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Continuous growth leads to accelerated demise January 26, 2007

Posted by Andreas in "The Economy", Environment, South Africa, Sustainable Living.
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In his column in Thursday’s Cape Argus (infuriatingly only available on-line to subscribers), Max Du Preez bemoans South Africa’s lack of a “grand energy plan for the future”, and although I am sympathetic to many of his arguments for a solution to the problem, when considered as a whole, they come across as a mish-mash of points that confuse more than they clarify, much less provide a coherent grand plan for the future.

Du Preez suggests that we should reduce our dependence on coal, promote the expansion of renewable solar, wind and hydro power, and the use of solar water heating and energy-saving light bulbs. All of these are perfectly sensible proposals that would go some way towards improving our predicament, at least in the short term, so count me in on this part of Du Preez’s project.

He also argues, however, that we should “overcome our deep-seated prejudice against nuclear power” (I wonder if that approach would work with anyone who used to live anywhere near Chernobyl) and build more nuclear power stations, since they “have minimal carbon emissions”. Are we to assume that the uranium mines, enriches, processes and transports itself all on its own accord without consuming more than a “minimal” amount of fossil fuels?

Du Preez proceeds to dis atomic energy in his very next sentence by emphasising its potential dangers and long-lived toxicity, leaving the reader utterly confused as to which it is – nuclear or not.

For me, however, the fatal flaw in Du Preez’s discussion is contained in the following sentence:

The trick, of course, is to drastically curb our use of fossil fuels without sacrificing economic growth (my italics).

(Later in the column he rephrases the above and talks about “cut[ting] back on power generation without sacrificing progress.” My italics again).

Why? Why is it an unquestioned premise that whatever we do to overcome the intertwined crisis of rising energy consumption and environmental degradation has to happen without giving up on growth? And why conflate “economic growth” with “progress” in the first place?

Du Preez is, of course, not the only one with this one-track mindset. Far from it, our entire civilisation is based on the idea of continuous and accelerated growth. It is a fundamental premise of capitalism and is hardly ever questioned in the mainstream of society.

When business and political leaders fashionably speak about sustainability they invariably mean sustainable profitability rather than long-term existence without causing damage to the environment.

To my mind, our insistence on constant growth (continued commodity production, consumption, resource extraction and depletion, and the environmental decimation that are inextricably linked to these) is actually at the very heart of the problem.

The concept is entirely unnatural. In nature, there is no such thing as continuous and endless growth. Nature works in nested cycles, in intricate networks of co-operation and symbiosis, in a recurring up-an-down, ebb-and-flow of energy and interactions between fauna, flora and the physical environment. If anyone can point me to a single example of unrestrained, yet perpetually sustainable, growth in nature, I would be genuinely intrigued.

Moreover, and even more damning, continuous growth, the very basis of our civilisation as it functions now, is a mathematical and energetic impossibility in a finite system. In a world with limited non-renewable resources (i.e. a world like ours), these resources can not be exploited (coal, oil, uranium, etc.) or polluted (water, air, soil, etc.) indefinitely.

Once they are gone, they are gone forever and the whole house of cards collapses. This argument holds true even if we believe that new technologies will eventually get us out of our current fix. They can only bring temporary respite. Finite resources can not be exploited indefinitely – this is not rocket science!

So what are the alternatives to the ultimately fatal concept of continuous growth? I’m not sure, but I would venture that a close look at the plethora of successful natural systems might lead us towards some answers. Some sort of steady-state equilibrium springs to mind. Any brilliant ideas, anyone?

I think Du Preez actually got quite close very early on in his column (before he muddied the waters). He said that we “should not be planning to build more power stations. South Africa should learn to consume a lot less energy. It is as simple as that.” As simple as that, indeed!

I’m not sure, at this stage, if the primitivists have got it right (individuals like US writer Derrick Jensen who maintains that “the only sustainable level of technology is the stone age”) or if there are other viable alternatives, but let’s be creative here. We need to think outside of our box before it turns into a communal coffin.

I am sure that the current path of perpetual growth and hopeful techno-fixes is ultimately a dead end. Maybe we should think of this project as the next step in the story of human evolution – a conscious move to live on this planet without destroying it for future generations.

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Comments»

1. kips - February 7, 2007

Take heart from the continuous and apparently natural expansion of the universe… on growth, in addition to the new nuclear setup at Koeberg we’re getting an oil rig construction factory in the Langebaan Lagoon courtesy of our farsighted City Council. We shouldn’t get too upset about the loss of biodiversity in the lagoon I suppose, as its only a lagoon for as long as the sea stays down there at MSL.

2. Andreas - February 7, 2007

kips > haha, I don’t think the jury is out yet as to the eventual fate of the universe, is it?

An oil rig construction factory at Langebaan sounds like a really stupid idea to me… Thanks for the info. I hadn’t actually heard about this yet… I’ve taken a breather from reading the news.

3. Mark Knight - June 13, 2008

Interesting. The question is – Do we rally need all the conveniences of modern technology and is it really good for us. Is it possible for us to return to a pre-industrial state of existence where we were once again in tune with nature. I sincerely hope so as it seems the only way forward.


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