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The Davos Open Forum on Sustainability and Economic Growth (2009 2011)
The "Open Forum" was organised by The World Economic Forum and the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches. The announcement text is from the WEF web site. Further down are the transcripts of the few parts that dealt with the topic.

Open Forum - session 5.
Do We Need Economic Growth to Achieve More Sustainability?

Saturday January 26 2008 12.45 - 14.15

There are opposing views on whether economic growth can lead to increased levels of ecological and social sustainability. Its promoters argue that economic growth is needed to apply new technologies and sophisticated products which, in turn, lead to a more economic use of natural resources, more environmental protection and social progress. Yet, opponents claim that economic growth is based on global production and consumption patterns that are destroying our natural livelihoods and increasing social inequalities.

1) Do we need economic growth to solve existing social and ecological problems? Or, does economic growth create more costs than what it actually yields?
2) Can we expect a new economic boom triggered by innovations in environmentally-friendly technologies?
3) Which strategies of sustainability are the high-growth countries of Brazil, Russia, India or China following? How do these countries handle the conflict between economic growth and sustainability?


Sharan Burrow, President, International Trade Union Confederation, Brussels sburrow @
Ricardo Hausmann, Director, Center for International Development, and Professor of the Practice of Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, USA ricardo_hausmann @
John Itty, Professor, School of People's Economics, India
Pascal Couchepin, President of the Swiss Confederation, Federal Department of Home Affairs, Switzerland
Ndi Okereke-Onyiuke, Director-General and Chief Executive Officer, The Nigerian Stock Exchange, Nigeria ndi @
Moderation Dirk Schütz, Editor-in-Chief, Bilanz, Switzerland dirk.schuetz @
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Davos Open Forum - Session 5:
"Do We Need Economic Growth to Get More Sustainability?"
Some environmental statements and comments

Transcript from the forum video, starting with some pertinent questions from the public, regarding urbanisation and limits to growth, made at 50 minutes into the 1.5 h session. Plus ecoglobe's scientific comments that the forum format did not allow to be advanced.
    [1st question from the public (at minute 56)] I'm a teacher at the International School of Geneva. My question is for Mr Hausmann. You traveled all over Latin America, Asia. So have I and I have noticed from Dacca to Manilla to Mumbai: all the cities are a mess. There is huge consumption. There is fly-overs everywhere. There's a huge number of cars. Mumbai has a population of thirty million. Local trains take on shifting people of about seven million which is more than the population of Switzerland. And you are talking about urbanisation as the only solution for India. [RH: Yea.] I beg to differ. This is the worst solution for India. [RH: Yea.] What are your views.

    Ricardo Hausmann (RH): Let me tell you. India has an urbanisation of 30 percent. So 70 percent of the people live in rural areas. We don't know of any country with an income per capita of ten thousand of twenty thousand dollars per year that has a rate of urbanisation below 80 percent. So I cannot imagine a properous India unless a large proportion of the people currently living in rural areas urbanise. That does not mean that they have to go to Bombay or Calcutta or some. I think that the most important decision for India going forward is what is going to be the structure of its cities. If you go to a country like Germany There are no large cities in Germany. There are no large cities. By Latin America Standards Berlin is a small city and Frankfurt is a village. So it has its population very well dispersed in many many small and middle-sized cities. That is a structural decision that India has to take going forward. Now I tell you one political problem that India faces. I think that the opportunities for growth in India are in urban areas. And investment will have to go to new cities where the population can migrate so that they free up land so that fewer people can work with more land and that is also going to appreciate into rural areas. The political problem is the fair way. That investments have to go to urban areas to attract people but voters are in rural areas so that's why as a discussant from India was saying that people from rural areas vote against the government so that they're investing in non-rural areas because they're not living there. And that 's a major political challenge for India going forward. I think that it's worth for India to have the kind of small and medium-sized cities that people will find attractive, clean and nice to live and instead of dodging the question of what kind of urbanisation they''ll have and people migrating in a disorderly fashion to Mumbai and Calcutta and so on.

    ecoglobe>: Mr Hausmann obviously believes the earth could sustain a world population consuming resources at our western level of exuberance. Well, Mr Hausmann is pretty wrong. Secondly, Mr. Hausmann seems to believe that income equates to happiness. Wrong again. Thirdly, suggesting that India should urbanise more orderly is inconsistent with our present-day neo-conservative capitalism that pushes for liberalization and privatisation, attributing to the state only the function to protect the wealthy.

