Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana Territory: when in doubt, expand and grow, a policy that has evolved from Westward expansion and Indian removal, to foreign conquest and economic imperialism. All of these expansionary solutions have been similarly cloaked with self-congratulatory stories of manifest destiny, American exceptionalism, an American Empire of Liberty or Beacon of Hope, a seven-billion member global middle class powered by Windows, and, most improbably, the myth that there are no limits to growth. This has also provides the model for categorical disregard of ecological limits that much of the world has adopted.
It is true that Jefferson is often presented as the patron saint of American homestead agriculture, the spokesman for the virtuous and modest aspiration that American citizens might bind themselves to a piece of land which they would nurture and husband, while engaging in informed participation in the difficult task of self-government. Jefferson clearly favored this agricultural model over the more commercially and financially-minded manufacture or trade promoted by Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, with whom Jefferson battled over the identity America might assume. In a famous letter to John Jay, Jefferson writes: “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country, and wedded to its liberty and interest by the most lasting bonds.” In order for the audacious American experiment in self-rule to work, the nation would need to be bound together by people also bound to the earth, or so Jefferson professed. While the image was modest, the ambition was immense and the arc of simple virtue reached towards the infinite: an Empire of Liberty.
This tension between a modest virtue and a grand ambition is illustrated in the same letter to Jay: the stay at home virtues of the yeoman farmer, tied to the land and a local community is also a sort of tool or device to be used in a far more ambitious dream in which “most valuable citizens,” whose way of living Jefferson would never have accepted for himself, appear as pawns in a policy of expansion and growth that did not develop any strategies, in the end, to limit itself. “We have now lands enough to employ an infinite number of people in their cultivation. As long therefore as they can find employment in this line, I would not convert them into mariners, artisans or anything else. But our citizens will find employment in this line till their numbers, & of course their productions, become too great for the demand both internal & foreign. This is not the case as yet, & probably will not be for a considerable time.”
Our first clue to this broader motive comes in the very question that Jefferson is addressing: the paternalistic one that asks, how should we put our new citizens to work? What occupation might best serve the political needs of the nation? But beyond the social engineering, as people on the right would refer to this today, the answer exemplifies a common Jeffersonian assumption buried in his similar response to other political questions, many of which employed for political advantage the seemingly unlimited space of the American continent. That we could waste as much land as we please makes the virtues of being tied to the land and the liberty of the nation optional and, like everything else, disposable. “We have now lands enough to employ an infinite number of people in their cultivation.” Was there really room for an infinite number of farmers? Is Jefferson serious? While he may have admitted that it wasn’t really infinite, only infinite for all practical purposes, here and elsewhere he nevertheless proceeds as if it were truly infinite or that any distant limits need not be a concern of his. The only foreseeable limits that Jefferson can even imagine are established not by land constraints, but by limits to the demand of agricultural products.
It is also interesting to consider these words in light of the post-Keynesian economic theory of Krugman and Reich, in which economic problems are generally presumed to be ones of demand rather than supply, and in the light of our multi-billion dollar advertising and marketing industry, whose main function is to address problems of demand by goading us into wanting and needing more. If there is a limit to how many farmers Jefferson thought the United States might support, it is not land. It is instead demand for their products, food, but also fiber and tobacco. This belief in infinite land pops up repeatedly in Jefferson’s writings and speeches. We have seen the way Jefferson has made some sort of truce with the wasteful techniques of agriculture in Notes on Virginia, assenting to the sacrifice of soil and “lasting bonds,” alike, to some principle of productivity or profit, and a corresponding inability to anticipate how long it might take to waste all our land. The same sort of indifference to the quickening power of exponential growth appears in his first Inaugural Address, where Jefferson predicts that this “chosen country” would have “room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation.” This, we might note, is more than ten times the generations there had been since the birth of Christ. We should also note that in the same address Jefferson spoke favorably on the exponential population expansion that the young nation was experiencing: “you will perceive that the increase in numbers during the last 10 years, proceeding in geometric ratio, promises a duplication in little more than 22 years.” This growth is viewed with nothing but optimistic pride: “we contemplate this rapid growth and the prospect it holds up to us, not with a view to the injuries it may enable us to do others in some future day, but to the settlement of the extensive country still remaining vacant within our limits to the multiplication of men susceptible of happiness, educated in the love of order, habituated to self-government, and valuing its blessings above all price.”
