THE RADICAL IMPLICATIONS OF THE LIMITS TO GROWTH ANLALYSIS FOR THE DESIGN OF SETTLEMENTS.
Ted Trainer, Social Work, Univ. of New South Wales.
(Published in Australian Planner, mid 2001.)
The basic limits to growth argument is that affluent-industrial-consumer society is grossly unsustainable in view of its high levels of resource use and environmental impact. A core conclusion of the argument is that it is not possible for the expected 9-10 billion people to rise to the present living standards of the developed countries. Yet the dominant commitment in virtually all countries is to economic growth and higher living standards. The purpose of this paper is not to prove the limits case but to consider its implications for settlement design. If the limits to growth analysis of our global situation is valid a number of radical implications for the design of sustainable settlements follow, including the need for simpler living standards, small and highly self-sufficient economies, more localisation, "edible landscapes", greater levels of participation and community, drastic reductions in trade and transport, and transition to a zero-growth economy. The discussion is not centrally concerned with whether or not such large scale change is likely to be achieved.
THE LIMITS TO GROWTH ANALYSIS.
Since the 1960s support has been accumulating for the limits to growth claim that the industrialised and affluent way of life taken for granted in rich countries such as Australia is grossly unsustainable. Rich world per capita rates of resource consumption and environmental impact are very high. Estimates of recoverable mineral, energy and biological resources and of environmental impacts have led many to the conclusion that present levels of resource consumption, economic output, per capita living standards, and environmental damage can only be maintained for a historically short period, and could not be extended to all the world's people. Following is an indication of the grounds supporting these conclusions (For the detailed case see Trainer, 1999.)
If the approximately 10 billion people expected to be living on earth soon after 2060 were each to consume minerals and energy at the present rich world per capita rate world annual output of these items would have to increase to about 8 times their present levels. For about 1/3 of the basic list of 35 mineral items all potentially recoverable resources (as distinct from known reserves) would probably be exhausted in under 40 years. (Trainer, 1985. ) All potentially recoverable oil, gas, sale oil and coal (making the optimistic assumption of 2000 billion tonnes) and uranium (via burner reactors) would be exhausted in about the same time span. To produce the required amount of energy from nuclear sources would require approximately 700 times the world's present nuclear capacity, all in the form of breeder reactors, given that fusion power is not likely to be available on the necessary scale for many decades, if ever. This would mean that at any one time approximately three-quarters of a million tonnes of plutonium would be in use.
Although a sustainable society must eventually be based on renewable energy sources a strong case can be made that these could not meet present world energy demand for electricity and liquid fuels, let alone any multiple of it due to economic growth. (The argument is detailed in Trainer, 1995a, and 1995c.) Most renewable resources are limited in their distribution and seasonal availability. High energy losses, in the order of 95%, would be involved in transforming, storing and transporting large quantities of solar energy for the supply of electricity in winter. It has been estimated that large scale photovoltaic plant would involve capital costs in the order of at least 50 times those for coal or nuclear plant of the same capacity. (Trainer, 1995c.) Technical advance is not likely to reduce total costs by such multiples. There are similar severe limits on the land areas available for large scale biomass production of liquid fuel. Pimentel summarises this limit by noting that the US total energy use is 30% higher than the solar energy captured by all vegetation growing in the US. (1998, p. 197.) " In many regions wind is likely to be the best renewable source, but its variability means that it could not be relied on for more than about 30% of demand even in good wind areas. (Grubb and Meyer, 1993.)
It takes approximately .5 ha of cropland to produce the average North American diet for one person. (Wachernagel and Rees, 1996.) If 10 billion people were to have such a diet 5 billion ha of land would be needed. However total world cropland is not likely to increase beyond the present 1.4 billion ha. (Indeed at the present rate of loss one-third of cropland will have been lost by 2050. Pimentel, 1997, p. 293.) Thus it would be impossible for all people to have the present rich world diet.
It takes about 1.4 ha to provide a typical North American per capita anual timber consumption. For 10 billion people to rise to this level of consumption would require 4 times the world's forest area, an area considerably greater than all world land.
