Qualicum Institute: Advocating a science-based understanding of ecological, social and economic survivability

Language—and truth in politics—matters

Is it sustainable...or is it sustain-a-babble?

Click on the squares of this poster to read our thoughts.


Sustainable economic growth Smart Growth Green Growth Decoupling Three-legged stool More sustainable Technology Recycling Kuznets Curve Net zero UN Sustainable development goals Green New Deal Sustain-a-babble Speak up!

Sustainable economic growth

This oxymoron is a good place to start and you’ll often hear it phrased as “sustainable development.” Economic growth is an increase in the production and consumption of all goods and services including increases in capital goods, the human population, technology, and human capital. It comes from the consumption of natural capital, usually accompanied by its destruction or impoverishment.i It is commonly measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP).ii

If GDP is rising, it means that the total amount of goods and services produced from Earth’s resources are increasing. Economists generally aim to increase annual global GDP by 3%, which means material throughput and energy use—raw materials from the Earth’s ecosystems—double every 23 years despite technological advances in efficiencies occurring simultaneously.iii

We noted that sustainable means being maintained in existence without interruption or diminution. But in 2022, humanity exhausted nature’s annual resource budget by the end of July and for the remainder of the year, added to our ecological debt—known as overshoot—by drawing down additional resource stocks and creating even more carbon emissions and other pollutants.iv Such consumption would require 1.8 Earths, but we only have one. Growth, even with the label sustainable tacked on, is anything but sustainable.


i Sustainable economic systems [11 June 2023].

ii What is economic growth? [7 May 2023].

iii Hickel, J. 2020. Less is More. How Degrowth Will Save the World. Windmill. Pages 90, 101, 102.

iv Earth Overshoot Day [7 May 2023].

Smart Growth

The Smart Growth website describes this urban planning concept as development that supports economic growth, strong communities and environmental health: Smart growth covers a range of development and conservation strategies that help protect our health and natural environment and make our communities more attractive, economically stronger, and more socially diverse.’i Certainly, livability is championed by challenging urban sprawl; addressing traffic congestion through transit, walking and biking; creating compact neighbourhoods with parks; and, by considering affordable housing. But Smart Growth is still growth, which, by definition, is not sustainable.

Smart Growth’s inclusion of environmental protection distracts from the central issue of relentless economic growth. The planning profession is not grounded in ecology or ecological economics and the best that Smart Growth, along with sensitive density infill and compact communities can deliver is temporary environmental harm reduction. It helps take the apparent edge off the damage to ecosystems but nature continues to be liquidated. This impedes rather promotes the protection or conservation of the natural world.

The late Albert Allen Bartlett, emeritus professor of physics, summed up the concept: ‘Smart growth’ destroys the environment. ‘Dumb growth’ destroys the environment. The only difference is that ‘smart growth’ does it with good taste. It’s like booking passage on the Titanic. Whether you go first-class or steerage, the result is the same.


i Smart Growth [14 November 2022].

Green Growth

If being ‘Smart’ about growth doesn’t work, maybe being ‘Green’ is the answer. According to Wikipedia, green growth is a hypothetical path where economic growth can be ‘decoupled’ from resource use and adverse environmental impacts. Decoupling is primarily achieved through ‘sustainable’ or renewable energy systems.i

Unfortunately, in its reliance on the faulty concept of decoupling green growth neglects the need for underlying economic system changes required to address the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, and other planetary boundaries that should not be crossed. Given its prominence in many sustain-a-babble strategies, we’ve devoted a section to eco-economic decoupling.


i Green growth [13 May 2023].


The concept of decoupling is based on the idea that economic growth can be separated from the increased consumption of energy and materials—essentially making something from nothing. Decoupling keeps popping up in various sustain-a-babble strategies even-though there is no evidence in the peer-reviewed, scientific literature suggesting that absolute decoupling is physically possible.

In our recent review of the Canadian Government’s reliance on decoupling as part of its environmental and sustainable development policy, the Qualicum Institute discussed two forms of decoupling: relative and absolute. For specific examples see our paper: Minister McKenna: Where is the Science?i

Relative decoupling occurs when GDP expands more quickly than environmental damage and resource use. Environmental impacts continue to grow (which means it’s not sustainable), but the economy grows faster.

