What If We Stopped Fighting for Preservation and Fought Economic Growth Instead?

by Tim Murray


Each time environmentalists rally to defend an endangered habitat, and finally win the battle to designate it as a park “forever,” as Nature Conservancy puts it, the economic growth machine turns to surrounding lands and exploits them ever more intensively, causing more species loss than ever before, putting even more lands under threat. For each acre of land that comes under protection, two acres are developed, and 40% of all species lie outside of parks. Nature Conservancy Canada may indeed have “saved” – at least for now – two million acres, but many more millions have been ruined. And the ruin continues, until, once more, on a dozen other fronts, development comes knocking at the door of a forest, or a marsh or a valley that many hold sacred. Once again, environmentalists, fresh from an earlier conflict, drop everything to rally its defense, and once again, if they are lucky, yet another section of land is declared off-limits to logging, mining and exploration. They are like a fire brigade that never rests, running about, exhausted, trying to extinguish one brush fire after another, year after year, decade after decade, winning battles but losing the war.

Environmentalists Ready to Rally

Despite occasional setbacks, the growth machine continues more furiously, and finally, even lands which had been set aside “forever” come under pressure. As development gets closer, the protected land becomes more valuable, and more costly to protect. Then government, under the duress of energy and resource shortages and the dire need for royalties and revenue, caves in to allow industry a foothold, then a chunk, then another. Yosemite Park, Hamber Provincial Park, Steve Irwin Park… the list goes on. There is no durable sanctuary from economic growth. Any park that is made by legislation can be unmade by legislation. Governments change and so do circumstances. But growth continues and natural capital shrinks. And things are not even desperate yet.

Here’s a thought. Stop fighting the brush fire. Stop investing time and effort in fighting for park preservation, and instead direct that energy into stopping economic growth. If the same energy that has been put into battles to save the environment piecemeal had been put into lobbying for a steady state economy, development pressure everywhere would have ceased, and habitat would be safe everywhere. After all, what area is not “sacred?”

For most of us who care about nature, bypassing local fights would seem like driving by an accident scene without stopping to offer help. Environmentalism, after all, is typically born from passionate concern about a threatened treasure very close to our hearts. But as General MacArthur and Admiral Nimitz concluded during the Pacific War, to achieve the long-term strategic objective, it is sometimes necessary to conserve strength by “island-hopping” over enemy strong points so that resources can be saved to fight the bigger, more decisive battles. Each of us has only so much time and energy to budget for the cause. The question is, are we deploying it to our best advantage? So far, environmental victories have been won at the cost of losing the strategic war. Environmental watchdogs bark, but the growth caravan moves on.

The practice of designating hallowed places as nature reserves must no longer be seen as “victories,” but rather as concessions. They are a permit issued to keep on growing as long as a small portion of the land base is left off the shopping list. The declaration by certain politicians to “protect” 12% of our land surface from exploitation is a permit to leave 88% unprotected. What they are really talking about, is licensed exploitation. It is like paying the mob not to rob your neighborhood, so that they can ravage others. The Saxons called it Danegeld, and all it bought was time. What is magical about this 12%? Does 12% somehow represent the area of land necessary to protect wilderness and wildlife? Or is it a political figure designed to achieve a compromise between conservationists and developers?

According to wildlife biologist Dr. Keith Hobson of Environment Canada, a veteran warrior of decades of battles to save habitat:

There is no biological basis to 12%. It came out of the Brundtland Commission and is a dangerous concept… …most biologists I know consider the number to be totally arbitrary and political, with no relationship to actual biology or conservation. As for abandoning the nature preservation schtick in favor of reduced human and economic growth, I emphatically agree. After all, what have been the true ‘victories’ of the environmental movement? Largely postage-stamp pieces of real estate, which, once designated, open the floodgates of development around them. And like you, I have absolutely no faith in the longevity of these designations.

Sir Peter Scott once commented that the World Wildlife Fund would have saved more wildlife it they had dispensed free condoms rather invested in nature reserves. Biodiversity is primarily threatened by human expansion, which may be defined as the potent combination of a growing human population and its growing appetite for resources. Economic growth is the root cause of environmental degradation, and fighting its symptoms is the Labor of Sisyphus.