    Dirk Schütz [DS]: Thanks. Next question please.

    John Itty [JI]: I have to disagree there.

    DS: A short intervention.

    JI: I have to disagree with that basically, with this position.

    DS: There on the right hand side.

    [Question, American accent] Professor,
    I was wondering if you could respond to the limits to growth. This is a very big conversation in the younger generation that globalisation and growth in general is running up against severe ecological limits and I know that you have views about that. Could you share them?

    RH: I think that the most important thing is for those ecological limits to become obvious in prices in the market. So that we get our scientists, our technologists, our developers to be able to find cleaner ways of doing things. If we do not make the costs of environmental damage obvious to the consumer and to the producer then there is no reason to adjust and change. And I honestly am an optimist about the capabilities of science and technology to solbe many of our problems. I come from Latin America. It's much purer than Europe. It's much dirtier than Europe. Europe is cleaner every time. the environment. It's cleaned up a lot of problems. We're dirtier with many problems because we dont' have the income and the resources. But I think that over time in the ... for example if we make carbon taxes an issue technology will respond. We will have cleaner energy technologies. If we make water scarcity a price, we will find ways cleaner ways to consume water and to have a cleaner better water and more sustainable water. So I think we have to believe in human ingenuity. It's gotten us this far. And I think that we need to organise society so that as we face these problems we find humans that are actually solving them.

    ecoglobe> Mr Hausmann believes in the market, of course. In his view there's no place for democratic governments to set rules and limits. But factually it's only the rules set by governments that regulate the market. The internalisation of environmental costs into prices is a hobby horse of economists, albeit something that has a very limited applicability.
    Mr Hausmann's optimism is naive and seriously unscientific. Ingenuity and technology will not be able to recreate non-renewable resources that are being depleted. There is also no guarantee that new technologies will be found, not by carbon taxtes or other money.
    Indeed. Human ingenuity has got us this far, where the world is overpopulated and overburdened by humanity, to such an extent that we must fear the worst in all areas, from climate change to food scarcities.
    Mr Hausmann still failed to address the basic truth that the earth is finite and that even with new technologies growth must stop. I f we don't stop voluntarily, nature will stop us, once resources run dry.

    Sharan Burrow: I think that the unrealistic part of that question is can you stop growth. And our view is that you can't. Look at the populations of Africa, India, China. You know they constantly want to have a decent living standard and that's their right just as it is for people in our countries and so you do have to do what professor Hausmann says and actually find the solutions. But we have to make sure that the future is in fact green growth that we are growing in a way that isn't further damaging the economy and that's where the people of the wolrd will have to demand from their governments that they take seriously the ecological challenges and to the extent that you look at China I was staggered when I read these figures that show that China says that they can actually ... that by 2020 they can reduce energy usage by as much as 65 percent, using existing technology just transforming existing buildings into energy saving buldings so 65 % in the construction sector alone, that's enormous that's existing technology. So we must demand that governments use what exists and invest in the future as the professor says. Because I just think to have a debate about stopping or limiting growth is unrealistic due to the current state of development of the world.

    ecoglobe> Ms Burrow says we can't stop growth. But does that make the question unrealistic? The statement was that there are limits. Adhering "what the professor says" is making exactly the same error. Furthermore Ms Burrow makes the common error of reducing the resource question to the energy problem. What she has from hear-say about China does not address the basic fact that growth is increasing the speed of resource depletion and that this planet has limits. Ms Burrow says we can do nothing to stop. So ingenuity is her "ultimate resource", as with the late Mr Julian Simon who claimed this earth could carry 80 billion people, all dematerialised with so-called green growth. What a sad future! If humanity wants to survive we have no choice but to find ways to stop expansion and then to reduce and contract, Ms Burrow!