Petroleum is especially limited. A number of geologists have concluded that world oil supply will probably peak between 2005 and 2015 and be down to half that level by 2025, with big price increases soon after the peak. (See especially Campbell, 1997.) If all the people we will have on earth by 2025 were to have Australia's present per capita oil consumption world oil production would have to be 15 times what it will probably be then. If the most optimistic current estimates are taken (US Geological Survey, 2000) the peak is only delayed 10 years. Campbell (1997) and Duncan and Youngquist (1998) stress that the problem is not likely to be solved by resort to the unconventional petroleum resources, such as tar sands and oil shales.
The global environmental problem is a direct consequence of the sheer volume of producing and consuming going on. For each American approximately 80 tonnes of materials have to be processed each year, much of it mining waste. (Adrianse, 1997.) Humans are taking about 25% of all the biological product of the planet (Vitousek, 1986), thereby condemning increasing numbers of species to extinction since the basic cause of biodiversity loss is destruction of habitats. Again if all 10 billion people were to have the current "living standards" typical of the rich countries the total human demand on the environment for resources and waste dumping would be some 8 times as great as it is today.
The greenhouse problem indicates the severity of the limits, and their drastic implications. The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change has stated that if the atmospheric carbon dioxide content is to be prevented from increasing then world fossil fuel consumption must be reduced by 60 to 80%. If it were cut by 60% and spread equally among 10 billion people, per capita use would have to fall to 1/17 of the present rich world per capita average. (Engelman, 1994.)
The main conclusions regarding the environmental problem deriving from the limits to growth analysis is that it will not be solved until humans dramatically reduce their rates of demand on nature, and it is not plausible that technological advances in the efficiency of production and/or waste treatment could achieve reductions that are sufficiently large.
The magnitude of the above conclusions is crucial. They indicate that current levels of resource use and environmental impact are far beyond levels of production, consumption and environmental impact that are sustainable. If this is so the main conclusion the limits to growth analysis leads to is that a sustainable world order cannot be achieved without fundamental change in lifestyles, institutions, systems and values. If the analysis is accepted a sustainable world order will require lifestyles and social systems enabling a satisfactory quality of life to be achieved on average per capita resource use rates and aggregate GDP levels that are a small fraction of present levels. (Whether or not this goal are likely to be achieved is briefly considered below.)
These considerations indicate that there are a number of reasons for concluding that present levels of production and consumption are grossly unsustainable. However, the supreme goal in all existing economies is to increase production and consumption, the GDP and "living standards", as fast as possible and without end. In other words the overriding commitment is to economic growth. It is now necessary to consider the impossible implications of this commitment.
In the 1980s Australia's average economic growth rate was 3.2% p. a. This was clearly insufficient given that poverty increased, unemployment almost doubled and the foreign debt multiplied by more than 10. At least a 4% rate of economic growth would be needed to make the Australian economy "healthy". However if the Australian economy maintained 4% growth until 2070, it would then be producing 16 times as much each year as it does now. If all people likely to live on earth by then were to have risen to the 2070 Australian "living standard", total world output would be 220 times as great as it is now.
Even if we assume that rich world average growth will be only 3% p. a. until 2060, and that the rest of the world's people will rise only to the present rich world living standards, total world output would still be 20 times as great as it is now.
No plausible assumptions regarding technical advance or pollution control etc., can make multiples of these magnitudes possible. The limits to growth literature provides coercive reasons for concluding that the present level of global output is unsustainable, let alone any multiple of it. Technical fix optimists such as Weiszacker and Lovins, (1997) and Hawken, Lovins and Lovins, (1999), claim factor 4 to 10 reductions in resource use are possible. Clearly these would be far from sufficient to sustain a society committed to limitless growth and affluence.
The quest for growth and affluence might make some sense if it were delivering an improving quality of life. This seems clearly to be the reverse of what is happening. A number of studies of various measures indicates that the quality of life does not increase as the GDP per capita increases, and that in the richest countries the quality of life is declining. US evidence indicates a continual fall for the past 20 years. (Easterlin, 1976 , Daly and Cobb, 1989, Douthwaite, 1992, Trainer 1985, Ch. 9, 1995b, Eckersly, 1997, Hamilton, 2000, Lane, 2000, Myers, 2000.)
The core point the limits to growth literature is now making is that the pursuit of affluence and growth is the basic cause of the most serious global problems confronting us. Resource depletion, environmental destruction, the deprivation of billions of people in the Third World, and the social breakdown occurring in the richest countries are essentially due to the determination to increase already unsustainable levels of production and consumption.
