One of the three conditions that I have previously (blogs January 28 and February 4) identified as necessary for sustainable society is that we must maintain equilibrium with the physical environment.
Merriam Webster dictionary defines equilibrium in the following way:
equilibrium – a state of balance between opposing forces or actions that is either static (as in a body acted on by forces whose resultant is zero) or dynamic (as in a reversible chemical reaction when the rates of reaction in both directions are equal)
A related term, “steady state,” is defined as:
steady state: a state or condition of a system or process (as one of the energy states of an atom) that does not change in time; broadly : a condition that changes only negligibly over a specified time
The definition of equilibrium emphasizes the opposing forces, while the definition of steady state emphasizes the lack of change with time. These exemplify a cause and effect which in economic terms we might almost characterize as advocating stagnation.
Almost everybody hates stagnation, but this is especially true of Americans. Stagnation is for losers. The word “growth” is a battle cry in the mouth of every politician, irrespective of political affiliation. Investments in innovation, technology and education are justified with the arguments that these are proven vehicles for growth.
In previous blogs (October 22 and 29) I have advocated that the perception of an inevitable limit to growth because of limits in our capacity to innovate is hubris. Here, I am not contradicting myself. There is a limit to unbounded exponential growth when we use the physical environment for both input and output (source of material and garbage bin). With seven billion human inhabitants, we have reached that limit.
My third requirement for sustainable living was the need to maximize individual opportunities on a global scale. In my opinion, this is where the desired growth should take place. One of the main arguments for the United States’ decision not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol was that it excludes developing countries from the commitment to reduce greenhouse gases. During the recent election campaign, Governor Romney justified many of his policy statements on Climate Change with the position (December 24 blog) that as long as a large fraction of the global population is exempted from taking steps to reduce environmental impacts of their economic growth, the United States should stay an observer. This position is gaining strength now since China overtook the United States as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, yet the average Chinese person emits only a small fraction of what the corresponding average American emits (December 3 blog).
An average American earns close to 50 times more than an average Indian, and close to ten times more than an average global citizen. Global zero growth policy would freeze this disparity.
Global zero growth is not an option. Neither is a “back to the cave” policy, given a population of 7 billion people that will grow to 9 – 16 billion by the end of the century.
We need a new growth mechanism that will be consistent with the requirement for equilibrium with the physical environment.
The idea came to me from a different area of my interest – bread. I love good fresh bread, and sourdough is my favorite. I usually buy my bread at a corner store in my neighborhood that gets its bread from the best bakeries in Brooklyn. Over the last few weeks, however, I have encountered serious problems with my sourdough bread. The taste is great, as usual, but the bread came out with huge holes that were annoying and made it very unwieldy to spread my favorite jam– disaster :-(.
My brain made some connections, and it came to me – the growth mechanism that we need is an internal growth in which dense parts of the dough fill up empty parts – brilliant :-). Well – I don’t know much about baking sourdough bread, so I asked a friend who is my baking guru (she is a professor of history, not a professional baker). She thought that I would be doing the baking, so she gave me few hints, while admitting that she is not an expert on sourdough. With a few more inquiries, I ended up with a list of steps to try that quickly convinced me that baking sourdough is more of an art than a science.
Then I thought that a better example might be foam – an area of bubbles surrounded by plastic (in the case of Styrofoam, that polymer is polystyrene). Styrofoam growth is a topic that scientists are interested in. For example, Moris Amon and Costel D. Denson try to determine the growth mechanism of foams in their work, “A study of the dynamics of foam growth: Analysis of the growth of closely spaced spherical bubbles” (Polymer Engineering and Science, 24, 1026-1034 (1984)).
To my mind, a factor of 50 in income disparity per person can be called an “empty” bubble. The growth needed to fill up the bubbles and maximize career opportunities cannot be translated into redistribution of wealth from givers to takers. The material that comes out of such a process is different – in fact, for many applications it is better. We must strive to maximize opportunities, not outcome. We can maximize opportunities through universal services such as health care, education, law enforcement and “peace on Earth.” Accomplishments empower individuals, democratize decision-making and maximize individual contributions to great ideas that benefit us all. I am not qualified to suggest how to accomplish such an internal growth to the benefit of everybody – we need to use our collective wisdom to figure this one out.