The (un?) sustainability of growth

Modern market economy has taken an almost religious worship to certain indicators. If those indicators were gods, then "Growth" might probably be their Zeus.

On the other hand, the deterioration of the environment by human activities, and the depletion of natural resources has evoked the concept of "sustainability", i.e. the attribute of an activity that allows it to go on indefinitely. A more concise definition is given at the Merriam-Webster OnLine Dictionary. Sustainable is a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged, or a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods. If growth is the holy grail for businessmen, politicians and economists, then it is fair to say that sustainability is the holy grail for environmentalists and conservationists. The question arises however; can both these goals be achieved? Can we have what is called "sustainable growth"?

For practical purposes, we should refine the definition of a sustainable procedure, since nothing is really sustainable in an infinite time horizon (probably, not even the universe itself). In other words, which is a valid approximation to infinity? Human existence is roughly dated at 100,000 years, while whole historical periods, rarely supersede the timescale of one or two millenia. Therefore, any timescale between 10,000 and 100,000 years could be considered as close to infinity, in historical or social terms. Thus, any process that can be anticipated to last for at least as long without significant implications may be considered as sustainable.
This will not be a quantitative analysis (this is left to people more up to the task), but a qualitative one. It is intended as a first qualitative approach to the matter that may hopefully inspire more exact analyses.


First of all, what is growth? Growth within a specific economic zone is defined as the annual increase of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In turn, the GDP is defined as the total value of all the goods produced and services offered within this economic zone. For these goods to be produced and for these services to be offered a certain amount of raw materials has to be used, as well as a certain amount of energy, plus the use of land, air, rivers, seas and other natural resources.

For example, for a car to be made, steel (for the chassis and car body), glass (for the windows), various plastics (for tyres and insulation), silicon (for the electronics), lead (for the batteries), petrochemicals (for lubricants) and many other raw materials are required. For this car to move, energy in the form of petrol, biofuel, electricity (or other) will be required. More raw materials and energy will be required for the roads this car will travel on, and even more for maintenance of both car and roads. And of course, all these installations will be built on a land area. Finally, the waste of this process will be diluted in the atmosphere, sea, or rivers, or they will be deposited on another land area. (The solution to pollution is dilution.)

For food to be made, land is needed, to grow crops on, or to feed cattle. Water will be required for irrigation. Fertilizers and pesticides will be necessary even in the case of organic farming (though more environment-friendly in that case). Finally, energy will be required to move tractors and harvesters, to heat greenhouses during wintertime and of course to carry these goods from the place of their production to the point of their consumption, i.e. big cities and urban areas.

Even services, which are considered to represent a more benign form of economical activity, require raw materials, energy and natural resources. Tourism requires energy to transport tourists to and from their destinations. It requires raw materials to build the installations they will stay in, and land to build these installations on.

War operations or natural disasters (earthquakes, floods etc) are particularly beneficial to the GDP of specific economic zones. War is an exceptionally costly procedure in the first place (raw materials-, natural resources- and energy-intensive), thus generating huge profits for war-supply manufacturers. In addition, the restoration of damages incurred by either war or natural disasters (either in infrastructure, or in human capital) also are very costly and generate additional profits, and contributions to the GDP. Of course, these beneficial consequences concern the GDP of economic zones outside those affected by war or natural disasters, so they are limited in space.

Therefore, all activities contributing to the GDP, consume a certain amount of energy, raw materials and natural resources, not to mention human capital, which is even more difficult to measure.

In order for growth to be positive, i.e. in order for an economy to expand, the GDP has to increase from year to year, every year. This means that the production of energy, the extraction of raw materials and the use of natural resources must also increase to follow the increase of the GDP.

Sustainability of growth

There are only two conditions that may allow growth to be sustainable:
Condition A: The reserves of energy, raw materials and natural resources are infinite (in every sense of the term), so they can never be depleted.
Condition B: The reserves of energy, raw materials and natural resources are not infinite, but they are renewed at a rate which is equal to, or greater than, the rate of their consumption.

Unfortunately, since our societies are all located in a limited space (the Earth) and we have limited supplies to any kind of necessary commodities, Condition A is not fulfilled. The prospect of colonization of other planets is still too far to be realistically considered, so we may choose to disregard it for the time being.

