Deep Green: Real Sustainability

Background - March 9, 2010
Cultural habits - like people - go through stages when they face death. Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross described this process as the 'five stages of grief' - denial, anger, bargaining and depression, before the final acceptance of reality. In human society, growth economics will eventually collapse in the face of ecological reality. We have witnessed decades of denial and anger about this end of growth, and society now appears to be entering the bargaining stage.

Rex Weyler

This bargaining appears in thousands of new corporate marketing strategies that promote 'sustainability'. They've changed the ink in the printing presses, rolled out green and blue designs, replaced lightning bolts with fern leaves and stamped images of the Earth on plastic containers. We now have 'sustainable detergent', 'sustainable events', 'sustainable development', 'sustainable profits', 'sustainable fashions' and even 'sustainable countertops' for the kitchen makeovers of discerning consumers.

The bargaining goes like this. If we call ourselves 'green' and 'sustainable', can we keep selling stuff? Like a drug addict, the patient has not yet changed the habits that are killing it. All these sustainable marketing campaigns are designed to sell more products to more people. Meanwhile, every day, we lose more forests, exterminate species, erode soil, drain aquifers and pump more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Eventually, we'll notice that labelling something 'sustainable' doesn't make it so. That day will signal the 'depression' stage.

The foolish king

The bargaining strategy, 'sustainable growth', gained popularity with the 1987 Brundtland Report (Our Common Future), from the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development. The report recognised that human activity had caused serious ecological degradation, and sought ways to reconcile economic growth, particularly for poorer countries, with environmental health. Rich countries, meanwhile, sought ways to allow global corporations to continue plundering the Earth for its riches.

The Brundtland Report envisioned 'a new era of economic growth … that is forceful and at the same time socially and environmentally sustainable'. This idea represents a noble vision that most people would support - a growing human economy that relieves poverty while sustaining the Earth's resources. However, in nature, all physical growth eventually stops. There are no exceptions.

To understand why this is so, we must understand what real sustainability means in a biological habitat. For a species to maintain a pattern of energy and material exchange with its environment over a long period of time, it must achieve what biologists call homeostasis or dynamic equilibrium, whereby its consumption remains below the energy input into the system. 

We must also understand the nature of exponential growth. "The greatest shortcoming of the human race," says physicist Dr. Albert Bartlett at the University of Colorado, "is our inability to understand the exponential function." Since human population and consumption have been growing for thousands of years we might assume that we can continue to grow for thousands more, but this is not how exponential growth works. This complex-sounding bit of arithmetic is actually quite simple.

Any material growth (a fixed or variable percentage increase every year) eventually yields a huge number over time. You may have heard the story of the legendary king who agrees to pay a clever inventor with one grain of rice on the first square of a chess board, two grains on the second square, then four on the third, eight on the fourth and so on. All such growth has a doubling time, represented by the 64 squares of the chess board. By the time the foolish king reaches square number 30, he needs a billion grains of rice. By square 40, he needs a trillion grains and the kingdom is bankrupt. This is the power of exponential growth.

In one of the more famous cases of delusion about endless growth, American business professor Julian Simon claimed in The State of Humanity: Steadily Improving, Cato Policy Report, 1995:

"We have in our hands now - actually in our libraries - the technology to feed, clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next 7 billion years."

Like so many modern business leaders, Simon does not appear to understand ecology or exponential growth. Our current human population - growing just over 1% a year - will double every 60 years. (To find any doubling time, divide the growth rate into the number 70). These doublings are the 'squares' of the chess board in the story of the foolish king. At this rate of growth, the human population on Earth will reach an impossible 7 trillion people in 600 years' time - a tiny fraction of Simon's '7 billion years'.

Even if we assumed a slower population growth of only 0.1% a year, the population would reach over 1 trillion people in 5,000 years. A city such as Tokyo or New York would swell to over 2 billion people. It would not be possible to feed, house or water this population on Earth. The processing of waste and sewage would not be remotely achievable. The planet would be a cesspool of human waste. Simon was dead wrong by a factor of over a million.