Brief reference should be made to connections between the limits to growth analysis and Third World "development". A critical minority literature is arguing that when continual and limitless growth in output is the supreme concern and the determinant of Third World development inequality rapidly increases and development is inappropriate, i.e., resources are drawn into production in the interests of the relatively rich, and the poor majority in a typical poor country will actually see the productive capacity they once had, especially land, drawn from them to produce mostly for the benefit of distant corporations, countries and consumers. (Trainer, 1989, 1995a, 1995b, Chossudowsky, 1997, Goldsmith, 1997.)
The most important implication of the limits to growth analysis for the discussion of Third World development is that it is impossible for the Third World ever to rise to anything like the rich world's level of affluence or industrialisation. (Trainer, 1997.) This point is largely unrecognised in conventional development literature. The limits to growth analysis therefore points to the urgent need to rethink the goal of development, since it seems to show that the goal can no longer be to emulate the "developed" countries.
Critical development theorists argue that rich world living standards could not be as high as they are if the global economy did not work in these unjust ways. Its market mechanism delivers most of the world's resource output to the rich, because they can pay more for resources, and it gears the Third World's productive capacity to serving the rich countries and their corporations. Thus while 1.2 billion people are malnourished approximately one-third of the world's grain production is fed to animals in rich countries every year, because the distribution of grain is left to market forces. It should be no surprise therefore that the gap between rich and poor countries is widening rapidly. The United Nations Human Development Report (1996) stressed that one-third of the worlds people are now becoming poorer. Globalisation, which is essentially about increasing the freedom for market forces to determine distribution and development, can be expected to accelerate these effects. (Chossudowsky, 1997, Goldsmith, 1997.)
Gandhi aptly summarised the significance of the limits to growth analysis for development with the saying "The rich must live more simply so that the poor may simply live." If the limits analysis is valid, appropriate development for the Third World cannot occur until the rich countries move down to consuming a fair proportion of world resources and until Third World people are able to devote Third World resources to producing to meet their own needs.
This has been an indication of some of the main lines of argument supporting the limits to growth claim that it would be impossible for all the people likely to inhabit the world by 2060 to have anywhere near the lifestyles and resource use rates presently taken for granted in the rich countries.
IMPLICATIONS FOR A SUSTAINABLE SOCIETY.
If the limits to growth analysis of the global predicament is valid then a number of clear implications are evident for the nature of a sustainable and just society that all could share. Such a society would have to have per capita resource use and environmental impact rates that are a small fraction of their current rich world rates. There would therefore have to be a) much simpler lifestyles, b) a high level of economic self-sufficiency, within households, nations and especially small local regions, c) more participatory and cooperative systems and arrangements, and d) a very different economic system, one not driven by market forces and profit (although these could have a place) and one in which there is no economic growth.
Advocates of this general vision, the Simpler Way, stress that living simply does not mean deprivation or doing without items that are necessary for a high quality of life. They argue that adequate material living standards are easily achieved at low cost in non-renewable resources, and on low cash incomes, if acceptance of simpler lifestyles is combined with local production and intensive use of alternative technologies such as earth building and permaculture design principles.
The essential theme in the literature in this area is the importance of developing small scale and highly self-sufficient economies, especially at the town, suburban and regional level. These are crucial if, for example present high rates of transport are to be cut significantly. Only in small localised economies can nutrients be recycled to soils, resource intensive methods of production be avoided (e.g., via increased craft production) and the non-cash sectors of the real economy be fostered (mutual aid, giving of surpluses, community working bees and free produce from community commons.) In small, self-sufficient economies many presently resource-expensive services, such as care of aged and disabled people, are more able to be provided spontaneously by communities and with relatively little need for professional inputs or specially built facilities. Small communities are more able to develop ways of providing employment for all who want it, and the material and other costs of social breakdown can be largely avoided.
Advocates of The Simpler Way claim that these sorts of changes would also ensure a higher quality of life than most people experience now. They stress that these changes do not need to involve any reduction in desirable high-tech or sophisticated systems, such as modern dentistry, hospitals or solar panel research. The changes are essentially to do with the reorganisation of suburban and town geographies, the remaking of values and the radical reconstruction of the economy in order to eliminate unnecessary production, work and consumption.
