THE LIMITS TO GROWTH ANALYSIS OF OUR GLOBAL SITUATION
Full account: 28 pages.
Since the publication of the book The Limits to Growth (see Appendix 1) in 1972 a huge amount of research and publication has accumulated documenting the fact that we are on a grossly unsustainable path. We are consuming resources and damaging the environment at rates that cannot be kept up for long. Most of the big global problems increasingly threatening us are being caused by the fact that we have exceeded the limits to growth. Despite this, the supreme goal of all countries is to increase production, consumption and GDP as fast as possible and without limit; i.e., the goal is limitless economic growth. The following discussion is intended to make clear that this is a guarantee that a multidimensional global breakdown will impact within a few decades.
The present situation is being generated by the overconsumption of only a few of the world’s people, so the situation will become much worse as the rest aspire for affluent “living standards”. The amount of energy for instance used in rich countries is around four-fifths of the world's energy production, and their average per capita consumption is about 17 times that of the poorest half of the world's people. It will never be possible for all to rise to present rich world per capita levels.
But it is important to recognize that the commonly quoted figures significantly underestimate the inequality in resource use, because they do not include the large volumes of energy and materials embodied in imported goods. Rich countries now do not carry out much manufacturing but import most of the manufactured goods they use from Third World factories. So figures on use in or by rich countries do not include all the energy used in poor countries to produce these goods. Similarly their environmental impact statistics do not include the damage done in Third World countries in producing the goods the rich countries import.
THE EQUATION… I = PxAxT
The resource and environmental impacts we have on the planet (I) correspond to the number of people we have (P), multiplied by their per capita level of consumption, or affluence (A), multiplied by the sort of technology in use (for instance heating a house by fossil fuels has a bigger impact than heating by solar passive design.)
This equation shows that affluence is the biggest concern. World population is only likely to multiply by 1.3 as it rises to 9 or 10 billion, but the Australian energy use per capita is 120 times the average in Bangladesh. Thus the main worry is that the dominant assumption that “development = economic growth” is taking us towards global levels of production and consumption that are many times current levels. The Simpler Way perspective therefore stresses the need to dramatically reduce levels of per capita consumption.
The IPAT equation supports the claim that the richest countries are grossly overpopulated, including Australia. We can support our numbers affluently only by a) importing most of the world’s resource production, b) putting a lot of resources into exporting, c) exporting products such as coal and aluminium and beef, which are creating the greenhouse problem and depleting our ecological capital. If we lived without doing these things we could support far fewer people at our present "living standards".
There would seem to be only two basic counter-argument to the limits to growth claim. The first is that the problems are not that serious or uergent. The second is that technical advance will solve the problems, allowing us to go pursuing ever increasing living standards” and GDP. These arguments are dealt with at some length below.
DOCUMENTING THE OVERSHOOT, THE DEGREE OF
The most important point to begin with is to make clear is the magnitude of the problem, the fact that we are far beyond sustainable levels of resource consumption and environmental impact. Present rich world, and global levels are grossly unsustainable. The evidence below on demand, available resources, and environmental impact makes it clear that we have to face up to dramatic reductions in present levels, probably to the region of 10% of present rich world per capita use rates.
It is therefore important that we begin by looking at evidence on resource consumption and availability.
The basic concern in the limits analysis is how long would crucial resources last, especially if all people aspire to rich world "living standards"? Economists often give the misleading impression that resource availability depends mainly on the price we are prepared to pay. Their assumption is that if a resource becomes more scarce its price will rise and it will then be economic to process poorer grade deposits, or move to substitutes. Yes there is a tendency for this to happen, but the important limits are set by geochemistry, e.g., by the quantities and grades of ore and fuels in the earth, and biology, e.g., by the amount of biomass that could be put into ethanol production.
If the common estimates for potentially recoverable non-renewable energy resources are added together and we ask how long would they last if 10 billion people each used energy resources at the present rich world per capita rate, the answer is about 30 years.
Most of these energy resources should and probably will not be used because they contain carbon, but the figures indicate the scale of the energy problem. Clearly, even if we doubled or trebled the assumed potentially recoverable non renewable energy resources it would not be possible to keep up rich world "living standards" for all people for more than a few decades. (On renewables, see below.)
The most urgent limits problems are set by petroleum. Our society is highly dependent on liquid fuels. Since 1995 a number of petroleum geologists have contributed to the following set of alarming claims about world supply of conventional petroleum.
- World supply of conventional oil appears to have peaked in 2005. (Several say this, incl. Birol, head of the International Energy Authority, and Higgs, 2014, p. 263.)
- By 2030 supply might be down to half its peak supply. This would enable all people on earth then to average only 1/15 the amount per capita we now use in Australia.
- Alternative petroleum sources such as tar sands and oil shales will not make a major difference to the situation. These “non-conventional” sources are difficult to extract, have a low ratio of yield to energy spent in production effort (EROI), and are environmentally problematic. In the short term unconventional liquid fuel output (e.g., “tight oil” and gas from “fracking”) has boosted supply in the US but a number of people do not expect this to last long; fields have been found to deplete fast. Some estimate that EROI has halved in only fifteen years.
- According to some measures, at present the world is using oil three times as fast as it is being discovered. Heinberg and Fridley, (2016, Fig. 1.1.) say that between 2005 and 2013 investment in the production of conventional oil almost trebled, but output decreased about 50%. The HSBC Report () finds that the rate of new oil discoveries and their quality (EROI) has declined dramatically over the last few decades, to now almost negligible levels.
- Ahmed (2017) points out that all Middle East oil producing countries are rapidly running into extreme difficulties due to peaking of oil production, falling EROI and declining oil export income, very high population growth, intense water land and food scarcity and thus rising import dependency, increasing discontent and conflict prompting more authoritarian government. They are having to use more oil themselves, meaning less to export to rich countries. It is likely that many of these states will collapse in the next decade or so. These trends will impact heavily on rich-world access to oil. (For more detail on Ahmed’s important book see AhmedFailingStates.htm.)
In 2014 the price of oil surged to the region of $150/barrel. This seems to have contributed to a major decline in the global economy, and in turn to a big fall in the price of oil. Evidently whenever the price of oil has risen above $100 a barrel (some say $60) in the US there has been economic recession. But a price under about $50 is too low for companies to make a profit given the increasing difficulties and costs in producing oil. It is likely that we have entered a period of wide fluctuations in these factors, but that underlying these will be a steadily rising cost of production. Heinberg (2014) says the cost of production is increasing at 10% p.a.
RECENT OIL AND GAS SOURCES: “FRACKING.”
Since 2010 there has been a boom in supply of oil and gas from previously untapped shale sources, accessed by “fracking”. It now seems clear that these sources show “…spectacularly high decline rates.” (Ahmed, 2014, Berman, 2013), and that total supply from these fields will begin to fall rapidly in five to ten years. Miller and Sorrel (2014) say the global long term potential of “tight oil” might be 10% of conventional oil. Access to European areas for fracking is much more limited than to the US sources exploited so far, due to tighter rules and more dense settlement. However the potential in other regions of the world is not clear yet. The fact that there seems to have been little exploratory effort suggest that the favorable conditions in the US are not common elsewhere.
It is likely therefore that in the next decade or so diminishing and more costly petroleum supply will begin to impact seriously on the global economy.
FOSSIL FUEL SUPPLY TO PEAK BY 2015?
