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---October 23, 1991---
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Pick up the NEW YORK TIMES, the WALL STREET JOURNAL or the WASHINGTON POST. Select any article on the U.S. economy and you'll read something like, "The problem is slow growth." The very definition of an economic recession is slow growth. When the rate of economic growth diminishes, America finds itself in trouble.

The expectation of growth, the assumption of growth, is fundamental to our way of life. We expect our children will be better off than we are because a continuously-growing economy creates more of everything to go around. Our children's proportion of the pie may be no larger than ours, but the total pie will be larger so their slice will contain more benefits and they will be better off.

We expect growth to solve the problems of poverty in our own country, and to solve the problems of impoverished developing countries. Growth saves us from having to make hard political choices about who deserves what benefits. Even a poor person who gets only a small proportion of the economic pie will have more next year if the total pie grows larger. Likewise, even a poor country will be able to pull itself out of poverty if the global economy grows to make the total pie larger.

If growth disappears, the only other approaches require either (a) declaring that some people simply don't deserve to have their needs met; or (b) divvying up the present-size pie more evenly (redistributing income and wealth). Obviously, each of these approaches has serious drawbacks, so continued growth is considered the only acceptable way to proceed. For many, belief in growth has taken on the dimensions of a religion. Those who question growth are viewed as heretics.

In 1987 the United Nations' World Commission on Environment and Development (nicknamed the Brundtland Commission for its chairwoman, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Prime Minister of Norway) published OUR COMMON FUTURE arguing that what the world needed was SUSTAINABLE growth and development.[1] What is sustainable development? It is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Human activities should be judged by whether they are SUSTAINABLE or not. This was an important new idea and it spread quickly. It has now been widely adopted as a goal by nearly every nation--even by the wealthiest, which are living least sustainably.

However, like all new ideas, this one is subject to various interpretations. For example, some members of the Brundtland Commission argue that solving global poverty will require continuous economic growth until the total world economy is 5 to 10 times larger than it is today. This is the old, familiar idea that the pie must grow until each tiny slice becomes large enough to meet a human's basic needs.

Thus the newly-recognized need for "sustainable development" collapses back into the old argument for continuous economic growth.

The debate about "sustainable growth" has caused scientists and economists to ask some fundamental questions about which human activities are sustainable, and how much growth the planet can sustain before it is irreparably damaged as a place suitable for human habitation.

A group of researchers at the World Bank in Washington, DC are now arguing that the limits to growth were reached some time ago and that economic growth in the future will impoverish us all by depleting the basic stock of goods that humans need for a satisfying life.[2] They argue that the Earth probably cannot sustain a doubling of the total economy, much less an increase of 5-to 10-fold. Their argument goes like this:

The global ecosystem is the source of all material inputs feeding the economy, and it is the sink for all the economy's wastes. Population times per-capita resource consumption is the total flow--throughput--of resources from the ecosystem to the economy, then back to the ecosystem as waste.

Limits--particularly limits on the Earth's capacity to assimilate wastes--are now becoming visible everywhere. For example, every drop of ocean water contains evidence of the 20 billion tons of wastes added annually by the human economy. Wastes from human energy systems have changed the chemical composition of the entire atmosphere. Sites for garbage dumps are getting harder to find--wastes are now being shipped thousands of miles to developing countries in search of unfilled sinks. Waste disposal has become a problem that will not go away.

Humans now use--directly or indirectly--about 40% of the net primary productivity of the entire land-surface of the planet.[3] Net primary productivity is the mass of plant material produced each year by photosynthesis using energy from sunlight (on land and in the oceans). Net primary productivity is the total food resource on the earth. Humans, directly or indirectly, now use about 40% of the products of photosynthesis on land, and the rate of increase in human use is about 2% per year, which means within 35 years we could be using 80% of terrestrial net primary productivity. There are between 5 million and 30 million species on earth, and for a single species to be co-opting even 50% of terrestrial net primary productivity for its own uses is a clear indication that real limits to growth are closer than we have imagined. In short, the world is full. Fifty years ago, it looked nearly empty. Today it is full.