Jefferson’s comments on agriculture can be slightly, and perhaps purposefully, confusing. The wealthy planters who received the benefit of most of Jefferson’s policies do not share the ethic of the family farm. Likewise, it is disingenuous to suggest that labor was not plentiful in the new world, where millions of slaves toiled and were necessary to this economics of extinction. In the above mentionedMr. Jefferson’s Lost Cause, Robert Kennedy argues that in addition to the better-known divide between Jefferson’s agrarianism and Hamilton’s commerce and industry, agriculture had two distinct strains of its own. One of these, represented by the Yeoman farmer of the sort written about to John Jay, was the kind of farming Jefferson favored, at least in principle and within his soaring approbations. In contrast, was the slave-based, commodity-centered, Southern plantation, a clear precursor to today’s industrial agriculture. While Jefferson despised the slavery upon which the plantation system was built, and was eventually to mourn the devastation to the land that it wrought, he nevertheless suited his policies around the needs of the wealthy planter and at the expense of the yeoman farmer. The Louisiana Purchase and the spread of slavery westward was the most significant example of this, but the same sacrifice of his ideal pervaded a much broader series of decisions, all of which are well-documented by Kennedy. An Empire of Liberty founded on the virtues of the cultivators of the earth was the “lost cause” referred to in Kennedy’s title.
The yeoman farmer was less dependent on the money economy and foreign markets. Small family farms were far more self-sufficient and, because they were less capital-intensive, were not as ready or as able to uproot themselves even for the cheap land at the frontier. In Jefferson’s day it was already apparent that the small and diversified farmer, often laboring without slaves, provided what we would today call as more “sustainable” model. They would manure an acre of land rather than abandon it for another. This model of agriculture and its attendant virtues is significant to our broader understanding of Liberalism and America, and our attempt to find a path towards a sustainable future. As Kennedy would tell it, American history is a struggle between these two competing strains of freedom and democracy, a struggle that tore at Jefferson himself. Kennedy argues that the struggle between the free, independent, and ecologically minded family farm, on the one hand, and the more exploitative and destructive plantation, on the other, often hung in a close balance. It could have gone either way. He is particularly critical of Jefferson, who for a variety of personal and political reasons, never had quite the courage necessary to defend his ideals. In this way, Kennedy believes Jefferson could have possibly prevented the growth of slavery, the underdevelopment of the South, and even the civil war.
Kennedy’s thesis also suggests that Liberalism contains within it a sustainable strain based on lower levels of consumption and waste, and an economy tied more closely to an ecology. This view would in some sense cast doubt on my thesis that Liberalism is inherently expansionary and inherently anti-ecological. My primary response is: good! All the better if Liberalism and Enlightenment reason have the seeds of a sustainable rebirth buried within them. My goal is not to overthrow the principles of the Liberal Enlightenment just for the fun of it, but to articulate ways in which our Liberal Expectations, as they have evolved, might be reformed to fit into a finite planet. The future prospects of my two year old twin sons become all the more better if, indeed, we can retrace our steps and take some other fork in the road. They will care not a bit whether they inherit an inhabitable planet with an intact society that is Liberal, Post-Liberal, or something with an altogether different label. I am more than happy to welcome those parts of our tradition and our reigning political ideology that accept limits to consumption, that don’t value growth for growth’s sake, or believe that every problem will be solved with more technology and a step further from the soil and the land.
In any event, a number of questions still remain even if we except Kennedy’s thesis: why, most significantly, has our tradition of the yeoman farmer given way time and time again to the powers of expansion and growth? What forces or internal logic has transformed our family farmers into an industrial agricultural complex, our tradesmen and artisans into assembly line workers, our store-owners into cogs in a big-box machine, our local bankers and accountants into Wall Street masters of the universe, the good earthy folk of the North East and the Mid-West into iPad-punching account executives, marketers, and global salespeople? We have, I will argue, designed all our life supporting systems—our food, our trade, our manufacturing, our waste disposal, even our political elections—as if the world were limitless, our resources and dumps infinite. Was there ever really anything else? Did ecology ever stand a chance in the face of so profitable an economy of extinction?
It is of course satisfying to think it did, especially if we can find a villain to blame. Kennedy’s description follows the pattern we saw in our discussion of partisan warfare: the forces of destruction are thus isolated into a particular group. In this case, the Southern, slave-owning plantation owners provide a welcome target for educated, progressive, northern middle-class people. They, we can happily say, were the problem. Those values, not ours, are unsustainable. But one need not look very far to see that Jefferson’s yeoman farmer may have just been a somewhat slower version of the Southern Planter. While Kennedy emphasizes several times that the Yeoman model was successfully instituted in the North East, and areas north of the Ohio River, the marks they may have left on the terrain have long since been plowed under. A state like Wisconsin or Illinois was, at one time, the seat of diverse agriculture and then for a time the center of grain production. But wheat will deplete the soil quickly and thus the wheat belt was forced west, leaving Wisconsin to Dairy pastures. The only thing that has allowed states like Iowa or Kansas to remain in grain production was the introduction of chemical fertilizers, which have temporarily obscured the complete destruction of its soils.
