In a recent report on their progress incorporating sustainability into their business practices leaders at Wal-Mart could have been speaking for the entire global economic system:
"In working to reduce our carbon footprint, one of our biggest challenges remains our growth. As we continue to grow, so does our carbon footprint -- even if it grows at a much slower rate. However, we see our expansion as an opportunity to have a positive effect on absolute carbon because being a growth company enables us to explore and invest in new technologies that may lead to carbon reduction."
I have been trying to think of an analogy for the challenge of working towards sustainability while continuing to grow. What's the equivalent from every day life?
Trying to climb out of debt by clipping coupons while moving into a more expensive house every year?
Trying to lose weight by eating lower calorie foods while increasing the number of meals you eat each day?
I understand the logic (the hope?) of the second excerpted sentence: that profits (resulting from growth) could fund the discovery and scale-up of ways to generate energy without generating greenhouse gas pollution. This is the best we can hope for within the paradigm of the industrial growth society, which tells us that a business or an economy can never afford to stop growing.
Even if it works, even if Wal-Mart's growth-powered investments provide the the world with zero-carbon energy sources in time to avert the worst of climate change, we know that there will be another limit - mercury, or toxins, or biodiversity loss, or something else – waiting just behind the limit of greenhouse gas pollution. And another limit behind that one. We know - deep in our hearts we have to know, by now – that this is a game that, in the end, cannot be won.
Waiting just beyond that realization is a universe of possibility. Wal-Mart could lead the world by changing its business model, saying it is big enough, turning from growth to development.
Maybe a vision of a 'big enough' Wal-Mart sounds impossible to you.
But I'm certain that it is more possible than the idea of future generations living good lives on this finite planet with an economy that cannot stop growing.
With Wal-Mart openly talking about the interplay of growth and sustainability, maybe that day isn't as far off as we might think.