Global warming is another indication of a limit reached; 1990 was the warmest year in more than a century of record-keeping. The 1980s were 1 degree Fahrenheit (F) warmer than the 1880s while 1990 was 1.25 degrees F warmer. A few scientists still doubt that global warming has begun but even the doubters don't dispute that it will eventually occur if we continue to load the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. Today the dispute is more about proper responses to global warming than about its eventual occurrence.

Depletion of the Earth's ozone shield, discovered in 1985, is further evidence that we have already exceeded the planet's limits. U.S. government scientists today estimate that already-existing damage to the ozone layer will cause a billion human cancers worldwide, will depress the human immune system with unforeseen consequences (none of them good), and will diminish yields of crops and of marine fisheries.

Land degradation is further evidence of limits reached and exceeded. Thirty-five percent of the Earth's land has already been irreparably degraded by human activities. In agricultural areas, soil loss exceeds the rate of soil regeneration by at least 10-fold at a time when a billion people are malnourished. As marginal lands are cultivated, soil loss worsens.

Extinction of species offers more evidence that limits have been reached. Low estimates put present-day extinction rates at more than 5000 species lost per year--a rate 10,000 times faster than occurred before humans walked the Earth. Our genetic library is disappearing; with its loss, future inventions and developments are being foregone.

The regenerative and assimilative capacities of the earth are already exceeded. Therefore growth on the scale envisioned by Brundtland is simply not possible.

If the earth is full, or nearly so, then throughput (defined as population times per-capita consumption) must be reduced. Poor countries cannot cut per-capita resource use; indeed they must increase it to reach sufficiency, so their focus must be on population control. Rich countries can cut both, to make resources available for transfer to help bring the poor up to sufficiency. Rich nations have achieved wealth using technologies that have accumulated global toxins to a degree that makes it impossible for developing countries to employ those same technologies. Therefore rich countries should be prepared to compensate poor countries for these closed options. It's a matter of simple justice.

Economic development (as distinct from economic growth) is an improvement in quality of life without necessarily causing an increase in resources consumed. Sustainable growth is not possible; sustainable development probably is.

As we make the transition in our thinking, from an empty-world view to a full-world view, we lose the convenient fiction that growth alone can solve poverty.[4] Growth in throughput must cease in the rich nations and, indeed, they must redistribute some of their wealth to the poor nations. Throughput of the U.S. economy must cease growing. Under these circumstances, growth is no longer available to relieve poverty within the U.S. This leaves only two choices, already mentioned: (1) declare that some people simply don't deserve to have their needs met, or (2) redistribute income and wealth. Events in Louisiana, where an avowed white supremacist is running for governor, highlight the fundamental choices we all must face as the economic transition proceeds. Because the full-world view is based on environmental considerations, and because the traditional U.S. environmental movement has not taken the initiative in confronting these fundamental issues, the grass-roots movement for environmental justice in the U.S. will likely play a prominent role in the coming debate.
--Peter Montague, Ph.D. =============== [1] Gro Harlem Brundtland and others, OUR COMMON FUTURE (NY and London: Oxford University Press, 1987).

[2] Robert Goodland, Herman Daly, and Salah El Serafy, editors, ENVIRONMENTALLY SUSTAINABLE ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT BUILDING ON BRUNDTLAND [Environmental Working Paper No. 46] (Washington, DC: World Bank, July, 1991). Available free, but only upon written request from Environment Department, World Bank, 1818 H St., NW, Washington, DC 20433.

[3] Peter M. Vitousek, and others. "Human Appropriation of the Products of Photosynthesis," BIOSCIENCE Vol. 36 No. 6 (June, 1986), pgs. 368-373.

[4] In fact, growth alone never could solve poverty. The world's economy has increased five-fold since 1950, yet 1.2 billion people today--more than ever before--live in absolute poverty.

Descriptor terms: global environmental problems; growth; sustainable development; brundtland commission; economics; world bank; resources; global warming; ozone depletion; wealth; economic development; gro harlem brundtland; norway; poverty;

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