Therefore, we are left with Condition B. For an economy to be sustainable under this condition, it should regulate its requirements in such a way that these do not surpass what can be provided on an indefinite basis. In an ideal case, and for the optimal function of this economy, requirements of resources should be exactly matching their rate of renewal, and kept stable. Then this economy would achieve true sustainability. This would mean, however, that this economy should cease to grow after a certain point (zero growth), or if it has already exceeded this point, it should climb back down to sustainable levels (negative growth). In no case however, could (positive) growth be sustainable. Under these conditions, the term "sustainable growth" entails the same contradiction as the term "healthy junkie". The second part of the term precludes the first.

One does not require the first law of thermodynamics (energy and matter conservation) to understand that if a tank leaks from a hole, it will sooner or later go empty, unless it is supplied by an equal flow of water to compensate the losses.

Resources and Recycling

Of course one may argue that this model, in which resources are used once and then discarded is too crude. Recycling could be the alternative to achieve sustainable growth. First of all, let us examine which resources are truly recyclable and which are not.

-Raw Materials

Raw materials (metals, glass, plastics, paper, chemicals etc) can indeed be recycled to a certain extent. However, in the form of waste, these are normally found as complex mixtures of diverse ingredients. Separating a mass of waste to its pure ingredients (in other words, bringing order to a disordered system, i.e. lowering its entropy) is a process that requires energy. The more disordered the system, the more energy is required. The relentless second law of thermodynamics makes sure of that. So recycling requires energy.

-Other natural resources

There are also natural resources that are spent up during economic activities. These are the air that absorbs gaseous waste (e.g. from burning fuel); rivers, seas and the waterbed that absorb city sewage, factory waste and agrochemical pesticides and fertilizers; the ozon layer that is depleted by various chemicals. Also, land areas required to build residences, tourist installations, factories, roads and all other facilities necessary to the economic activity.

For the former, "recycling" can only be viewed as the natural process of the breakdown of pollutants. This, however, proceeds at a pace that would be too slow to cope with today’s economies (hence the increase of pollution). For a sustainable economy, we should prevent the depletion of clean air and water, we should therefore help this process by treating all our waste before releasing it to nature. This of course would require extra amounts of energy.

For the latter, "recycling" would be the demolition of preexisting installations for replacement by new ones. It is self-evident that more than one buildings cannot be built on the same site, thus available land would be soon depleted unless freed from its previous use. Naturally, demolishing a building, treating the rubble and building a new one, would require extra energy and raw materials (i.e. more energy, vide supra).

-Untreatable byproducts

Then we have byproducts that simply cannot be recycled (e.g. radioactive waste from nuclear reactors). These should be properly treated (which will also require an extra amount of energy) and then stored somewhere indefinitely (e.g., nuclear waste remains radioactive for thousands of years). This will require special storage areas fulfilling certain requirements. These areas, however, are natural resources themselves, be they deep caves, mines or deep seas. They are infinite neither in size, nor in number, and we could use each of them only once (up to its maximum capacity) and then no more, because the waste inside it will remain dangerous infinitely (with the definition for infinity that we previously gave). So one should develop production methods that produce no untreatable byproducts, which might mean the elimination of nuclear fission reactors as a sustainable means of energy production (also vide infra).


As we saw, all economic activities boil down to energy. Energy is definitely not recyclable, as is assured by the second law of thermodynamics. Once energy is used, it is progressively reduced to heat. Then, it can no longer be reused. Therefore, if we were to ensure a truly sustainable growth, we would require constantly increasing amounts of energy, year after year. It can be argued that more oil reserves are still to be discovered, and that peak of oil production is not to worry us for decades to come. It can even be argued that nuclear fission reactors can supply us with more energy than presently available from petrol or natural gas. There is, however, an inherent disadvantage of both these energy forms: they are available from finite supplies. No matter what advances may come in oil drilling, or uranium/plutonium mining and repartitioning technologies, they can only bring about a 100% exploitation of existent deposits. Then not only growth, but every economic activity based on these energy resources would cease.