A number of analysts estimate that supply of all fossil fuels, i.e., oil, coal and gas combined, will cease to increase as early as 2025. ( Ahmed 2016, Mohr et al. 2015, Maggio and Cacciola 2012, Laherrere.)
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF EROI.
A most important factor in thinking about limits issues, especially energy, is the ratio between what is produced and the effort needed to produce it. So for energy the crucial indicator is Energy Return on Energy Invested, or EROI. When oil was first produced it took one unit of energy to discover and produce about 100 units of energy. Morgan says in 1990 the EROI for the overall energy supply system was around 40, but by 2010 it had fallen to 15 - 20. (See also Higgs, 2014, p. 267, Clarke, .) He makes the important point that quantities in new discoveries are not as important as the likely EROI for getting oil out of them. He says (p. 74) that the figure for the new shale oil and gas sources is 5, for tar sand oil 3.7, for North Sea oil now 5, and that few conventional oil fields being discovered have an EROI better than 10. (Clarke gives similar values.) These figures reflect the increasing difficulty of finding, drilling and pumping, e.g., in deep oceans, and the increased amount of energy-intensive infrastructure needed. (This is why the trebling of investment has not produced significantly more oil.)
The EROI values for renewable energy sources are low. Hydroelectricity is best and wind is probably around 18, and PV perhaps 8 - 12 (…although some argue it is much lower), but ethanol from corn is around 1.4, meaning that such a great deal of energy (and land and water) has to be invested to produce the fuel that many regard it as not being a viable option.
The minimum overall energy EROI for a modern society is thought (by some, without a strong case) to be around 10. (Murphy, .) Some have pointed out that below this approximate value there is an “energy cliff”, i.e., a rapid deterioration in net energy available for use. Morgan says that if the overall EROI fell to 5 the economy would collapse.
Morgan notes that as EROI declines expenditure on energy becomes a greater percentage of GDP. He estimates that when EROI is 20 then about 4% of GDP is being spent on energy, but if it falls to 5 about 18% of GDP will have to be spent on energy. Tverberg makes much the same point; falling EROI means falling net energy available and rising cost of production, and thus damping effects on the economy.
There are several reasons why nuclear energy is not likely to solve the energy problem and/or, and should not be adopted even if it could.
Š There is far too little Uranium at high grade to fuel a large-scale nuclear era for more than about 5 – 10 years (… unless breeder or fusion reactors are developed; see below.) Clarke reports that peak supply will occur in 45 years, even at the present rather low rate of use.
Š If 9 billion people were to live as Australians do now, getting all their energy from nuclear sources, the world would have about 300 times the present nuclear capacity.
Š Nuclear accidents can have catastrophic consequences. Some of the materials that would be released would remain radioactive for thousands of years. If the US Price Anderson Act had not limited insurance claims that could be made on nuclear generating corporations there would be no reactors in that country, because no one would insure them. However this should be weighed against the fact that coal power has large health consequences. But these would cease one generation after use of coal ceased, and this is not the case with nuclear energy.
Š No matter how well designed, reactors are operated by humans so it is always possible for mistakes to be made, e.g., when operators over-ride automatic safety systems as happened at Chernobyl.
Š The “proliferation” problem. A nuclear era would increase the chances of access to dangerous elements by criminals and terrorists, or governments seeking to produce nuclear weapons.
Š Nuclear energy involves considerable release of carbon dioxide, because liquid fuels must be used in mining. This would increase as ore grades deteriorated. It is not likely that heavy mining machinery could be powered by electricity, nor that much transport can be powered by biofuels. However it is argued that existing plutonium stocks and waste nuclear fuel could enable large scale operation of Breeder reactors for a long time.
Š There is no agreed solution to the problem of waste disposal. It is not possible to be sure that a site that has been very stable and dry for a long time will remain dry or earthquake free for hundreds of thousands of years into the future, through ice ages and greenhouse effects on hydrology. The Synroc process involves reprocessing spent fuel and thus problems of contamination and terrorist access to highly radioactive elements. (However Breeders might be able to ”burn” wastes.)
Š Nuclear energy only produces electricity, which is only c.20% of rich world energy use, so it could not cut carbon release sufficiently. However we are likely to shift many things as possible to electrical power in future, such as transport.
Š The moral problem; the people living in a nuclear era would get all the benefit, but many future generations would pay the biological costs without getting any of the benefit after the fuel has been used up.
Š We have no idea what the total long term health, genetic and mortality effects of nuclear energy will be. These effects will accumulate over hundreds of thousands of years as radioactive materials re constantly cycled through organisms and food chains. Even without accidents small quantities of long lived radioactivity are released. There is no threshold level below which we can be sure there will be no biological effect. If we do not have confident estimates of the magnitude of these long term biological costs then it is not possible to say that the benefits will outweigh the costs.
Š To summarise, the nuclear option involves several potentially very serious risks and uncertainties. It should not be taken while there is significant doubt among the experts about these.
Š Above all, nuclear energy is not necessary. We do not have to take the risk. It is possible to provide very satisfactory ways for all by shifting to The Simpler Way.
Fusion reactors and the Integral Fast Breeder Reactor.
It is uncertain whether fusion reactors will ever become viable but if they do they will not be scaled up sufficiently to make much difference before 2050. They will be very costly. They require Lithium, and resource estimates indicate that there will be not enough to meet demand for electricity storage and electric vehicles.
Some people believe that the Fourth Generation Integral Fast Breeder Reactor could provide abundant energy. There are several questions on which we would have to see strong agreement among experts before we could be confident about this reactor. Again it isn’t likely that enough could be built fast enough to replace carbon based power sources. Note again that if 10 billion were to derive all the energy needed presently from reactors we’d need perhaps 300 times as many as we have today, and far more than this when we take into account the additional energy needed to derive minerals from what will be poorer ores and to deal with the resulting greater environmental problems, etc.
WHAT ABOUT RENEWABLE ENERGY SOURCES?
We must eventually move from fossil fuels to the use of renewable energy, but there is a strong case that it would be quite economically disruptive, if not unaffordable, for all to live in energy-intensive societies running entirely on renewable energy sources. (For a summary of the argument see thesimplerway.info/RE.3p.htm; for the degtailed case see thesimplerway.info/REcriticalreview.htm) Following are some of the considerations supporting this conclusion.
Š Because the wind is so variable it will probably be limited to providing no more than 40% of electricity needed, even in good wind regions. For PV the proportion is probably around 25% (possibly much less, e.g., 10%.)
Š Some favourable regions such as Australia will probably be able to get all their electricity from renewables, but at a quite high and possibly economically-disruptive cost, i.e., maybe three times present retail price. It is however difficult to see how Europe with its poor climatic and biomass conditions could afford enough infrastructure to derive all power from renewables, let alone meet all other energy demand.
Š Electricity is only about 18% of energy used in rich countries now. This plus the above two figures indicate that wind plus PV could only meet about 12% of total energy demand given the present use pattern. Most renewable sources produce only electricity, except for biomass. Where are we to get the other 88%%? However we will shift as many functions as possible to use of electricity, e.g. battery powered cars; see below. But this will leave a large amount of energy needed in non-electrical form, e.g., hydrogen, and producing this from electricity will be quite inefficient and costly.
Š Transport energy is the big problem. Electric vehicles will make a significant difference but medium and large trucks, ships and aircraft cannot be run on electricity.
