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Sustainability with Prosperity: Part 1 The Need

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This is the first of two collections of website entries or posts on one of the key challenges of the century: sustainability with prosperity. The first part will look at the needs for change and the second on ways forward for the future: innovative solutions and different ways of seeing and doing things, different goals – and the processes of innovation, learning and change in society.

For example, the need to attend to:                                                                                         How the way we use materials and generate energy in our economy affects all life systems on our planet, on which we depend,                                                                           How can we use limited resources more effectively and                                                     How we can meet everyone’s basic needs and ensure equal opportunity for there to be stable and healthy societies.

I will address such questions as:

What does it mean to live sustainably within our natural environment in the 21st century? What do we need to change in both our understanding and behaviour and why? How are we to achieve sustainability with prosperity and at the same time maintain and improve the quality of life for all? 

Our technology is now very powerful in its effects on nature and each other, our population continues to grow, and what happens in any one country can affect others across the globe much more than before. Is there a need for greater collaboration and synergy:                                                                                                                        Between us and nature – the living systems of which we are a part, and                  Between us, richer and poorer, within and between societies

Does this mean a new kind of economy and technology? A fundamental change in the way we see and do things, and in how we identify our needs and get them met – a change in our culture and mentality?

Are these changes to co-exist with a changing capitalism?

Has social evolution towards another kind of economic and socio-cultural system started? How far is there a shared felt need for a change and what are the signs of it?

How much do we need to change, how can we make this attractive and possible, and how can technology help?

Does economics need to be a multidisciplinary subject covering all natural and social sciences?

Part 1: Forces for change, felt needs and challenges in adapting to them        

1. Destruction of our Habitat

Human activities are now causing dangerous damage to the earth’s living systems and the sphere of life (biosphere) on which we depend – on land, in water and in the atmosphere: “ravaging” them as Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal and recently President of the Royal Society, put it.

Martin Rees

Martin Rees

This is now called the anthropocene period due the impact we are having. As E. O. Wilson puts it: us humans have “palaeolithic emotions” (i.e. useful as hunter-gatherers), institutions that can bring out the worst in people (“evil” as he calls them) and “God-like power”. Gregory Bateson wrote around 40 years ago: the power of our technology demands an equal sense of responsibility towards our habitat and that Darwin should have given his book (Survival of Species) the title of “survival of species and habitat”.

We run the risk of causing irreversible serious damage to our habitat and its ecosystems in four key areas:

(1) Global climate change                                                                                                          Virtually all climate scientists agree now that we are fast approaching a point of irreversible temperature increase, and that this is largely due to human activity, population growth and the nature of our technology. Rising temperatures can cause extreme weather conditions leading to drought and flooding that can affect food production, and in turn cause death, disease, mass migration and extinction of many plant and animal species. It can damage or destroy oceans, rain forests and soil. For the effects of temperature increases at each stage up to six degrees and how the effects accelerate see the book by Mark Lynas . It received the Royal Society Prize in 2008. For a summary see the effects of climate change by degree of temperature increase see this six page PDF .

James Lovelock

James Lovelock

James Lovelock  proposed in the 1960’s that the living and non-living parts of the Earth form a complex interacting system, and that the living parts, the biosphere, have a regulatory effect on the Earth’s environment that acts to sustain life. Refinements of this hypothesis resulted in the ideas framed by it being used in fields such as Earth system science,  biogeochemistry, systems ecology, and the emerging subject of geophysiology.

He has argued that the lack of respect humans have had for the biosphere, through the damage done to rainforests and the reduction in planetary biodiversity, is testing the earth system’s capacity to minimize the effects of the addition of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that give rise to global warming. This in turn warms the oceans, which prevents the rise of oceanic nutrients into the surface waters and eliminates the algal blooms of phytoplankton on which oceanic food chains depend. The phytoplankton and forests are the main ways in which the interacting system draws down greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, to take it out of the atmosphere. This eliminates the planet’s negative feedbacks and increases the likelihood of homeostatic positive feedback potential associated with runaway global warming. Predictions about this, initially extreme from Lovelock, are uncertain as the systems involved are complex. For more on the uncertainties in predicting the accelerating increase in global temperatures see the work of David Wasdell in videos here: first an explanation and introduction to a new study and then an update .  And further updates on his own website.

David Wasdell

David Wasdell

There is hope that we can keep the rise to 2.7C by 2100 following the 2015 Global Climate Change conference if the intended nationally determined contributions of 146 countries accounting for 90% of emissions are adhered to, and a five year review process agreed for ratcheting up to nearer the 2% limit considered to be safe by scientists. But there is much doubt about this due to the uncertainties in predicting the accelerating effects.

Sceptics remain and vested interests are fighting to maintain the technologies that

Jeremy Leggett

Jeremy Leggett

emit carbon. But in many ways the tide is turning around climate change at lease (see “The winning of the carbon war by Jeremy Leggett, and his e-mail summaries and commentaries on the Great Transition drama.

Lord Martin Rees sees the debate now to be about the ethics around our obligations to future generations more than about climate change itself. For more on his views see the TED talk .  He calls for the commitment of scientists, engineers, economists and all disciplines, of politicians and the general public – a commitment similar to putting a man on moon in the 1960’s, but from all countries, The Global Apollo Program as it is now called. This needs to attend to both stopping putting so much carbon and other greenhouse gases into the air and to taking carbon out of the air through carbon sinks and other methods that mimic nature. We will watch for updates on progress on this.

(2) Extinction of plant and animal species and loss of biodiversity There does not seem to be sufficient awareness and appreciation of the implications and importance of this for us: the quality of our life is linked to that of all living species – see the work

Kathy Willis

Kathy Willis

of Kathy Willis Professor of Biodiversity at Oxford University  and Director of Science at Kew Gardens, UK, where she has initiated the Kew World Report . All species (microorganisms, plants and animals) within ecosystems have a function and some are more key than others for the survival of the system as a whole, due to the interdependencies between them. Extinction rates of plants and animals are rising (destruction of their habitats through other uses of the land being a prime cause), and there could be mass extinction in the biosphere – which, as the Nobel prize winning scientist E. O. Wilson put it, future generations will least forgive us for. For the urgency of the situation see the iBooks on Life on Earth free to download from his Biodiversity Foundation

(3) Pollution Limits to maintain the Resilience of Ecosystems                                         The most intractable wastes are nuclear wastes, hazardous wastes (like human synthesized chemicals), and greenhouse gases (such as CO2 and methane). They are chemically the hardest to sequester or detoxify, and economically and politically the most difficult to regulate. A recent report by the Stockholm Resilience Centre highlights the high risk of the biogeochemical flows of phosphorous and nitrogen, pesticides and fertilisers alongside changes in land use and the loss of genetic biodiversity, and the increasing risks of climate change (including 1 and 2 above). See a report and TED talk on all the nine planetary boundaries, or safe limits to keep within, to maintain the resilience of our ecosystems. 

