Pick up the NEW YORK TIMES, the WALL STREET JOURNAL or the WASHINGTON
POST. Select any article on the U.S. economy and you'll read something
like, "The problem is slow growth." The very definition of an economic
recession is slow growth. When the rate of economic growth diminishes,
America finds itself in trouble.
The expectation of growth, the assumption of growth, is fundamental to
our way of life. We expect our children will be better off than we are
because a continuously-growing economy creates more of everything to go
around. Our children's proportion of the pie may be no larger than
ours, but the total pie will be larger so their slice will contain more
benefits and they will be better off.
We expect growth to solve the problems of poverty in our own country,
and to solve the problems of impoverished developing countries. Growth
saves us from having to make hard political choices about who deserves
what benefits. Even a poor person who gets only a small proportion of
the economic pie will have more next year if the total pie grows
larger. Likewise, even a poor country will be able to pull itself out
of poverty if the global economy grows to make the total pie larger.
If growth disappears, the only other approaches require either (a)
declaring that some people simply don't deserve to have their needs
met; or (b) divvying up the present-size pie more evenly
(redistributing income and wealth). Obviously, each of these approaches
has serious drawbacks, so continued growth is considered the only
acceptable way to proceed. For many, belief in growth has taken on the
dimensions of a religion. Those who question growth are viewed as
In 1987 the United Nations' World Commission on Environment and
Development (nicknamed the Brundtland Commission for its chairwoman,
Gro Harlem Brundtland, Prime Minister of Norway) published OUR COMMON
FUTURE arguing that what the world needed was SUSTAINABLE growth and
development. What is sustainable development? It is development that
meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of
future generations to meet their own needs. Human activities should be
judged by whether they are SUSTAINABLE or not. This was an important
new idea and it spread quickly. It has now been widely adopted as a
goal by nearly every nation--even by the wealthiest, which are living
However, like all new ideas, this one is subject to various
interpretations. For example, some members of the Brundtland Commission
argue that solving global poverty will require continuous economic
growth until the total world economy is 5 to 10 times larger than it is
today. This is the old, familiar idea that the pie must grow until each
tiny slice becomes large enough to meet a human's basic needs.
Thus the newly-recognized need for "sustainable development" collapses
back into the old argument for continuous economic growth.
The debate about "sustainable growth" has caused scientists and
economists to ask some fundamental questions about which human
activities are sustainable, and how much growth the planet can sustain
before it is irreparably damaged as a place suitable for human
A group of researchers at the World Bank in Washington, DC are now
arguing that the limits to growth were reached some time ago and that
economic growth in the future will impoverish us all by depleting the
basic stock of goods that humans need for a satisfying life. They
argue that the Earth probably cannot sustain a doubling of the total
economy, much less an increase of 5-to 10-fold. Their argument goes
The global ecosystem is the source of all material inputs feeding the
economy, and it is the sink for all the economy's wastes. Population
times per-capita resource consumption is the total flow--throughput--of
resources from the ecosystem to the economy, then back to the ecosystem
Limits--particularly limits on the Earth's capacity to assimilate
wastes--are now becoming visible everywhere. For example, every drop of
ocean water contains evidence of the 20 billion tons of wastes added
annually by the human economy. Wastes from human energy systems have
changed the chemical composition of the entire atmosphere. Sites for
garbage dumps are getting harder to find--wastes are now being shipped
thousands of miles to developing countries in search of unfilled sinks.
Waste disposal has become a problem that will not go away.
Humans now use--directly or indirectly--about 40% of the net primary
productivity of the entire land-surface of the planet and 25% of total
net primary productivity. Total net primary productivity is the mass
of plant material produced each year by photosynthesis using energy
from sunlight (on land and in the oceans). Net primary productivity is
the total food resource on the earth. Humans, directly or indirectly,
now use about 40% of the products of photosynthesis on land, and the
rate of increase in human use is about 2% per year, which means within
35 years we could be using 80% of terrestrial net primary productivity.
There are between 5 million and 30 million species on earth, and for a
single species to be co-opting even 50% of terrestrial net primary
productivity for its own uses is a clear indication that real limits to
growth are closer than we have imagined. In short, the world is full.
