Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 11, No. 12, December 2015
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Time to Stop Worshipping Economic Growth

Brent Blackwelder

Originally published in
The Daly News, 28 October 2015
under a Creative Commons License

There are physical limits to growth on a finite planet.

There are physical limits to growth on a finite planet. In 1972, the Club of Rome issued their groundbreaking report—Limits to Growth (twelve million copies in thirty-seven languages). The authors predicted that by about 2030, our planet would feel a serious squeeze on natural resources, and they were right on target.

In 2009, the Stockholm Resilience Center introduced the concept of planetary boundaries to help the public envision the nature of the challenges posed by limits to growth and physical/biological boundaries. They defined nine boundaries critical to human existence that, if crossed, could generate abrupt or irreversible environmental changes.

The global economy must be viewed from a macro-perspective to realize that infringement of the planetary boundaries puts many life support ecosystems in jeopardy. Without functional ecosystems, the very survival of life forms, as well as human institutions, is put in doubt, including any economy. There is no economy on a dead planet!

Scientists are concerned that we have already overstepped the boundaries on biogeochemical flows (nitrogen) and biosphere integrity (genetic biodiversity). [click image for larger view] Image Credit: F. Pharand-Deschênes , Globaïa.
These boundaries apply to the economy because the economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the ecosystems that make life on earth possible. (Some understanding of ecology should be a prerequisite for an advanced degree in economics!) Scientists are concerned that we have already overstepped the boundaries on biogeochemical flows (nitrogen) and biosphere integrity (genetic biodiversity).

Today’s global economy and the various regional and national economies regularly neglect planetary boundaries. Crossing a boundary is tantamount to crashing through a guardrail and plunging over a cliff. The blind encouragement of economic growth that does not respect these boundaries is setting up human civilizations for collapse. Two of the most harmful types of growth are ruthless and futureless.

Ruthless growth benefits a few at the top but does nothing for the middle class. One of the reasons that Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign has attracted larger and larger audiences is that he says the most crucial issue facing the United States is the gross discrepancy between the middle class and the billionaire class.

Futureless growth destroys resources, such as water, forests, fisheries, and farmland that will be needed by our children and grandchildren, and by wildlife. Futureless growth directly conflicts with common family values. We tell our children to save for the future rather than squander their money. We don’t tell them to outspend their peers. We don’t tell them to judge the quality of their lives based on material possessions and quarterly financial reports.

To remain within the nine planetary boundaries, nations must shed the fetish of economic growth and transition to a true-cost, steady state economy. Some of the critical transition steps include:

  1. Replacing the GDP as a measure of well-being (lots of work has been done on coming up with an index of sustainable productivity).
  2. Getting the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to require corporations to disclose their pollution externalities (the SEC is not hopeless, as can be seen by its recent decision to require CEOs to publish their salaries along with those of the average workers at their companies).
  3. Going to a four-day work week to secure fuller employment (this has happened in some European countries; Canadian economist Peter Victor has papers on why this is a crucial transition step).
  4. Dematerializing the economy (i.e., so that it’s cheaper to repair an appliance than it is to buy a new one).
  5. Identifying the areas in which the economy should grow—and those where it should shrink or degrow (i.e., the usage of fossil fuels must shrink sharply, and in so doing, roof-top solar will grow to become a much larger part of the global economy).
  6. Identifying the most heinous types of economic growth (ruthless and futureless) and showing how their costs exceed their benefits.
  7. Stabilizing population to keep humanity from further transgression of the nine boundaries.

There are about seven billion people on earth today, and forecasts indicate there will be nine billion by 2050. Already, almost one billion malnourished people are feeling the squeeze, as they painfully bear testimony to the truth of what Malthus predicted two centuries ago. Key first steps to stabilizing population in a progressive way are:

  1. Empowerment of women.
  2. Requiring all foreign assistance to be designed so that women will be better off as a result.
  3. Making contraceptives widely available.

Our global economy is treating the planet as if it were a business in a liquidation sale. Even environmental organizations—devoted to environmental protection— have been slow to acknowledge the major causes of environmental degradation, such as perverse economic incentives encouraging raw resource extraction and non-renewable energy use. We need environmental leaders to speak out for a new, just, and true-cost economy; and to challenge the mindless embracing of economic growth—even ruthless and futureless growth. Environmental leaders should be driving the push toward refocusing economic thinking on the changes that we will have to make if we are going to move to a healthier economy that exists within the nine planetary boundaries. Only if humanity stays within these nine boundaries can it continue to develop and thrive for generations to come.


Brent Blackwelder recently retired as the president of Friends of the Earth where he was renowned for speaking truth to power. He testified in front of the U.S. Congress on pressing environmental issues more than 100 times. He also was a founder of American Rivers, a top river-saving organization. As a leader in the effort to safeguard rivers, Brent helped expand the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System from eight rivers in 1973 to over 250 today. On the economics front, he initiated campaigns to reform the World Bank and succeeded in getting Congress to enact a series of significant reforms directing the Bank to pay more attention to the environment.

