Sustainability

Growth Is Not Always Good

By Ben Bull
Published January 31, 2008

We've all heard the expression 'growth is good'; and given the impending economic slow-down we're told is heading our way, we may wish for uninterrupted growth for a long time to come. But The Toronto Star's David Olive has other ideas.

There are better ways of measuring human progress than growth." he says in his column this weekend.

A wise American corporate CEO, wary of unrestrained growth, said years ago, "Growth for its own sake is the logic of the cancer cell."

In his piece, Olive examines the origins of growth, the psychology of growth and, perhaps more importantly, the dangers of unchecked growth, quoting Jean-Marc Jancovici, an environmentalist and adviser to French governments and corporations:

The growth rate of the consumption of natural resources...slowed down because of the oil shocks of 1974 and 1979, which delayed the ultimate exhaustion, but it does not change the essence of the problem, because we still look for perpetual growth. For the fossil fuels, for example, diminishing the annual growth rate of consumption from three percent to 1.8 percent delays the final outcome (of total depletion) by 20 years only.

Olive goes on to observe:

Projections of world population growing to 9.1 billion by 2050 from 6.5 today aren't in themselves the real worry. Some experts assert there's room on the planet for as many as 15 billion of us. The concern is the exponential nature of demand growth.

For instance, as the U.S. population tripled in the 20th century, its consumption of raw materials increased 17-fold – a pattern that will play out among the far larger population of the developing world in decades to come.

One simply has to hope that any species that could overcome the Black Death and (so far) the threat of mutual assured nuclear destruction can sustain its craving for growth by, as in post-World War II Europe, redirecting it. Has to hope that today's nascent eco-industry start-ups will someday populate the Fortune 500. Growth can and should be a liberating force, unleashing innovations that improve standards of living. But in too many places, at home and abroad, growth abets intolerable social inequality.

Sadly, we are already seeing the effects of our 'grow at all costs' mentality: The Alberta Premier walking out of the Premiers Summit because he didn't want to reign in the Oil Sands Industry; or Premier Dalton McGuinty telling us to buy more fridges to keep the economy humming.

What seems to be missing from our current economic equation is the understanding that most industries are still unsustainable - that is, they consume more than they produce. There is a net loss to the planet. If we carry on growing the way we are there won't be much planet left to consume.

Here's hoping Richard Branson gets that space rocket finished very soon...

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.

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By statius (registered) | Posted February 05, 2008 at 12:49:01

"Sadly, we are already seeing the effects of our 'grow at all costs' mentality: The Alberta Premier walking out of the Premiers Summit because he didn't want to reign in the Oil Sands Industry; or Premier Dalton McGuinty telling us to buy more fridges to keep the economy humming."

The economic growth encouraged by McGuinty and Stelmach is hardly "growth for the sake of growth" alone. It is, rather, growth for the accumulation and preservation of their own political capital.

That being said, a less cyncial observer than myself might point out that economic growth of some degree is necessary to preserve the material quality of life of a perpetually - though one hopes not exponentially - growing population base. The question then becomes whether our expectations re material quality of life are worth preserving.

As for your remark that "What seems to be missing from our current economic equation is the understanding that most industries are still unsustainable - that is, they consume more than they produce" - this isn't true in basic economic terms, at least for a majority of industries. Most industries produce vastly more value than they consume. That is why they exist. There are obviously exceptions (most notably, subsidized industries like agriculture in land poor first world nations). Your argument of efficiency is not really tenable unless you make assumptions of inherent value which are not amenable to economic analysis.

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By internalista (anonymous) | Posted February 05, 2008 at 13:27:54

"Most industries produce vastly more value than they consume. That is why they exist."

That's only 'true' insofar as the market continues to externalize unaccounted costs and ignore the fact that many of our feedstocks in energy and materials are non-renewable, one-time endowments that we're steadily consuming. Your thinking is part of the problem.

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By Rusty (registered) - website | Posted February 05, 2008 at 19:04:43

Statius,

My statement regarding industries being non-sustainable does not mean to imply that companies don't produce value. How could I ever have meant that? Businesses only exist when they produce a value of some kind...

The point is as internalista is saying, businesses either directly or indirectly consume more of our non-renewable resources than can be replaced. De-forestation is a good (and easy) example. How many trees do we cut down to sustain business XYZ, and are we able to re-plant the same number to replace what we've lost? How much oil was spewed into the atmosphere to support the business? And can we reverse the damage to the environment?

Until we have a sustainable economy - i.e. until every business can replace the resources it has used - we will continue to push the planet over the edge.

Encouraging more spending on non-renewable (and, in many cases non-essential) consumer items and refusing to reign in our most environmentally destructive industries will only leave us with a bigger problem to face in the long run.

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By statius (registered) | Posted February 05, 2008 at 19:42:10

internalista,

I generally agree with your point above. My remarks were for the most part disingenuous, and were made largely to offer a counterpoint to the remarkable uniformity of viewpoint on RTH.

That being said, they were not entirely disingenuous ...

It's certainly true that the market and economic models generally externalize what you call "unaccounted costs" (by definition). The problem is that these "unaccounted costs" are for the most part also unaccountable. That is to say, they simply don't make sense within the rubric of economic analysis because they are not real costs, per se, but rather something much more nebulous (we might call them "peripheral consequences" or "extrinsic negative effects", etc.). Now, given that the market is a beast purely of economics, it would be obtuse to insist that its operatives try to take into account something which by defintion is unaccountable on their terms. Before an "unaccounted cost" can be realized within the market it first must be turned into a real cost, which can be done through the imposition of fines, taxes, duties (e.g. emission caps), etc. So until these "unaccounted costs" are converted into real costs (and this is a function of government, not the market) it really is fair to say that industry produces more value than it consumes. For something like a pristine environment, a stable climate and an intact ecosystem has no value until we add it.

As for your remark that the market "ignore[s] the fact that many of our feedstocks in energy and materials are non-renewable, one-time endowments that we're steadily consuming", this is simply untrue. Do you never read the business section? Alarm over the depletion of natural energy reserves (and consequentially soaring energy costs) relative to exponentially increasing demand is probably the most important dialogue in the business world today.

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By statius (registered) | Posted February 05, 2008 at 19:55:19

Ben,

You write: "Until we have a sustainable economy - i.e. until every business can replace the resources it has used - we will continue to push the planet over the edge. "

I completely agree. Perfect sustainability is the most desirable ultimate evolution for any market. But sustainability and efficiency are two different things (at least right now). I just think the debate needs to be framed in the proper terms.

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