Category Archives: Economic growth

Impeding ecological sustainability through selective moral disengagement

Update: As an extra, here is a link to a video in which Dr. Bandura discusses the development and use of serial dramas, originated by Miguel Sabido and used by organizations such as the Population Media Center.

Editor’s note: It is my honor to feature an article by Albert Bandura. Dr. Bandura is one of the most influential psychologists of our time. Long a professor in the psychology department of Stanford University, he conducted landmark studies on social modeling, transforming the behaviorally based social learning theory to one in which cognition played a central role. This challenged the behaviorists’ view that human development was a one way process, dictated solely by reward and punishment deriving from external influences. In time, he developed a “social cognitive theory” of human functioning which emphasizes the reciprocal interaction of behavioral, personal, and environmental factors. I remember well being impressed, in my graduate studies some years ago, by the clarity and incisiveness of Dr. Bandura’s work. For much more information see this website maintained by Emory University psychologist, Frank Pajares.

Bandura has received many awards for his work and is a former president of the American Psychological Association.

Presenting his ideas with precise logic, Bandura continues today to refine and find applications for his theory. The article below is not his first venture into ecological sustainability-related subjects. He has written, for instance (PDF), on the effects on population growth of the kinds of serial dramatizations originated by Miguel Sabido and used by the Population Media Center on whose program advisory board Bandura sits. Such dramatizations, a crucial component of today’s work to address population growth, rest on a foundation of social cognitive theory.

In the article below, Bandura details an array of mechanisms used by those engaged in environmentally destructive practices to avoid the moral self-censure which would otherwise govern their behavior. From considerations of social and moral justification to our uses of euphemistic language to disguise the truth of our actions, it is a remarkably insightful examination of many facets of environmental politics including the games played by climate change and population deniers. Regarding the latter, Bandura writes, “High consumption lifestyles wreaking havoc on the environment and harming other people’s lives is a moral issue of commission. Evasion of the influential role of population growth in environmental degradation is a moral issue of omission.”

“We must make it difficult to disengage moral sanctions from ecologically destructive practices,” writes Bandura. After all, “A sustainable future is not achievable while disregarding the key contributors to ecological degradation – population growth and high consumptive lifestyles.”

This is a long article for a blog posting, but is well worth reading to the end. I suspect most readers here will find themselves increasingly fascinated as they progress through it.

This article appeared originally in the International Journal of Innovation and Sustainable Development (IJISD). It can be found in Volume 2, Issue 1, 2007, published by Inderscience Publishers which retains the copyright. My sincere thanks to Dr. Bandura and Inderscience for permission to reprint it here

Included at the end of the article is Inderscience’s press release which serves as a nice summary of the content. — JF

Albert Bandura
By Albert Bandura:

Abstract: The present paper documents the influential role played by selective moral disengagement for social practices that cause widespread human harm and degrade the environment. Disengagement of moral self-sanctions enables people to pursue detrimental practices freed from the restraint of self-censure. This is achieved by investing ecologically harmful practices with worthy purposes through social, national, and economic justifications; enlisting exonerative comparisons that render the practices righteous; use of sanitising and convoluting language that disguises what is being done; reducing accountability by displacement and diffusion of responsibility; ignoring, minimising, and disputing harmful effects; and dehumanising and blaming the victims and derogating the messengers of ecologically bad news. These psychosocial mechanisms operate at both the individual and social systems levels.

Keywords: consumptive lifestyles; collective efficacy; environmental ethics; moral agency; moral disengagement; population growth; psychosocial change; self-efficacy; token gestures.

Reference to this paper should be made as follows: Bandura, A. (2007) ‘Impeding ecological sustainability through selective moral disengagement’, Int. J. Innovation and Sustainable Development, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 8–35.

Biographical notes: Albert Bandura is David Starr Jordan Professor of Social Science in Psychology at Stanford University. He is a proponent of social cognitive theory, which is rooted in an agentic perspective. His landmark book, Social Foundations of Thought and Action: a Social Cognitive Theory, provides the conceptual framework for this theory. In his book, Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control, he presents the definitive exposition of the centrality of people’s beliefs in their personal and collective efficacy in exercising some measure of control over their self-development, adaptation and change. He was elected to the presidency of the American Psychological Association and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.

1 Introduction

The present paper examines the selective disengagement of moral self-sanctions as an impediment to collective action designed to stabilise and reverse the ecological degradation. Human conduct can be distinguished in terms of whether it falls in the realm of social custom or morality. This distinction is based, in large part, on the gravity of the social consequences of the conduct. Harming others by one’s practices becomes a matter of morality. The harm to the earth is largely the product of human activity. Societies, therefore, have a moral obligation to preserve the environment so that future generations have a habitable planet.