Perhaps, to answer the questions posed above, like absolute power, unlimited space corrupts. Or perhaps the scales of judgment and reason cannot be balanced except against a background of limits and finitude. The illusion infinite space, like infinite energy or resources, at the very least lets one off a number of ethical hooks and solves all sorts of practical problems: without limits “and” replaces “either/or” and governing becomes the far easier project of adding benefit to benefit. Expansion helps fill the coffers; free land, like today’s tax cuts or stimulus checks, stills unrest. A bigger pie means less struggle over the relative size of one’s piece. One must believe that there is infinite land or develop some economic fantasy about a permanently growing dematerialized knowledge economy in order for this sort of “solution” not to look like you are just kicking the can down the road. Which is more or less what Jefferson did with regards to slavery, where we can see a similar sort of tension between short-term gain and the deeper principles necessary to a democratic nation. The immediate economic gain of a slave economy provided exports of sugar, cotton, and tobacco that a young cash-starved and highly indebted nation needed. For even as Jefferson believed that slavery would destroy the national soul, the lure of fantastic gain from wasted land and lives was too much for his virtue or his reason or some other part of him that was not as strong as we retrospectively might have liked. But as long as there were no visible limits, the day of reckoning could be postponed. This “problem” would have to be solved, but only later. We may scorn Jefferson’s views on slavery and remain unforgiving towards his obvious historical cultural and racial bias. But do we not tell a similar sort of story about our tremendous waste and destruction of the planet? Yes, someone needs to do something. But not yet, not until we fix the economy or make sure everyone has good internet access, or a job free from manual labor. Part of the work of reworking our political and economic beliefs and expectations involves the tricky task of separating various threads from our history.
In his magnificent portrait of the United States, The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry observes that “one of the peculiarities of the white race’s presence in America is how little intention has been applied to it.” America was of course discovered, and its inhabitants misnamed, in the course of a ill-navigated search for a short route to India; despite this fundamental and originary disorientation–or perhaps because of it–the continent was, Berry points out, thereafter “laid open in an orgy of goldseeking” whose object of desire was “always somewhere further on.” This combination of misplaced intentions and spatial bewilderment marked the beginning of a restless settling and unsettling characteristic of our culture, to treaties brokered only long enough to be betrayed, to trails of broken bodies and broken spirits and the demeaning of life and work upon which the unstoppable push westward was beaten and eventually paved. From the first days plunder to the present, Berry argues, we the inhabitants of the Americas have continued to “displace ourselves. . . with the same mixture of fantasy and avarice” (3) that Columbus and Cortez first combined with such explosive results. Jefferson is of special interest to this story precisely because he is not entirely given over to this fantasy and avarice, but is concerned about the virtues necessary for peaceful democratic self-rule. Jefferson was no conquistador. Peace and independence ranked far higher in his scheme than sudden riches. And yet he cannot resist what Berry refers to as this tendency to displace ourselves and what I would refer to as the mist-taking of America, both of which cannot be fully dissociated from the disorientating experience of an incomprehensibly large space at the edge of which Christopher Columbus ran aground.
Contrary to popular legend, Columbus did not believe the Earth was flat. That myth was brokered by Washington Irving in an attempt to make pre-modern Europeans appear irremediably stupid and ourselves, in contrast, impeachably advanced. But Columbus did believe the Earth to be significantly smaller than it is and, because of a simple, almost comic, transcription error, insisted that the 19,000 mile westward trip from Europe to Asia was more like 2,000. Had he not run aground when he did, on an unmapped land, Columbus and his men would have soon starved to death as they drifted off into obscurity. Until his death, nevertheless, Columbus maintained that with his landing in the “East Indies” he had indeed found passage to the edge of Asia. But given the overriding purposes of the day, it scarcely mattered which hemisphere Columbus had stumbled upon, and his staggering geographical disorientation did nothing to diminish his jubilation, nor inhibit the ensuing orgy of plunder or the grandeur of the fantasy and avarice with which he carried it out. His initial impression of the first Native Americans he encountered was how their open friendliness and thus how easy they would be to slay or enslave, both of which he promptly set out to prove. In his first report to his sponsors in the Spanish Court, Columbus likewise promised them “as much gold as they need. . . and as many slaves as they ask.” The mortality rate in the Islands Columbus visited approached 90% in many cases. Although we don’t like to think about it too much, we, middle-class Americans, are the beneficiaries of this mistaking of America, and it is only by turning away from the details of his three eventual rampages through the Caribbean and the coast of Central America that Columbus remains a celebrated hero in the United States.
