Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Unsustainable Growth
distributed 6/9/09 - ©2009

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Chuck and Clara Burrows, of Honolulu, Hawaii. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

At I workshop last weekend, Gail told a vivid story of an educational lesson that changed her life. Years ago, a teacher opened her eyes and heart to how we are living unsustainably .

A course in Gail's nursing studies was looking at infections and pathogens. Each student was given a petri dish filled with a nutrient base. The students then dotted some E. coli bacteria on the nutrient, closed the dish, and let it grow. For several days, the bacteria thrived and spread. But when classes resumed after the weekend, Gail found that the culture had died, and her dish was filled with a decaying and putrid soup. "What happened?", she asked the professor.

The teacher encouraged her to figure out on her own what had happened over the weekend. A close study of the dish, and some reflection on the trends that had been seen the previous week provided an answer. "The bacteria died because they ate all the food, and poisoned the dish with their waste," Gail told the teacher.

The life-changing insight hit a few moments later. "That's what we're doing!"

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Two months ago, I quoted from the important new book by James Gustave Speth, The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. Even before the book's Introduction, a two page spread shows a series of 16 graphs, conveying data for the period from 1750 to 2000. Each chart displays a growth curve remarkably similar to what Gail saw on the first few days after starting her bacteria culture. (A set of graphs very similar to the ones selected by Speth can be seen on-line.)

Some of the data sets are familiar. Population, atmospheric CO2 concentration, and average surface temperature in the northern hemisphere show variations on a pattern that starts low and then climbs abruptly on the right side of the graph. The other figures have a similar shape, reflecting trends that are less often discussed. Many of them have an even more abrupt growth curve, rising from near zero in just the last 50 to 100 years: water use, fertilizer consumption, paper consumption, motor vehicles, the percentage of ocean fisheries fully exploited, the loss of tropical rain forests and woodland, the number of species pushed into extinction.

Gail saw the exponential growth and sudden death of the bacteria in her nursing school experiment, and made the connection to humanity's behavior in the closed and finite setting of planet Earth. Speth and others who show the set of graphs hope that we'll make the same intuitive jump when we see the global trends of explosive growth. Our collective challenge is to come to that realization, and make dramatic changes, before the biosphere dies off as suddenly as the bacteria in Gail's petri dish.

I do have some hope that our society is starting to figure out that growth is not an unquestioned good, but that realization is just starting to take hold. We're starting to recognize that the continued surge in population, water use and greenhouse gas emissions is not good news. In many sectors, though, there is still an enthusiastic drive toward growth.

The stimulus plans to "recover" the US economy are designed to get us back onto a path of growth. Most economists involved in these policies assert that growth is good, even essential, to our national health. (Total Real GDP is the second graph in Speth's book. It is close to zero in 1850, rises steadily to 1950, and then climbs very rapidly.)

As the US and other countries debate energy policy and strategies for minimizing global heating, a continuing pattern of growth in energy demand seems to be an expected, and even desired, outcome. Experts and advocates debate ways to reduce the climate impacts of energy generation, but very few are willing to consider the dramatic steps toward conservation and efficiency that would actually reduce energy use.

Within the last year, it feels like I have had many more conversations about "growth" as the foundation of the globalized financial and business system. Many of the folk that I talk to are aware, and concerned, about the way an escalating use of resources is required to keep the system going. These discussions are part of what is still a fringe movement, but books, articles and blogs, talk radio and coffee shop conversations are acknowledging that any system which depends on constant growth is just a variation on the fraudulent Ponzi scheme perpetrated by Bernard Madoff. Eventually, it has to collapse.

Historian J. R. McNeill observed that "the twentieth century qualifies as a peculiar century because of the screeching acceleration of so many of the processes that bring ecological change." Some of the damage from those accelerating processes process can be attributed to unintended consequences or "collateral damage." But much of what we have observed in the last century has been intentional, and highly celebrated, growth. We have thought it was good, but it is not sustainable.

Toward the end of the Priestly creation account in Genesis, we find the familiar instruction from God to humans: "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it." (Genesis 1:28) That may be the only biblical command that humanity has every successfully completed. It is clearly time to look for new instructions. Prayerfully, we need to ask ourselves, "what now?"

That question is not asked in a vacuum. There are wise and insightful leaders who are exploring and modeling different forms of economic and community life that do not depend on the deadly patterns of exponential growth. James Speth points toward "the great transformation" that we need. Lester Brown's Plan B 3.0 provides solid guidance on "mobilizing to save civilization." A marvelous diversity of theologians and ethicists are developing the religious context for grounding ourselves in a healthy Earth community. The "transition culture" movement is active around the world, embodying new approaches toward resilient, sustainable, and vibrant communities. Our friends and colleagues with Alternatives for Simple Living have -- for decades -- been providing vision and resources that guide us toward more just, sustainable and fulfilling ways of life.

Gail looked at the dead bacteria in a laboratory culture dish and realized, "That's what we're doing!" Thankfully, humanity has consciousness and inventiveness that her E. coli didn't have. We can repent and invent, and we can discover new social and economic systems that avert the inevitable collapse of unsustainable growth. But we must do it soon.

May our church communities provide strong, urgent and effective leadership in this cause by studying the dangers of unsustainable growth, and by affirming hopeful new visions that do not exhaust and poison the planet.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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