Sustainable Development: Something New or More of the Same?

Charles Eisenstein

Originally published in
Resilience, 25 September 2015


Two years ago when he was 14, my son Matthew grew six inches. Last year he only grew two inches, and this year he has only grown half an inch. Should I be worried?

Of course not. At a certain stage of maturity, quantifiable physical growth slows and stops, and a new mode of development takes over.

Imagine that I did not understand that, and fed Matthew growth hormones in a desperate attempt to keep him growing taller. And imagine that this effort was harming his health and depleting my resources. “I have to find a way to make his growth sustainable,” I would say. “Maybe I can use herbal hormones.”

Our civilization is at a similar transition point in the nature of its development. For thousands of years we have grown — in population, in energy consumption, in land under cultivation, in bits of data, in economic output. Today we are beginning to realize that this kind of growth is no longer possible, nor even desirable; that it can be maintained only at greater and greater cost to human beings and the planet.

The time has come to shift to a different kind of development, development that is qualitative rather than quantitative, better and not more. I wish our policy elites would understand this. Case in point: the new U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) convey real concern and care for the environment. Yet at the same time they are wedded to the ideology of economic growth — more GDP, more industrial infrastructure, roads, ports, etc. — without considering whether other forms of development could better meet their goals of poverty elimination and ecological sustainability.

The way out of poverty for the “least developed countries,” the SDG prescribes, is to develop export industries to raise GDP (targeting 7% growth). Unfortunately, in many countries this strategy has proven to be a recipe for more poverty, not less. The wealth usually ends up in the hands of local elites, the corporations who extract the resources, and the financial institutions that lend the money for the development. How else to make one’s country “attractive to investors” but to guarantee that they will extract more money than they put in? It is no wonder that while global GDP has nearly tripled since 1990, the number of people suffering food insecurity has also risen, and the middle class has stopped growing or even shrank in many countries.

Then there are the environmental consequences. What are these countries going to export, if not timber, mining products, and other natural resources, along with raw labor power? What else could the roads and ports be used for? The SDGs propose more of the same while hoping for a different result – a good definition of insanity.

A closer examination of what economic growth really is will illuminate the point. Economic growth, as conventionally measured, refers only to goods and services exchanged for money. That means that when indigenous peasants or self-sufficient villagers stop growing and sharing their own food, stop building their own houses, stop making their own entertainment, etc., and instead go to work at factories or plantations and pay for all of these things, GDP rises and they are considered better off. Their cash incomes may have risen from nearly nothing to five dollars a day, but they are now at the mercy of global markets. When commodity prices plummet (as they are now), when their nation’s currencies fall (as they are now), local prices rise and they are plunged into destitution. This would not happen if they retained some independence from the global commodity economy.

Only if we take the standard development model for granted is economic growth a necessity to alleviate poverty. In a system where all money is created as interest-bearing debt, it is a mathematical certainty that poverty and wealth inequality will increase unless income (the ability to service debt) grows faster than the debt itself. The income of many countries and people is now falling, leaving only one option to make debt payments: austerity. Austerity and (conventional) development are two sides of the same coin. Both are geared to opening a country to export its wealth. The prescriptions of austerity – privatization of public assets, removal of trade barriers, removal of labor protections, deregulation, cutting of pensions and wages – are precisely the same as the neoliberal prescription for economic development. These measures make a country more “attractive to investment.”

So let’s stop taking this system for granted. First, let’s address poverty by encouraging resiliency and independence from global markets, in particular through local food autonomy, local control of resources, decentralized political institutions, and decentralized infrastructure that isn’t predicated on generating foreign exchange. Second, let’s remove the underlying driver of the compulsion to monetize – the national and private debts that have been the prime implements of colonialism since explicit colonialism ended in the 1960s. (The SDGs, laudably, make mention of debt reduction. This needs to happen on a massive scale.) Third, let’s start talking about fundamental reform of our broken, debt-based financial system, which both drives economic growth and requires growth to survive. It throws everyone into competition with everyone else, propelling a “race to the bottom” that cannot end until the entire planet has been converted into product.

Switching from chemical to herbal growth stimulants (“green” or “sustainable” development) isn’t going to solve the problem. If development equals growth, then “sustainable development” is an oxymoron. Poverty and ecocide are baked into the cake. It is time to transition to a world in which wealth no longer means more and more.


Charles Eisenstein is a speaker and writer focusing on themes of civilization, consciousness, money, and human cultural evolution. His viral short ?lms and essays online have established him as a genre-defying social philosopher and counter cultural intellectual. Eisenstein graduated from Yale University in 1989 with a degree in Mathematics and Philosophy and spent the next ten years as a Chinese–English translator. He is the author of Sacred Economics and Ascent of Humanity.

