The idea that economic growth is good is one which has been embedded in our way of thinking now for several generations. In the 20th Century, both capitalist and communist societies pursued growth as a means of creating prosperity. In the first part of the 21st Century, however, the growth paradigm has found itself challenged by the more environmentally and socially responsible concept of sustainable development.
The sustainable development concept only entered the public consciousness in a big way after the publication of “Our Common Future” in 1987. Also known as “the Brundtland Report” after the Chair of the United Nation’s World Commission for Environment and Development, Gro Harlem Brundtland, the report firmly established the environmental agenda as an important global political and economic consideration for decision-makers.
The Brundtland Report defined sustainable development as, “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This short definition revolutionized the lens through which economic development in the 21st Century is being assessed. It’s set in motion many of today’s growing list of conflicts between industry and government on the one hand, and the environmental and social justice movements on the other.
Conflicts have arisen because the emergent concept of sustainable development is on a collision course with the reigning economic growth paradigm. However, increasingly economists and political decision makers are coming to realize that infinite growth can’t be sustained on a planet of finite resources.
The pursuit of growth, while having created prosperity for some, has left many others behind, and today we are burdened by a growing wealth gap between the rich and the rest of us. It’s also led to perverse environmental outcomes, where businesses and industry have been allowed to pollute or soil, water and atmosphere with little or no cost. Instead, taxpayers are left to pick up the tab for pollution.
Yet, economic growth remains a popular paradigm. Let’s face it – we are all used to hearing how we must grow the economy if we are to prosper. Our media have continually portrayed stories about growth as positive events, while slow growth or no growth in our economy is something to be feared.
Closer to home, Greater Sudbury’s Mayor, Brian Bigger, has insisted that our City must grow in order to meet our challenges (see: "Greater Sudbury needs to grow its economy", Brian Bigger, the Sudbury Star, January 20, 2015). Bigger’s Vision 2025 development strategy appears to be one which requires growth to succeed. But what if growth in our community happens only to a small degree – or not at all?
While Greater Sudbury is projected to grow over the next 20 years, anticipated growth will be very modest – as little as 10,500 additional persons, according to the City’s own figures.
But even this growth could end up costing the City more money in the long run to service than we might first think. With household sizes across the province shrinking due to an aging population, our community continues to build itself outwards. Studies have shown that for every tax dollar collected from new residential development, providing services to new residents ends up costing more – especially where urban sprawl is preferred over intensification. The notion that growth pays for itself is a myth.
We are slowly coming to realize that any conversation about development and growth has to have at its heart the notion of sustainability, rather than growth for growth’s sake. As we move forward into the 21st Century, we will continue to see a shift away from last century’s growth-centred paradigm towards one of sustainability. Our leaders at the federal, provincial and municipal levels of governance ought to take note.
(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)
Originally published as "Sustainability must be focus of development", the Sudbury Star, Saturday, February 7, 2015 (print and online), without hyperlinks.