Is Development Anything Other Than Growth?

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.

Republicans, Democrats, and the Climate Tipping Point

Talk of the so-called “political gridlock” in Washington has become so commonplace that it certainly qualifies as a full-fledged cliché. For too long, the three branches of the federal government have been pandering to the short-term economic interests of power elites. They have done little else. Yet they also work in high conflict with one another.

We know the elements. A Racist Republican hatred for and visceral denial of the legitimacy of the Black President. An “end the wars” president who follows the Cheney script for imperial violence, with a mild mannered rhetoric. A Congress of millionaires who do the bidding of the corporations that fund their reelections. A Supreme Court that legitimizes the greatest corruption of democracy ever. In their fiat personhood, the corporations run the government via surrogates installed by electoral caricature.

So, we wait and hope that someone will do the right thing. Or we hope that someone who says he will do the right thing will be elected. We might as well be Hong Kong. The vetting of candidates is executed by the power elite of the fossil-fueled endless-growth extractive corporate state – not by the people. Even the few who are independent enough to raise challenges to the illusions that drive public acceptance are, like Bernie Sanders, marginalized in the media and ignored by the political elite.

Nature Trumps Politics

But here’s the thing: The biochemical and physical processes in the earth environment do not wait for political consensus or rational action, or for any political arrangement. As governments and corporations falsely claim to be making good progress, carbon emissions continue to accelerate. Their effects are not subject to political debate – they happen. The people of the most vulnerable regions also live in the least polluting societies. They are already suffering the consequences of the industrial era in which they have hardly participated.

The scientific debate over climate disruption is no longer about its reality or whether direct public action or “market forces” are the appropriate mode of response. The question now is whether or not humanity will muster the massively complex and comprehensive technical and organizational collective response in time.

Let’s face it. The only important decision-making criterion now is how much time we have and how we can execute a maximum intervention strategy within that time. The carbon buildup must be stopped in order to avert humanity being swept up in the Sixth Extinction that is already well underway. The current accelerating species extinction is not subject to dispute. Though difficult to measure precisely, hundreds of species are going extinct every day. Human general adaptability, which is greater than most species, does have its limits, especially with so many of us disrupting the earth system.

Ending the Illusion

Whoever thinks that we are exempt from the forces of nature is a captive of that old but still popular Cartesian dualism. Like so many theories in science, it worked well within a very limited context. Now, the continued illusion that we can somehow control nature in the larger context is very likely to be our undoing. The fantasy that imagines ‘man’ separate from nature is the hubris fed by our illusions of grandeur.

Republicans may be worse than Democrats. But, so what if they engage in more magical thinking and collect more bribes from corporate lobbyists? Both parties maintain politics as usual as if climate disruption were just another “issue.” People who are comfortable usually resist accepting that major changes are necessary. That is understandable. However, when lives are so disrupted that denial is no longer a plausible option, a sudden realization that we are ‘up against the wall’ will occur. At that point, a new dilemma arises. What if it is too late? What if by then we cannot do enough to dampen the positive feedback loops that will continue even if right now we stopped emitting any more carbon?

One Choice, If We Make It

A few climate scientists, such as Guy McPherson,* are now estimating that we have already reached the tipping point. McPherson believes we have pushed the climate past the point where it can still be re-stabilized. The radical environmental changes we have wrought will result in human extinction. Yet, does it matter whether he is right or wrong, since we cannot know for sure “until the results are in”? The biggest mistake would be to think, “If it is too late, then we might as well enjoy ourselves in the time we have before the inevitable end of humanity.” This is really a form of the old statistical mistake of confusing the probability of error in estimating an outcome with the importance of the outcome itself. Whatever the odds, we must try. If we don’t, then the prediction of human extinction becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, dooming the prophet.

In the case of climate disruption, the only thing that matters is the extent to which we can and are willing to take all necessary actions to avoid the worst outcome. If it is already “game over,” then any efforts we make will not have mattered – yet we will at least have gone out fighting. However, if the worst-case scenario is not inevitable and there is a slim chance for human survival, then it will have been the stupidest thing that humanity has ever done to accept as an inevitability an estimate that could be in error.

Republicans and Democrats be damned. Full speed ahead on ending the fossil-fueling of our extinction.
* Guy R. McPherson, Going Dark. Baltimore: PublishAmerica, 2013.