What is a problem that is overlooked by society

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Growth and sustainable problems

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Ibisch, Pierre / Lars Schmidt
The Current Column (2009)

Bonn: German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE) (The current column of October 19, 2009)

Bonn, October 19, 2009. Growth creates work ... and sustainable problems. The economic growth machine has stalled, and only who is credible sustainable growth promises can win elections. At the same time, however, the discourse on the limits of growth is picking up speed again. It's not just Dennis Meadows who wrote his 1972 report to the Club of Rome the projections of a looming systemic crisis confirmed. Representative of a steady state economy like the American economist Herman Daly never tire of warning about the consequences of “uneconomic growth”. A few weeks ago, a large number of prominent scientists from a wide variety of disciplines published a highly acclaimed publication in the renowned specialist journal Nature tries to show the transgression of planetary boundaries in the sense of approaching critical tipping points, beyond which an uncontrollable system crisis threatens.

In addition, growth criticism is increasingly leaving the scientific community and becoming socially acceptable. For example, the former CDU Prime Minister Kurt Biedenkopf expressed in interviews with great naturalness a lack of understanding for the fact that the economy of a nation has to grow with a falling population. The economist and former CEO of the Metro group, Klaus Wiegandt, admits that he has taken a lot of guilt on himself in the past and, in lectures and as the editor of a series of books on questions of sustainability, states that growth in a limited system cannot of course continue indefinitely could. However, it is obviously difficult to anchor the principles and functions of complex and spatially limited systems in everyday life. This necessarily has to go far beyond the simple templates of sustainability triangles or three-pillar models, which pretend that economic, social and ecological demands can be weighed against each other on an equal footing.

A fundamental principle of a modern sustainability concept must be a holarchical worldview in the sense of Arthur Koestler. Individual systems such as human individuals, institutions or nation states can make autonomous decisions as a “small whole” within a certain framework and are also individually able to react to disturbances without being encouraged to do so by higher authorities. As a system they can assume other states and also grow. But ultimately they are all at the same time a “component of a larger whole”. They are integrated into a complex network of systems. Above all, they are a sub-system that is dependent on systems of a higher order, just a Holon, Whole and Particle at the same time. The joining together of small particles and sub-systems to form higher-order systems is a consistent process in the physical, biological and cultural evolution of this world. The driving force seems to be the increase in the (thermodynamic) efficiency of the systems. Sustainability can accordingly be viewed as maintaining efficient system states, which is associated with a certain stability and insensitivity to external disturbances. Inefficient systems tend to suddenly adopt different states or even collapse.

Humanity, too, with all its institutions and activities, let's call it the anthroposystem, is a dualistic holon. Granted, one that has succeeded in making extraordinary changes through its unique and extremely accelerated growth. It has really broken or pushed boundaries. Before the cultural evolution, humans as "normal animals" were part of a local or regional East African ecosystem. But with the help of ever more diverse technology and ultimately the trick of using fossil fuels, this Pleistocene monkey has freed itself from the shackles of those savannah systems and hooked itself into the material and energy flows of practically all ecosystems on earth. Due to the growth, complexification and globalization of the resulting anthropological system and many subsystems that are constantly emerging in it, such as states, associations of states, financial and economic or information systems, mankind has lost some things: above all, the feeling for the dependence on systems of higher levels Order as well as for the limits of growth.

After a century of extremely accelerated growth, which enables more and more individual opportunities and freedom, the impression has even arisen that the anthroposystem is ultimately no longer a component of the global ecosystem, but rather the earth system as a subordinate component sustainable to be managed in the anthropological system. What is overlooked is the crucial problem that human society is not primarily powered by electricity, but lives solely on the basis of carbon that is organically processed by plants. And like any system, according to the laws of thermodynamics, people can only maintain the order of their bodies or their societies by constantly adding energy and thereby increasing the disorder (entropy) in other systems such as plants or ecosystems. The corresponding human-induced disorder has been a manageable problem in local ecosystems. In the context of globalization, however, new types of global systemic risks have been unleashed, which individuals can practically no longer understand and which national or regional societies can no longer control.

Efficient systems apparently tend to adopt as closed states as possible and allow energy and substances to flow within the system boundaries for as long as possible. An increase in the complexity of systems - in the sense of more and more networked components - only means an increase in efficiency up to a certain point. For example, above a certain number of interacting particles, atoms become unstable and decay. Rapidly growing empires such as the Roman Empire or the Empire of Alexander the Great could at some point no longer control the complexity of the subsystems; they became too open and inefficient as a system and fell apart. The globalized anthropological system has long since passed the turning points of efficiency in many ways. The resulting disorder in the global ecosystem bears no relation to the order in the anthroposystem that is created with increasing energy expenditure.

We need a new, suitably complex understanding of sustainability. This sustainability is of this world and must therefore be in harmony with the obviously applicable thermodynamic and systemic principles. The vision of carbon-free, solar-powered growth is an illusion that does the math without thermodynamics.

As a result of the growth, which misunderstood the system boundaries, a global environmental change has set in motion that makes Brundlandt’s sustainability in the sense of intergenerational justice utopian. But it is still a matter of systemic sustainability, which means that our modern world society is spared abrupt degradation or even collapse. So that the development chances of future generations are at least not reduced to abyss. We will not be able to do this by fighting poverty. It is primarily about fighting growth.

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