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Sustainable Shrinkage: Envisioning a Smaller, Stronger Economy

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Environment and Climate Resource page, and our Organic Transitions page.


In 1987 when the United Nations' Brundtland Report, Our Common Future, appeared to worldwide fanfare, its slogan of "sustainable development" reassured environmentalists, who focused on the term "sustainable," while pleasing business interests, who understood "development" to mean continued material growth. It seemed we could have it all. But many thoughtful observers then and since have pointed out that "sustainable development" is an oxymoron. On a finite planet, we can't have both sustainability and continued material growth. More than two decades after the Brundtland Report, it's past time to abandon this linguistic sleight of hand and rally around a new, shocking but this time realistic slogan: sustainable shrinkage! Within this new perspective, we can get on with saving species, restoring wastelands, improving efficiency, putting our life-support systems on sustainable bases-in short, finding solutions.

But we'll do so with a new urgency and clarity, conscious that if we are to survive on our little planet in some reasonably civilized way, human activity (and its impacts) must shrink. If we don't shrink it, Gaia will shrink it for us, catastrophically. What to Shrink?

Population must shrink. Nobody knows exactly how many people eating what kinds of food the earth can support in acceptable comfort, but we know there are too many of us already. We're steadily decreasing the fertility of the globe's limited arable soils, increasing our dependence on fertilizers produced with fossil fuel, and rapidly pumping dry the essential aquifers on which millions depend. If climate change thins the Himalayan glaciers as it is thinning lower-elevation ones, several billion people will be unfed. They will not go peacefully. While it is shameful that world food supplies are distributed so unfairly, greater equality of access is both highly improbable under capitalism and moot in the long run: humans, like any other species, tend to use up whatever food is available.


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