< The Call
“With wealth in the red, is our growth story dead?”
Today, it is clear that we face a set of complex, interconnected crises that threaten the sustainability of our increasingly brittle global social-ecological system, such as climate destabilization and rapid loss of biodiversity. In the geological blink of an eye, the explosive growth of our species has begun to severely crowd out other species and fundamentally altered the chemistries of the oceans and the atmosphere. We have dramatically reduced the resilience of our global ecosystem and its ability to provide for human needs beyond the next few decades. And the human population continues to grow.
Physics professor Albert Bartlett, who passionately regarded human overpopulation as a monumental challenge facing humanity, warned that the greatest shortcoming of the human race was its inability to understand the exponential function, where modest growth mutates into runaway growth over time — slow change, then explosive. Graphs of exponential growth trends take on a hockey-stick shape and shoot sharply upwards as they progress to the right. An increasingly steep incline in a trend, any trend, is usually a sign of trouble ahead. Exponential growth in a finite environment simply cannot be sustained. More specifically: a positive exponential growth rate (no matter how small) of any population of organisms (like human beings) in a closed, bounded system (like Earth) will eventually overpower the system (like cancer).
We are in a race between understanding how the Earth’s biophysical systems work and destroying the planet outright through mindless acts of fear, greed, ignorance, and hubris. A large and relentlessly growing human population favoring an overly burdensome, land-intensive ‘western diet’ exacerbates the problem. So does competition for dominance in our hyper-competitive global marketplace, which continues to thwart efforts to replace economic growth with ethical, sustainable development. Well-entrenched consumer materialism in developed societies and the understandable aspirations of developing countries for Western levels of material affluence also present formidable challenges to meaningful change.
Today's dominant grow-or-collapse economics model was conceived during a singular 'carbon pulse' period when the world was rich with fossil carbon energy sources and other natural resources and when the human population was relatively small. The easy availability and exploitation of energy-dense fossil fuels, a one-time bonfire of flammable fossil resources, supercharged wealth production and population growth. But this explosive economic growth over the last two centuries has of late brought about a rapid decline in the richness of life processes.
The unrestrained superorganism that is our current global human economy is now digesting the biosphere at an ever more frantic pace, with an insatiable desire for ever greater energy and materials throughput. As if on steroids, it is growing at an accelerated rate with dangerously unpredictable side effects. It is destabilizing the chemical equilibria of sea and sky. It is weakening the self-repairing capacity of the living planet.
This tragic metabolic rift between the real natural living world and the abstract artificial economic one leaves us disconnected, ecologically adrift, and starved of meaning and purpose. As a consequence, we are now witness to widespread un-economic growth, or ‘illth,’ the opposite of wealth.
But should any of this be so surprising? As economist and interdisciplinary philosopher Kenneth Boulding wryly noted, ‘Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.’
With wealth in the red, is our growth story dead?
< The Call