Anything Grows – A Sustainable Sponge

A little brain teaser: Sea roses are reproducing quickly and cover the pond behind your house. The covered area doubles every day. In 48 days the whole pond is covered. How long does it take to cover half the pond?  If your answer is, instead of 24, only one day to cover the entire half of the pond, then you might guess the power exponential growth. This type of growth happens on many different occasions. Just take your kitchen sponge. It smells a bit funny? That is exponential growth at work. A few initial individuals colonize the sponge, feed of the food residues on it and reproduce, reproduce, reproduce. 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, and within no time you end up with myriads of bacteria. After a while though they will reach the limits of the sponge and its food residue resources, and the bacteria start to die, contributing to the nasty smell.

The Power of Growth

What works for bacteria also does for other species, like cockroaches, rabbits – or humans. The latter with a particular success: Within a couple of centuries, the initial few million humans on our own little kitchen sponge grew mind-blowingly fast. In the last 20 years more than 1.6 billion people joined us, now 7.25 billion humans. But how is that even possible?

The buzzword is growth rate. As a rule of thumb, divide 70 by the growth rate and you receive the doubling time of a population. Take the Philippines as an example:  Its growth rate of about 2% is among the highest in Southeast Asia, and the world. The 50 million Filipinos from the mid-1980s doubled 35 years later (70 divided by 2), to now 100 million. In contrast, with a rate of about 0.6%, Thailand only grew from 55 to 70 million inhabitants.

These growth rates are influenced by a number of factors.  Especially the last 100 years have seen a rapid increase in population due to medical advances and massive increase in agricultural productivity, made possible by the Green Revolution. Also political and social factors, such as religion, matter. The comparison between Buddhist Thailand and the Catholic Philippines gives a good example.

But not only social factors distinguish us from bacteria. Besides our population, also a thing we invented grows exponentially – our money. Not on your bank account? Well, worldwide the economy grows exponentially. Take some of the aspiring nations of Asia as examples, with previous growth rates of up to ten percent. Their economy doubles in – 70 divided by 10 – 7 years.  Much faster than population does. That’s great news, however only if you equate economic growth – growth in GDP – with development. Yet, we start to realize the intrinsic flaw in this equation: GDP measures ‘utility’, not welfare. For the GDP a car accident is as beneficial as a hospital bill.

The Ability to Sustain

These three factors – population and economic growth, and our political, social and technological influence on it – leave us humans with the same problems as the bacteria on the sponge. We reached the limits of our resources. Currently we would need one and a half Earths to maintain our population. That’s one and a half times our warming atmosphere to cope with the CO2 we emit; one and a half times Southeast Asia’s 100,000 km² of coral reefs providing livelihood for millions; and, one and a half times the region’s 50 mangrove species protecting the islands’ shores. With no backup sponge, let alone an extra Earth in our kitchen cupboard.

The only difference to the bacteria is that, hopefully, we are a bit smarter to escape our destiny. We have the ability to sustain our presence on the sponge, before dying off.

Rings a bell? The ability to sustain. Sustain-ability. Sustainability is not only the motto of the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB). Together with the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) ACB works for the conservation of Southeast Asia’s biodiversity, and its sustainable use.

Sustainability is as old as methuselah, with its 301st birthday this year. It was first formulated, fittingly by the German Carl von Carlowitz in 1713, as the sustained yield of a forest. No more timber could be cut than would regrow. In essence, do not spend more than you earn. Sounds like motherhood and apple pie? Nevertheless, it took another 300 years for this unpalatable truth to trickle down. These days, sustainability has a meteoric career, being mentioned in at least 4000 article titles in academic journals, every year. What is more, sustainability left the realm of science. Just take the brand new ‘Barbie BCause’, ‘for eco-conscious girls who believe that being sustainable is the right thing to do’.

Agreeing with Barbie

The world community agrees with Barbie. During the ultimate sustainability conference in 2012, dubbed Rio+20, member states decided to come up with a brand new compilation of the right things to do – the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs are the successors of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which had mixed results, to be euphemistic. Undeniably, there have been successes in health, access to infrastructure and increased income. However, the environment is left by the wayside, billions remain poor, the global climate machine is broken, ecological productivity is lost and equality is in the ropes.

The latter issue seems crucial: Making available enough food for the billion hungry people would mean producing only 1% more food. Giving electricity to the 1.4 billion who currently have none would raise global carbon emissions by just 1%. In other words, it is not primarily the needs of the majority of the world’s growing population that threaten the Earth, like the bacteria’s sponge. It is much rather the significantly faster economic growth and the overconsumption of a few.   It seems that the creators of the Development Goals were just not talking about sustainable development. We spend more, than we earn, contradicting good old Carlowitz. Chin up, the MDGs are about to terminate anyway, and next year we can come up with new goals.

There are two options for these goals and the destiny on our sponge. Both revolve around growth.

Green Growth is a path of economic growth that uses natural resources in a sustainable manner. How this is supposed to work will be discussed next week, 13-14 November 2014. During the Green Growth and Sustainable Development Forum 2014 the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) comes together to ‘address the social implications of green growth’. Will inclusive green growth be a solution in an increasingly unequal world, as the 1% from above show? Or is growth itself the problem rather than a solution? Is growth -measured in GDP- really desirable, even if caused by car accidents or pollution? And wasn’t growth in overconsumption the reason for the nasty smell in the first place?

If overconsumption lies at the root of long term environmental issues and social inequalities, what is the alternative to growth then? De-growth. Sounds obvious? At least according to thinkers and activists who argue that reducing consumption does not require individual martyring and a decrease in well-being. Much the opposite, degrowthists want to maximize happiness and well-being through economic and social models that are independent of growth. The world’s largest de-growth conference, in the German city of Leipzig last September showed concrete steps towards a society beyond the imperative of growth, be it Free Money Day, Transition Towns or Degrowth Downunder.

It seems there is no one fits all solution, no magic formula. However, sustainability is far from being an empty formula. It is much more: A framework for orientation, a platform for a committed discourse about a common good, an acceptance of complexity, it is a global, long-term, non-fatalist perspective, it is a vision. We cannot miss the chance to capture and apply this vision in the new Sustainable Development Goals.  A vision for sustain-ability on our little kitchen sponge – without leaving a nasty smell.

Philipp Gassner | Special to the BusinessMirror BusinessMirror – November 8, 2014

give back from Degrowth Conference 2014 on Vimeo.