Ecological Integrity and Material Growth: Irreconcilable Conflict?

By Rees, William E. | Journal of Business Administration and Policy Analysis, Annual 1999 | Go to article overview

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. …

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