The kind of alternative society the limits to growth analysis points to so radically contradicts the principles built into the current economic system and indeed into Western culture (especially regarding competitive individualism and acquisitiveness) that it is by no means plausible that a transition to it can be achieved. However that issue is not central to this discussion, which is primarily concerned with the sorts of changes required if the limits to growth analysis is sound. Unfortunately the petroleum situation indicates that there might be less than two decades in which to bring about the necessary understanding and acceptance. If petroleum becomes scarce before many alternatives are in place the resulting disruption will probably prohibit establishment of The Simpler Way. On the other hand it will probably take the experience of major difficulties in rich countries to jolt attention to the limits predicament, given that an increasing literature on the topic over the last 40 years has not moved it onto the public agenda.
IMPLICATIONS FOR THE DESIGN OF SETTLEMENTS.
The limits to growth analysis of the global situation calls for much more radical initiatives from planners than have so far been evoked by environmental considerations. In recent decades attention has been given to issues such as the greening of cities, traffic calming, solar passive architecture, public transport and reducing urban air and water pollution. However virtually all of these "light green" solutions are of little or no significance if the limits to growth analysis is valid since they are not capable of achieving the huge reductions in resource use and environmental impact that the above statement of the problem indicates are required.
Before noting some implications of the limits perspective for particular design and planning issues reference should be made to the general question of philosophy or world view. At present most architects and planners seem to be willing subscribers to, indeed promoters of, an outlook which recognises no limits to growth. They have a strong tendency to value elaborate, expensive, luxurious, exotic, large and spacious options. They seem to be quite willing to design public and corporate buildings which are palatial and opulent. "Small", "humble", "frugal", "recycled", "cheap" and "repaired" do not seen to regarded as beautiful attributes. Indeed the most high profile architects seem to regard themselves as artists working on an operatic scale, eager for the rich client who will enable them to lavish resources on extravagant projects.
Designers also usually take for granted resource-expensive externalities, such as access by car, long distance delivery of food, dependence on experts for maintenance, and short lifetimes for devices and constructions. If we must begin facing up to serious limits then design must be based on values and on a world view which prioritises simplicity, frugality, durability, repairability, distributive justice, smallness of scale, avoidance of luxurious and affluent styles, and use of local resources.
There is a need to build these principles into our aesthetic sensitivities. At present "nice" connotes newness, expensiveness and luxury. In a society of the kind outlined people would find small, cheap, home-made, old, repaired, frugal and humble things attractive. Needless to say the implausibility of achieving such enormous change from currently dominant values, habits and perceptions supports considerable pessimism regarding the prospects for transition to a sustainable.
As has been explained the core implications for sustainability deriving from the limits to growth analysis are to do with developing highly self-sufficient settlements, especially localised agriculture, more cooperative systems and a zero-growth economy and materially simple lifestyles. These goals cannot be achieved without the radical redesign of the geography of settlements. The present planning and design literature gives little attention to these implications.
Indeed current urban planning is in general based on implicit principles that directly contradict the limits to growth analysis. Virtually all settlement design and construction taking place today could hardly be better suited to minimise the self-sufficiency of settlements. All goods and services must be transported in over long distances and all wastes transported out. Dependence on distant, national and global supply systems, for example for electricity, water, supermarket products and entertainment are taken for granted. If anything these tendencies are intensifying, for example in the reduced land area surrounding domestic dwellings, the design of houses without kitchens and the increased average Australian house size over recent years. Conceptions of "normal" housing standards are increasingly expensive and luxurious. There is little or no demand for or supply of cheap and small but sufficient dwellings. There are probably very few architects presently working on the design of houses that will cost less than $10,000 to construct. Intense dependence on the car is taken for granted, evident in the continued construction of freeways and settlements that could not function without car access to shops, recreation and work. It is estimated that in the US any one item of food is now being transported on average about 2000 km.
The urban density mistake.