(4) Demands on our Planets Resources and Ecosystems: the Limits to Growth – An integrative model

We are drawing on the world’s resources faster than they can be restored, and we are releasing wastes and pollutants faster than the Earth can absorb them or render them harmless. For a video interview with Peter Jones on this website go to.

Donella Meadows

Donella Meadows

Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows and the Club of Rome published the Limits to growth in 1972 and then Beyond the limits in 1992 when we had in many areas “overshot” our limits or expanded our demands on the planet’s resources and sinks through exponential growth in population and industrial production or output per capita, beyond what could be sustained over time; our “ecological footprint” had moved beyond the “carrying capacity” of one earth. The model integrates climate change, pollution the loss of biodiversity and habitat and the degradation of soil and oceans, population growth, poverty and inequality, linking to sections 1, 2 and 3 above and to 5, 6 and 7 below.

The Limits to Growth study and its updates used the theory of systems dynamics developed at Jay W. Forrester’s Institute at MIT to create a model. The model (World3) focuses on key factors or variables that have the greatest effect. It keeps track of stocks such as population, industrial capital, persistent pollution, and cultivated land. In the model those stocks change through flows affecting these such as births and deaths; investment and depreciation; pollution generation and assimilation; land erosion, use and development. Internal feedback loops within the structure of the system influence the entire system behaviour and the outcome of various scenarios. For example, as more land is made arable, what’s left is drier, or steeper, or has thinner soils. The cost of coping with these problems dramatically raises the cost of developing the land—a nonlinear relationship.

For more than a century, the world has been experiencing exponential growth in a number of areas, including population and industrial production. Positive feedback loops can reinforce and sustain exponential growth, and shorten the doubling time. From 1930 to 2000, the money value of world industrial output per capita grew by a factor of 14—an average doubling time of 19 years.

The model was used to create different future scenarios based on different amounts of resources available, different levels of agricultural productivity, birth control and environmental protection. The authors developed the model to understand the broad sweep of the future – how the expanding global population and materials economy would interact with and adapt to the earth’s limited carrying capacity over coming decades – not to make predictions. But the energy economist Matthew Simmons wrote (around 04), “The most amazing aspect of the book is how accurate many of the basic trend extrapolations … still were some 30 years later.”

In the scenarios only drastic measures for environmental protection proved to be suitable to change the systems behaviour, and only under these circumstances could scenarios be calculated in which both world population and wealth could remain at a constant level.

It has been “business as usual” from 1970 to 2010 with both the population and the economy growing and so we moved into overshoot by 1990. It was expected that delays in human and institutional decision making would lead to overshoot. Delays or mistakes in perceptions and in responses to try and keep the system within its limits can arise from inattention, faulty data, a false theory about how the system responds, deliberate efforts to mislead, or from the momentum that prevents the system from being stopped quickly.

To overshoot means to go too far, to grow so large so quickly that limits are exceeded, where we are drawing on the world’s resources faster than they can be restored, and we are releasing wastes and pollutants faster than the Earth can absorb them or render them harmless. When an overshoot occurs, it induces stresses that begin to slow and stop growth. Most scenarios resulted in an ongoing growth of population and of the economy up to a turning point around 2030. In 2004 in the 30 Year Updatethe authors concluded that humanity is dangerously in a state of overshoot.

There have been changes and developments in technology but technology and markets by themselves are unlikely to prevent overshoot and collapse, as they are merely tools to serve the goals of society as a whole. For this we would need to have a different concept of growth as an Increase in the quality of life rather than an increase in material turnover. This would mean more security, greater happiness and wellbeing and sustainability.

If society’s implicit goals are to exploit nature, enrich the elites, and ignore the long term, then society will develop technologies and markets that destroy the environment, widen the gap between rich and poor, and optimise for short-term gain. In short, society develops technologies and markets that hasten a collapse instead of preventing it.

While there is more awareness and there are new technologies and institutions, there is no fundamental change yet in our obsession with economic growth as material turnover.

Click here for a little more on this extract and to read full synopsis online or to download as a PDF.

A useful and clear short video summary of the 2004 update of the Limits to Growth explains the basic concepts and the conclusions and corrects misunderstandings or misrepresentations. See the Club of Rome website where you can also find its reports and current projects.

2. Growth in Population

Population growth together with increasing industrial output are key drivers of the problems caused by making excessive demands on our ecosystems for food and resources, creating more waste and pollution than can be handled, taking too much land for habitation or production and, by more greenhouse gas emissions, increasing global temperature to a level that threatens life on land and in the oceans, and makes whole areas uninhabitable and dead. Population growth can give rise to many other challenges too: poverty, lack of healthcare, rising unrest and crime. See the website Population Matters.

David Attenborough

David Attenborough

Jorgen Randers

Jorgen Randers

This is supported by David Attenborough , the English broadcaster and naturalist and Jorgen Randers, one of the co-authors of Limits to Growth. 

In 1650, the world’s population had a doubling time (100% increase) of 240 years. By 1900, the doubling time was 100 years. The world population increased as countries began to industrialise from 1750 on, and dramatically so in the 20th century, due to medical advances and agricultural productivity. When The Limits to Growth was published in 1972, there were under 4bn (billion) people in the world, doubling in 47 years – much faster. There were more than 6bn in 2000, approximately ten times as many people on Earth as there had been in 1700. In 2015 there are now 7.3bn and current forecasts are around 9.5bn by 2050, and between 9.6bn and 12.3bn by 2100, 40 – 75% higher than 2015 – hopefully not more than 10.95 billion (3.9 billion or 50% higher than 2015, a growth rate of 0.59%). The annual global growth rate (percent growth over a period divided by number of years) peaked at 2.2% in 1963, and has declined to 1.14 in 2000 and 1.08% in 2015. If the global population in the last half of this century increases by 1.5bn then the annual rate over those 50 years will be 0.36%.

The decline in population growth rate is due to the demographic transition from high birth and death rates to low birth and death rates as a country develops from a pre-industrial to an industrialized economic system. For the stages countries go through, and variations, go to.

While the decline in population growth rate is forecast to continue for this century it will not down to near zero; population is likely to be still increasing according to the latest projections, as growth remains high in Latin America, the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa.

How far and when all countries reach the stage where birth and death rates are in balance and the rate of population growth goes back to where it was in agrarian economies, 0.5% a year is uncertain, and unlikely in this century. Hopefully though fertility rates will come down to a global average nearer to 2 per woman in the population.

3. Poverty and the Difference between Rich and Poor

(1) Extreme Poverty and The Gap between Rich and Poor Countries

In 1800 poverty evenly distributed across world, then the gap grew between developing and other economies. This gap is closing as China, India and now the more peaceful African economies have been developing over the last 30 years. South Korea invested in improved child mortality and human conditions and then economic growth. This has shown to be one of the shortest routes.

