Thursday, March 11, 2010

Beware the Nine Billion Ton Hamster

By Dave Rochlin - originally posted on

My friends at the Global Footprint Network sent me a link to a video which asks, "What if hamsters grew non-stop, the way we expect economies to?" The answer: We would have nine billion ton hamsters.

Check out the video: (

Here's the transcript:

From birth to puberty, a hamster doubles its weight each week.

If it didn't stop when mature, as animals do, and continued to double,
on its first birthday we would be staring at a nine billion ton hamster.

This hamster could eat all of the corn produced annually worldwide in a single day, and still be hungry.

There is a reason why, in nature, things grow in size only to a certain point.

So why do most economists and politicians think that the economy
can grow forever and ever and ever?

Personally, I think this massive hamster should be grass fed.

The spot was made by the New Economics Foundation (NEF), a self proclaimed think-and-do-tank. While some of their ideas are intriguing - such as using a 'happiness index' and focusing on 'social return on investment', it's hard to advocate putting the brakes on economic growth when 80% of the planet's population still lives on $10 per day or less, and over two billion live on less than $2 per day.

Innovation and economic growth have increased life expectancies and quality of life, and lifted many out of poverty. It isn't decreasing economic activity we need to focus on, but rather increasing resource productivity. Let's uncouple economic growth from resource use and environmental degradation. What does this mean? Renewable energy rather than fossil fuel based sources, higher productivity, green jobs, smarter "cradle to cradle" design, doing more with less, and focusing on reuse and recycle (as well as reducing.) There's a lot of room to improve, if we simply decide to be smart about it. If we challenged automakers (or just university students) to design a car that used 50% less materials, lasted twice as along, and would get double the gas mileage, they could do so pretty easily. But we just don't adequately value those attributes (yet).

The NEF folks want to put on the economic brakes because they don't believe that the world will improve in efficiency and conservation as fast as it increases use of resources and growth. Some of their data on planetary boundaries is pretty scary and compelling. But with adequate incentives and market signals (such as a price on carbon, and continued rising energy and raw commodity costs) I think they will be proven wrong. There's a second 'green revolution' on the way, which will be driven by scarcity and environmental/regulatory caps.

Even better, let's grow the economy by putting economic value on ecosystem services, such as keeping the water clean, forests planted, and soil and air untainted. The World Resource Institute estimates that these services - what they call "Mother Nature’s life-support services" are worth twice the value of the global GDP. If we start to value and pay for these, including them in GDP, we can have our cake and eat it too!

Is it time to starve the hamster, or should we just harness the energy of that massive hamster wheel she'll be spinning on? Is triple bottom line growth (people, planet, profits) possible? Can growth be good?

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