Monday, March 09, 2009

No More Growth - Even the NYT Gets It (Sort Of)

You have spent your entire time living in a society that worships on bended knee at the altar of Divine Growth. Like all good deities, the Lord Growth has evolved to meet the times.

In the wake of WWII there arrived the brief era of blind growth, catch up growth, go-for-it growth. We even grew babies by the tens of millions. Then came the Cold War and the era of patriotic growth. Big cars got bigger yet, so did houses and all the extra stuff we could jam into them. That really got into overdrive in the Greed is Good growth era. GiG was so grand that we created schemes of notional wealth, bubbles, and splurged with all the money we never really made. There were growth giants like the Dot.Com bubble and the Enron and WorldCom scams and, finally, a bubble for every American, the housing bubble.

Finally people began to notice the first wafts of smoke, the odd flicker of flame, and knew that something wasn't quite right with the world and with mankind. That's when we reached for the feel good solution - sustainable growth, sort of like light cream cheese. Eat all you want because it's sustainable. Free lunch for everybody.

Now we're finally, slowly beginning to realize that, as there is no free lunch, there's no such thing as sustainable growth either.

Now there might be room for sustainable growth in some areas but that's like saying we can all have shoes but just not food. Pretty soon you wind up having to eat your shoes and then the whole sustainable business falls apart.

I've written about our self-destructive, delusional addiction to growth for at least two decades which is why I was delighted this morning to discover that the New York Times' own Tom Friedman has finally found the light:

What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”
We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese ...

We can’t do this anymore.

“We created a way of raising standards of living that we can’t possibly pass on to our children,” said Joe Romm, a physicist and climate expert who writes the indispensable blog We have been getting rich by depleting all our natural stocks — water, hydrocarbons, forests, rivers, fish and arable land — and not by generating renewable flows.
“You can get this burst of wealth that we have created from this rapacious behavior,” added Romm. “But it has to collapse, unless adults stand up and say, ‘This is a Ponzi scheme. We have not generated real wealth, and we are destroying a livable climate ...’ Real wealth is something you can pass on in a way that others can enjoy.”

Over a billion people today suffer from water scarcity; deforestation in the tropics destroys an area the size of Greece every year — more than 25 million acres; more than half of the world’s fisheries are over-fished or fished at their limit.

At this point, Friedman and I part company. Ever the cheerleader, he advocates tweaking "the system" to " transition to the concept of net-zero, whereby buildings, cars, factories and homes are designed not only to generate as much energy as they use but to be infinitely recyclable in as many parts as possible. Let’s grow by creating flows rather than plundering more stocks."

Friedman advances the "magic wand" approach. Slap some solar cells atop the taxi and a bit of nanotechnology in the Hugo Boss suit and all will be well. It won't.

Like most of these dissertations Friedman weighs one problem in isolation of all others. Mankind's consumption of renewable resources has exceeded the planet's ability to replenish them since the mid-80's. We've become dependent on our dwindling aquifers, our emptying oceans and our vanishing forests. Even if well off Americans could break their addiction to overconsumption, less advantaged peoples aren't going to be much better off for it.

Friedman also ignores the chaos that's beginning to arrive as climate change effects settle in. It's very difficult to introduce what would truly be multi-generational reform compressed into a decadal effort just as ecological instability is besetting mankind.

It takes a long time to bring new "sustainable" technologies on line and, even if they were truly sustainable, we haven't got that kind of time. In many parts of the world these new technologies wouldn't be affordable in any case.

And then there's good old human nature. When we give up things it's usually because the artillery has gotten close enough that we can hear the guns firing. Do you sense among your circle of family and friends and co-workers the willingness to voluntarily embrace transformational change and the upheaval that goes with it? I don't see any sign of that.

My guess is that America and China aren't done with their fling yet; that powerful individuals and corporations are looking to the end of the recession/depression in hope they can get back to business as usual, for a little while anyway.

It's taken me some time to accept it but I now firmly believe Lovelock's call for "sustainable retreat." We have to get back into balance with our planet's renewable resources because we have no other choice. The path to that point means fewer and smaller instead of bigger and more. But, above all else, it also means a consensus, a willingness to go back and that's a level of consciousness that I see nowhere on the horizon.


