Thursday, August 20, 2009

Of queens and letters and the limits to growth

Monarchs definitely have their uses.

The Queen of England has become the focal point of a fascinating economic debate...all because of an innocent (or perhaps not so innocent) question she asked last November in a visit to the London School of Economics. Why, she wondered, was nobody able to foresee what she called this "awful recession"?

Had anyone else asked that question (as indeed many people have) it would have gotten lost in the media scrum. But this was the Queen, so an answer was required. Or at least so thought the British Academy, the UK's 107-year-old "national academy for the humanities and social sciences," which held a forum on the question, And - again because it was the Queen - when the Academy finally answered the Queen last month, its letter landed on the front pages.

The result of all the Academy's work was something of a tautology: the failure to foresee the recession was "principally a failure of the collective imagination of many bright people, both in this country and internationally." In other words, we missed it because we missed it.

But in yet another letter to the Queen, published this month, a group of environmental and social thinkers offered a deeper answer: that our inability to foresee the recession stemmed ultimately from our inability to see the real problem. The "imbalances in the global economy" cited in the Academy's report, they argue, are just a symptom of "far more serious imbalances between our insatiable hunger for energy, its finite nature and the environmental pollution in its use."

Because our economy runs in on energy, they argue, our insistence on - not to mention our almost religious faith in - more and more economic growth depends on an equally enormous growth in the supply of energy. And in a finite world, the supply of energy cannot keep up with our appetite for it. At least not at a price - both economic and environmental - that we can pay.

The letter, which is well worth reading, ends with a challenge to the Academy: to join in a public dialogue about these issues. And it signs off in proper courtly style: "We will of course report findings of such debate to Your Majesty. "

You gotta love the Brits.

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