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23 replies
  1. wendy
    wendy says:


    ‘The basic cause is human expansion : our numbers are soaring; we take more and more land -to build more houses, supermarkets, more roadsand grow the food to feed our ever growing population.

    We need a population policy, to match the laudable conservation efforts of the RSPB and BTO.’

    Tim , here is a link to yesterday’s Guardian’s report on the steady decline in Britain’s bird populations, together with part of my comment.

    As usual, there is no mention of economic nor population growth , just a plea for more efforts etc.

    I am beginning to think that we need something akin to a psychological eye test, to try and open the public mind to the sheer scale of the threat and to widen the collective field of vision.


  2. Eric Zencey
    Eric Zencey says:

    Spot on.

    If we want to change what human culture does, we need to change what our culture measures as progress. No longer can we assume that progress means “more stuff.”

    I’m working to get conservation organizations in VT on board to advocate for replacing reliance on GDP with GPI, or a GPI-like indicator. Everything that environmental organizations want to do becomes easier if we measure “delivered” well-being instead of the commotion of money in the (monetized) economy. GDP is such a deeply foolish measure of well-being that the movement to dump it has broad appeal; it’s a no brainer, really. I envision a coalition of environmental groups, social advocacy organizations, churches, non-profits of all kinds, and basically anyone who stops to think about it for ten minutes.

  3. Michael Dawson
    Michael Dawson says:

    More circumlocution. Capitalism, not humanity, is the problem. Handing out condoms is futile if poverty is not seriously redressed. And capitalism, not population, is also the main engine of economic growth.

    It’s rather funny you people are working so hard to avoid mentioning the c-word, too. Try actually fighting “growth.” You’d be labeled socialists in the first 2 seconds, if this talk ever became anything more than internet chatter.

  4. Toruk Makto
    Toruk Makto says:

    Be careful not to say that fighting economic growth is the labor of Sisyphus. Sisyphus’ punishment was to role a stone up the mountain, which always rolled back down and he had to start all over again. The quintessential hopeless cause… But, yes, fighting the never-ending stream of _symptoms_ stemming from the system, without taking on the system directly, is a Sisyphean task.

  5. Tim Murray
    Tim Murray says:

    Michael D.,

    I would suggest that you check out an article called “Europe’s Darkest Dawn” in the June 1991 issue of National Geographic. The photographs alone tell a devastating story. It is the environmental legacy of socialist command economies in Eastern Europe. The grime, the choking air pollution, the stunted trees, the toxic rivers…..a truly Dickensian portrait. Talk about the “dark, satanic mills” of 19th century England! Maybe that kind of socialism is not the kind you have in mind, but the point is, the profit motive does not account for the damage that socialist economies have wrought upon nature. I think you need to look a little deeper for answers.

    We need to design an economy that is not predicated on growth, and it must, by necessity, involve a radical redistribution of wealth and income. But the old socialist paradigm is obsolete. If handing out condoms is futile if poverty is not redressed, social equality is futile if we don’t stop growing. Redistributing rations among passengers on an overloaded lifeboat according to some egalitarian prescription may secure short term harmony, but it would not make the vessel seaworthy—especially as it heads toward a perfect storm of Peak Oil, Peak Soil, depleted aquifers, biodiversity collapse and climate change. And if the number and appetite of passengers keeps growing, the rations would not suffice to allow them to make it to shore. Social equality reduces conflict, but it doesn’t reduce the total human footprint.

    We need to impose limits to growth before nature does it for us, but in much less humane fashion.

  6. Tim Murray
    Tim Murray says:

    My last sentence could be misinterpretated. What I meant to say, of course, is that nature’s correction will be more inhumane and arbitrary than our proactive measures to shrink the economy. Nature says “Pay me now, or pay me later”. We don’t want to pay the bill late.

  7. Dave Gardner
    Dave Gardner says:

    Call your mayor, your councilor, your representative, your president, and tell them you do not want them to turbocharge the economy. Tell them you want a steady state economy. Vote for candidates who support a steady state economy. Run for office and start moving your town, city, county, state, province or nation toward economic sanity. That’s how!

    Also, every time you and your friends are served some pro-growth Kook Aid, point out to them that it is propaganda and use the opportunity to explain sustainable economics.

