The Paradox of Our Times argues that ecological challenges cannot be satisfied within a growing economy framework and that the alternative system needs to be first manifested on a cultural level.
It is hard to find a business or institution these days that is not claiming to follow green and sustainable practices, yet our environmental impact seems to be only increasing. This raises the question that whether to not we are on the right track with our green initiatives… Should we persist on the same path, or is there a need to modify our strategy? How could we evaluate our progress and what are the suitable measures to do so? Don’t expect to get all these answers below, but some better sense of the problem, along with some hope to keep you coming back!
I believe the fundamental complication with the sustainability challenge is that its solution requires satisfying contradicting objectives between environmental protection and economic growth; as the former requires reduction in consumption and the later requires increase in consumption. So if we are trying to save the environment, we will hurt the economy and people’s well-being. On the other hand, if we want to create economic growth to improve well-being, we will end up negatively affecting our planet. You can see the paradox here… So the question becomes what’s the way out of this paradox? Let’s dig a bit more…
Some believe that improved efficiency could get us out of trouble. Well, economy tells us otherwise! The problem is that in a growth-based economy, improved efficiency would in fact increase our consumption rather than decreasing it!! In economic theory, this is known as the Jevons Paradox, following the 19th century British economist who first observed it. He observed that the consumption of coal increased in a wide range of industries as technological improvement made coal use more efficient. One reason is that improved efficiency reduces the cost of using a resource, which increases its demand! In addition, improved efficiency accelerates economic growth, which further increases the demand!! Therefore, in a growth-based economic system, improved efficiency cannot be relied upon to reduce our footprint within the limits of our planet.
Many believe that using green technologies, such as renewable energies and recycling, could lead us to a sustainable future. I think this is an oversimplification of the sustainability challenge from a multidisciplinary problem that is affecting all aspects of our environment, to one or few representatives such as greenhouse gasses and pollution. Furthermore, even if we could theoretically switch to entirely green technologies that have no pollution, a growth-based economic system would still drive the demand for energy and material to increase continuously. Satisfying such demand would in turn result in further exhaustion of our planet’s ecological system. So although I am a green energy scientist by profession, I don’t believe that technology alone can provide the solution to our sustainability challenges. But what can?!
Well, the first step for devising a solution is to understand and acknowledge the problem, which in this case is our dependence on economic growth. In fact, the relationship between economic growth and increase in ecological footprint is relatively straight forward and not that difficult to comprehend, yet, we tend to neglect discussing and addressing it to a large extent. The reason is that we have built built our institutions and support system based on such an economic system, and the scale of the problem has been bigger than the immediacy of addressing it, at least so far. Even more challenging is that fact that we have been personally primed in the consumer-based culture, hence defining our identity. Questioning economic growth and the consumer culture requires us to revisit our values, aspirations, relationships, and our entire inner world, which is even more daunting to acknowledge and tackle than the institutional one! As a matter of fact, the prerequisite for changing the institutions and economic system is to change ourselves and our culture, after which we will have the human capital to change the outside world. The bright side of the story is that this also an opportunity to create a culture that supports and inspires us fully in our lives; as the growth-based economy is not only taking a toll on the planet, but also on our lives in terms of work load, sense of safety and security, connection to our communities, inspiration, and much more.
Look forward to sharing my journey and thoughts on changing our inner and outer worlds ♥