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Missing the point about 'growth'

The consequences of the sudden eruption of global crisis in 2007-8 took many by surprise. Amongst those struggling to incorporate these dramatic changes into their overly fatalistic views are the growing number of people concerned about the depletion of resources and changes in climate.

David Holmgren is the leading advocate of permaculture, a design philosophy which has evolved since its inception in the 1970s as “an integrated, evolving system of perennial or self-perpetuating plant and animal species useful to man”, in other words “permanent or sustainable agriculture”.

Its current all-encompassing vision is one of “permanent or sustainable culture” covering all of human activity, which is divided into seven domains guided by a set of ethics and design principles. Permaculture is defined as an approach to designing human settlements and agricultural systems that mimic the relationships found in natural ecologies.

Holmgren’s views are seminal for many, including those active in the Transition Initiative, who have come to realise that we humans cannot continue to live on the planet, producing in a way which depletes resources and destroys the ecosystems we depend on.

In his latest essay, Money vs Fossil Energy: the battle for control of the world, he tries, as he says, to “provide a framework for understanding the ideological roots of the current global crisis”.

Holmgren finds common cause with many who attribute the current problems to a society that pursues the myth of the possibility of continued economic growth but adopts an approach that is as confusing as it is misleading. His one-sided obsession with growth fails to realise that capitalist society has always been like a roller-coaster. It alternates between periods of growth which reach the limits of credit-fuelled overproduction, followed by ever-worsening periods of contraction and destruction.

For much of his explanation, Holmgren relies on what he presents as two counter posing camps – the money people, those who believe that wealth is the result of human ingenuity or “human brilliance”, versus those who believe that wealth comes from nature, the oil people.

However hard you look, you won’t find a definition of “wealth” itself in Holmgren’s essay. And it’s this omission that’s at the heart of his pessimistic, fatalist, survivalist conclusion. The best we can hope to achieve, he argues, are “resilient and relocalised economies that will grow at the margins abandoned by the dinosaurs of the declining global industrial culture.”

Holmgren’s one-or-the-other explanation excludes the reality that what we produce – including the reproduction of ourselves – is actually the result of humans applying their ingenuity to the nature that they are part of.

Marx’s investigations led him to the inner dynamic of social evolution to unravel the contradictory opposites of use-value and exchange-value. Use-values are the outer, physical form of commodities, the things we can and do actually use. Exchange value constitutes the amount of socially-necessary human labour expended in the production of the use-value.

Capitalist production is driven by the pursuit of the profits extracted from the production of intangible exchange-value, destroying the ecosystem in a way which arises almost accidentally out of the alienation of present social relationships. A truly global society that supersedes capitalism will consciously organise its social relations to identify and produce what is needed – use-values – in a way which is consistent with maintaining the conditions for life on the planet.

Evidence is mounting that the phony recovery brought about by torrents of credit imagined into existence to prevent financial and economic Armageddon has run out of steam and the feared “double-dip recession” is well under way. Holmgren leaves capitalist society to continue on its path of destruction. Surely our task is to replace it.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor
13 October 2010

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