Why Rio +20 Failed

A Croatian translation of this article is available.


You know folks, I'm a bit worried about my 16-year-old son, Jimi. When he was 13, he grew three inches. When he was 14, he grew five inches. When he was 15 his growth slowed to three inches, and no matter how much I feed him, now he isn't growing at all past his current six-one. Could someone please tell me how to achieve sustainable growth for my son, so that he can keep getting bigger forever?

The insanity of my plan is no less than the insanity of the explicit goal of the Rio environmental summit: sustainable development. That phrase could mean a lot of things in theory; in practice, what it means is, in the words of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Dr. Kerri-Ann Jones, to "maintain economic growth and protect the environment."

In our current system, economic growth means the conversion of nature into product and human relationships into services. It is widely recognized, at least among environmentalists, that Earth cannot sustain much more of the former. Less understood is that the expansion of services bears a limit as well, that we witness today as the atomization of community, the disintegration of civic culture, the enclosure of the cultural commons, and the deskilling and helplessness of nearly the entire population. There is little left that we do not already pay for.

To be sure, it is possible to squeeze a little more growth out of our old planet, just as I could, with the judicious use of growth hormone injections and force-feeding tubes, add a few more inches to my son's height. But in either case growth comes at a grievous cost. In the case of Earth, there is still some natural wealth that we could commodify. Perhaps we can drill in the Arctic, pump a few more billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, log the remaining rainforests. Surely if we try hard enough we can wring a few more years of growth from this planet.

Advocates of "sustainable growth" hope to expand the realm of goods and services -- that is, increase consumption -- without doing all of these things. In other words, they hope we can consume more and less at the same time. That is impossible, when growth means more purchasing power, more production, more automobiles, bigger houses, more electronics, more roads, more air travel... all of these contribute to economic growth as we define it today.

Transferring growth from these areas onto "green" industries is not a long-term way to sustain eternal growth either, although that transition is important in its own right. Certainly, we should get energy from sunlight rather than fossil fuels and nukes -- but can we increase the number of solar panels forever? Certainly, we should stop clearcutting, mining, and ranching the Amazon and tap rubber trees and collect brazil nuts instead -- but can we increase the production of those things forever? Obviously not. Furthermore, the most effective green technologies involve simply using less: conserving energy, living in smaller houses, biking instead of driving, couchsurfing instead of building new hotels, sharing and borrowing instead of owning a personal copy of every good, and so on. All of these involve economic degrowth.

In aspiring toward sustainable growth, then, the Rio participants carried an irreconcilable contradiction with them into the conference. Its failure was assured -- not because of the commonly cited reason that it is impossible to gather 50,000 bureaucrats for a week and get anything done. Well, OK, because of that, yes, but the contradictions run deeper. Given the way that growth is defined in our current system, sustainable growth is impossible.

This should not be a perplexing proposition. What being or system in nature grows forever without reaching a steady state? Most animals go through a growth phase (in humans we call it childhood) and then cease growing larger in size. Immature ecosystems likewise: they rapidly gain in biomass for a while before reaching a steady state. In both cases, development continues. The ecosystem grows in complexity and interconnectedness. The human being continues to grow emotionally and psychologically well after adolescence ends. Could the same dynamic apply to humanity as a species?

If so, then it is time for economic growth as we have known it to end. The differences at Rio were irreconcilable, because in the current system, generally speaking, policies that foster economic growth harm the environment, and policies that heal the environment hurt economic growth. There are exceptions to this rule, but the essential contradiction is unavoidable. To address it, change on a very deep level is needed, change to the very nature of the economy, money, and capitalism. It is not to end capitalism, but to change the nature of capital.

The nature of capital today is aligned with the increasing expropriation of natural resources and the cultural commons. There are two reasons for that. First, because money is created as interest-bearing debt, there is always systemic growth pressure. As soon as growth slows, debt rises faster than income and the intensifying debt pressure fuels increasingly desperate attempts to extract more money from somewhere (other people, nature, etc.) Politically, this translates into the very growth-friendly policies that are destroying the planet. Second, the social and environmental costs of this extraction are off the balance sheet, externalized onto other people, nature, and future generations. This is how the destruction of a forest to create 100,000 board feet of lumber is, preposterously, counted as an increase in wealth. The forest no longer contributes to soil stability, oxygen production, climate stability, biodiversity protection, and so on, but those losses are not included in the price of a plank of lumber. Together, these two factors drive the conversion of the natural commons everywhere into money.

