As long as society continues to debate the minimum wage; we are not confronting the gross inequities in the system. We should be discussing the maximum wage; that is how much wealth those at the top are garnering, and the ridiculous difference between what most people earn and what those “at the top” make (in all forms of wealth).
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).
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.
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.
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. https://www.footprintnetwork.org), 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.”
Lately I have been thinking about “stuff.” That is to say, how much stuff we have, which really boils down to how much we consume and waste. This is putting it kindly because most of it is, to be honest, worthless and needless crap.And it comes with massive environmental and societal costs in the form of extraction, production, distribution, and disposal (everything in our culture is ultimately dumped into the environment), with cascading impacts on resources, ecological diversity, pollution, and so on.There’s lots of debate about these issues, which in social discourse always ends up being about jobs versus the environment; ignoring the hidden truth that the corporate elite walk away with the vast majority of the benefits and the rest of us, and the environment, pay all of the costs: the profits are privatized and the risks are socialized.
Rather than heading down this well trodden theme, I’d like to ask you: have you thought about the personal costs of your love affair with stuff?
The personal costs of stuff are substantial and begin with having to pay for it, and for many this also means going into debt.Why are you enslaved “to the man?”Because of stuff!But there is also an emotional toll that stuff takes on us.Think about this for a moment… we actually have to manage the stuff. Daily.By the hour, by the minute even. That miracle fitness gadget sitting in the corner of the basement?Well, we now need that space for the latest, must-have widget. So we move the miracle to the garage. And when the garage fills, then we turn to the ultimate modern contrivance, self storage.It’s a kind of deferred disposal; a bizarre form of landfill (landfills are themselves a bizarre concept if you think about it).
How do I know this?Well, it’s common sense really. But one only needs to stroll through any suburban neighborhood with one’s eyes open.The first tell tale sign is that the cars not in the garage. Confirmation comes when you finally pass an open garage and you see that there is so much junk in there that there’s barely room for a human to walk about, let alone to park a car in it.Frankly I’d be too embarrassed to open my garage door if that were me.But I digress.
Another telltale sign?Again, just move through the world with your eyes open and look.You will notice that we are gobbling up open land to build evermore Self Storage Units.I’ve been noticing over the past few years that more and more are going up, and less and less of the local open space remains.Putting this working hypothesis to the test, I did a little digging. The evidence (data found here) is presented in the figure above, which shows self storage construction in billions of US dollars by year through October 2018, adjusted for inflation to 2018 dollars by the consumer price index. This figure confirms my suspicion that there is pronounced increase in the rate of growth of construction of self storage facilities, beginning about four or five years ago.
I’ll let “The Minimalists” help you with your stuff problem.Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus are great: they’re wise, witty, helpful, and most importantly, non-judgmental.But for me the take home is that this is yet another example of the lack of wisdom of humanity (Provocations #2 – Whither Wisdom?).We do not think through the consequences of our daily decisions and actions. To wit, we’re willing to spend $100 a month, or more, to store the stuff we will never use again.Seriously, who’s going to drive to some remote storage facility to dig out the miracle fitness thingy that they never used in the first place, and haul it home to use it?
So I admit that the title of this blog entry was a bit misleading; a bit of the old bait and switch.I should really have called this ‘On the Lack of Wisdom of Self Storage.”
About the Image: The clean, white snow melts more slowly than dirty (darker) dust-covered snow because it reflects more radiation from the sun rather than absorbing it. This Image was excerpted from NPR, and was courtesy of the Center For Snow and Avalanche Studies.
Happy Earth Day!
A day for celebration and reflection on our impact on the planet.