Neven pointed to Albert Barlett’s “Laws of Sustainability”, published in 2006 in the anthology The Future of Sustainability by Marco Keiner and repeated at The Oil Drum. Thanks to Neven for pointing these out.
Because these claims are very close to my point of view, and in many cases articulate my point of view better than I have done to date, I will brazenly repeat them here. I have emailed Prof Bartlett asking for permission as well.
Before pasting, let me state my own caveats clearly, and one I think others holding these positions will be likely to agree with. The constraints here are essentially absolute, not culturally mediated. However, they operate on time scales long compared with conventional politics. How we get from here to there matters a good deal less than that we get there eventually. Limits to growth exist – we either plan for them or we get blindsided by them. Those are the choices.
Second, the law of limited growth, which I think ought to be explicitly stated in a rigorous form:
In a finite physical domain, in the long term average, the growth rate of any physically extensive quantity approaches exactly zero.
(note, I changed “limit” to the more correct “average”)
This includes population, and that portion of wealth that involves real control of real physical resources. We’ve already had a bit of vigorous discussion on these things here, and I especially appreciated Pangolin’s comment:
Well, we can sit on the beach in a circle and sell each other buckets of sand and call it economic growth.
Eventually, somebody is going to want a hot dog. Probably made of meat from a named animal. I suspect a soda or iced tea will be on the list of demands also.
Those items, like all similar items provided to people who engage in fictional economic activity, (cough, Wall Street, cough) have to come from the domain referred to as “physical reality.”
The only physical reality providing resources to humans is this tiny skim layer between a ball of rock and an infinitude of hard vacuum. That layer is oversubscribed and actual production is falling in several resource areas due to overuse.
So, nope. Economic growth that includes growth in the use of real materials is a no-go in the long run.
There is no limit to the growth of “fictional” activity. “Real” economic activity can reasonably be defined as activities which cause redistribution of physically extensive quantities. Fictional activity is the stuff of bubbles. When food becomes scarce, making a really great movie will not have much value.
Finally, at least one of the points does not follow directly from the law of limited growth, and this has been one that has engendered some controversy. I highlight in red those that I think require some extra reasoning.
I highlight in purple one with which I slightly disagree. I do in fact question whether what we understand as agriculture might be replaced. Most people wouldn’t like it very much, though.
First Law: Population growth and / or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained.
A) A population growth rate less than or equal to zero and declining rates of consumption of resources are a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for a sustainable society.
B) Unsustainability will be the certain result of any program of “development,” that does not plan the achievement of zero (or a period of negative) growth of populations and of rates of consumption of resources. This is true even if the program is said to be “sustainable.”
C) The research and regulation programs of governmental agencies that are charged with protecting the environment and promoting “sustainability” are, in the long run, irrelevant, unless these programs address vigorously and quantitatively the concept of carrying capacities and unless the programs study in depth the demographic causes and consequences of environmental problems.
D) Societies, or sectors of a society, that depend on population growth or growth in their rates of consumption of resources, are unsustainable.
E) Persons who advocate population growth and / or growth in the rates of consumption of resources are advocating unsustainability.
F) Persons who suggest that sustainability can be achieved without stopping population growth are misleading themselves and others.
G) Persons whose actions directly or indirectly cause increases in population or in the rates of consumption of resources are moving society away from sustainability.
H) The term “Sustainable Growth” is an oxymoron.
I) In terms of population sizes and rates of resource consumption, “The only smart growth is no growth.” (Hammond, 1999)
Second Law: In a society with a growing population and / or growing rates of consumption of resources, the larger the population, and / or the larger the rates of consumption of resources, the more difficult it will be to transform the society to the condition of sustainability.
Third Law: The response time of populations to changes in the human fertility rate is the average length of a human life, or approximately 70 years. (Bartlett and Lytwak 1995) [This is called “population momentum.”]
A) A nation can achieve zero population growth if:
a) the fertility rate is maintained at the replacement level for 70 years, and
b) there is no net migration during the 70 years.
During the 70 years the population continues to grow, but at declining rates until the growth finally stops after approximately 70 years.
B) If we want to make changes in the total fertility rates so as to stabilize the population by the mid – to late 21st century, we must make the necessary changes now.
C) The time horizon of political leaders is of the order of two to eight years.
D) It will be difficult to convince political leaders to act now to change course, when the full results of the change may not become apparent in the lifetimes of those leaders.
mt: Obviously requires some detailed demographics, but this all seems pretty clear.
Fourth Law: The size of population that can be sustained (the carrying capacity) and the sustainable average standard of living of the population are inversely related to one another. (This must be true even though Cohen asserts that the numerical size of the carrying capacity of the Earth cannot be determined, (Cohen 1995))
A) The higher the standard of living one wishes to sustain, the more urgent it is to stop population growth.
B) Reductions in the rates of consumption of resources and reductions in the rates of production of pollution can shift the carrying capacity in the direction of sustaining a larger population.
Fifth Law: One cannot sustain a world in which some regions have high standards of living while others have low standards of living.
mt: some debate on this topic. I see it as a consequence of basic ethical principles rather than a substantive result.
Sixth Law: All countries cannot simultaneously be net importers of carrying capacity.
A) World trade involves the exportation and importation of carrying capacity.