Bargaining with nature

For the last two centuries, our consumption of critical resources - forests, energy, water, copper, phosphorus - has been growing over three times faster than population, at about 3.5 per cent a year, meaning that humanity's material consumption has been doubling every 20 years. We are now consuming about 8,000 times as much as humans consumed in 1750. This is already more resources than the Earth can supply. Humanity is in habitat overshoot, as evidenced by forest and soil loss, species extinction, and ocean and atmospheric pollution.

At this rate, in 20 more years, we'll be consuming 16,000 times the 1750 level, and by 2050, 32,000 times. Earth cannot supply this material growth. Like the naïve king, we have bankrupted our kingdom - the Earth itself.

Some growth advocates claim we will save our growth economies with 'efficiencies'. The history of human industrial development provides thousands of efficiency examples, which almost never result in less consumption of energy and materials. Rather, efficiency tends to make a resource cheaper, and therefore more is consumed. This fact is well known in economics, where it is called the rebound effect - or Jevons' effect, after William Jevons, who noticed that coal consumption increased as efficiencies increased.

Others bargain with natural law by claiming that we will 'dematerialise growth' with new technologies. However, in every case in history, as economies have grown, material and energy consumption have grown alongside them. Marginal efficiency gains are swamped by population and consumption growth. Remember when people claimed that computers would save paper? It never happened. In 1950, before private computers, the human community used about 50 million tonnes of paper each year. Now, in the full-blown computer age, we use five times as much paper, 250 million tonnes a year.

"Sustainable growth," Dr. Bartlett reminds us, "is an oxymoron." In nature, no such thing exists. So growth economists and politicians attempt to haggle with nature, proposing policies that might take us 'toward sustainability' to hedge the obvious contradiction. We hear about policies that might make us 'more sustainable' - which means what? That we will last a little longer before we collapse?

Our bargaining with nature won't work. Growth and sustainability are not compatible in the material world. If humanity wants sustainability, we must abandon the belief in endless economic growth. We don't get to re-write the laws of nature for our own convenience.

Real sustainability

When we get past our denial, anger, bargaining and depression, when we finally accept the demands of ecology, what will real human sustainability look like?

First of all, when we talk about sustainable human civilisation, we mean for thousands of years, not a few decades or until the next election. Sustainability in nature - 'dynamic equilibrium' - allows diversity to increase and relationships to fluctuate (thus, 'dynamic'), but a species population and its consumption must cease growing (a state of balance we call homeostasis).

When humanity achieves real sustainability, it will no longer be necessary to bulldoze forests, erode soils, drain aquifers, dam rivers, deplete non-renewable resources, and fill the atmosphere, land, rivers and oceans with our waste.

Real sustainability will value localised trade over globalisation, without relying on fossil fuels to ship food and materials around the world. Real sustainability will solve problems with the simplest, low-technology, whole-systems-based solutions available. Such a system will be aware of scale and will not assume that 'more' and 'bigger' are in any way equated with 'better'. We will learn to value a genuinely rich quality of life over mere quantity of stuff, to value a living watershed or mountain over corporate profit.

Real sustainability will include social justice, because our current state of injustice breeds conflict, violence and additional destruction of nature. Most current economic growth benefits the already-wealthy. Real sustainability will reduce total consumption, while closing the gap between rich and poor. We will discover a new definition of wealth - the health of our living world.

As ecologists, we have to help humanity navigate through these difficult stages of grief over the fact that our very economic system is simply unsustainable. According to Dr. Kübler-Ross's observations, after we finish with our quibbling and bargaining, we may experience depression. We need to help our neighbours realise that accepting reality delivers us finally to the joyful stage of meaningful action.

- RexWeyler

You can respond to "Deep Green" columns at my Ecolog, where I post portions of this column and dialogue with readers.

For more on this topic, see Dr. Albert Bartlett's brilliant lectures and the anthology edited by Marco Keiner, The Future of Sustainability.

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