Gore Hunger Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Tennessee, Daniel Simberloff is known for bringing rigorous science to controversial ecological ideas. His recent research on invasive species has shaken up this field and made him a global authority on the biology of invasion.
In 2012, Simberloff was awarded Spain’s prestigious Margalef Prize in Ecology, and appointed to the US Academy of Sciences to recognize his outstanding contributions to ecology, conservation biology, and invasion biology.
An answer depends on the precise definitions of “sustainable” and “robust.” There is a broad perception among the public and ecologists that an environmental crisis exists and that it must and can be addressed holistically and in a sociological context. However, this belief remains embedded in a greener version of the current economic paradigm of growth and “sustainable development.” That is, the paradigm is still that a “robust” economy must be growing, but for sustainability the growth will have to be greener than it has been and this greening, combined with or generated by technological developments, will sufficiently ameliorate stressors to our environment and natural resources.
However, there are limits to growth. Sadi Carnot (1796-1832) elucidated the basis of the second law of thermodynamics, subsequently fleshed out by Clausius and Kelvin. Nearly simultaneously, Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) enunciated his famous principle that food supply grows more slowly than the human population. It was possible to ignore these limits for two centuries because of the machine age and various technological innovations, and the alliance of scientists, engineers, and economists gave birth to the notion of a limitless human-built world. But the limits are still there. “Sustainable development” is an oxymoron because it implies perpetual growth, no limits; but the earth is finite.
A science of economics evolved that was based on self-interest and free trade. Technical progress was seen as the medium by which economic activities were freed from the limits imposed by nature, leading to an economy of mass consumption and GDP as the measure of not only economic performance but also social well-being. As part of this version of economics, nature itself was commodified; it has come to be viewed as a set of functions and entities to serve humans and to be traded in the global market place exactly like any other commodity.
The commodification of nature is itself bad, because many natural phenomena do not lend themselves to economic valuation, in spite of efforts by economists to capture them in methods such as “willingness to pay.” Yet the conception of ecosystems as entities providing goods and services to humans lends itself very readily to attempting to value those goods and services economically, and then assuming that the real value of the ecosystem is the sum of those economic values. If we accept those terms, the global homogenization of ecosystems through species introductions may not be harmful in many cases. It is reasonable to assume that certain goods and certain services can be provided at least as well, if not better, by particular introduced species than by native ones. However, the commodfication of ecosystems that leads to this calculus is itself faulty. Ecosystems have many values even to humans that cannot legitimately be measured economically, and, of course, any intrinsic values of ecosystems or non-human species populations certain cannot be measured in economic terms. Many of these values are certainly lowered by homogenization.
The current vogue that many current conservation and traditional ecological restoration activities are obsolete because of the inevitable ascendance of “novel ecosystems” created by species introductions and global climate change has led to the latest suggested techno-fix to escape limits. Namely, in this view, we can learn to engineer such novel ecosystems to provide services that humans need. Even aside from the many other values that intact native ecosystems have, the science and technology to engineer such ecosystems and to make them sustainable does not exist; it is barely on the horizon.
In order for humankind to have a truly sustainable environment, the forces currently damaging it have to be reigned in, and this means an acceptance of limits. Such an acceptance would entail major changes in aspects of finance, business, and consumption choices and beliefs. Reigning them in will be impossible without fundamental societal shifts in values. Schumacher’s 1973 book, “Small is Beautiful,” spearheaded many “degrowth” ideas. Chief among them is criticism of measuring standard of living by various levels of consumption. The key idea is that, beyond a certain point, economic growth does not increase human well-being. The GPI (Genuine Progress Indicator) is one suggested replacement for the GDP as a measure of human welfare. Various studies have shown trends of stagnating or even decreasing GPI over the past 30 years despite major increases in GDP. These findings challenge the belief that economic growth is necessary to ensure human well-being. However, “robust” is not a synonym for “growing,” and a robust economy is attainable and compatible with a sustainable environment and improved human welfare if limits are acknowledged and values shift accordingly.