by Olivia Hanks

The graph that emerged recently showing the unprecedented fall in global sea ice coverage was a chilling sight for many. Not, though, for Labour MEP David Martin, author of a European Committee on International Trade document celebrating climate change as creating new opportunities for the economic development of the Arctic”.

The comment, spotted and lambasted by Green MEP Molly Scott Cato, might seem extreme in its suicidal logic: we’re burning down the house, but look, we can use the newly exposed rafters for more firewood!

Yet such statements are the logical conclusion when economic growth is viewed as the goal of all human activity. They lead on naturally from support for wasteful and destructive infrastructure projects like Hinkley Point, Trident and any number of ill-conceived road schemes on the grounds that these projects will provide jobs. This is the Labour position from which the party will have to free itself before it can have anything meaningful to say about climate change.

It has been known to us for decades now that there are limits to the growth of an economy based on the extraction of fossil fuels and minerals. At first, the focus was on the finite nature of the planet’s resources: the economist and philosopher Kenneth Boulding famously observed in 1973 that “anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.” We now know that climate change is likely to have catastrophic consequences for human civilisation if we use more than a fraction of known fossil fuel reserves. This much lower limit is the one we must observe.

This being so, the dogma of growth results in all kinds of mental contortions when it comes to climate change. The trade committee comment demonstrates that now the overwhelming evidence has forced reluctant politicians to acknowledge that man-made climate change is real, some have changed their approach and begun claiming its effects are actually positive.

The idea that profiting from the melting of the Arctic by extracting oil and gas reserves which can be burned to further melt the Arctic can be done “in a sustainable way” would be laughable if it weren’t so frightening.

Supporters of the pro-growth status quo have come up with a phrase to reduce their cognitive dissonance: ‘sustainable growth’. The use of the word ‘sustainable’, with its association with the green movement, makes this phenomenon sound ideal to the appearance-conscious capitalist: we can keep building and burning all we like, with a friendly nod to the treehuggers. But, lest we forget, ‘sustainable’ means ‘can be maintained’ – maintained indefinitely. Political and business documents are littered with examples of the word ‘sustainable’ achieving nothing but a warm sense of satisfaction for those involved. The second point of the trade committee document states that “any current and new economic activity should be carried out in a sustainable way in order not to undermine the Arctic’s natural heritage”. The idea that profiting from the melting of the Arctic by extracting oil and gas reserves which can be burned to further melt the Arctic can be done “in a sustainable way” would be laughable if it weren’t so frightening. It simply doesn’t make any sense. But it doesn’t have to make sense – it just has to include the magic word ‘sustainable’, and then all will be well.

When we go back to thinking about what growth actually is, we quickly realise that the idea of it as a) a goal and b) sustainable doesn’t make sense in any field. Whether it’s an ecosystem, the human body, or a friendship group, for example, any system regulates itself so that it can continue to function – it doesn’t expand indefinitely. Growth is the means by which a system reaches the optimum size for its function.

Yet when it comes to the economy, we have stopped speaking of growth as a means to ends we might once have considered its functions: better health, prosperity or quality of life. Growth itself has become the goal; and if growth is the goal, then the economy will never reach a size that is ‘big enough’ – it will always demand more resources. That cannot be sustainable.


Thawt Hawthje, Creative Commons

We are able to mentally project the upward curve of growth endlessly into the future because we view time as a straight line. We can rely on fossil fuels only if we have this linear view of time, since each fuel can be used only once – an extreme example being fracking, where wells are exhausted and abandoned almost immediately as companies move on to new sites, ignoring the obvious snag that the Earth’s land doesn’t actually stretch on for ever. The linear model of time allows us to imagine a future onward march in which we discover ever more resources and solutions to the problems we are creating today; an upward curve which allows us to predict only a continuation of that curve. This leads to a dangerous reliance on future technology, as found in the belief that geoengineering will save us from climate change – releasing us from any obligation to change our high-carbon way of life today.

Societies with a more cyclical understanding of time, like Native American and many African cultures, would feel this to be a nonsense: our ways of living must be such that recurrence is possible. Sustainability is fundamentally circular, as proponents of the circular economy understand.

Societies like ours, with a linear view of time, may be more inclined to focus on the short term because it’s all we can see; we talk of ‘future generations’, but it is a fairly abstract concept. If, however, we understand time as cyclical, in some sense we are future generations too.

We cannot rebuild our entire way of thinking on a cyclical model (regardless of what a recent Hollywood offering might have you believe). What we can do is try to learn from cultures which think in different ways; learn from natural systems, which embody real, eternal sustainability in ways we are at risk of forgetting; and in fact, while we’re at it, maybe abandon the word ‘sustainable’ to its bland corporate fate. It is so ubiquitous that it is a dead term: we no longer think about what it means. A new word is needed. How about ‘cyclical’?

Header image: Paul Sableman, Creative Commons

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