Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and caldron bubble…” — “MacBeth,” William Shakespeare

Mix Paleolithic instincts with 18th century thought and you get a brew powerful and toxic enough to cause mass extinction, historic floods and heat waves and progressive destruction of Earth’s climate systems. This is an impressive accomplishment, worthy of consideration.

So, let’s don our hazmat suits and dive into the bubbling cauldron to examine the contents. Ingredient one is not “Eye of newt, and toe of frog…”, it is the “dismal science” — economics.

Some 50 years ago a talented young economist addressed a vexing issue: the economic implications of climate change. At that time environmentalists were challenging the notion that social and economic growth could continue indefinitely without serious consequences for human health and safety.

Such concerns appeared, for example, in the Limits to Growth report (1972) on the “ … limits of Earth’s capacity to support human economic expansion (Wikipedia accessed 7/21/19).”

Nobel Prize-winning economist William Nordhaus and Professor James Tobin, responded (Is Growth Obsolete?, 1972) with several arguments: overexploitation of unrenewable resources would self-correct via higher prices (market fundamentalism) and the development of technologic substitutions; failures of ‘pricing systems’, not growth per se, were allowing over-exploitation and mounting pollution; and of the “ … danger of global ecological catastrophes, there is … little economics alone can say.”

Despite this disclaimer, the authors concluded that environmental factors would not impede growth; rather new technologies replacing damaged or depleted resources would actually increase income and wealth. The key assumption, the lodestone of economics for over a century, was that growth was the singular goal and an unquestioned good. And climate change would not be a problem.

Clearly, ‘pricing systems’ have failed to control depletion and degradation of finite planetary resources. Market deregulation and transnational trade agreements have given rise to financial behemoths that have emasculated social and governmental oversight. The consequences include ever-widening disparities of wealth and access to resources; disregard for health and safety; irresponsible development; destructive sourcing and disposal practices; and irreversible environmental damage. Concerns about environmental costs lost in the race to the top.

Curiously, in their single-minded focus on maximizing wealth and control of resources, dominant elites have seemed largely oblivious of impending catastrophic collapse of the environment. For those in power, concerns about a survivable future pale in contrast to — what? Put another way, how is the psychology of leadership dooming environmental preservation?

This brings us to the second ingredient in the Witches Brew, those archaic pre-rational instincts that underlie much of our behavior. Millennia of societal collapses reveal a recurrent theme: the progressive concentration of wealth and power in the hands of leaders engaged in relentless competition for dominance. In the process consuming larger and larger amounts of capital (human, animal, natural) until the economic and environmental bases for their societies are exhausted dooming both the wealthy and their subjects. Symbolic competition for glory overriding requirements for survival.

Such behaviors become understandable as responses to evolved competitive drives not subject to rational considerations. The drive for dominance is to a large extent expressed in behaviors with high symbolic content providing ‘proof that I am the greatest of all’. Currently symbolic dominance is signaled by $100 million estates, private islands, yachts, gold-leafed toilets and so forth.

Satisfying the thirst for supremacy is difficult. Inevitably, these attitudes of the powerful are reflected in actions of the governments and corporations they control.

For example, the pursuit of profit and privilege despite perilous consequences; extraordinary ‘compensation’ for elite leaders; purposeful masking of social costs (global warming, massive pollution, etc.) and so forth.

The brew is bubbling and toil and trouble are streaming into our air, water and climate. Creatures around us are dying off while our leaders build mansions. Climate disruption is draining wealth from the worlds’ economies and worse is coming. Our future is in many ways in the hands of the very wealthy and powerful. Will they remain stuck chasing glory in a world of metaphor and illusion or wake up and smell the dying roses?

 

Bruce D. Snyder, MD FAAN, is a member of Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate, an organization of Minnesota health professionals concerned about the health impacts of climate disruption.