Ironically when limits considerations are taken into account, the urban design initiative usually regarded as the most radical move to address ecological problems, the move to greater urban density, can be seen to be a move in the wrong direction. It is plausible that increased urban density would reduce a number of the important dollar, resource and energy costs of urban sprawl, such as extending phone, water and electricity supply to ever more distant suburbs, and the many costs to do with transport and travel across longer urban distances. (However it has been pointed out that other costs are likely to increase as density rises, especially to do with the need for revised or new infrastructures to accommodate the greater densities and loads, such as in upgrading water supplies and coping with heavier traffic flows.)
The main problem with the urban density thesis is that it only addresses consumption issues. Increasing density will undoubtedly reduce some of the per capita costs associated with providing goods and services for household consumption. However from the limits to growth perspective the more important issues are to do with production; i.e., sustainable settlements must be highly self-sufficient in production, and this requires space and relatively low housing densities. The more that cities increase their density the more they reduce their capacity to provide for themselves and the more they must transport goods in and wastes out. This sets the problem of finding the ideal balance, which is likely to involve a mixture of small relatively dense centres surrounded by low density settlements and areas that are made up of farms, forests, wilderness and commons.
One of the implications of the limits to growth analysis that is least in need of elaboration is the desirability of eventually having built a landscape in which there are very few if any big cities, and few buildings requiring lifts. The desirable basic settlement unit is the small town. These would be spread through out the landscape at convenient distances from big towns and small cities, linked by public transport systems. Big cities have very high per capita resource and ecological costs, and most if not all of their social and cultural merits can be provided by cities that are relatively small. Sale (1980) has argued that cities need be no bigger than 10,000 people.
Some specific design implications.
Most of the specific principles and practices that are necessary in view of the limits to growth analysis are to do with the need for small settlements that are highly economically and socially self-sufficient. Hence towns and suburbs would have many resource sources and industries within their boundaries, many of these in craft and hobby form, and they must be leisure-rich and minimally dependent on transport or waste removal.
Most people would have to be able to get to work or to shops by bicycle and on foot. Many people would be able to live comfortably without owning a car. Extensive public transport is an obvious priority, but more importantly the overall need for transport and travel must be drastically reduced, primarily by localising most production. There must be a great deal of diversity, integration and mixed use, with many agricultural, manufacturing, service, educational, consumption, administrative, maintenance and leisure functions spread throughout each neighbourhood and town.
Many small industries often at the level of family businesses could deal with small animal products, bees, herbs, chemicals such as dyes, oils and waxes and insecticides and medicinal products from local plants and animals.
As has been pointed out, perhaps the most obvious element in the design of sustainable settlements is the need for production of most food and many biological materials to take place right within towns, suburbs and neighbourhoods. This gives Permaculture principles a central role. "Edible landscapes" involving home gardening, community gardens, market gardens and commons, orchards, vineyards, fish ponds, bamboo patches and forests, could permeate the spaces in which people live. This could enable recycling of household wastes as nutrients to the soil, minimising food transport, packaging, preservation and storage. Many materials would be processed locally, for example via the small sawmills operating on timber grown in neighbourhood woodlots. The availability of fresh food would mean less fridges, packaging and warehouses.
Design for local treatment and use of grey water and sewage would be of central importance, for example via composting toilets, reed beds and garbage gas units for housing clusters or whole town systems. Ideally settlement water collection would take place on the slopes above the settled area, water would be delivered to dwellings by gravity, waste water would be taken to recycling ponds and then to agricultural areas below the settlement, again by gravity. Storm water would be dealt with via above-ground systems, mainly grassed bunds and swales, taking water to parks and fields where it could soak in. Such systems enable blockages to be immediately identified and easily remedied, whereas with underground systems blockages can be difficult to locate and costly to access. Rainwater would be collected for domestic and urban agricultural use, not disposed of via expensive concrete drainage systems.
It is remarkable that Australian planning authorities still impose no requirements for houses to be properly oriented to the sun, insulated or to have solar hot water systems. Needless to say the implications of the limits analysis for housing design involve solar passive architectural principles. However it is necessary to add that high priority should be also be given to earth construction and to smallness, simplicity and cheapness. Small houses with low ceiling heights generate much reduced heating and cleaning costs. House design should also include provision for gardens, water tanks and workshops. Earth dug out when water tanks and cellars are constructed can be used for building house walls. Pits created when co-housing clusters are built can become productive ponds and leisure resources.
