The Roots of Progress

A dialogue on growth, progress, and “sustainability”

Letter is a new platform for thoughtful, good-faith conversation, in which two participants write open letters to each other on a topic. I’ve been invited to have a conversation on the platform with Andrew Glover about growth, progress and “sustainability”, based in part on my past thoughts on the topic.

Here’s how my letter begins:

Dear Andrew,

Thanks for beginning this conversation. My approach in dialogues like this is “first, seek to understand.” So I’ll begin by summarizing my understanding of your views, and I’ll close by asking you some questions so that I can understand them better.

The other part of my approach is to drill down to the most fundamental level on which we disagree; I find that to be most productive, efficient, and illuminating. In this case, that might be in the definition and value of “sustainability”, or on some still deeper point.

As I understand it, you believe that sustainability is an important value to be traded off against growth. Indeed, you believe that we face a sustainability crisis, and that the growth of the last century or two has come at the cost of environmental harm and other forms of unsustainability. …

You asked how we should define growth. I define “growth” or “progress” by a humanistic standard, that is, by the standard of human life, health, and happiness. For this conversation, let’s agree to use those terms to mean an increase in living standards, since that’s something we seem to agree on as a goal.

I think we should aim to maximize long-term growth, in that sense, because that means maximizing human thriving and flourishing. … I say “long-term” growth because I don’t want to pursue short-term growth that will lead to a crash or a catastrophe in the long run. In that sense, I want “sustainable” growth. But this is different than what is usually meant by “sustainability”. So let’s try to nail down that concept.

“Sustainability” is typically used to mean sustaining a particular industrial process indefinitely. Hence it is considered sustainable to use wood for manufacturing or for fuel, as long as we can re-grow it as fast as we use it; it is considered unsustainable to use oil, since we don’t have a way to replenish it.

But to my mind, this kind of sustainability is not an end in itself. It’s certainly convenient if a resource can be renewed, but that advantage must be traded off against other advantages, such as the total capacity of the resource, or its reliability, or its cost, or its properties as a building material, energy source, etc.

What I want to sustain—what I think is a moral imperative to sustain—is not any particular industrial process, but the continual advancement of our standard of living. We must have, not sustainable processes, but sustainable growth.

Go to Letter to read the full conversation.

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