Absolute decoupling would be achieved when environmental impacts and resource use fall or remain stable even as the economy grows. The scientific literature (as opposed to the work of conventional economists and business leaders summarized in marketing documents) makes it clear that absolute decoupling is impossible.


i Dawe, N.K., S. Fisher, G. Addy, R. Hampton, T. Martin, A. Hawryzki and A. McLash. Minister McKenna: Where is the science? Qualicum Institute. [13 May 2023].

Three-legged stool

This model attempts to illustrate that the environment, social well-being and the economy are each three legs of a stool. The legs are distinct but must be the same length and are equally important to a well balanced sustainable stool or sustainable development.

Dawe and Ryani outline that the problem with the model is that humanity is still being placed outside of the environment. The environment is not and cannot be a leg of the sustainable development stool. It is the floor upon which the stool, or any sustainable development model, must stand. It is the foundation of any economy and social well-being that humanity is fortunate enough to achieve.

Like the current neoclassical economic model that has no connectivity to the biosphere, the three-legged stool model fails to encourage us to recognize our place within the biosphere. And like the triple bottom line concept, it suggests that if we can only find an equal balance between our economic needs, our social well-being, and the environment, we can simply continue to tread our current path – business-as-usual economic growth.


i Dawe, N.K. and K.L. Ryan. 2003. The Faulty Three-Legged-Stool Model of Sustainable Development. Conservation Biology, Pages 1458–1460 Volume 17, No. 5.  [9 April 2023].

More sustainable

If the adjective sustainable means that something is capable of being maintained in existence without interruption or diminution, how can that ‘something’ be ‘more’ sustainable? Is there a super-duper existence or other levels of non-interruption or diminution that could be attained? No! What users of this phrase generally mean is less environmentally damaging or not quite as un-sustainable as it used to be. So, ‘more sustainable’ means un-sustainable. What is sustainable is a steady state economy, but even that couldn’t be ‘more sustainable’.

More sustainable’ is a perfect example of co-opted language where superficially positive words are used to confuse the underlying concepts (clean coal and ethical oil are other well known examples of co-opted language). Co-opting language works to silence people by denying them access to the vocabulary to express their claims and it circumvents the facts. The ability to have an honest conversation is a tremendous national and public resource – co-opted language pollutes the public square crowding the space for high quality, constructive, mind-changing conversations.i


i Hoggan, J. and G. Litwin. 2006. I’m Right and You’re an Idiot. The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean it Up. New Society Publishers. Gabriola Island. Canada.


Technology is a tool that can help us live well within physical and ecological limits, but sustain-a-babble presents technological solutions as if these limits can be easily changed or even erased out of existence. This is especially so when speaking about a transition to renewable energy. Seibert and Reesi outline why a ‘simple’ transition to energy electrification with high-tech renewable solutions such as wind turbines and solar photovoltaic panels, is dangerously foolhardy. Raw sunlight and wind may be clean and continuous but harnessing these energy sources is anything but.

The characteristics of an energy resource are important. Heinberg, a senior fellow at the post carbon institute summarizes the issues of why an energy resource is unhelpful if it requires nearly as much energy to produce as it provides.ii The net energy ratio gives us an approximate estimation of this relationship. Renewables can’t offer the same quantity and quality of energy that fossil fuels can – that is, the energy invested on the energy returned is much, much lower for renewables than it is for fossil fuels.

Similarly, an energy resource is worthless if we can’t use it the way we need it. The world’s infrastructure for transportation and commerce was built for oil and coal power in large part because these resources are relatively easy to store and transport, and can be used at will. Most renewables lack these attributes. This is why, although the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth’s surface exceeds global energy consumption, it should not be confused with the complications of harvesting that energy.

