This site maintained by: Aomar Boum. Site last updated on October, 2001.  
Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society



VOLUME 6 (1999)

Growth Management for a Sustainable Future: Ecological Sustainability as the New Growth Management Focus for the 21st Century, by Gabor Zovanyi, Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1998. xv, 221 pp.


Reviewed by Holly Stallworth, Economist, Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Sustainable Ecosystems and Communities, Washington, DC


The opinions represented here are strictly those of the author and do not in any way reflect official opinion or policy of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.


As a follower of the "limits to growth" debate, a believer in the laws of thermodynamics, and reader of Herman Daly and other critics of the growth paradigm, over the past few years I have silently shaken my head at the dissolution of the growth/no-growth debate in the 70s in favor of "smart growth" discussions of the 90s. Despite the growing evidence that the scale of the human enterprise has exceeded the planet's carrying capacity, the debate about whether the earth's house is already full (borrowing here from the 1994 work by Lester Brown and Hal Kane, Full House: Reassessing the Earth's Population Carrying Capacity, Worldwatch Institute) seems to have waned in favor of discussions about how to manage growth: its rate, location and quality. Today's debate seems to be overwhelmingly dominated by the view that growth can and must be accommodated. While the growth management movement has accepted the need to manage growth, the forces of population and economic growth are generally treated as "inevitable." Hence the debate has become "compact versus sprawl."

Having viewed growth as "inevitable," planners are devoted to the best planning and management strategies that avoid the ill effects of growth: traffic congestion, lost open space, over-crowded schools, lost agricultural land, degraded water quality and other resources. While this represents a triumph over the previous era's posture of promoting any kind of growth, much of the information about global limits to growth has been side-stepped. We're offered more of a "partial equilibrium analysis" - partial because it only considers local externalities of growth. We don't hear much about those global forces that augur limits: the exponential math of population growth, diminished freshwater supplies, loss of fertile soil, the declining fecundity of our fisheries & forests, the exceedance of our global carbon dioxide budget, and certainly none of the "biological meltdown" statistics describing species and habitat loss. Wondering, as I have - whither the limits debate? - Gabor Zovanyi takes apart the growth management movement in the U.S. and looks at the historical pro-growth bias of the planning profession, observing "it is a sad reality that most members of the profession appear unable to consider planning as anything other than the practice of facilitating growth" (p. 87). Zovanyi would like to invert much of the theory and models taught in U.S. planning schools, calling for planners to take the lead in advocating a no-growth society, using the very same tools the profession had previously used to facilitate growth.

Zovanyi is an admitted no-growth advocate, undeterred by a policy climate in which this stance can be the kiss of death. Like many of us, he has reached a psychological conclusion: that our species must surely be in collective denial (p. 29), and he tries passionately (as any good therapist might) to bring his clients/readers out of their happy denial. Being of the planning profession, he aims particularly hard at planners, where he despairs that even the most ardent pedestrian-oriented neo-traditional planner will aver to the need to accommodate growth, provided it is properly planned and designed.

Zovanyi helpfully provides neat histories that capture current attitudes and ideas about growth. Want a quick run-down on the difference between a demand-based and supply-based approach to comprehensive land use planning? Turn to p. 75. Want to hear about three types of environmental planning? Turn to p. 137-144. Want a great summary of the various statewide growth management laws? Turn to p. 55 and p. 143. Want a quick history of the use of growth moratoria by local governments in the U.S.? Turn to p. 52. Want a synopsis of court rulings on various growth management techniques? Turn to p. 109.

In all of it, Zovanyi sees a pro-growth bias everywhere he looks, surpassing even my own suspicions about the fashionable label "sustainable." Not surprisingly, for true "sustainability," Zovanyi favors Herman Daly's operational principles of sustainability, the bioregionalist philosophy and Aldo Leopold's land ethic. In his final chapter, he lists various "operational measures" of ecological sustainability:

- no further loss of ecosystems or impairment of their continued productivity and functioning due to anthropogenic causes; (p. 159)

- an ongoing reduction in the scale of the human enterprise to a level capable of being supported indefinitely without eroding biodiversity or the integrity of ecosystems. (p. 159)

Since everything depends upon the earth, Zovanyi clearly sees the reality of ecological sustainability: that without it, nothing else can be sustained either. He is fully apprised of the life support services of ecosystems, frequently referring to atmospheric gases, hydrologic cycles, nutrient recycling, pest control and pollution services and the like. For these insights, he is to be applauded, but Zovanyi seems altogether too satisfied with finding the right linguistic formula for sustainability, leaving us wondering about the vast array of policies - international agreements, macroeconomic controls, reproduction and family size policies, agriculture, energy, industry, forestry, land use, and so forth - that might contribute to the ecological vision. He spends much of his last chapter repeating his disappointment in the planning profession, but he might have served us better with policy-oriented advocacy. With this omission, Zovanyi proves himself a better historian than futurist.