The UN Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000 set a target of reducing the extreme poverty rate in half by 2015, a goal that was met 5 years ahead of schedule in 2010; that year the World Bank estimated that around 1.29 billion people (18.4% of the world population then) lived in extreme poverty, as measured by subsisting on less than US$1.25 per day at 2005 prices. On September 23, 2015 the UK-based Financial Times reported that the World Bank intends to revise its income-based benchmark upward, to $1.90 a day. As a result, poverty numbers are likely to swell, according to that paper.

But income alone can be a misleading indicator of poverty. The 2010 Human Development Report introduced the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), which measures not only income, but also basic needs. Using this tool, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimated that roughly 1.5 billion people remained in extreme poverty as opposed to the conventional figure of 1.2 billion. As this figure is considered more “holistic,” it may shed new light on relative deprivation within a country. For example, in Ethiopia, 39% of the population is considered extremely poor under conventional measures, but 90% are in multidimensional poverty.

Another version of the MPI, known as the Alkire-Foster Method, created by Sabina Alkire and James Foster of the Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative (OPHI), can be broken down to reflect both the incidence and the intensity of poverty. This tool is useful as development officials, using the “M0 measure” of the method (which is calculated by multiplying “the proportion of people who are poor by the percentage of dimensions in which they are deprived”), can determine the most likely causes of poverty within a region

Regional differences are key as this reduction in extreme poverty over 20 years since 1990 took place most notably in China, Indonesia, India, Pakistan and Vietnam. In other countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, extreme poverty increased between 2005 and 2011.

It seems unlikely that extreme poverty will reach “global zero” (reduced to 3%) of the population by 2030 as the UN and World Bank target suggests. Many think that the global reduction will slow down, especially in Africa, so that it will take five decades to reach this level. The most pessimist predictions over the next 20 years estimates is that 660 million will be still in extreme poverty in 2035. For a more optimistic view see:

Prof Hans Rosling, professor at the Open University. “Don’t Panic: How to end poverty in 15yrs” shown on BBC2 11 Oct 2015.  See also the Open University website .

There are a variety of factors that may reinforce or instigate the existence of extreme poverty, such as weak institutions, cycles of violence and a low level of growth. Recent World Bank research shows that some countries can get caught in a “fragility trap,” in which the above factors prevent the poorest nations from emerging from low-level equilibrium in the long run. Moreover, most of the reduction in extreme poverty over the past twenty years has taken place in countries that have not experienced a civil conflict or have had governing institutions with a strong capacity to actually govern. Thus, to end extreme poverty, it is also important to focus on the interrelated problems of fragility and conflict, which the UN recognises. At the same time ending extreme poverty is an investment as it can prevent conflict and war.

In 2013 The UN published a report by a “high level panel” on post-2015 goals. It stated: “Ending extreme poverty is just the beginning, not the end. It is vital, but our vision must be broader: to start countries on the path of sustainable development.”

Moving out of extreme poverty means families on average have two rather than five children independent of culture and religion which helps to address the issue of population growth. To attend to environmental sustainability countries need to reach higher levels of economic development

(2) Country Differences in Living Standards and Global Co-operation for Environmental Sustainability            

Poor countries naturally seek to address poverty and to achieve the standard of living of the rich countries. This they feel needs to be addressed first before playing their part in addressing the environmental problems of climate change, and depletion of resources and biodiversity. In Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs survival comes first before attending to the needs of future generations and the wider living systems of which we are a part and on which we depend.

They seek compensation for the suffering and costs arising from the environmental effects of the technologies for development used by the richer nations, such as climate change and increases in global temperatures as well as more localised effects on ecosystems, livelihoods and communities resulting from the actions of multinational corporations.

But they also seek at the same the same economic development using these very same technologies that cause such damage to our shared global environment, and so damage to us all, alongside those that are more eco-friendly, such as renewable energy generation. India plans in 2015 to build a new coal power station each month (extracting and burning 1bn tonnes a year) to achieve its goal of 8% growth in GDP, while carbon capture technology is still undeveloped – following the example of China. They aim to eradicate extreme poverty and need to cope with nearly 400m more people over the next few decades. “You did it – it is our right to do the same – you cut your emissions first”.

In the Brandt report in 1980 it was clearly stated that environmental and social sustainability go together.

Rich and poor countries with high and low levels of emissions per person need to be treated differently in the move towards equal emissions per person across the planet – by contraction in permitted emission levels each year until convergence, or by cap and share.                                                                                                                 

(3) Inequality and Capitalism                                                                                

Capitalism helps to reduce poverty through investment to move poorer countries into the next stage of economic development and hopefully beyond. But in the current system, economic growth benefits the rich more than the poor: it generally occurs in the already rich countries and flows disproportionately to the richest people within those countries. It is often easier for rich populations to save, invest, and multiply their capital.

Thomas Picketty

Thomas Picketty

Thomas Picketty published a book in 2013: Capitalism in the 21st C: The Economics of Inequality based on historical research in Europe and the US since the 18th century. The book’s central thesis is that when the rate of return on capital is greater than the rate of economic growth over the long term, the result is concentration of wealth. He argues that when growth is low, then wealth tends to accumulate more quickly from the rate of return on capital than from labour, and tends to accumulate more among the top 10% and 1%, increasing inequality. He sees this continuing in the 21st century, while the last century he sees as an exception to this, due to the great depression, world wars and government policy after world war two. This implies that not only is inequality a feature of capitalism, but that it increases as long as the rate of return on capital exceeds economic growth. If growth needs to be carefully managed to achieve sustainable prosperity, this feature of capitalism needs to be managed also. Unequal distribution of wealth causes social and economic instability.

But he can only see this trend towards greater income inequality being reversed through state interventionism.  He proposes a global system of progressive wealth taxes to help reduce this and avoid the vast majority of wealth coming under the control of a tiny minority. Piketty proposes that a progressive annual global wealth tax of up to 2%, combined with a progressive income tax reaching as high as 80%, would reduce inequality, although he concedes that such a tax “would be politically impossible.” Richard Wilkinson (see next section) has other ideas on minding the income gap so that societies can be prosperous and stable and provide a good quality of life for all.

See more on Picketty’s data on inequality and some of the criticism See and also go to  for a summary of the contents and of the responses to it. It is also be made into a documentary film.

See also the studies of global inequality by Branko Milanovic Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalisation 

(4) Degree of Income Inequality within Countries

This affects the stability and health of societies and the quality of life for all: it is a key factor in sustainable living.