Technological optimists also tend to overlook the fact that the production of renewables from mining to installation relies intensely on fossil fuels during the manufacturing process. High-tech wind turbine and battery production requires the high temperatures generated by fossil fuels with little hope that this heat could be generated using only renewables. Renewables, in our current economic system, are merely a parasite on, not a replacement for, the fossil fuel system.


ii Heinberg, R. 2015. Neither Utopia Nor Extinction [9 April 2023].


Recycling is linked to the idea of an efficient circular economy in which the materials can be used and reused. This reminds us of the perpetual motion machine running indefinitely without an external source of energy to power it. Both concepts violate the laws of thermodynamics.

Although it may be good to recycle, a good portion of materials become irreversibly degraded over time and some energy inputs are not recoverable at all. And of course, growth demands a net increase in building stocks and infrastructure. As such, no matter how much you recycle and reuse the system always needs high quality resource inputs from the Earth’s limited supply of natural resources.i


i  Hickel, J. 2020. Less is More. How Degrowth Will Save the World. Windmill. Pg. 158.

Kuznets Curve

Underpinning the more recent idea of decoupling is the older Kuznets Curve theory that environmental damage accelerates with a growing economy but then reduces once the economy generates enough wealth to repair or limit the damage. This relationship can be graphed as an inverted ‘U’ curve: .

Here too, there is a litany of scientific assessment finding that this relationship does not hold true and in 2012, the World Bank stated that the Kuznets curve is a disproved theory, socially as well as environmentally.i Additional studies have found that the relationship between economic growth and environmental damage may actually follow an ‘N-shaped’ pattern where early stages of growth may for a time be associated with decreasing environmental impacts, but then the trend reverses and environmental damage ramps up once again.

Also, ecosystems and species once extinct can never be brought back to their former glory despite the level of economic wealth achieved. See our paper Minister McKenna: Where is the Science?, for specific examples and references to the peer-reviewed scientific literature.ii


i The World Bank. 2012. Inclusive Green Growth. The Pathway to Sustainable Development. [14 January 2023].

ii Dawe, N.K., S. Fisher, G. Addy, R. Hampton, T. Martin, A. Hawryzki and A. McLash. Minister McKenna: Where’s the science? Qualicum Institute.  [13 May 2023].

Net zero

The United Nations describes net zero as cutting greenhouse gas emissions to as close to zero as possible, with any remaining emissions re-absorbed from the atmosphere, by oceans and forests or by technological means. The idea is that the emissions produced by a country, state, city, company, or even by a building are counterbalanced by an equivalent amount of emissions reductions.

We know that to avert the worst impacts of climate change and preserve a livable planet, global temperature increase needs to be limited to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.ii Net zero calls for nothing less than a complete transformation of how we produce, consume, and move about and requires replacing coal, gas and oil-fired power with energy from renewable sources, such as wind or solar to assist with dramatically reducing carbon emissions.iii

The problem lies in the fact that the technologies required to meet net zero criteria either haven’t been invented yet or haven’t been tested at a global scale. Looking at carbon budgets and the 116 mitigation pathways identified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 5th Assessment Report, 101 rely on negative emissions. Most have never been proven to be economically viable at scale and would require large tracts of land that are needed to produce food and preserve biodiversity. iv


i IUnited Nations. Climate Action: what is net zero?  [14 January 2023].

ii Cho. R. 2021. Net Zero Pledges: Can They Get Us Where We Need to Go? Columbia Climate School. [9 April 2023].

iii International Energy Agency. Net Zero by 2050. A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector.  [13 May 2023].

iv Hickel. J. 2019. The Contradiction of the Sustainable Development Goals: Growth versus Ecology on a Finite Planet. Sustainable Development. 2019;1-12.  [13 May 2023].

UN Sustainable development goals

Adopted in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly, the United Nations website describes the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as ‘…a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future…they recognize that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.’i

At first blush, this sounds promising but once again, there is the call for continued economic growth and the baseless assumption that efficiency can compensate for the impacts of growth and thus reduce environmental harm; it’s the ‘decoupling’ and ‘technology will save’ us arguments all over again.