Š It is not likely that the world can derive more than about 100 EJ/y of ethanol from the limited amount of biomass available. That would be only 3% of 2050 world energy demand if 10 billion people were to live as Australians do now. However, we should not be using large quantities of biomass for energy, let alone taking more land for energy plantations, partly because land will be needed for food production, and especially because we should returning large areas to nature.
Š It is at present not possible to store electricity on the required scale to even out the intermittency of renewable supply, especially when there can be periods of intense cold, cloud and calm across the whole European continent lasting for days. Lithium resources seem quite unlikely to meet the storage need if 9 - 10 billion are to live as Australians do now, and battery costs would have to fall enormously. The best storage option seems to be “turkey nest” pumped hydro storage, but the difficulties and costs are not clear.
Š Solar thermal power systems, storing energy as heat, now seem to be less promising than has been claimed. Output in winter, when storage is most needed, seems quite low, the performance of the US Ivanpah system is problematic, and an Australian simulation modeling study (Elliston, Diesendorf and MacGill, 2013 ) finds that solar thermal can’t make major cost-effective contribution. Trainer (2010) derives the conclusion that providing for winter demand via this strategy would be very capital costly.
Š There are good reasons for thinking that we will never have a large scale hydrogen economy. There are large losses in storing, pumping and transforming this difficult element. (To run a car on hydrogen produced from wind generated electricity would involve generating four times as much energy as ended up driving the wheels.)
These points support the general conclusion that although the renewables issue is quite unsettled and significant advances are being made, it cannot be assumed that a shift to renewable energy will enable us to avoid moving to much less energy-intensive ways. It does seem likely that costs would be much higher than at present, and these will make significant contributions to the economic and social difficulties we are likely to run into in future years.
Note that this has not been an argument against use of renewable energy sources. We must live on them solely before long so it is important to make them as effective as possible. The argument has been that their development cannot support a consumer-capitalist society committed to affluent living standards and economic growth. However renewables could sustain a society functioning on Simpler Way principles.
MINERAL RESERVES AND RESOURCES.
Minerals are becoming scarcer and the trend over the past few decades has been to rising prices. (But price is not a good indicator of underlying scarcity because fluctuations in global economic conditions make a major difference to demand and prices.) In 1970 global use of materials was 31 billion tonnes; in 2005 it was 61 billion tonnes and in 2015 over 70 billion tonnes. The grades of all ores being mined are falling, in general by 50% in a few decades. Kazmerski (2012) says that between 1998 and 2009 the average for copper went from 0.8% to 0.7%, for Nickel from 1.25%, for Zinc from 6% to 5.4%, and for Lead from 3.7% to 2.5%. Production costs have increased by 75% since 1985. Again there is no possibility of all the world’s people using the per capita amounts of mineral use we take for granted in rich countries.
The term "reserves" refers to quantities of minerals that have been discovered. New discoveries are adding to reserves all the time and in some cases reserve estimates have actually increased over time. In addition, in the future technical advance could make it economic to mine deposits that are too poor at present to include in the reserve figures. Mining companies carry out only sufficient exploration to prove enough reserves for about a decade’s mining ahead. These points indicate that we will probably not learn much about limits by examining reserve figures.
It is however more meaningful to consider estimates of “potentially recoverable resources”, i.e., the quantities and grades of ores that remain in the ground, including those undiscovered at present. These are difficult to assess confidently but estimates have become available since the early 1970's. (E.g., Erickson, 1980, and the US Geological Survey’s Commodity Data Summaries.) These cannot be taken as very precise but they do provide a useful indication of quantities we might access. (The book The Limits to Growth only considered reserve figures; its case can now be put more strongly by reference to resource estimates.)
Only a very small proportion of any mineral existing in the earth's crust has been concentrated by natural processes into ore deposits, between 0.001% and 0.01%, and the rest exists in common rock, mostly in silicates which are much more energy-intensive to process than oxides and sulphides. (Skinner, 1987.) To extract a metal from its richest occurrence in common rock would take 10 to 100 times as much energy as to extract if from the poorest ore deposit. To extract a unit of copper from the richest common rocks would require about 1000 times as much energy per kg as is required to process ores being processed today. This great increase in energy cost is due to the need to a) mine the very large volume of rock containing very low grades of the mineral, b) grind the rock fine enough for release of the minerals, c) extract the minerals chemically from the compounds into which they are bound, a step that is not generally needed when rich ore deposits are processed.
In other words we will run into such a huge energy cost barrier that it is most unlikely that we will ever process very poor ores let alone common rock for minerals, especially as energy is probably the most urgent resource problem we face and it is very likely to soon become more scarce and costly. Energy cost rises will reduce reserve quantities, by making many deposits that are presently economic to mine too costly to mine.
There are a number of reasons why we are not likely to retrieve more than a very small proportion of minerals that have been concentrated by nature into ore deposits. These are:
a) We are not likely to find a high proportion of ore deposits (almost half of them are under the oceans).
b) Some of those we find will be in locations which make mining difficult or impossible, such as under cities or under Antarctic ice.
c) Many of the deposits found will have ores of too low a grade to process economically (most deposits are of low grade ore).
d) Some deposits found and containing high grade ore will have too little material in them to justify the construction of a mine at that site (most deposits are small and isolated from each other.)
At present only a few countries are using a very high proportion of the planet’s minerals production. The per capita consumption of iron ore for the ten top consuming countries is actually around 90 times the figure for all other countries. (Wiedmann et al., 2013.) Again how long would mineral supply hold up if 9 billion try to rise to rich world “living standards”?
If energy becomes more scarce or costly, then minerals will also become more scarce. Some deposits that could once be mined economically will no longer be economic because it will now take too much energy to work them.
Deideren (2009, p. 23) summarises the situation; “The peak in primary production of most metals may be reached no later than halfway through the 2020s.”
BIOLOGICAL RESOURCE LIMITS.
Perhaps the most worrying limits we are running into are not to do with minerals or energy but involve the deterioration of the environment. We are seriously damaging the life support systems of the planet, the natural resources and processes on which all life on earth depends. The World Wildlife Fund says that since about 1970 global ecosystems have deteriorated 30%. The most obvious area of concern is greenhouse gas emissions but there are many others.
The world releases about 50 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent every year, but a number of climate scientists estimate that to have a 70% chance of keeping global temperature rise below 2 degrees all emissions must be eliminated before 2050 (below). If 9 billion people were to have the present Australian energy consumption (270 GJ/y of primary energy) world energy consumption would be 4.5 times as large as it is now. Reasons for thinking this cannot all be derived affordably from renewable sources were considered above. Reasons for thinking the climate problem cannot be solved by technical advance, such as in energy use efficiency, are considered below. This indicates that the solution to the climate problem has to involve dramatic reduction in energy use.
The burning of fossil fuels contributes only 70% of harmful emissions, so even if these could be dealt with there would have to be large reductions in other fields.
Most climate scientists now seem to accept the approach put forward by Meinshausen et al., (2009), and followed by the IPCC (2013) in analyzing in terms of a budget, a total amount of carbon release we must not exceed if we are to meet the 2 degree target. They estimate that to have a 67% chance of keeping global temperature rise below 2 degree the amount of CO2(e) that can be released between 2000 and 2050 is 1,700 billion tonnes. But they say that between 2000 and 2012 emissions accounted for 36% of this amount, meaning that if that rate kept up the entire budget would have been used up by 2033. (Climate Change Authority, undated, Ch.3.) Several climate scientists argue that a 67% chance is too low, and that a 2 degree rise is too high. (See Anderson and Bows 2011, Spratt 2008, and Hansen 2008.). For an 80% chance the budget limit would be 1,370 billion tonnes, not 1700.
