On Growth and Its Limits

Sustainability diagram

George Monbiot offers a fascinating insight in the wake of last week’s United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in Rio de Janeiro. While rightly deriding the declaration adopted by world leaders for containing little more than meaningless fluff, he notes an evolution in diplomatic language regarding the environment over the years from “sustainability” to “sustainable development” to “sustainable growth” to, most recently, “sustained growth.”

This seems as good a time as any to launch into a topic dear to every environmentalist’s heart: the growth debate.

Intuitively, it does not make much sense to suppose that infinite economic growth is possible in a finite world. Natural resources are limited, as is the Earth’s capacity to absorb pollution. To observe that we have not yet run up against any economy-shattering limits is to miss the point. Such undying faith in growth, according to biologist Paul Ehrlich, “is roughly equivalent to bragging about one’s ability to write a bigger check each month, while paying no attention to the balance in the account.” And while many predictions of ecological doom have come and gone, miscalculations over timing do not get us off the hook. The fact that limits exist, and that the world will eventually reach them unless we radically change course, is a matter of ecological, physical, and mathematical necessity.

It is here that three points need to be made.

First, the counterargument: human ingenuity (the ultimate free lunch!). Infinite economic growth need not be unsustainable, this line of reasoning goes, provided that it is geared towards such environmentally beneficial ends as recycling, mass transit, and wind farms. Technological fixes and the brilliant minds that think of them will always keep us a step ahead of disaster.

Unfortunately, such solutions will merely delay the inevitable rather than prevent it — which is not entirely a bad thing. The challenge of convincing the world of the monumental socioeconomic change that is needed is not to be underestimated, and environmentalists so far have not been up to the task. In this context, buying time is an important part of any strategy for sustainability. However, the time available to us is limited. Yes, we can substitute renewable for nonrenewable resources, but even the former have fixed rates of regeneration. And gains in energy efficiency are circumscribed by the laws of thermodynamics. Growth can be “green” for only so long before reverting to more familiar forms of ever-increasing production, consumption, pollution, and depletion.

A second consideration: distribution. If what I say is correct, we will eventually have to bring an end to economic growth or else have such an end forced upon us by the laws of nature. In fact, since the world population’s current ecological footprint is already too large to be sustained, we will almost certainly need to “degrow” — to reduce the overall size of the global economy. This is easy enough for somebody in a rich industrialized country to say, it might be objected, but what about those in the developing world, those for whom higher incomes are not a matter of greed but of basic dignity and survival?

My answer, sadly, will not make the job of persuading my fellow First Worlders any easier. The only morally acceptable way to pursue degrowth is, at the same time, to massively redistribute wealth both between and within nations. This means that while the global economy as a whole shrinks, the world’s most impoverished countries will continue to grow until their standards of living improve. Developed countries, meanwhile, those with wealth to spare, will need to “pick up the slack” and degrow even further until some kind of equilibrium is reached. This is the only way to bring about global environmental sustainability without pushing the world’s most desperately poor further into destitution.

My third point is one that makes even environmentalists a little uncomfortable: when we talk about growth, what we are actually talking about is capitalism. Private enterprise needs endless growth to survive. Without it, competitive market economies are reduced to zero-sum games where one person’s win is literally another’s loss. This is why recessions and depressions carry such heavy human tolls. While a no-growth economy could easily be environmentally sustainable, it would not be socially sustainable unless we transition to a completely different mode of production.

That’s right, comrades, I’m talking about the dreaded S-word! (Maybe Joe Oliver was right. Maybe greens — at least some of us — really are radicals.)

So, of the many forms of socialism out there, which should we adopt? How do we get there from here? How much time should we allow ourselves to make the transition? And how do we go about convincing regular people, to say nothing of those with money and power, to embrace such fundamental change?

I leave these questions to someone more knowledgeable than I. In this post, I prefer to restrict myself to superficially discussing limits to growth and their moral and economic implications, and to marking the lack of long-term solutions from last week’s Rio+20 conference. But as always, I am happy to entertain contributions of ideas, strategies, and criticisms in the comments section below from any whose human ingenuity is not quite so subject to natural limits as mine.

Oliver’s Twist: So Long Federal Environmental Oversight

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver — yes, the one who labelled environmentalists foreign-backed radicals — announced a major overhaul today in how environmental assessments will be conducted in Canada. Not surprisingly, the government is limiting the ability of environmental groups to take part in public hearings, shortening the length of reviews, and generally streamlining the process. Put another way, public and regulatory oversight of resource development is being slashed.

What I find most interesting, however, is that Oliver seems to be trying to take the federal government out of the environmental assessment game. With the exception of “major economic projects” and other matters judged to be of national importance, the feds will now be leaving assessments to the provinces in hopes of avoiding any costly duplication of efforts. And so we find ourselves in the midst of the classic debate: which level of government — federal or provincial — is better at protecting the environment? Some argue that the provinces are the appropriate venue, because they are closer to the people most intimately affected by environmental problems, while others counter that provinces are also closer to those who stand to profit from resource exploitation.

In my opinion, both sides miss the point. Whether the feds or the provinces have more power on the environment is not nearly as important as how they interact with each other. In the introduction to an environmental policy anthology she co-edited, UBC political scientist Kathryn Harrison distinguishes three different approaches: unilateralism, rationalization, and collaboration.

Under unilateralism, both levels of government put environmental protections in place on their own and without regard for the other, resulting in inevitable duplications. A more cooperative approach is rationalization, under which the two levels divvy up responsibilities, so that some environmental questions are treated as federal jurisdiction and others as provincial. Most cooperative of all, collaboration involves the feds and the provinces getting together to agree upon and draw up the rules jointly.

What we see with Minister Oliver’s announcement today is not a decentralization of environmental policy — or at least not just that — but a shift in Canada’s environmental assessments from unilateralism to rationalization. Of course, everyone loves a little cooperation, but we might as well ask what we are losing in the process.

The greatest strength of unilateralism is frankly that it tends to produce the best results. If either a federal or a provincial government happens to be a bit weak on the environment at any given time (something that all jurisdictions can be, depending on who is in office), the planet will at least have the regulations of the other to fall back on. Unilateralism offers up some friendly jurisdictional competition to ensure that the best policies rise to the top (a conservative principle if ever I’ve heard one!). It provides a guarantee that whichever level of government is most committed to the environment is the one that will carry the day.

But what about those costly duplications? Everything in government has a cost. The question is whether we are getting good value for our money. Politics, as is often observed, is about choice. So what do we prioritize? Sustainable resource development, healthy ecosystems, and the best possible environmental assessments? Or corporate tax cuts, prisons, and F-35s? The Conservative government has made its position clear.

I wonder where most Canadians stand.