Jan. 13, 2019

The Myth of Unlimited Growth

Decades after the first Earth Day (April 22, 1970), it seems as if we are going backward when it comes to protecting the environment. With environmental regulations being rolled back, the U.S. Carbon dioxide emissions actually increased the past year after decades of reductions. Credible science correlating environmental responsibility to human and ecosystem health is being rejected, the EPA is in the hands of the petrol-chemical industry and public lands are given away to mining and drilling exploitation.

Mainstream economists perpetuate the myth of unlimited growth, ignoring the reality that all natural systems have limiting factors. The human ecological footprint exceeds global bio-capacity by almost 30%. The world’s top scientists are warning that staying our growth-based path to global development virtually guarantees catastrophe for billions of people and threatens the possibility of maintaining a complex global civilization.

I have come to believe that we cannot sustain the planet by working within our corporate-capitalist system. That is an unpopular statement- to borrow a phrase- it is an inconvenient truth. I think it is a matter of scale. Corporations and institutions are just too big and they sustain themselves at the expense of humanity. Profits and efficiency over people.

Media has a huge influence and it seems too many people are willing to accept any bullshit notion that aligns with their personal belief systems. Ignoring facts to stay true to their political ‘tribe.’ The anti-environment, anti-science propaganda has convinced individual people to act against the best interest of our species and the systems that sustain life on the planet. And why would anyone volunteer to sacrifice their convenience and comfort in the present for a better future they may never see?

Currently the anti-environmental propaganda pits environmental regulation against employment opportunities. The first Earth day came at a time of comparative economic prosperity, when “jobs versus regulations” lacked the power to divide us. The lack of economic prosperity drives and divides many issues: environment, immigration, race relations, and diplomatic policies. It is ironic that the capitalistic system that created the income gap and economic despair in so many has also convinced people that solutions lie in sustaining this inequitable arrangement.

Is this ignorance a failure of ethics, a failure of education or just human nature? William E. Rees addressed the problem of human nature in an essay called Are Humans Unsustainable by Nature? http://www.plancanada.com/Unsustainable%20by%20Nature.rees.pdf

 He claims:

  • biological drivers are basic reproductive and survival instincts that humans share with all other species.
  • unless or until constrained by negative feedback, all species populations expand to occupy all accessible habitats and to use all available resources.
  • in the competition for habitat and resources, evolution favors individuals who are most adept at satisfying their short-term selfish needs whether by strictly competitive or by cooperative means, despite potential negative consequences down the road
  • despite today’s material abundance, people’s competitive drive and tendency to accumulate remains unsatisfied. Modern humans don’t have a built-in ‘off’ switch that is tripped by sufficiency
  • humanity’s technological capacity to exploit nature now exceeds nature’s reproductive capacity
  •  The combined result of these forces haunts the sorry history of so-called resource management, particularly common pool assets: While there is considerable variation in detail, there is remarkable consistency in the history of resource exploitation: resources are inevitably overexploited, often to the point of collapse or extinction.

Our species may well be the most voraciously successful predatory and herbivorous vertebrate ever to walk the earth. In this light we can interpret unsustainability as the most recent and possibly terminal manifestation of humanity’s competitive superiority

I still hold out hope that Homo sapiens will mature and learn the wisdom of long-term thinking. I hope we will learn that well-being and sustainable happiness does not derive from perpetual economic growth and the accumulation of things. As long as a majority holds to this myth, all is at risk. We have the capacity to think about the future, to consider consequences, to study and learn about the intricate workings of the systems that sustain life on the planet. We just need the will to change and confront the myth perpetuated by inhumane institutions.