Seattle’s struggle between economics, environment  

Is it possible to be both pro-growth and still green? The answer is NO.


(This story was originally posted Feb 2, 2010) in OUTSIDE CITY HALL

For decades, government and industry leaders and many who call themselves environmentalists have claimed we can have economic growth and still protect the natural world from destruction and pollution. In fact, some have claimed that without growth, we can’t provide that protection.

But with increased population and the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it’s becoming all too clear that economic growth and the finite capacity of our planet are on a collision course.

According to Herman Daly, former economist of the World Bank’s environmental department, humanity is already at or past the point where the social and environmental costs of economic growth start canceling out the gains.


The reality is that the economy can only keep growing by expanding its level of energy consumption, and energy consumption is the direct cause of catastrophic global warming.

No matter how efficient our technology becomes, the more the economy grows, the more we surpass any gains we can make through efficiency. And the faster the economy grows, the higher the rate at which we must “decarbonizes” – that is, replace fossil fuels with renewables or conservation.

The engines of growth also have not eradicated poverty. The gulf between rich and poor has grown exponentially in the last 30 years, nationally and globally.

Even with technological fixes, economic growth will only exacerbate shortages we already face, including over-fishing, over-logging and drawing down aquifers faster than they can recharge. In this sense, there is no such thing as “smart growth.”

The opposite of the growth economy is the “steady-state economy,” which emphasizes qualitative development in place of quantitative output.

Canadian economist Peter Victor, in his book “Managing Without Growth,” lays out how such a scenario could occur. It would take a stronger social safety net than we have now, a shorter workweek and tax policy that encourages certain kinds of investment (education, maintenance and repair) and discourages others (manufacturing some types of consumer goods).


What does this mean for Seattle? When do we face up to the limits to growth? At what point do we say we’ve reached capacity – as a city and as a region?

While the local environmental movement is far from monolithic, nevertheless, in Seattle the organizations that we might look to for leadership on moving to a steady-state economy are all-too-often arrayed on the side of economic growth. In fact, groups like Futurewise, Transportation Choices, Sustainable Seattle and even the Sierra Club appear to have embraced the false promise of green growth – that we can have our cake and eat it, too.

When it comes to local land-use decisions, this is a philosophy that assumes continued accelerated, unstoppable levels of growth. There’s a “toothpaste effect,” they argue: If you squeeze it or restrict it in Seattle, it will just go elsewhere in the region. Thus, it is our task to make it more sustainable by cramming it into Seattle.

There’s something inherently contradictory if not downright anti-environment here. How can you promote runaway growth in Seattle and the urban core with all its negative environmental consequences (loss of existing low-cost housing, tree canopy, quiet spaces, green spaces and an urban scale that allows you to meet your neighbors), then argue we need to do it to preserve or enhance those same values somewhere else?

To rephrase a popular slogan, it’s “Think globally; destroy locally.”


In recent years, Seattle has absorbed record levels of growth. By adding still more on top of that, we are quickly overwhelming the capacity of our existing infrastructure, where the cost of improving it or adding new increments to it both in dollars and energy consumed will greatly outweigh the benefits.

We do not favor building new subdivisions in rural areas or more sprawl. On the contrary, we’re saying, let’s hold the line throughout the region.

We could start first by making the urban-growth boundary impenetrable. No more permits for developments in the four-county area outside that boundary. For the growth we do get inside the boundary, let’s move to a poly-centered approach that more evenly distributes it to smaller urban centers around the region. That will ensure optimal use of the currently underutilized infrastructure already in place out there.

But even with this approach, we think the day of reckoning still looms ahead of us, when we will need to learn to live with a steady-state economy.


Most people now understand that if you build more freeways, you bring more cars, which beget more freeways, which beget still more cars. By the same token, if you create systems to accommodate more growth, you’ll get more growth.

If all municipalities moved to curb growth, we’d get less growth. If Seattle moved to limit growth it would not necessarily squeeze it somewhere else at all. Perhaps, instead, it would provide the leadership the rest of the region needs to also limit it.

Unless we seek to manage and limit growth wherever and whenever it occurs on all fronts – locally, regionally, nationally, globally – we will lose our battle with global warming.

JOHN V. FOX and Carolee Colter are coordinators for the Seattle Displacement Coalition (google it), a low-income housing organization

About John V. Fox

Director, Seattle Displacement Coalition
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