    Just a few ideas of the top of my head.

    Dave Gardner
    Producing the documentary
    GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth

  8. wendy
    wendy says:

    ‘Handing out condoms’ is one of the most effective ways of tackling poverty; (it will also give our fellow creatures a slim chance of survival).

    The most prosperous countries-in every sense-are the Scandinavian group : small,relatively stable populations; public commitment to minimisation of inequality ;a successful tradition of social democracy.

    Yes, laissez-faire capitalism relies on economic growth, but human population growth is taken as a given, by and large : we need to tackle both and take an alternative path.

  9. Toruk Makto
    Toruk Makto says:

    Quit your job. The best way to fight economic growth. Work is the root of all evil. If people refuse to work for the man, this will self-correct. Keep any job that does not actively engage the growth machine and you too can be part of the problem. Hence, ensure that you do not get yourself into a situation where you “need” a job like that. And whenever you fight the machine, make sure your efforts are leveraged: recruit others, mobilize, teach, train the trainer…

    The Scandinavian model is not all it is cracked up to be. Once you get above a certain level of prosperity, people start having more kids again. Like a status symbol: well-educated, wealthy women with even wealthier husbands chose to abandon their careers for which they trained to rear lots of children and sit in cafés all day sipping lattes with their girlfriends, showing off that they can afford to have lots of kids and disuse their educations… Just goes to show that educating and empowering women is not all you need to do to fight the population explosion.

    Anyway, how much is that job costing you? How many precious hours of your life? And in monetary terms, how much of your salary goes to pay for things you need for work? Clothes, shoes, smartphones, cars or other forms of commuting, expensive housing in areas that are not very nice to live but (relatively) close to work, therapies, child-care, pacifiers, expensive vacations and travel to compensate for a busy life and having to live in a hell-hole, the flights (in the form of alcohol, drugs, movies, entertainment, entertainment, entertainment), the compulsive shopping because your local “community” has nothing else to offer… Your _life_…

  10. Piyush
    Piyush says:

    Nice article! It is quite puzzling that people who take joy in admiring natural beauty fail to recognize that its preservation requires them to not grow and therefore not support any systems that are growth oriented. When someone is watching a rich natural scene from a place, a few years later, it will not look the same from that place because of a concrete jungle obscuring the natural jungle. In order to see the same beauty, one would have to move further to the new perimeter. This can go on forever only on a flat earth. On a round earth, you will eventually circle back and see nothing but the concrete jungle. It appears as if people constantly think that the earth is flat, even though they have learned and accepted the fact that it is round. Perhaps we should give glasses to people to wear that makes things look round, thus breaking the illusion of endlessness (or vastness), a sort of reality glasses. Should we mail such rounding glasses to our political leaders to get their grounding to reality?:-)

  11. Megan Evans
    Megan Evans says:

    I agree with your article and have similar frustrations for environmentalists and conservation biologists who either ignore or are largely unaware of our existing economic paradigm which renders much of our efforts to preserve species and environments ultimately futile.

    The problem with making a statement like “let’s fight economic growth” is that at first glance it confirms the suspicions of all those who have accused environmentalists of wanting to stop development, lock up land, being socialists, not caring about the poor and poverty stricken etc etc. Before you have a chance to clarify and say “No wait – we mean economic growth when the production benefits exceeds the cost of the loss of natural capital”, noone is listening and years of work developing trust between environmentalists and those with other interests is lost.
    Can I suggest that a focus on uneconomic growth might be more productive – although “uneconomic” isn’t a well known term, it is more accurate to the problem at hand and could instead begin a conversation (e.g how much happier are you with economic growth?) rather than prevent it from happening.

  12. vera
    vera says:

    “Call your mayor, your councilor, your representative, your president”

    Dave Gardner, that is cute. Last time I tried it I objected to the bailout. Um, the first one.

    Toruk, yup, not working any more, got canned. So what now?

    Megan’s right. It sounds unrealistic and looney to boot (to a lot of folks).

  13. Petar Boshevski, Skopje, Macedonia
    Petar Boshevski, Skopje, Macedonia says:

    Dear Tim,

    My sincere congratulations for this very inspirative article of yours. I would even say: an article of HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE! I am an life long active environmentalist and I completely agree with you that :

    – So far, environmental victories have been won at the cost of losing the
    strategic war. Environmental watchdogs bark, but the growth caravan moves on.

