Much has been made – and rightly so – of the almost-40% drop in median family wealth in the United States in the last five years – from $126,400 to $77,300. The main reason was the collapse of the housing market. But the recession has taken its toll in other ways, particularly through high unemployment, much of it unrecorded but obvious to those who see growing numbers of homeless people begging on our city streets. The current election is being fought over two economic visions, as David Brooks described last Friday: the Democrats’ contention that the welfare state got hijacked by the ultra-rich and fairness needs to be reinstated vs. the Republicans’ argument that the welfare state is obsolete and needs to be replaced with something more dynamic that would create “an efficiency explosion.”
In 1972 some people from MIT published The Limits to Growth, which argued that spiraling economic and population growth would soon come up against the limits of a finite world. The thesis enjoyed a short day in the sun, not least because of the first great oil crisis that had people shooting each other waiting in lines at gas stations. Then oil prices dropped precipitously, and the world seemed limitless again.
But maybe the authors were right, and decades of relatively cheap oil obscured the enormous pressures we continue to put on our environment – creating feedback loops of resource extraction and population growth that we cannot sustain and cycles of hunger and poverty that we should not countenance.