The degree of income inequality varies – in the UK for example it increased greatly in the 1980s, then more gradually in the 1990s, but in 2014 fell back to what it was two decades before (early 1990’s). Richard Wilkinson stresses the importance of minding the income gap so that societies can be prosperous and stable and provide a good quality of life for all. Thomas Picketty says income inequality matters as it causes social and economic instability. Richard Wilkinson’s research goes further in setting out the effects of a wider gap. Wilkinson and Pickett have shown in their 2009 book

Richard Wilkinson

Richard Wilkinson

Kate Pickett

Kate Pickett

Spirit Level, and on the Equality Trust website, that there is now a body of evidence that in richer countries income inequality, not the average income of a society, has harmful effects on the health, well being and quality of life in a society, and leads to a variety of social problems. This affects both high and low income groups: everyone is better off if there is a lower gap. Their study focused on 23 of the World Bank listed richest societies, and the income of the top 20% was 8 – 9.8 times higher than the bottom 20% in the more

unequal societies and 3.7 – 4.0 times higher in the more equal. Keeping within a healthy degree of income inequality can be more important than economic growth once material standards of living are at a good enough level.

For more on this in this website see:

Income inequality and social problems,

Social and psychological effects of income inequality,

Human nature and how societies are organised,

Income inequality and sustainability.

See also on YouTube a number of talks Wilkinson gave after publication of this: one in Canada (after 5 mins intro by host), another  and a third

4.  Political Order, Governance, Concentration of power and the Voice of the Citizen

The evolution of forms of political order continues and together with inequalities has a great effect on the stability and health of societies, and their ability to adapt and work with larger systems of which they are a part – both international networks or organisations and the natural environment and biosphere. All this affects the quality of life for all. In both liberal and non-liberal economies and countries, the strength and efficacy of state institutions (and, these days, the rule of law even in countries that are still strongly tribal or controlled by an army) is critical. This includes intolerance of corruption. Whether a government is more autocratic or democratic, it needs to be in touch with and hear the voice of its citizens and to provide for them in order to be stable and effective in the longer term. The centralisation or concentration of power in business corporations or governments or the media is usually destabilising and can be destructive. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” as the saying goes: a balance of powers is needed – and was built into institutions in many countries as the political order evolved over the last millennium.

Over the last century we have seen a growth of large multinational corporations (MNCs). In many cases their income exceeds that of smaller countries. There are of course economic advantages of size, such as economies of scale and influence. But at the same time they are very powerful and influential. National and international regulations may be insufficient to control their actions where these affect local communities and their natural resources and livelihoods or ecosystems – such as forests, rivers and oceans that can also serve an important function in the world and the biosphere as a whole. These might be crucial in maintaining the temperatures and climate that support life and food sources, in preserving necessary species diversity and in absorbing or treating pollution in water, soil or air. There is a risk that, driven by the profit motive, they will pursue one set of goals and values to the exclusion of others unless restrained by institutional investors and shareholders and by government regulation that can be enforced.

Colin Crouch

Colin Crouch

See Colin Crouch on the power of large corporations and the effects of neo-liberalism and trust in the markets

Some trade agreements between countries and global regions can increase the dominance of short-term economic gains over the quality of life for future generations. For example the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) conducted outside the public eye between the EU and US is about reducing regulatory barriers to trade for big business, such as: food safety law, environmental legislation, banking regulations and the sovereign powers of individual nations. The process is undemocratic and secretive.

As Steve Randy Waldman has pointed out on his website  technological change creates new concentrations of power (such as Google) that demand state action to protect a more broad based sharing of wealth and democratic government.

When a regional common market moves to form a federation with a parliament, a shared bureaucracy and a common currency demanding shared fiscal and monetary policies as in the European Union, it feels as if an undemocratic regional super-state is being created, with a complex process of negotiation between ministers from a number of countries. The movement towards ever greater union rather than close co-operation between nation states creates a backlash in which the demand for more local control can override the economic and other advantages of co-operation between the countries in many areas as seen recently in the UK voting to leave the EU.

In an age of increased globalisation and interdependency through innovation in the technologies of information, communication and transportation, international organisations and forms of governance are needed. But national sovereignty and identity prevails. International organisations such as the UN need the full agreement of the Security Council to intervene for peace and to protect against the excesses of war, and international agreements, such as the Climate Conferences, can only progress at the pace which most nations feel ready for, facilitated by international co-operation between countries.

Some Westernised liberal democracies are in dire need to reform as whole segments of a society can feel unheard and forgotten without their interests and needs being represented or even understood. This can be lower income groups or second or third generation immigrants. This can be destabilising both from within (as with the UK exit from the EU and the growth of extremist movements or political parties) or from without (vulnerability to the import of terrorism). Reform is not only necessary to address this but also to build a social consensus where needed on different important issues as they arise in an age of continuing turbulence and change.

In the 1980’s with the growth of neo-liberal ideology and belief in free markets, political party newspapers disappeared or were bought up by commercial media and broadcasters who then became the most important builders of social consensus. Elections became a battle fought out in the media for the favour of voters. (See Colin Crouch 2004 book called Post-Democratic Society) Organised civil society lost ground. Because civil society has become weaker, a gulf has opened up again between the state and the individual.

But elections and referendums become dangerously outmoded tools if they are not enriched with more sensible forms of citizens’ participation. An example of this the citizen convention. This is assembled by returning to the central principle of Athenian democracy: drafting by lot, or sortition as it is presently called (similar to selecting juries). Experiments with sortition have been successfully applied in the US, Australia, the Netherlands and Ireland (Northern Ireland and the Republic together). (See Reybrouck on citizen conventions ). There is a social movement promoting sortition.

David Van Reybrouck

David Van Reybrouck

This can be a mixture of 33 elected politicians and 66 citizens, drafted by lot, a random group put together by an independent research, taking account of age, sex and place of birth. The group might meet one weekend per month for more than a year. It could invite experts, rely on professionals to moderate debates and put questions to citizens.

The decisions made by such a convention do not have the force of law but it is essential that action is seen to be taken by the government as a result. Legislation arises from the interaction between the convention and an elected chamber, and may involve a referendum.

By talking to a diverse cross-section of society, politicians can get further than they can by just talking to each other. By exchanging views with elected officials, citizens can give much more relevant input than they could have in an election or a referendum. The rest of society has a chance to follow and contribute to the deliberations. A cross-section of society that is informed can act more coherently than an entire society that is uninformed.

Elections and referendums become dangerously outmoded tools if they are not enriched with more sensible forms of citizens’ participation. Structured deliberation with a random sample of citizens promises to generate a more vital, dynamic and inclusive form of democracy. Voting on the basis of gut feeling is replaced by sensible deliberation, as those who have been drafted are exposed to expert opinion, objective information and public debate. The risk of corruption is reduced, election fever abates and attention to the common good increases.

