endless consumption via AP

Endless “Sustainable” Growth is an Oxymoron

In a previous Common Edge article, I briefly discussed a concept that I call the “Triple Bottom Lie,” which posits that more people, plus more consumption by each person, plus an economic system completely dependent on the aforementioned items, can just keep working forever, without consequences. Historically, the U.S. has accepted the economic shibboleth of endless growth because it reduced class conflict; a rising tide (supposedly) lifted all boats, rafts and yachts included. We are, however, approaching the limits of growth, from both a resource standpoint (we’re running out of raw materials) and a technological standpoint (our inventions are progressively less revolutionary).

But these realities have not dented the hegemony of the Triple Bottom Lie and its mantra of “more, more, more”—more of our time, devoted to creating more stuff, so that we can achieve more. But more what, exactly?

Efforts to create sustainable architecture and urbanism have been undercut by the Triple Bottom Lie. Building new “high performing” LEED-rated buildings still means additional energy consumption, and even if every new project were regenerative in nature, we have to ask if we even need them. For example, the U.S. has 900 million square feet of empty retail space, at a time when we have approximately 20 times the retail space per person of Germany and 30 times the retail space per person of Mexico. Do we need yet another strip shopping center, even one that meets the Living Building Challenge?

While architects discuss the efficacy of LED light bulbs or the best insulation system for our buildings, the giant economic machine that undergirds our industry continues to devour our collective home, Earth. But at long last, the question of economics has been brought to the fore, by a rather unlikely source: Patrik Schumacher, principal at Zaha Hadid Architects.

Schumacher, whom controversy follows like a shadow, seemed less-than-committed to Architects Declare, the movement to which his firm was an early signatory. Rather than follow the “draw down” plan suggested, Schumacher offered a different version. In a 2020 Architect’s Journal article, Schumacher said: 

We need to allow prosperity and progress to continue, and that will also bring the resources to overcome [the climate crisis] through investment, science and new technology.

That must be built on continued growth and cannot be built on a panicked shrinking of the economy, [which would] lead to massive regressions and political upheavals.

Schumacher is both wrong and right.

He is wrong when he argues that “continued growth” is the solution. Indeed, continued growth—of population, of industry-based economies, of unequal wealth—is the problem. The planet cannot sustain the current population of humans at current consumption levels, never mind more people who consume even more per person. As mathematics professor Andrew Hwang notes in Business Insider, “[T]he Earth can support at most one-fifth of the present population, 1.5 billion people, at an American standard of living.”

This is not a new idea. Written in the 1970s, The Limits to Growth used computer modeling to assert that many of the world’s most important resources would run out in a matter of a few generations, leading to a hellish period of famine and warfare. The modeling in the book was arguably primitive, and some of the timelines unduly pessimistic, but the basic premise holds. As scientist John Scales Avery wrote in his 2012 book, Information Theory and Evolution, “Although the specific predictions of resource availability in Limits to Growth lacked accuracy, its basic thesis—that unlimited economic growth on a finite planet is impossible—was indisputably correct.”


If, perhaps, Nixon-era predictions about the future are not entirely convincing, the charts in Tony Juniper’s 2018 book, How We’re F***ing Up Our Planet (which has, perhaps, the most cleareyed title of all time), reinforces the essential premise. In every case, stressors are rapidly increasing while resources are diminishing. Schumacher is also wrong in seeing technology as the panacea that will allow the carnival of conspicuous consumption to continue. Technology still leads to the creation of stuff, and stuff requires material resources. Even the most incorrigible reprobate cannot break the laws of physics, specifically the principle of entropy. Furthermore, the fantasy of greater efficiencies will not save the day. In our economic system, greater efficiencies lead to lower prices and, typically, increased—not decreased—consumption.

At this point, some creative types have suggested mining asteroids, or expanding humanity to the stars. But assorted megalomaniac billionaires notwithstanding, this is the realm of science fiction—or magical thinking—and not a solution to a problem that has already arrived.

In contrast to his arguments about growth and technology, Schumacher is absolutely correct when he argues that the move toward sustainability has the potential to cause “massive regressions and political upheavals.” These “upheavals” were plainly evident during the “Yellow Vest” protests in France, which were the result of a modest gasoline tax that proved to be one financial blow too many for the working class, particularly in the less-affluent rural provinces where people rely on their automobiles for almost all basic transportation. 

That said, I suspect that Schumacher would not support the obvious answer: increasing the social safety net. Recognizing that people will inevitably fight anything that threatens their livelihoods, the authors of the Green New Deal and other progressive plans to address climate change stay equally focused on economic and social sustainability, in addition to environmental sustainability.

The Architects Declare steering group, in response to Schumacher’s advocacy for an unfettered free market approach, provided a direct rebuttal to his positions and a concise, cogent argument against endless growth. The steering group wrote:

[W]e need a much more sophisticated discussion about growth that distinguishes between qualitative and quantitative growth. There are some things we need to grow—such as ecosystems, human health, community cohesion, political unity, the vitality of the commons—and some things we need to urgently shrink, such as hyper-consumption, luxury lifestyles and unconstrained aviation.

Given the richness of debate going on in…other fields, it is troubling to hear leading figures in architecture like Patrik Schumacher talking about the need for continuous growth and progress. As Edward Abbey observed, “growth for growth’s sake is the ideology of the cancer cell.”

Apparently, that was too much for Schumacher and ZHA, so the firm withdrew from Architects Declare. Considering that architects must visualize an environment that does not yet exist, the lack of imagination among architects can sometimes be stunning. This planet could be a Garden of Eden, if we—the citizens of the planet—bent our collective will toward the project. Although we do not know everything about what Aldo Leopold calls the “biotic community,” we know enough that we should be able to avoid destroying the soil, water, plants, and animals on which we rely. Architects and other designers could thrive in such an environment, if we would simply frame the problem in a way that represents 21st century realities rather than 20th century nostalgia.

Ironically, New Frontier nostalgia is counterproductive, as architects and other designers have excelled when faced with limitations. Jonny Campbell, a documentary filmmaker who was trained as an architect, made the following observation:

This brings to mind something that an architecture tutor said to us in the first days of architecture school, which was “constraint is the catalyst of creativity.” As the design professions increasingly question how they operate in a world of finite resources, I think it is important to carry forward a sense that constraint and scarcity, when coupled with the right approach to design, can result in projects of great value and richness.

An economy and a culture completely devoted to more of everything cannot function indefinitely. The consequences of dedicating our lives to endless consumption will soon enough be upon us, and the next can we kick might just be a bucket. The only question is whether the landing will be hard or soft—whether we’ll stagger blindly toward an abrupt and violent denouement, or walk confidently toward a different, but potentially richer and more secure future.

Featured image via the Associated Press. Match image created by the author, via Wikimedia, NASA, and SnappyGoat.com.


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