Like the Rings that rule Tolkein’s Middle Earth, the challenges of implementing the SDGs are manifold but there is one challenge that ‘binds them all’. That challenge is our addiction to economic growth.
Here’s Dick Smith talking to me in 2008. There is a longer version of that interview on this site. In the longer interview Dick talks about attempting to run the Australian Geographic magazine as a non-growth company. He believes that the tenets of capitalism, even the most destructive of its characteristics, are a function of human nature.
In 2010, running for the Federal seat of Richmond, I talked a lot about the relationship between economic growth and environmental harm. As I say in this clip, the maths are simple. You cannot keep using finite resources for ever, it just does not add up.
The obvious challenges of increasing economic growth on a finite planet led to a recasting of the debate and a lot of attempts to introduce sustainable growth and green growth. Abundance became a popular catch word.
That emphasis on consumers and consumer choice making green purchasing decisions underpins a lot of advertising.
Consider this advertisement from 2019 selling SodaStream, a product that ships carbon dioxide around the planet in aluminium containers. The environmental benefits of SodaStream are the packaging that it replaces. Whether that justifies the claims made in this ad, you will have to determine yourself.
A more sophisticated response to the blunt mathematics I used in the 2010 election are that we can decouple economic growth from environmental harm. That is, we can have economic growth and a clean environment by focusing on green growth. Here is Ross Garnaut explaining to me how decoupling works.
The challenges of decoupling are too complex to go into here, but they include the amount of time it takes to change what we are doing compared to how fast we need to change to avoid environmental catastrophe as well as the gap between what is technically feasible and what we manage to achieve.
If you watch the discussion after the SodaStream advertisement, above, you will hear Sabrina Chakori discussing Jarven’s paradox which explains that when we get efficient at managing a precious resource we start using more of it instead of saving it for a rainy day. Here is Sabrina chatting to me on EcoRadio about other ways that we might look at the economy instead of putting growth in conflict with our existential survival.
These different views of the relationship between the economy, especially economic growth, and the environment are useful starting points for discussion about what is greenwash and what are genuine attempts to build a sustainable future.