Money has made the world go round for a long time. Roman currency in a museum in Edinburgh. Picture by Yann Bourdeau

Infinite Growth by Yann Bourdeau

Jun 22, 2023

I’m not an economist, but I’ve been thinking lately of the infinite growth doctrine. When I was studying my computer science program at university, I had to take one economics class. It was an introduction to how capitalist economies work. I was very interested in the subject. The professor was pro-neoliberalism and for “free trade” of the economy. He said “free trade” was the best way to optimize the economy. Countries which have free trade agreements with other countries optimize themselves in specific economic areas. Each country specializes what they do best. Sure, he said, some part of the economy of a country will disappear, but displaced workers will be used in the new-growing part of the economy. In this economic theory, there are no losers. Everybody is a winner. It will even help the population of poor countries to gain at a better way of life. In other words, they’d also become richer. In the future, the “free market” will make all the countries on an equal footing. The salary of the workers in the poorest countries will rise as the money pours into the country. That’s what was taught.

At first, I believed everything he said, and it seemed like to be the best thing to do. Now after forty years of neoliberalism, I don’t see the poor in developing countries getting richer. It’s only the rich getting richer. The displaced workers are rarely, if ever, given help to go back to school to learn a new trade. Even when re-training resources are available, it’s still not easy to restart at fifty years old (or older). Usually, workers who lose their jobs due to relocation of their jobs to a developing country do not stand a chance to keep the same wage they were making. Also, the money that goes into the poorest countries for goods goes into the pockets of the companies exploiting the workers, not the pockets of the workers.

I firmly believe in democracy and not in authoritarian government. According to the teachings of my professor, it would follow that the neoliberalization of a country like China should have opened the country toward democracy. It’s what they’ve said. It was the plan they sold us, but China is even more menacing and authoritarian than ever. I think it’s a failure of neoliberalism to conflate people’s “freedom” to buy goods to democratic freedom. Chinese businesses and government agencies took all the money that came with the relocation of the economy while still enforcing its punitive, authoritarian politics. What are the working conditions of the average worker in Apple factories in China? They’re treated more like indentured servants than free workers.

Another facet of the “free market” theory was that countries with tied economies don’t go to war against each other. Well, that didn’t work after all. Look at the Russia war with Ukraine. Russia had and has massive economic relations with Western Europe, and Putin still went to war with Ukraine.

I’m starting to disagree with the infinite growth mantra of economists. It seems that we will need more than one planet to feed our need in natural resources to fuel the economy. We currently consume natural resources more than the earth can renew. We consume 1.75 earths of natural resources (source in French) in a year. Simple math states this cannot be sustained forever. Technocrats and “disruptors” claim that newer technology will increase production and save us, as with the agricultural revolution. They claim we won’t be able to sustain the growing population of the world without these new, unproven technologies.

The trouble is that, currently, there is enough food produced to feed the entire world, yet food insecurity remains a global threat. Starvation is rampant in many African countries due to wars and climate change.

Meanwhile, the richest countries destroy their “surplus” of food in order to artificially keep prices higher. Food in the richest economies is subsidized by their governments, which makes it all the more difficult for the poor countries, to start producing food at competitive prices. These types of subsidies were decried by my economics professor. He claimed that subsidizing goods is not true “free market” capitalism when only supply and demand should happen, that the market would decide. The subsidies put the countries of Africa in a difficult position. They’re disincentivized to develop local food production and be self-sufficient because it’s cheaper to buy subsidized food from abroad. It makes them always dependant on other countries. People and countries must be allowed to remain self-sufficient.

I was talking with my best friend about the ads of the Alberta petroleum industry on TV in my province (Québec). The ads admit that drilling, refining, shipping, and burning petroleum and natural gas affects the climate but they’re working on this by doing research on “carbon capture,” which is absolutely wrong. For those who don’t know, “carbon capture” does not work. It consumes more energy (meaning more carbon) than the carbon it captures at high levels of efficiency. I was telling him these ads really frustrated me. He asked me, “You’ve never heard about ‘clean coal’ in the U.S.?” I did watch a video on YouTube about this from Climate Town. I thought the petroleum association was disingenuous, but I didn’t realize how far the U.S. has been going with “clean coal.” The subsidization of the “clean coal” thing is just crazy. Governments are funneling obscene amounts of money into non-viable technologies instead of putting it in green, sustainable, and renewable energy. If I were a U.S. citizen, I’d be very angry at my government for putting money in “clean coal.” This subsidization is just bad and a wrong usage of money. Canada ended its subsidization of the petroleum industry at the end of 2022. It seems the government kept subsidies for carbon capture technologies research of the petroleum industry, which I found stupid. I’m far from the only one. It is also decried by the NDP federal political party. (Full disclosure: I’m a member of this party.)

I was reading the newspaper and I found this article about unemployment (in French) and its link to inflation interesting. In it, it reports the unemployment rate must be at 6% to not incur inflation. What I took from this, it is the 6% of the population must be in extreme poverty to allow the way of life of the luckier others. It bothered me very much. I don’t want to induce to 6% of my fellow citizens a miserable life in order to sustain my good life. I’m in a very good situation, and the system did work for me. I don’t consider myself to be special. I think anyone could be in my situation. With everything that’s happened in my life, it was a bit of luck to be where I ended. Sure, I’m a hard worker but that’s not sufficient to succeed.

I remember something my psychiatrist of the Douglas Mental Institute told me: the neoliberalism system was working in my case. I had a good job, an apartment, and private insurances that paid me 80% of my wages while I was incapacitated. I had the feeling that it was the first and only time he said that. Usually, the people in my situation do not have all the things I had. They go to the hospital and are helped to stay in an apartment; if not, then to the street. It’s hard to take the medications when you live on the street.

I do not have a better system than capitalism to propose, but at least I can find negative things about it. I hope, at some point, we will evolve as humans to a more equalitarian system that leaves no one behind.

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