Progress and Growth are not the Same Thing
By: Jackson Kane – 2023 Summer Intern
Last year, about 7.6 million hectares of new agricultural land were created, according to Bloomberg News. This makes food cheaper for the consumer.
Last year, 4 billion metric tons of food were produced, according to Statista, the online site that collates consumer and market data. This is enough food to feed everyone on Earth.
In 2021, 390 million metric tons of plastic were produced, Statista tells us. Plastics are vital for an enormous number of products, from medicinal equipment to car parts. They make it cheaper to heat and cool homes, dramatically increase the shelf life of foodstuffs, and are vital in hospitals. Furthermore, the plastics industry employs 1.8 million people in the United States alone, industry research shows.
Is this progress?
Every year, 10 million hectares of forest are cut down. That’s 15 billion trees lost, says 8billiontrees.com.
The agricultural industry is the main driver of deforestation- less forests means more farmland.
Last year, 1.3 billion metric tons of food was wasted, while hundreds of millions of people struggled to feed themselves.
Food that has blemishes or imperfections will not be stocked in supermarkets, as consumers will not buy it. Wasting food saves farmers and companies money.
Is this progress?
Last year, the average person inhaled over 78,000 microplastic particles, according to Web MD.
Microplastics have been found in the human lung, blood, colon, and placenta. An estimated 2,400 different chemicals used in plastics have been identified as substances of potential concern by the European Union due to their potential.
Is any of this progress? I argue it is not.
Our capitalist society has one fatal flaw – the inability to separate growth and progress. In the eye of capitalism, any growth is progress, because growth means profits. Since the Industrial Revolution, humanity has been ruthlessly exploiting the natural world far beyond its capacity in the name of progress. This exploitation has been tremendously beneficial for the human race.
Citizens of many countries have access to food, travel, medicine, and entertainment that are the envy of even the richest of pre-industrial kings. Convenience in the 21st century is unparalleled, and the standard of living is at an all-time high.
This growth cannot last forever, because the emissions and pollution that are a direct result of our high standard of living threaten the health of the planet and humanity.
Warming global temperatures cause droughts and heat waves, both of which kill. In 2022, heat waves ended the lives of 61,000 people in Europe alone, according to The Guardian newspaper.
Many meteorologists tell us the first week of July this year was the hottest on record, prompting heat waves in China, Europe, and the United States. In parts of Arizona, the extreme heat has caused tar roofing to melt.
Scientists predict it is only going to get hotter. Carbon dioxide emissions have yet to stop growing.11
Gas emissions are only part of the problem, as solid waste is an issue of equal importance. Over 7 billion ton of plastic exists as pollution, emitting microplastics into the environment which pose a threat to human and animal health. 400 million more tons of plastic waste are produced every year, a figure that is expected to grow to over a billion tons by 2050.
Small lifestyle changes will make enormous impacts on plastic waste. All of the most common articles of plastic waste are single use plastics, all of which exist for pure convenience and have non-plastic substitutes, according to the UN Environment Program. If, as a society, we reduce our demand for convenience, the environment will be in a much better state.
Many of these plastic products will have to be eliminated in order to prevent further environmental degradation and health issues in humans. Society will need to scale back its consumption in order to ensure the longevity of our current standard of living.
We need to realize that, sometimes, progress and growth are not the same thing. In our situation, true progress – protecting our environment – can only be achieved by degrowth and stepping back and evaluating our actions and their consequences.
Jackson Kane wrote this opinion piece while interning for the World Affairs Council of Harrisburg and PA Media Group. It was published here.