Unplugging Our Economic Ponzi Scheme

If the human species hopes to continue thriving, we have to embrace a new model that doesn’t rely on population growth.

| December 2011/January 2012


In recent decades, the status quo has relied on cheap fossil fuels, exhausting resources we cannot replace. 


 “Change before you have to.”  
 — Jack Welch, former chairman and CEO, General Electric Co.

In 1977, the editors of MOTHER EARTH NEWS published a sprawl­ing Economic Outlook that pre­sented a number of bold, disturbing as­sertions that emphasized our need for a new economic model:

• Capitalism, as we know it, is designed to exploit newly discovered resources and will flounder when we run out of new frontiers to conquer.
• The human population continues to grow rapidly.
• We can recognize and pre­dict coming shortages of oil, irrigation water and arable land.
• The health of our current world economy is con­tingent upon continued population growth and the discovery of new natu­ral resources.
• We need new economic systems to support a “steady state” econo­my — an economy of stable size with only mild fluctuations in population and consumption of en­ergy and materials.

To support their thesis, the editors (led by MOTHER EARTH NEWS founders John and Jane Shuttleworth) quoted historian Walter Prescott Webb, whose 1951 book The Great Frontier warned that when we run out of natural resources, our economic systems will stop working.

My predecessors wrote: “Western man’s clever technology, self-motivation, work ethic, economic system, and regard for the individual all came after and are all solidly rooted in the windfall resources and profits of The Great Frontier ... And now that most of the cream has been skimmed from this windfall, capitalism (the economic sys­tem so ideally suited for the exploitation of a seemingly endless storehouse of natu­ral riches) will decline, prosperity will slip through (our) fingers ...  

“... Western Man’s 450-year-long expan­sionary binge — which was fueled by inex­pensive, plentiful energy and other natural resources — is now drawing to a close. And, just as Walter Prescott Webb predicted [in 1951!] ... the industrialized nations of the world are having a difficult time under­standing what is happening to them.”  

It’s now 2011, 60 years after Webb’s warning. The global recession is now about 3 years old. Are we “having a dif­ficult time understanding” what is hap­pening to us? Yes, I think so.

jc fool
3/14/2013 4:55:12 AM

The 10B is arrived at by simply projecting present trends forward. It does not take into account any potential problems (like TSHTF) that might crop up along the way. We will never get there. We couldn't even if we wanted to. Once the dust has settled in a couple of hundred years and all the resources that let this present cancerous growth develop have been consumed we'll drop back down to our natural carrying capacity of 1B +/- 500M. Better learn how to farm or else put your head between your legs and...

judson witham
1/3/2012 7:34:53 PM


judson witham
1/3/2012 7:34:06 PM

A $100 Bill weighs a Gram and so 28.6 $100s are worth $2860.00 a Pound of SCRIP or Bills Of Credit Are Worth $45,760.000 and a Ton = $91,520,000.,00 So lets see they PRINT if from Thin Air and Gee Well This FIAT PAPER STUFF is all over the World. Can MENs tell me though What is the CRACK of the Ponzi Scheme again. Hello

t brandt
12/20/2011 2:49:53 PM

Capitalism & freedom is the economic equivalent of evolution thru mutation & natural selection. In Nature, a species survives when it is well adapted to its environment, but capable of rapid adaptation to a changing environment because it has many "experimental" mutations already available in the gene pool. Capitalism allows its experiments to continue. Socialism exists as a stagnant paradigm, discouraging experimentation....Our consumeristic paradigm is headed towards failure as resources are depleted, but we have the dilemma that without consumerism, we lose jobs & the economy is disrupted...Borlaug's Green Revolution doubled ag yield, allowing a doubling of population. But now, if the technology fails, the population will crash back to "pre-revolution" levels...Allegorically speaking, Noah didn't try to save everybody. Verbum sapienti sufficit.

julia mason
12/20/2011 2:11:02 AM

I don't recall "overpopulation" being the rallying cry for Al Gore. Why are you bringing him to this conversation? Although there are many many square miles on the planet, precious few of them are fit for habitation. Ponder the waste disposal system for a gathering of one billion people, let alone 7 billion. . . We are not running out of space, we are running out of resources. To take just one tiny example, talk to professional fishermen--the big fish just aren't out there any more. We collapsed the cod population way back in 1992. Bluefin Tuna is collapsing as we sit here at our computer screens. It's true that different people consume different amounts of resources, but this negates none of the points made in this article.

p esainko
12/19/2011 6:21:18 PM

The human planet will top 10 billion and can survive the peak, though the problem’s not space but waste (an illusion) and distraction (a bad primate habit). Rather is Nature meditating, How shall I extinguish thee, let me count the ways: CO2—up, by Keeling’s curve, nearing 400ppm, and rising faster than ever; ice, best and final fresh water source, melting faster than before; living things, whose demise robs patenters of varied DNA, vanishing faster in spite of humanitarian help. While wringing hands, realize the Keeling curve holds a mirror to you, and the picture is ugly. In a paper not yet published, I outlined these problems and two solutions, one needing a positive Shock from …let’s just say the Dreamtime… that can energize your better selves to act, the other .. let’s just say you don’t want to know. But you need no paper from anyone to see the ground preparing itself to wake humanity or shrug it off: Arab Spring, Indignados Summer, Occupier Fall… who in 2010 saw this ahead, especially in the grumpy, moribund US? With luck, it’s a prelude, not a Wagnerian intro to Night Falls on the Gods.

carla hanson
12/19/2011 3:27:31 PM

There is much that I agree with in this article. If business owners began businesses with the goal of providing a good product at a good price for customers and at the same time providing a just wage for themselves AND their employees, then the problems associated with Enron and corporate greed would disappear. This would require a whole different mindset for business--one in line with Christianity in fact. However, there is a mistaken underlying premise in your article. You state as fact the common "wisdom" that we are running out of space on Earth and cannot sustain a higher population, but simple math proves that it just isn't so. The entire world's population of 7 billion could live with quarter acre lots for every family in Alaska (or any place the same size as Alaska) leaving the entire remainder of the world available for agricultural cultivation. I'm not saying we should all move to Alaska or even to one place, but it does put things in perspective. I fear that so many purveyors of the myth of overpopulation have as their real goal something like "more for me if there are less of you." Look at Al Gore's enormous mansion as a great example. No doubt it consumes more energy than many villages throughout the world. Am I the only one who sees something wrong with that level of consumption in one who cries "overpopulation"?

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