5. Unstable financial and economic systems: Regulation of Markets and Size and Diversity of Suppliers

The crash of the financial system in 2008 had three main underlying causes: deregulation of markets, alongside the globalisation of the economy and the development of information and communications technology. Deregulation began in the early 1980’s, the Reagan and Thatcher years. It followed a neo-liberal ideology that discarded contradictory evidence and was not based on a sound understanding of how economies function, the limits of markets and how to make them work – as the economist Joe Stiglitz has stressed. The safeguards set up after the Great Depression in the 1930’s were abandoned – such as the separation of investment banking from retail banking.

As Colin Crouch Professor of Governance and Public Management at Warwick University Business School has said: We know that when markets are extended they generate what is known as “negative externalities” – damage caused by market behaviour that does not enter into the cost calculations of those producing it. The most obvious and biggest examples concern pollution, climate change and exploitation of nature to the detriment of future generations. Left to itself, the market only rarely gives firm incentives to reduce any damage it causes to the general environment. But there are many other less obvious examples of such externalities, such as the exaggerated and highly disruptive effect produced on the economy by the movement of vast funds of speculative finance. Or the need to control food processing businesses that supply convenient tasty food that affects health and life expectancy, and which in turn increases demands on the health services. The single-minded concentration on profit maximisation undermines values and common decency. In his book on the non-death of neo-liberalism he emphasizes the power of large corporations and the effects of under-regulated markets.

Governments had to bail out the banks as they were so big that they could not be allowed to fail as the effect on the economy would be disastrous. This removed the natural boundaries set by the market itself, going out of business as a consequence. On top of that those who had profited from the excesses did not seem to suffer – but the poorest in society did suffer as there was a hole in public finances and the reduction on government spending hit them hard. This increased the sense of injustice and the anger at the failures of the capitalist system.

There has been an increase in regulation of banking since. Barclays in the UK began separating its investment and retail businesses in 2016, eight years later. The German banking system has more diverse set of institutions of different sizes and constitutions, where regional savings banks and co-operatives, which make up 70% of the banking sector, are mandated to provide credit for productive use, the common good and for financial inclusion, and local savings are used for local loans and small businesses, with profits staying within the region. This was previously looked down on, but is now seen as a sound model. Alternative forms of exchange and finance have emerged since the crash. There are blogs on this site on the instability of the financial system (from a talk by Lord Adair Turner) and on conference on

Lord Adair Turner

Lord Adair Turner

transforming finance and our money system held by a network of organisations in the UK that co-ordinates innovation in this area and how money is created through credit offered by commercial banks.

We have known how to reduce the degree of leveraging in financial markets, how to tax the volume of transactions in those markets, and how to protect banks’ main holdings   from speculative activity. But the power of big business and the predominant ideology of the time prevented government action until there was a disaster.

Hopefully now the learning from the crash of the unstable financial system can be applied generally to the managing of markets and the economy in ways that meet more comprehensively the needs of human beings and living systems of which we are a part, around a set of goals that put the quality of life, indeed all life, first, in which a sound and stable economy would be a part.

Reforming capitalism and regulating markets sufficiently, and allowing a diversity of institutions and models of the economy and ownership to flourish together (as in German banking and in alternative forms of finance and exchange) might then be seen as the way forward in facilitating the emergence of an economy and ways of governance that fit the needs to the 21st century and beyond.

6. Will Capitalism remain the dominant economic paradigm?

The capitalist system helped improve the material standard of living immensely but at a cost, to people and more recently to our natural environment. It may have fulfilled its function and had its place in history while still having a role –in a different kind of economy that fits the needs of the 21st century.

In the last 250 years capitalism has been the dominant organising framework for economic activity with an accompanying narrative on human nature. As Rifkin points out, every economic paradigm has a source of energy, and a means of communication

Jeremy Rifkin

Jeremy Rifkin

and mobility. In the first century of capitalism these were coal mining, railways, and the telegraph. To build the infrastructure for these and to provide cheaper products affordable to larger numbers of people, companies needed national rather than local markets and to raise massive capital. To do this they needed to integrate economic activity across markets, regions and then countries. All this raised living standards and provided many benefits. But the rich got richer as the flow of wealth was to the top, to those controlling these big corporations. Some economic paradigms create more concentration of wealth and power. Recently it has been noted that the accumulated combined wealth of 65 people equals that of half the population of the world. Many have been excluded from the benefits of capitalism, despite the attempts of left wing governments to redistribute them through taxation. The capitalist system also tries to turn and package everything it can into a commodity that can be priced and exchanged in a market as property, even trying to price the priceless. The market mentality can then enter into areas of life and human activity and exchange for which it is not suitable, and erode the ethics and values that underpin civil society and the quality of life. In Part 2 we will look at both changes in what people feel they need and also at signs of new forms of organising our economy and society so that it meets our needs more comprehensively, including our needs for a healthy natural environment.

7. Looking ahead to Part 2: Ways forward for the Future                                                                                                                                                                          Sustainable Prosperity within ecological limits and a Good Quality of Life for all – are these incompatible needs within the current system?

As seen in Part 1 for our survival and the survival of the habitat on which we depend we need not just to reform capitalism – though this may be part of the solution – but change our concepts of wealth, growth, and quality of life. This would entail a broader understanding and a greater social consensus on what the quality of our life, and of our wellbeing, depend on: the quality of our societies and the quality of our natural environment alongside material living standards. We have seen how, once material needs are sufficiently met the degree of income inequality and the balance in social organisation between reciprocal co-operation and status or dominance hierarchies (the health and stability of a society) affects our health, our access to information and our opportunities to progress through access to more than basic education and through personal rights and freedom, choice and inclusion (see Wilkinson and the Social Progress Indicator). There is a felt need for more mixed forms of organising, sometimes enabled by the internet, such as horizontal networks and collaborative circles alongside hierarchy, and the humanising and localising of economic exchange, and more local control over it.

As the updated Limits to Growth stated in 2004, a sustainable scenario for the future would mean stabilising population and output per person and creating technologies to preserve resources and the biosphere. See summary of the update. But technology and markets by themselves are unlikely to prevent overshoot and collapse, as they are merely tools to serve the goals of society as a whole. For this we would need to have a different concept of growth as an Increase in the quality of life in all its senses rather than an increase in material turnover. This would mean more security, greater happiness and wellbeing and sustainability. This requires a richer concept of the quality of life, which would include the quality of the natural environment. This in turn requires an ecological awareness and a connection with nature, preferably from early years.

So two themes are emerging around which a social consensus can form for a redefinition of the goals of society as a whole:

Growth as the increase in quality of life rather than the quantity of material turnover

An economy that emphasises collaboration and reciprocity both between us and with nature

There is a growing awareness that if society’s implicit goals are to exploit nature, enrich the elites, and ignore the long term, then society will develop technologies and markets that destroy the environment, widen the gap between rich and poor, and optimize for short-term gain – rather than be working in tune with the environment and needs of all, now and in the future. In short, society has been developing technologies and markets that hasten a collapse instead of preventing it. The signs of this, alongside the human needs that are not met by our current economic system, are disrupting the current economic paradigm.

