A perpetual motion machine is a something that, once started, will continue to move forever without any further input; think about a swing that once you've pulled the seat back a few feet and let it go, rather than it swinging forward back and forth in ever decreasing arcs, before slowly coming to a rest back in the centre, the swing continues to swing back and forward, always swinging to the same height on each side, never loosing an inch, never coming to a stop, never needing another push to get it back up to speed.
In energy production terms, perpetual motion machines are the Holy Grail. Imagine a power plant that once you chucked in your first shovelful of coal, the big pistons started moving and never needed a second shovelful - it would basically be free energy forever after, no more coal burning, no more pollution; it would change the world.
Unfortunately for us, despite our best efforts, perpetual motion machines don't exist. Coal power stations still need more coal, oil plants still need more oil and my laptop still needs recharging.
This concept of "always more" is synonymous with how we think about our economies. Economically speaking, in order for a country's economy to be doing well, it needs to be growing; if it stops growing, well, the power plant breaks down and we have a recession. This growth is measured mainly using a single metric, Gross Domestic Product or GDP, which is the sum total of everything of monetary value that gets made or sold in a country in a given time period. At its most basic level, GDP is simply the amount of money spent in total by everyone and everything in that country over time (you, me, businesses, government, net exports etc). There are other things that can be used to measure an economy, such as employment and investment levels, but GDP is really the primary factor.
When GDP is growing well, life in that country is generally a bit nicer - employment is up, wages are up, investment is up and so on. When GDP growth is slow you see the inverse happening - high unemployment, lower wages, investment spending cuts. Any of this sounding familiar? Guess which is happening at the moment. Our power plant requires more coal, or economically speaking, we're going to run out of steam.
Perhaps this wouldn't be so bad, globally speaking, if it were only happening to us, but as we know from the relentless torrent of financial doom and gloom in the news, this is happening pretty much everywhere. The US recently shook the financial world with the unprecedented downgrade of its financial rating from triple A as it teetered on the edge of defaulting on its $14 trillion debts, brought on in part by the insane wrangling of the Tea Party and the Eurozone continues to shudder as Greece and other struggling Euro nations have their empty accounts refilled by the more affluent likes of France and Germany, who aren't keen on a third round of ever more expensive I.O.U.s.
This global, or certainly Western, slowdown of GDP growth has been a long time in the making. Since the concept of measuring GDP was invented back in the mid-Thirties, after the massive post-World War Two boom in Western economies started to even out, economy growth rates started to slowly tail off. Over the next decades, on average, growth continued to slow, leaving growth rates between 2000 and 2007 at just 2.7%. When the 2008 financial collapse came about, economies had very little room to play with and since then we,ve seen all manner of innovative ways of trying to prop up the rapidly deflating GDP balloon.
So where does this leave us? Well, not anywhere particularly enjoyable. There seems to be two main schools of thought about how to resolve an economic slump and kickstart an economy, either scale back public spending and cut regulation and tax in the private sector to encourage business growth, as favoured by those on the right, or to raise taxes and increase spending on the public sector side, reinvesting in the economy, which is more favoured by those on the left. Both aim at a net increase in GDP over a given period.
To me though, although I certainly favour one of the above options over the other, the whole concept seems to be based on the premise that successful economies always have to be growing, that no matter what the "real" circumstances of that country are, it must always be doing more; equilibrium is death.
The idea that economic growth is a mandatory factor to success, or even normality, seems somewhat unsustainable. As mentioned above, historically speaking we've seen a general downward trend over the last 50 years or so anyway, so the fact that we now have to force our economies to squeeze out the last tenth of a percentage of growth in order to stay afloat seems not just counter intuitive but completely unrealistic.
Economic expansion, as we know, comes not without its costs; whether industrial expansion and its effect on the environment or financial expansion and its effects upon our debts, these ideas seem to smack of a 20th century ethos, of an unreal so-called "golden era" of naivety that humanity could do whatever it wanted and consequences be damned. The generations before ours have exploited everything they could, have pushed the resources of our planet to the limit, almost to collapse. They have constructed a system so engrained with the military-industrial complex, with every aspect and every level built around a need to always do more, to always build more, to mine deeper, to consume greater, to create a bigger profit. To continue down this path without any kind of miracle cure leads only to a bleak future for those generations after ours; a planet ruined by climate change and environmental destruction, draconian states serving the interests of corporations over citizens, a disparity of wealth distribution so great that it will make the have-nots of today look like landed gentry by comparison. This is all great stuff for a dystopian sci-fi novel, but it's no way to plan our future.
Perhaps as we move into the 21st century, it is time we re-assessed the yardstick by which we measure ourselves, after all, GDP's drive for more is only a construct of our devising. To me it seems, like a lot of the mindset of the 20th century, that the thinking is we have is that because they system is set up in a certain way now, that to change it in any way seems impossible. Since its inception in the mid-30's, GDP may have been the driving force behind the way the world has run but, as we all know, the world is a changing place; old technologies make way for newer ones, governments come and go, nations rise and fall.
Rather than base our world on the coal power plant that always requires more fuel, perhaps we should look to the perpetual motion machine as our inspiration, to the idea that once something has settled into something of an equilibrium, that it requires no further pushing to maintain speed, that perhaps the focus should be on the quality of the parts, rather than how many we can make. Maybe we should allow the more settled Western economies to reach that point of equilibrium, the seemingly inevitable point when growth simply stops and a country reaches what we could call its "potential".
One such example of this is the tiny nation of Bhutan, which is the first nation to base its success on not GDP, but what it calls "Gross National Happiness". GNH attempts to define the success of a nation by determining the quality of life and social progress for its citizens, rather than the sum total of the country's financial worth. While you might initially think this may seem unquantifiable, GNH is actually based around many economic factors such as sustainable development and good governance; as we know from GDP, happy people tend to come from economically successful places, they have jobs, they have education, they have rights. GHN takes into account that the nation of Bhutan, with its 750,000 inhabitants, has a finite amount of resources and therefore once it has reached a moderate economic level, its focus became not that of relentless expansion but more internally focused on of well-being; that's not to say that GNH prevents growth, as increased happiness, as we said, has massive related economic impact, but that growth no longer becomes the only measure of success.
That's not to suggest that GNH is the final answer to the GDP problem, there are several other main contenders out there for measuring economics, for instance the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) measures economic factors of sustainability and welfare of the nation in a similar way to GNH but retains several of the growth-based metrics of GDP at the same time. One of the main drawbacks of both GNH and GPI is their susceptibility to political influence (to measure happiness, you must first define what happiness is) but one would perhaps naively hope that at a global level that a general definition could be found.
It's my view that over the first half of this century, the world will change a great deal. Perhaps by refocusing the way we measure our success at a global level, we can ensure that some of that change will be for the better. Perhaps the first perpetual motion machine should be not one that produces energy and powers our homes, but one that powers our thinking, that drives our achievements, one that provides a sustainable future for the generations after ours.
Hello, well done if you made it this far, much appreciated! As I've put this post together using my phone, there are no links included in the above text; I assure you there are some, I've not just made it all up! I'll put them in when I'm next near an actual computer. I hear there's this great website called Google which is full of links to useful information, so you should try that in the mean time. Until then, yours, always looking forward (uncertainly), Luke.
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