We are witnessing hazardous global changes of mounting ecological consequence. They include widespread deforestation, expanding desertification, rising earth’s temperature, ice sheet and glacial melting, flooding of low-lying coastal regions, severe weather events, topsoil erosion and sinking water tables in the major food-producing regions, increasing loss of fertile farmland, depletion of fish stocks, loss of biodiversity, and degradation of other aspects of the earth’s life support systems. As the unrivalled ruling species atop the food chain, humans are wiping out species and the ecosystems that support life at an accelerating pace (Wilson, 2006).

Environmental degradation of human origin stems from three major sources: population size, the level of consumption; and the damage to the ecosystem caused by the technologies used to supply the consumable products and to support a given lifestyle (Ehrlich et al., 1995). A comprehensive approach to environmental sustainability must address all three resources of impact on ecological systems and quality of life. There are limits to the number of people the earth can support sustainably. The world’s population was 3 billion in 1950, more than doubled to 6.5 billion in the next 50 years, and is increasing by about a billion every 15 years toward a rise of over 9 billion in the year 2050. Adding billions of consumers will take a heavy toll on the earth’s finite resources and ecological system. The diverse forms of environmental degradation suggest that we have already exceeded the size of the human population the earth can sustain. Clean, green technologies, renewable sources of energy, and adoption of less consumptive lifestyles will help. But adding billions more consumers will offset the benefits of these other remedies. Lifestyle changes must, therefore, be coupled with reduction of population growth.

2 Mechanisms of moral disengagement

In the development of moral agency, individuals construct standards of right and wrong that serve as guides and deterrents for harmful practices. They do things that give them satisfaction and a sense of self-worth, and refrain from behaving in ways that violate their moral standard because such conduct will bring self-condemnation. It is through the ongoing exercise of evaluative self-sanctions that moral conduct is motivated and regulated. Adoption of moral standards is only half of the story and, in many respects, the less challenging half. Moral standards do not create an immutable internal moral control system. The self-regulatory mechanisms governing moral conduct do not operate unless they are activated and there are many psychosocial manoeuvres by which moral self-sanctions can be selectively disengaged from harmful practices (Bandura, 1999). Indeed, large-scale inhumanities are often perpetrated by people who can be considerate and compassionate in other areas of their lives. They act in the name of religious, political, social, and economic doctrines (Bandura, 2004; Reich, 1990; Zimbardo, 2007). Moreover, people can be ruthless and humane simultaneously toward different individuals depending on whom they exclude from their category of humanity.
Continue reading . . .

Watch for this error

factors and products

By John Feeney:

Update #1: See Brishen Hoff’s, Paul Chefurka’s, and Graham Strouts’s critiques of the Monbiot article as well.

Update #2: For a correct, non-deceptive comparison of population growth and consumption growth, click here for a recent example from former AAAS president, John Holdren.

Sometimes I read something, such as a recent article by George Monbiot (whose work I’ve often admired, by the way), and realize the basics bear repeating.

Environmental and other writers speak often about resource consumption. On occasion they write something about population growth. Once in a while they tackle the whole package – population and consumption. When they do, they often make a simple error and come to the wrong conclusion.

Typically, it goes something like this: “Yes, population growth is a problem. But growth in consumption is occurring faster, so it’s an even bigger problem.”

Usually, they’re talking about total consumption of one or another or a combination of resources. And the comparison is an error.

Total resource consumption (of one or all resources) is the product of population size and average per person consumption. Naturally, we would expect the growth of the product to exceed that of either of two growing factors driving it! As an example, 2*2=4 and 4*4=16. Here the factors have increased by the same amount; they’ve doubled. But the product has quadrupled. A factor and the product are not comparable elements.

The more appropriate comparison is between the factors, population and per person consumption. There the data tell us the differences are not so pronounced, and it’s clear we cannot prioritize and say it is more urgent to address one than the other.

It’s the same error if you see a comparison suggesting economic growth far outweighs population growth as an environmental problem. Economic growth can, after all, be understood (PDF) as closely overlapping total consumption. It’s held to be driven by population multiplied by per person consumption. George Monbiot certainly sees it that way as he equates economic growth and total consumption in his fourth paragraph.
Continue reading . . .

Sowing the seeds of a future society

Editor’s note: Articles on GIM typically reflect the assumption that we may be able to avert societal collapse or other catastrophic consequences of our ongoing violation of Earth’s limits. Admittedly, though, that assumption is just a guess and is increasingly strained as nations and the media continue with “business as usual” concerning such issues as population, energy, and economic growth.

