We often speak of development and growth as the same thing. But what do they really mean? Development seems to imply some form of improvement over prior conditions. Growth plainly refers to something getting bigger. Then there is “progress,” or, improvement over prior conditions. In the U.S. corporate-dominated culture, “development” is almost universally measured by economic growth, which is assumed to be the essence of progress. More and bigger are better; therefore, growth is development and development is progress.
It is interesting to look at the process and result of the revision of city and county “development plans” or “growth plans” and building codes. They attempt to respond to the current language of ecological survival of human settlements. This is not easy to accomplish while retaining their focus on traditional notions of “land use” and building standards, framing urban or suburban “development.” Public officials are under tremendous pressure to accede to the demands of “developers.” The main goal of developers is to subdivide land, build structures, hook up to public utilities and infrastructure, and sell it all for a handsome profit. They toss around the word “sustainable,” but it is no more than decoration in the world of economic expansion.
Growth or Progress
Yet here we are in a state of the world where the best scientific work leads to questions that contradict all those assumptions. Can any of this continue for more than a decade without total collapse of economies, societies, ecological systems, and massive disruption of human life? As the evidence piles up – as climate disruption accelerates – the answer looks more and more like an emphatic “no.” The historical record is far from reassuring. Jared Diamond’s careful analysis of past societies that have collapsed is instructive. Most collapsed societies had kept on doing what they were doing despite the self-destructive impending consequences. Without doubt, some were simply not fully aware of the ecological damage they were doing to the sources of their survival. In any case, they were unable to change their behavior to mitigate or adapt.
However, today there are two differences. First, we have plenty of knowledge of how we are destroying the biosphere in which we live. (Climate denial is a fringe political act, not scientific knowledge.) Many questions in climate science are yet to be answered, but the basics of how earth systems are made unstable are clear. Nevertheless, our behavior writ large suggests ignorance of the foundations of our survival as a species.
Second, we now face the imminent consequences of our collective failure to transform the nature of the relationship of humanity to the planet. It is not merely a matter of a small society failing to survive in a confined ecosystem it has destroyed. Now it is a matter of the entire planetary system having been so severely disrupted that it can no longer support vast numbers of species. Hundreds of species go extinct daily. Shortly, our own may be included among those destroyed.
Progress or Extinction
I know, it is hard to get a serious grip around such a monumentally catastrophic near future. Many just refuse to look at the evidence. Many others, who do recognize the growing damage wrought by the carbon economy, hold onto the belief that we can simply fix it with “technological innovation.” Technical knowledge can play an important part, but the only viable solution is to radically change the material basis of the economy itself. That will not happen without completely changing our idea of what constitutes progress.
If we start viewing development as movement toward a fully non-fossil-fueled economy, then decisions can focus on unprecedented but urgent necessary changes. That will entail a multitude of actions meant to 1) severely reduce energy consumption, mainly through conservation; 2) convert energy use to renewable sources; 3) shift economic activity toward local non-fossil-fuel dependant production of both food and manufactured products for local consumption; 4) limit new land development while retrofitting old structures for energy efficiency of both commerce and residence; 5) limit international and inter-regional trade to products not locally producible; 6) replace financially extractive private investment mega-banking with localized public banking that provides credit to projects that build ecological economies supporting local communities. All these and many more redirections and transformations of economic activity are necessary to even have a slim chance of overcoming the surging sixth great extinction.
Scary? Of course, very scary. But if you think these radical transformations of society are daunting, then sit back and contemplate the alternative plunge into extinction.