These figures mean that the world should completely cease emissions within at most 18 years (from 2015). There is no possibility of doing anything like this. It would require enormous, rapid and unprecedented effort and restructuring, yet most countries have hardly begun to make any significant effort. It would require an average 6% reduction every year, yet one review of reduction scenarios found that the maximum feasible rate would be 4% p.a. (Elza.) Many emissions come from sources that would be very difficult to control or reduce, such as carbon electrodes in the electrical production of steel and aluminium. (Only about 40% of US emissions come from power generation.)
There are other worrying impacts on the atmosphere, including the depletion of the ozone layer, jet airliner contrails, dust and pollutants, and the 500 EJ/y of heat released to the atmosphere by our energy use.
In addition to warming, climate change is predicted to increase variability and the frequency of extreme events such as floods, bushfires, tornadoes, het waves and droughts. It is causing sea levels to rise, possibly by one metre by 2100, threatening millions of people living on low lands. Already some island communities in the Pacific are experiencing major disruption caused by sea water rising into fresh water sources.
We are driving specie extinct at such an increasing rate that scientists say the sixth holocaust of biodiversity loss has begun. The rate has been estimated at 114 times the natural background rate. (Ceballos, et al., 2015, Kolbert, 2014.) The numbers and mass of big animals has declined dramatically. Carrington (2014) says, “… vertebrate species populations across the globe are, on average, about half the size they were 40 years ago.” The mass of big animals in then sea is only 10% of what it was some decades ago. The biomass of corals on the Great Barrier Reef is only half the amount that was there about three decade ago. By the end of the 20th century half the wetlands and one third of coral reefs had been lost. (Washington, 2014.)
Disruption of the nitrogen cycle.
Humans are releasing huge quantities of nitrogen into the environment, mostly through the production of fertilizers for agricultural use, and this is disrupting natural systems. It is not generally recognized that this is one of the most significant impact areas and that we have exceeded sustainable levels.
We are also putting large quantities of phosphorus into ecosystems, again from agricultural use. Phosphorus is crucial for plant growth and there are worries about exhausting supplies within decades, especially as increasing populations will require greater food production.
The increasing toxicity of the environment.
Large volumes of chemicals are entering ecosystems disrupting and poisoning them. This includes the plastics concentrating in the oceans, which among other effects is killing sea birds.
Food, land, agriculture.
Food supply will have to double to provide for the expected 2050 world population, and it is increasingly unlikely that this can be done. Food production trends are only around 60% of the rate of increase needed. (Ray, et al., 2013.) Food prices and shortages are already serious problems, causing riots in some countries. If all people we will soon have on earth had an American diet, which takes about 0.5 ha of cropland, we would need 5 billion ha, but there are only 1.4 billion ha of cropland on the planet. That area is declining alarmingly as ecosystems deteriorate, water supply declines, salinity and erosion continue, population numbers and pressures to produce increase, land is used for new settlements and to produce more meat and bio-fuels, and as global warming is having a number of negative effects.
This is a major concern. The area of food producing land is continually being lost or abandoned, at a rate which Burn, (2015) and Vidal (2010), report as 30 million ha p.a. Vidal says, “…the implications are terrifying”, and he believes major food shortages are threatening. Pimentel says one third of all cropland has been lost in the last 40 years. China might be the worse case, losing 600 square miles p.a. in the 1950 – 1970 period, but by 2000 the rate had risen to 1,400 square miles p.a. For 50 years about 500 villages have had to be abandoned every year due to increasing sand from the expanding deserts.
Ahmed (above) stresses how the rapidly deteriorating water and food situation in Middle East countries is likely to feed into catastrophic pbreakdown within a decade or so.
There are already serious water shortages in about 80 countries. More than half the world’s people live in countries where water tables are falling. Over 175 million Indians and 130 million Chinese are fed by crops watered by pumps running at unsustainable rates. (Brown, 2011, p. 58. Access to water will probably be the major source of conflict in the world in coming years. About 480 million people are fed by food produced from water pumped from underground. The water tables are falling fast and the petrol to run the pumps might not be available soon. In Australia overuse of water has led to serious problems, e.g., salinity in the Murray-Darling system. By 2050 the volume of water in the system might be cut to half the present amount. The greenhouse problem will make these problems worse.
Tropical rain forest is being lost at a rapid rate, perhaps 16 million ha. p.a. Pressures from population growth and corporations is reducing tropical rainforests, where most species live. If all 9-10 billion people expected were to use timber at the US per capita rate we would need to harvest from 4 times the world’s forest area.
Nearly all fisheries are being over-fished. World fish catch is likely to go down from here on. The mass of big fish in the oceans, such as shark and tuna, is now only 10% of what it was some decades ago.
Among the most worrying effects is the increasing acidification of the seas, dissolving the shells of ocean animals. This plus the heating of the oceans is seriously damaging corals. The coral life on the Great Barrier Reef is down 30% on its original level, and there is a good chance the whole reef will be lost in forty years. (Hoegh-Guldberg, 2015.)
The “Footprint” Measure: A summary index.
The Footprint index estimates the amount of productive area needed to provide a person with food, water, settlement area and energy. The global average area available (“bio-capacity”) is 1.7 ha, but the Australian and the US average footprint is in the region of 8 ha. The World Wildlife Fund (2014) emphasizes that humans are already using so many biological resources that we would need 1.5 planet earths to harvest these in an ecologically sustainable way.
But that is only to do with the present situation. If 9 billion people were to live as Australians do today we would need to harvest from about 72 billion ha of productive land … but there are only about 8 billion ha available on the planet! (…after leaving a much smaller amount for nature.) And that assumes no further loss of good land, which is very unlikely in view of the present loss rate.
In other words in 2050 the amount of productive land available per capita will be only about 0.8 ha, which is only 10% of the present Australian per capita use. That means we are 10 times over the long term sustainable use that all people could have. This is one of the most important reasons for The Simpler Way claim that we need to shift to lifestyles and systems that would enable present resource use rates to be cut towards 10% of present rates.
Why is there an environmental problem?
The basic reason for this massive damage being done to forests, the atmosphere, soils, oceans, grasslands, coral reefs, and biodiversity, is simply the fact that far too much producing and consuming is going on, causing us to take too many resources from nature and dump too many wastes back all the time. Even decades ago one species, humans, was using the biological productivity of 40% of the land; the figure would be worse now. (Vitousek, et al., 2012.) The weight of that one species is now ten times that of all mammals on earth! (Smil, 2013.) How many biological resources would be left for nature if 9 billion people were to live like Americans? Efforts to conserve and recycle cannot make much difference to the magnitude of the problems while these rates remain so high, let alone increase (below.)
As with energy and materials, rich world responsibility for the problems is masked by the fact that we import so much. Lenzen et al., (2014), found that for each unit of damage we cause in rich countries, another half a unit is caused overseas and mostly in the Third World by the production of all the things we import.
WHAT ABOUT POPULATION?
The world's population in 2015 was around 7.3 billion. It is expected to peak at 9 to 10 billion around 2070. Most of the increase will be in the poor countries.