While there are signs too of the development of low carbon technologies and greater efficiencies in the use and reuse of materials and resources the concept of growth remains the same while the need for change is all the more urgent.

The Limits to Growth model was used to create different future scenarios. Most of them resulted in an ongoing growth of population and of the economy up to a turning point around 2030. This is now fast approaching. There is a greater awareness than there was and for some a greater sense of urgency. There is a growing consensus at a global level as shown in the Climate Conference in Paris in 2015 as many countries have begun to address climate issues at local level since 2011. But there is not yet a comprehensive social consensus in countries that incorporates an integration of sustainable social, economic and environmental objectives. This would create a new paradigm for our societies, economies and technologies as well as our relations with our natural environment. There are encouraging signs of innovation which demonstrate realistic alternatives in technology and in ways of doing things. But until a new way of thinking about quality of life in all its aspects (economic, social and environmental) takes shape any hope stemming from these signs is not likely to be well grounded yet. It seems we are in what the Chinese have called a spring-autumn period: the old ways of organising society and our lives are dying and the signs of new ones are emerging. Maybe in such a period of transition the new and old will coexist in society while experimentation with, confidence in, and attraction to, the new in diverse forms reaches a critical mass, perhaps accompanied by the emotional shock of disasters in a larger scale caused by the outmoded old system. Many have seen an epochal change or major paradigm shift occurring in society with the onset of a new millennium. Once problems or issues arise that cannot be explained or resolved well enough within the current paradigm and system, inconsistencies build up and fester until there comes a point at which there is a strong felt need for change and people see that the fundamentals of the current system need to be questioned and changed. In such times of turbulence we need to work together, with a clear sense of what is needed and important, and how to go about it, so that we can build our confidence and hope and exercise our creativity, with a sense of urgency and realism – rather than becoming the victims of the anxiety, powerlessness, anger and despair that lead to escapism, distraction and denial.

Joanna Macy

Joanna Macy

Joanna Macy’s writing on the great transition has inspired many in finding an way of participating actively with others in it. The founder of analytical psychology, Carl Jung, described what he saw to be a major transition and the key role human beings play in being part of it, both unconsciously and consciously.

In Part 2 we will explore all this further.

For the full synopsis by Donella Meadows and her co-authors in 2004

For more information on how change the drivers, structure and dynamics of a system such as the one described in the Limits to Growth see Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows (Earthscan) and chapter six on leverage points and places to intervene in a system to enable change – see also a paper on this. This is based on the system dynamics model developed by Jay Forrester at MIT (Pegasus Communications 1990) and see www.systemdynamics.org for the system dynamics society.

 

 

Population Growth in 21st Century

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Population Growth and Fertility Rates this Century

The work of professor Adrian Raftery, at the University of Washington, and his international research team, including UN experts, published in September 2014, has overturned 20 years of consensus – that global population, and the stresses it brings, will peak and plateau by 2050 at about 9bn people. This study for the first time uses advanced statistics to place convincing upper and lower limits on future population growth. He and others (such as Simon Ross, chief executive of Population Matters a thinktank supported by naturalist Sir David Attenborough

David Attenborough

David Attenborough

and scientist James Lovelock) stress that it should be included in the issues and goals on the UN-led sustainable development agenda.

Up till 2015 the estimate of the global fertility rate (number of children per woman) had declined to 2.42. But from then on there has a slowdown in the pace of fertility decline. There are higher fertility rates in Africa especially. In countries like Nigeria, the continent’s most populous nation, the decline has stalled completely with the average woman bearing six children. The cause of the stalled fertility rate is two-fold, said Raftery: a failure to meet the need for contraception and a continued preference for large families. “The unmet need for contraception – at 25% of women – has not changed in for 20 years,” he said. And “the preference for large families is linked to lack of female education which limits women’s life choices”. In Nigeria, 28% of girls still do not complete primary education.

An alternative scenario is given by the statistician Jorgen Randers (one of the co-authors of Limits to Growth), who argues that traditional projections insufficiently take into account the downward impact of global urbanization on fertility.

Jorgen Randers

Jorgen Randers

Randers’ “most likely scenario” reveals a peak in the world population in the early 2040s at about 8.1 billion people, followed by decline. In China in 2015, for example, a baby boom is predicted (possibly 6M more births a year) after raising the family planning limit from one to two children per woman. This may balance the ageing population a bit, but it is expected to be short-lived as social and economic factors accompanying urbanisation will play a part: the cost of raising children and raising the quality of their lives is high in cities (childcare, education, rents, commuting, uncertainty in the job market).

How far and when all countries reach the stage where birth and death rates are in balance and the rate of population growth goes back to where it was in agrarian economies, 0.5% a year is uncertain, and unlikely in this century. Hopefully though fertility rates will come down to a global average nearer to 2 per woman in the population.

Another population concern is the rising life expectancy and ageing populations currently seen in Europe and Japan, which raises questions about how working populations will support large numbers of elderly people. But the new research shows the same issue will affect countries whose populations are very young today.

 

Stages of Changes in Population in the Transition to an Industrialised Economy

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The demographic Transition Model and Variations within it in the steps to an industrialised economy.      

The decline in population growth rate is due to the demographic transition from high birth and death rates to low birth and death rates as a country develops from a pre-industrial to an industrialized economic system. This is typically demonstrated through the demographic transition model developed in 1929 by Warren Thompson which is based on an interpretation of demographic history over the previous 200 years in industrialising societies . Thompson identified 4 stages:

  1. Death rates and birth rates (number of people per 1000 population per year) are high and roughly in balance in an agrarian and pre-industrial society, with growth rates less than 0.05%. Population growth is typically very slow in this stage, because the society is constrained by the available food supply
  2. Death rates drop rapidly as a country develops its economy, technology and education, to improve its food supply (selective breeding and crop rotation) and sanitation (food handling, water supply, sewage, and personal hygiene). Access to technology, education in basic healthcare, and increases in female literacy reduce mortality too, especially childhood mortality. Without a corresponding fall in birth rates (and fertility) there is an imbalance and countries in this stage experience a large increase in the rate of population growth (percent growth over a period divided by number of years).
  3. A fall in birth rates and fertility rates (number of children per woman) due to increases in wages, more urbanization, less subsistence agriculture, the improved status and education of women, access to contraception, more parental investment in the education of children as children’s work becomes less valued. Population growth begins to slow down.
  4. 4.Birth and death rates are relatively low and more in balance, with some variations. Birth rates can drop to well below replacement level leading to a shrinking population, a threat to industries that rely on population growth. Death rates may remain consistently low or increase slightly due to more lifestyle diseases from unhealthy diets, little exercise and high obesity. As the large group born during stage two gets older, it creates an economic burden on the shrinking working population. The ratio of working age people to older people is likely to decline substantially in all countries, even those that currently have young populations.