Sustainable Development and De-growth

Mihir Mathur and Swati Agarwal

Originally published in
Sciene & Development Net, 9 October 2015
under a Creative Commons License


  • Economic growth based on consumption is dependent on the exploitation of natural resources
  • Sustainable development demands lifestyle changes as much as technology and innovation
  • De-growth of the wealthiest economies rather than clean technology is the need of the hour

  • To meet the global low carbon growth agenda countries would need to rely heavily on natural resources, argue Swati Agarwal and Mihir Mathur.

    Ahead of two major climate conferences this year on the deeply integrated issues of climate change and sustainable development under the UN Framework, discussions around technology are peaking.
    The international community on climate change strongly pushes the agenda of deep de-carbonisation for the world economies in order to meet the global challenge of restricting temperature increase to two degrees Celsius. This is to be achieved primarily through the transformation of economies towards renewable energy, energy efficiency and afforestation.

    Limits to technology and innovation

    Technology and innovation are considered powerful drivers to meet low carbon growth in the context of climate change. As a co-benefit, sustainable development is sought to be met. However, this understanding is dealt with strong pre-assumptions.

    What one loses sight, at times, is of the context of accessing resources to meet these goals within the finite world. The economic process of growth, essentially driven by growth in consumption and production, is heavily dependent on the exploitation of these finite natural resources. This means that even to meet the global climate change agenda of low carbon growth, countries would need to rely heavily on natural resources, including renewable and non-renewable such as minerals, metals, fossil fuels, land, forest and water.

    This can be illustrated by taking the example of energy system transition of the world towards renewable energy. In 2014, for the first time in four decades, the global economy grew along with energy demand without an increase in global carbon emissions. The recently released Renewables 2015 Global Status Report talks about “increased penetration of renewable energy and improvements in energy efficiency.”

    Materials needed for sustainable development

    It is important to note that even to cope with this transition, material requirement of the world is set to multiply. For instance, the global copper consumption is poised to increase not just because electricity demand is growing but also because new energy technologies typically require more of this metal than the traditional sources. For instance, each megawatt of renewable energy on average requires 6—8 tons of copper while traditional energy sources require one-sixth of it.

    If all the economies of the world were to deeply decarbonise their energy systems what will the future demand and availability of copper look like? If we were to extrapolate this to all other natural resources, both renewable and non-renewable such as minerals, energy, land, forest and water, it is imperative to question if we will safely be heading towards sustainable development.

    This indicates that while the thrust towards low carbon growth can lead economies towards decoupling of their economic growth from emissions, they still will not be able to decouple growth from resource consumption. So long as the balance between economic growth and natural resource consumption is not met, even if we are able to meet the global agenda of climate change, sustainable development in the longer term will still be compromised.

    Therefore, even if technology is made available, leading to quantum leaps in energy efficiency and clean energy through new discoveries, technology advancements might only be able to delay the impacts of this imbalance to a future time, but may not be able to sustain it infinitely. It is debated that the recent global economic crises and ongoing debt crises in many regions are an indication of similar systemic crises of resource depletion.

    De-growth of the wealthiest

    Therefore, it is imperative that a global conduct be set for de-growth of the wealthiest economies and a responsible behaviour from countries sought in this direction. Unless the pace of consumption is cut down to a sustainable level, the prospects for corralling consumption for everyone cannot be met without degrading the environment beyond its sustainable threshold levels.

    Lifestyle changes are, hence, essentially the radical solution for achieving sustainable development in the long term while also meeting with the global climate change agenda because technology advancements alone can only delay the potential unforeseen impacts of the depleting resources. It is estimated that developed countries’ citizens consume an average of 16 tonnes of those four key resources per capita (going up to 40 or more tonnes per person in some developed countries).

    By comparison, the average person in India today consumes four tonnes per year. Yet, India amidst its domestic challenges of alleviating poverty and meeting its energy access needs for its population — where 30 per cent is yet to receive electricity —  is strongly advocating the need for changes in lifestyles to cut increases in per capita resource consumption and meet climate change goals.

    Common but differentiated responsibility

    As economist Kenneth Boulding stated years ago: “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist”, is perhaps turning the tables once again towards the universally accepted agenda of common but differentiated responsibility among countries, this time to deeply cut their consumption.

    Until individual country responsibility to reduce consumption is not sought, particularly from the wealthiest economies of the world, we will inevitably be heading towards more dangerous sustainable development challenges in the future. While this subject is discussed within the broader rubric of sustainable development goals, the Paris agreement on climate change within its common but differentiated responsibility agenda must also seek cooperation in this direction.


    Swati Agarwal is a climate policy researcher at The Energy Resources Institute (TERI), New Delhi, India, and Mihir Mathur is an associate fellow at TERI.

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    Pope Francis, 10 November 2015


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