Thursday, February 18, 2010

Deep Green: Real Sustainability

by Rex Weyler

Cultural habits - like people - go through stages when they face death. Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross described this process as the 'five stages of grief' - denial, anger, bargaining and depression, before the final acceptance of reality. In human society, growth economics will eventually collapse in the face of ecological reality. We have witnessed decades of denial and anger about this end of growth, and society now appears to be entering the bargaining stage.

This bargaining appears in thousands of new corporate marketing strategies that promote 'sustainability'. They've changed the ink in the printing presses, rolled out green and blue designs, replaced lightning bolts with fern leaves and stamped images of the Earth on plastic containers. We now have 'sustainable detergent', 'sustainable events', 'sustainable development', 'sustainable profits', 'sustainable fashions' and even 'sustainable countertops' for the kitchen makeovers of discerning consumers.

The bargaining goes like this. If we call ourselves 'green' and 'sustainable', can we keep selling stuff? Like a drug addict, the patient has not yet changed the habits that are killing it. All these sustainable marketing campaigns are designed to sell more products to more people. Meanwhile, every day, we lose more forests, exterminate species, erode soil, drain aquifers and pump more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Eventually, we'll notice that labelling something 'sustainable' doesn't make it so. That day will signal the 'depression' stage.

The foolish king

The bargaining strategy, 'sustainable growth', gained popularity with the 1987 Brundtland Report (Our Common Future), from the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development. The report recognised that human activity had caused serious ecological degradation, and sought ways to reconcile economic growth, particularly for poorer countries, with environmental health. Rich countries, meanwhile, sought ways to allow global corporations to continue plundering the Earth for its riches.

The Brundtland Report envisioned 'a new era of economic growth … that is forceful and at the same time socially and environmentally sustainable'. This idea represents a noble vision that most people would support - a growing human economy that relieves poverty while sustaining the Earth's resources. However, in nature, all physical growth eventually stops. There are no exceptions.

To understand why this is so, we must understand what real sustainability means in a biological habitat. For a species to maintain a pattern of energy and material exchange with its environment over a long period of time, it must achieve what biologists call homeostasis or dynamic equilibrium, whereby its consumption remains below the energy input into the system.

We must also understand the nature of exponential growth. "The greatest shortcoming of the human race," says physicist Dr. Albert Bartlett at the University of Colorado, "is our inability to understand the exponential function." Since human population and consumption have been growing for thousands of years we might assume that we can continue to grow for thousands more, but this is not how exponential growth works. This complex-sounding bit of arithmetic is actually quite simple.

Any material growth (a fixed or variable percentage increase every year) eventually yields a huge number over time. You may have heard the story of the legendary king who agrees to pay a clever inventor with one grain of rice on the first square of a chess board, two grains on the second square, then four on the third, eight on the fourth and so on. All such growth has a doubling time, represented by the 64 squares of the chess board. By the time the foolish king reaches square number 30, he needs a billion grains of rice. By square 40, he needs a trillion grains and the kingdom is bankrupt. This is the power of exponential growth.

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