Ecological Integrity and Material Growth: Irreconcilable Conflict?
Rees, William E., Journal of Business Administration and Policy Analysis
INTRODUCTION AND ANALYTIC FRAMEWORK
Many ecologists, and ordinary citizens who simply love nature, see the loss of biodiversity and the threat to ecosystems integrity as one of the most pressing problems confronting humankind today. Maintaining ecosystems structure and function has become part of even the mainstream sustainable development agenda. For example, the UN World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission), which popularized the concept of 'sustainable development', argued that we must protect 'the environment' by developing more benign technologies even as the world economy continues to expand (WCED 1987). Indeed, Brundtland suggested that conservation is compatible with an expected five- to ten-fold expansion of industrial activity by 2040.
This may be wishful thinking. I argue below that there is an unavoidable conflict between maintaining the ecological integrity necessary for sustainability and growth-oriented economic development. This conflict is rooted in the nature of human beings as ecological entities whose material demands are ultimately governed by the second law of thermodynamics. The problem goes beyond concern for the natural world -- analysis shows there is virtually no possibility for an industrial society of six to ten billion people using prevailing or anticipated technologies to live sustainably on Earth. Greenhouse gas accumulation, climate change, ozone depletion, fisheries collapse, land degradation, falling water tables, deforestation, toxic contamination, endocrine (hormone) mimicry, accelerating species loss -- these and related trends, both local and global, are indicators that the scale of the human enterprise already exceeds the long-term carrying capacity of the ecosphere.
Despite increasing awareness of biophysical limits, human pressure on the planet is relentlessly increasing. Global population reached six billion in July, 1999 and is growing by 80 million per year; by the end of the decade (and millennium), it will have almost doubled twice in the 20th Century. All these people, rich and poor alike, have rising material expectations sustained by an economic system that assumes that these expectations are insatiable.
Society seems paralyzed by conflicting perceptions of the problem (or perhaps simply mired in deep denial). A minority of eco-centric and community-oriented individuals and groups do see the growth ethic and rampant consumerism as the issue. They argue that beyond a certain point, there is no evident relationship between income and perceived well-being. Further growth may therefore be unnecessary -- the solution lies more in changing consumer behaviour and in developing policies to ensure more equitable distribution of the world's present economic output. The majority of mainstream policy makers, however, including many humanists and techno-optimists, remains dedicated to growth and consumer ideals. They see freer markets and a new efficiency revolution as the only politically feasible solution to both global ecological decline (greater wealth can purchase a 'cleaner' environment) and to the problems caused by persistent material inequity (the richest 20 percent of income earners take home sixty times as much as the poorest 20 percent [UNDP 1994]).
Environmentalism is not Human Ecology
Whatever their proposed solutions, almost everyone in the mainstream shares the perception that this is an 'environmental crisis' rather than a human ecological crisis. The distinction is not a trivial one. The former term literally externalizes the problem, effectively blaming it on an environment gone wrong or on defective resource systems which need to be managed more effectively. This perception reduces the destruction of the ecosphere to mere mechanics, a problem readily amenable to the 'technical quick fix' approach favored by industrial society. By contrast, seeing the crisis as a human ecological problem places blame squarely where it belongs, on the nature and behaviour of people themselves. It also suggests that it is human wants that need to be better controlled. This is probably the least comfortable policy domain for the 'now generation' and other denizens of modern consumer societies to contemplate.
In this paper, I start from the premise that the current dilemma is at least partly rooted in this perceptual/psychological tension. The Cartesian dualism that underpins western techno-scientific culture has created a psychological barrier between humans and the rest of nature that keeps us from truly knowing ourselves. Indeed, it is a deep irony of the human-induced "environmental crisis" that people have a dismally ill-developed understanding of themselves as ecological beings.
My overall purpose, therefore, is to reinterpret the 'environmental crisis' as a problem of human ecological dysfunction. This requires acceptance of two material facts that are virtually ignored in convenanalysis. First, human economic activity (like the economic activity of any other real-world species) requires continuous, irreversible, energy and material transformation. These transformations are ultimately subject to constraints imposed by the second law of thermodynamics (Daly 1991a,b; Georgescu-Roegen 1971, Rees 1999). Second, from the ecological perspective, humans are a component of, and participant in, most of the world's major ecosystems. In this light, material economic activity is really the expression of human ecological relationships and the economy is seen an inextricably integrated, completely contained, and wholly dependent growing subsystem of a non-growing ecosphere (Daly 1992, Rees 1995).
As noted, this perspective contrasts sharply with the conventional economic worldview. Economists tend to see the economy as more or less independent of nature. This vision is reflected in 'the circular flow of exchange value,' the conceptual model that serves as the starting point for economic analysis. The circular flow model depicts the economic process as "a pendulum movement between production and consumption within a completely closed system" (Georgescu-Roegen 1971). Value embodied in goods and services flows from firms to households in exchange for spending by households (national product). A supposedly equal value, reincarnated in factors of production, flows back to firms from households in exchange for wages, rents, profits, etc., (national income).
The problem is that this conception does not 'locate' the economy anywhere in the biophysical world. It abstracts the economy from the 'environment' within which it is actually embedded. Because it depicts the economy as "an isolated, self-renewing system with no inlets or outlets, no possible points of contact with anything outside itself," the circular flow model is an impossible platform from which to understand the relationship of the economy to the ecoshere (Daly 1991a, 196).
So it is that fundamental conventional models are blind to the material and energy sources, physical structures and time-dependent processes that are basic to understanding ecosystems structure and function (Christensen 1991). Worse, the implied simple, reversible, mechanistic behavior of the economy is quite inconsistent with the connectivity, irreversibility, and positive feedback dynamics of complex energy, information, and eco-systems, the systems with which the economy interacts in the real world.
Remarkably, it is this ecologically empty vision that drives the prevailing global development paradigm. Less remarkably, this vision has created the (un)sustainability conundrum.
FUNDAMENTALS OF HUMAN ECOLOGY
The second law of thermodynamics is fundamental to all real processes involving energy and material transformations. Since ecosystem analysis often begins with the analysis of energy and material relationships, understanding the second law is essential to understanding both the structure of whole ecosystems and the functional 'niches' of individual species, including humans.
In its simplest form, the second law states that any isolated system  will always tend toward equilibrium; alternately, the 'entropy' of any isolated system always increases. This means that available energy spontaneously dissipates, concentrations disperse, gradients disappear. An isolated system thus becomes increasingly unstructured in a inexorable slide toward thermodynamic equilibrium. This is a state of maximum entropy in which "nothing happens or can happen" (Ayres 1994, 3).
Early formulations of the second law referred strictly to simple isolated systems close to equilibrium. We now recognize, however, that all systems, whether isolated or not, near equilibrium or not, are subject to the same forces of entropic decay. Thus any differentiated far-from-equilibrium system has a natural tendency to erode and unravel.
But not all of them do. …
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Publication information: Article title: Ecological Integrity and Material Growth: Irreconcilable Conflict?. Contributors: Rees, William E. - Author. Journal title: Journal of Business Administration and Policy Analysis. Publication date: Annual 1999. Page number: 111. © Not available. COPYRIGHT 1999 Gale Group.
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