Can we have our cake and eat it too?

evanoffStephen Evanoff

Jonathon Porritt, former director of Friends of the Earth and, until recently, chief environmental advisor to the UK Prime Minister and Chairman of the UK Sustainable Development Commission, doesn’t think so.

Porritt is on a mission to challenge the conventional thinking of governments, business leaders, and economists on sustainability. Porritt takes the position that we cannot consume our way to sustainability, i.e,, as long as consumption-based economic growth is top priority, we will never achieve it. In his 2005 book, Capitalism As if the World Matters, Porritt devises a number of strategies to recalculate cost and profit. Among them are more comprehensive ways of defining “capital”, by taking into account social and human values along with ecological capital.

Porritt also takes a strong position on population growth. He recently called for a two-child limit. He told reporters in July: “I am unapologetic about asking people to connect up their own responsibility for their total environmental footprint and how they decide to procreate and how many children they think are appropriate.” (Porritt and his wife have two daughters.)

The other side of this argument is the economic concept of “decoupling,” which posits that, with technological innovation and efficiency, economic growth can continue while environmental impacts diminish substantially. Regarding population growth, as societies prosper they have fewer children and eventually stabilize at a replacement birthrate. It’s happening in affluent societies in Europe and Asia.

I think Porritt deserves credit for bringing our ever-increasing consumption of goods and services and population growth into the discussion of sustainability.

For a more complete summary of Porritt’s ideas:

http://www.ethicalcorp.com/content.asp?ContentID=6596

For a provocative assessment of the two perspectives, see, “Can Industrial Civilization Really Become Sustainable”:

http://www.grist.org/article/shaw1/

What do you think? Can we have our cake and eat it too?

About Stephen Evanoff

Stephen Evanoff is Vice President of Environment, Health and Safety for Danaher Corp. and President of NAEM’s Board of Directors. Follow him on Twitter at @SteveEvanoff.

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3 Comments
  1. William D'Alessandro

    October 21, 2009

    Like Porritt, Gus Speth believes the planet is going to Hell in a handbasket (see his book Bridge at the End of the World). Both environmentalists see capitalism more than anything else — more even than population growth — as the driving force of ecological ruin and as a cancer eating away at society.

    Another book we reviewed recently in Crosslands Bulletin, The Myth of Resource Efficiency, is less dogmatic but more commanding. It is tough reading even for academic economists. The authors evaluate the Jevons paradox: increase in efficiency in using a resource leads to an increase in the consumption of that resource rather than to a reduction.

    The authors draw a conclusion I find pertinent to your question. They say, ““Humans have to accept losing something in order to be able to retain something else.”

  2. David Williams

    October 26, 2009

    Sustainability is a true “wicked problem” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wicked_problem), which Wikipedia defines as:

    “‘Wicked problem’ is a phrase used in social planning to describe a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.”

    Given that it seems highly unlikely that this is a “have your cake and eat it too” situation. It also seems highly unlikely it can be successfully addressed through incrementalism. The fundamentals of what is leading us to this global problem are so flawed that small changes probably won’t save the day.

    That leaves 2 choices: 1)nations make bold and difficult decisions now to make meaningful change; or 2) the situation reaches a crisis point where urgent action is required. Human nature tends to go with Choice #2 since in the first choice there is always the chance or hope that things will get better without taking drastic action.

    • Stephen Evanoff

      November 5, 2009

      Bill:

      Thanks. You are right. Books like these are a tough read in that they don’t leave much room for hope given the current trajectory of our consumerism and resource consumption. America’s history of plentiful resources and westward expansion makes it difficult for us to view the situation as a zero sum set of choices.

      David:

      Well reasoned and well stated, as always. Thanks. Of course, the problem with your choice number two is that, where global warming is concerned, waiting until we reach the crisis point will result in severe environmental and economic consequences. I’m still hopeful that the general approach that resulted in The Montreal Protocol will serve as a basic model for global action. Time will tell.

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