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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


January-February 2012

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Editorial - Multiplying Costly Scarcities for Even More Costly Growth

The two articles by Paul Faeth and Halina Szejnwald Brown in this issue raise two under-examined aspects of sustainability science. The first is the interactive effects of energy shortages and rising commodity and natural resource prices in any option to increase energy supply (except reducing demand). Paul Faeth shows that limited availability of fresh water may make it difficult to increase power capacities, and certainly more costly. His tables show very clearly the range of costs involved. This is an important contribution for sustainability science as Faeth begins the journey of holistic resource burden analysis for new generations of power supplies and low carbon technologies (nuclear, ethanol, wind, and carbon capture and storage).

The second aspect of both contributions opens up the discovery that any so-called “green technology” may not be sustainable, if all the relevant aspects of resource usage
and social impacts are explored and evaluated. Indeed, it is growing more likely that the green growth aspiration may well lead to greater social and economic inequality as well as greater natural resource scarcities. Paul Faeth also points out that the regulatory organizations are not always in tune with this new perspective. In the United States the energy regulatory bodies and the water resource agencies do not share models of the kind Faeth produces in his article. This is partly a function of states’ rights and the disparate history of energy and water regulation over centuries. But it also reveals a lack of connected thinking between the various regulatory bodies and sustainability outcomes, including the likelihood of greater income disparities.

This particular point is taken further by Halina Szejnwald Brown. She calls for a better understanding of the deeper causes underlying the urge for growth and more output, rather than lower and higher quality consumption and resource use efficiency. This urge seems to be insatiable even when real cost rises are in the offing for the basics of energy, water, and transport during a period of near recession, lower family incomes, and tightening household budgets.

Her main point here is that both higher costs and more unaccounted-for environmental and social burdens associated with multiple resource exploration and extraction
result in much greater overall social inequality. Both sets of costs fall disproportionately on the poor and the marginalized, who cannot give voice to their growing unfairness of treatment and for whom their supportive social movements are not sufficiently powerful to get a hearing. Szejnwald Brown rightly regards growing social injustice and inequality as a joint outcome of growth, and hence of central importance for sustainability science. The quality of even “green growth” fails to overcome this serious dilemma.

Indeed, it is growing more likely that the green growth aspiration may well lead to greater social and economic inequality as well as greater natural resource   scarcities.

Indeed, it may worsen the injustice. Most of green growth is subsidized, so funding for other socially redistributive purposes is less available. Furthermore, most of
the jobs that green growth espouses involve skills that are not readily accessible to the poor and less well educated. So the bandwagon of green growth may add to the burdens of social non–sustainability. This will be the case unless the patterns of all growth, “green and less green,” champion social investment, the bettering of people and communities, and the pursuit of local well-being.

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