“Growth” is not “sustainable”

Rudy M. Baum, the Editor-in-Chief of  industry journal Chemical & Engineering News (hardly a hive of tree-huggers) gave an after dinner speech at the 25th annual “William S. Johnson Symposium” at Stamford University on October 8, 2010. He published it in his journal on Novemeber 8, 2010 as “Sustainable Growth Is An Oxymoron.” The entire address is worth reading, but I will here highlight a couple of paragraphs:

“If Earth is finite, then by definition, so is our capacity to produce and consume. Yet we exist within a socioeconomic system that is predicated on endless growth. The rate of growth—in population and economic activity—turned exponential about 200 years ago with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. We call it the Industrial Revolution, but that revolution was really a revolution based on the extraction of fossil fuels from Earth and their use to power machines and eventually to produce electricity. Civilization as we know it is entirely dependent on burning fossilized sunshine cheaply. Because that’s what fossil fuels are—yes, they’re the fossils of dead plants and dinosaurs, but those flora and fauna were just the machines that converted hundreds of millions of years of sunshine into compounds buried in Earth waiting for us to extract them. We burned the fossil fuels on the cheap because we treated the atmosphere as a free dumping ground for the waste products of combustion, primarily CO2.

“Eventually, humanity was going to hit a wall. A wall that told us that a system based on endless growth was not sustainable on a finite planet. …

“It turns out the availability of fossil fuels wasn’t the wall that put a limit on growth; climate change, global warming, climate disruption—whatever you want to call it—turned out to be the wall. There are enough fossil-fuel resources left on Earth for us to keep the economic engines that have powered 200 years of exponential growth going for another 100 or 200 years or so, but the climate isn’t going to let us do that.

The fact is that, eventually, we have to learn to live off the sun in real time. That’s not going to be easy. Fossil fuels aren’t just fossilized sunshine; they’re concentrated fossilized sunshine. As [Bill] McKibben points out in Eaarth [: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet] 1 barrel of oil yields as much energy as 25,000 hours of human manual labor—more than a decade of human labor per barrel. The average American uses 25 bbl per year (some estimates are quite a bit higher), which, he writes, is like finding 300 years of free labor annually.

“To live off the sun in real time, we’re going to have to do two things: We’re going to have to slow down, and we’re going to have to get a lot smarter. Slowing down will involve making the wrenching transition to an economic system that is not predicated on growth. I don’t know what that system looks like. In my mind, I have a notion of something I call a high-tech subsistence economy in which consumption is not the sine qua non of success.

“As [Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy John] Holden pointed out in his talk in Oslo, humanity has three options in the face of climate change: mitigation, adaptation, and suffering. ‘We’re already doing some of each,’ he said. What’s up for grabs is the ultimate mix of the three. Mitigation can’t work alone because climate change is already happening and will continue regardless of what changes humans make in their use of energy. We will have to adapt to an altered climate. We’re already adapting, whether we acknowledge it or not. The new flood walls circling New Orleans are an adaptation to climate change. And unless humans are able to limit global warming to no more than 2 °C on average—which at this point is very much in question—the suffering humanity faces is going to be severe.”

On top of this all, there will be the suffering of having to endure the economic or political regime necessary to require us to “slow down,” as Baum put it. There has never been an example of a society voluntarily giving up wealth or income on this scale. Even the slavocracy of the ante-bellum South was not corrupted on the scale we are, and the slave-owners used every means of political domination, vitriolic arguments and even physical assaults on the floor of the US Capitol.  In th end it took a massive quantity of bloodshed to root out their own system of cheap energy. (That system and the conflict it created have consequences still felt today.) The second thing Baum says we must do–get smarter– is another thing for which there is a scarcity of historical evidence.

The prospects would be daunting in an era where everyone was acting in good faith with a commitment to the public welfare. But it takes place now at a time when the fruits of years of poisoning the public discourse are ripening and when capital has organized itself to dominate public discussion and demonize all those who threaten, however mildly, its stranglehold on wealth and power.

What odds would I have to give to entice someone to bet that this will turn out peacefully?

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