In this guest essay, Ken Whitehead starts with a different assumption — that the magnitude of the challenge upon us and the history of our responses to similar challenges makes a collapse of today’s civilization inevitable. His wide-ranging essay focuses, therefore, not only on key elements pushing us today toward the brink, but on actions we might take to ensure some sustainable continuation of human society in a post-collapse future.

Ken is a Ph.D. student at the University of Calgary, currently studying the dynamics of arctic glaciers. He has a background in remote sensing and geography, but in recent years has become increasingly concerned about the societal and ecological factors he discusses below. My thanks to Ken for this thought provoking article. — JF
By Ken Whitehead:Sowing

Civilisation as we know it will no longer exist within 30 years. This bleak conclusion is not one I have arrived at lightly. However, wherever I look the evidence suggests that we are heading towards a major ecological breakdown which the majority of us are unlikely to survive. A number of critical environmental problems are coming to a head and the fall out from these will dwarf any attempts we can make to tackle them. If the pitiful attempts that have been made so far to tackle the environmental crisis are any guide, then major ecological breakdown is inevitable within a few years.

Once civilisation starts to unravel, it will happen quickly. Crop yields will fall considerably as the effects of climate change and peak oil really start to bite. It is likely that one of the first casualties will be the current banking and financial system, which is unlikely to be able to withstand the strain. Thus wealth will offer no protection.

Compounding this will be the fact that fossil fuels and other oil-based products will become increasingly hard to obtain, so the transportation infrastructure will grind to halt. From a practical point of view, food will be in very limited supply, no one will be able to pay for it, and there will be no transportation available to deliver it. As the crisis deepens, the electricity supply will be disrupted as will water supplies. Disease will almost certainly thrive in such an environment. Conflict over what limited resources remain will be almost inevitable. In short we will be transported back to the dark ages in a very short space of time and many people, used to living a comfortable western lifestyle, will be unlikely to survive this transition.
Continue reading . . .

An economic growth FAQ from the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy

[Update: Since this was posted, the CASSE site, including the FAQ, has been revamped. I encourage you to go there and have a look around!]

Administrator’s note: Though lots of actions play around the edges of helping address our environmental problems, very few get to the heart of the matter. One that does is the promotion of economic policy which rejects the notion of endless economic growth. In that vein, the “steady state economy” is a key alternative model, having grown out of the work of those in the field of ecological economics.

And no one works harder or more effectively to promote the steady state economy than Brian Czech, Ph.D. (and team!) and the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE). Trained as a conservation biologist, Brian is today an important contributor to our understanding of ecological economics, which he teaches as a visiting assistant professor at Virginia Tech. He is the author of Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train.

Here then, is the CASSE FAQ on economic growth. In few words, it says a great deal, touching on key points involved in the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection. My thanks to Brian for making it available! Find previous posts on Brian and CASSE here. In a related vein is this recent piece on ecological/steady state economics at Trinifar and this one at The Natural Patriot. — JF
By Brian Czech:

What is economic growth?

Economic growth is simply an increase in the production and consumption of goods and services. It entails increasing population and/or per capita production and consumption. It is measured or indicated by increasing GDP, or gross domestic product.

Why is economic growth a threat to the environment?

The economy exists within the ecosystem. This fact is overlooked in business and economics textbooks, where the economy is portrayed as a circular flow of money between firms and households:


The production of goods and services entails the conversion of natural resources, or “natural capital,” into consumer goods and manufactured capital. This explains why there is a fundamental conflict between economic growth and biodiversity conservation (pdf). Furthermore, pollution is an inevitable byproduct of economic production. The degradation of the environment as a result of economic growth occurs in many ways, but in general, economic growth leaves a larger ecological footprint.

Why is economic growth a threat to economic sustainability, national security, and international stability?

To grow, an economy requires more natural capital, including soil, water, minerals, timber, other raw materials and renewable energy sources. When the economy grows too fast or gets too big, this natural capital is depleted, or “liquidated.” To function smoothly, the economy also requires an environment that can absorb and recycle pollutants. When natural capital stocks are depleted, and/or the capacity of the environment to absorb pollutants is exceeded, the economy is forced to shrink. (more…)

Humanity is the greatest challenge

The article quoted and linked to below came out of an idea I submitted to the BBC News’s Green Room. I was lucky enough to contact a wonderfully helpful and supportive editor (Thanks, MK!) and the piece was posted last night. It’s exciting to be able to present the ideas we discuss here and around the Web to the BBC’s worldwide audience! — JF

The growth in human population and rising consumption have exceeded the planet’s ability to support us, argues John Feeney. In this week’s Green Room, he says it is time to ring the alarm bells and take radical action in order to avert unspeakable consequences.

