COVID-19: Dying for Sustainability?

The current pandemic might temporarily slow down environmentally destructive economic growth. However, claiming that we are dying for sustainability is dangerous. The global sustainability crisis is not just driven by uneconomic growth but also increasing global inequality and social stratification.


Suggesting that COVID-19 is a pathway to sustainability is tempting. Transnational oil corporations have halted production. Oil prices have tumbled. Plans for new oil explorations have been halted. Shale gas companies are folding up. Air travel has plummeted. So has road travel. Consequently, emission levels have dropped. Skies have cleared. Rare and remote species of animals appear to be back in sight. As recently demonstrated elsewhere, some of this optimism is based on questionable information. Others can be questioned for comparing long-term socio-ecological change with short-term outcomes of a pandemic.

Still, humanity seems to have rediscovered its sacrosanct relationship with nature. The ramifications are wide-ranging. Some employers now recognise that work can be done from home. With so many virtual conferences now taking place, it appears that international travel is not so much needed. Maybe not so many people are needed either. Australian philosopher, Peter Singer, welcomes the death of so many old people who are no longer productive. Perhaps the reduction in unsustainable population growth could also be welcome. A world that is small and serene has come.

Is this a plausible pathway to start the journey described in The Limits to Growthfirst published in 1972? The update of that work suggests that whatever the pathway, we must have limits to growth. That is evidently the argument made by political economists such as Ezra Mishan who coined the name ‘growthmania’ in The Costs of Economic Growth, published about a decade before The Limits to Growth.

Growthmania has become even more problematic in recent times.From this perspective, only a pandemic, a major rapture like COVID-19, can disrupt the path of unsustainable growth. Humanity appears to be dying for sustainability.

Over the years, however, the critique of the degrowth movement, suggests that the story is not as simple. The current socioecological crises are far more complexUneconomic growth, as Herman Daly calls it, is only one of them.

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A room full of elephants? Population, consumption and sustainability

Shopping street.

The SDGs are are a good example of our inability or unwillingness to deal with consumption, writes the author. Photo: Arthur Kraft/Unsplash

Consumption, not population, is the elephant in the room of the sustainable development agenda.

The population question seems to be experiencing yet another resurgence in discussions on climate change and sustainable development. This is perhaps unsurprising. What is surprising is the extent to which population is presented as a ‘forgotten’ or ‘taboo’ topic, or as an ‘elephant in the room’ (just google population in combination with any of the terms).

Population has always been part of sustainability agendas and still is. As David Johnson from the Margaret Pyke Trust puts it in a recent blogpost, ‘the elephant left the room quite some time ago’. Furthermore, I would add, while addressing population growth is obviously important, and while we should continue placing reproductive rights at the core of development efforts, population growth is not our main sustainability challenge.

If we are to make development sustainable, we should rather be dealing with questions of distribution of resources and with the consumption patterns of the rich.

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