Growth or sustainability: Which response to the wicked problem will we choose?

Polina Silakova‘s fourth post in our Emerging Fellows program explores sustainability and the wicked problem of the limits to growth. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

Grow not stop. Where shall we put the comma in this sentence? For a long time, growth has been the key focus of countries’ GDPs, business plans, and individual’s bonus schemes. But is it really a good way to measure our progress towards a better life? What is a “good life” anyway? And what does our good life mean for its key enabler – the Earth?

A group of British scientists recently tried to answer some of these questions, namely: is it possible for everyone to live a good life within our planet’s limits? They defined a good life very modestly – the satisfaction of basic needs – yet the result of their analysis of 150 countries is quite disheartening. Put on a map, the countries we know as well developed (Germany, Australia, Sweden, US, Japan) are clustered in the dangerous corner, having surpassed multiple biophysical boundaries. Moreover, if we were to try to equally distribute this modest standard of living for every person on the planet – without putting the very planet in danger – we would need to use up to six times more resources than what we currently consume. Quite a sobering calculation, isn’t it?

This study is not the first to address issues concerning our growth-oriented society. Back in 1987, the Brundtland Report called for changing the quality of growth. It stated: “Sustainable development involves more than growth. It requires a change in the content of growth, to make it less material and energy-intensive, and more equitable in its impact.” The report alerted that growth combined with acute inequality can be worse for a country’s development than the lack of growth. Currently, in 2018, we are obviously a long way from either reducing inequality or growing sustainably.

A contemporary economist, Kate Raworth addresses the same growth-related issues and warns about the obsolescence of the economic theory taught in schools and universities. In her book “Doughnut Economics” she urges us to shift the focus from the growth in GDP towards creating a more just society instead. To treat natural resources as an integral part of economics, not some loosely related externality. Although her book was shortlisted by the Financial Times as one of the best business books of 2017, Ms. Raworth points to the challenges of getting outdated academic views replaced by a more accurate and holistic understanding of economics. In an attempt to make this change happen, Ms. Raworth invites us to start a guerrilla campaign to fight against the invalid economic dogmas in a non-traditional way.

At the same time, students in Oregon, US have chosen to act even more radically to ensure their voices are heard. They took the federal government to court for “profoundly damaging our home planet by subsidizing fossil-fuel production which violated [the government’s] public-trust responsibility and threatens the plaintiffs’ fundamental constitutional rights to life and liberty”. This accusation probably goes beyond any other environmental case so far. The outcome of this case is still pending, but other similar cases initiated by plaintiffs between 10 and 20 years old may start to see some success around the world.

What is an appropriate response when the traditional structures are so imperfect? When teens who compete to study in the best universities, hoping to get the knowledge they need to change the world, graduate from their courses to be disappointed by the obsolete theory they were taught. When representatives we elect to act on our behalf go astray, blinded by the short-term goals linked to their terms of power; is it a revolt like the one in 2014 organised by economics students in 30 countries against a curriculum disconnected from reality? Is it a guerrilla campaign to stealthily re-draw diagrams in university books like Kate Raworth proposes? Do we have to go as far as taking to court the very government we elected, like the boys and girls from iMatter and other environmental groups do? What actions should citizens take to make sure that the voices of future generations are heard at the tables where big decisions are made?

Something that each of us could do is at least to make sure that our own children get a systemic, big picture view of the world, as opposed to narrow opinions dictated by short-term capitalistic values. Knowing what the choice actually means of a comma’s position in the “grow not stop” sentence might become a much more important knowledge in our kids’ life than many other things in their curriculum. The question remains though – is it enough?

© Polina Silakova 2018