Why cities can't keep growing

There are basic facts we should agree on when it comes to the Earth


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Suzuki will receive an honorary degree from the University of Alberta in June

© Kris Krüg

Although I’m just one of 13 people receiving honorary degrees in June from the University of Alberta, my award has stirred up controversy. As flattering as it is to be made the fulcrum of debate surrounding fossil fuels, climate change and humanity’s future, this isn’t about me. 

After all, what I say about economics, planetary boundaries and the need to shift priorities is no different than what economists, philosophers, scientists and numerous other experts have been saying for years.

At the very least, it’s good that a healthy debate about corporate influence over academic institutions and issues around climate-disrupting energy sources has emerged from it.

Too often, though, the discussion has strayed to personal attacks. If a university, especially one in the heart of oil country, isn’t the place to air a range of ideas about the geophysical, social and economic consequences of profligate fossil fuel use, we should be worried.

During the brouhaha, people have taken issue with my characterization of conventional economic thinking (although they often leave out the “conventional” part). I’m not an economist, but my ideas are informed by economists. 

Oxford economist Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics, recently told me John Maynard Keynes would be rolling in his grave if he knew we were applying his early 20th century ideas to 21st century realities.

Those who retrofit contemporary problems onto conventional but outdated economic theories are capable of all sorts of contradictory positions, from arguing that infinite growth is possible in a finite system to supporting oilsands and fossil fuel infrastructure expansion while claiming a commitment to addressing climate change.

Nothing grows forever. Why do we think human populations, resource extraction, economies, industrial activity and cities can keep growing? Where does it end? Like cancer, is it when growth destroys the host?

I respect the differences of opinion about how we should conduct ourselves in a time of staggering population growth, climate change, biodiversity decline and numerous other problems of our own making. But surely we can agree on basics. We need clean air, potable water and food from healthy soils to stay alive and healthy. We can’t keep rapidly burning fossil fuels and destroying carbon sinks, like forests and wetlands, without destabilizing Earth’s carbon cycle and climatic system. We can’t keep dumping plastic and waste into the oceans.

This is not about attacking a particular industry or way of life. It’s about recognizing the reality of global warming and our role in it. It’s about finding solutions that provide economic opportunities for everyone. It’s about measuring progress in ways that account for sustainability and well-being rather than economic growth.

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David Suzuki is the host of the CBC’s The Nature of Things and author of more than 30 books on ecology. 

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