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Oh how they’d buy if they had a cheap power supply!

Fridges, and all the choice, quality stuff you can buy if you have a fridge. TV’s and all the products advertised on TV. Lights and appliances, stereos, computers: the whole damned cornucopia of things you can buy if you have electricity

Sometimes I despair that today’s ruthless, bean counting multi-national business managers have forgotten the tried and true bourgeois business skills – like extrasizing your dominion by giving presents.

More than a billion potential customers could perhaps afford to buy one of their company’s products once or twice a year if someone would just give the Global peasant a cheap source of electric power.

A cheap, efficient solar generator could electrify the two billion people world-wide who still don’t have electricity.

Present solar technology, starving in the fossil fuel shadow, is growing close to being cost competitive with normal grid electricity. For probably less than a dollar for each Global peasant, it would be possible to develop the solar technology for cheap, efficient rural electrification.

Without the grid.

Without burning coal or undertaking more dubious environmental re-arranging like the Three Gorge project.

In fact, if an export or manufacturer’s association or an OECD committee, for example, organised the seed money and focused attention, the gift of an efficient solar generator to the developing countries could help business find a way to prosper and grow inside an increasingly finite box.

The recent (fractured) consensus on controlling global warming at Kyoto is but one sign that the human economy is bumping up against limits. Not material limits to growth that can be substituted for, but limits to cumulative damage to the biosphere caused by increasingly populations wielding increasingly powerful technologies.

Kenneth Boulding anticipated the new millennium’s economy in his classic message "The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth". He contrasted the economy of the cowboy and the astronaut:

The cowboy lives in a sparsely populated frontier. He has an abundance of resources and lots of room. Everything is free for the taking and his waste is easily handled by a healthy, untouched nature. Opportunity is only limited by how hard the cowboy wished to work.

The astronaut by contrast must husband and recycle each critically needed resource. The use and re-use of each gram of material must be planned. Every action that either consumes resources too fast or leads to accumulating waste endangers the whole crew.

The frontier, cowboy, economy is the past. The future lies in learning how to grow on a finite planet.

Does this mean that all new greenfield production must stop at some arbitrary date? Are you kidding? But there is no question that the increasing scale of the human economy is endangering continuing human evolution on spaceship Earth.

"Global economic output expanded from $3.8 trillion in 1950 to $18.9 trillion in 1992 (constant 1987 dollars), a nearly five fold increase" (David Korten). As Mr. Korten points out, in each of the last four decades the global human economy has added the equivalent of all economic growth from the Stone Age to 1950. Human economies are already using directly, co-opting or displacing 40% of the global net primary production from photosynthesis (Peter Vitousek et al.).

Climate change, ozone depletion and endangered biodiversity are unintended side-effects of industrial growth at this scale.

Space may be the final frontier but for now this small Earth is home. Growth in the future must increasingly follow the model of a library that cannot increase physically in size but must find ways to increase both the quantity and complexity of information and people’s access to this information.

A billion Chinese high on fossil fuels at U.S. levels is a no go.

Business must learn how to be more sophisticated in delivering growth and increasing complexity. Solar power opens up opportunities.

A relatively few dollars spent on developing solar technology could perhaps also help ameliorate the compounding problems of fossils fuels in our own neck of the woods. Twenty or twenty five per cent below 1990 levels by 2010 may turn out to be the necessary fossil fuel cut to protect against the worst of global warming. We’d better get going and develop a power source that allows continued growth for fat cats like us.

Even those of us with relentlessly short-term and self-centred cosmologies and the dimmest of ethical awareness should be able to agree with that.


(This essay owes a huge debt to David Korten’s stimulating book "WHEN CORPORATIONS RULE THE WORLD". The diagram is a morphing of Robert Goodland, Herman E. Daly, and Salah El Serafy, from the book Population, Technology and Lifestyle: The Transition to Sustainability).

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