Sociology, unlike it's sister discipline anthropology, has not until recently paid much attention to how the environment affects culture and society.
I was so pessimistic in my last post, that I wanted to provide a little balance, particularly because I found the books I read for this additional material so interesting (list of references at bottom of post). So here is the additional material written over the past week:
Where does this leave us? On the one hand, as long as our world economies are organized as they currently are failure to grow will have devastating economic and social consequences; on the other hand industrialization and economic growth have brought us to the point where the human ecological footprint has exceeded the carrying capacity of the earth. Are we doomed to either slide into economic recession with increasing unemployment and poverty while we protect the environment, or to prosper economically while we destroy our environment? No, we are not so doomed. The choice between economic growth and environmental sustainability is a false dichotomy.
A growing number of environmentally aware economists (Daley and Farley 2003, Dietz and O’Neill 2013, Heinberg 2011) point out a crucial flaw in the economic growth versus environmental sustainability choice. That flaw is that environmental problems such as global warming, food and water scarcity, and the depletion of non-renewable resources like oil are fundamental roadblocks to economic growth. If human societies do not address the environmental problems we will have no choice at all, economic growth will grind to a halt because of intrinsic limits imposed by the natural environment.
This is not a new idea; it was first systematically put forth in the classic The Limits to Growth a research study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists commissioned by the Club of Rome in 1972 (Meadows, Rander and Meadows 2004). The conclusions of this study have been reinforced by careful analysis of the actual environmental and economic trends of the intervening forty years (Daley and Farley 2003, Dietz and O’Neill 2013, Heinberg 2011, Meadows, Randers and Meadows 2004). If the world’s nations persist in pursuing the goal of economic growth, the result will be both environmental destruction and the failure of economic growth. Once environmental limits bring economic growth to a halt, the economic system would most likely crash in catastrophic fashion (Heinberg 2011).
This is not necessarily the doomsday scenario it might seem at first. Most people are “pro-” economic growth because they assume that prosperity and economic well-being are dependent upon economic growth. Using detailed social and economic data environmentally savvy economists have demonstrated that economic growth is not necessarily equated with economic prosperity and security, and that the increasing size of economies undermines the prosperity of the average person (Daley and Farley 2003, Dietz and O’Neill 2013, Heinberg 2011).
Economic growth is a matter of size, of quantity not quality and is generally measured by the expansion of the gross domestic product of a nation (GDP). Growth is about more but not always about better. GDP increases when we drill and sell more oil, but it also increases when we spend millions of dollars on cleaning up oil spills. If the number of people smoking decreases and sales of cigarettes fall then GDP goes down, while if the number of cancer cases increases and we spend more money as a society treating cancer patients than GDP goes up.Measures of economic growth also pay no attention to how wealth and income are distributed (Heinberg 2011). Between 1975 and 2012 the Gross Domestic Product of the United States increased nearly nine times (from 1.8 trillion to 15.7 trillion). During that same period the amount of income and wealth inequality increased with the gap between the top wealthiest individuals and everyone else growing substantially. Median wages and household incomes in the United States stagnated and fell – even as corporate profits and gross domestic product rose (Packer 2013). There were other qualitative declines in standards of living in the United States that were not included in measures of economic growth: the percent of the workforce holding part-time and temporary jobs increased, as the percent receiving health care, sick leave, retirement and other benefits declined (Packer 2013). The conclusion: economic growth has not translated into economic prosperity or security for increasing numbers of people both in the United States and elsewhere.
There is an alternative one that promises both economic prosperity and security and environmental sustainability. The alternative is the steady-state economy which maintains a stable level of resource consumption and a stable population, while providing sufficient resources for the sustenance and satisfaction of people. The goal of a steady-state economy is improving quality of life within ecological limits.
