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Comment: Occupy Wall Street, occupy 'Rådhuspladsen'

Copenhagen activist Mads Tofthøj Rasmussen explains why the Occupy Wall Street movement is relevant here, and warns against peak oil, the fallacy of economic growth, and technological unemployment

On 15 October, the Occupy Wall Street movement went global. That day approximately 2,000 people filled Copenhagen’s central square Rådhuspladsen. Since then, a hard core of protesters have stood their ground, and have pitched tents and slept on the cold, wet ground in front of City Hall.

So you might be wonder: What are Danes doing supporting this movement? We have it so good up here in the North, right? What do we have to complain about? Now, I can’t speak for the Occupy Movement and I am not one of the people sleeping in front of City Hall. However, I am one of those people that see a series of problems that will have a major negative impact on society as we know it if we don’t begin to address them right now.

When you talk to the Occupy Movement it is evident that they feel passionate about ending world hunger, wars, corruption, greed, inequality, poverty, and debt. However, here I want to concentrate on a few lesser-known issues.

Fallacy of economic growth

According to our politicians, what we need is economic growth. Now, before I get into whether or not that is even possible, let us stick with this concept of growth itself. Every monetary system the world has ever known, whether it be capitalism, communism or socialism, has been based on the assumption of infinite growth. Economic growth is based on production of goods and consumption of resources. The more we produce and consume, the richer we become.

But we live on a planet of finite resources. So how can continuous economic growth be sustainable in this closed system we call Earth? And if the current system is not sustainable shouldn’t we begin a transition into a balanced system that has long term sustainability at its very core? Hell, shouldn’t we at least be talking about it? Why don’t we survey, catalogue, and monitor every resource on the planet? The current state of technology would easily allow us to do so. Wouldn’t that make us better equipped to make good decisions about how we use those resources? Shouldn’t that be the first concern we have when making decisions about our society. How do we expect to make a sustainable society if we don’t know what resources we have and at what rate we are depleting them?

Peak oil

There are two major reasons why long term economic growth is unlikely. The first is peak oil. This concept refers to the point where we can no longer increase our oil production no matter how hard we try. The world oil production has now had 6 years of no growth. In fact, we now use 6 barrels of oil for every one barrel we take out of the ground. Last year it was 4 barrels. Next year it will be 8 barrels. As countries like China and India are growing their economy, they too are increasing their use of natural resources. But if we use oil, coal, natural gas and all our other finite resources at an increasing rate won’t that just deplete those resources even faster?

Oil is used in every aspect of our lives – from the plastic we fill our homes with, to the pesticides we use to dust our crops, to transportation, to our pharmaceuticals, to the nice white paint we brush on our walls at home. We have built our infrastructure and therefore our whole world economy on oil. This means that when oil becomes more scarce and therefore more expensive, the price on everything else will slowly but surely go up.

Technological unemployment

The second major reason why long term economic growth is unlikely is the ever increasing rate of technology. We have officially left the Information Age and entered the Hybrid Age. Not only are machines everywhere around us, they have now become so efficient that they are taking more and more of our jobs.

For a century, machines have been doing our farming and our manufacturing, however, in the last decade, they have been moving in on the service sector too. It is easy to understand why. Machines are faster and more precise. They work 24/7 for no pay. They don’t call in sick or complain. And, they will only get cheaper and better with time. Some lawmakers propose that we make laws against the use of machines and indeed we could have full employment tomorrow if we outlawed the use of tractors. But, is that really a solution? Isn’t that just going backwards?

The simple truth is that for the first time in the history of the planet, we have outgrown the need for human labour. The population of the world continues to grow but there will become fewer and fewer jobs. Technology is doing exactly what we wanted it to do. It is making our lives easier. It is taking over labour in every sector. This is what we made it for. But society has not evolved with technology. We still need jobs to earn money so we can feed our families.

But jobs are running scarce. Businesses are being moved to the internet and despite the insistence of economists that a new job sector will emerge to pick up those lost jobs as it has in the past, it is much more likely that any new sector that were to emerge would be automated from the start or quickly become automated do to the reasons stated above.

In order to achieve long-term economic growth we are fighting an uphill battle that, even if we were to win, wouldn’t lead to a sustainable society. So what are we fighting for?

The reason there is a danish faction of the Occupy Movement is that we can’t escape these questions. We can’t turn our backs on these issues. We can’t ignore the fact that we are part of this world, we will be affected by its problems and we must be part of the solution

uni-avis@adm.ku.dk

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