Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome, once attributed his trademark spherical design to an interest in bubbles. As a young naval officer he had had the originality to wonder why bubbles didn’t appear in water as cubes or polyhedrons!
Often bubbles swell, growing in volume but with an ever-thinning skin, like bubble gum bubbles, or soap bubbles. They have enormous appeal for children, and bring out the child in most of us.
Remember the old television show The Prisoner? Each time he attempted to escape from the mysterious village, he was pursued and captured by a huge bubble, a fantastic feature of the show that was both menacing and strangely fascinating.
Part of bubbles’ captivating quality is our intuitive understanding that they cannot swell forever. Sooner or later a bubble will pop, leaving behind at best the scent of soap in the empty air or some sticky goo on one’s face. Until they burst, we’re full of anticipation and suspense.
Like the prisoner, global society has been captured by bubbles, largely related to finance, but also to the physical processes of the planet. We seem unable to escape. And like children, we watch them, greedily helping to blow them up.
Historians remind us of many financial bubbles: the Dutch tulipmania, the South Sea Bubble, and other similar scams pepper early financial history. More recently we endured the dot.com bubble to do with investment in startup internet companies, bursting in 2000-2001, and the real estate bubble in the United States that led to the 2008 market crash (we’re still trying to clean up its mess).
It is not so far-fetched to consider that the pursuit of endless economic growth is the pursuit of another bubble. It may be a larger one and be growing over a longer time period, but the undiminished avidity of the faithful, fueled by a growing world population with its swelling demand for goods and services certainly provides an ongoing sense of swelling.
Ongoing population growth is essentially bubble demographics. Growth economics is essentially bubble economics.
The ballooning of debt, both public and private, in the world economy has been a spectacular aspect of the bubble. American federal government debt is now sufficient to create a “building” of one hundred-dollar bills larger than the Empire State Building! And aside from government debt burdens, American household debt alone equaled 100% of US GDP in 2006-07. Can anyone realistically advocate continuing to expand these bubbles?
Looked at from space in the iconic “earthrise” picture taken by Apollo astronauts, our planet looks rather like a bubble. However, it’s a static bubble. No matter how much we huff and we puff, it’s not going to get any bigger. The notion that we can continue to expand our extraction of resources and energy from its boundaries indefinitely is sheer fantasy.
In 1972 the Club of Rome sponsored a computer analysis of the prospects for continued growth of all kinds on the planet. Its results were both startling and depressing. No matter how the assumptions were programmed, continued growth came to a crashing halt some time before 2050.
Would it not be prudent to begin planning a transition to a sustainable non-growth economy before we find ourselves with tragedies far worse than gum all over our faces?
Al Lehmann teaches school in Terrace, BC.