Minute .. to minute .. : question from a Chinese member of the public and recommendations to the Chinese people and government from Mr Hausmann. Consult the video please.

Transcript from the forum video, ecoglobe's remarks, made at 1 hour and 8 minutes into the 1.5 h session:
    HL: I'm Helmut Lubbers and I'm a realist. I'm an environmental scientist. I'm a little bit hesitant about what I'm going to say because I was told today, when I came here, that I should better shut up because what I'm going to say the people don't necessarily want to hear.

    Em. You see. The topic of this - the title of this meeting was "Do we need economic growth to obtain more sustainability". Now, I'm an avid reader of the Financial Times and in the Financial Times it is spelled out, over and over again, that economic growth is increasing the ecological and environmental problems of this world.

    There is a - there was a thing of the United Nations Environmental Programme, last year, GEO four, and it shows that the world is actually becoming smaller. Because of the growth of population but also because of the growth of the use of non-renewable resources and I would like to challenge Mr Hausman how you could ever believe that ingenuity could revive resources that are non-renewable and recreate them because economic - because of intelligence. It's simply not possible.

    I've got four children and actually this idea was picked up from me because this earth was this size about a year - About a hundred years ago it had this size and now this planet has about this size. It's more like this and it's becoming smaller and smaller and smaller and I've got four grandchildren and I tell you according to me it's a no-future generation because everybody who is calling for growth is calling for more destruction.

    And to Mrs Burrow I would like to say that you can say well, it is irrealistic but you see the earth doesn't care about human realism or dreams. When we are nine billion people on this planet in fifty years time, maybe, and if there is climate change and if we run out of fossil fuels, then society as we know it will collapse and growth will only increase the problem. It will not do anything for sustainability.

    ecoglobe>Admittedly these remarks were pretty direct and tried to englobe many issues. [A polished and concise version could read as provided further down.]

    Dirk Schütz: Mr President you have the first say.

    Pascal Couchepin: I also read the Financial Times from time to time and I remember a saying in Anglo-Saxon and I think it is quite correct at least.
    The age of stone was not finished because of a lack of stones but because we invented a new technology and I think that it will be the same in the future.
    We can invent new technology. It will avoid that ecological resources will be finished.

    ecoglobe>Fact is: Stone age people did not depend upon stones. Stone age humanity was not overburdening their environment and depleting the very resources they depended upon.
    Inventions are nice. But which? and when? and what effect will they have? How certain are they? Fact is that one cannot save the environment today with technology that we may or may not invent tomorrow.
    The Precautionary Principle demands that we act now, with the tools and methods that we do have today.

    Dirk Schütz: A short answer of you Mr Hausmann.

    Ricardo Hausmann (RH):
    I think that it's thanks to people like you that poles the ecological economical challenges that science develops and that science tries to address - these issues.
    Malthus wrote in 1820 that the world was going to find limits.
    The Club of Rome wrote in 1970 that the world was going to have limits.

    ecoglobe>Fact is: Both Malthus and the Club of Rome were correct. The belief that there would be no limits is profoundly unscientific and unworthy in a serious discussion.

    RH: There is always this debate between the optimists and the pessimists and I say thank God for the pessimists because they keep us worried and finding solutions. They ...
    ecoglobe>Fact is: The distiction between optimists and pessimists is superficial and emotionally biased. Frequently the believers in limitless growth call themselves optimists and try to denigrate the critics by calling them pessimists. The critics, however, have the physical evidence of the real world on their side. The real distinction is between irrealistic beliefs and factual realism.

    RH: I can tell you that if all ...
    I come from an oil exporting country. We would like oil to be on demand for the next 150 years because that's the level of our reserves.

    ecoglobe>Fact is: This is materialistic dreaming. Fossil fuel experts expect world oil reserves to peak within the next few years. Even without continued economic growth the times of fossil fuel scarcities are around the corner. Our modern society fully depends on fossil fuels and there is no alternative, whatever hopes are being put in alternative fuels. End of oil means end of modernity. Mr Hausmann makes the common error of mixing up ressources in general with fossil fuels. It is exactly because of abundant cheap fossil fuels that this world population has been able to grow far beyond sustainable proportions over the last 250 years, to this exuberant wasteful level of resource depletion and pollution. End of oil will force us to reduce resource depletion to more sustainable levels.