Unless we are prepared to address the situation at this level, meetings like Rio will be futile. The sense of futility was palpable in the writings of frustrated attendees. Hopefully, this frustration will open them up to deeper solutions, even as the urgency of finding solutions grows with each new ecological and financial crisis.

Solutions at this level exist, but they are for the most part off of the political radar. They are at odds with the (short-term) financial interests of the people who run the world; nor can our governing ideologies, which reflect these interests, countenance them. Hope lies in the crumbling of these ideologies (for example, of progress, of growth, of the primacy of competition in life and nature, of the efficacy of control) and in the breakdown of the financial system. This is inevitable, because no matter how much we try, no matter how great a cost we are willing to bear, growth as we have known it cannot continue forever.

Of the two contributors to runaway growth, the second -- the externalization of costs -- is slightly less paradigm-shattering to resolve. Proposals such as pollution taxes, taxes on resource extraction, and payments to ecologically pristine regions for ecosystem services are part of the political dialogue, albeit on the fringes. It isn't just a matter of "counting" ecosystem services in an alternative to GDP, as proponents of Gross National Happiness and the Genuine Progress Index sometimes seem to believe. Such measures are a step in the right direction, but they need to be incorporated directly into the financial system if anything is to change. In other words, we need to change the very definition of what a "product" is. If economic growth means the growth in, for example, the things that contribute to "ecosystem services," things like biodiversity and carbon sequestration, then it isn't a bad thing at all. In this regard, the Group of 77 (the poorest nations on the planet in terms of GDP) have the right idea: rich nations should pay them to conserve their resources and develop differently from our own industrial model.

Internalizing social and environmental costs would be a huge step forward, but ultimately I don't think it is enough. The growth imperative itself needs to be addressed as well, simply because we need a money system consistent with reduced consumption. Part of the transition we must make is to more energy-efficiency (less consumption of energy), more reuse and sharing of durable goods (less extraction and production), more gardening (less commodity food), and an expanded cultural commons (less purchasing of digital content). In other words, not only do we need to be paying for different things, we also need to be paying for fewer things.

To remove the systemic growth pressure that exists today goes to the very heart of the money system. Already, as growth stagnates and wealth concentrates in fewer and fewer hands, we see the need for a financial system that discourages hoarding and allows money and credit to circulate in a context of low growth. There are many ways to do this; my favorite is to breach the "zero lower bound" of monetary policy and allow interest rates to go negative. I discuss the economics of this idea at length in Sacred Economics.

Humanity is coming of age, and the old growth paradigm is becoming obsolete. Any attempts to maintain it past its time will fail as dismally as Rio failed. If anything good came out of the summit, it was in the smaller-scale side agreements involving individual nations and corporations that in various ways embody a post-growth sensibility. The time has come to interrogate our basic notions of growth, development, and economy. Like it or not, our relationship to Earth is changing. Indeed, our consciousness has changed already -- probably no one at the Summit advocates the continued wanton despoliation of the planet. We all want ecological healing. We all want to enter into a new relationship to Earth. Our consciousness has shifted from the early-20th century ideal of conquering nature. However, our institutions, whether money or politics, are not yet in accordance with our changed consciousness. They trap us into behavior that no one really chooses and render us helpless to avert our collision course with catastrophe. That is why it is so important to question the blind ideological assumptions -- particularly that of sustainable growth -- that underlie those institutions.

Photo: Zack Embree


  1. This is a pretty good read, and on the money, because it shoots closer to the heart of the issues. Understanding the integration of the problems is key to ending them. So long as there is financial pressure to destroy the environment, it’ll keep happening; it’s not a matter of passing environmental legislation.

    Understanding that the system is the problem is key. We can stop looking to the system for solutions.

  2. Thanks Charles. Totally aligned type-of-thinking. Any Illinoisans reading this — if you’re interested in these issues, please check out the First Illinois Green Business Summit on Sept. 6-7th in Champaign, IL – http://illinoisgba.com/Summit2012.aspx, providing resources and examples to help businesses operate more sustainably, hosted by my organization, the non-profit Illinois Green Business Association. (Charles, this is Mara E. posting, we met in Dallas at the museum. Keep thinking outside the box, good sir!)

  3. Well stated. The problem with this analysis is that it states that we must wait for the present system to collapse. We don’t. For example, who in US politics is stating loud and clear that “It’s not about growing our economy. What’s necessary is creating a steady state economy with less specialization instead of more based on agreements through communication about how to preserve the planet in perpetuity.” No one.