What would a steady-state economy look like? The first defining characteristic of a steady-state economy is environmental sustainability. There would be strict limits on the use of materials and energy, and on the production of waste materials (Heinberg 2011). Built environments – roads, bridges, housing, factories – could not expand into new land; existing agricultural and natural lands (whether forests or deserts) would be protected from encroachment. Environmental sustainability includes an overall reduction in the scale of economies with a shift from far-flung global supply lines to localized production and exchange of both food and manufactured goods (Dietz and O’Neill 2013). Stabilization of world population numbers would be an essential element of environmental sustainability (Assadourian and Prugh 2013). In a steady-state economy humans create sustainable environments in which natural ecosystems and human development are blended to design healthy communities, economies, and ecosystems over the long term.
The second defining characteristic of a steady-state economy is fair and equitable distribution of resources: food, housing, employment, health care, transportation, leisure time, educational opportunity and economic security (Daley and Farley 2003). Everyone would have access to meaningful jobs and full employment would be the norm (Dietz and O’Neill 2013). Fair distribution of resources would apply within and across societies and across generations (McDonough and Braungart 2013). The result is a world in which everyone is prosperous and extremes of wealth and poverty are muted.
A steady-state economy is one in which the quality of life is measurably enhanced. People are healthier with fewer of the diseases of poverty (cholera, dysentery) and those of affluence (obesity, heart disease). They work less, have more leisure with time for creativity and hobbies, time to spend with family and engaged in their local community (Heinberg 2011, Dietz and O’Neill 2013).
How is a steady-state economy achieved? The title of this section of your text suggests that the alternative to “growth” is “restraint,” but restraint is not how one completely transforms the world’s economies to avoid environmental and economic disaster. The project of creating steady-state, environmentally sustainable before environmental problems such as global warming and resource depletion become irreversible requires a mobilization effort similar to the one that helped the United States ready for war in 1942 (Assadourian and Prugh 2013). Major transformation of economic, political and social institutions and a substantive shift in individual and societal values is required.
There will remain a role for markets in a steady-state economy, but markets must be balanced by the state and civil society (Dietz and O’Neill). The current ruler for market success is profit alone, which must be replaced by a triple metric in which people and the planet are placed in line ahead of profit (McDonough and Braungart 2013). New priorities that focus on long term outcomes measured in terms of sustainability, equity, employment and quality of life, rather than simply profit will have to be set for economies, and only governments can do that (Daley and Farley 2003, Heinberg 2011). But governments can only set new priorities if the people who elect and support them develop new, sustainable rather than growth oriented values.
How do you, the student, meet this challenge? The first thing is education. Understand why growth is problematic not only for a sustainable environment, but also for a sustainable society and human quality of life. Learn what it takes for a sustainable environment and a steady-state economy. A good place to start is the books such as those cited in this section including: Enough is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources by Robert Dietz and Daniel W. O’Neill (2013); The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality by Richard Heinberg (2011); State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? organized by Erik Assadourian and Tom Prugh for World Watch (2013); and The UpCycle: Beyond Sustainability – Designing for Abundance by William McDonough and Michael Braungart (2013).
Finally it is important to use your knowledge by becoming involved with local and national organizations that promote change. Every geographic locality has a variety of local groups that concern themselves with sustainable development. The numbers are so great and the types of organizations so varied that one cannot even begin to list them. You can begin by searching on the internet for both local and national groups using search terms like: sustainable communities, Transition, permaculture, renewable energy, and appropriate technology (Heinberg 2011). You can also talk to others around you—fellow students, instructors, neighbors, local government leaders—to find people who share concerns about the environment and the need for sustainable development.References:Assadourian, Erik and Tom Prugh, Project Directors. 2013. State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? Washington, DC: Island Press.
Daley, Herman and Joshua Farley. 2003. Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications. Washington, DC: Island Press.
Dietz, Robert and Daniel W. O’Neill. 2013. Enough is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Heinberg, Richard. 2011. The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers.
McDonough, William and Michael Braungart. 2013. The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability – Designing for Abundance. New York, NY: North Point Press, Division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Meadows, Donella, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows. 2004. Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company.
Packer, George., 2013. The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. London, England: Farrar, Staus and Giroux.