As with all models, this is a generalised picture of population change and may not accurately describe particular countries. Most developed countries are in stage 3 or 4 of the model; the majority of developing countries have reached stage 2 or stage 3. The major (relative) exceptions are some poor countries, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and some Middle Eastern countries, which are poor or affected by government policy or civil war, notably PakistanPalestinian territoriesYemen, and Afghanistan – and, as in Africa, epidemics such as AIDS or Ebola. ChinaBrazil, Thailand and others have passed through the stages very quickly due to fast social and economic change. China also had programmes to emphasise the quality rather than quality of children from 1972 followed by the one child family planning law from 1980 which brought the fertility rate down to 1.2 or 1.5 children per woman until the two child policy in 2015. There are variations in the developed economies too. In some, such as Japan and some European countries, there is negative population growth (i.e. a net decrease in population over time), mainly due to low fertility rates. In the UK a 15% growth rate (.6% versus 3% in many EU countries) has been predicted between 2014 and 2039, mostly due to net immigration and the birth rates in migrant families.

For the world as a whole the 2015 estimates of birth rate (births per 1000) was 18.6, and the death rate 7.8 (deaths per 1000) See the World Fact Book

 

Limits to Growth: Extract from Synopsis of 2004 Update

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Limits to Growth: Extract from the Synopsis of The 30-Year Update

By Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows  Donella Meadows

The following piece is taken from a short synopsis of Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. The full length book is available at the website of Chelsea Green Publishing

A Synopsis: Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update

The signs are everywhere around us:

  • Sea level has risen 10–20 cm since 1900. Most non-polar glaciers are retreating, and the extent and thickness of Arctic sea ice is decreasing in summer.
  • In 1998 more than 45 percent of the globe’s people had to live on incomes averaging $2 a day or less. Meanwhile, the richest one- fifth of the world’s population has 85 percent of the global GNP. And the gap between rich and poor is widening.
  • In 2002, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN estimated that 75 percent of the world’s oceanic fisheries were fished at or beyond capacity. The North Atlantic cod fishery, fished sustainably for hundreds of years, has collapsed, and the species may have been pushed to biological extinction.
  • The first global assessment of soil loss, based on studies of hundreds of experts, found that 38 percent, or nearly 1.4 billion acres, of currently used agricultural land has been degraded.
  • Fifty-four nations experienced declines in per capita GDP for more than a decade during the period 1990–2001.

These are symptoms of a world in overshoot, where we are drawing on the world’s resources faster than they can be restored, and we are releasing wastes and pollutants faster than the Earth can absorb them or render them harmless. They are leading us toward global environ- mental and economic collapse—but there may still be time to address these problems and soften their impact.

We’ve been warned before. More than 30 years ago, a book called The Limits to Growth created an international sensation. Commissioned by the Club of Rome, an international  group of businessmen, states- men, and scientists, The Limits to Growth was compiled by a team of experts from the U.S. and several foreign countries. Using system dynamics theory and a computer model called “World3,” the book presented and analysed 12 scenarios that showed different possible patterns—and environmental outcomes—of world development over two centuries from 1900 to 2100.

The World3 scenarios showed how population growth and natural resource use interacted to impose limits to industrial growth, a novel and even controversial idea at the time. In 1972, however, the world’s population and economy were still comfortably within the planet’s carrying capacity. The team found that there was still room to grow safely while we could examine longer-term options.

In 1992, this was no longer true. On the 20th anniversary of the publication of Limits to Growth, the team updated Limits in a book called Beyond the Limits. Already in the 1990s there was compelling evidence that humanity was moving deeper into unsustainable terri- tory. Beyond the Limits argued that in many areas we had “overshot” our limits, or expanded our demands on the planet’s resources and sinks beyond what could be sustained over time.1 The main challenge identified in Beyond the Limits was how to move the world back into sustainable territory.

To overshoot means to go too far, to grow so large so quickly that limits are exceeded. When an overshoot occurs, it induces stresses that begin to slow and stop growth. The three causes of overshoot are always the same, at any scale from personal to planetary. First, there is growth, acceleration, rapid change. Second, there is some form of limit or barrier, beyond which the moving system may not safely go. Third, there is a delay or mistake in the perceptions and the responses that try to keep the system within its limits. The delays can arise from inattention, faulty data, a false theory about how the system responds, deliberate efforts to mislead, or from momentum  that prevents the system from being stopped quickly.

The 30-Year Update

Now in a new study, Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, the authors have produced a comprehensive update to the original Limits, in which they conclude that humanity is dangerously in a state of overshoot.

While the past 30 years has shown some progress, including new technologies, new institutions, and a new awareness of environmental problems, the authors are far more pessimistic than they were in 1972. Humanity has squandered the opportunity to correct our current course over the last 30 years, they conclude, and much must change if the world is to avoid the serious consequences of overshoot in the 21st century. See the graph

When The Limits to Growth was first published in 1972, most economists, along with many industrialists, politicians, and Third World advocates raised their voices in outrage at the suggestion that population growth and material consumption need to be reduced by deliberate means. Over the years, Limits was attacked by many who didn’t understand or misrepresented its assertions, dismissing it as Malthusian hyperbole. But nothing that has happened in the last 30 years has invalidated the book’s warnings.

On the contrary, as noted energy economist Matthew Simmons recently wrote, “The most amazing aspect of the book is how accurate many of the basic trend extrapolations … still are some 30 years later.” For example, the gap between rich and poor has only grown wider in the past three decades. Thirty years ago, it seemed unimaginable that humanity could expand its numbers and economy enough to alter the Earth’s natural systems. But experience with the global climate system and the stratospheric ozone layer have proved them wrong.

All the environmental and economic problems discussed in Limits to Growth have been treated at length before. There are hundreds of books on deforestation, global climate change, dwindling oil supplies, and species extinction. Since The Limits to Growth was first published 30 years ago, these problems have been the focus of conferences, scientific research, and media scrutiny.

What makes Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update unique, however, is that it presents the underlying economic structure that leads to these problems. Moreover, Limits is a valuable reference and compilation of data. The authors include 80 tables and graphs that give a comprehensive, coherent view of many problems. The book will undoubtedly be used as a text in many courses at the college level, as its two earlier versions have been.

WORLD 3

The World3 computer model is complex, but its basic structure is not difficult to understand. It is based in system dynamics —a method for studying the world that deals with understanding how complex systems change over time. Internal feedback loops within the structure of the system influence the entire system behaviour.