    RH: I can tell you that I just had a conversation with a venture capitalist who's investing in biofuels. He says that within five years we'll have the technology to produce biofuels at less than 30 dollars a barrel and that there is enough resources in the world to substitute a hundred percent of non-renewable oil with biofuels.

    ecoglobe>Fact is: Mr Hausmann'source is not credible. On the contrary. Factual science tells a different story. The media are full of reports on the choice that must be made between food and fuel. Biofuel production is (1) bad for the environment and (2) it is criminally stupid to claim that there would be enough resources to substitute oil with biofuels.

    RH: The world is full of land and water. Let me emphasize this. The world is full of land and water. In my part of the world it's full of land and water. Water is a local issue. In my part of the world it rains and it goes. Europe and the US are trying to create biofuels by using their own food grown internally to produce biofuels. If we create a global market for biofuels, biofuels production will take place in the countries that have the land and that have the water to grow it. And we can go to a world without fossil fuels in our lifetime, in our lifetime, if the policies are right and that problem will go away.

    ecoglobe>Fact is: Here Mr Hausmann loses himself in rethorical babble, devoid of any scientific reality. At this very WEF one major topic is water, not because the "the world is full of water" but non-renewable water is being depleted and renewable water is lacking in many areas.

    RH: So there are many things that we can do that has gotten us to this stage in history and that will carry us further. That is the message we have to send to our kids, that the world has a future.

    ecoglobe>Fact is: The message is not meant for the kids. The message is destined to the leaders who will have to take courage and become real. There is no "further". We have only one choice: going back and reduce. If humanity does not reverse its self-destructive course, it is thanks to the lurid ideologues of the type of Mr. Hausmann.

    Compare the letter sent to Mr. Hausmann

    [HL (interjection without microphone): That is nonsense]

    John Itty: But if we depend on biofuels...

    [HL (interjection without microphone) That is absolute nonsense. Biofuels is the worst thing that we can do. You are just not informed, Mr Hausmann]

    John Itty: And if you depend more on biofuels it will have an impact on the food grains.

    Sharan Burrow: But let us dignify the question. I think we should dignify the question. I understand your concerns for your children and your grandchildren.

    [HL (interjection without microphone) I'm not worried.]

    Okay. But I share them. The thing is though that the question comes back to us. How seriously can we influence, democratic countries, the policies of government to heed the concerns that you raise. Because 70 percent of energy in my country is still based on fossil fuels. I know as a citizen and a labourer in my country that we have to do something about that. And every day we try through the unions to advocate a baklanced change in the way we do business. Now, you know, the sun was here for all of us. In Nevada I think they are now using their solar formal to 30 percent of the base load. We have to make sure that the companies who make all the money of the current destructive practices we find alternative ways and alternative jobs that actually preserve the future. My only comment about irrealism is a pragmatic one. I don't believe that I or indeed workers of the world can change the nature of the capitalist environment unless we have governments and partnerships with strong democracies to force the answers to the questions that you raise which are legitimate.

    ecoglobe>Fact is: The earth does not care about social issues. The question is not one of changing capitalism. The issue is that capitalism and socialism both believe this planet has no limits. Pragmatics demand the recognition of the basic fact that humanity has overshot the earth's carrying capacity and that we must therefore reduce and not grow. 6.7 billion people of equal wealth exert the same pressure on the planet as 5.7 biilion poor and 1 billion rich people. Having said this, capitalism is bad for society and the environment because it causes far more wasted resources than a social-democracy in which the citizens can decide to manage resources responsibly for useful purposes.

    [HL (interjection without microphone) I'm not willing to accept this sort of nonsense as told by Mr Hausmann .....]

    DS: Let's move on to the next question...