    – We environmentalists are like a fire brigade that never rests, running about,
    exhausted, trying to extinguish one brush fire after another, year after year, decade
    after decade, winning battles but losing the war.

    – There is no durable sanctuary from economic growth. Any park that is made by
    legislation can be unmade by legislation. Governments change and so do
    circumstances. But growth continues and natural capital shrinks.

    – The practice of designating hallowed places as nature reserves must no longer
    be seen as “victories,” but rather as concessions. They are a permit issued to keep
    on growing as long as a small portion of the land base is left off the shopping

    – There is no biological basis to 12%. the number is totally arbitrary and
    political, with no relationship to actual biology or conservation.

    – Sir Peter Scott’s comment (that the World Wildlife Fund would have saved more
    wildlife it they had dispensed free condoms rather invested in nature reserves) sounds
    like a bad (tasteless) joke, but it tells a pure truth: Biodiversity is primarily threatened
    by human expansion, which may be defined as the potent combination of a growing
    human population and its growing appetite for resources.

    Having all this in mind, it is obvious that a strategic PARADIGM SHIFT is desperately needed (for decades now) in the environmental batlefield, but I am afraid that our leaders are still not ready for such an “adventure” and, when that time comes (and the world leaders become aware of the seriousness of the situation), I am afraid it will be TOO LATE to save this wonderful Planet we are so unresponsably playing with … I pray I am not right with this apocaliptic prediction.

  14. Matt
    Matt says:

    I have to agree with Michael Dawson. Talk of ‘halting economic growth’ is simply a euphemism for communism. It seems to me that the only way to realistically halt economic growth is to place the production process, distribution of surpluses and consequently our relationship to nature, into the hands of the people, i.e. communism.

    Growth is an essential element of capitalism. Yet the idea that we can somehow tame the expansionistic nature of capitalism is folly. Capitalist economies have grown since their inception in the mid 18th century at about 3%. Without growth, I don’t see how it is possible for capitalism to continue. Ecological economists such as Daly call for a containment of the growth appetite of capitalism; however the rigorous regulation necessary to achieve such a system may as well be a state planned economy; moreover, I doubt the capitalist classes, who know all too well that economic growth is essential to their hegemony, would stand idly by as parliament/congress regulated away their profits and their power. Are we doing ourselves any favours by skirting the heart of the issue?

    While the Soviet socialist project was indeed a widely accepted disaster for the natural/social world I do not believe that socialism/communism necessarily produces such a result. I would argue among others (see David Harvey’s ‘Enigma of Capital’) that the Soviet and Chinese flavours of communism are really a totalitarian one party capitalist system, i.e. systems whose fundamental intent is to accumulate profits to the owners of capital (i.e. the Chinese or Soviet Communist parties); in these ‘socialist’ cases the perpetrators of destruction were easy to see; in contrast, the present nebulous transnational managerial class migrate through industry/government and military roles. They promise carbon taxes and energy intensity reductions while ignoring the heart of the problem: their commitment to capitalism, a system that relies upon inequality, the compound growth of GDP, and concentration of the surpluses into an elite class.

    Ignoring all socialist/communist responses to our present crisis is not intellectually honest. To be sure, there are significant drawbacks to using communism as a rallying call, but there are also benefits. I don’t believe we are being honest with ourselves or those we wish to convince by creating a host of euphemisms, e.g. ‘paradigm shifts’, ‘steady-state economies’, for what is essentially a call for a communist revolution. It seems to me that what we desperately need is a common banner to unite the plethora of groups resisting the unquenchable thirst of capitalist interests.

    Targeting economic growth is indeed a step in the right direction from the endless firefighting done by environmental and humanitarian NGOs. However, a more direct target is the capitalist class who maintain and perpetuate this growth ideology; they no longer deserve the privilege of managing the serious crises we presently face.

  15. Felix Whitton
    Felix Whitton says:

    Very interesting and thought-provoking article. As a self-professed conservationist, who spends a lot of his time looking at what conservation charities do, I agree that strategy too often is overlooked in favour of tactics (ie, the short-term battle is prioritised over the long-term war). Shellenberger and Nordhaus’s “The Death of Environmentalism” rages against precisely this kind of blinkered approach.

