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Approaches to ‘growth’.

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Some thought-provoking articles on the need, or otherwise, of continued growth.

Intellectually, most people, if they stopped and thought about it, would not challenge the absurdity of the notion that a finite rock in space, Planet Earth, can handle an infinite increase in the demands and resources of that finite planetary body, our home in space!

Yet the reality is very different.  For many complex reasons, way beyond the competencies of this writer to fully explain, we, as in the peoples of Planet Earth, continue to behave as though there are no limits to the resources of this beautiful planet that is home for all of us.

Here are some extracts from some recent items that have passed across my ‘in-box’.

A piece from the CASSE website:

What If We Stopped Fighting for Preservation and Fought Economic Growth Instead?

by Tim Murray

Seriously.

Each time environmentalists rally to defend an endangered habitat, and finally win the battle to designate it as a park “forever,” as Nature Conservancy puts it, the economic growth machine turns to surrounding lands and exploits them ever more intensively, causing more species loss than ever before, putting even more lands under threat. For each acre of land that comes under protection, two acres are developed, and 40% of all species lie outside of parks. Nature Conservancy Canada may indeed have “saved” – at least for now – two million acres, but many more millions have been ruined. And the ruin continues, until, once more, on a dozen other fronts, development comes knocking at the door of a forest, or a marsh or a valley that many hold sacred. Once again, environmentalists, fresh from an earlier conflict, drop everything to rally its defense, and once again, if they are lucky, yet another section of land is declared off-limits to logging, mining and exploration. They are like a fire brigade that never rests, running about, exhausted, trying to extinguish one brush fire after another, year after year, decade after decade, winning battles but losing the war.

Just read again the sentence, “For each acre of land that comes under protection, two acres are developed, and 40% of all species lie outside of parks.” Powerful ideas.

Anyway, do read the article in full and see if it changes your attitude.  Here’s how it ends.

Sir Peter Scott once commented that the World Wildlife Fund would have saved more wildlife it they had dispensed free condoms rather invested in nature reserves. Biodiversity is primarily threatened by human expansion, which may be defined as the potent combination of a growing human population and its growing appetite for resources. Economic growth is the root cause of environmental degradation, and fighting its symptoms is the Labor of Sisyphus.

The next article is from The Christian Science Monitor writing about how scientists are getting a new idea about the rate of loss of polar ice.

The seasonal cooling effect of light-reflecting snow and ice in the Northern Hemisphere may be weakening at twice the rate predicted by climate models, a new study shows, accelerating the impact of global warming.

By Pete Spotts, Staff writer / January 18, 2011

A long-term retreat in snow and ice cover in the Northern Hemisphere is weakening the ability of these seasonal cloaks of white to reflect sunlight back into space and cool global climate, according to a study published this week.

Indeed, over the past 30 years, the cooling effect from this so-called cryosphere – essentially areas covered by snow and ice at least part of the year – appears to have weakened at more than twice the pace projected by global climate models, the research team conducting the work estimates.

This is a well-constructed article, easy to read with obvious conclusions.  Towards the end, the author writes:

Snow appears to have its maximum cooling effect – reflecting the most sunlight back into space – in late spring, as the light strengthens but snow cover is still near its maximum extent for the year. Sea ice in the Arctic Ocean has its biggest effect in June, before its annual summer melt-back accelerates, explains Don Perovich, a researcher at the US Army Corps of Engineers Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Hanover, N.H., and a member of the team reporting the results.

The final article that I want to include is one from the website Foreign Policy. I’m going to take the liberty of reproducing it in full because it strikes me as an extremely intelligent commentary on where mankind is in terms of our attitudes to growth.

Thomas Homer-Dixon
ECONOMIES CAN’T JUST KEEP ON GROWING

Humanity has made great strides over the past 2,000 years, and we often assume that our path, notwithstanding a few bumps along the way, goes ever upward. But we are wrong: Within this century, environmental and resource constraints will likely bring global economic growth to a halt.

Limits on available resources already restrict economic activity in many sectors, though their impact usually goes unacknowledged. Take rare-earth elements — minerals and oxides essential to the manufacture of many technologies. When China recently stopped exporting them, sudden shortages threatened to crimp a wide range of industries. Most commentators believed that the supply crunch would ease once new (or mothballed) rare-earth mines are opened. But such optimism overlooks a fundamental physical reality. As the best bodies of ore are exhausted, miners move on to less concentrated deposits in more difficult natural circumstances. These mines cause more pollution and require more energy. In other words, opening new rare-earth mines outside China will result in staggering environmental impact.

Or consider petroleum, which provides about 40 percent of the world’s commercial energy and more than 95 percent of its transportation energy. Oil companies generally have to work harder to get each new barrel of oil. The amount of energy they receive for each unit of energy they invest in drilling has dropped from 100 to 1 in Texas in the 1930s to about 15 to 1 in the continental United States today. The oil sands in Alberta, Canada, yield a return of only 4 to 1.

Coal and natural gas still have high energy yields. So, as oil becomes harder to get in coming decades, these energy sources will become increasingly vital to the global economy. But they’re fossil fuels, and burning them generates climate-changing carbon dioxide. If the World Bank’s projected rates for global economic growth hold steady, global output will have risen almost tenfold by 2100, to more than $600 trillion in today’s dollars. So even if countries make dramatic reductions in carbon emissions per dollar of GDP, global carbon dioxide emissions will triple from today’s level to more than 90 billion metric tons a year. Scientists tell us that tripling carbon emissions would cause such extreme heat waves, droughts, and storms that farmers would likely find they couldn’t produce the food needed for the world’s projected population of 9 billion people. Indeed, the economic damage caused by such climate change would probably, by itself, halt growth.

Humankind is in a box. For the 2.7 billion people now living on less than $2 a day, economic growth is essential to satisfying the most basic requirements of human dignity. And in much wealthier societies, people need growth to pay off their debts, support liberty, and maintain civil peace. To produce and sustain this growth, they must expend vast amounts of energy. Yet our best energy source — fossil fuel — is the main thing contributing to climate change, and climate change, if unchecked, will halt growth.

We can’t live with growth, and we can’t live without it. This contradiction is humankind’s biggest challenge this century, but as long as conventional wisdom holds that growth can continue forever, it’s a challenge we can’t possibly address.

Thomas Homer-Dixon is the CIGI chair of global systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Canada.

As Rob Dietz of CASSE wrote in a recent email to me, “I’m a big Thomas Homer-Dixon fan.  His book, The Upside of Down, is outstanding.

Economic growth may one day turn out to be a curse rather than a good, and under no conditions can it either lead into freedom or constitute a proof for its existence” Hannah Arendt (1906-1975).

 

Well said, Hannah!

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