On the Use and Misuse of the Concept of Sustainability

March 6, 2012 • Daily Email Recap

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The following is an excerpt of a paper co-presented by Ed Barry and William Rees at the 8th International Conference on Environmental, Cultural, Economic, and Social Sustainability. The conference was held in Vancouver in early January, 2012. To learn more about the next conference (2013), click here: http://onsustainability.com/conference-2013/

On the Use and Misuse of the Concept of Sustainability: Including Population and Resource Macro-Balancing in the Sustainability Dialog.

A paper for the 8th International Conference on Environmental, Cultural, Economic, and Social Sustainability

Mr. Ed Barry – The Population Institute, Washington D.C., USA

Dr. William Rees – University of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C., Canada


I. Resource overshoot – today’s global reality:

A. The current scale of human economic activity on Earth is already excessive; the human enterprise is in a state of unsustainable ‘overshoot.’ By this we mean that the consumption and dissipation of energy and material resources exceed the regenerative and assimilative capacity of supportive ecosystems. Many critical stocks of ‘natural capital’ are in decline and global waste sinks are filled to overflowing. Business as usual for today’s global human enterprise is clearly unsustainable. Any society that is living by depleting its capital assets is unsustainable by definition.

Resource overshoot can be demonstrated empirically in at least four ways:

1. Direct observation of the degradation of resource ecosystems (e.g., marine fisheries and tropical rain forests) and the depletion of non-renewable resources (e.g., conventional petroleum and various industrial minerals and metals);

2. Direct observation of the gross pollution of major ecosystems and the global commons (e.g., expanding ocean anoxic zones and the accumulation of atmospheric green-house gases [carbon dioxide is the largest waste product of industrial economies]);

3. Macro-economic analysis that compares traditional GDP with indicators that incorporate physical assessments and appropriate valuation of natural capital stocks and pollution damage costs (e.g., the ‘Genuine Progress Indicator’ or the ‘Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare’);

4. Ecological footprint analysis, a quantitative method that compares human demand for bio-capacity (ecosystem services) with sustainably available supply. The aggregate human eco-footprint is already approximately 50% larger than the available bio-capacity. Moreover, demand is increasing and supply is in decline. How is this possible? Remember, at present, the growth of the human enterprise is being unsustainably funded by permanently depleting critical natural capital stocks.

B. Climate change, fresh water shortfalls, biodiversity loss, food shortages (and price increases), and global oil supply ‘peaking’ along with increasing energy costs are all additional symptoms of ecological overshoot.

C. Achieving a positive balance between production in nature and consumption by humans is not merely one of many ‘options,’ it is an obligatory requirement for sustainability. We must eliminate overshoot as a prerequisite to preserving social justice, creating intergenerational equity and securing a future for global civilization. Otherwise we will continue to undermine the Earth’s natural resource assets, which will cause hardships and suffering for future generations of life on the planet.

D. All nations are responsible for integrating physical assessments of their natural capital assets (renewable, replenishable and non-renewable ‘resources’) into their systems of national accounts for policy and management purposes. Overcoming overshoot and adherence to the strong sustainability criterion requires that we maintain sufficient supplies of natural capital per capita to ensure an adequate flow of ‘natural income’ (consumption) and life-support services indefinitely into the future. Note that if populations are increasing, either natural capital stocks must also increase or average quality of life will decline.

Bio-physical resource sustainability must be evaluated in an integrated manner, and periodic national resource ‘balance sheet’ evaluations should be used to inform policy decision making. Resource Sustainability Evaluation and Reporting (SER) must be adopted by national governments and supported by international institutions, as an appropriate response to today’s fundamental reality of global resource overshoot.

E. Technological optimism and techno-fixes do not provide viable solutions to the challenge of global resource overshoot. On the contrary, historical data show that technological gains stimulate economic growth and enable further exploitation of resources rather than induce conservation.

F. Any sustainability assessment and corrective policies must include consideration of all factors contributing to overshoot, including population numbers and growth, our socially-constructed consumer life-styles, and gross social inequity. For example, empowering women and expanding access to family planning services, being essential to preventing unwanted pregnancies and achieving sustainability, must be part of the global sustainable development dialogs and solution.