Over-population is obviously an extremely serious problem, evident in the I = PxAxT equation. Many believe the world is presently far beyond a sustainable population, which might be only 0.5 - 2 billion people. We now feed only about 1.5 billion people well, but we might soon have to provide for 10 billion. Indicators of the biological productivity of the planet are falling and many agricultural trends are worrying (e.g. falling water tables, land losses…), even without taking into account the probable effects of global warming. The above discussion shows that there is no possibility of all the people on earth now rising to anything like present rich world “living standards”.
However there is a much more serious problem than over-population, and this is over-consumption on the part of the rich countries…and the goal the rest have of rising to our levels. Population is likely to rise by about 30% but if all people rise to the present rich world rates of consumption world resource use and footprint will be about 5 to 10 times as great as they are now. Solving the big problems depends much more on reducing consumption than on reducing population, important though that is.
Third World people are often criticised for having such large families when they are too poor to provide for them. However, this fails to recognize that the economic conditions very poor people suffer make it important for them to have large families. When there are no age pensions people will have no one to look after them in their old age if they do not have surviving children. Also when infant death rates are high it is necessary to have many children in order to be sure some reach adulthood. Even very young children can help on the farm. These are powerful economic incentives to have large families and they will only be removed by satisfactory development which enables aged care and safe water supplies in villages etc. (It is important to realize that satisfactory Third World development does not require economic growth. It requires the conventional approach to development to be scrapped and replaced by Appropriate development; See TSW: Third World Development.)
THE MAGNITUDE OF THE OVERSHOOT -- WE ARE ALREADY FAR BEYOND SUSTAINABLE LEVELS.
The most important point the above figures drive home is the magnitude of the overshoot, the huge extent to which we are already beyond sustainable rates of resource use and environmental impact. The per capita rates of resource use and environmental impact in rich countries are probably 10 times higher than all people expected on the planet could have sustainably.
NOW ADD THE ABSURDLY IMPOSSIBLE IMPLICATIONS OF ECONOMIC GROWTH
The foregoing argument has been that the present levels of production and consumption are quite unsustainable. They are too high to be kept going for long or to be extended to all people. But that does not represent the magnitude of the problem. Consumer-capitalist society is determined to increase present living standards and levels of output and consumption, as much as possible and without any end in sight. In other words our supreme goal is limitless economic growth. Few people seem to recognise the absurdly impossible consequences of pursuing economic growth.
If we have a 3% p.a. increase in output, by 2060 we will be producing 8 times as much every year. (For 4% growth the multiple is 16.)
If by 2050 all the world's people rise to the living standards we in Australia will have then given 3% growth, the total world economic output will be more than 20 times what it is today! Yet the present level is unsustainable.
It is difficult to imagine how anyone could disagree with this “limits to growth” case. It makes clear how absurd it is to pursue any economic growth at all, and it shows that we should be trying to dramatically reduce global levels of production and consumption. Many are now working within the global De-Growth movement. Yet the limits argument is ignored by the mainstream, by governments, economists, media and people in general.
"Those who believe exponential growth is possible in a finite world are either mad or economists."
Professor Max-Neef, quoted in Sydney Morning Herald, Jan.31, 1994, p. 5.
BUT WHY THINK IN TERMS OF 10 BILLION LIVING LIKE US?
There are two important points here. The first is the moral argument, i.e., the foregoing figures show that all could not live in anything like the way we few in rich countries do now. We are taking far more than our fair share of the world’s resources, and thus condemning many to impoverished lives.
If that argument is disregarded then there is the argument that it would be increasingly unwise to try to live in ways all could not share. This is firstly because the rest want to have rich world “living standards”, meaning that all our problems will get worse and in time we will be forced to face up to the limits anyway. The second reason is to do with security. If you try to go on getting and consuming far more than your fair share of the world’s scarce and dwindling resources then you are going to have to put increasing effort into grabbing that share, including through the use of armed intervention to support repressive regimes, tip out uncooperative ones, intimidate others, and carry out open invasions to take mineral and oil fields etc.
Obviously the only acceptable goal is to shift towards a society, lifestyles and a culture that all people could enjoy, and the above numbers show that this cannot be a resource intensive society, or one focused on affluent lifestyles.
THE COUNTER ARGUMENTS.
1. “The limits are a long way into the future.”
A common response is that yes the economy can’t grow forever but it can grow for a long time yet before we need to worry. The information above shows this to be incorrect; we are already dealing with serious global problems being caused by too much production and consumption. Ahmed’s explanation of the Middle East situation indicates enormous problems within a decade or so.
2. “But can’t technical advance solver the problems?”
Most people are "technical fix optimists", assuming that technical advance will make it unnecessary for us to change to simpler lifestyles and very different systems including a zero-growth economy. The belief is that smarter technology and more recycling, greater energy efficiency, etc., will enable higher "living standards" to be provided with reduced total resource use and environmental impact.
There is considerable scope for reducing resource and environmental impacts, but following are reasons why they cannot make a big enough difference.
Some people (notably Weisacker and Lovins, 1997, Factor Four, and Hawken, Lovins and Lovins, 2000, Natural Capital) have argued that in general we could produce things with only 1/4 (or perhaps eventually 1/10) of the resources and energy now needed. Even if this is so the reduction would be far less than would be necessary to enable all people to have present rich world living standards. Let us assume that we have to halve resource and environmental impacts per unit of output (the above figures indicate much higher reductions are required.) If by 2050 9 billion have risen to the “living standards” we in Australia would then have given 3% p.a. economic growth, meaning world output would be 20 times as great as it is now … then we would have to achieve a Factor 40 reduction in impact per unit of output! A Factor 4 reduction would be insignificant.
Discussions of technical advance and economic growth have generally failed to focus on the fact that these have been due in large part to increased energy use. In general greater output etc. has been achieved primarily through increased use of energy (and switching to more effective fuels, such as from coal to gas, and to electricity.) Agriculture is a realm where it is most evident that technical advance has been predominantly a matter of increased energy use. Over the last half century productivity measured in terms of yields per ha or per worker have risen dramatically, but these have been mostly due to even greater increases in the amount of energy being poured into agriculture, on the farm, in the production of machinery, in the transport, pesticide, fertilizer, irrigation, packaging and marketing sectors, and in getting the food from the supermarket to the front door and then dealing with the waste packaging. Less than 2% of the US workforce is now on farms, but agriculture accounts for around 17% of all energy used (not including several of the factors listed above.) The “Green Revolution” has depended largely on ways that involve greater energy use.
This is important for understanding “productivity” gains. Recent studies have found that these are typically due largely to increased inputs of energy and materials, built into more advanced technologies. Economic analyses of productivity in terms of only labour and capital have failed to grasp this. Unconventional measures of agricultural productivity, such as food energy produced per unit of fossil fuel used, have actually fallen.
It is commonly assumed that in general rapid, large or continuous technical gains are being routinely made in crucial areas such as energy efficiency, and will continue if not accelerate. Ayres (2009) notes that for many decades there have been plateaus for the efficiency of production of electricity and fuels, electric motors, ammonia and iron and steel production. He reports that the efficiency of electrical devices in general has actually changed little in a century. His Fig. 4.21a shows no increase in the overall energy efficiency of the US economy since 1960. Ayres notes that reports tend to publicise particular spectacular technical advances (typical of Lovins) and this is misleading regarding long term average trends across whole industries or economies. Huebner’s historical study found that the rate at which major technical advances have been made (per capita of world population) is declining. For the US he finds that the peak was actually1916.