    The question is, how do we make the shift from saving small pieces of land (which can be hugely important for biodiversity, but rarely results in a net gain) to addressing the systemic causes at the root of the problems? The philosopher John Gray wrote one of the best essays on this topic about 15 years ago, titled “An agenda for Green conservatism”. It has its faults (including an over emphasis on population growth, rather than consumerism) but is one of the most coherent arguments for how conservatives and greens should be fighting together to shift towards a steady state economy.

  16. Mark Rego-Monteiro
    Mark Rego-Monteiro says:

    Interesting piece, I agree. Nevertheless, the issue is multifaceted. Each of us has to evaluate where we are in the struggle, since the industrial corporate system has become so complex. For example, Julia Butterfly Hill didn´t start out like Paul Newman´s daughter of “Newman´s Own: Second Generation organics” fame, but she protested in a tree and now has a non-profit group: http://www.circleoflife.org/index.php .

    From that view, I think we need to also ask, would anything at all have been saved if local efforts had not been made?

    I´m interested to see the high intensity interest in this blog, but can add that examples like CEO Ray Anderson´s work at Interface Carpet with his colleagues to convert the company to environmental benigness is a great paradigm to recall, as is the co-operative business model practiced at food co-ops and co-ops like Equal Exchange. Moreover, clubs and associations like Slow Food and Voluntary Simplicity have created great movements which advocate sustainable lifestyles. I hope the great interest of participants in threads like this will be aware of these practical measures that form a direct basis of any possible political actions, and of applying all theoretical formulations which debate the linguistics on top of the realities of peoples´values…..

    Philip McMichael has been writing on the food system as a sociologist, and mentions some of these movements in his historical sociological treatment. Check out his piece on the Geneaology of Food Regimes, available on line. I recommend it highly.

  17. Mark Rego-Monteiro
    Mark Rego-Monteiro says:

    Just one little note. The question of population and poverty is an interesting one. While “growth” may have been one of the paradigm in Tim Murray´s article, others include profit maximization and shareholder value maximization. This is not a simple psychological issue, I would suggest. Poverty is generally being generated today by corporate profit maximization and its socio political consequences. For me, this has lead to the emphasis on the co-op business model as the logical focus of any theoretical economic concerns and their real world implications, ecological or socioeconomic.

  18. Mark Rego-Monteiro
    Mark Rego-Monteiro says:

    Reading more into Matt´s Jan 24 post, I also suggest that the co-op model along with NGO efforts creates the relevant practical approach to create a sustainable alternative to corporate capitalist growth. So-called communist revolutions are just not focused on the real stakeholders, i.e. every single citizen who can wield power.

  19. Wilf Wilford
    Wilf Wilford says:

    Tim presents an either/or decision here. When playing with complex adaptive systems perhaps we should focus more on examining, understanding and emulating Nature’s evolutionary processes rather than choosing from one or the other. I think it is fair to say that Nature applies both/and rather than either/or approaches. Fight preservation and economic growth.

    If we are serious then it would make sense to develop a strategic campaign of multi-level and multi-sectoral perturbations/interventions and tightly coupled feedback mechanisms to adapt (amplify/attenuate, accelerate/decelerate, integrate/differentiate) as necessary to shift the whole system. This is how we actually apply network centric operations frameworks in the military realm. If we are going to use “fighting language” then why not use contemporary fighting system architectures (without the bombs and bullets of course)?

  20. Tor Mikalsen, Troms, Norway
    Tor Mikalsen, Troms, Norway says:

    Murray has some important points. And how do we fight economic growth? My answer is permaculture. Live it, spread it!

    “Permaculture is an Interdisciplinary Earth Science which encompasses all kinds of Appropriate Technologies and Sustainable Design Methodologies, such as; Renewable Energy, Water Conservation, Organic Food Production, Ecological Building Techniques, Micro-Economics and much more!

    Permaculture offers Practical Solutions using Design Principles drawn from the Observation of Natural Systems. From Individual Homes to Entire Bio-Regions, Permaculture has the potential to Repair Damaged Landscapes, Build Capacity in Communities and replace Apathy with Self Empowerment.”


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