We humans face two problems of desperate importance. The first is our global ecological plight. The second is our difficulty acknowledging the first.

Despite increasing climate change coverage, environmental writers remain reluctant to discuss the full scope and severity of the global dilemma we’ve created. Many fear sounding alarmist, but there is an alarm to sound and the time for reticence is over.

Read the rest…

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Can we grow our way to an environmentally sustainable world?¹

Administrator’s note: I’m honored to feature on GIM an essay by Herman Daly. Dr. Daly teaches at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. Previously, he was a Senior Economist in the Environment Department at the World Bank where he helped develop policy guidelines pertaining to sustainable development. He is a co-founder of the journal, Ecological Economics, and author of many books including Steady-State Economics, Valuing the Earth, and Beyond Growth. He’s received numerous awards including an Honorary Right Livelihood Award, commonly known as the “Alternative Nobel Prize.”

Dr. Daly has often been called the “founding father of ecological economics.” And rightly so.

The following essay is a preview from his forthcoming book, Ecological Economics and Sustainable Development: Selected Essays of Herman Daly. It appears in the section of the book titled, “Issues with the World Bank.” My thanks to Dr. Daly for his permission to post it here on GIM. — JF

Ecological Economics and Sustainable DevelopmentBy Herman Daly:

I have a short answer and a long answer.

Short answer: My short answer is “No.”

But suppose some of you think the short answer should be “Yes.” My question to you then would be—After you grow your way to an environmentally sustainable world, then what? Would you then be willing to stop growing? Or would you want to keep on growing? Is it a state of the world, or the process of economic growth, that you want to sustain? I think the World Bank wants to sustain growth—that is, a process, not a state of the world. I would like to sustain that subsystem of the world called the “economy” in a state compatible with human well-being. I contend that the attempt to sustain growth will be inimical to that end.

When the economy grows it does not grow into the void, displacing nothing and incurring no opportunity costs. Rather it grows into the finite, non-growing ecosystem and incurs the opportunity cost of displaced natural capital and ecological services. Beyond some point growth in production and population will begin to increase social and environmental costs faster than it increases production benefits, thereby ushering in an era of uneconomic growth—growth that on balance makes us poorer rather than richer, that increases “illth” faster than wealth, and that is likely to be ecologically unsustainable. There is evidence that the US has already reached such a point.

That is my short answer. But it would be more productive to debate the longer, more nuanced, answer. (more…)

Climate change is just a symptom

Administrator’s note: Time for another article from a guest contributor. Jerry West describes himself as “editor/publisher/janitor” for The Record, an independent, progressive newspaper in Gold River, British Columbia. He’s a columnist, as well, for the well known Canadian progressive news site,

A number of his articles would fit well with the content on GIM. But this one stood out during a week when I’ve been preoccupied with the stubborn tendency of both policy makers and mainstream environmentalists to turn a blind eye to the fundamental drivers of our ecological crisis. It’s a constant problem in coverage of climate change. Well meaning environmental writers, their thinking apparently numbed by the peer pressure of groupthink, tell us we can solve climate change — which they see as an isolated environmental problem — with routine economic tweaks or perhaps a switch to fluorescent bulbs.

Jerry is a writer who sees past that superficiality, and this article, which originally appeared in The Record, is one result. My thanks to Jerry for his permission to post it. – JF

Jerry WestBy Jerry West:

The BC government has committed itself to reduce BC’s greenhouse gas emissions by 33 per cent by the year 2020. The questions remain — is it enough, and will they have the fortitude to take the actions necessary and to provide the funds to do it.

In Britain Parliament is considering reducing the UK’s emissions by 50 per cent by the year 2050 and some argue that 80 per cent is a more reasonable figure. One thing is certain, climate change has come front and centre as a political issue, and governments of all stripes are scrambling to find ways to make it look like they are dealing with it. One suspects that “make it look like” is the main purpose for them.

Climate change is an issue for us, but it is only a symptom of a much bigger problem. Humans are stripping the resources of the planet faster than they can be replenished; like aggressive cancer cells we are consuming our host. Since the amount of resources are limited the only cure for this is to consume less of them.

There are two ways to do this: one is individually which means quality of life for most of us in developed countries goes down considerably, and continues to go down as populations increase. Or, we can do it collectively by reducing population to a level that there is more than enough for everybody. (more…)