We will find out in this century whether we are living in the era of peak everything: peak food, peak water, peak biodiversity, peak energy, peak population and even peak gross domestic product – argues campaigner
Economic growth and population growth, these are undoubtedly the questions of our time. These questions are highlighted by most of today's major news events: climate disruption, economic meltdown, hunger, poverty, species extinction and economic inequity. We have all heard of peak oil
, but we will find out in this century whether we are living in the era of peak everything: peak food, peak water, peak biodiversity, peak energy, peak population and even peak gross domestic product. Several of these scenarios are potentially cataclysmic and we face them precisely because we have been embracing values and pursuing policies that are inherently unsustainable.
Behind these values and policies is a nearly universal belief in the benefits and essentiality of growth. Increasing the scale of humanity - population and economic throughput - has long been considered both good and inevitable. As a civilization, we have avoided examining whether such expansion continues to benefit us and whether it is even feasible going forward.
It seems quite logical to think that humanity cannot increase our population and economy forever if we are limited to planet earth as our life-support system. Economist Kenneth Boulding described it rather articulately in 1966 when he wrote of the "spaceman" economy. We can no more expect the earth to support 12 billion people - or 7 billion living like millionaires - than we could expect one of today's spacecraft to provide bunks, food, oxygen and water for 500 crewmembers. If we can understand this at the small scale of a spaceship, why is it that we cannot comprehend it on a global level?
Growth optimists assure us the scale of the human enterprise on earth is not limited by natural resource supplies. This is based on a belief system rationalised by the observation that we have managed to "innovate" our way around resource limits during 200 years of unprecedented growth. It is difficult, if not impossible, to change this kind of faith with words of logic - or even facts. Once we conclude our current values and practices are unsustainable or no longer delivering good lives, we are faced with the question of what should replace them.
While a list of prescriptive, sustainable policies and practices can be assembled - it would be long, incomplete and unreliable. We do not know all the answers, because up to now too few of us have applied our creative genius to this exercise. Those few have had too little time and opportunity to fully explore alternative systems and strategies. This is not to say there aren't some good efforts underway.
A necessary first step, however, is much simpler - though not any easier. That step is to alter the fundamental value or belief that underpins our civilisation's policies and practices. That is a crucial first step, one that will unlock a treasure trove of possibilities. We must move from a fundamental belief in the wondrous powers and possibilities of endless growth, to an understanding that we live in a spaceman economy. We need to believe in the wonders of nature, including its beauty, but also its necessity, its fragility, and - most importantly - its limits.
We must replace our emphasis on quantity with a focus on quality, give up more and embrace enough, jettison competition and value collaboration. Once we take that step, we turn the key and open the door to a world of possibilities. We will unleash creative minds to contemplate, experiment and try new ideas and models for practices, policies and systems that can allow our civilisation to live within its means on earth.Dave Gardner directed the documentary GrowthBusters and is a campaigner on sustainability and environmental issues, in the United States