    Below follows the concise presentation that I should have delivered:

    My name is Helmut Lubbers. I am an environmental scientist, representing the sustainability advocacy organisation
    The topic of this Forum was "Do We Need Economic Growth to Get More Sustainability?"
    The answer is twofold:
    - first, sustainability does not need economic growth and
    - second, economic growth is factually detrimental to sustainability.
    Growth always increases environmental problems and it speeds up the depletion rates of non-renewable resources.
    Humanity is already overloading this planet by far. Because of economic and population growth the earth is getting relatively smaller and smaller.
    My grandchildren are a no-future generation if we continue this growth policy on this finite planet.
    The present scenario looks like this:
    - 8.5 billion people expected by 2050
    - The combined effects of climate change and fossil energie crunch will disrupt transportation, food production and our technical systems in general, possibly leading to a total collapse and resource wars.
    One should know that ingenuity and technology will never be able to recreate lost resources and destroyed nature.
    One must work with the means that one has. One cannot work with inventions that may or may not be made.
    Therefore, as long as we promote growth, we are in reality promoting the demise of humanity.
    Growth is detrimental to sustainability because it increases the speed of resource depletion on this finite planet.
    Hope and technology cannot change this fact.
    I can only try and hope that sufficient opinon leaders will recognise the reliaties and change public policy.
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Compare: (Link added 22 November 2012.)
Letter sent to Mr Ricardo Hausmann: []
Helmut E. Lubbers
BE MsocSc DipEcol
14 Boulevard Carl-Vogt
CH-1205 Genève / Genf
Tel./tél. +41-22-3212320

Genève/Genf, 11 February 2008

ecoglobe, 14 bd. Carl-Vogt, CH-1205 Genève
Mr Ricardo Hausmann, Director, Center
for International Development, and
Professor of the Practice of Economic
Development, John F. Kennedy School of
Government, Harvard University, 79 JFK
Street, Cambridge, MA 02138 U.S.A.

Scientific environmental outlook, your comments at the Davos Open Forum session 5
Dear Mr Hausmann,

Enclosed you receive a transcript of your words about the environmental situation, completed with comments, where necessary. The problem is not environmental. It is ideological and psychological. It is a matter of mindsets, originating from upbringing, career and social factors. Let me explain.

On the one hand we have hard scientific evidence which tells us that the earth is being depleted at an ever higher rate because of human economic and reproductive hyperactivity. Humanity has largely overshot the earth's carrying capacity and we are seriously out of balance. Actually, with the present developments, a total collapse must be expected before long, possibly as soon as within a few generations, i.e. by the middle of this century. This is a very dark albeit scientific outlook.

On the other hand we have a thin societal layer of opinion leaders in politics, business and the discipline of economics (the PBE compact) whose thoughts and actions are guided by the ideology of economic growth. This model is so rigidly ingrained that it sometimes leads to the most peculiar denials of physical facts and the promotion of illusionary "solutions".

Unfortunately the power structures and societal incentives are such that the short term financial and material gains take precedence over societal governance, the latter which should be in line with the precautionary principle. The prevailing power structures control most of the media and public events, like the Davos Open Forum and they are framed in such a way that the consensus in the PBE compact is maintained. Unscientific hopes and expectations, shallow environment-related "knowledge" is frequently repeated unquestioned, as long as the author has some name or fame within the system. Such an attitude is the result of our educational and career systems, which reward obedience and punish independent thinking. But ultimately the emperor of hope and optimism has no clothes. The environment can only be protected with the means that one really has today and not with those that one may or may not invent tomorrow. Ingenuity and technology cannot recreate depleted non-renewable resources and revive extinct species.

Your reaction, Mr Hausmann, did not address the topic of the forum, being "Do We Need Economic Growth to Get More Sustainability?", nor did you provide valid answers to the points that I raised. I choose to repeat what I said at the Forum: As long as the opinion leaders promote economic growth, humanity is doomed and your and my grandchildren are a no-future generation. After 20 years of specialization in environmental motivation and ecological sciences, my outlook is growing ever darker. But I stay an optimist, advocating ecological and scientific realism. And I am not alone. Many normal citizens and scientists share my views. So who knows?

I thank you for your kind attention and look forward to your reaction with much interest. Yours faithfully,

    Helmut E Lubbers
ecological psychologist