World3 keeps track of stocks such as population, industrial capital, persistent pollution, and cultivated land. In the model, those stocks change through flows such as births and deaths; investment and depreciation; pollution generation and pollution assimilation; land erosion, land development, and land removed for urban and industrial uses.

The model accounts for positive and negative feedback loops that can radically affect the outcome of various scenarios. It also develops nonlinear relationships. For example, as more land is made arable, what’s left is drier, or steeper, or has thinner soils. The cost of coping with these problems dramatically raises the cost of developing the land—a nonlinear relationship.

Feedback loops and nonlinear relationships make World3 dynamically complex, but the model is still a simplification of reality. World3 does not distinguish among different geographic parts of the world, nor does it represent separately the rich and the poor. It keeps track of only two aggregate pollutants, which move through and affect the environment in ways that are typical of the hundreds of pollutants the economy actually emits. It omits the causes and consequences of violence. And there is no military capital or corruption explicitly represented in World3. Incorporating those many distinctions, how- ever, would not necessarily make the model better. And it would make it very much harder to comprehend.

This probably makes World3 highly optimistic. It has no military sector to drain capital and resources from the productive economy. It has no wars to kill people, destroy capital, waste lands, or generate pollution. It has no ethnic strife, no corruption, no floods, earthquakes, nuclear accidents, or AIDS epidemics. The model represents the uppermost possibilities for the “real” world.

The authors developed World3 to understand the broad sweep of the future—the possible behavior patterns, through which the human economy will interact with the carrying capacity of the planet over the coming century.

World3’s core question is, How may the expanding global population and materials economy interact with and adapt to the earth’s limited carrying capacity over the coming decade? The model does not make predictions, but rather is a tool to understand the broad sweeps and the behavioral tendencies of the system.

Technology Markets

The most common criticisms of the original World3 model were that it underestimated the power of technology and that it did not represent adequately the adaptive resilience of the free market. Impressive—and even sufficient—technological advance is conceivable, but only as a consequence of determined societal decisions and willingness to follow up such decisions with action and money.

Technological advance and the market are reflected in the model in many ways. The authors assume in World3 that markets function to allocate limited investment capital among competing needs, essentially without delay. Some technical improvements are built into the model, such as birth control, resource substitution, and the green revolution in agriculture. But even with the most effective technologies and the greatest economic resilience that seems possible, if those are the only changes, the model tends to generate scenarios of collapse.

One reason technology and markets are unlikely to prevent overshoot and collapse is that technology and markets are merely tools to serve goals of society as a whole. If society’s implicit goals are to exploit nature, enrich the elites, and ignore the long term, then society will develop technologies and markets that destroy the environment, widen the gap between rich and poor, and optimize for short-term gain. In short, society develops technologies and markets that hasten a collapse instead of preventing it.

The second reason for the vulnerability of technology is that adjustment mechanisms have costs. The costs of technology and the market are reckoned in resources, energy, money, labor, and capital.

THE DRIVING FORCE: EXPONENTIAL GROWTH

For more than a century, the world has been experiencing exponential growth in a number of areas, including population and industrial production. Positive feedback loops can reinforce and sustain exponential growth. In 1650, the world’s population had a doubling time of 240 years. By 1900, the doubling time was 100 years. When The Limits to Growth was published in 1972, there were under 4 billion people in the world. Today, there are more than 6 billion, and in 2000 we added the equivalent of nine New York cities.

See the table on doubling times:

Another area of exponential growth has been the world economy. From 1930 to 2000, the money value of world industrial output grew by a factor of 14—an average doubling time of 19 years. If population had been constant over that period, the material standard of living would have grown by a factor of 14 as well. Because of population growth, however, the average per capita output increased by only a factor of five.

Moreover, in the current system, economic growth generally occurs in the already rich countries and flows disproportionately to the richest people within those countries. Thus, according to the United Nations Development Program, the 20 percent of the world’s people who lived in the wealthiest nations had 30 times the per capita income of the 20 percent who lived in the poorest nations. By 1995 the average income ratio between the richest and poorest 20 percent had increased from 30:1 to 82:1.

Only eight percent of the world’s people own a car. Hundreds of millions of people live in inadequate houses or have no shelter at all—much less refrigerators or television sets. Social arrangements common in many cultures systematically reward the privileged, and it is easier for rich populations to save, invest, and multiply their capital.

THE LIMITS

Limits to growth include both the material and energy that are extracted from the Earth, and the capacity of the planet to absorb the pollutants that are generated as those materials and energy are used. Streams of material and energy flow from the planetary sources through the economic system to the planetary sinks where wastes and pollutants end up. There are limits, however, to the rates at which sources can produce these materials and energy without harm to people, the economy, or the earth’s processes of regeneration and regulation.

Resources can be renewable, like agricultural soils, or nonrenewable, like the world’s oil resources. Both have their limits. The most obvious limit on food production is land. Millions of acres of cultivated land are being degraded by processes such as soil erosion and salinization, while the cultivated area remains roughly constant. Higher yields have compensated somewhat for this loss, but yields cannot be expected to increase indefinitely. Per capita grain production peaked in 1985 and has been trending down slowly ever since. Exponential growth has moved the world from land abundance to land scarcity. Within the last 35 years, the limits, especially of areas with the best soils, have been approached.

Another limit to food production is water. In many countries, both developing and developed, current water use is often not sustain- able. In an increasing number of the world’s watersheds, limits have already been reached. In the U.S. the Midwestern Ogalallah aquifer in Kansas is overdrawn by 12 cubic kilometres each year. Its depletion has so far caused 2.46 million acres of farmland to be taken out of cultivation. In an increasing number of the world’s watersheds, limits have already, indisputably, been exceeded. In some of the poorest and richest economies, per capita water withdrawals are going down because of environmental problems, rising costs, or scarcity.

Another renewable resource is forests, which moderate climate, control floods, and harbor species, from rattan vines to dyes and sources of medicine. But today, only one-fifth of the planet’s original forest cover remains in large tracts of undisturbed natural forests. Although forest cover in temperate areas is stable, tropical forest area is plummeting.

From 1990 to 2000, the FAO reports that more than 370 million acres of forest cover—an area the size of Mexico—was converted to other uses. At the same time that forests decline, demand for forest products is growing. If the loss of 49 million acres per year, typical in the 1990s, continues to increase at 2 percent per year, the unprotected forest will be gone before the end of the century.

Nonrenewable Resources

A prime example of a nonrenewable resource is fossil fuels, whose limits should be obvious, although many people, including distinguished economists, are in denial over this elementary fact. More than 80 percent of year 2000 commercial energy use comes from non- renewable fossil fuels—oil, natural gas, and coal. The underground stocks of fossil fuels are going continuously and inexorably down. Between 1970 and 2000, even though billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas were burned, the ratio of known reserves to production actually rose, due to the discovery of new reserves and reappraisal of old ones.

 

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