Crucial elements in a sustainable settlement will be the many and varied commons. These include facilities such as neighbourhood workshops, premises for the social activities old people and youth, parks, windmills, forests, ponds, woodlots, meadows, bamboo clumps, herb beds etc. This means there must be a dramatic reversal of the present race to eliminate the last of the commons, e.g., by privatising public assets and intensifying the culture of competitive individualistic acquisitiveness. Use of commons reduces dependence on the cash economy and on imported products. Local commons could be maintained by voluntary working bees. Their development and maintenance contributes to social solidarity as these activities draw people into constructive activity and into participatory decision making.
A considerable fraction of current energy consumption is due to leisure and entertainment activity, especially including use of the car to access distant sources of entertainment. Annual holidays usually involve long car journeys and international air travel. If neighbourhoods were designed according to the above principles they would provide far more sources of resource-cheap leisure activity than they do at present. Landscapes could be packed with gardens, small firms, ponds, craft clubs, neighbourhood workshops, forests, small farm animals, and windmills. There would be working bees, town meetings, market days and festivals. Much leisure time could be spent walking, visiting, observing and participating in activities, including street and cafe life, mostly in unplanned and spontaneous ways. Much leisure time would actually be productive, for example if spent at crafts or gardening, whereas at present leisure usually involves considerable resource consumption. Settlement design would therefore attend to the ways in which spontaneous and resource-costless sources of leisure might be created.
In a sustainable settlement most manufacturing production would have to be located in or close to where people live, mostly in small enterprises, especially family businesses. Much production would be transferred from the factory mode of production to craft form, thereby enabling the work to become more enjoyable.
The focus in this discussion has been on the small-scale and highly self-sufficient local economy but there would probably still be a need for larger and more centralised firms, involving transportation of inputs and products, located within the wider regional economy. In a sustainable world order there would probably still be a significant volume of international trade although the argument has been the need for these more distant economies could be much reduced.
In these more self-sufficient landscapes a number of goods and services would be supplied automatically and without the need for corporations or professional services, and some needs and problems would be entirely eliminated. Consider the care of elderly people, and of disabled people, and the many security, policing, custodial, counselling and other needs set by people with drug abuse, alcohol and psychological problems. Consider the avoidable costs of crime, much of which is due to the fact that the present economy fails to provide for increasing numbers, especially young people.
A major principle of the required design philosophy would be to minimise the role of the market and to maximise the extent to which needs can be met by social arrangements based on principles of public goods and services (e.g., commons), cooperation, mutuality, gift and reciprocity. For example the needs for aged care, entertainment, meaning and purpose, community, leisure and security are best met via convivial communities operating on cooperative and gift principles. Thus a sustainable economy would emphasise giving, sharing, working bees, collective approaches, public property and institutions, and cohesion building festivals and celebrations. As little as possible would be done using cash or markets, because these transactions rule out considerations other than those to do with individual advantage. Taxes for example could be partly payable through contribution to community working bees. Reliance on working bees, commons, cooperation etc. would also strengthen social cohesion.
Obviously this vision of a sustainable and just society is extreme. However the foregoing argument has been that if the limits to growth argument is valid then a sustainable and just world order cannot be achieved unless there is transition to settlements of the general kind outlined, and transition to the very different world views and values they require.
As has been said, in view of the overwhelming contradiction between The Simpler Way and the rarely questioned commitment to affluence and growth one must be highly pessimistic regarding the possibility of a transition. However there is now a considerable and rapidly growing Global Eco-village Movement in which many small groups are establishing settlements more or less of the required kind. A recent US directory lists 700 communities. (Federation of Intentional Communities, 2000.) A European publication lists another 300. (Hagmaier, et. al., 2000.) The explicit goal of many of these communities is to show that The Simpler Way is workable and attractive.
It could be argued that the fate of the planet probably depend on whether or not the Global Eco-village Movement can establish sufficiently impressive examples of The Simpler Way before the problems of industrial-affluent-consumer society become too acute. Clearly nothing of significance can be achieved unless there is a marked increase in the attention given to these issues and this is a need to which teachers of design can contribute by making limits to growth considerations central in their courses.
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The Simpler Way: Analyses of global problems (environment, limits to growth, Third World...) and the sustainable alternative society (...simpler lifestyles, self-sufficient and cooperative communities, and a new economy.) Organised by Ted Trainer. http://www2.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/