Sustainability Seems a Long Way Off – Are We Learning Fast Enough?


A news article this morning gave me pause for some serious thought about growth.  The item, titled Economic Growth Likely Slowed in Second Quarter, states that it takes 3% economic growth just to keep pace with the rate of population increase.  Applying the “Rule of 72” to the United States’ relatively-low population growth rate of around 0.97% suggests that the U.S. has to double its GDP every 25 years (while the population increases by about one third) or face continuing recessions.  Given the simple assumption that GDP growth equates to increased resource use, the rate at which we use up our natural resources will increase, which is entirely un-sustainable.  True sustainability would mean depending only on renewable resources, which makes that seem a very long way off – certainly more than a century unless some truly remarkable changes occur.  Imagine a third more people using twice as much energy and materials and generating (hopefully) less than twice as much pollution as today, only 25 years from now.  This suggests we will be far from trending towards a sustainable world at a point where crises ranging from climatic change to large scale eco-disasters resulting from the increased difficulty of obtaining fossil fuels will be significantly more frequent and widespread than today.  As we are seeing today, such events are having larger and larger economic consequences, and impact on national economies is already quite measurable.  At the point where they directly affect population, however, they may be larger than we can respond to effectively, which will be tough.  At least, as a species, we are learning.   The question is: are we learning fast enough to avoid major volatility and/or declines in our standard living?  We can’t grow indefinitely in a finite world …

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