Thus, for truly sustainable growth, we would need a truly inexhaustible power source. The largest, closest and most efficient energy factory for humans is the sun. The solar energy that reaches the Earth’s surface has a power of 174,000 TW. If we consider that human needs are currently of the order of 15 TW, the sun alone could provide for the needs of more than a 10,000 civilizations like our own. This number is, for our purposes, a good approximation to infinity.

At this point, it should also be mentioned that hydrogen, the "fuel of the future", is not an energy source itself (for there should be pure hydrogen deposits for this to be the case), but a mere method to stock and transport energy (since pure hydrogen needs energy to be produced, either from water or other sources).

Sustainable growth?

In the present state of things, we consume more energy, raw materials and natural resources than we should if we wished to operate under Condition B for a sustainable economy. As we previously saw, recycling, although a positive attribute for an economy, cannot be a solution in itself. It can only be a pipe redirecting some of the leaks back to the tank, but with an energy cost. It would allow us to gain some time before the tank is drained, but it wouldn’t totally plug the leak. Therefore, we should plug the leak better than presently, or find a stream to replenish the tank supplies.

The former solution would be to decrease our economic activities down to the level of sustainability (plug the leak). The latter would be to restructure our production methods to use the only inexhaustible energy source available , i.e. the sun (the stream to replenish the tank). Under the current situation, however, "sustainable growth" should rather be viewed as wishful thinking than a responsible proposition for our future. If we wish future generations to live decently, or survive at all, we should change the whole model of our economy and our way of living. Clearly, the tenet which maintains that prosperity may come from "sustainable" growth, can only hold for short time periods and limited geographical areas. It cannot hold indefinitely, neither in time, nor in space. Economists have been wise enough to devise the concept of "scarcity", i.e. the attribute of goods which are not available in quantities sufficient to satisfy the demand of societies. This concept is fundamental for economics, and it relates to another key factor, demand. However, a non-economist would be under the impression that it is totally neglected. Instead, "growth" has become the current buzzword, monopolizing current interest. But why do policy makers (politicians, businessmen and certain environmentalists) sell this tenet, and why do people buy into it?

Producers sell it because it allows them to continue (or increase) their activities by creating a "greener" image. That their products are greener than others, however, doesn’t necessarily mean they are green indeed.

Environmentalists that sell it, offer a politically correct argument ("save the planet!") that appeals to the general public, but on the other hand doesn’t rock the boat too much. It therefore appeals to businessmen and politicians. In that way, NGOs assure both their environmentally-friendly public profile, as well as donations from corporations and states.

Politicians have no other choice than selling this tenet. Any politician implying that our consumption should be reduced, commits the equivalent of political suicide. Usually, such claims are made by politicians, but under the tacit understanding that someone outside their constituency should do the reducing.

Finally, the general public (nowadays referred to as "consumers", rather as "citizens") buy into this tenet probably because it serves as a way to wash away their guilts, as they drive their brand new 4×4 SUVs, fitted with "green" hybrid motors.

Maybe however, the most important reason is the illusion that we operate under Condition A. Jean-Baptiste Say expressed in a very explicit and eloquent manner that misconception of economists and of societies as a whole: "Natural resources are inexhaustible, because if they weren’t we wouldn’t obtain them for free. Since they can be neither multiplied, nor exhausted they are not the object of economic sciences." (1)

What next?

Repeatedly, human societies have exhausted the resources of their habitats. Describing the countryside of ancient Athens, Plato mentions in his dialogue Critias that
"[...] in comparison of what then was, there are remaining only the bones of the wasted body, as they may be called, as in the case of small islands, all the richer and softer parts of the soil having fallen away, and the mere skeleton of the land being left. But in the primitive state of the country, its mountains were high hills covered with soil, and the plains, as they are termed by us, of Phelleus were full of rich earth, and there was abundance of wood in the mountains. Of this last the traces still remain, for although some of the mountains now only afford sustenance to bees, not so very long ago there were still to be seen roofs of timber cut from trees growing there, which were of a size sufficient to cover the largest houses; and there were many other high trees, cultivated by man and bearing abundance of food for cattle. Moreover, the land reaped the benefit of the annual rainfall, not as now losing the water which flows off the bare earth into the sea, but, having an abundant supply in all places, and receiving it into herself and treasuring it up in the close clay soil, it let off into the hollows the streams which it absorbed from the heights, providing everywhere abundant fountains and rivers, of which there may still be observed sacred memorials in places where fountains once existed; [...]" (2).

