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The Growing Environmental Crisis is the (Economic) Slavery of our Time.

08/05/2013 14:05 BST | Updated 07/07/2013 10:12 BST

OK, don't freak out about what comes next. The growing environmental crisis, and especially those determined to do nothing about it, or even outright deny it, is in economic terms the modern equivalent of slavery. Before you report me to the Daily Mail, do hear me out, and please note my emphasis on economic.

E F Schumacher observed back in the late-1960s that the problem with modern economics was that it treated some resources (particularly the things we dig out of the ground and the means by which we produce energy) as income, rather than as capital. That is, we assume that certain large and unseen inputs into our economies are limitless, to the extent that we don't bother to think about replacements or substitutes in case their supply fails.

When people talk this way about economics they are often branded as naïve idealists, ready to crash Western Civilisation in order to save some polar bears. So let me be clear on two points. One, I honestly don't care about polar bears. The Arctic supports only one large land-based predator for a reason, and it is not surprising that even small changes in its environment would put it on the endangered list. It is what this reveals about change that matters, and this is what eco-denialists deliberately mis-represent.

Second, this is not really a question of economics, or politics, or even physics. It is now a question of mathematics. The Stockholm Resilience Centre identifies nine 'planetary boundaries', physical limits such as for pollution, water quality or climate change, that are known to affect human wellbeing if exceeded. Breach these and we are not just risking polar bears but seriously endangering human life. Three have already been breached: climate change, biodiversity loss and the nitrogen cycle which, together with the phosphorus cycle (also close to being breached) is critical for growing food. Three more are close, and a further two we don't even have enough data on to say. Still think environmentalists are naïve?

Critics of environmentalism never talk about risk, the calculation of probability and error which underpins much of science. Solutions may be found for individual problems, as they have been before, but it is the inter-relationships between these problems that is the real danger, and which we have least information about. When the media narrative prefers sensation to nuance it is difficult to sell the argument that we may need to seriously rethink the way we live, and get re-acquainted with concepts like moral hazard or uncertainty.

The reason that leftists and environmentalists have a problem with free market economics is that despite what market fundamentalists tell themselves, no market is ever fully free, and when advocates of economic freedom dismiss alternatives as naïve idealism what they are usually rejecting is propping up the weak rather than the strong.

Which brings me to slavery. The Egyptians weren't just cruel, pyramids needed to be built and slaves were the only way to do it. You couldn't get Egyptian citizens to do it as there were too few of them and no incentive to work yourself literally to death hauling large stones around. The currency-based economy was not strong enough to provide sufficient financial incentives, with little capital accumulation or speculation, so instead of the carrot Pharaohs had to use the stick.

Slavery, like so many forms of employment, was eventually outsourced. New trades in tea, sugar, spices and cotton were founded on a business model where labour could be sourced cheaply from overseas because the price mechanism made it too expensive to ship workers to Barbados from Godalming and compensate them accordingly.

But the moral case against slavery was accompanied by an economic one too. A combination of self-interest and moral purpose drove two of the three great abolitionist movements of the nineteenth century: ending slavery in the British Empire and the American Civil War (the third, the emancipation of the Russian serfs, was in a nation at an entirely different stage of economic development).

The moral case for abolition became politically overwhelming as the economic case for slavery fell away. Britain gained an economic monopoly on the high seas and was able to dictate favourable terms of trade. But this only worked because Britain had a navy paid for with the profits of previous economic monopolies, including a monopoly on slave-labour. Slavery undermined its own business model because the trade allowed other powers to undercut the British on prices. Having gained so much commercial and then industrial power on the back of slave labour, and now possessing the technology that made slavery redundant, it is no surprise that Britain saw an economic case for the abolition of slavery worldwide.

Similarly, the moral fervour that led to the American Civil War was driven by the desire that Northern industrialists not be undercut by Southerners who could use slave labour to make up for their industrial weakness. The moral cause that drove Lincoln and the abolitionist movement was generated twenty years or more before the Civil War over slavery being extended west of the Mississippi and opening up more opportunity for Southern business, which was the original issue of contention more than the institution of slavery itself.

The arguments given to defend the economic-environmental status quo are, structurally, quite similar to the economic arguments that were used to defend slavery. To be clear, I am not comparing climate change denialists or oil executives to slave owners, or even that environmental damage is akin to slavery, just that the economic arguments align.

Both are based on a corruption of the price mechanism, conveniently leaving out a major part of the economic equation in order to cook the books. Slavery was based on a suppression of the true cost of labour, and was justified so long as there was no alternative to slaves picking cotton. The current economic-environmental status quo is based on a suppression of the true cost of non-renewable resources and of natural systems. The status quo holds only until the price-mechanism collapses, and the true costs of resources and natural systems reassert themselves through environmental crisis or shortages of basic goods.

Schumacher talked about this as a failure to incorporate the full costs of production into financial accounting. But let's be honest about what it really is: fraud. An accountant who knowingly counts an asset as a fixed source of income, rather than as steadily diminishing capital, would be criminally liable. Just as slavery was a fraud inflicted against an entire class of people, denying them of life and liberty, maintaining our current systems of production and consumption without being honest with ourselves about the limits to these, is fraud. And we are the victims.