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Sustainable growth and other myths

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For people still trying to wrap their heads around the whole sustainability issue, here’s the Grade 6 version.

Planet Earth is finite. It will not suddenly double in size. Our oil fields are finite, our forests are finite, our fisheries are finite, our farmland is finite, and the ecological cycles that provide us with fresh air and fresh water are finite.

The planet does have the capability to renew itself over time. Snow falls on mountains to gradually refill our fresh water reservoirs. Forests grow back. With proper management, soil can continue to produce food year after year, energized primarily by a sun that will continue to shine for the next five billion years or so. Aquatic life forms breed, and expand up the links of a sophisticated food chain that is also nourished by the sun.

Very basically, sustainability is the practice of living within a narrow window where resources are not depleted at a faster rate than they can be replenished by planet earth. It’s kind of like a biological trust fund that pays a little interest every year as long as you don’t spend the capital.

We’ve been on the wrong side of the sustainability equation for too long. Probably since the 1970s, say some scientists, when consumption kicked into overdrive to supply the growing population and our growing prosperity.

Our inability to live within the sustainability window is the reason why we’re now facing serious issues like global warming, rising sea levels, soaring oil costs, the depletion of world fisheries, growing deserts, pine beetle infestations, species eradication, and more extreme weather, to name just a few of our current headaches.

Still with me on this?

Scientists have told us that if every person on earth were to enjoy the same standard of living we currently enjoy in North America, we would need three more planets just to sustain us. This is clearly not an option, nor should we wish to keep developing nations in poverty so we can continue our way of life. That’s a recipe for disaster.

Even the Pentagon knows it. In an assessment of future risks, they predicted that the majority of future conflicts would be fought over resources like fresh water and food sources instead of the usual power, wealth and politics. Most nations have realized the same thing, and are starting to pay lip service to the concept of sustainability.

I say lip service, because few governments have had the courage to take any real steps forward. Why? Because sustainability requires change, and change requires sacrifice, a reigning in of our mostly mindless consumption. We will have to alter the way we live in some very basic ways, but — as Vice President Dick Cheney once said between heart attacks — our way of life is not negotiable. He’s a typical “Me” Generation product; someone who believes the party can go on forever, or at least the rest of their natural lives.

The most obvious way to achieve sustainability would be to start shrinking our population, but unfortunately Western economics are jury-rigged in such a way that our economies need to grow a certain percentage each year just to stay even with inflation. A cut in population would create a shortage of workers, a shortage of consumers, a decline in housing starts, and result in fewer people paying taxes into social services like pension plans and health care plans at a time when the “Me” generation is getting ready to retire.

Rather than try to fix a flawed economic model that is propped up by the concept of endless growth (an impossibility on a finite planet), Canada has elected to keep our population growing. As birth rates slow in developed countries, perhaps out of concerns over sustainability, immigration is increased.

I have no problem with the changing face of the country, but it’s time to think about capping our population and give some thought as to keep the economy running when we reach that cap. We should also talk about food self-sufficiency, energy self-sufficiency, and ensuring we can provide for other basic needs.

Although we’ve all heard the phrase “sustainable growth”, there’s no such thing now we’ve passed the global tipping point.

“Sustainable development” is also an oxymoron — the term works well enough when we actively redevelop existing things to be more sustainable, like replacing our combustion engine cars with hybrids, but most often the term refers to something new that is being built in a more environmentally-friendly way. It’s better than business-as-usual, but if it wasn’t there before and doesn’t somehow address current sustainability issues — like a project to sequester carbon back in the earth’s crust — it’s adding to our problems. For example, buildings can be designed and built to have less impact, but unless they can produce their own energy, water and air, and offset all the resources that went into their construction, they will be always represent a net drain on the planets’ finite resources.

Sustainability is a fine message, but beware of the messenger.

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