Sustainable Growth Not as We Know it

Within a natural ecosystem, sustainability is reached through competition for limited resources, generally at some sacrifice to individual fitness. It is a thoughtless, apathetic process that refines resource exploitation along the way, forever improving efficiency. Growth, in functional ecosystems, is intrinsically bound to efficiency and inherent rates of resource transfer among organisms. Where growth is freed from such limitations, organisms tend to favour invasive avenues, destined for eventual population collapse and environmental degradation. All of this has been discussed in the first three related articles.

Growth, as it’s applied within the human ecosystem is unregulated and without a doubt has lead to the environmental degradation self-evident globally. Growth, for our species, has been simplified to refer merely to expansion, with wealth cheaply defined as increasing resource procurement.

In short, nature has provided a model that has run for more than three billion years which demonstrates that “sustainable growth” is obtainable within an ecosystem (ie. fostering new organisms, activity and resource mobility) but not as it is understood and applied to human activity (ie. expansion and resource exclusion).

For the sake of genuinely sustainable human ecosystems, we would be wise to start with the hard-won lessons available in natural ecosystems and rethink what our defining principles should be.

It all starts with clarifying the true meaning of wealth.

Wealth is not how much you have, but how available it is. While money is not genuine wealth, but rather a token system in lieu of wealth, it is something most people are familiar with in association of wealth so I will use it to explain.

A wealthy community is not one where there are some members who are extraordinarily rich, who “bring wealth into the community”. In such areas, disparity can be so great that it creates artificial exclusions for the majority of the citizens to goods and services. Likewise a community separated from resources (whether it has depleted once common local resources or never had the bare essentials to begin with – a growing problem) has to pay extra for these resources. Monetary value is increased through exclusion in both cases – ‘great for the economy’, but not for the majority of citizens or the natural resource bank.

Having too much of a resource is often problematic also.  It tends to lead to an inappropriate devaluation of them, which in turn favours wasteful use, in other words, excessive footprints.

A community that is genuinely wealthy is one that assigns worth to the actual resource and not the converted token value and one that is active, with greater access and mobility of essential resources. Those who lived through the first half of the twentieth century have left us with enough reports of how little money came to mean to populations when resources were limited, for instance.

In turn, affluence is not really resource hording but availability.

In this way, it’s always disturbed me how potable water, which has undergone an intense processing pathway, is all too soon flushed away. Likewise, consumable items can be quite expensive off the shelf, but after a relatively short lifespan become apparently worthless and sent out for hard collection – with many valuable materials locked within it.

In no natural ecosystems are there examples of such linear resource pathways that lead to overwhelming levels of waste. Landfill is entirely a human invention – should we be proud of that fact?

Real world wealth of most natural ecosystems remains relatively constant over time, relying on cyclic processing pathways powered by an outside energy source. Prosperity is not obtained through increasing resource procurement and storage, but resource mobility and access. If we wish to remove the brutal boundaries set through natural competition, we need to define safe working boundaries through our policies. It’s that simple.

When we use the term “sustainable growth”, we’re really suggesting that it’s possible to obtain more and more resources (and on the flipside produce more and more waste), increase our collective footprint (under the guise of gross domestic product [GDP]) and our per capita footprint (under the guise of affluence) in a way that could persist into the far off future. It should be blatantly obvious that this is impossible. Growth in this context is never sustainable.

Islandising the human ecosystem (ie. decreasing biodiversity and eco-services) and wasteful linear processing pathways should be seen for what they truly are; the destruction of wealth and resource security. Sure, in the short term as we ever refine our processes, we have experienced a boom period, but the resource pool and the land on which we stand have not increased and this unregulated growth will inevitably lead to undesirable outcomes (arguably, they already are).

We desperately need to redefine what wealth is in the human ecosystem and develop new ways to interact with our resources.

Rather than extracting resources to convert into financial wealth, it should be recognise that availability of resources is real world wealth. Money only buys “stuff”; it’s that stuff that holds the real worth and is lost when it hits landfill or when it is cut down and removed, being unable to regenerate.

Real “sustainable growth” must be redefined as persistence. It is activity that doesn’t lead to growth in resource procurement (or conversion in to financial wealth) or increased footprints, but instead renewal; growth of new resources, activity and all the essentials for future generations.

It centres around preserving the natural wealth we have available. This is what should be protected and invested within so as we can reap from the interest accrued (that should be seen as the only room for increasing resource exploitation and not through improving extraction techniques). It is about developing increasingly cyclic processing paths that foster many more avenues for improved resource use (ie. efficiency) throughout its lifespan in the human ecosystem and a sharp reduction in landfill.

“Sustainable prosperity” would be a better fitting title.

The UK ABLE project provides an excellent example of how we could begin this process within current human activity confines (ie. the expanded Cardboard to Caviar project). The next step would be to proactively design consumables so that their lifespan goes beyond the initial use function and can continue to create value as a resource in other forms in following processes. Increasing the amount of process steps also creates extra resources in the form of job availability and increased research and development and many new financial wealth opportunities.

All of this increases access to resources which, as stated above, is the heart of improving community level prosperity.

Expansion and population are not essential for a thriving economy and happy community, but activity and resource availability are. Growth, as it has been applied to human ecosystems following WWII has been an ill-designed and relatively short-sighted boom, creating in its wake a global natural resource deficit that continues to increase the longer it is ignored.

Rockström et al. (2009), for example, have developed the nine planetary boundaries that can be suggested to represent an excellent attempt to explain this deficit so far accrued (see here for more).

As well as the long standing history for completely ignoring humanistic principles (such as a sense of community, fulfilment and avoidable disease and illness), from this perspective, measures such as GDP and affluence also clearly do not reflect genuine wealth. They are not building prosperous communities, but exacerbate inequality and environmental degradation.

We do need sustainable growth, but not as we know it. We need our designed ecosystems to better reflect those expressed in natural models; activity that grows renewal, not expanse and resource exclusion. This means developing a web of activity that feeds on to other nodes of activity, ever improving in efficiency to maximise (in our case) prosperity. If we can achieve this resource security, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation will have been improved upon and communities will be more resilient with greater emphasis on humanistic values. This must be a goal worth working towards.

[This article is also found at The Sustainable Cities Collective]

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