There's no way to sustain this kind of growth
By: Ian Booth
The Business editor of the Asheville Citizen-Times recently wrote an article headlined, "Firm says area's sustainable growth 'threatened'." As I read this article about what was called the Wadley-Donovon report, it became clear that the editor was not talking about sustainable development at all, but about sustained development. A subsequent reading of the report revealed that it, too, had failed to make this distinction. While this may seem like a trivial point, it underscores what is fast emerging as perhaps the most critical area of change we now face as a region and as a nation. It also represents our best opportunity to head off such formidable challenges as global warming and environmental decline, the excessive and inequitable consumption of natural resources, and much more. These are, after all, indicators of underlying design flaws in our status quo, growth-at-all-costs economic model.
Sustained development essentially says "more is better," and is based on a concept you could call "quantity forward." Sustainable development, on the other hand, says "more is more; better is better," and considers the real-world impact of "growth" by using a wide range of economic, social, environmental, and quality-of-life indicators. As pointed out in Richard Douthwaite's "Good Growth and Bad Growth," economic growth is considered to have taken place if the total value of the goods and services purchased in the economy increases over the course of a year. It makes no difference whether the extra goods and services are beneficial goods and services or ones that we would have been better off without. "Who are we to judge?" the economists ask. "If people want them enough to pay good money for them, that should be sufficient."
Unfortunately, however, it isn't. This failure to discriminate means that the Gross Domestic Product - the monetary value of a nation's output - is a mixture of goods and bads, of costs and benefits. As a result, a rise in GDP (or its regional equivalent) gives very little indication whether the welfare of the population which produced it is rising as well. In the words of The Economist, "a country that cut down all its trees, sold them as wood chips and then gambled the money away playing tiddly-winks would appear from all accounts to have gotten richer."
Designers and professionals of all kinds are becoming convinced, however, that there are no fundamental conflicts between sustainability and economics. Many NGOs, companies, and governmental entities are finding ways to profit from less waste, from energy, materials and water efficiency, from more sustainable resource management, from ecological restoration, from decreased toxicity, and from community stewardship. These transformations not only make good ecological sense, they satisfy the most hardheaded economic criteria one might care to apply.
The greatest opportunities for healthy economic growth in our region are in the domain of sustainable climate-based development. Paradoxically, we are already beginning to see the physical limitations to sustained development.Ian Booth
This letter first appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times in November, 1998.