My son turned 40 years old this week. Reflecting on that made me think of how much things have changed since that day in May when he came into the world at the base hospital at the Marine Corps Air Station in Iwakuni, Japan. It was a time and place far removed from the world we now live in.
In 1969 the population of the planet was a little more than half of what it is now, and humans were living sustainably, using only about three quarters of what the planet could provide to support them. Of course even though our consumption level was well within the sustainable limits, our economic and social patterns were heading us towards a future disaster.
Very few people in those days seriously thought that humans faced any real limits in their capacity for growth. Those that did often met an avalanche of detractors, and the obvious equation that determines how we can sustainable live was ignored. That equation being that what each of us can take from the system sustainably is limited by how much the system can sustainably produce divided by how many of us there are.
Such thinking was anathema to a system built on the belief that there was always enough somewhere, and any failing was just a question of distribution or inadequate production. The fact that problems can also be a question of over consumption was heresy in a system built on consumption. Instead of reducing consumption as our population increased, or limiting the birth rate and shrinking the population so that we all could consume more, we went for the have your cake and eat it too option, increasing both population and consumption.
By my son’s 15th birthday we had crossed the line. Global population had gone up by more than a third, and the level of consumption had passed into the realm of unsustainable. As a whole the human race was consuming too much, and individually many of us were consuming way too much in relation to what was available for all of us to share. In much of the developed world, aside from the back to the Earth crowd, the party was still on. And, if you weren’t getting it, you wanted to, which is just as bad for those of us who make up two thirds of the world’s people who already have more than their share of what it is possible to sustainably produce.
By my son’s 30th birthday the world’s population had gone up to two thirds more than when he was born. Forests, fish, fresh water, farmland and such were in crisis, and global warming was finally on the public radar screen. Not without controversy, of course. Taking responsibility for our environmental collapse and actually doing something substantive about it poses a direct threat to our social and economic system.
Our system is based on growth and the false belief that we can actually create wealth, not just move what is there from one place to another. This is in defiance of reality, and on my son’s 40th birthday it is a belief and a defiance that still dominates much of our thinking, and certainly the business world, and by extension the political world that business money controls. It is a belief that if we do not abandon it, will lead us into a future which none of us should want our grandchildren and future generations to have to
The results of our cancerous economic growth are everywhere. In the state of the forest, the fishery, fresh water and the climate. Despite the arguments of those still in denial, climate change is upon us, and it, too, is a result of our expanding footprint upon the planet. The truth is that we can not continue to expand, increasing our numbers and our collective demands on the system, and hope to make things better. A better future requires that we shift from a mind set of growth to one of reversal of growth. Anything else is futile.
Jerry West is the publisher, editor and janitor for The Record, an independent, progressive regional publication for Nootka Sound and Canada’s West Coast.