Our Groundless Commitment to an Oxymoron: “Sustainable Growth”

Growth. A pervasive undercurrent in our capitalist economy that is so omnipresent that it defines our society, our actions and even our thinking. Growth is the fragile foundation upon which our economy rests – the economy which supports our comfortable lives with televisions and hot water and food and electricity. One could argue that the idea of growth is a by-product emerging of the growing quasi-religious doctrine of progress that emerged with the ideals of the Enlightenment. And back then, there was room for it. Millions of hectares of arable land were sold and divided, and meanwhile we drilled for oil and mined for minerals and other valuable resources. The economy exploded and capitalism was heralded as the final solution for an even and just distribution of wealth, however as early as the late nineteenth century this notion began its demise (which can be seen in the writings of Marx and Lenin). When local markets were saturated, monopolies, trade tariffs and cartels formed, facetiously dividing the emerging areas amongst each other and aggressively assimilating the nascent (and extremely diverse) economies. Socialist politicians and economists dubbed this imperialist era the “highest stage” of capitalism, or in other words, the beginning of its end.

To anyone with a fully functioning bullshit meter and some basic logical reasoning skills, it should be very clear that the idea of continual growth is not only bankrupt, but also incompatible with the very simple and inescapable reality that is the fact that we live on a small planet with finite resources in a universe that is, to the extent of our knowledge and for the next little while, largely uninhabitable. There is no possibility of endlessly finding new resources or finding alternatives. And unfortunately, it seems that this is something which the last few generations, including mine, have consciously chosen to ignore. Is this because of a human incapability of looking past our relatively short life-span, or is this because deep down, we know that any sort of acknowledgement of the problem necessitates action? Actually, though those two factors definitely play a part, in my opinion, this is due to a much deeper issue: our commitment to our lifestyle, which, by extension, is our commitment to our capitalist economy. The idea of growth is so utterly pervasive that to most people, a society, or a marketplace or a country without ‘growth’ is utterly inconceivable. And this growth manifests itself in many ways, including increased profits, increased material culture, increased ___. But what else is growing? In the 1950s there were roughly 2.5 billion people in the world – now there are over 7 billion. And this surge in population has its origins in the scientific advances and other innovations which have made our lives so much more comfortable. David Attenborough makes an interesting statement (that we all certainly have thought about and that has its origins with Thomas Malthus) in his speech at the RSA in May of 2011. How many people are too many? And how can we ignore the fact that a smaller population would drastically reduce the strain on this planet’s ecosystems, farmland and other resources, not to mention the strain on our traditional and archaic economic models that are buckling under the burden of overpopulation? Though this is a controversial and even taboo topic, it is certainly of importance and I hope it will become one of mainstream and mature conversation in my lifetime. Though we are currently incapable of viewing our environment through anything but entirely self-centred eyes (whether other perception is valid is an entirely different topic), naturalists such as Attenborough will play an important role in future discussions, when we are ready to transcend our childish political and and biblical fears.

To me, our modern notion of “growth” and the despicable word”sustainability” are without question mutually exclusive. The two words added together have created a cruel oxymoron that is synonymous with our toxic idea of growth, and have created nothing but a general feel-good sentiment, an incentive for purchase, and, even worse, a label under which corporations can make immense profits with minimal environmental commitment, an act which has been dubbed ‘greenwashing,’ and can be seen anywhere from car companies to produce. Undoubtedly, this is because being ‘green’ is the new trend, and what could possibly be better for sales than trendiness? In this way, in a crass and ironic contradiction, companies can capitalize on a movement which has its roots in vehement rejection of the dogma capitalism is built on.

Call me a pessimist, but in many ways, our denial of the approaching crisis and of the incompatibility of our economic doctrine with the facts that constitute our resources on this planet show an extreme arrogance, ignorance, and even a form of intergenerational tyranny on our part. I am not a historian, nor a sociologist or an economist – yet I can distinguish ecological responsibility from ‘sustainable growth.’