There is a school of thought that economic growth can be decoupled from growth in material throughput (including use of physical resources). For example, see some description of this at:
However, I find myself a little troubled by this line of thinking. Decoupling, if achievable in the short-term, might help reduce the projected future impacts of human activity on the environment, for example reducing the trajectory of carbon emissions. It might therefore be very beneficial to do it. However, I fear that it isn’t a ‘get out of jail free card’ in the longer-term, and therefore we will still need to face problems with the existing mainstream economic paradigm of perpetual growth . Here is my thinking, for the longer-term.
Suppose we do, to a large degree, decouple economic activity from material throughput, for example by increasing the amount of services (eg entertainment and leisure) that people buy and consume without significantly increasing the resources used in the supply chain for those services. Then, a new limit will appear – what I would call ‘peak attention’. There is a limit to each person’s ability to pay attention to things. The customer consumes entertainment services by paying attention to them, and during that time they are not paying attention to many other things. Ultimately, they will only pay for things they can give attention to in sufficient quantity for them to feel they have had value for money. They are not going to pay for things they give too little attention to. Therefore, when that person’s life is full of things they pay attention to (they spend all their waking hours giving attention to these things), they will only buy something else to pay attention to when something else drops from their attention. They will buy to substitute things in their lives, not to add to them. Their total propensity to purchase will be limited by the hours in the day they can give attention to things, even if they have sufficient financial resources to buy more than that limit.
So there is an attention limit for each person, which limits their economic activity, irrespective of decoupling from material throughput. And if we accept the likelihood of peak population globally, then the implication of putting these two things together is that there will at some point be peak population, peak attention and peak economic activity levels (in financial terms) on the planet. Therefore, economic growth cannot continue indefinitely (forever) – it must reach a peak at some point, beyond which it does not grow any more.
I like the following definition or description of the word, which comes from Wikipedia:
The name sustainability is derived from the Latin sustinere (tenere, to hold; sub, up). Sustain can mean “maintain", "support", or "endure”. Since the 1980s sustainability has been used more in the sense of human sustainability on planet Earth and this has resulted in the most widely quoted definition of sustainability as a part of the concept sustainable development, that of the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations on March 20, 1987: “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Unfortunately, I often hear and see the word being used very differently. One example is in the expression “sustainable growth” when it is being used to mean “sustained growth” or, in effect, “continued growth at the same sustained rate”. This is often the interpretation put on the word in the context of narratives about economic recovery after a recession, aka “returning to growth”. In such circumstances, the question we often hear is “is it sustainable?”, meaning “can the growth be sustained?”
Words are important, especially when their meaning can be misinterpreted. I try to make my use of the word “sustainability” clear, without coming across as being pedantic. I don’t always succeed.
The Planetary CFO - working towards a sustainable World Balance Sheet.