Like a grenade in a glasshouse

It’s going to hit hard and it’s going to hurt – made worse because most aren’t expecting it. They think the world is slowly returning to our modern “normal” – steadily increasing growth, with occasional annoying but manageable interruptions. After all, the global recession wasn’t so bad was it? Sure there was pain and things got shaky but Governments responded, bailed out companies, stimulated economies, got things back on track.  While it’s still a bit bumpy, Greek wobbles, US debt, extreme weather, high oil and food prices etc, it’ll work out. It always does….

If only it were so. In fact we are blindly walking towards the next in a series of inevitable system-shaking and confidence-sapping crises, deluded in the belief that the worst is behind us.

Each crisis will be a little worse than the last. Each one will shake our denial a little more. This is what happens when systems hit their limits. They don’t do so smoothly, but bump up against the wall, hitting hard, then bouncing off equally hard. It is the behaviour of a system trying to break through. But if the limits are solid, as is the case with our economic system hitting the limits of the planet – defined by unchangeable physical capacity and the laws of physics, chemistry and biology – then it can’t find its way through. So eventually, when the pain of hitting the wall gets too much, it stops.

Then it will hit. Like a grenade in a glasshouse, shattering denial and delusion and leaving it like a pile of broken glass on the floor of the old economic model. Then we’ll be ready for change.

I’ve been arguing the inevitability of this moment since 2005, mostly inside the business community. Before the 2008 financial crisis hit, the idea was almost universally rejected, with a belief in the indomitable power of globalised markets to overcome all challenges and keep growth on track. Most audiences believed that while markets always wobbled, they also always recovered. My suggestion, that this level of arrogance was the hallmark of empires before they fell, landed on deaf ears. They were the masters of the universe and markets and growth would always reign supreme.

Now the response is different. The financial crisis saw many break off from the pack and start to ask the difficult questions. I now find as I tour the world speaking about The Great Disruption to community gatherings, corporate executives and policymakers, that minds are increasingly open. While not the dominant view, the previous confidence in the inevitably of growth has become shaky and the group asking the challenging questions is rapidly expanding.

As I argue in the book, the fundamental cause of what’s coming is resource constraint and environmental breakdown, which when combined with an overstretched financial system and high levels of debt puts unbearable tension into the global economy. While no one can know what event will pull the pin out of the grenade, the underlying pressures make that moment inevitable. Yes, the dominant commentary still blames each individual problem on unique circumstances, but the underlying systemic causes are clear for those who wish to look.

The continued level of denial still surprises me, especially given the pressures driving this are not esoteric and can be measured in clear economic indicators. A good example was recently published by one of the more interesting voices to join the growing chorus that we have a system-wide problem.

The legendary contrarian and fund manager Jeremy Grantham is co-founder of the Boston based firm GMO, with over $100 billion of assets under management. So this guy is a solid capitalist and market advocate, pursuing wealth for the wealthy. But he sees the data and is raising the alarm, calling this moment “one of the giant inflection points in economic history” – referring to the end of a 100-year steady decline in commodity prices.

His views were echoed by Stephen King, group chief economist at HSBC, who wrote in the FT: “After the biggest meltdown since the Great Depression, economic theory tells us that world commodity prices should not be this high. But they are and the West quickly needs to wake up to this new economic reality. Commodity prices are now permanently higher.”

Grantham provides the detail, pointing out that the 100 year trend of falling prices in the 33 most important commodities, except for oil, were wiped out with a price surge from 2002 to 2010 – a surge even greater than experienced in WW2. We have now reached what Grantham calls the Great Paradigm shift; not a price spike but a new reality. Within this new reality, Grantham says: “if we maintain our desperate focus on growth, we will run out of everything and crash.”

This is why hitting the wall is inevitable – because limits are not philosophies, they are limits. We can understand what to expect – and why the grenade will shatter the glasshouse of economic growth – by going back to how systems behave when they hit their limits. Our economic system first hit the wall in 2008 – that was when The Great Disruption began with food and oil prices hitting record highs and a credit crisis driven by reckless monetary policy pursuing growth at all costs. The resulting recession meant we backed away from those limits (bouncing off the wall), and then borrowed massive amounts of money from our children (think Greece) to try to get the economy moving again.

Now that the global economy is slowly entering a so-called “recovery”, the prices of commodities (representing our use of earth’s resources for food and materials) are on the way up, accelerated, in the case of food, by climate change. Of course if significant growth kicks in, the prices of oil, food and other commodities will surge, this time starting from near record highs. Then we will bounce back into recession and prices will back off again. Hit the wall, bounce off. Hit the wall, bounce off. Ouch.

By itself this would pose enough of a challenge to growth. But now we also have the debt we used to get the economy moving again. This debt can only be paid off with significant economic growth – but such significant growth is impossible as outlined above. So the debt itself becomes an enormous additional tension in the system, as argued by Richard Heinberg in his important forthcoming book The End of Growth. With the global economy and ecosystem now both burdened by unmanageable debt, effective global default is only a matter of time.

So we’re living in a glass house with the grenade sitting there for all to see. Who knows what will pull the pin. It could be Greece, a Chinese food crisis, peak oil or any number of other triggers. But it’s coming.

The question to ask yourself is simple. Are you ready?

Paul Gilding is a regular Climate Spectator contributor, author, climate change and sustainability consultant, and blogger. http://paulgilding.com/

More from Business Spectator