Black Friday has become an orgiastic celebration of unbridled consumerism. And earlier this month, Pope Francis wrote a letter to world leaders saying, “There are constant assaults on the natural environment, the result of unbridled consumerism, and this will have serious consequences for the world economy.”
Black Friday is a sort of reverse “Hunger Games,” an annual ritualized competition, but one built around overabundance, rather than scarcity. It is perhaps the inevitable outcome of a country whose citizens are commonly referred to as “consumers.”
So what better time to think about how the global economic system is a Ponzi scheme, an utterly unsustainable system that effectively takes wealth from our children and future generations — wealth in the form of ground water, arable land, fisheries, a livable climate — to prop up our carbon-intensive lifestyles?
We cannot stop catastrophic climate change — in the long term and possibly even the medium-term — without a pretty dramatic change to our overconsumption-based economic system. We have already overshot the Earth’s biocapacity — and the overshoot gets worse every year.
“A quarter of the energy we use is just in our crap,” physicist Saul Griffith explains in his detailed discussion of our carbon footprint. You can watch the MacArthur genius award winner soberly dissect his formerly unsustainable lifestyle here and here.
Or listen to the MSNBC interview of “Reverend Billy Talen of the Church of Stop Shopping.” Seriously (sort of). Or you can read the Onion’s black humor, “Chinese Factory Worker Can’t Believe The Shit He Makes For Americans.”
The tragic irony is that much of this holiday shopping is supposedly for our kids — and yet this overconsumption is a core part of our climate inaction, which, as President Obama has said, is a betrayal of our children!
Now it’s true, as I’ve said, that if we ever get really serious about avoiding catastrophic climate change, we could dramatically cut national and global emissions for decades under the auspices of our basic economic system. You could use a high and rising price for CO2 plus smart regulations to encourage efficiency at a state and national level.
Also, the end to hyper-consumerism is not something amenable to legislation. It is most likely to come when we are desperate — when the reality that we are destroying a livable climate is so painful that we give it up voluntarily, albeit reluctantly, like a smoker diagnosed with early-stage emphysema. Bill Clinton didn’t become vegan until after he experienced serious heart trouble — twice.
Climate science is clear that inaction is suicidal. That’s why “virtually all” climatologists “are now convinced that global warming is a clear and present danger to civilization,” as Lonnie Thompson has put it.
A 2013 New York Times opinion piece by an Iraqi war veteran, “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene,” explains that a quantum shift in mindset is inevitable:
Civilizations have throughout history marched blindly toward disaster, because humans are wired to believe that tomorrow will be much like today — it is unnatural for us to think that this way of life, this present moment, this order of things is not stable and permanent. Across the world today, our actions testify to our belief that we can go on like this forever, burning oil, poisoning the seas, killing off other species, pumping carbon into the air, ignoring the ominous silence of our coal mine canaries in favor of the unending robotic tweets of our new digital imaginarium. Yet the reality of global climate change is going to keep intruding on our fantasies of perpetual growth, permanent innovation and endless energy, just as the reality of mortality shocks our casual faith in permanence.
The biggest problem climate change poses isn’t how the Department of Defense should plan for resource wars, or how we should put up sea walls to protect Alphabet City, or when we should evacuate Hoboken. It won’t be addressed by buying a Prius, signing a treaty, or turning off the air-conditioning. The biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead….
The choice is a clear one. We can continue acting as if tomorrow will be just like yesterday, growing less and less prepared for each new disaster as it comes, and more and more desperately invested in a life we can’t sustain. Or we can learn to see each day as the death of what came before, freeing ourselves to deal with whatever problems the present offers without attachment or fear.
In the words of British poet Matthew Arnold, we are: “Wandering between two worlds, one dead / The other powerless to be born.”
On the subject of our global Ponzi scheme, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman interviewed me for a column back in 2009:
“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.”
The adults, in short, are not standing up. Sadly, most haven’t even taken the time to understand that they should.
And so every generation that comes after the Baby Boomers is poised to experience the dramatic changes in lifestyle that inevitably follow the collapse of any Ponzi scheme.
Regular readers are familiar with this metaphor of a global Ponzi scheme. But it bears repeating briefly on Black Friday since it is not just a metaphor, but a central organizing narrative of how to think about the fix we have put ourselves in. As an aside, since some shopping is unavoidable, remember that Black Friday is 50 times more carbon-intensive than Cyber Monday.
What exactly is a Ponzi scheme? Wikipedia says it’s a “fraudulent investment operation that pays returns to investors from their own money or money paid by subsequent investors rather than from profit.”
“The Ponzi scheme usually offers abnormally high short-term returns in order to entice new investors. The perpetuation of the high returns that a Ponzi scheme advertises and pays requires an ever-increasing flow of money from investors in order to keep the scheme going.”
In our case, investors (i.e. current generations) are paying themselves (i.e. you and me) by taking the nonrenewable resources and livable climate from future generations. To perpetuate the high returns the rich countries in particular have been achieving in recent decades, we have been taking an ever greater fraction of nonrenewable energy resources (especially hydrocarbons) and natural capital (fresh water, arable land, forests, fisheries), and, the most important nonrenewable natural capital of all — a livable climate.
See also the study “The Monetary Cost of the Non-Use of Renewable Energies,” which finds that “every day we delay substituting renewables for fossil fuels,” every day “fossil raw materials are consumed as one-time energy creates a future usage loss of between 8.8 and 9.3 billion US Dollars.” Oil and coal are essentially too valuable to burn even ignoring the cost of their climate-destroying emissions.
“The system is destined to collapse because the earnings, if any, are less than the payments.”
According to this piece on the shocking World Bank climate report: “A 4°C [7°F] world can, and must, be avoided’ to avert ‘devastating’ impacts”: Usually, the scheme is interrupted by legal authorities before it collapses because a Ponzi scheme is suspected or because the promoter is selling unregistered securities.
Yes, well, the authorities (i.e. world leaders, opinion makers, the cognoscenti) haven’t been doing much interrupting over the past two to three decades since, unlike a typical Ponzi scheme, they are heavily invested in the scheme and addicted to the returns!
We aren’t all Madoffs in the sense of people who have knowingly created a fraudulent Ponzi scheme for humanity. But given all of the warnings from scientists and international governments and independent energy organizations over the past quarter-century — it has gotten harder and harder for any of us to pretend that we are innocent victims, that we aren’t just hoping we can maintain our own personal wealth and well-being for a few more decades before the day of reckoning. Après nous le déluge.
Certainly the recent U.S.-China climate deal is an important step to take us off the road to unimaginable 11°F warming, but we will need to do a great deal more for decades to come to avoid catastrophic 7°F warming. Switching off of coal and onto carbon-free sources of energy is an essential first start. But we are still going to have to end our hypermaterialism to avoid collapse.