We have a finite environment—the planet. Anyone who thinks that you can have infinite growth in a finite environment is either a madman or an economist.– David Attenborough in an interview at the World Economic Forum 2019
I love David Attenborough and what he says, although I would say it slightly differently.
ASSUMPTIONS OF INFINITE RESOURCES AND CAPACITY
The problem is not growth in itself, since growth can be defined in many different ways.
The problem is to assume that our planet can provide infinite natural resources to sustain our civilization, and to assume it has infinite capacity to absorb the waste and toxins of civilization.
That assumption is clearly madness. That’s the assumption at the core of the economic system we have today. It’s at the core of the ecological crisis we find ourselves in. It’s at the core of why our current civilization will end. And it’s at the core of the crisis we as humans find ourselves in.
A TRANSITION INTO A DIFFERENT CIVILIZATION?
Will we be able to transition into a different kind of civilization? How many of us will die before we do? How many species will go extinct? How much damage will we see to our life-support systems?
Will we make it all? Will our planet change so much that it’s the end of humanity? (It’s perhaps not as unlikely as many assume.)
OUR ECONOMIC SYSTEM
How did we get ourselves into this situation?
There are many answers.
Our economic system was developed at a time when we could assume infinite natural resources and an infinite capacity of nature to absorb our waste. We were not that many and our technology was not as advanced, so we could live in that fantasy for a while.
Today, the situation is very different. We are far into overshoot. We are using far more resources than the Earth can recreate. We are putting far more waste and toxins into the planet than it can handle.
Just like using money from a bank account, it may look OK for a while, and then there is a sudden crash. We are seeing the beginnings of that crash.
Our current economic system is just one of many possible.
It’s easy to imagine an economic system that takes ecological realities into account, and many have worked on developing and implementing versions of that.
We have the solutions.
The real question is: Do we have the collective will? Are we going to find it in time to avoid a massive collapse of our civilization?
Another answer is our worldview. We have a worldview that assumes separation – a separation between humans and the rest of this living system we call Earth. We assume a kind of superiority of humans and the right of humans to do what they want with the rest of this living system. We assume no limits to nature and what it can do for us.
We have a power-over orientation rather than power-with. In a power-over orientation, we see nature and sometimes even other people primarily as resources, as something we can make use of for our own benefit. In a limited sense and in some situations, that’s OK. But in our civilization, that’s the primary orientation. In a power-with orientation, we seek cooperation with others and nature. We seek to find mutually beneficial relationships. We seek to live within the natural limits. We seek to live in a way that benefits life as a whole and not just ourselves.
We also have an idea of a sky god, a god that’s transcendent and somehow outside of this universe. That too allows us to see nature as primarily a resource and something to use for our own narrow and often short-sighted benefit. If we saw Spirit in the universe and in Earth and ourselves, it would be very different. In this kind of worldview, we would treat others, ourselves, and nature with more reverence.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
Our civilization will not last. All civilizations come and go. Humanity came and will go.
Everything that comes together falls apart.
Death creates space for something new.
In our case, another human civilization may develop in the place of our current one.
Or humanity may go sooner rather than later, and – given a few million or billion years – another species may develop another civilization.
It’s not wrong or bad. It’s how this universe works. It’s how we came to be here.
The death of stars created most of the elements of this planet that formed themselves into us and all we know. The death of species allowed our species to evolve as it did. The death of individuals created space for new individuals, including us.
We are transitory just like anything else, and something else – equally amazing – will take our place.
The larger whole we are a part of will transform itself into something else.