Big Smile, No Teeth: Why don't we humans use our fancy minds to plan ahead?


We’ve made a world where massive profits are made by the few at the expense of most of humanity – according to the World Bank, 734 million people lived on less than US$1.90 a day in 2015. — Bloomberg

One of the theories for why human beings are sentient – why we have a view of ourselves – is that having a concept of self helps us plan ahead instead of simply reacting to our needs in the moment. It is undeniably advantageous to be able to plan a few steps ahead – so why then are we so shortsighted?

This year continues to be a “tipping point” year where the cracks in the world’s current economic system are being exposed in the way it disregards both the environment and people. If only we had known about these potential problems years ago ... but of course we did!

The 1972 book The Limits To Growth argues that if economic growth continues unabated, there would be catastrophic consequences for humankind and the environment. The paradigm of ever-growing GDP is at odds with reality because “the Earth is finite”, the authors wrote. (The book’s details in full: The Limits to Growth: A Report For The Club Of Rome’s Project On The Predicament Of Mankind by Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jorgen Randers & William W. Behrens III, originally published by Signet Books.)

The authors used a computer simulation to model different outcomes and found that if we continued to pursue economic growth above all else, we would eventually run out of resources, which would slingshot us back into a life similar to how humans lived in about 1900; they also noted that increased carbon dioxide would have a “climatological effect” because of its warming effect on the atmosphere. This is the earliest warning of global warming I am aware of. And this was way back in 1972.

And with this stark warning, human beings, ever the forward-thinking and thoughtful sentient beings that we are, quickly threw GDP as a measure of the quality of life into the dustbin of history; we didn’t deregulate the economy so that markets dictated our priorities away from humanity and environment and into profits; and by 2020 our climate was not in peril and a global pandemic was quickly averted because of stockpiled resources that allowed the entire world to shelter at home, without working, and effectively kill the virus, thus saving millions of lives.

Yeah, all that didn’t happen.

Nope. Instead The Limits Of Growth – which Anthony Lewis of The New York Times called “likely to be one of the most important documents of our age” in 1972 – was dumped in the dustbin of history.

In fact, after 1972, GDP became the primary measure of a nation’s success and it remains the go-to number when assessing how a country is doing today. To be fair, for a long time increasing GDP meant that economic growth was increasing, meaning the country was increasing jobs and, therefore, employment and well-being for its citizens. What we didn’t plan for was when GDP is enough. There are still countries that can benefit from increasing their GDP but developed nations should be moving to a post-GDP paradigm.

American economic anthropologist Dr Jason Hickel is spreading the idea of “de-growth”. It sounds like negative growth but it’s not, he explains: It actually means moving into a phase of regulated capitalism (as opposed to the current deregulated capitalism model that dominates) where resources are used only at a rate that can be replenished. Meaning, developed countries move into a system that is sustainable in human and environmental terms.

And we’ve known we should do this since about 1972. So we’ve only ignored the warnings in The Limits Of Growth for roughly half a century. The book, by the way, ended up being decried for “scaremongering”, which is probably less about not being able to plan ahead and more about wanting to continue making money in the current system.

Which is ultimately the problem.

As social commentator and author Upton Sinclair said: It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it. Another way to put it would be: It’s difficult to get people who profit immensely off the current system to agree to put an end to that system.

And so we didn’t amend the system, and here we are, decades later, reading an article in The Guardian newspaper that declares that The Limits Of Growth was actually correct. That what those writers predicted is coming to fruition. (And this article is only from 2012!)

Before you think, well, this is all too big to change, remember what the late David Graeber, of the London School of Economics, said: The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is just something that we make, and we could just as easily make it differently. (Graeber died suddenly of internal bleeding, cause as yet unknown, on Sept 2, aged 59.)

We’ve made a world where massive profits are made by the few at the expense of humanity and the environment. It’s time we recognise what we should have recognised decades ago, and use our fancy, sentient minds to understand that planning ahead doesn’t mean just for us as individuals but for us as a species. Because if we continue being this short-sighted, it’s not a stretch to think humans are going to be relegated to the dustbin of history.


Big Smile, No Teeth columnist Jason Godfrey – who once was told to give the camera a ‘big smile, no teeth’ – has worked internationally for two decades in fashion and continues to work in dramas, documentaries, and lifestyle programming. Write to him at lifestyle@thestar.com.my and check out his stuff at jasongodfrey.co. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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