Remarkable technical advances are being made all the time, notably in astronomy, genetics and medicine, but these are not very relevant to this discussion. What matters for the limits to growth issue is whether technical advance is reducing demands on resources and ecosystems, and it is clear that these demands are rising rapidly.
Tech-fix optimistic claims often fail to recognise that an advance in one area would cause problems elsewhere. For instance some claims that food demand can be met assume clearing more land, but that would worsen several other problems. Solving water problems by desalinisation makes energy and climate problems worse.
The field where gains are most needed and are not being achieved is to do with energy. The above discussion of falling EROI makes it clear that it is taking rapidly increasing quantities of energy and investment to produce a barrel of oil.
The “decoupling” claim.
The crucial assumption or claim or faith, built into tech-fix optimism is that technical advance will enable economic growth to continue while breakthroughs solve the resource scarcity and ecological impact problems. In other words the claim is that growth can be “decoupled” from these effects. The best known assertion of this position is the Ecomodernist Manifesto, from the US Breakthrough Institute. (Blomqvist, Nordhaus and Shellenbeger, 2015.)
However the evidence on this issue flatly contradicts the faith. Remember from above that there would have to be enormous decoupling, reducing resource use to a small fraction of today’s levels, while GDP constantly increased. But in fact there is a great deal of evidence that the actual decoupling rate achieved over the last thirty years has been negligible. (See TSW: Decoupling, and TSW: Ecomodernism.) In fact Giljum et al. (2014) find that the rate has deteriorated since 2000. They say, “…for the past 10years not even a relative decoupling was achieved on the global level.” (p. 328.)
There seem to have been no studies coming to contrary conclusions. The technical fixes that Ecomodernists claim can solve our problems are almost always very energy and resource intensive. It is therefore difficult to understand why anyone would take their claims seriously.
To summarise re the tech-fix issue…
The “tech-fix” faith assumes there is no need to rethink consumer-capitalist society, because technical advances will enable us all to go on living more and more affluently, and enable the GDP to go on growing, for ever. The case against these claims seems to be overwhelmingly strong. The Simpler Way view is that technical advances can’t solve the massive problems that consumer-capitalist society is continually making worse.
WHAT ABOUT SHIFT TO SERVICES AND INFORMATION?
Some people claim that the economy can continue to grow in the service and information sectors, without increasing use of materials and energy and thus there can be a “de-materialisation” of the economy.
It might appear that rich countries are moving in this direction, but remember that they have shifted much of the production of their material consumption to foreign countries. Services already make up about 75% of our economic activity, so there is not that much scope for further increases.
Services are quite resource intensive, and switching to them from manufacturing might actually increase energy use. (Sorrell, 2010.) Alcott’s review of several studies finds that there is no evidence that the shift to services reduces resource or environmental impacts. (2012.) In fact there is a correlation between the amount of services in an economy and the amount of energy used. Smil (2014) concludes that even in the richest countries absolute dematerialization is not taking place. Alvarez found that for Europe, Spain and the US GDP increased 74% in 20 years, but materials use actually increased 85%. (Latouche, Essay 3.)
Common (1995) estimates that even in the 1990s services accounted for 27% of Australia's energy use. Several, such as transport, tourism and construction, involve high rates of energy use. Several others such as retailing, insurance and advertising, depend on production and consumption of material goods. In addition there are many resource-intensive activities that will not be reduced if more of the economic growth takes place mostly in the service sector, including power and water supply, defence, transport and the large household sector of the economy.
In rich countries materials and energy “intensity”, that is the use per unit of GDP, is falling but this is misleading. It is largely due to a) shift to higher quality fuels such as electricity and gas (more value can be derived from a unit of energy in the form of oil than in the form of coal, because coal use involves higher costs for transport etc.), b) manufactured goods increasingly coming from the Third World, as distinct from being produced in rich countries and having their energy costs recorded there, (Sorrell, 2010, p. 1792, Trainer, 2001. Trade figures seem to show that this is what is happening. (See Trainer, 2001.) Aadrianse (1997) concludes that materials used per capita in rich countries are still increasing. Like several others, Morrow (p.172.) finds that even though about 80% of a rich economy is to do with services, resource consumption is still increasing at 1% p.a.
Note also that the index of an economy’s “energy intensity” is misleading because GDP figures include income made in the now bloated and largely parasitic financial sector (…making 40% of company profits in one recent year.) This income is created by keystrokes on computers and includes commissions, takeovers, repossessions, interest payments and reckless speculation, which typically produces little of value to the real economy or peoples’ welfare.
Wiedmann et al., (2013), and others show that materials use in rich countries is rising 0.6% for each 1% rise in GDP. The important point about this study is that it took into account materials used in the Third World to produce imports to rich countries (their total “Materials Footprint” measure, whereas the more common measure, “Direct Materials Consumption”, refers only to use in production within the country).
Typically when technical advance reduces the materials, energy and dollar costs of produced items the response is to spend the savings on increasing the amount of it that is consumed. This is the “rebound” or Jevons effect, and it reduces the overall savings tech-fixes achieve.
Technical advances and conservation effort often do achieve significant gains, but these are in general well below the increases in consumption or emissions due to economic growth. For instance between 1989 and 2002 Germany, the Netherlands, Japan and the US reduced materials use per $ of GDP by an impressive 25%, but economic growth caused a 36% increase in the absolute amount used. No realistic rate of de-materialisation would enable a sufficient reduction to permit the economy to grow continually at say 3% p.a. while the use of materials and energy fell (…which would be an “absolute” rather than a “relative’ decoupling.)
A good measure of materials consumption is the volume of garbage thrown out, and in rich countries this is increasing. (And in addition there are the materials built into structures, and turned into pollution flows.) This is another indicator that de-materialisation is not occurring.
“BUT WE WILL BECOME RICH ENOUGH TO SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT.”
Conventional economists say that as economic growth continues to raise GDP and to lift incomes we will have no difficulty paying much more for energy, for scarcer resources and fixing the environment. The “Environmental Kuznets Curve” thesis is a version of this case, claiming that as countries become richer they can afford to and do reduce their environmental impacts. The evidence below is that these claims are false but there is also a logical fault. If the price of crucial resources such as energy rises markedly, the GDP will not rise…indeed the entire economy might crash. An economy cannot increase GDP at a normal 3% p.a. unless many conditions and inputs remain at least as favourable as they were at the beginning. For instance an economy that grows to 2085 at 3% p.a. would then be producing 8 times as much every year, but that would not be possible unless it could get many more times the inputs of resources and energy that it does now, from depleted sources, and could deal with many times the environmental impact.
Alexander’s review (2014) refers to a number of studies finding that there is not convincing support for the Kuznets curve thesis. With respect to some of the most worrying impacts, notably climate change and biodiversity loss, it is obviously false because rich countries have increased the environmental damage they have caused over time.
DIMINISHING RETURNS, COMPLEXITY, REDUNDANCY, FEEDBACKS, FRAGILITY AND VULNERABILITY.
