The endless pursuit of economic growth is making us unhappy and risks destroying the Earth’s capacity to sustain us. The good news is that taking steps to make our lives more sustainable will also make us happier and healthier. Would you like a four day weekend – every week?

I’ve been to two conferences over the last year with similar basic premises. The first was at the Australian National University on ecological economics and the second, just last week, was on steady state economics at the University of New South Wales. The premise sitting behind both of these conferences is simple and undeniably true yet undermines so much that is fundamental to our current way of life:

We live on a finite planet.

That’s it. How, you might wonder, can such a simple statement of obvious fact undermine the tenets of modern society?

The earth is a giant rock, hurtling through inhospitable space surrounded by a very thin film of life sustaining atmosphere. Earth’s life support systems are self-sustaining and self-regulating. However, we humans are slowly and steadily pulling this life support system to pieces. Our planet is very large and can absorb a lot of tinkering with its systems, but there are now over 7 billion of us and the amount of energy and resources we are each using is growing fast. That’s a lot of tinkering.

There’s plenty of evidence that we are pushing up against and exceeding several critical boundaries of global sustainability: by which I don’t mean some tree hugging idea of sustainability, I mean we are taking actions that cannot be supported by the earth’s systems in the long term. We’re already exceeding the earth’s adaptive capacity with respect to greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss and the nitrogen cycle and we’re approaching critical limits in both the phosphorous cycle and ocean acidification. Our use of fresh water is also approaching or exceeding sustainable limits in many parts of the world and we’re systematically destroying our arable land. These are critical life sustaining global processes that cannot be ignored without severe consequences.

Economists, like the nobel prize winning Paul Krugman, will counter this line of thought by pointing out that, theoretically, we can have endless economic growth because of continuous efficiency increases. If you believe human creativity is endless then you can argue that economic growth can be endless. However, in this case, like in so many, reality clashes violently with economic theory. We are showing no signs of decoupling economic growth from physical resource use. Unless that decoupling starts now and happens in a hurry, continued economic growth will push the planet beyond its capacity to sustain us – on several fronts.

You may be surprised to hear that there’s really good news in all this. None of the stuff we’re doing that’s destroying the biosphere is making us happy. By contrast, changing to a more sustainable way of living will also bring us greater happiness and general wellbeing. Seem too good to be true? That’s because we’ve all been so effectively sold the line that endless growth is essential to maintain and improve our quality of life. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Material prosperity has diminishing returns when it comes to happiness and wellbeing. Once we have good access to food, shelter, healthcare and other basic material things, the nature of the community in which you live and the quality of your relationships is the best predictor of wellbeing. More stuff only makes a very marginal difference.

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Wake Up NZ is a team of dedicated truth-seekers from all over New Zealand. We are committed to disseminating information that the mainstream media fails to bring to you.

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One Response

  1. Bob

    Plenty of us thought this out back in the 1970’s – you know – drop out of this crazy get to the top system. Learn to make do with less. Have more input into our lives and our sustainability. Learn to curb our post WW2 crazy internal desire to ‘have it all’. Smoke a bit of dope if need be to learn to chill out. Well we all know how that worked out
    The system was not going to let us get away with going another way, the drug squads, the war on communism, the media etc.
    Beaten but not quite broken we get to see the last of our old dreams turn to a very current nightmare


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