Inside the unbreakable conspiracy of silence


What do you say to someone who wakes up from 38-year coma? That’s exactly how I felt after reading the first chapter of E.F. Schumacher’s old book, “Small is Beautiful.” It’s as if I’d read the book on night back in 1973, fallen asleep, and been shaken awake today—only to find nothing positive had actually happened.

Who is Schumacher? He’s a dead white guy. He exited in 1977, so he’s been gone a while. Before that he was a German economist who was interned in Scotland during the war, published an essay which was “discovered” by the great Maynard Keynes—Lord Keynes—for whom he worked, studied under and later abandoned. Schumacher had moral issues with Keynes, who theorized that “fair is foul, and foul fair—for foul is useful and fair is not.”

What Keynes was really saying was this. In order to create global wealth, short-term policies should favour avarice and greed as wealth-creation generators. In a kind of giant “trickle down effect” this new wealth would filter down to the world’s poor, and everyone would live more or less happily ever after.

Schumacher didn’t buy it. As the chief economist for the British coal board, he knew that natural resources were limited, especially fossil fuel. He began to fiercely criticize the corporate economists who, he observed, had confused “income” with “capital.” Schumacher believed, correctly, that neither nations nor global businesses were factoring the worth of “natural capital” into their financial equations. They, in fact, were placing no value at all on these capital assets, at least at the time. Here’s Schumacher in his own words:

“The illusion of unlimited powers, nourished by astonishing scientific and technological achievements, has produced the concurrent illusion of having solved the problem of production. The latter illusion is based on the failure to distinguish between income and capital…the irreplaceable capital which man has not made, but simply found, and without which he can do nothing.”

If natural capital was more or less “free” on the balance sheets, then corporate income could be further maximized by adjusting other predictable inputs, such as reducing labour costs, another practice that Schumacher detested.

He went on to calculate the effects of exponential consumption of fossil fuel, and predicted dire consequences by the year 2000—such as oil wars in the unstable Middle East, dwindling reserves of oil, rising energy prices and the increasing dependency of have-not regions, such as Japan and Europe, on foreign oil. I haven’t checked out the numbers, but at first glance it appears that Schumacher’s most pessimistic conclusions have come true. For almost 40 years we’ve done nothing to kick the oil habit. We’re using more than ever, every day.

Someone recently wrote to tell me that he enjoyed reading my column but disagreed with my “fossil fuel politics.” Up until then I hadn’t realized that I had any fossil fuel politics. I’d only been worrying about what’s going to happen when we start running low on the stuff.

Lately, though, I’ve met with a few politicians who do have some political interest around fossil fuel issues. Yet not one of the politicians I have met will publicly announce that we’re facing a serious energy crisis in the years ahead. But in private it’s a different story. One retired politician admitted to me that we’re all headed for a very rough time in just 10 to 20 years. He said it quietly, as if just uttering the words would send them leaking through the walls.

Here’s the real situation, and it’s much worse than we’re being told on the evening news. We have just hit or will soon be hitting “peak oil.” That means we’re on the 50-year downward slide to near total depletion. Can your kids imagine life without oil? They’d better get used to it. We’re also on the way to hitting “peak population,” about 9 billion of us by the year 2050. We’re simultaneously entering a period of “peak economic globalization,” which means that the “developing” nations will be striving to attain the same standard of living as the rest of us, including our rates of mass consumption. And some time in this century, before all the oil is gone, we’ll hit “peak natural resource thresholds,” which may include runaway climate change, drought, species extinction, exhaustion of rare minerals and other interesting phenomena.

And the most interesting phenomenon is how little we hear about this from the mainstream media. It’s as if there were a conspiracy to keep us hooked on reality shows, shopping in malls and hanging out on-line—to banish these dire thoughts from our minds. Or focusing our attention on “fear-for-profit” issues such as swine flu, economic meltdowns and job losses. The intention of our leaders, both corporate and government, seems to be aimed at keeping everyone’s head down. And it must be working. In fact, Schumacher wrote about this same kind of conspiracy in relation to industrial labourers (many of whom have been “off-shored” since then).

“That soul destroying, meaningless, mechanical, monotonous, moronic work is an insult to human nature which must necessarily and inevitably produce either escapism or aggression, and that no amount of “bread and circuses” can compensate for the damage done—these are the facts which are neither denied nor acknowledged but are met with an unbreakable conspiracy of silence—because to deny then would be too obviously absurd and to acknowledge them would condemn the central preoccupation of modern society as a crime against humanity.”

Schumacher’s message is more than clear. The future won’t support endless industrial progress based on greed. Human consumption has natural limits, which we are now exceeding. A long list of eminent thinkers agree, from earth scientist James Lovelock to economist John Gray to former politician and traveling climate activist Al Gore.

But if we’re publicly hearing most of the big thinkers agree—despite the silence in the mainstream media—why are so few of us actually concerned, not to mention doing something about it? Are we simply that stupid? Or could it be that we just don’t care what we leave to our children?

Come to think about it, why is it so hard to wake up from my own coma—and start practicing what I already know? It’s not that hard to figure out. We’re running out of oil and there’s going to be hell to pay.


Popular Posts