Many have bandied about the word “sustainability,” from green philosophers to but what does it really mean? Amidst the hundreds of definitions though, the pervading idea is that we should leave earth in as good a state we found it, which is possible, just not the direction we are headed in. ‘Development that meets the need of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ is a tall order when greed has caused short-term desire to trump long-term practicality. Obviously, it is an imperative to change our course to repair the damage done the planet’s biosystem, but the problem is that the steps necessary to bring it about are not in our immediate interest and this results in planetary procrastination.
The first assumption we need to investigate about sustainable development is whether it is compatible with the model of growth for both population and industry. The average Westerner today consumes over 100 times the resources of a person living 200 years ago at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Over the same period, the population has increased by a factor of ten. Combine these two growths together and the result is a 1000-fold increase in consumption, and with it a corresponding increase in waste and pollution. As the human population most likely doubles over the next three decades, the industrial production will exponentially increase as the basic resources we need to survive are exacerbated. Our visible consumer culture is so extreme that the storage-locker industry is growing quickly in the U.S. despite the simultaneous increase in the size of our homes. Philosopher Peter Russell opines, “Corporate rates of growth are planned to be even higher. Many major US corporations, including some of the greener ones, have committed themselves to growth rates of between 10% and 15% At that rate, companies currently turning over $10 billion will be in the trillion dollar range in thirty years. How can that be sustainable in the long-term?” Shifting from manufacturing to information processing will lessen the rate at which our consumption of grows, but slowing the rate of growth does not eliminate the problem; it merely moves the crisis point a few years into the future.
With this mounting problem, we need to turn away from isolationism and realize not helping the third world will only contribute to furthering their instances of deforestation, over-grazing, soil erosion and water contamination. Yet, in the U.S. and other developed nations, our neo-Keynesian model is fixated on economic growth at the expense of societal well-being. The success of our growing economy is the mistaken object of worship as if we believe that the pursuit of happiness can be quantified on the New York Stock Exchange. The pundits cheer the headlines boasting increases in industrial outputs without any pause for what it means in the long-term. There is a way to calculate “Green GDP” where the environmental costs of growth are factored in. Yet Pundits ignore this when they advocate projects like the Keystone XL pipeline by saying it will create jobs and grow the economy. Ironically, it would only create temporary jobs for the construction and not much else, but besides this, it is just another instance of kowtowing toward big oil and putting ourselves further down the fossil-fuel road to nowhere.
In his recent book, The Growth Illusion, the economist Richard Douthwaite argues that the only truly sustainable economy is one with zero material growth. He shows how, despite all its promises, growth has done very little in recent years to raise the quality of life. The promise of more jobs has been offset by the unemployment generated by increased efficiency and productivity from new technologies, which the drive for growth has produced. Statistics show that “few people in the more developed countries are more fulfilled than they were thirty years ago. A study in 1955 showed that one third of U.S. population said they were happy with their lives. The same study repeated in 1992 found that exactly the same proportion of the people were happy with their lives – despite the fact that per capita productivity and consumption have both doubled over this time.The reality is that “continued economic growth has made a few people richer, and a lot of people poorer. In 1980 the average large company CEO earned 42 times as the average hourly paid worker. In 1992 he earned 157 times as much. The same pattern has happened over the world as a whole, resulting in a net flow of wealth from the Third World to the First World. During the 1980s incomes fell in more than 40 developing countries, in some cases by as much as 30 percent. Over the same period Third World debt has been increasing at 10% per year – that means a doubling every seven years.” Douthwaite concludes that ‘the sooner growth is dropped from our thinking and we revert to setting ourselves specific and finite objectives that lead towards our steady state the better our future will be.”
Herman Daly of the World Bank puts it more bluntly in his essay in the book The Sustainable Society: It is obvious that in a finite world nothing physical can grow forever. Yet our current policy seems to aim at increasing physical production indefinitely. But zero-growth is far too uncomfortable for most economists and politicians to accept as Western capitalism cannot survive without growth. National and corporate economies are compelled to expand if they are to avoid collapse. Herein lies a fundamental conflict. We want to ensure the future of humanity, and yet we also want to ensure the very system that is contributing to its downfall. As Willis Harman, one of the founders of the World Business Academy, points out, “this is rather like a patient who implores his physician to heal him, but subject to the conditions that the doctor not interfere with his drinking, smoking, eating or stress-producing attitudes. Yet we do something similar when we admit the seriousness of our unsustainable modern way of life, and insist that the cure be sought without disturbing our concepts of the necessity of technological progress and economic growth.” As a consequence most definitions of sustainable development do little more than make economic growth more equitable and environmentally careful. They seldom challenge the assumption that economic growth is beneficial.
