In Search of Steady State

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Website updated 18 August 2017

The First Law of Sustainability

Population growth and/or the growth in the rates of consumption of resources


“It is intellectually dishonest to talk about sustainability without stressing the obvious fact that stopping population growth is a necessary condition for sustainability.”

Al Bartlett 1923 - 2013
American Physicist

In 1978 a small group of students undertook a final year sub-thesis study called Low Energy Settlement Patterns in New Zealand at the Auckland Architectural School in New Zealand. The group’s supervisor was Associate Professor Cameron McClean. Although two energy forecast studies, Energy Scenarios for New Zealand  (Harris et al., 1977) and Goals and Guidelines: An Energy Strategy for New Zealand (Ministry of Energy, 1978) had been recently published, the group effort provided an additional contribution towards preparing for a sustainable low energy future in New Zealand.

Each student  concentrated on a particular aspect of human settlements while participating in a group ‘think tank’. Some areas of study led to conventional conclusions while others - in particular Leslie Matthew’s sub-thesis on rural settlements - led to the consensus that spatial patterns of settlements in New Zealand would need to change with the arrival of a diminishing supply of non-renewable and easily accessible high-grade energy. My own sub-thesis focused on the long-term underlying context of low energy settlements. Because it is physically impossible for any settlement to grow perpetually within a finite environment, sustainable future settlements must ultimately be based on steady state rather than growth principles. The title of my sub-thesis, In Search of Steady State, is an apt description of both its contents and the process that I undertook in writing it.

It is now almost 40 years ago since I wrote my sub-thesis. Much has happened on the sustainability front over the last four decades and not all that has been positive. In 1977 Les Gandar, the then New Zealand Minister  of Science and technology, had this to say in his opening address to a symposium on the management of dynamic systems in New Zealand agriculture:  

"Energy is another factor which dominates the whole field of agriculture. While fuel supplies were cheap and abundant, we were slow to appreciate that agriculture in the developed countries is highly energy-intensive. The increasing cost of fossil fuels and the growing awareness that these resources are finite have prompted many studies of the economics of food production expressed in terms of energy rather than money. How many calories does it cost to put a calorie of food on the table? In simple human societies which obtain their food without fossil food subsidies, a typical ratio of food calories gained to fuel calories invested is around 10. In advanced technological societies some analyses have given a ratio of calorie output to calorie input of 0.1. Of course these figures in isolation give an over-simplified view of agriculture, and I would not advocate on the strength of them that we revert to a peasant economy to increase productivity. But I do believe that simple comparisons of this nature do illustrate quite dramatically the very great dependence of our agriculture economy on energy: not simply on its cost but on its availability. It seems inevitable that a growing scarcity of the fossil fuels needed to power machinery on the farm, to produce fertilisers and pesticides, and to process and transport agricultural products must have profound long-term effects on production."

Since 1977 there has been limited action in New Zealand towards planning and preparing for a sustainable future. As of 2017 the ecological footprint of New Zealanders is one of the  highest in the world and the New Zealand agricultural sector has one of the highest per capita contributions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. New Zealand also has one of the highest per capita hydroelectricity production, but no electrified national railway system which links towns and cities. The opportunity for New Zealand to become a leader in adopting well established principles of sustainability has been largely wasted and ignored.

One positive change over recent decades has been an increasing awareness of the need to address the issue of climate change. However, this awareness has been very slow in coming. In 1976 Lester Brown gave an early warning in a Worldwatch Paper No. 5:

"The impact of the world's four billion people on climate can already be measured locally where ever population density is great. Even more worrisome, local changes may also be triggering shifts in global climatic patterns and trends. Unfortunately, the impact of man's activities on the world's weather is not fully understood. A growing population generates increasing amounts of carbon dioxide, airborne dust, and thermal pollution. It fuels an expanding demand for food that may soon be the justification for attempts by hard-pressed countries to tamper with their climate. These unforeseen and often abrupt climatic changes add yet another element of uncertainty to an already uncertain

It has taken decades for early warnings of climate change to be taken heed of and climate change deniers have much to blame for this delay. But even when finally there was general global acceptance that climate change was a reality and the first commitment to abide by the Kyoto Protocol started in 2008, there have been delays in commitment by New Zealand due to the lack of political will and influence by lobbyists with vested interests. The You-Tube documentary, Hot Air: The Politics of Climate Change in New Zealand, is an indictment of how “big business recruited climate change deniers and spin doctors to manipulate public opinion, frighten politicians and remove climate change from voters’ attention and governments’ agendas.”

Although the general public is now better aware of climate change, in New Zealand and elsewhere the term “sustainability” has been hijacked and bastardised to the extent that many politicians and business leaders still use the phrase “sustainable growth”. Even government department’s which should know better use this phrase. For example, New Zealand’s Ministry of Business Innovation & Employment (MBIE) uses this phrase on its website:

“MBIE's purpose is to Grow New Zealand for all.

'Grow' relates to the economy. To achieve the standard of living and quality of life we aspire to, we need a better-performing economy that delivers sustainable growth.”

I notified MBIE of the above anomaly in October 2016. A copy of the MBIE website purpose statement as at 5 March 2017 can be download here. MBIE had not corrected its purpose statement.  

Use of the “sustainable growth” oxymoron by the MBIE demonstrates an abysmal ignorance of the true import of sustainability and the impact of continued economic growth on climate change. MBIE’s Purpose Statement directly clashes with New Zealand’s commitment to abide by the Kyoto Protocol to curb and reduce it’s greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere.

Continuing obfuscation as to the long-term viability and feasibility of a growth versus a steady state economy has motivated me to write an update to my sub-thesis with a focus and emphasis on New Zealand. In October 2015 I started to update myself on issues of sustainability and progress made over the past 40 years. This process has involved collecting and reading relevant journal publications and books, and viewing videos, documentaries, and lecture series that address the multi-faceted and interwoven issues of sustainability. I have made many of the resources that I have identified or collected since 1990 made known or available to others in a section of another website which I later on transferred to this website. Only a selection of the books that I have collected are included on this website and I have not included journal publications.  

There is so much information on sustainability, resilience, and transition out there in the electronic world and yet so little action at government level. This leaves me pondering on how best to make effective use of my time. Regardless of what I focus on next, given the numbers of visitors who have made use of this website and the earlier section on another website, I will continue adding resources and links to this website.   

Ivan M Johnstone BSc(Physics), BArch(Hons), PhD

Dunedin, New Zealand

7 August 2017