Hickel analyzes the internal contradiction between the SDGs and Goal 8 which calls for continued global economic growth equivalent to 3% per year, violating the sustainability objectives.ii As outlined in the decoupling section of this poster, studies indicate that there is a high correlation between resources used up to grow the economy (and GDP) and ecological degradation. And when we look at growth in the 21st century, material efficiency is not decoupling – it’s actually been getting worse with materials being used at a rate that outstrips the rate of GDP growth.

While it is reasonable to call for economic growth in poorer nations in order to meet the necessities of life, there is no longer room for continued growth in every nation, especially past the point where growth is able to deliver social benefits.


i United Nations. Department of Economic and Social Affairs. UN Sustainable Development Goals [26 February 2023].

ii Hickel. J. 2019. The Contradiction of the Sustainable Development Goals: Growth versus Ecology on a Finite Planet. Sustainable Development. 2019;1-12. <https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/sd.1947> [13 May 2023].

Green New Deal

The Green New Deal builds on green growth, claiming that an intensive effort to invest in clean-energy jobs and infrastructure will transform not just the energy sector, but the entire economy.i It aspires to decarbonize the economy and make it fairer and more just. The focus on climate change is problematic as this is a symptom of the greater problem of ecological overshoot which isn’t addressed.

A major problem is that we can’t transition fast enough to outpace growth, certainly not within the time-frame specified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Paris Agreementii, and more growth means more resource materials and energy demand. For example between 2015 and 2022, renewable electricity grew at a rate less than the total growth in demand for electricityiii.

Another major problem is that transitioning to renewables requires ‘a dramatic increase in the extraction of metals and rare-earth minerals, with real ecological and social costs.’iv Seibert and Rees cite multiple studies that detail how much of the costs of mining and refining of the materials to build renewables are displaced to the Global South for the benefit of the Global North. Costs include environmental destruction, air pollution, water contamination, risk of cancer and birth defects, low-paid labour, gender inequality, exploitation of ethnic minorities, refugees and children, land grabs, conflict, violence and more. This is certainly not meeting the promise of ‘fairer and more just’.


i Roberts, D. 2019. The Green New Deal, Explained. [14 January 2023].


We couldn’t agree more with Englemen from the Population Institute: “We live today in an age of sustain-a-babble, a cacophonous profusion of uses of the word sustainable and its spin offs”.i Today, sustainable can mean anything from environmentally better to cool. This sustain-a-babble impedes true ecological protection and real measures to address the ravages of climate change. In other words, it does nothing to secure human survival.

Originally, the adjective sustainable described something which is capable of being maintained in existence without interruption or diminution. Today, the word is used to make destructive or business-as-usual policies—ones that we know can’t be maintained—sound all right. Sustain-a-babble encourages the belief that we can have it all—that we can continue to consume and grow indefinitely on a finite planet with finite resources without undermining its ability to support us.

Our poster highlights common sustain-a-babble phrases and concepts that, frankly, have us shaking our heads. It’s almost impossible to go a day without hearing at least a few of them and they are often jumbled together, with one faulty concept building on another. The result is a non-sensical muddle.


i Engleman, R. 2013. Beyond Sustainababble [9 April 2023].

Speak up!

The Qualicum Institute encourages the habit of watching for and examining sustain-a-babble, calling it out and demanding honest language based on current scientific knowledge. We want truth in advertising and clear-headed logical discourse on the environmental crises we face. Sustain-a-babble pollutes the public square – muddling discourse and stalling our ability to think collectively to solve dangerous problems.

We recognize that we’re asking you to join us in examining the fundamental values we’ve grown up with and that you may hold dear. We’re asking you to consider changing a world view that assumes that the overarching policy objective of government should be economic growth – especially in rich countries. It’s a worthwhile endeavour and you’ll be joining a growing body of scientists, ecological economists, like Peter Victor, and other dedicated thinkers who are grappling with limits to growth. If we are to look for genuine solutions to ecological overshoot, we have to look beyond economic growth.

As far as we know from oral, written and pictorial records, belief in the idea of [economic growth] as progress that we take for granted is at odds with what people believed throughout all but the last moments of human history.”i


i Victor, P.A. 2008. Managing Without Growth. Slower by Design, Not Disaster. Edward Elgar Publishing.

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