Island life helps us understand the limits of growth

There’s a very clear limit to growth on an island.

Maybe it’s that I live on an island — and have lived on other islands in my life, from Cape Cod to Mount Desert Island, in Maine — but when I hear about how we hope for our economy to continue to grow, I can’t help but wonder.

Politicians and pundits laud a faster growth rate as one sign of the health and strength of the economy and therefore a good thing. And it’s true: as the economy grows, more people have more money and are able to buy more goods and services which boosts ever more economic growth.

But here’s the rub. On an island, we can only grow so far — and the faster we grow, the sooner we’ll reach our limits — and an island has very clear limits. And in a very real way, we all live on an island: the earth. If you’ve ever seen that sublime photo taken by the first Apollo astronauts of our Earth floating in space — the very first photo of the whole planet — you’ll agree.

One of the books that influenced me as a college student was “Limits to Growth,” written by a group called the Club of Rome. Using computer models that tracked and extrapolated factors such as resource use, consumption, population and pollution, the book contained graphs that clearly showed that the earth and its population were on a course toward certain collapse. The only question was how quickly.

Growth, by definition, involves increased consumption — by definition, this means an increase in pollution and trash. And that’s another issue with islands: there’s only so much space to dispose of our trash.

I clearly remember driving my pickup truck around to the back of the landfill and backing up to the pile of garbage on the ground, then just dumping my trash next to it. A big tractor would then come over and push it around until it blended into the surrounding dirt. This is what they still do at the landfill in Maple Valley, where trucks haul our Vashon trash.

So try to imagine more growth on Vashon Island.

Since I moved here in the early 90s, Vashon Thriftway has expanded and so has the lumber yard, which used to be a cute little storefront but is now a big box store that dominates that area in town. But the growth of both stores was punitively necessary because of the increased population (more food) and the number of new houses being built (more lumber and building supplies).

Dare we extrapolate? More houses built, more people moving to the island, more congestion in town, more pressure on the ferry system and on utilities (water comes to mind), and maybe, eventually, more new schools. And if you keep going, keep extrapolating, pretty soon you’re down by the beach with nowhere else to go. No more land to build on, no more space for septic systems, and no more carrying capacity in our single-source aquifer. There’s a very clear limit to growth on an island.

So this begs the question: Is growth necessary for our quality of life? Can we live a rich and full life with everything we need, but not keep growing? What constitutes a good quality of life? And can our planet continue to support our current lifestyle choices? The answer to this question may require some serious introspection.

Brazil is clearing millions of acres of virgin rainforest to create jobs by capitalizing on the myriad of valuable resources found there. More people are working and making money and those people’s standard of living is increasing.

Except that the value of the rainforest is not only in its material commodities but also in its entirety as a rainforest, as the lungs of the planet, consuming vast amounts of carbon dioxide — as well as habitat to more species of plants and animals than we even know of.

Fracking is another example that, on the surface, may seem like a good idea: produce more cheap oil that will lower gas prices and fuel a strong economy. But if we dig a little deeper, other issues arise. The biggest one, of course, is climate change. Many experts agree that the best thing to do with the remaining oil in the ground is to leave it where it is.

And yet, without more oil, our growth rate and quality of life will suffer and our current lifestyles will crumble.

When I was traveling in Australia, I heard a program on the radio that described one measure of growth: GDP (gross domestic product). The larger the number, the better off the population. But the program went on to describe the scenario of a big increase in the sale of locks, which boosted the GDP. That’s a good thing, right? Yes, but why do people buy locks? Because they don’t feel safe, because they felt the need to lock their doors to protect themselves from rising crime.

Is society better off simply because more businesses are making more money by selling more locks? Or is society and the quality of life suffering due to crime? What are the metrics of a good life? There’s often a disparity between what looks good on paper and reality. Cheap and plentiful lumber from the rain forest and cheap oil from fracking versus the environmental degradation caused by capitalizing on these natural resources.

So what shall we do? Buy more locks and tout the strong economy? Or look more closely at what a safe, secure and prosperous society entails? Continue to cut down trees for their economic value? Frack more oil to boost the economy? Or recognize the benefits of maintaining the intact planet-saving ecosystem that is the rainforest and find a new path to economic “growth”?

If we, collectively, can come to some consensus of what living a good life entails — and that includes the long-term sustainability of our choices—then maybe we can begin to breathe a little easier knowing that we will not end up down on the beach, our backs to the Sound, with nowhere else to grow.

— Scott Durkee is a freelance factotum, artist and winemaker. He lives on Maury Island.