G20 Final Communique – Annex: Sustainable Growth

September 26, 2009

baby of zimbabwe

Sustainable growth. Yes that’s right, it’s the new buzzword and it’s bandied about at the just finished G20 Summit. Let’s logically consider this for a moment.

‘Sustainable’ means by definition able to be sustained, able to continue in perpetuity. My old-school paper Oxford defines sustain as ‘support, especially for a long period’.

Growth means to grow. If we grow anything, a population of bacteria in a petri dish or a population of people on a planet, at a steady rate of any percentage you choose to pick, that growth is by definition exponential. It is not straight line growth (as the term ‘steady’ may imply), but numbers increase with greater momentum over time. Plotting it on a logarithmic scale does not change this simple fact.

Now, let’s logically consider Earth as a giant resource. Factually, is it infinite (like space, you could go on forever and forever and… you get the picture), or is it finite (like my bank account)? Obviously it must be finite. The matter contained within Earth and the Biosphere is finite. Many elements are easily recyclable, but they are still finite.

The G20 stated ‘we have a responsibility to recognize that all economies, rich and poor, are partners in building a sustainable and balanced global economy in which the benefits of economic growth are broadly and equitably shared‘. I submit that any juxtaposition of the words ‘sustainable’ and ‘growth’ create an oxymoron. And they certainly do seem to be moronic. Put simply, it is quite impossible to increase the human population on Earth, alongside increasing the use of Earth’s resources, forever. We will soon reach what ecologists term ‘carrying capacity’. This is the limit that the environment can provide for. To try to argue otherwise is illogical and absurd. I would hope that those highly paid officials are simply mistaken, and do not understand simple arithmetic, but I fear they are actively deceitful.

The G20 goes further and states ‘the current crisis has once again confirmed the fundamental recognition that our growth and prosperity are interconnected, and that no region of the globe can wall itself off in a globalized world economy’ which sounds entirely like a call for more of the same, and a warning that you’d-better-not-try-protectionist-measures because in these economically shaky times the richest nations want to ensure their continued access to the markets of labour in the poorer nations. It makes for cheaper production costs, and bigger profits.

China goes even further, and urges the rest of the world into actually boosting growth rates.

So, let us now consider, what if after the dust has settled on the economic crisis we then go back to doing pretty much what we did before, but with a few extra regulations thrown in to look like it’s all different? What if we refuse to give up the mantra of ‘economic growth’? To answer this question we must ask what ecology tells us about populations at carrying capacity.

Carrying Capacity GraphWhat happens to a population at carrying capacity? What happens when the red line is above the blue? Well, simply put the death rate is greater than the birth rate, due to either famine or death via environmental degradation. This would have to be famine at a death rate never before seen, greater even than the famine bought about by Mao’s Great Leap Forward in which an estimated 40-80 million people died, or a death rate of 4.6% (Source: Jasper Becker’s Hungry Ghosts). To imagine what this means, compare it to the death rate in the United States today of 0.915% (based upon 8.38 deaths per 1,000 population).

The above scenario is actually the best-case-scenario. Sometimes when populations reach carrying capacity, the population numbers overshoot and then they crash. Population crash may come about by limiting factors such as food (massive wide scale famine where the majority of people die, very few survive), or toxic wastes in the environment produced by the species (death on a massive wide scale by poisoning where the majority of people die, very few survive). A graph of this scenario would look like this one below, where N is the number of people, t is time and K is carrying capacity.

Population Crash

This type of famine or toxic waste will not look like what we currently have now or have ever seen in the past. It won’t look like the regular famine in Africa. It will be much worse, and it will be necessarily global. Except you can bet the rich will have isolated pockets, secure gated communities, where they survive while you and I do not.

Not to worry though, the bureaucrats state, we will have technology to come to our rescue. However, natural laws and the definition of growth and sustainability still stand. No population can continue to grow forever. We have a stark choice. We can either let nature run it’s course and allow our population to be controlled by famine, disease, war, and environmental degradation. Or we can implement involuntary population control based upon limiting the number of births to exactly the number of deaths. Which scenario would you rather live under?

We cannot continue with our mantra of economic growth. It is not, and can never be, sustainable. We can however, limit our population to zero growth and aim for an economic system that conserves the environment and is stable, not growing. We need to find a system that allows all to participate without growth.

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5 Responses to “G20 Final Communique – Annex: Sustainable Growth”

  1. David E. Bandlow said

    Bravo! Well said. People will want to know how “involuntary population control” would work, however. It is very probable that an overwhelming portion of the “chronically fertile” would prefer the cruel, yet unbiased dictatorship of nature to the questionable motives of the “enlightened aristocratic oligarchy”. Those that over-breed do so in a bid to generate a fit heir. It is tempting to underestimate an individual’s belief in her/his own fitness. I project(pessimistically) that the reproductively responsible will, over time, be pushed to extinction by the indiscriminate procreators. That is, if there IS time…

  2. Orinoco said

    Thank you for the intelligent comment David.

    I’ll be writing a post on how ‘involuntary population control’ could work, and why I say involuntary rather than voluntary. There are a few books out there about China’s one-child-per-family policy in action to use as a beginning point… for worst case scenario in management of such a policy anyways!

  3. Sara Tasch said

    Have you read “Ishmael” by Daniel Quinn?

  4. David E said

    Hello again. I thought I would come back to this subject a little sooner, but certainly after reading something from Daniel Quinn: “Beyond Civilization”. Thanks for the recommendation. It is still clear to me that things need to change. I have a somewhat different perspective on the matter now, however. After rereading the article I noticed that in the line graph, the “carrying capacity” line increases with the “population line” from around 1800 and then a “Butterfly Effect” occurs where the lines split. I’m wondering what made the designer of that graph choose to have a basically static “carrying capacity” line. Isn’t it likely that there is also flux in the carrying capacity? Isn’t it possible that a static or even negative population growth could be affected by alterations in the Carrying Capacity? It would be interesting to find out all of the variables involved in determining Carrying Capacity. Surely, if it was capable of increasing 2 centuries ago, it isn’t too far fetched to imagine that it could be increased in the future. Technology IS a factor with an unknown value.

    Also, the assumption that “We can either let nature run it’s course and allow our population to be controlled by famine, disease, war, and environmental degradation. Or we can implement involuntary population control based upon limiting the number of births to exactly the number of deaths” is somewhat misleading, as they are not the only alternatives. Having to choose between two very extreme “solutions”, creates a “Bifurcation” fallacy.

    I am definitely still concerned about the condition of the Earth and all of its inhabitants, but having had more time to consider, I would choose a more hopeful and courageous path; Not Coca~Cola or Pepsi.

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