The limits problem increases all these kinds of difficulties. As society becomes more complex, more resources and time and dollars have to go into maintaining systems and the net benefit per unit of input declines. Tainter (1988) saw this as the key effect in the decline and fall of empires. For instance Rome reached the stage where most of the effort had to go into maintaining the borders and territories previously conquered, leaving none for expanding any further. Imagine using gravel to make more roads. As the system expands more of the gravel has to be used to repair roads, until eventually all of the supply will be going into maintaining existing roads and there can be no further extension of the system
The diminishing returns effect can be illustrated by the expense we go to where roads cross. In a village there is no problem, but in a modern freeway system an intersection can involve construction of multi-million dollar flyovers etc. Water has to be pumped to high levels in buildings. Long ago there was no need for staff, buildings or expense to care for aged people, deal with pollution or recycle water. Now we have to put great effort into remedying all the social damage being caused, the depression, stress, homelessness, crime and suicide. Tribes need no lawyers, prisons, or welfare workers. They have law but one person can remember it all, whereas our law occupies metres of shelf space and we have elaborate institutions making more law every day. At the global level vast sums have to be spent on arms to maintain access to the markets and resources rich societies must now get. We are having to consider vastly expensive schemes to bury the CO2 from fossil fuel use. Thus as consumption and complexity increase, disproportionately more and more effort and resources have to go into dealing with the problems created. Daly argues persuasively that our economy is well past the point where increasing production adds more to costs to be met than to welfare to be enjoyed.
Tainter also points out that systems are becoming more inter-connected and therefore prone to total system breakdown when one component fails. Globalisation has reduced redundancy, robustness and resilience in crucial sectors. Spare parts for a device used all around the world might come from only one factory. Supermarkets have only a few days food supply so if the ships or trucks stop we are quickly in trouble. Most spectacularly, the integrated global financial system went down suddenly in 2008 causing trouble almost everywhere. But in earlier times your region would have been dependent only on the local banks which would not have been affected if banks in other countries failed. In rural villages many people would have been able to go on producing food, repairing carts, building houses etc., but now many necessities can only be secured via complex, distant systems requiring specialists, global transport networks and infrastructures. Individuals and villages can’t fix local problems; all lack resilience, are dependent on distant complex systems, and are vulnerable. Similarly world trade is highly interconnected; the failure of a harvest in one major country can starve millions everywhere.
The interconnections between systems mean that as problems in one sector of the economy develop they create problems in others. For instance as energy becomes more expensive and scarce, minerals do to because it takes a lot of energy to produce them. A breakdown in one area can send bad feedback effects cascading through many others. Redundancy reduces this possibility; if the village plumber was ill and couldn’t fix your tank the blacksmith probably could. The difficulty in getting the post GFC global economy to work as normal seems to reveal a marked sensitivity to high energy prices (and rising inequality.) Morgan 2013b, and Korowitz 2012, explain how the global financial and trade systems are now vulnerable to total, sudden and catastrophic collapse due to the impact of increasing resource limits on these interdependent and fragile systems. Mason (2003) argues that the resulting problems will come to a head in the “2030 spike.” Ahmed’s (2017) explanation of the Middle East provides a graphic illustration of these themes … increasingly over-extended, complex, fragile systems, becoming less and less resilient, and threatening global disruption due to the interconnectedness and interdependence on oil.
People in rich countries do think about the limits problem, because it does not yet affect them much; they continue to get most of the dwindling resources. But they are likely to be impacted heavily within one or two decades. It is difficult to believe they will be able to avoid extremely serious breakdown, especially given that they do not yet have any understanding of the situation they are in.
CONCLUSIONS ON LIMITS.
The basic conclusions the limits to growth perspective leads to regarding resources can be summarised as follows.
Š Levels of production, consumption and resource use globally, and in rich countries, are far beyond sustainable. They cannot be kept up for long and there is no possibility that all people on earth could rise to our high "living standards". We can have them only because we are getting far more than our fair share of the world's resources.
Resources are scarce and dwindling, ecosystems are deteriorating rapidly…because far too much producing and consuming is going on…even though only about one-fifth of the world’s people are affluent.
Š Yet the supreme goal of all countries is economic growth; i.e., to increase production, consumption and GDP as fast as possible and without limit.
Š It is highly unlikely that technical advance could enable us to solve the problems while we go on pursuing limitless economic growth and rising “living standards”. That goal is an absurd, suicidal, mistake.
Š The problems cannot be solved in or by consumer-capitalist society. The only sensible option is to work very hard to shift to ways that enable us to live well while using far fewer resources. That means scrapping some of the core elements in consumer-capitalist society, and developing some kind of Simpler Way.
As Gandhi said long ago,
THE RICH MUST LIVE MORE SIMPLY, SO THAT THE POOR MAY SIMPLY LIVE.
..or as someone else said,
WE ARE STEALING RESOURCES FROM OUR CHILDREN
THE LIMITS EXPLAIN THE MAJOR GLOBAL PROBLEMS
Most of the big global problems have to be understood in terms of the limits to growth … because these problems are being caused primarily by over-consumption. (“But isn’t the greed of the global corporate and banking elite causing the problems?” See Appendix 3.)
a) The environment problem
The reason why we have an environment problem is simply because there is far too much producing and consuming going on. Our way of life involves consumption of huge and unsustainable amounts of materials and these must be taken from nature and most of them are soon dumped back as waste and pollution.
One of the most serious environmental problems is the extinction of plant and animal species. This is due to the destruction of habitats. Now remember the footprint concept mentioned above; if all people who will be living on earth today were to have Australian "living standards" humans would have to use about ten times all the productive land on the planet. Our resource intensive lifestyles, which require so much land, are the basic cause of the loss of habitats and the extinction of species. Yet all people are trying to rise to rich world levels of consumption, and we are trying to increase ours.
Most current discussions of the environment problem, especially references to "Ecologically Sustainable Development", completely fail to recognise that it is absurd to talk about solving the environment problem while we continue to produce and consume at present rates, let alone continue to be committed to limitless growth in output and consumption. Conservation effort and technical advance cannot reduce resource demands and environmental impacts to sustainable levels while we continue to strive for more affluence and growth. We can only hope to solve the environment problem when we begin living in ways that involve only a fraction of our present rich world per capita levels of production and consumption.
b) Third World poverty and underdevelopment.
The facts and estimates given above regarding potentially recoverable resources make it clear that the Third World can never develop to be like the rich countries; there are far too few resources for that. Again this means that the very few who live in rich countries can have their high "living standards" only because the global economy is so very unjust; i.e. because it allows us to take far more than our fair share of the available resources.
Conventional Third World development does not solve the most urgent problems of most of the world's people. This is due to the normal and inevitable way a market or capitalist economy works. This enables the rich to take most of the world's wealth (simply by bidding more for it in the market) and to establish highly inappropriate development in the Third World; i.e., development of only those industries that gear Third World productive capacity to the demand of the rich, especially people who live in rich countries. Therefore conventional development should be regarded as a form of plunder.
Again there cannot be a sustainable and just world order unless we in rich countries move to ways of life in which we live well without consuming anywhere near as much as we do now, and until the Third World abandons the conventional development goal of affluent living standards and embraces The Simpler Way. (For the detailed account see TSW: Third World Development.)
c) Conflict, war, peace.
If all nations go on trying to increase their populations, wealth, production, consumption and "living standards" without limit in a world of limited resources, then we must expect increasing conflict. There are two major areas of concern.
Much of the turmoil in poor countries, including riots, coups and civil wars, is due in significant degree to unrest caused by ecological breakdown, especially food riots and disputes over access to land, fisheries, water and forests. (Remember Ahmed’s discussion above of the Middle East.) In addition there are conflicts over these resources being devoted to mining and agribusiness exports when local people are hungry.
