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Local View: Human's zeal for growth is taking its toll on our Earth

From the column: "There have been many benefits from growth; no one can deny that — but it has come at a horrific cost."

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Christopher Weyant / Cagle Cartoons
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Are we so obsessed with growth that we are outstripping our planet’s ability to survive?

The human body is an amazing instrument of systems. The cardiovascular and circulatory system, the nervous system, and others all work separately, yet in harmony, with incredible precision to keep the body healthy, functioning, and, hopefully extending our lives. Many illnesses we are confronted with such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and respiratory ailments are the result of the choices we make, choices we control.

Unfortunately, even knowing this, many people are unwilling to change their habits, and their lives are often cut short.

This planet we call home is much like the human body. It has incredible systems that work separately as well as together to sustain life. As magnificent and majestic as it is, our Earth needs our help so it can remain healthy and continue its work.

Growth, for years, has become the mainstream economic and political thinking. Driving up the GDP is now considered a must lest we risk declining standards of living and all hope for progress. Another aspect of pushing for growth is that it reduces poverty. The extreme poverty rate, those who live on less than $2.15 a day (think about that) has declined. Growth has increased wealth around the world, which is not a bad thing except that it has gone to more affluent countries, and the spread between the haves and have nots continues to grow, as Pew Research and others have demonstrated.

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Government and corporate leaders do all they can to produce more growth. But because of their proclivity for growth, how much ecological damage are we doing to this planet?

Growth adds more people, cars, factories, and homes. There is a limit to the rate at which humanity can extract resources such as crops, wood, fish, metals, and minerals while emitting wastes such as greenhouse gasses and toxic substances without exceeding the productive or absorptive capacities of this planet.

The global population was a little over 6 billion in 2000 and is projected to be over 9 billion in 2050. Think of the additional amount of the Earth’s resources that will need to be extracted and can’t be replaced, as well as the amount of additional greenhouse gasses and toxic substances produced that can’t be adequately filtered out of our air and water. According to the UN, those 9 billion people will use 10,200 cubic kilometers of water per year. (There are 264 billion gallons of water in one cubic kilometer; do the math.) That’s 82% of the global freshwater runoff. Water is the least substitutable and most essential resource. Its limits constrain other necessary production of such things as food and forest products.

The world has lost a third of its arable land due to erosion or pollution in the past 40 years, with potentially disastrous consequences as global demand for food sources grows, according to a Guardian report. Parts of the world today, because of massive heatwaves, can’t grow enough food to feed people in their own countries.

Forests take in and hold a great stock of carbon, which helps balance the stock of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and thus ameliorates the greenhouse effect and global warming. Unfortunately, we continue to lose significant forestlands each year due to forest fires and deforestation. This is unsustainable.

We don’t have to let our obsession with growth continue to drive our dangerous and unsustainable actions. There have been many benefits from growth; no one can deny that — but it has come at a horrific cost. With our push to grow the size of the pie, we have left a large segment of our society with no pie to share. We have polluted our planet and depleted our resources beyond our planet’s ability to repair or replace.

Economist Herman Daly has pushed for a steady-state economy, which recognizes the need for growth but also the physical limitations of our planet — and seeks a sustainable economic and ecological equilibrium.

We are all people of the world and have a stewardship responsibility to collectively be speaking out to our politicians and corporate leaders about responsible growth — growth that will allow us to manage our resources and develop alternate technologies to replace resources that will no longer exist.

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This planet, like the human body, needs constant attention. If we aren’t willing to work collectively to protect it, the life of this planet, just like human life, could be cut short.

J. Doug Pruitt of Knife River is a writer and contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page.

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J. Doug Pruitt

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