In this way did Columbus begin a process which I would call the mis-taking of America: where cognitive, accounting, or navigational errors actually leads to a great and successful plundering, where “Indians” are either removed or made invisible according to a philosophy based on a distinction between civilization and savagery; where civilization attempts to wash itself clean in a state of nature, which it then proceeds to clear, mine, and develop into oblivion; where the political and spiritual renewal that an empty frontier promises is used to justify the emptying of that frontier of its native inhabitants so that it might be reworked according to European ideals of property, cultivation, and advancement, often by slaves kidnapped from Africa—with the whole charade of avarice held together with high-sounding philosophical and scientific fantasy. Thus do cognitive and error and moral blindness feed off of each other and thus do they create a disorientation and moral unmooring–one which can be seen most vividly today in our relationship to energy and the environment.
I am not of course the first to depict the particular moral and political development of the United States in terms of the vast space of the Americas. This honor likely goes to historian Frederick Jackson Turner and his late nineteenth century “Frontier Thesis,” according to which our national development was best explained by our history of westward expansion. Turner’s overriding purpose was to explain the uniqueness of the “American character,” especially in comparison to the European one, which was at the time mired in conflict. My question, of course, is quite different in that it asks “how is it that we, the most enlightened and technologically advanced people, are unable to see where our current trajectory will take us?” But the role of a vast and bountiful space takes center-stage in both approaches. While for most nations, according to Turner, “development has occurred in a limited area,” America has developed through its continued expansion into an open frontier: “Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explains American development” (The Frontier in American History 1). More specifically, as the frontier line advanced, Jackson proposes, settlers were continually confronted with primitive, even savage conditions, and the newly cast civilization was repeatedly forced its forge itself anew out of the wilderness: “this perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character” (2).
Turner, of course, remains oblivious to the peoples and the cultures who did in fact inhabit a frontier that was neither free nor open. His is a history most clearly written from the standpoint of the conqueror. Armed with Enlightenment principles such as the “state of nature” in which human civilization would be laid bare and cleansed of its sediment so that it might enjoy perennial rebirth, Turner provides one more example of the mis-taking of America. The American character, according to Turner, is marked by:
a coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom–these are traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier. Since the days when the fleet of Columbus sailed into the waters of the New World, America has been another name for opportunity, and the people of the United States have taken their tone from the incessant expansion which has not only been open but has even been forced upon them.
Not adequately characterized, here, is a blinding arrogance that is shared by Turner, an inability to understand who, at this meeting point between “savagery and civilization,” the real savages were. The terrible “expedients” that these restless heroes were so quick to find need to be named, the “great ends” need to be defined. For these were a people who had tools and weapons of great power, and beguiling trinkets; they carried devastating disease, were unmoored by exuberance and opportunism, and were animated by new beliefs that released them from any sense of bounded limits. They were smart, no doubt, and quick. But they were not wise. They knew how to conquer and exploit, but it is unclear they ever learned how to settle.
In discussing the “unsettling of America,” Wendell Berry suggests that “the first principle of the exploitative mind is to divide and conquer. And surely there has never been a people more ominously and painfully divided that we are—both against each other and within ourselves (11). The roots of this divide—which, in contrast to Turner, Berry believes to be the most significant product of our restless advance against a settled frontier–of course lie in our history: in a history where we have been competing with each other and the earth at the expense of both. In contrast to the illusion of infinity provided by the immense stretch of land embedded in our modern picture of the world, Berry looks to the divine as a source of wholeness that might heal these divisions. But “we can make ourselves whole only by accepting our partiality, by living within our limits, by being human—not by trying to be gods” (95).
To this I would only add that the lure of infinite reason becomes insensible to that reason’s limits. As Alasdair MacIntyre reminds us, “reason is calculative; it can assess truths of fact and mathematical relations but nothing more. In the realm of practice therefore it can speak only of means. About ends it must be silent” (After Virtue 54). But our reason and logic has been ruthlessly self-assertive. In the age of infinite reason, and upon the land where it was unleashed, our ends, unguided by anything else, are given to the aggressive impulses of expansion—bigger, faster, more, and yet more still. Liberalism, at least as it has evolved so far, might be described of as a system where the ends—the values and goals that guide our practices—are a reflection only of the calculating and opportunistic means we have mistaken with truth itself: expansion, because we have cleared the space for it; wealth, because it makes everyone wealthy; growth, because it permits future growth; competition, because it keeps us competitive; freedom, because it prevents any hindrance to our aims, whatever they might be.