The Oxymoron of Sustainable Growth

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The World Resources Forum in Davos is all about sustainability. Economies rely on growth. So, is there such a thing as sustainable growth?

“Nobody has an idea how growth can become sustainable. So far, we do not even know what sustainable growth is”, says Paul Burger, Professor for sustainable development at the University of Basel. So how can you target something you cannot understand – and even worse, how can you expect to achieve it?

The main thing decision makers try to regulate is energy efficiency. “But efficiency alone will not change anything”, Burger adds. Researchers calculated that countries could reduce their energy consumption up to 23% if they wish. This would save 1.2 trillion dollars in total  – and would “only” require 520 billion dollars of investment. The problem is that identical calculations were done in 1979 too: Back then, Daniel Yergen predicted in his study called “Energy Future” that energy consumption might decrease by around 30% in the US if similar energy consumption reduction policies would follow. It seems, today, they were not.

"Sustainable development policies made us less sustainable", says Michael Dittmar.

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"Sustainable development policies made us less sustainable", says Michael Dittmar.

So how to judge past and present policies? Michael Dittmar from ETH Zurich has looked through all of them and here is what he has to say: “In short – they didn’t work.” According to calculations, unsustainable human impact has increased by factor 1.8 during the last 20 years. “This is equal to the growth between 1972 and 1992. Whatever policy goals there were, sustainable development policies made us less sustainable.” The forests that take up the space of Germany were cut; none of the Millenium development goals was reached – you name it.

It is obvious that a new approach towards solving sustainability problems is necessary. “More and more people realize that we live on a modern version of the Titanic. The moment of inertia is far too large to change the direction”, Dittmar says. This is why he offers to choose the STOP-strategy  – stop, think, observe, plan. Will this solve the problem in the future?

“An increase in efficiency does not necessarily imply a reduction in energy consumption – less could be more in this case”, Mehdi Farsi, economist at the University of Neuchatel, claims. He mentions the famous “Jevons paradox”, or rebound effect.” English economist William Stanley Jevons observed in 1865 that an improvement in energy efficiency reduces the costs of energy, hence increasing (rather than reducing) its use.”  So is energy efficiency part of the solution or part of the problem?

“The marketing machinery contributes to the growth of our needs, thus creating cultural rebound effects", says Halina Brown.

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“The marketing machinery contributes to the growth of our needs, thus creating cultural rebound effects", says Halina Brown.

“Efficiency improvement is far from being sufficient”, Farsi says. This is a result of the rebound effect, as well as other factors difficult to measure. Halina Brown, an environmental scientist at Clark University in the United States, adds: “The marketing machinery contributes to the growth of our needs, thus creating cultural rebound effects.” There is also a clear line between two different ways to solve social problems. “It is all highly political, and instead of redistributing the wealth, the decision makers just let the economy grow. Then they expect that the problem will just somehow solve itself.” And she quickly adds: “Growth means we are going to consume more.”

Life is not always black and white, and ‘sustainable growth’ cannot be just a choice of right or wrong. For example, the European Union still does not give up hope on that and is just about to publish a new strategy called Horizon 2020. Joerg Schmidt, an environmental researcher from the University of Applied Sciences of Northwestern Switzerland, says: “The statement that sustainable growth cannot exist is sort of correct. There are a lot of theories about how we can get rid of ideas of constant growth. The problem is, I am not convinced by them – what can we do without growth?” Michael Dittmar argues: “As long as parts of the system are unsustainable, the whole system cannot be sustainable.”

Halina Brown thinks that sustainable growth is an oxymoron. “These two words contradict each other”, she says. “It is either sustainability or growth. You cannot have both at once.”

One thought on “The Oxymoron of Sustainable Growth

  1. Sustainable economic growth = creating natural resources from natural resources (like trees, plants, animals, insects, micro-organisms)
    Unsustainable economic growth = creating artificial resources from natural resources (like cars, aeroplanes, computers, etc etc )
    Mitigated unsustainable economic growth = creating artificial resources from artificial resources (recycling, upcycling, sharing activities)

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