Jim Andrews: The perpetual growth myth ignores that our planet is finite

Jim Andrews: The perpetual growth myth ignores that our planet is finite
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This comment was written by Jim Andrews, a herpetologist, conservationist, and breeder who lives in Salisbury.

I was reading the obituary of environmental economist Hermann Daly last week. It reminded me of a short phone conversation I had with a primary candidate a few months ago. That conversation left me feeling that they didn’t fully understand the need to move toward an economic system that recognized the limits of our planet’s finite resources.

It seems clear to me that if we are to successfully tackle climate change and the many other threats to our life support system, we need to upgrade from traditional to ecological economics. Environmental economics is inspired by knowledge of the environment and economics, and as such acknowledges that our planet is finite, while traditional economics largely ignores the effects on our planet and its limited resources.

As a Vermont ecologist and educator, I mention over and over the three major threats to biodiversity in Vermont and around the world such as habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, and habitat degradation. Most ecologists and wildlife biologists agree that the primary drivers of these three threats are human population growth and increased resource use per capita.

Readers may be familiar with the I = PAT formula often cited by environmentalists, where I is humanity’s negative impact on the environment, P is the size of our human population, A is the affluence (resource use per capita) and T is the use of technology to reduce impacts.

Traditional economists and many others had long hoped that improved technology alone would offset the negative effects of population growth and resource use per capita, but this has not been the case, which is impossible in a finite world. An analogy would be the belief that Vermont can provide all the needed resources (minerals, wood, fiber, energy, etc.) and food for the state as long as we can develop technology that makes those resources go further.

Technology can help reduce Vermont’s rate of destruction, but to maintain healthy functioning ecosystems here in the long term, we need to at least stabilize how many people depend on us and how much resources each of them uses.

To keep functioning ecosystems, biodiversity, and our life support system in Vermont (and around the world), we need to work to dispel the myth that a healthy economy requires population growth and increased consumption.

We should adopt the stability of birth rates that occurs in most developed countries (those with strong education systems) as necessary and desirable. We need to work to stabilize birth rates around the world.

Of course, this kind of talk creates images of draconian limits on the number of children per family, or strict immigration laws, or an increase in the number of abortions. However, these methods are not necessary. All that is required is a commitment to educating women (and men) around the world, including information about birth control, and the availability of birth control if they choose to use it.

The issue of resource use all over the world must also be addressed, but we have to recognize that for many people in poor and underdeveloped countries (and for some people here), resource use must be increased for them in order to provide them with a basic standard of living. Of course, this means that those who are already using more than their share of the resources (most of us in Western countries) need to scale back our consumption and use in order to stabilize our total resource demands.

Unfortunately, short- and long-term environmental impacts are not yet integrated into conventional economic thinking. However, environmental economics includes knowledge of these effects.

The Salisbury Conservation Commission has invited environmental economist John Erickson of the UVM Gund Institute for the Environment to speak here in Salisbury. He stressed the need to work for a stable country’s economy and reduce growth.

These are new and frightening ideas to many, but the limits of our current economic system have long been discussed by environmental economists such as the late Herman Daly (many books), Tim Jackson (“Prosperity Without Growth, 2nd ed., 2017), and Kate Raworth (“Donut Economics”) ,” 2017).

Yet even here in Vermont, politicians and the media often repeat the myth that more people and more resource use is what we need to address our current social issues, when in fact they make those issues much more difficult to deal with. Jon Erickson recently added his own book (The Progress Illusion: Reclaiming Our Future from the Fairytale of Economics, 2022) to his list of titles trying to nudge us toward sustainability.

I strongly believe that when opportunities arise, we all need to help move our nation, our country, and our planet away from the myth of perpetual growth, and toward a sustainable eco-economic system that is science-based and recognizes the need for the world. Population stabilization, stability and redistribution of the limited resources of the planet while satisfying the basic needs of all.

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Tags: climate change, economics, finite planet, Herman Daly, I = Pat, Jim Andrews, the myth of perpetual growth

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