II. SUSTAINABILITY – Conceptual ambiguities:

“Sustainable economic growth” is an oxymoron. Historically, rising incomes have invariably been accompanied by rising material consumption despite (or because of) technological advances. Clearly, since the world is already in ‘overshoot’ further increases in energy and material throughput will only exacerbate the situation. Can we realistically expect to continue growing the material economy without compromising both our own future prospects and those of future generations?

“Sustainable development” is not necessarily an oxymoron as long as development is not equated with growth. ‘Development’ means qualitative improvement or ‘getting better’ whereas growth means quantitative accretion or ‘getting bigger’. Development can obviously proceed without growth but it is possible to have growth without development. Indicators of development include improving opportunities for personal development, falling unemployment rates, decreasing poverty, greater income security, a narrowing income gap (greater social equity), falling rates of alcohol and drug addiction, improving mental health indicators, etc. By such measures as these, the considerable GDP growth of the past few decades in the US, Canada and other rich countries has been accompanied by regressive de-development.

“Sustainable city;” what does this wide-spread phrase mean? We assert that it is, in fact, meaningless as currently employed. In an integrated globalizing world, no sub-system-no individual, no city no country-can achieve sustainability on its own. Even a city with minimal auto use, exemplary public transit, renewable energy supplies and life-styles that require only an equitable share of global bio-capacity will not be unscathed if the rest of the world maintains its unsustainable tack. Despite its best efforts, this exemplary city will eventually succumb to climate change, rising prices, resource scarcity, civil unrest and geopolitical instability. This reality underscores that (un)sustainability is a collective problem demanding collective solutions and therefore an unprecedented level of international cooperation in the implementation of difficult policy choices for sustainability. In short, we have entered an era in which the future of global civilization can be assured only through “mutual coercion mutually agreed upon” (to use Garrett Hardin’s classic phrasing).

“Sustainable growth in businesses, jobs, and the economy;” this politically correct mantra continues to ignore the reality that resource goods and services are required for all human societal and economic activity, and that the Earth’s capacity to supply these resources is finite. The political response to this criticism is technology advancement and the “decoupling” of our economic activity from resource demands. But technology optimism is, in itself, a conceptual ambiguity.

“Technology advancement” is the means that humanity can deploy to continue economic growth, and thus improve overall global prosperity.   Yet the historical record does not bear this out (see above).

“There is no conflict between economic growth and environmental quality” or “there is no conflict between a growing economy and nature.” This is an obligatory mantra uttered by almost all politicians in their efforts to reconcile the irreconcilable; it is patently untrue. As previously noted, economic growth (rising disposable income) has historically stimulated increased personal consumption. This results in increased energy and material throughput and consequent ecological damage. The reason is simple: the human enterprise is a growing sub-system of a non-growing finite ecosphere. Any diversion of energy and material resources to maintain and grow more humans and their ‘furniture’ is irreversibly unavailable to non-human species (what we get, they don’t). Biodiversity declines as humans displace other species from their habitats and appropriate ‘primary production’ (nature’s goods and services) that would otherwise support other species. Meanwhile, the increased production/consumption for humans adds to the pollution load on natural ecosystems. As noted, these trends can actually be accelerated by technological improvements that increase access to resources or improve efficiency (both of which tend to lower costs and prices).

“Shifting to a knowledge-based or service-based economy will reduce environmental impacts.” This is a common illusion voiced to support structural economic change and continued economic growth; it is patently untrue. The reasons are simple. By ‘knowledge-based economy’ people generally mean an economy driven by high-end services such as engineering, information technology, financial services, etc. These activities are often seen as having less direct ecological impact than primary and secondary sector activities such as logging, mining and manufacturing. Herein lies the illusion. High-end service jobs pay much higher incomes than employment in the low-end material economy. Participants in the knowledge-based economy therefore have bigger houses, cars, flat-screen TVs and generally consume more than primary and secondary sector employees (see previous point). They therefore have much larger per capita ecological footprints than workers in the basic economy; those countries with the largest high-end service sectors have the largest national eco-footprints.

There is another dimension to the illusion. The structural shift to a knowledge/service-based economy is invariably accompanied by the migration of manufacturing to low-wage developing countries that generally have lower environmental standards (or good standards that are not enforced). These countries (e.g., China) then sell much of their manufacturing output to wealthier consumer societies. Hence, the ecological impact per unit consumption in knowledge-based economies may increase with the total volume of consumption.

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