There is often a standing joke in families that have had a few teenagers around the dining table that they will eventually be eaten out of house and home. Up until recently I don’t think very many of us expected that the analogy could be applied at the global level. Yet, that seems to be what is happening. While the question of limits to growth has been with us for a very long time, since the late 1960s scientists and other concerned citizens have started asking, with much greater background knowledge and urgency, the question: “How much longer can the Earth sustain the consumptive habits of the human race?” (Meadows et al., 1972; Durning, 1999; Ehrlich, 1994). In the thirty years during which this question has been visited by a growing number of people on the planet, much confusion has emerged from the various attempts at answering the question but there has been consensus on a number of points. First, it is understood that the issue has ramifications on two levels: the social, and the environmental or ecological. At the environmental level there is general agreement that the problems we face are quadrupolar. Two of the poles are related to population issues: 1) population levels, 2) consumption levels; the other two are related to questions of the production needed to meet human consumption, 3) extraction or depletion of resources and 4) waste production. The problem has been transformed into the equation: EB=P x A x T, where EB is the environmental burden, P is population, A is affluence or consumption levels and T is technology or the processes used in production (Hart, 1997). While rather simplistic and difficult to evaluate, the formula is useful to indicate that the environmental issue needs to be addressed multi-directionally.
The problem at the social level is also multifaceted. The main issues are questions of poverty, overconsumption, overpopulation, rapid urbanisation and decaying infrastructures, violence, both internationally and intranationally, inequity and inequality. Environmental and social issues are increasingly seen as being intertwined. The presence of the consumption and population factors in both categories is indicative of this. United Nations reports, for example, inform us that a small percentage of the Earth’s population is consuming an inordinate percentage of the world’s resources, and much of the environmental degradation that affects ever-greater numbers of poor people is directly linked to this consumption. Internationally, in the quest for cheaper labour and laxer environmental laws, much of the polluting production has been moved to developing countries that use up their resources and pollute their environments to produce goods for residents of Northern countries. Intranationally, poor people are more likely to live in areas or districts that have higher levels of pollution and, therefore, negative health effects, because of lower land and residential values.
Our economic system seems to be exacerbating many of these problems especially since it is built on the necessity of perpetual growth and since the whole industry of marketing and advertising is oriented towards convincing people to increase their acquisition of material goods. “Simplicitarians”, that group of people that is central to this work, have concerns about levels of consumption and their consequences that make them leery of the economic machine that promotes the consumptive mindset. Though it is in the nature of living matter to consume in order to maintain itself and reproduce, they see the consumption patterns of humans in the past several decades as having become disproportionate to these needs of maintenance and reproduction.
Steiner and Steiner (1997) and Harris (1995) review various groups that, through time, have expressed wariness about business enterprises and entrepreneurs....
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