Thought piece: when is growth good enough?

Martin Harvey / WWF

An independent thought piece brought to you by Natalie Knowles, a PhD Candidate at the University of Waterloo

‘Good enough’ has acquired a negative connotation – a second-best, a consolation prize or a lack of effort. But what if society encouraged ‘good enough’? What if ‘good enough’ sat at the precipice between ‘something good’ and ‘too much of something good’? What if we applauded the effort it takes to say ‘enough’ to something good and stop before reaching too much?

Our ever-increasing material consumption destroys biodiversity at unprecedented rates, our unending CO2 emissions push our climate to extreme change, and our rising pollution levels strangle our oceans. In short, our world is in an environmental crisis because, as a society, we assume that more is better and don’t know when or how to say ‘enough’.

Rather than changing our laws, behaviour, economic system, or societal values, we ask questions like ‘what constitutes a dangerous degree of biodiversity loss, CO2 emissions, or plastic pollution?’ and toe this vague, self-proclaimed line. We add the tagline ‘sustainability’ and continue with business-as-usual, pursuing exponential growth, albeit with added efficiencies.

Efficiencies promise us more for less. More products, progress, wealth, growth, development for fewer resources, cost, effort, hardship. But, in a crisis of extinctions, finite resources, and cumulative pollution, efficiencies do not stop the crisis; efficiencies merely slow down our speed of destruction. Biodiversity loss is irreversible; any rate may be catastrophic. Unless deforestation rates equal regeneration, each day our world has fewer trees. Without reaching carbon neutral, efficient energy use adds carbon to our atmosphere exacerbating global climate change. Making our destruction of nature more efficient is not ‘good enough’. Despite being at the core of current sustainability rhetoric, efficiency can save time, money, and energy but not the planet.

Rather than ‘more for less’ we just need ‘less’. We need to understand that infinite and exponential consumption isn’t possible within a finite world. Rather than efficiency, we need sufficiency. To avoid ecological overshoot, we must restrain our consumption of nature to levels that balance regeneration.

Individually, we understand the logic of sufficiency, moderating our food consumption or money spending, knowing there is ‘good enough’, followed closely by ‘too much’. Scaling this logic up to the global economy is much more difficult, particularly when corporate profits come into play. Within the context of a capitalist economy of unending growth – of ‘more is better’ – limiting natural resource consumption, production, and profits make no sense unless the risks are explicit and visible.

Our contemporary economy is dependent on nature, including a stable climate and healthy ecosystems. Environmental degradation – which causes physical disruption, regulatory costs, and devalued brand reputation – motivates corporations to recognise when natural resource consumption reaches a state of ‘good enough’ and then halts or pay for the excess. Our current system fails by hiding most environmental costs. To showcase these costs, Nature must be given rights.

Our rights as humans, citizens, consumers, and stockholders are uncontested. We voice our grievances when something negatively impacts us and act in our own best interest. Nature – unable to speak nor act in defence of its own best interest – has no rights. Yet the corporation – also unable to speak or act – has the same rights as a human and a spokesperson to voice grievances and take action on its behalf. As Christopher Stone says, “until the rightless thing receives its rights, we cannot see it as anything but a thing for the use of ‘us’ – those of us who are holding rights at the time.” Without rights, Nature becomes a resource for us to use rather than having the intrinsic right to exist unharmed.

Our current system doesn’t leave Nature’s interests unprotected but not all injury to it is considered’. Environmental degradation that affects a ‘non-rights-holder’ goes unnoticed and we fail to pay our debts where they are due. If someone protests a negative impact towards Nature, the cost of damage is reimbursed in dollars to the human or corporate protester. Lack of direct reconciliation to Nature affects ecological system functioning as well as exacerbates climate change. Damage should be remedied by making Nature whole again.

As with corporations, giving Nature rights is possible: Ecuador, New Zealand and India have been leaders passing Right of Nature laws. With rights, the frame shifts from ‘resource’ to ‘stakeholder’, legally incentivising corporations to say ‘good enough’ to Nature’s degradation. Rather than trying to assess the monetary cost of environmental degradation, corporations that extend into the realm of ‘too much’ could pay debts directly to Nature through regeneration, which could benefit ecological functions, future generations and economic sustainability. One question remains; who should speak on Nature’s behalf?

Natalie Knowles, PhD Candidate at the University of Waterloo

The content of this thought piece represents the author’s own views and does not necessarily represent the views of the Biodiversity Revisited initiative nor of any of its collaborating institutions.