Are We Trapped in a Cultural Mythology that Undermines Sustainable Development?

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Are we trapped in a cultural mythology of boundless economic growth?
(Flickr image courtesy of
David Paul Ohmer under a Creative Commons license)

William Rees—the famous ecologist who together with Mathis Wackernagel developed the concept and method of ecological footprint analysis—has recently published an interesting article on the global ecological crisis and self-delusion. The paper is provocative on several fronts, and while I am in two minds on some of the positions it takes, it certainly opens up some of the fundamental questions we need to be asking if we are to honestly discuss sustainable development. The article is transdisciplinary, and pulls together interesting insights from Heidegger, behavioral neurobiology and cultural anthropology as they relate to the very real dangers of climate change and the global ecological crisis.

Rees’ underlying assertion is that we are trapped in a collective cultural mythology oriented around the idea of boundless economic growth, and that the powerful narrative of this mythology has behaviorally, institutionally, politically and socially disabled us from honestly confronting the foundations of global un-sustainability. Therefore, he argues, we only come up with diversionary, gimmicky, peripheral or subsidiary ways of dealing with the challenge – because our primary motivations are precisely wedded at a deeper level to a cultural mythology that itself is at odds with sustainability.

Looking at it through this perspective, consider the growing craze of eco-villages, eco-parks, eco-suburbs, and eco-cities. While there might be some notable examples out there, most of these actually end up following simple variations of: slap on a few solar panels, throw in some high visibility windmills, incorporate some unjustifiably expensive technological gimmicks at the expense of social housing, landscape some more trees and maybe even a golf course into the plan, participate in a back-door land-grab, divert attention away from the city or city-region as a whole by focusing on eco-enclaves, adopt a few narrowly self-serving sustainability indicators, disregard the larger socio-economic trade-offs and the overall life-cycle costs, ramp up the marketing drive, and befriend the right partners and individuals who will all join the resounding chorus of applauds—there you have it, the new eco-development wave of the future. At best addressing symptoms, these ad hoc measures are merely a cosmetic nudge to business as usual, when what we really need is a fundamental paradigm shift.

A genuine attempt at moving towards a circular urban metabolism: Hammarby Sjostad, Stockholm.
Now consider casting urban sustainability in the light of a different cultural mythology: one centered, for example, on designing cities or city-regions as highly efficient, closed-loop, multi-functional and resource regenerative ecological systems—with a range of technologies and design innovations making this possible together with the right policies, plans, institutional reforms and financial incentives. What if, like ecological systems, cities were designed to have powerful strategies for managing change at the least cost, and for recovering quickly and fully from shocks—strategies such as succession and evolution, self-organization, and adaptive management? What if these innovations were enabled in an affordable, customizable and sequenced manner—and financial instruments, accounting processes, budgets and institutional incentives were all designed and re-imagined to truly capture and reflect the value of all capital assets (natural, human, social and manufactured)? In this case the transformation taking place might be at a different scale, and more importantly—of a different nature. Such an approach might begin to address some elements of the core and the cause of our unsustainable development.

But why focus on cultural mythology? Because it is an underpinning, pervasive and often invisible force shaping the trajectory of development and global events, ranging from wars to the current economic crisis. By shaping our sense of identity and purpose it drives individual and collective behavior. For instance, it could be argued that the non-violent Indian Independence movement led by Gandhi was in fact premised on (and impossible without) a shared cultural mythology and that it derived its most elemental power from the deep orienting principles of this mythology. Carl Jung’s writings provide some fascinating insights into the psychological basis for this, and there is now a growing body of empirical neuro-scientific research that further substantiates how cultural beliefs actually establish specific neuronal networks in our brains (check out Bruce Wexler and Norman Doidge). But I digress...

What is the myth that troubles Rees? He is most concerned about the pervasive myth of ‘limitless and perpetual economic growth.’ He restates the issues of 1) the real and fixed biophysical boundaries of our ecosystems and our planet, 2) the growing population and resource demands of developing countries, and 3) how we as a global society must learn how to share and live within our limits. In the light of these concerns, he raises the question—do governments in developed countries need to plan for less growth (contracting their economies) in order to create the space for developing nations to reach adequate levels of development?

That’s a very touchy question. With trade and climate change negotiations, as well as a range of other international and geo-political barters either paralyzed in stalemates or progressing at speeds that render them inconsequential—does Rees’ concern stand a chance for a fair hearing?

The idea of ecological limits in not new at all (neither is it unique to Rees)—in fact the organizing principles of many ancient and pre-industrial societies across the world were based on the intuitive reality of societies and their economies functioning within the sphere of natural systems. Today this thinking also draws on the ‘Limits to Growth’ work that emerged in the 1970s (based on economic growth and resource modeling done at MIT).

My own thoughts on this issue are just a bit more optimistic—while I certainly understand the importance of focusing on our real ecological constraints, might growing in a fundamentally different and more intelligent way (circular & resource regenerative economies), be as much a part of the answer as growing less?

Regardless: I do tend to agree that it would be nice to have a global cultural mythology rooted in organizing principles much more meaningful, imaginative and sustainable than our dogmatic fixation with produce-consume-produce-consume-produce-consume-produce-consume…


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