“Once you sit down and draw a little picture of the economy as a subset of the larger ecosystem, then you’re halfway home as far as ecological economics is concerned. That’s why people resist doing that. That means you would have to say well, there are limits, we’re not going to be able to grow forever. That means the economy must have some optimal scale relative to the larger system. That means you don’t grow beyond the optimum.
How do we stop growing? What do we do?
These are very threatening questions.”
Dr. Herman Daly, Former World Bank economist and author of Ecological Economics
I’m an architect and engineer by training, so when I began to write seriously about sustainability, I had no idea that the storyline would begin with a discussion of economic theory. Yet when one asks the question of what is sustainable or not sustainable relative to housing you are very quickly tossed into the stormy seas of “growth” and “limits”, and the conflict between neo-classical and ecological economics.
The concept of growth in America would be enshrined in our national psyche when Thomas Jefferson penned the words “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” into our declaration of independence. As the country migrated west, growth and development would take on a patina of virtue and goodness and become the religion of the land. Our pursuit of happiness would not always be as pure as the words of Jefferson, and our migration west would be equal parts courage, individual initiative, greed, and genocide. As we moved west we would both take and rape, arrogantly taking land from the native population and casually raping the environment of it’s natural resources.
Ecosystems are naturally self-correcting and treat all populations that overreach with equal and unbiased indifference. It matters not whether the population is human, animal, plant, insect or microbe, any population that exceeds its natural carrying capacity is either forced to reduce its numbers or its level of consumption. The 2002 Limits to Growth report estimates that human “growth and development” has already exceeded the earth’s carrying capacity by more than 20% and it is evident that the earth’s ecosystem has already begun the process of adjustment and rebalancing. The economic theory and policy decisions that brought us to our current state will be quietly trumped by the natural processes that we have ignored.
“Future generations are always free to make themselves miserable or content with whatever we give them. We do not owe the future their happiness, but we do owe them an intact resource base.”
Dr. Herman Daly