Peter Russell states, “the hidden hand of self-interest invites people and corporations to get around the law, or do the minimum they can get away with; not to do the maximum possible. He mentions the CFC story as an example of this behavior. CFCs were created more than twenty five years ago as the result of a search for inert, non-toxic, inflammable, stable, compressible gases – gases that would, in other words be safe for human beings and for the environment. Only after their manufacture had begun did some people suspect that they might damage the ozone layer that shields the Earth’s surface from harmful ultraviolet light. The Montreal Protocol banned CFCs but they are stilled used today. The thinning of the ozone layer is cause for alarm but if the ozone hole continues growing, skin cancers and eye cataracts linked to it are likely to be the least of our worries. The increased UV light hitting the tips of plants, where they are most vulnerable destroys the DNA in these cells and the plant will not reach maturity, and will not seed. Microscopic phytoplankton in the sea which have no skin to protect them and are very vulnerable to ultraviolet radiation are also facing destruction which would crush the planet’s food chain will crash.
Another point Peter Russell makes is how “our economic system unintentionally exacerbates our global crisis through the charging of interest. Although we may take the charging of interest for granted, it is only relatively recently it has become a widely accepted practice. Usury – as the practice is often called – was originally out-lawed in Judaism; the Old Testament contains several warnings against it. The cultures of ancient Greece and Rome likewise denounced the practice. Aristotle called it the most unnatural and unjust of all trades. For centuries it was outlawed by the Church of Rome’s Canon Law. And it is forbidden by the Koran, and there are today several Islamic countries whose banks are forbidden to charge interest. Why have spiritual teachings and philosophers repeatedly argued against usury? There are several reasons – both moral and economic. First, the accumulation of compound interest is economically unsustainable in the long-term. A dollar invested at 10% compound interest would be worth $2.59 after ten years; $13,780 after a hundred years; and $2.473,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 after a thousand years – which is about ten trillion times the value of the Earth’s weight in gold. Second, it is those who have money who lend it and those without who need to borrow and pay the interest. This tends to make the rich richer, and the poor poorer. Third, usury is wanting something for nothing. The act of lending money involves no input of human labor – apart perhaps from the signing of an agreement and entering some data in a computer. The borrower may well use the money to do something useful, but the lender has done nothing. Yet he still expects to receive something in return. Its the time-old desire for a free lunch.
But where does this extra something come from? Most money-lenders are so concerned with their own gains they do not consider this question – or turn a blind-eye to it. In order that the interest on all these loans can be paid the amount of money in circulation has to increase. But this fuels inflation – more money chasing the same amount of goods decreases the value of the money. So governments strive to compensate as much as possible for the extra money by increasing real wealth. The result? The need for continued economic growth.”
Russell posits that sustainable development is not compatible with a democratic system in which leaders must pander to the interests of those who put them in power. Elected leaders need the popular vote, and the popular vote is strongly influenced by what people think politicians will give them in the short-term rather than the long-term. In most cases this is not what is required for sustainable development. Take, for instance, George Bush’s refusal to sign the Biodiversity Convention at the Earth Summit in Rio. He defended his position by arguing that it endangered company patent rights and was not in the interest of American business. Despite the fact that a number of scientists in the ‘”threatened” biotechnology industries lobbied the then president, trying to persuade him that his decision was short-sighted, and that the loss of biodiversity was a far greater threat than the protection of US business interests, he stuck to his position. Was it just a coincidence that Bush was up for re-election that year, and a major part of his political campaign funds came from the corporate world? Voters short-term, materialist interests are one reason why European Green parties have not fulfilled their initial promise. People began to realize that voting green was not just voting for a healthier environment; it was also, in the final analysis, voting for an end to growth, an end to unbridled consumption, and end to low taxation, and the loss of many personal comforts and conveniences. Who would vote for that? The fact that we may not be here in twenty years time if we do not is too distant a consideration.
Many of us have become so attached to our lifestyles that we would risk oblivion rather than let go of the things that we tell ourselves are so important. This leads to all manner of convoluted thinking where blame for the Environmental crisis is shifted or denied outright. Yet, we are all responsible. Almost everyone today is aware that automobiles are a major producer of carbon dioxide. But how many of us have stopped driving a car? Few. And of those of us who argue that they must have a car, how many have chosen to drive the most fuel-efficient car on the market? Again, very few. Why not? One reason is that most of us do not believe it would actually make any difference. Why make such personal sacrifices if the vast majority of people continue as before? They will make no measurable difference to the planet or the rest of humanity. The only difference will be a decrease in personal comfort and convenience. And this is not in our self-interest. In the words of Rusell, “One of our major impediments to sustainability is our greed, our love of power, our love of money, our attachment to our comforts, our unwillingness to inconvenience ourselves. In one way or another human self-interest is either creating the problem or preventing us from solving it.” Paradigm-shifting our self-interest is the goal and the subject of part II of this entry.