Sustainable Shrinkage

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By Ernest Callenbach:

“Sustainable development” is an oxymoron. On a finite planet, we can’t have both sustainability and continued material growth. More than two decades after the Brundtland Report, it’s past time to abandon this linguistic sleight of hand and rally around a new, shocking but this time realistic slogan: sustainable shrinkage! Within this new perspective, we can get on with saving species, restoring wastelands, improving efficiency, putting our life-support systems on sustainable bases—in short, finding solutions.

But we’ll do so with a new urgency and clarity, conscious that if we are to survive on our little planet in some reasonably civilized way, human activity (and its impacts) must shrink. If we don’t shrink it, Gaia will shrink it for us, catastrophically.

What to Shrink?

* Population must shrink.

Nobody knows exactly how many people eating what kinds of food the earth can support in acceptable comfort, but we know there are too many of us already. We’re steadily decreasing the fertility of the globe’s limited arable soils, increasing our dependence on fertilizers produced with fossil fuel, and rapidly pumping dry the essential aquifers on which millions depend. If climate change thins the Himalayan glaciers as it is thinning lower-elevation ones, several billion people will be unfed. They will not go peacefully. While it is shameful that world food supplies are distributed so unfairly, greater equality of access is both highly improbable under capitalism and moot in the long run: humans, like any other species, tend to use up whatever food is available.

* Consumption must shrink.

Sheer numbers matter in food consumption. Sheer wealth matters in food and everything else. Rich people and rich countries (North America, Europe, Japan) buy more, mine more, burn more, dispose of more. Ecological impacts of manufacturing, shipping, distribution, use, and disposal are directly proportional to the money spent, with only rare exceptions—solar panels and wind machines, for instance. Unless we shrink overall consumption, we have no chance of cutting global-heating emissions, oceanic biology impoverishment, habitat loss, extermination rates—or avoiding feedback phenomena (methane release, for instance) that threaten runaway planetary warming. The only means yet known to reduce consumption is economic recession/depression; we badly need to find others.

How to Shrink?

* Supply the right incentives.

The best candidate so far for reducing consumption is a substantial carbon tax, the only workable way to motivate ourselves and our corporations to stop trashing our planetary home. Idealism or even pious hopes for long-term survival don’t significantly motivate either ordinary people or corporate/political leaders. A carbon tax would force us all to get smarter about using energy (where cap-and-trade systems only make us smarter about tweaking the rules). Businesses would be intensely and permanently motivated to reduce their energy use. We’d drive less and travel less. We’d waste less of everything: food, wood, steel, glass. We’d spend more time at home, with family and friends and neighbors. We’d wear sweaters instead of turning up the heat and replace air conditioners with swamp coolers. We’d find amusements less expensive than shopping and more rewarding of the incredible responsiveness, ingenuity, flexibility, endurance, and spontaneity of our species. We’d no longer have a problem deciding where to store unused stuff. We might even get outside and enjoy hiking in nature, without the distraction of cell phones.

* Switch from consumption to maintenance.

For the past several decades, most Americans’ real income has been stagnant. This has been mitigated by the influx of women into the workforce and by super-cheap, mainly Chinese imports; many people have been able to live a reasonably comfortable life by buying a lot of stuff at Walmart. But as our chronic unemployment continues and real incomes dwindle, this won’t be so easy. We will actually have to face frequent choices between making things last and doing without. Doing without sometimes seems painful, especially to children and others who don’t understand budgets, but it can also usefully simplify life.

* Build to last.

On the whole, however, we will try to make things last. Modern appliances aren’t designed to be repaired but rather to be thrown away and replaced. But sometimes repairs can be improvised—there is a vigorous subcategory of Internet information about fixing almost anything (go to, for example). Laws such as the European “take-back” regulations can force manufacturers to redesign their products for recycling and repairability both. Patching of clothes, which was fashionable among hippies in the 1960s and ’70s, will come back, and indeed some people will relearn how to sew simple garments. We’re already keeping our cars longer and buying used rather than new.

*Control shrinkage instead of letting it control us.

Smart shrinkage doesn’t mean collapse. To get a rough idea of what’s required, think back to about 1965, when our impacts on the planet were roughly half what they are now. It took more than five decades to contrive the auto-dependent, truck-dependent, space- and energy-hogging way of life we now enjoy, and though we need to shrink it faster than we have been, the pace needn’t be unduly shocking. For example, average new-house area is now 2,000 square feet, compared to 2,200 a decade ago. When gas prices hit $4 a gallon, we cut down a bit on driving, but people weren’t committing suicide because of the price hike; quite a few just sold their SUVs and bought fuel-efficient cars. Walmart made its giant worldwide fleet of diesels more efficient. Utility magnates had second thoughts about nuclear power and started investing in solar. Imagine gas creeping up toward $10 a gallon and you can construct your own idea of what sustainable shrinkage would actually mean—challenging, but not the end of the world as we know it. We can adjust if we have to. The real planet-scouring trouble will only come if we don’t adjust.

