Provocations # 13 — There’s no such thing as “Sustainable Growth”

There is no such thing as sustainable growth.  The two words should never be used in the same sentence, ever.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of English,Third Edition, sustainable (adjective) means to be “able to be maintained at a certain rate or level” (and equally appropriate here it also means “conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources.”).  Whereas in this context, growth (noun) means “the process of increasing in size” and “the process of increasing in amount, value, or importance” and “increase in economic activity or value.”

By definition, indefinite growth cannot be sustainable. Yet growth is presumptive in modern economic theory, and is viewed as both necessary and good in virtually all current social and political thinking. 

Image above: Estimates and projections of population change for different continents between 1950 and 2050 according to the United Nations. Note that the vertical axis is millions of people and the scale is logarithmic (in a sense, compressed).

A Parable

Why is growth not sustainable? Growth is governed by the logistics equation. But a parable might explain this best.  This story about the invention of the game of chess, seems to appear in different tellings from different cultures in Asia, but they are all the same in their general arc:  A ruler is so impressed with the new game that he wants to reward the inventor.  The inventor replies that she’d like one grain of rice on the first square, two grains of rice on the second square, doubling the number of grains on each square until the 64th and final square is reached.  The emperor laughs at this paltry request, until he realizes his kingdom has been bankrupted.  Versions of this story vary in minor details (rice vs. wheat for example) and as to whether the inventor was executed or appointed to a high-ranking position in court.

Estimated global human population in billions, from 10,000 BCE to 2000 CE. ( Current world population as of this posting, is approximately 7.6B (the U.S. Census).

This is a clever and amusing tale to be sure, but the lesson here is about geometric progressions; also known as exponential growth.  Which is precisely what is happening with human population growth as well as consumption and waste.  I touched on this theme in Provocations #4 – A Matter of Scale.

Resource or Garden of Eden?

Our love affair with consumption and waste belies a resource view of the Earth.  

Aside: This theme comes up in Lauren Oakes’ excellent book “In Search of the Canary Tree“.

Meaning that the Earth is simply a resource to be consumed, and has no other inherent value.  It means exploitation: all taking and no giving back.  It means leaving nothing for the future.  It means leaving nothing for other living beings; for nature, upon which we rely for our very survival.  I hope it is self evident to all why this is wrong on every level. Without fail this leads down a path of ever more desperate and extreme measures, and quite possibly of collapse.  This is not sustainable.  This is the growth mindset. 

Two quick examples of what this looks like:  Because the amount of arable land is finite, as population grows we compelled to employ ever more intensive farming measures, applying more and more on toxic chemicals (as argued by technocrats and massive agribusiness companies), and abandoning husbandry practices, which promote and protect the vital and living top soil.  And another, as the planet warms due to human activity we turn more and more to burning fossil fuels to cool our buildings and homes, emitting more greenhouse gasses.  It is a positive feedback process with negative consequences.  These are examples of compounding problems (Provocations #5).

Humans came to live in and share the Garden of Eden, and ended up creating  ‘Resources-R-Us.’

Green Growth – Not!

Maybe the greatest misnomer of all is “green growth” (for all intents and purposes a synonym with sustainable growth).  This is a dangerous notion because it suggest that we can continue to grow – ‘hey it’s green so no cute little fur balls were harmed in the making of this economy.’  Green growth, while better is still consumptive, it is still growth, ergo it is not sustainable.  

Green “sustainable” humans still takes up an inordinate amount of space.  A growing population requires growing energy production: even 100% green energy will require vast quantities of space, and water, and additional energy to extract minerals produce and transport turbines, solar panels, etc. — it cascades!  And at a minimum, we must consume food and water.  Even good farming practices consumes space, converts forests to tillage, consumes energy, and so on.  And of course what we eat, comes out as human waste which must be processed.  And anything else we consume, even if green (packaging etc), compostable, reusable, recyclable, demands water and energy to produce, transport, and reprocess and/or dispose of (which requires more space for landfills).  More cascading, with gross implications.

On a personal level, I am a pretty conscientious greenie. I live in a modest home (by middle class American standards), I drive a modest vehicle, I ride the bus many days each week, I recycle, I consciously reduce consumption and waste. And yet, when I estimate my global footprint (e.g., I still require 6.9 Earths to sustain me. Even if this estimate is way off (say 50% too high), I am still having a far greater impact on Earth than she can sustain.

The logical extension of a world view based on growth, green or not, is that humans are the only thing that matters; not even necessarily future humans.

Society Becomes Tenuous

If we continue with this growth mindset, it is hard to come to any other conclusion that Society as we know it becomes tenuous.  Like the Emperor of old with his rice and chessboard, our growth will bankrupt the kingdom and societal collapse becomes a very real prospect.  And as long as there is growth (population and/or ‘standard of living’) – THERE IS NO HOPE FOR NATURE, nor any reason to have faith that there should be.  I feel that the jury is out regarding the future and fate of humankind.  Because as clever as we are, we still ultimately and fundamentally rely on nature.  We are one and the same – nature and humans.  And the crimes we commit against nature, are ultimately self-inflicted wounds.

Perhaps in our anthropocentrism, people don’t really care? It would seem that as long as humanity goes on, that is all that matters.  This (humanity goes on at the expense of nature) is the most optimistic outcome of the so-called sustainable growth mindset, and even then our future is in question. Irony abounds: the notion of green or sustainable growth inevitably leads to a world that I, and most ironically others, do not want. 

Joni Mitchell can have the last word: “They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot.”

Copyright ©️ 2019 T. Schneider All Rights Reserved

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