Bring me my horse!

A horse is a unique status symbol, even in the XXIst century. In The India Road there is plenty of horseplay, but the equine variety is the province of a privileged few. The Perfect Prince, the spy, and a few others are the only ones who own a horse; the common people walk.

Today’s equivalent of a horse is the automobile, and in the western world anyone can aspire to ride one. The same is true of many other aspirations: it is unquestionable that never in the US and Europe have so many lived so well – although a politician can sink without trace in that swampy ground. Humans are forever dissatisfied, and I often thought that the Swedes had the highest suicide rate in the world because they had so many blessings already. The devil finds work for idle hands.

The satanic unemployment agency does however fall far short of what is needed to resolve the problems that plague the West. I noted recently that we cannot find jobs in developed countries without being prepared to pay the real cost of the goods we consume. If Jane and Joe Citizen want to pay the current prices for electronic goods, household appliances, or a vast range of other items, then they need to realise they’re also throwing their jobs away. Reducing consumption reduces imports, but now we’ve come this far, are we prepared to lower our living standards? Or even just stay put?

On the 24th of April 1974, twenty-four hours before the revolution that ended forty-eight years of fascism in Portugal, the country had ten million people, of which over fifty percent were illiterate. Apart for a few miles of highway around the two main cities, road links ranged from poor to appalling. A road trip from Lisbon to the Algarve could take five hours, an endless weave of trucks and donkey carts, seasoned with a smattering of insane drivers who overtook long traffic queues around blind corners.

I remember it all extremely well, the diesel smoke belching from trucks and buses like some deranged country song, the total anarchy on the roads, the worst driving in the whole of western Europe. I was twenty years old, and I joined in enthusiastically. Years later, a road trip in Ireland always reminded me of those early days back home. Not because of the  quality of the driving, since the Irish are courteous and respectful motorists, but because of the single lane roads, the two freeways out of Dublin that ended abruptly after a few miles, and endless traffic jams.

Where the Portuguese used the cash injection from the European Union to build infrastructure, the Irish used it to improve education. They cashed in on the Irish community on the other side of the Atlantic, men and women whose ancestors had escaped abject poverty on the Emerald Isle, and who lived the tales of their grandparents. Corporate tax was the lowest in the EU, and companies flocked to Ireland’s fair shores. The workforce was well educated, the language was familiar, the lifestyle easygoing.

And now, in the space of two years, Ireland is the second nation in Europe to go bankrupt, curiously also the second one whose name begins with the letter “I”. If I was superstitious, I might be forgiven for thinking that Italy might be next, the third “I”. Undoubtedly the effort that Spain and Portugal have devoted to avoid a similar fate is quite different from the endless Venetian carnival played out by Silvio and his cronies.

In business, the difference between assets and liabilities is termed equity, and it is the reason why those two sides of the balance sheet always add up to zero. The moment those liabilities exceed the assets, bankruptcy sets in. The Irish crisis was triggered by the banks, hugely leveraged to promote ever-rising growth.

Nature loses its balance. The price of growth in Qingdao, China, host city of the sailing event, just before the 2008 Summer Olympics

In nature, ecosystems tend towards a stable condition, at which growth is effectively zero. Consolidation reflects a mature community, with a diverse range of species. Animals, plants, fungii, bacteria, all coexist in dynamic equilibrium.  A beech wood grows no bigger, a lake or an estuary do not exhibit a productivity growth of 3% a year. This balance is termed carrying capacity, and when more pressure is exerted on a natural system it tends to become unstable. When a lake receives an extra influx of nitrogen or phosphorus, the result of increased agriculture, it reacts in a simple way: the microscopic algae it contains grow too fast, the water becomes green in color, or even red or brown, and soon after oxygen disappears from the deeper waters and fish begin to die.

We live in a paradigm that requires economic growth, but we are dependent on finite resources. The dynamics of the human environment are the same as any other natural system. Nature trades goods and services exactly as we do. For us the reserve currency is dollars, for nature it is carbon.

If what we have is good enough, why should we continue to grow? There’s nothing sinful about stability.

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