* Decline need not mean fall.

The good news is that shrinkage may also mean transformation. When old institutions falter, they make room for new and more responsive and efficient ones. We stand near the end of an unprecedented period of heavy industrial and population expansion, and we confront an utterly new and yet age-old challenge: living better on less, figuring out how to live on a limited planet in an enduringly comfortable way.

Nobody, outside of a few visionaries, has bothered to think much about what a stable-state society might look like. However, in England especially, a movement called New Economics is now afoot, which tries to incorporate real-world environmental factors into economics.


Let’s try to see what gradual sustainable shrinkage means and what our chances are of achieving it. It took us 60-odd postwar years to build a petroleum-dependent, suburbanized world. Can we retool and rebuild in a sustainable way?

* Privileging density and conservation.

Some of the requirements for sustainability are familiar, but that doesn’t make them easy. Our fossil-fuel energy systems must be replaced by renewable sources. Our sprawling auto-dependent urban agglomerations must be rebuilt into compact ecocities that offer access by proximity to the necessities of life (including jobs) and to each other. Consider cities like San Francisco: They cover their rooftops with solar cells. They create green jobs for workers displaced from dying industries. They offer a compelling alternative to American-style auto-dependent suburban sprawl, making life easier for pedestrians and bicyclists and harder for cars. Or look at countries like Sweden that limit nuclear power and favor centralized town heating—keeping people warm collectively. Consider that computerization and miniaturization do more with less material and less energy, enabling a new kind of global shared brain. And intelligent engineering can vastly reduce the energy requirements of both our domestic and industrial machinery. Squeezing “negawatts” (Amory Lovins’s term for watts that we don’t have to generate, if we conserve instead) out of our system is cheaper than any way of producing megawatts. Conservation is always the first choice, and conservation is something that, being social animals, we mainly copy from each other. In an era of shrinkage, this will seem more and more obvious.

  • Rediscovering our social roots.

We will find, as unemployed and underemployed and health-bankrupt Americans already know, that we have to share housing, both with family and others. It’s not easy to live near or with other people, but that’s our history as a species. We are groupy and interdependent even in the best of times. So we will learn to live together better. We will share space, friends, amusements, vehicles, tools—we may even learn again to sing and dance and play games together. Humans are a sociable species, playful, sexy. Spending more time together rather than interacting with expensive electronic toys will mean going back to our human nature. Consider that communicating via Facebook and e-mail only uses about 7 percent of our species’ communication bandwidth, the verbal; the rest—expressions, gestures, postures, and probably even pheromones—lies dormant. Face-to-face contact will make us psychologically healthier and physically better off too, because people in supportive groups live longer and less anxious lives.

* Encouraging population stability.

And, though demographers continue to prognosticate further growth in world population, at some point (even without plagues or other disasters) this trend will reverse. What would it be like if—through better access to general health care, including contraception and abortion, and a growing realization that fewer children would mean happier lives for both kids and parents—world population began gently to decline? (Not just rise more slowly, which is the extent of most hopes heretofore.) In places like the United States, Western Europe, and Japan (in the absence of massive in-migration), there would be plenty of decent, modest-priced apartments for rent. Some office buildings abandoned by failing corporations would be converted into dwelling space. There would be a surplus of electricity and gas, so utility rates would fall. Because of fewer people, the water supply in most regions would be ample. Instead of a globe overloaded with growing population and increasingly hungry consumers, our planet might be capable of supporting the people it has.

* Restoring nature.

How would shrinkage affect our immediate natural environment? We wouldn’t need to pave over more land—indeed we could rip up unneeded roads and maybe even tear down a few dams and restore salmon runs. We could put a lot of people to work restoring natural areas, which developers would no longer covet. A few minutes’ walk outside town, there would be wild places that humans would enter as guests, not masters.

* Redefining a healthy economy.

Because “growth” is the ignition fuel for speculation, the stock market would dwindle in importance. Economists would proclaim the economy to be in ruins, but people would be better off: even if we continued our present scandalous division into rich and poor, nobody need be hungry or unhoused. Because there would be fewer people, we would not have to invest in more power plants and roads and cars and schools and shopping centers and courts and police and prisons and psychiatrists. We could cut back on petroleum-intensive farming and pesticides and herbicides." (


* Article: Sustainable Shrinkage: Envisioning a Smaller, Stronger Economy. By Ernest Callenbach. Volume 2 | Issue 4 | Page 10-15 | Aug 2011