A large crowd had gathered at the Carriageworks in Millennium Square, Leeds, last night to hear Daniel Ben-Ami and Clive Lord debate the limits of economic growth.
I use the emphasis because it wasn’t really a debate, more, a general airing of well formed opinions, prejudices and delusions by the speakers and audience members alike. I can say this because at no point during the evening was the skill of critical thinking allowed. I will explain why later but it was not for the want of knowledge. At one point in the evening, I thought it was a competition to see who had read the most books around the subject, such was the lexicon of references.
It was clear that Daniel Ben-Ami was in the minority with his, “Growth is Good” premise and he rolled off the usual litany of technological achievements in medicine and the like. Unfortunately, his defence of the concept was about as robust as a string vest. Such was the confusion between technological innovation, capitalism, competition, human nature, economic wealth and happiness, that no-one could even begin to make a considered argument on such a swamp of shifting sands. This was a missed opportunity which could have been rescued if the focus had been on an example of what happens when untrammelled growth is followed through to its logical conclusion. And we have such an example, it is the, ‘tragedy of the seas.’
Technological innovation has improved the fish finding capabilities and catching methods of trawlers immeasurably. Actually we can measure the improvement, because there is very little fish left in the seas to catch. Also, with only a national sense of ownership and not a global one, the open seas are a paradise for any unbridled capitalist – the richest and most powerful take as much as they want leaving nothing for the less able or for future generations. The very worst predictions of the environmentalists regarding declining fish stocks are coming true. The economic and environmental destruction of the oceans is a disgrace which future generations (if they survive) will refer to in exactly the same way that we now refer to Easter Island as a salutary lesson in human greed and stupidity.
When I put this question of the fish stocks to Daniel Ben-Ami, he conceded it was a difficult one for which he had no ready answers but concluded that it was a just a political problem.
But, Mr Ben-Ami, everything is a political problem; damming the head waters of a river that also irrigates the fields of a country further down the precious artery, is a political problem, the fact that a tiny minority of the human population own the vast majority of the wealth is a political problem…civilisation is all about people therefore it is all a political problem.
I also suspect he had no ready answers because time has run out for the fishing industry and technology has not, miraculously, come to its rescue (fish farms, by the way, produce a net loss in terms of sustainability – they require more feed than they actually produce).
The incredible short sightedness of Daniel Ben-Ami’s vision was also telling. He boasted about the increasing life-span of humans when compared with the Victorian era (come, come, that’s like comparing life expectancy of today with the life expectancy of the population during 1942-1945 in say, Poland, particularly, Auschwitz) It was also symptomatic that he used the concept of longevity as a commodity to add to the growing list of stuff. The question was not raised however as to why the next generation will be showing a reversing of this longevity trend due to diseases of affluence – diabetes, heart disease, cancer et al.
I think it is important that people like Mr Ben-Ami gives everyone the heads up on important issues and I was fully prepared to amend my own views if a strong enough polemic was forthcoming from the discussion. I personally didn’t hear one last night but having said that, it was interesting to hear other peoples points of view and the subject matter was sufficiently emotive to stimulate fierce debate in the pub afterwards.