SUSTAINABILITY AND GROWTH: WHO WINS?

By Aditi Kale

We are not facing a choice between Growth and Sustainability but between unsustainable growth and survival. Hence, sustainability for survival is a very easy choice to make. The two questions that remain are — How we can achieve sustainability and Whether we will achieve it. The answer to the first question is a YES, given the existing research and technology findings. The answer to the second question, also from existing research and technology findings, is a NO. This blog explores the intricacies of these questions and tries to answer them.

Words like Sustainability, Economic Growth, Green Growth, Climate Change, Global Warming, Greta Thunberg, Climate Strikes are becoming commonplace now. But except for Greta who is only 17 years old, all these topics are at least half a century old. What’s new is the growing body of evidence in the form of huge costs of not addressing environmental issues and leaving them for the Future. The consequences predicted in that ‘Future’ are already happening now. And furthermore, we are meeting our present needs by compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

Current economic models like GDP which heavily focus on Economic Growth are incompatible with environmental sustainability. And the rising economic costs of environmental damages reveal that economic systems driven by these models are not resilient enough, especially when Climate Change is adding fuel to the fire. India suffered a loss of over 2000 lives and $37 billion due to climate change just in a single year (2018). On the other hand, it is estimated that cities investing in going low on carbon (GHG) emissions may contribute to net present value of US$16.6 trillion by 2050. To summarize many examples which could be given here… environmental health is a prerequisite for economic health.

Three Pillars of Sustainability (Google)

Every species has an environmental impact/footprint on its surroundings. This applies to humans, as we are a biological species too. However, we are currently exceeding bio-capacity of the earth and crossing environmental boundaries. The key aspect of sustainability is to ensure that our footprint does not exceed the bio-capacity of the Earth. True Sustainability will only be achieved if we consider environmental, social and economical, all three pillars simultaneously, or simply put — planet, people and profits. This may seem a tall order indeed but it would not be so bad to live on a healthy, clean and a naturally beautiful planet.

Choosing alternative economic models which minimize environmental impacts are key to ensuring our well-being. Models like Green Growth promote economic growth and development while ensuring that natural wealth is least harmed. World Bank defines it as the growth that is efficient in its use of natural resources, clean in that it minimizes pollution and environmental impacts, and resilient in that it accounts for natural hazards and the role of environmental management and natural capital in preventing physical disasters. The ‘Green’ in Green Growth implies that we must take cognizance of the fact that we have the responsibility and need to cherish our natural wealth and that it must not be ignored.

As a society, we need to find ways to make economic progress and well-being compatible with sustainability. Governments, Industries and Households must focus on reducing waste, pollution and emissions in every activity. As active centres of economy and resource use, cities also must take rapid actions to become sustainable. This is easier said than done. The complex and interactive systems which shape our economy, ecology and society; make any sort of development challenging. But Sustainable Development can be accomplished by interactive, iterative and strategic shifts in planning and decision-making. Awareness about what is environmentally friendly and what is an environmental misdeed among all citizens is very important. Making environmentally prudent decisions is critical for our long-term well-being.

People want different things from same land-park, mall, farms
People want different things from same land-park, mall, farms
Making Right Choices — Have you considered the best option — saving the land as it is? (Source: Google)

We need to combine economic, environmental and social means to ensure a more stable and less damaged planet. The path to Climate and Environmental Action is not through stopping economic growth, but through steering it towards environmental sustainability and simultaneously far away from mindless environmental destruction. For developing countries, like India, models like Doughnut Economics could be useful. It considers a community prosperous if it realizes social foundations (based on UN Sustainable Development Goals) without exceeding ecological ceilings (based on planetary boundaries). The doughnut shape represents the environmentally safe and socially just space where humanity may thrive.

Rethinking our capacities and roles as governments, organizations and households with a common purpose of Climate Action and Sustainability will address different aspects of other social issues like equity, inclusivity and resilience as well. Replacing current economic models like GDP may reduce economic growth in some fields but will create new opportunities and jobs in other fields which are more sustainable. With environmentally responsible design, management, technology and innovation; we can successfully achieve sustainable economic development.

These goals, however, are hindered by heedless management, temptations for easy money, and lack of vision to see beyond short-term profits; compounded by the ideological rigidity by some to believe that the environment must be sacrificed for economic growth. Instead of choosing or rejecting capitalism or economic growth outright, the real challenge is using all means to drastically reduce our footprint on the Earth while realizing social ambitions.

Additionally, Natural ecosystems, Good air, water and food quality — provide resources and ecosystem services like flood control, soil fertilization, pollination, oxygen production, recreation and inspiration, and benefit human health — giving by far many social and economic benefits, compared to their economic cost.

Natural Ecosystem Services (Source: https://envs.au.dk/)

Prioritizing Sustainability will help us to achieve the right kind of economic growth leading to a win-win scenario for both. And if we are not able to find the right balance quickly, entire Humanity may lose out in the end. One of the characteristics of humans is being big-brained and the associated high thinking capacity. Can we live up to it? After all, Evolution shows that Survival is not always about the fittest but also about those most adaptable to changing surroundings.

A scenery with Henry Thoreau quote which reads What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?
A scenery with Henry Thoreau quote which reads What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?

Aditi is a Science Writer and Researcher who works with CCP. She has an academic background in biodiversity and is interested in Ecology, Evolution and Climate Change.

CCP aims to make citizens better aware about Climate Change and proactively make cities like Pune Carbon Neutral at the earliest. #ClimateAction