Cities can’t keep grow­ing

There are ba­sic facts we should agree on when it comes to the Earth by David Suzuki

Thornhill Post - - Currents -

Al­though I’m just one of 13 peo­ple re­ceiv­ing hon­orary de­grees in June from the Uni­ver­sity of Al­berta, my award has stirred up con­tro­versy. As flat­ter­ing as it is to be made the ful­crum of de­bate sur­round­ing fos­sil fu­els, cli­mate change and hu­man­ity’s fu­ture, this isn’t about me.

Af­ter all, what I say about eco­nom­ics, plan­e­tary bound­aries and the need to shift pri­or­i­ties is no dif­fer­ent than what econ­o­mists, philoso­phers, sci­en­tists and nu­mer­ous other ex­perts have been say­ing for years.

At the very least, it’s good that a healthy de­bate about cor­po­rate in­flu­ence over aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions and is­sues around cli­mate-dis­rupt­ing en­ergy sources has emerged from it.

Too of­ten, though, the dis­cus­sion has strayed to per­sonal at­tacks. If a uni­ver­sity, es­pe­cially one in the heart of oil coun­try, isn’t the place to air a range of ideas about the geo­phys­i­cal, so­cial and eco­nomic con­se­quences of prof­li­gate fos­sil fuel use, we should be wor­ried.

Dur­ing the brouhaha, peo­ple have taken is­sue with my char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of con­ven­tional eco­nomic think­ing (al­though they of­ten leave out the “con­ven­tional” part). I’m not an econ­o­mist, but my ideas are in­formed by econ­o­mists.

Ox­ford econ­o­mist Kate Ra­worth, au­thor of Dough­nut Eco­nom­ics, re­cently told me John May­nard Keynes would be rolling in his grave if he knew we were ap­ply­ing his early 20th cen­tury ideas to 21st cen­tury real­i­ties.

Those who retro­fit con­tem­po­rary prob­lems onto con­ven­tional but out­dated eco­nomic the­o­ries are ca­pa­ble of all sorts of con­tra­dic­tory po­si­tions, from ar­gu­ing that in­fi­nite growth is pos­si­ble in a fi­nite system to sup­port­ing oil­sands and fos­sil fuel in­fra­struc­ture ex­pan­sion while claim­ing a com­mit­ment to ad­dress­ing cli­mate change.

Noth­ing grows for­ever. Why do we think hu­man pop­u­la­tions, re­source ex­trac­tion, economies, in­dus­trial ac­tiv­ity and cities can keep grow­ing? Where does it end? Like can­cer, is it when growth de­stroys the host?

I re­spect the dif­fer­ences of opin­ion about how we should con­duct our­selves in a time of stag­ger­ing pop­u­la­tion growth, cli­mate change, bio­di­ver­sity de­cline and nu­mer­ous other prob­lems of our own mak­ing. But surely we can agree on ba­sics. We need clean air, potable wa­ter and food from healthy soils to stay alive and healthy. We can’t keep rapidly burn­ing fos­sil fu­els and de­stroy­ing car­bon sinks, like forests and wet­lands, with­out desta­bi­liz­ing Earth’s car­bon cy­cle and cli­matic system. We can’t keep dump­ing plas­tic and waste into the oceans.

This is not about at­tack­ing a par­tic­u­lar in­dus­try or way of life. It’s about rec­og­niz­ing the re­al­ity of global warm­ing and our role in it. It’s about find­ing so­lu­tions that pro­vide eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties for every­one. It’s about mea­sur­ing progress in ways that ac­count for sus­tain­abil­ity and well-be­ing rather than eco­nomic growth.

Suzuki will re­ceive an hon­orary de­gree from the Uni­ver­sity of Al­berta in June

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