    Some of those reading this article could be the first one, two, three, four saying this while running for office and one, two, three, four getting elected. If no one brings this into the dialogue, loud and clear, if we don’t talk about it, bring it up and continue, yes, we are dead in the water and in 10-60 years the system will collapse with little idea or experience of the way forward except to leave it up to a strongman as it always has been historically.

  4. Steady state? Forget it, the best we could hope for is sustainable retreat/smart decline.
    This society has a looooong way to go down in terms of energy use, consumption and population before we could achieve a sustainable steady state. David Holmgren in his Future Scenario’s (http://www.futurescenarios.org/content/view/27/46/) showed that green-tech stability is vapourware, and energy descent was preferable, but as it’s unlikely we’ll agree on that (oops I forgot, we’re the “civilised”), then building lifeboats may end up as the only option for those awake and really watching The Great Unravelling, Peak Everything, The 6th Mass Extinction and Climate Chaos pick up pace.

  5. For years I’ve reflected that it’s the habit of poverty that has had peoples hoodwinked into hearing ‘growth’ as appropriate and healthy, rather than toxic and morbid (= cancer in an adult). As physical growth needs to give way to spiritual growth, so economic growth to the development of wisdom in a society.

  6. Degrowth. Unfortunately, we as a global society seem stuck on the growth-at-all-costs bandwagon. As much as I would like to hope against, cataclysmic collapse may be the only trigger for change. And that may come too late.

  7. Good post,
    in particular the idea of letting interest rates go negative. Already Rudolf Steiner had the idea that we should retire money instead of letting it grow.
    I do disagree with the statement: “It is not to end capitalism, but to change the nature of capital.”
    Having worked in business and with business most of my life I have observed that unfettered competition actually is a prime driver of growth. And unfettered competition and profit (accumulation) are the two hallmarks of capitalism. Take them away and you don’t have capitalism. Green Economy or internalisation of costs will not change this at all. In the end I also don’t think capitalism is compatible with your ideas of retiring money, it seems to be contrary to the definition of capitalism?

  8. Your son can still grow sideways when you feed him more. He can grow cancer that never stops when you feed him the wrong stuff.
    Or he can “grow” in his personality and he can gain experience.

    Instead of using “sustainable growth” I’d rather use “sustainable economy”. Ever more growth isn’t sustainable, not even in a greenhouse. With the economy, what’s the point of producing everything you ever need today, and doing nothing tomorrow?

  9. Thank you, Charles. Outstanding essay and right on target. I like the analogy with your son’s physical growth and the absurdity of believing it can persist forever. Right from the get-go, the sustainability movement was co-opted by the powers that be, aka the political and economic establishments, for whom sustaining the inherently unsustainable must be achieved at all costs.

    University of Colorado professor emeritus of physics Al Bartlett developed a list of Laws of Sustainability, which seem germane here. Some of them are:

    First Law: Population growth and / or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained.

    Second Law: In a society with a growing population and / or growing rates of consumption of resources, the larger the population, and / or the larger the rates of consumption of resources, the more difficult it will be to transform the society to the condition of sustainability.

    Fourth Law: The size of population that can be sustained (the carrying capacity) and the sustainable average standard of living of the population are inversely related to one another. (This must be true even though Cohen asserts that the numerical size of the carrying capacity of the Earth cannot be determined, (Cohen 1995))

    Fifth Law: One cannot sustain a world in which some regions have high standards of living while others have low standards of living.

    Sixth Law: All countries cannot simultaneously be net importers of carrying capacity.

    Seventh Law: A society that has to import people to do its daily work (“We can’t find locals who will do the work,”) is not sustainable.

    Eighth Law: Sustainability requires that the size of the population be less than or equal to the carrying capacity of the ecosystem for the desired standard of living.

    Tenth Law: Growth in the rate of consumption of a non-renewable resource, such as a fossil fuel, causes a dramatic decrease in the life-expectancy of the resource.

    Seventeenth Law: If, for whatever reason, humans fail to stop population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources, Nature will stop these growths.

    Four decades after publication of the landmark study The Limits to Growth, our myopic leaders and the great masses of humanity simply refuse to acknowledge any physical limits at all to the scale of the “human enterprise.” Such acceptance of biophysical realities is STILL heretical. We CAN have our cake and eat it too.

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