Climate activist Greta Thunberg at the European Parliament in March 2020. Image: European Parliament/Flickr

It was over three decades ago that the term “sustainable development” was made popular by the Bruntland report Our Common Future which quickly morphed into the ultimate oxymoron of our times: “sustainable growth.”

The seeds were in the Bruntland report whose three pillars of sustainability were “economic growth, environmental protection, and social equality.” In the intervening years economic growth has prospered in the developed world while the environment languished and the disparity between the rich/powerful and poor/disenfranchised continued unabated. Economic growth remains the primary goal of most politicians today.

The reality is that these three pillars are not equal legs upon which sustainability rests. Life arose on this planet in the far distant past while animals recognizable as our species did not appear until about 200,000 years ago. During all that time there was only one pillar: the multitudes of living creatures intimately intertwined with earth, air and water and fuelled by the sun. It was broad and resilient, rebounding from at least five major extinction events; sustainable although the human economy and the concept of equality did not even exist. Early humans were like other species, part of the pillar, each species with their own small economy, each subject to the checks and balances of nature. With the advent of agriculture, humans began to see themselves as separate from that pillar and the “external environment.” Social equality was never a high priority for human society — slavery, and elite classes among the political rulers and religious leaders were the norm.

The scale of the human enterprise grew very slowly until we discovered science. Humans, in their arrogance, used it and its sister technology to remove limits to growth and the period of massive exponential growth in both numbers and consumption began. It was hailed as good and named progress. Only lately did we begin to be concerned that unlimited growth on a finite planet might be unsustainable.

It became clear to me while listening to the BBC Reith lectures by Mark Carney, broadcast on CBC Ideas recently, that we have not progressed in our understanding of sustainability. Carney, former governor of both the Bank of Canada and the Bank of England, is now UN special envoy on climate action and finance, an interesting combination in itself. Carney accepts the reality of the climate emergency, but worries that it could lead to that greatest of horrors — “no economic growth.” He credits Greta Thunberg for shaking up the establishment with her speech at the UN climate summit in 2019, but diverges from Thunberg with the bald statement: “Continued growth is not a fairy tale, it is a necessity.” I can hear Greta’s voice from afar: “How dare you Mr. Carney.” Carney clearly sees the need for a net zero carbon society but cannot see the even greater need for a zero growth economy and seems positively ecstatic about turning “our greatest existential threat into our greatest opportunity.”

Carney’s view of sustainability is completely anthropocentric — sustain the growth of the human enterprise. The ecological reality is that the world’s biocapacity (12.2 billion hectares of ecologically productive land and water), if shared equitably, only provides 1.54 global hectares per person. Unfortunately the average North American currently has an ecological footprint of about eight global hectares. If we take these numbers as being reasonably accurate, it suggests the current human population, living at North American. standards, is over five times larger than the sustainable capacity of the planet. Another way of saying this is that the maximum sustainable carrying capacity of the earth is only about 1.6 billion people living as we do in Canada. If we care about the other millions of species or believe that sustainability might depend on this diversity and leave half for other life forms not directly part of our food chain, the maximum human population drops to around 800 million living at these standards.

Viewed from an eco-centric perspective, growth of the human enterprise can be viewed as the primary threat to sustainability rather than a supporting pillar. This growth is what has initiated the sixth great extinction, reduced ecological capital needed by future generations, and made equality a joke. Science and technology has upended the playing field and unless human society is willing to restrict its growth and level the field, sustainability will remain an elusive goal.     

You can’t fix a problem if you refuse to acknowledge its cause, which Thunberg has correctly identified as the “fallacy of eternal economic growth.” 

Unfortunately, “fixing it” will require much greater societal changes than simply giving up plastic drinking straws and buying an electric car. For a populace that on average will only give up the cost of a fancy coffee a couple of times a week to address climate change, it does not bode well. The only real pillar of sustainability, the great pillar, is a healthy, resilient environment with the human economy firmly embedded within it and scaled appropriately. The COVID-19 pandemic, the hundreds of lives lost to extreme heat in the Vancouver area, the Lytton B.C. heat records and ultimate loss to fire and the recent flood losses in Germany should remind us that nature bats last.

On a positive note, Canada is in an excellent and perhaps unique position to demonstrate what sustainability might look like in the 21st Century. We have a huge land and resource base coupled with a relatively small, well-educated population. We just might be able to do it before we completely cripple the great pillar in a final feeding frenzy fuelled by fossilized sunlight, nuclear power and massive dams.

Lynn Oliphant has a PhD in Zoology from the University of Washington and is now a professor emeritus having taught at the University of Saskatchewan for nearly 30 years. He has had a life-long commitment to the idea of sustainability and lives in a self-built, strawbale house, powered by solar panels, drives an electric car and with his wife, Dr. Rhonda Shewfelt, grows much of their own food. Lynn has run at both the federal and provincial level for the Green Party. 

Image: European Parliament/Flickr