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Growth is unsustainable and runs counter to a satisfying life

Regional efforts such as transit expansion and bicycle lanes have proven to be a waste of money and resources. Though a better use of funds, affordable housing projects are essentially drops in the ocean. Such programs will do little to change the reality on the ground, whether the goal is a greener environment or altering the housing market, and they’ll certainly do less than simply reversing our obsession over growth.

A region with half as many residents – and half as many in the country and on the planet – would be much better off on many fronts.

In fact, many of the problems plaguing the planet – most of them the result of our success as a species and our failures as human beings – could be lessened by focusing on a degrowth mantra.

Our long fixation on growth now threatens the physical world – even just our numbers threaten flora and fauna with reckless abandon, let alone the myriad activities changing the very environment we all share – and the societies we’ve created over many, many generations.

The obsession with growth, however, has been around long enough that no one alive remembers otherwise, though the effects have certainly grown worse if you’ve been around a while.

Economist Herman Daly, a longtime advocate of steady state economics rather than the damaging growth model, points out that what we have today is really a historical aberration that got rolling with the Industrial Revolution, a fateful time for our societies.

“We have lived for 200 years in a growth economy. That makes it hard to imagine what a steady-state economy (SSE) would be like, even though for most of our history mankind has lived in an economy in which annual growth was negligible. Some think a SSE would mean freezing in the dark under communist tyranny. Some say that huge improvements in technology (energy efficiency, recycling) are so easy that it will make the adjustment both profitable and fun,” he writes of the steady state alternative.

“Regardless of whether it will be hard or easy we have to attempt a SSE because we cannot continue growing, and in fact so-called ‘economic’ growth already has become uneconomic. The growth economy is failing. In other words, the quantitative expansion of the economic subsystem increases environmental and social costs faster than production benefits, making us poorer not richer, at least in high consumption countries.”

Daly’s idea fit right in to the growing trend of small and local, already moving beyond farming, where we first started catching on to the fact food produced close to home on family farms provides widespread benefits.

In the bigger picture, a return to localized activities and small-scale farming are part of the degrowth model, an alternative to the growth mantra that permeates our culture.

Today, the entire system of government and the economy are both predicated on growth. None of our politicians at any level is talking about reversing that trend, even though constant growth is by definition impossible. Life on a finite planet makes that clear.

The environmental impact of human activity is the clearest indicator of where growth is a problem. We use up nonrenewable resources and we spew pollutants into the air, water and soil. That can’t go on forever.

Nor can we continue to pave over land, especially productive farmland, in perpetuity. That, of course, is one of the arguments made in favour of the transit system: the war on suburban sprawl.

As French economist Serge Latouche, one of the leaders of the degrowth movement, points out, we live in a society that is obsessed by growth economics – growth for growth’s sake. It’s an obsession that no longer serves us.

“What if the very idea of growth – accumulating riches, destroying the environment and worsening social inequality – is a trap? Maybe we need to aim to create a society that is based on quality not quantity, on cooperation and not competition,” he writes in one of his recent treatises on the subject.

Our current lifestyle has a dramatic impact on the Earth. We consume at a rate beyond sustainability, with each of us putting a claim on an increasingly large chunk of the planet’s surface to make possible our consumerist tendencies.

The average person in the United States consumes the equivalent of 9.6 hectares of land, in Canada 7.2 and in Europe 4.5. We are a long way from planetary equality and even further from a sustainable civilization which would require consumption levels below 1.4 hectares, even before accounting for population change, he says.

While we’ve recognized some of the perils, if only in little ways, our efforts have been largely ineffective. Yes, we separate our trash into various recyclable components. Yes, we look at ways to make items with fewer materials. Yes, we try to get greater fuel efficiency out of our vehicles. But the ecological damage of extreme growth continues because there are more of us consuming more goods as increasingly numbers of products come to the market. With technology, we see built-in obsolescence and rapid turnover fueled by our desire for the latest and greatest, for instance.

It adds up to trouble today, with more to come if we continue down this road, Latouche argues.

“The growth society causes inequality and injustice to rise; the well-being it does produce is often illusory; even for the rich, society is neither convivial nor agreeable, but an anti-society, sick with its own wealth. The high quality of life that most people in the North believe that they enjoy is increasingly an illusion. They may spend more on consumer goods and services, but they forget to deduct the costs of these things: reductions in the quality of life because of poor air and water and a degraded environment.”

With this, Latouche takes aim at what economists have long called externalities: transferring to society the costs of production while the profits go to individuals and companies. If we’re going to change the system, we’re going to have to take aim at that practice.

Rolling back our population and/or our consumption levels to something akin to what it was a few decades ago would make a huge difference. In Canada, people had plenty in, say, the 1960s and ’70s when there were half as many of us.

That kind of thinking is reflected in the works of Vaclav Smil, a distinguished professor emeritus in the faculty of environment at the University of Manitoba, who’s been writing for decades about human development. His latest book, Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities, notes that growth must eventually end.

“ I wanted to put it all together under one roof so people could see how these things are inevitably connected and how it all shares one crystal clarity: that growth must come to an end. Our economist friends don’t seem to realize that,” he said of the book in an interview last year with The Guardian.

“Once you reach a certain point, the benefits of GDP growth start to level off in terms of mortality, nutrition and education,” he said of growth becoming counterproductive in the wealthier nations on the planet. “We could halve our energy and material consumption and this would put us back around the level of the 1960s. We could cut down without losing anything important. Life wasn’t horrible in 1960s or 70s Europe. People from Copenhagen would no longer be able to fly to Singapore for a three-day visit, but so what? Not much is going to happen to their lives. People don’t realize how much slack in the system we have.”

A Gwynne Dyer noted last week, absent immigration, populations in the West will decline. If we let nature run its course, and scale back the overconsumption, we’ll reap rewards beyond the ill-considered obsession with GDP.

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