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From endless growth to a steady state

We only have one planet, so we'd better learn to start living within it's limits.

Kenneth Boulding was one of the founders of General Systems Theory and at various times was President of the American Economic Association, the Society for General Systems Research, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. So when he wrote that “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist”, he knew what he was talking about.

Not so our political and corporate leaders and the bulk of the economic profession, who are still wedded to the pursuit of economic growth as their foundational approach to life, public policy and corporate profit. So let’s see just how mad the pursuit of economic growth is.

In our report for the Canadian Public Health Association on the public health implications of global ecological change, my colleagues and I did a simple extrapolation of two of the three key forces driving global ecological change; population growth and economic growth. We asked, what would be the impact on the Earth’s resources and natural systems of current levels of population growth combined with 3 percent economic growth (a seemingly common target) over the lifetime of someone born this year?

"We can ‘de-couple’ economic growth from growth in uses of energy and other resources and production of wastes."

In an 80-year lifespan (roughly the average today in Canada and other high income countries), one percent annual population growth would mean a 2.2-fold increase in impact, while a three percent annual increase in real GDP would result in a 10.6-fold increase. Multiply them together and we are looking at a 23-fold increase in impact by the end of the century.

But already humanity uses the equivalent of 1.6 planet’s worth of biocapacity (the Earth’s ability to produce renewable resources on an on-going basis and to absorb wastes) and we are disrupting major Earth systems; the prospect of increasing that impact 23 times is untenable.

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Now admittedly, not all that economic growth translates into growth in material consumption, hence the suggestion that we can ‘de-couple’ economic growth from growth in uses of energy and other resources and production of wastes. But even if our technology becomes 5 times more efficient, as some suggest it can, we are still looking at a more than 4-fold increase.

We in high-income countries have a 3 or 4-planet ecological footprint. So even if we can be more efficient through technology, does anyone in their right mind imagine that we can or should increase that to more than 12 – 16 planet’s worth by the end of the century?

Hence the interest in a long-neglected but important economic approach: a steady-state economy. Dan O’Neill, an ecological economist at the University of Leeds, UK – but a Victoria native – has focused his work on this concept.  At its simplest, O’Neill argues, “it is an economy where resource use is stabilized within environmental limits, and the goal of increasing GDP is replaced by the goal of improving human well-being.  It’s an economy where the goal is better lives, not more stuff.”  

"We in high-income countries have a 3 or 4-planet ecological footprint."

A number of changes are needed to achieve such an economy, he notes, including policies to conserve natural resources, stabilize population, reduce inequality, fix the financial system, create jobs, and change the way we measure progress.  These ideas are explored in the book Enough Is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources, which he co-authored with Rob Dietz, and which was recently made into a short documentary film.

O’Neill also co-leads a major European project on ‘Living Well Within Limits’, which is part of the European Union Environment Action Programme to 2020. The Programme’s long-term vision is that “in 2050, we live well, within the planet’s ecological limits”. His project will analyse and model the energy requirements of well-being, an important contribution to understanding how to reduce resource use to be within critical planetary boundaries, while improving human well-being. 

These ideas are extremely relevant to the topic of Victoria as a One Planet Region, which we have been exploring in a series of ‘Conversations’ since January. Happily, Dan O’Neill is currently at UVic on sabbatical, and will be presenting his ideas and his latest work on June 12th, 5 – 7 PM, in the Auditorium (A240) of the HSD Building at UVic. All are welcome. 

Article published 7 June 2017 with the Times Colonist.

Hear more from Dr. Hancock in the latest episode of Upstream Radio.

See Dr. Hancock speak Closing the Gap: Better health for all.

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hancock.jpgDr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.

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