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Perspectives On Sustainable Growth

December 13, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 50

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Rudy Baum needs to expand his “Perspective” to discuss how his vision for a slowed-down, no-growth economy would work in creating 10 million to 15 million jobs in the next year or two (C&EN, Nov. 8, page 44). Or how it would lift up millions of poor in the world and improve their quality of life in the near future or even longer term. Without debating his perspective, which I don’t agree with, I would love to read about the remainder of his vision. In a slower, no-growth economy, I wonder how fast or slow would we want our R&D and engineering to grow, or stagnate?

Andrew Kaldor
Warren, N.J.

Baum’s thoughtfully written perspective begins its flight straight and true but ultimately misses its mark.

In his perspective, Baum cogently and correctly identifies sustainable growth as an oxymoron, decries the despoiling of our land by mining, and points out that the climate roller coaster has already left the station and is climbing the Keeling curve, although we just don’t know how high the “curve” will go. In the next moment, however, he states that we need more nuclear power and new pesticides and herbicides to survive in our new, disrupted environment.

Perhaps we do in the short term. In the longer term, however, “more” is the prime contradiction. We don’t need more, we need less. Mainly we need fewer humans on the planet, including fewer of those who consume the most. This is an idea that most have not come to grips with, and the subject is beyond rational discussion in many instances. There is no technology in the short term that can alter the equation that more humans on the planet equal more resource demand and consumption and the creation of more waste. In the long term, the vast tide of humanity’s waste cannot be contained by technology, and ultimately it spreads across the globe.

Scientists are smart people and will persist in pursuing technological solutions to problems that may be solved by other means. But when it comes to global concerns that deal with the future of the planet, technological solutions often become false gods that fail to deliver the intended benefits to much of humankind. This is due to the assumption of the environment as infinite, as Baum states (still a commonly held belief), but also to the inability of our political systems to utilize and distribute the technology we have in the most appropriate manner (globally speaking).

We’ve had the Industrial Revolution, the green revolution, and the genomic revolution. We hear every day of innovation, creative leadership, and the next “great idea.” And despite all this revolution and innovation, most of the world lives in poverty, does not have access to basic medical care, and goes to sleep hungry. Climate disruption and the global population are on opposite sides of the same equation. No technological change can fix one side of this equation without a responsive political system to address the other.

Steve Sands
San Diego


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