Fifty years ago, it looked nearly empty. Today it is full.
Global warming is another indication of a limit reached; 1990 was the
warmest year in more than a century of record-keeping. The 1980s were 1
degree Fahrenheit (F) warmer than the 1880s while 1990 was 1.25 degrees
F warmer. A few scientists still doubt that global warming has begun
but even the doubters don't dispute that it will eventually occur if we
continue to load the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. Today the dispute
is more about proper responses to global warming than about its
Depletion of the Earth's ozone shield, discovered in 1985, is further
evidence that we have already exceeded the planet's limits. U.S.
government scientists today estimate that already-existing damage to
the ozone layer will cause a billion human cancers worldwide, will
depress the human immune system with unforeseen consequences (none of
them good), and will diminish yields of crops and of marine fisheries.
Land degradation is further evidence of limits reached and exceeded.
Thirty-five percent of the Earth's land has already been irreparably
degraded by human activities. In agricultural areas, soil loss exceeds
the rate of soil regeneration by at least 10-fold at a time when a
billion people are malnourished. As marginal lands are cultivated, soil
Extinction of species offers more evidence that limits have been
reached. Low estimates put present-day extinction rates at more than
5000 species lost per year--a rate 10,000 times faster than occurred
before humans walked the Earth. Our genetic library is disappearing;
with its loss, future inventions and developments are being foregone.
The regenerative and assimilative capacities of the earth are already
exceeded. Therefore growth on the scale envisioned by Brundtland is
simply not possible.
If the earth is full, or nearly so, then throughput (defined as
population times per-capita consumption) must be reduced. Poor
countries cannot cut per-capita resource use; indeed they must increase
it to reach sufficiency, so their focus must be on population control.
Rich countries can cut both, to make resources available for transfer
to help bring the poor up to sufficiency. Rich nations have achieved
wealth using technologies that have accumulated global toxins to a
degree that makes it impossible for developing countries to employ
those same technologies. Therefore rich countries should be prepared to
compensate poor countries for these closed options. It's a matter of
Economic development (as distinct from economic growth) is an
improvement in quality of life without necessarily causing an increase
in resources consumed. Sustainable growth is not possible; sustainable
development probably is.
As we make the transition in our thinking, from an empty-world view to
a full-world view, we lose the convenient fiction that growth alone can
solve poverty. Growth in throughput must cease in the rich nations
and, indeed, they must redistribute some of their wealth to the poor
nations. Throughput of the U.S. economy must cease growing. Under these
circumstances, growth is no longer available to relieve poverty within
the U.S. This leaves only two choices, already mentioned: (1) declare
that some people simply don't deserve to have their needs met, or (2)
redistribute income and wealth. Events in Louisiana, where an avowed
white supremacist is running for governor, highlight the fundamental
choices we all must face as the economic transition proceeds. Because
the full-world view is based on environmental considerations, and
because the traditional U.S. environmental movement has not taken the
initiative in confronting these fundamental issues, the grass-roots
movement for environmental justice in the U.S. will likely play a
prominent role in the coming debate.
 Gro Harlem Brundtland and others, OUR COMMON FUTURE (NY and London:
Oxford University Press, 1987).
 Robert Goodland, Herman Daly, and Salah El Serafy, editors,
ENVIRONMENTALLY SUSTAINABLE ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT BUILDING ON BRUNDTLAND
[Environmental Working Paper No. 46] (Washington, DC: World Bank, July,
1991). Available free, but only upon written request from Environment
Department, World Bank, 1818 H St., NW, Washington, DC 20433.
 Peter M. Vitousek, and others. "Human Appropriation of the Products
of Photosynthesis," BIOSCIENCE Vol. 36 No. 6 (June, 1986), pgs. 368-
 In fact, growth alone never could solve poverty. The world's
economy has increased five-fold since 1950, yet 1.2 billion people
today--more than ever before--live in absolute poverty.
Descriptor terms: global environmental problems; growth; sustainable
development; brundtland commission; economics; world bank; global
warming; ozone depletion; wealth; economic development; gro harlem
brundtland; norway; poverty;