Seventh Law: A society that has to import people to do its daily work (“We can’t find locals who will do the work,”) is not sustainable.
Eighth Law: Sustainability requires that the size of the population be less than or equal to the carrying capacity of the ecosystem for the desired standard of living.
A) Sustainability requires an equilibrium between human society and dynamic but stable ecosystems.
B) Destruction of ecosystems tends to reduce the carrying capacity and / or the sustainable standard of living.
C) The rate of destruction of ecosystems increases as the rate of growth of the population increases.
D) Affluent countries, through world trade, destroy the ecosystems of less developed countries.
E) Population growth rates less than or equal to zero are necessary, but are not sufficient, conditions for halting the destruction of the environment. This is true locally and globally.
Ninth Law: ( The lesson of “The Tragedy of the Commons” ) (Hardin 1968): The benefits of population growth and of growth in the rates of consumption of resources accrue to a few; the costs of population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources are borne by all of society.
A) Individuals who benefit from growth will continue to exert strong pressures supporting and encouraging both population growth and growth in rates of consumption of resources.
B) The individuals who promote growth are motivated by the recognition that growth is good for them. In order to gain public support for their goals, they must convince people that population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources, are also good for society. [This is the Charles Wilson argument: if it is good for General Motors, it is good for the United States.] (Yates 1983)
mt: This is a plausible inetrpretation which I share, but it’s much weaker than the rest of it.
Tenth Law: Growth in the rate of consumption of a non-renewable resource, such as a fossil fuel, causes a dramatic decrease in the life-expectancy of the resource.
A) In a world of growing rates of consumption of resources, it is seriously misleading to state the life-expectancy of a non-renewable resource “at present rates of consumption,” i.e., with no growth. More relevant than the life-expectancy of a resource is the expected date of the peak production of the resource, i.e. the peak of the Hubbert curve. (Hubbert 1972)
B) It is intellectually dishonest to advocate growth in the rate of consumption of non-renewable resources while, at the same time, reassuring people about how long the resources will last “at present rates of consumption.” (zero growth)
Eleventh Law: The time of expiration of non-renewable resources can be postponed, possibly for a very long time, by:
i ) technological improvements in the efficiency with which the resources are recovered and used
ii ) using the resources in accord with a program of “Sustained Availability,” (Bartlett 1986)
iii ) recycling
iv ) the use of substitute resources.
Twelfth Law: When large efforts are made to improve the efficiency with which resources are used, the resulting savings are easily and completely wiped out by the added resources that are consumed as a consequence of modest increases in population.
A) When the efficiency of resource use is increased, the consequence often is that the “saved” resources are not put aside for the use of future generations, but instead are used immediately to encourage and support larger populations.
B) Humans have an enormous compulsion to find an immediate use for all available resources.
Thirteenth Law: The benefits of large efforts to preserve the environment are easily canceled by the added demands on the environment that result from small increases in human population.
Fourteenth Law: (Second Law of Thermodynamics) When rates of pollution exceed the natural cleansing capacity of the environment, it is easier to pollute than it is to clean up the environment.
Fifteenth Law: (Eric Sevareid’s Law); The chief cause of problems is solutions. (Sevareid 1970)
A) This law should be a central part of higher education, especially in engineering.
mt: Really a claim of a different ilk. Probably it doesn’t belong here. But still it’s an opinion which I share. The whole limits to growth problem is a consequence of past successes in evading the limits to growth. Had we failed in the first place, the probable reimposition of limits by nature would not be taking us by surprise.
Sixteenth Law: Humans will always be dependent on agriculture. (This is the first of Malthus’ two postulata.)
A) Supermarkets alone are not sufficient.
B) The central task in sustainable agriculture is to preserve agricultural land. The agricultural land must be protected from losses due to things such as:
i ) Urbanization and development
ii ) Erosion
iii ) Poisoning by chemicals
mt: I wonder if agriculture couldn’t be moved indoors and into three dimensional structures. I don’t think this change would be popular, though. And it would remain resource intensive, just not land intensive. It would also be resilient to widespread pollution.
Seventeenth Law: If, for whatever reason, humans fail to stop population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources, Nature will stop these growths.
A) By contemporary western standards, Nature’s method of stopping growth is cruel and inhumane.
B) Glimpses of Nature’s method of dealing with populations that have exceeded the carrying capacity of their lands can be seen each night on the television news reports from places where large populations are experiencing starvation and misery.
Eighteenth Law: In local situations within the U.S., creating jobs increases the number of people locally who are out of work.
A) Newly created jobs in a community temporarily lowers the unemployment rate (say from 5% to 4%), but then people move into the community to restore the unemployment rate to its earlier higher value (of 5%), but this is 5% of the larger population, so more individuals are out of work than before.
Nineteenth Law: Starving people don’t care about sustainability.
A) If sustainability is to be achieved, the necessary leadership and resources must be supplied by people who are not starving.
mt: Obviously. But not exactly a growth law.
Twentieth Law: The addition of the word “sustainable” to our vocabulary, to our reports, programs, and papers, to the names of our academic institutes and research programs, and to our community initiatives, is not sufficient to ensure that our society becomes sustainable.
Twenty-First Law: Extinction is forever.