Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Unsustainable Growth

The insanity of the explicit goal, of the Rio+20 Environmental Summit, was evident: sustainable development. That phrase could mean a lot of things in theory; in practice, what it means is, in the words of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Dr. Kerri-Ann Jones, to "maintain economic growth and protect the environment."

In our current system, economic growth means the conversion of nature into product and human relationships into services. It is widely recognized, at least among environmentalists, that Earth cannot sustain much more of the former. Less understood is that the expansion of services bears a limit as well; that we witness today as the atomization of community, the disintegration of civic culture, the enclosure of the cultural commons and the deskilling and helplessness of nearly the entire population. There is little left that we do not already pay for.

Advocates of "sustainable growth" hope to expand the realm of goods and services - that is, increase consumption - without doing all of these things. In other words, they hope we can consume more and less at the same time. That is impossible, when growth means more purchasing power, more production, more automobiles, bigger houses, more electronics, more roads, more air travel... all of these contribute to economic growth as we define it today.

Transferring growth from these areas onto "green" industries is not a long-term way to sustain eternal growth either, although that transition is important in its own right. Certainly, we should get energy from sunlight rather than fossil fuels and nuclear power - but can we increase the number of solar panels forever? Certainly, we should stop clear-cutting, mining; and ranching the Amazon - but can we increase the production of those things forever? Obviously not.

Furthermore, the most effective green technologies involve simply using less: conserving energy, living in smaller houses, biking instead of driving, couch-surfing instead of building new hotels, sharing and borrowing instead of owning a personal copy of every good - and so on. All of these involve economic degrowth. In aspiring toward sustainable growth, then, the Rio+20 participants carried an irreconcilable contradiction with them into the conference. Given the way that growth is defined in our current system, sustainable growth is impossible.

This should not be a perplexing proposition. What being or system in nature grows forever without reaching a steady state? Most animals go through a growth phase (in humans we call it childhood) and then cease growing larger in size. Immature ecosystems likewise: they rapidly gain in biomass for a while before reaching a steady state. In both cases, development continues. The ecosystem grows in complexity and interconnectedness. The human being continues to grow emotionally and psychologically well after adolescence ends. Could the same dynamic apply to humanity as a species?

If so, then it is time for economic growth as we have known it to end. The differences at Rio+20 were irreconcilable, because in the current system - generally speaking - policies that foster economic growth harm the environment; and policies that heal the environment hurt economic growth. There are exceptions to this rule, but the essential contradiction is unavoidable. To address it, change on a very deep level is needed, change to the very nature of the economy, money and capitalism. It is not to end capitalism, but to change the nature of capital.

Humanity is coming of age, and the old growth paradigm is becoming obsolete. Any attempts to maintain it past its time will fail as dismally as Rio failed. If anything good came out of the summit, it was in the smaller-scale side agreements involving individual nations and corporations that in various ways embody a post-growth sensibility. The time has come to interrogate our basic notions of growth, development and economy. 

Like it or not, our relationship to Earth is changing. Indeed, our consciousness has changed already - probably no one at the Summit advocates the continued wanton despoilation of the planet. Our consciousness has shifted from the early-20th century ideal of conquering nature. However, our institutions, whether money or politics, are not yet in accordance with our changed consciousness. That is why it is so important to question the blind ideological assumptions - particularly that of sustainable growth - that underlie those institutions.