Historically, humanity never possessed the volume, or consumption potential, which could deplete the earth’s resources. For hundreds of generations, Condition A was indeed a valid approximation on a planetary scale, while Condition B became visible only on smaller scales of time and space (e.g. the Athenian countryside between the 7th-5th centuries BC). However, overpopulation and industrialization have changed all that, since both our volume and our consumption potential can now stress our habitat on a global scale and at an unprecedented degree. Now, "sustainable growth" may be for us the proverbial hole in the sand where the ostrich hides its head.

It should be clear that at the present state of things, a reduction of the consumption rates, and hence of growth, is the only viable alternative for a sustainable economy. Of course, something of the kind should not be considered without a prior redistribution of wealth; limiting consumption for a country of the developed West, might mean taking the bus to work, instead of a car, or buying fewer new clothes per year. Limiting consumption in a developing country might make the difference between life and death for people living on a few dollars per month.

In addition, a rethinking of basic economic doctrines is urgent. Currently, the maximization of profit (requiring a consequent maximization of production and consumption and lowering of costs) is a doctrine of market economy particularly prohibitive to sustainability, because it does not even ask the question: "How much is enough?". If limits are not set to our consumption requirements, then consumption will grow until the system breaks down somewhere.

But we will also have to rethink the widely accepted view that prosperity and consumption coincide. According to this view, talking about these two concepts is a tautology. Prosperity is indeed a perennial social demand, but consumption is just one of its components. No mainstream economic indicator makes a quantitative assessment of other components of prosperity: the purity of the air we breathe, of the water we drink, or the food we eat; the level of fulfillment from one’s profession; the communal spirit; the quality of our familial or social relationships; our physical and mental health. Despite modern trends that claim to acknowledge these realities through practices like Pigovian taxes, or the more recent Carbon Emission Trading schemes (carbon taxes), everyday practice seems to stay entrenched to traditional (if not archaic) ways of economic thought: "We cannot consume natural resources; by breathing atmospheric air, we alter, in fact we destroy, its property to sustain life: but we do not consume any resource, because it had no value; because we could enjoy it without acquiring it for a price, without paying for it." (3)

Market and capitalist economics (as well as those of Soviet Socialism, for that matter) seem inept to quantify and assess all the abovementioned components of prosperity. Instead, they focus on growth which is easily measurable with their current tools. That this is detrimental to societies and their environment is of secondary importance. maybe we should rethink their utility as a tool in our quest for prosperity. Having come to realize all this, maybe we should reposition ourselves with respect to the tenets of these economics, and with respect to the economists who uphold them. Instead of viewing them as the high-priests of a new religion, we should demystify them and acknowledge their inclination to error. Particularly when this error may be the undoing of our societies.


(1) "Les richesses naturelles sont inépuisables, car, sans cela, nous ne les obtiendrions pas gratuitement. Ne pouvant être multipliées ni épuisées elles ne sont pas l’objet des sciences économiques.")
"Cours Complet d’économie Politique Pratique in Collection des Principaux Economistes, Tome 10 : Oeuvres de J. B. Say – I, ", p. 66 (Reprint of the 1852 edition, Osnabrück, 1966).

(2) Plato, Critias (tr. Benjamin Jowett).

(3) "Nous ne pouvons consommer les richesses naturelles ; en respirant l’air atmosphérique, nous l’altérons, à la vérité, nous détruisons la propriété qu’il a de soutenir la vie : mais nous ne consommons point de richesse, parce qu’il n’avait point de valeur ; parce qu’on pouvait en jouir sans l’acquérir au prix d’un sacrifice, sans le payer. "

Cours Complet d’économie Politique Pratique in Collection des Principaux Economistes, Tome 11 : Oeuvres de J. B. Say – II, ", p.198 (Reprint of the 1852 edition, Osnabrück, 1966).

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