Planetary Overload: Faked Out by the Holy Grail of Economic Growth
Today (August 20) is Earth Overshoot Day, according to scientists at Global Footprint Network. That means in about eight months we’ve consumed the renewable resources the Earth takes a year to replenish. If we want to live sustainably and leave our children a world worth inheriting, we need to turn off the lights, stop eating, drinking, driving, flying, and shopping – and hold our breath for the rest of the year – to make up for our unsustainable rate of resource use.
WWF’s Living Planet Report tells us we’re using 50% more resources each year than the Earth can replenish. That’s why we’re seeing climate disruption, fisheries collapsing, aquifer and river levels dropping, fertile soil declining and deserts expanding. In the U.S. we’re actually using resources at five times the sustainable rate. Overshoot Day for the U.S. was back in March!
How did we get here? Our use of resources is determined by the size of our economy and our population. Forty years ago, a group of MIT scientists ran computer models that revealed we should change course in order to live within our means on planet Earth. We ignored those models and allowed our global population and economy to cross into unsustainable territory. The primary reason: our quest for the Holy Grail of economic growth. We didn’t just allow overshoot to happen; we have pursued it.
This quest for perpetual economic growth has also been driving nations, regions and cities to pursue population growth (more workers and more consumers make for a bigger economy). Today we have over 7 billion people – either living materially affluent lifestyles or aspiring to do so. We have a $74 trillion global economy. Just maintaining current GDP requires extraction of raw materials from the planet at unsustainable rates. Constantly growing GDP accelerates the liquidation of natural resources.
So strong is our conviction that economic growth is a universal, unalloyed good, we’ve been happy to sacrifice the integrity of our life support systems to keep it up. If we were living on a spaceship, this would be comparable to dismantling and devouring the craft in order to feed our voracious appetite for more. Everlasting economic growth should come with a warning: Don’t Try This at Home!
Our obsession with economic growth is based on the myth that it improves our lives. That myth was born when we confused cause with effect. During the 19th and 20th centuries we made great strides in reducing mortality and making life more convenient. Few would argue electricity, indoor plumbing, the internal combustion engine, flight, telecommunications and computers haven’t worked wonders. Our mistake has been assuming the economic growth that occurred during this time period is responsible for these technological achievements.
Thomas Edison didn’t say one day, “Ah, GDP growth is 3%; that gives me an idea for generating electricity!” Economic growth was a byproduct of widespread adoption of these achievements. It was accelerated by harnessing the power of fossil fuels and gaining access to previously untapped continents of resources. Over time, we conflated growth with progress. We believe we must have economic growth, and we’ve built a system that depends on it. If we don’t spend enough at the mall, if we don’t buy enough cars or build more and more houses, our economy collapses.
Equating progress with GDP growth, however, is like equating a rise in automobile exhaust with increasing mobility. Mobility is desirable, but if we gauge it by measuring exhaust, we are not likely to focus on healthy, sustainable ways to improve mobility. Good lives with needs met are good, but when we gauge them by measuring economic throughput, we get off track and focus on the wrong things. We should be finding ways to improve our lives that don’t require us to dismantle our spaceship.
The good news is the very things that really count in life, that bring fulfillment, happiness and a sense of purpose, don’t require the creation and consumption of more stuff. Abandoning our quest for the Holy Grail of economic growth will free us to step off the treadmill and spend our time doing what matters – what Mike Nickerson describes in Life, Money & Illusion as “the three L’s:” loving, learning, and laughing.
We need to do much more than observe Earth Overshoot Day one day a year. The World Bank, Federal Reserve Board, IMF, G-8, G-20, nearly every political leader, and way too many economists spend 365 days a year in a quest for the fake Holy Grail of everlasting economic growth. It’s killing our planet.
Last year, Earth Overshoot Day was August 22. It’s been moving two or three days earlier every year. We took a little poll here to see when most people would predict Earth Overshoot Day would fall this year.
More of you predicted the first week of August than any other date. I guess it’s good news we aren’t devouring our planet as fast as you think. One thing we can be sure of: more economic growth and population growth won’t delay Earth Overshoot Day; they will move it earlier. If we love our kids, we’ll make every effort to stop worshipping at the church of everlasting growth. We’ll have smaller families, stay out of debt, shop less, consume less, and relax a little more.
Dave Gardner is director of the documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth and is a founding contributor to www.growthbiasbusted.org. Feel free to repost this elsewhere, as long as you credit and link back to this website.
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