Growth-Our Common Foe
By Neil K. Dawe
03 April, 2006
recent Independent article re climate change and the admission by four
senior British Labour Party ministers that their government's official
policy for fighting climate change has failed, finally hits the nail
on the head ( http://news.independent.co.uk/environment/article354055.ece
). The ministers make the case for “abandoning the 'business as
usual' pursuit of economic growth, which has been the basis of Western
economic policy for two hundred years." Importantly, there seems
to be recognition that economic growth is the root cause of climate
change along with a host of other environmental problems.
Economic growth is a continual
increase in the production and consumption of goods and services and
is predicated on increasing population and per capita consumption. Most
significantly to the conservation cause, economic growth invariably
results in the conversion or draw-down of natural capital (i.e., ecosystems
and their biodiversity). The result is an increasing and cumulative
loss or degradation of ecosystem services, the very services that allow
and sustain life on this planet.
According to the recent Millennium
Ecosystem Assessment (MEA), some 60 per cent of the planet's ecosystem
services are currently being degraded by human activities.
). The World Health Organization's contribution to the MEA notes that
“In the 200 years for which we have reliable data, overall growth
of consumption has outpaced increased efficiencies in production processes
[= technology], leading to absolute increases in global consumption
of materials and energy. This means that in practice, economic growth
tends to increase consumption of energy and materials [= natural capital].”
Apparently, technology is not solving the problem.
How is it that, despite all
our conservation efforts, we have come to this point? A recent paper
by Czech in the Wildlife Society Bulletin may shed some light
Czech suggests that, because economic growth eliminates welfare factors
for species through the principle of competitive exclusion, economic
growth is a limiting factor to conservation. In ecology, a limiting
factor is a factor, such as food or water that controls a process, such
as sustaining a wildlife population. The key point is that, if you don't
address the limiting factor, it doesn't matter what else you do, the
population is in trouble.
If economic growth is the
limiting factor to conservation, as Czech suggests, then it doesn't
matter how many streams we clean or how many old growth forest valleys
we secure, economic growth will eventually undo all the conservation
effort we've undertaken. That seems to be what is happening.
Today, there are more conservation
and environmental organizations, more environmental regulations and
legislation, more protected areas, and more environmental awareness
than ever before, and yet there is more environmental degradation than
ever before. What we're doing to protect biodiversity is not working.
And it's not working because conservationists are not addressing the
root cause of the degradation: economic growth.
One reason that economic
growth is the main culprit flows from the faulty model under which conventional
economics operates. Neoclassical or conventional economics is rife with
flaws that are now being questioned by ecological economists and others
around the world. See http://adbusters.org/metas/eco/
truecosteconomics/neoclassical.html for a brief review
of the flaws as well as http://adbusters.org/metas/eco/truecosteconomics/
; also look at the post autistic economic movement-- http://www.paecon.net/
-- for an example of what students around the world are doing to counter
the "dismal science." If you want to know more, Google Herman
Daly or Robert Costanza for a start.
Undoubtedly the deadliest
flaw of the neoclassical economic model is the fact that it is a circular
flow model (perpetual motion machine) with no connectivity to the biosphere.
Simply, it ignores both physical and ecological laws, such as thermodynamics
and carrying capacity; it's as if the laws have been repealed specifically
for humanity. Of course, they haven't.
In addition, natural capital
is considered expendable because neoclassical economists believe in
perfect substitutability between factors of production (= manufactured
capital, labour, and land, or resources). This has led one Nobel economist
to proclaim: “If it is very easy to substitute other factors for
natural resources, then…the world can, in effect, get along without
natural resources, so exhaustion is just an event, not a catastrophe.”
So, don't worry about biodiversity loss--we'll find a substitute.
This problem has garnered
concern within the scientific community to the extent that a number
of professional organizations such as The Wildlife Society, The Society
for Conservation Biology, and the Canadian and American Societies for
Ecological Economics have adopted position statements on economic growth.
They note that, among other things, there is a fundamental conflict
between economic growth and biodiversity conservation and a fundamental
conflict between economic growth and the ecological services underpinning
the human economy (see e.g., http://www.conbio.org/Sections/NAmerica/NAS-SCBPositionOnEconomicGrowth.cfm
At the Qualicum Institute
(a local grass-roots think-and-act tank), we have been focusing on sustainability
issues in the Parksville-Qualicum Beach region of Vancouver Island.
Over the past four years of our existence, we have yet to meet one decision-maker
who we believe truly understands what it means to be sustainable.
In sustainability workshops
we've attended, led by people ranging from "smart growth"
advocates to municipal councilors to former premiers, invariably the
words "economic growth" or "healthy growing economy"
form part of their plan for sustainability. Those are telling words,
for exponential growth of material things on a finite planet is impossible
(see physicist Albert Bartlett's comments on the subject http://jclahr.com/bartlett/
. Bartlett contends that "The greatest shortcoming of the human
race is our inability to understand the exponential function.")
We at the Qualicum Institute
(QI) believe the time is ripe to carry a new conservation message forward.
If ever we hope to become a sustainable society, we must move from an
economy based on economic growth to a steady-state economy that is in
balance with the carrying capacity of the planet ( see http://dieoff.org/page88.htm
and e.g., books by Herman Daly). This, we are not doing,
and by many measures we appear to have exceeded the earth's carrying
capacity back in the mid-1980s (see, e.g., Fig. 1 Page 3 of Asia-Pacific
2005: The Ecological Footprint and Natural Wealth
gfn_blast_ap_report_2005.html ). This means we are no longer
simply living off the “interest” but rather we're eating
into our “natural capital.”
While all the actions that
conservationists have taken over the years may have bought us some time,
we believe we can no longer afford to continue as we have in the past,
dealing with only the symptoms (e.g., cleaning degraded streams, protecting
older forests, securing critical habitats and recovering species at
risk). Rather, we need to start dealing with the root cause.
The QI recognizes three problems
that will soon come together to confront humanity: peak oil, global
climate change, and biodiversity loss. They will likely hit us in that
order and while peak oil and climate change may arrive first--and their
impacts will undoubtedly be severe--it is biodiversity loss that will
ultimately seal our fate. And it's doubtful these problems will be solved
using our old conservation methods. Perhaps now is the time to rid ourselves
of our "sunk costs"
) and work to address the prime cause of our environmental problems,
not only for our children and their children but for ourselves. We encourage
all conservationists to learn more about this faulty economic growth
paradigm and its deadly interactions with the biosphere (a good start
can be found here: http://www.wildlife.org/publications/index.cfm?tname=wsb2801).
We at the QI also believe
this is a rare opportunity for conservation organizations. Conservationists
can choose to come together with one loud and unequivocal voice against
economic growth, the limiting factor to biodiversity conservation, or
we can continue to see our fragmented efforts continuously eroded by
a faulty economic paradigm. The latter choice isn't likely of much comfort
to all those species dependent for their survival on healthy ecosystems,
and is certainly of no comfort at all to those species humanity has
already pushed over the brink of extinction.
Neil K. Dawe
for the Directors,
The Qualicum Institute
A Society for ecological, social, and economic sustainability