JimBobby said...

Whooee! Good boogin', Mound. It's gonna take some time before there's a general consensus that growth is not good. Back in the fall election campaign, almost every candidate was stumpin' fer growth as a key to local prosperity. I went to all of the debates in my riding and the only one who didn't bow down to the God of Growth was the Green gal an' she got booed fer suggesting that we may not need more factories and a new nuke plant and more subdivisions and more taxpayers movin' into our riding.

Until we can elect no-growth politicians, we'll be stuck in the same unsustainable rut we're in now. Leastwise, until it comes crashin' down even more than it already has.


The Mound of Sound said...

Hi JB. I think you're right and I do think we're years, decades perhaps, away from reaching that core consensus.

We're already seeing bird and fish species migrating away from tropical regions. Why do we Canadians think human creatures won't follow?

European understand the idea of climate refugees. They're already making their way north out of Africa.

Many climate scientists identify Canada and Siberia as the only two regions that stand to benefit from global warming. That means those will be places that some people will find attractive destinations.

Anonymous said...

Nature Bats Last...

We are Part of Nature, Too…

In previous articles published in Sustainable Land Development Today magazine, I have supported a more environmentally-friendly approach to land development -

“Understanding the Sacred Bond we have with Trees” pointed out the historical importance of wood to the rise of major civilizations and the link between deforestation and environmental collapse, and the fall of many of those same civilizations. The article “Biodiversity is the Living Foundation for Sustainable Development” was published to highlight the fact that underlying all efforts to achieve a triple-bottom-lined sustainable future is the fundamental requirement that certain environmental building blocks must exist, or little hope for civilization can remain. Finally,“Building a Sustainable Community Forest” addressed the need for a comprehensive approach to build sustainable “designer ecosystems” for the future.

Having taken an early environmentally defensive position on land development issues in the past, I now find myself in the position of defending our industry in the face of recent publicly reported criticism and dire predictions which have outlined a very bleak future for humanity as a consequence of the collective eco-sins of present and preceding generations. While the consequences of bad environmental practices are now evident and obvious to any rational observer, I now offer an opinion contrary to the current hysteria-media-driven fear of a coming “Dark Age” for civilization.

The key to my optimism is the belief that inevitably the movement of human emotion between the extremes of confidence in human dominance over nature, and the fear of nature punishing us for our exploitive tendencies, will result in a more balanced view that as part of nature, humans have the capability to be a positive evolutionary force and to learn from and influence the natural world around us, for the benefit of society today, as well as future generations of all species.

As evidence that the above described human emotional cycle does exist, I offer the following simple example - In 1992, in conjunction with the assembly of the first World Summit on Sustainable Development, a majority of the world’s leading scientists signed and delivered an unprecedented and explicit document entitled, “A Warning to Humanity” with the following introduction:

“Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about.”

“We must bring environmentally damaging activities under control to restore and protect the integrity of the Earth’s systems we depend on.”

Even though it is easy to see in hindsight that the scientists were correct in their warnings, at the time neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post even carried the story. Now, in contrast, doomsayers are given top billing in the news of the day, and end-of-the-world stories are common.

What is a responsible land developer to make of this?

Well, in 1987, five years before “A Warning to Humanity”, this developer was elected president of a major environmental organization, called for “The Year of Restoration”, and predicted that earth restoration would become a major world-wide industry. Since that time, as evidenced by the emergence of this magazine and its parent organization – Sustainable Land Development International (SLDI)- there has been an amazing burst of new technology on the scene, with much more on the way, that will enable our species to not only survive, but to thrive as the stewards of a restored planet.

The cornerstone of our new-found knowledge of sustainability is the philosophy of “doing more with less,” and the best sustainable models to study are the earth’s natural systems. By emulating the efficiency of nature, we can sustain our species at a desirable standard of living and at long last, the often repeated cycle of natural resource exploitation, and the rise and fall of civilizations from the dawn of human time, will be broken.

Even James Lovelock nows believes that we can save our civilization by embracing the use of biochar -

Sustainable Land ­Development: Building a Bridge to a New Global Culture

Terry Mock
Executive Director
Sustainable Land Development International -

Promoting and enabling land development worldwide that balances the needs of people, planet & profit - for today and future generations.