NATURE'S BOTTOM LINE
Ecological collapse is all around. But faith in economic growth as the only path to prosperity shows no sign of fading. Wayne Ellwood examines the folly of endless growth on a finite planet.
Charles Darwin was a consummate scientist – meticulous and rigorous. He spent nearly 20 years sifting his research, honing his analysis and polishing his prose before publishing his groundbreaking work, On the Origin of Species, in November 1859.1
Darwin’s slim volume was what we would call a ‘game changer’; a revolutionary work that fundamentally altered the way human beings see themselves and the natural world. Today most of us are familiar with his theory of ‘natural selection’ – the foundation of modern evolutionary biology. But 150 years ago, Darwin was sailing into choppy waters. The Church of England set rigid boundaries and his thesis was clearly offside – a challenge to the orthodox view that humans were a separate, unique part of God’s creation and that all life was divinely concocted and unchangeable.
The establishment mocked him. There was intense public debate. But Darwin was unflinching. Today his core idea that all animals and plants evolve and adapt through natural selection is the bedrock of modern life sciences. He opened the door to a new world – a door which religious fundamentalists and ‘intelligent design’ proponents are still trying to close.
Darwin’s long battle has disturbing echoes today. We, too, are trapped in the same sort of false illusion that stymied critical thought before his radical breakthrough. Except the myth that envelops us is more dangerous and even more deeply rooted.
Our great sustaining myth is economic growth: faith that the economy can grow forever, that there are no limits to the wealth we can create from the natural resources of the Earth. Growth, measured by an increasing Gross Domestic Product (GDP), is what drives government policy worldwide. The equation has been drummed into us for so long that it’s received wisdom. Growth equals prosperity and jobs. Growth equals progress (see ‘History of an idea’, below).