Secondly, the foreign policies of the rich countries are major causes of international conflict, because they are primarily about securing most of the world’s resources and markets for the rich few. (See TSW: Maintaining Your Empire.) As minerals, energy, water, timber and agricultural lands become more scarce competition for these resources will intensify and the likelihood of resource wars will increase.
Our affluent lifestyles require us to be heavily armed and aggressive, in order to guard the empires from which we draw far more than our fair share of world resources. We cannot expect to have a peaceful world until we achieve a just world, and we cannot do that until rich countries change to much less extravagant living standards. (See TSW: Global Peace and Conflict.)
d) Social breakdown and the falling quality of life.
The evidence on "Genuine Progress Indicators" and ‘Well-being” is that even in rich countries the quality of life experienced is either stagnant or falling. Some measures of life satisfaction in the US have not increased since the 1950s, despite more than a doubling in average "living standards". Above relatively low levels, increasing incomes and wealth do not significantly increase happiness or the experienced quality of life.
In addition, just about all our social problems are getting worse and it is difficult to point to any indicator which does not suggest accelerating social breakdown. Consider alcohol and drug abuse, homelessness, domestic violence, family breakdown, stress, depression, binge drinking, eating disorders, anxiety and suicide. Inequality has increased markedly; many are dumped into “exclusion” while the super-rich are becoming much richer. Stress and depression are at epidemic proportions and are almost the most common diseases.
“Post-modern” culture is characterized by preoccupation with trivia, sport, celebrities, spectacles, fleeting distractions, self indulgence, hedonism and consuming…and indifference to serious social issues. People seem to be becoming more focused on their own self-interest and retreating to their private concerns (Mackay), while concern with the public good and the welfare of the under-dog declines. The Western focus on competitive individualism has intensified, largely due to the triumph of neo-liberal ideology, which legitimises the self-interested quest for more wealth. Over the last generation collectivist values, social responsibility and concern for the public good seem to have deteriorated markedly. Public opinion demands higher incomes and lower taxes for the individual but does not demand effective action on serious social problems such as climate, homelessness or inequality, let alone the unjust global economy or the limits to growth.
All these undesirable social trends are being worsened by the obsession with increasing production and consumption, wealth, “living standards” and the GDP. The focus on individualistic and selfish concerns, getting richer and being able to buy and consume more, is justified by the assumption that greater economic turnover and monetary wealth means greater “welfare”, but the reverse is now what is happening. Few national resources are invested in developments that might build community and cohesion, social responsibility, concern for the public good, equity and justice, generosity and collectivist values. (See TSW: Social Breakdown.) .
THE ECONOMY: BASIC CAUSE OF THE LIMITS PROBLEM.
There is no possibility of solving these limits to growth problems in an economy that is driven by market forces, competition, profit maximisation and growth. The supreme goal in this economy is to produce and sell as much as possible, and to increase the volume every year, without end. If growth in output slows there are problems. Yet the basic point the limits to growth analysis makes is that there is far too much producing and consuming going on and a sustainable world requires transition to far lower levels of production, economic turnover and GDP.
In this economy those who own capital are always trying to make more money by increasing investments and sales. Workers have a strong interest in seeing their incomes and the number of jobs increase all the time. The market system gives those with capital the freedom to invest in and produce and sell whatever will maximise their profits. It is not the case that society collectively and rationally decides what it would be best for all people and the environment to produce or develop. Profit determines what will be done, not need. Such an economy will inevitably fail to apply existing productive capacity to doing what is most important, at minimum resource and environmental cost. Above all it is an economy that must have growth all the time
In other worlds a capitalist economy is the basic cause of the limits to growth problem. This does not mean that the alternative we want is big-state, centralized and authoritarian “socialism”.
A sane, just and ecologically sustainable economy cannot be a growth economy, but even more importantly, it would have to involve only a minute fraction of the production and resource use that goes on in the present economy. It would therefore have to be a very different economy in which we could make sure that all people consume only the relatively small volume of goods they need for a high quality of life, that wasteful production such as of advertising and sports cars did not take place, and that very simple lifestyles and ways were the norm. A satisfactory economy would have a large non-cash sector in which people helped each other, gave things to each other, produced many things in their households and backyards, maintained commons and contributed to the community via working bees. It would involve mostly small and highly self sufficient local economies where most of the things we need were produced from local land, labour and resources, minimising travel, transport and trade.
There might be a significant place in a satisfactory economy for private enterprise in the form of small firms and cooperatives, and for markets which adjust supply and demand for some items and enable innovation where necessary. However these arrangements would have to be subject to careful regulation by the society as a whole. A satisfactory economy could not be driven by market forces, and firms could not have anything like the freedom they have now to do whatever will maximize their profits. In other words a satisfactory economy must be under social control, so we can debate and decide the main priorities, developments, distributions, etc., according to needs and rights. However the social control of the economy must be via open, local and participatory procedures, such as town meetings, not huge, distant, authoritarian states or government bureaucracies.
(For more detailed discussion see TSW: The Economy; A Critical Summary and TSW: The Alternative Economy.
THE ALTERNATIVE SOCIETY; THE SIMPLER WAY
If the limits to growth analysis of our global situation is valid we have no choice but to try to move to a society in which:-
Š We have relatively simple material lifestyles. A sustainable society cannot be an affluent society. This does not mean hardship or deprivation. It is easy to ensure a very high quality of life on very low levels of consumption.
Š There must be an almost totally new economy, a steady-state or zero-growth economy, not driven by market forces or profit maximization, and with far less production, business turnover and GDP than at present.
Š There must be many small, highly self-sufficient local economies, so that most of the things we need are produced in farms and factories within our suburbs or close by.
Š We have mostly cooperative and participatory ways, so that we share and give things, and we work together on committees and working bees to do many of the things we need in our locality. In other words we must govern our own towns and suburbs via town assemblies which deal with most of the important issues, leaving few functions for the centralized “state” to deal with, and requiring few paid politicians or bureaucracies.
Š We use many alternative technologies, which minimise use of non-renewable resources, including much craft and hobby production, and building houses from earth. This does not mean rejecting modern high-tech systems.
Š Some very different values must be accepted, replacing competition, individualism and greed with cooperation, sharing, working for the public good, social responsibility, generosity and nurturing others.
For a detailed discussion see TSW: The Sustainable Alternative Society; The Simpler Way.)
THE TRANSITION TO A SUSTAINABLE SOCIETY
The last two decades or so have seen the emergence of the Global Eco-village Movement and more recently the Transition Towns Movement in which many small communities around the world have begun building the required kinds of new settlements and lifestyles. A great deal depends on whether this movement can grow fast enough in coming decades.
However there are good reasons for thinking that we will not succeed in making the transition to a sustainable society. We probably have only two decades in which to do the necessary groundwork. There is no possibility of making the transition unless there is a vast increase in public awareness of the limits to growth analysis, of the fact that we are on a grossly unsustainable path, of the unacceptability of consumer-capitalist society, and of the existence of a satisfactory alternative way. Therefore the task for us here and now is to focus on raising awareness regarding the limits to growth situation and the way out.
The most important thing for concerned people to do is to join with those seeking to build alternatives, so that in 20 years time we will have many very impressive examples of more sustainable communities functioning, showing that there is a sane alternative way. Working on these projects will give us our best opportunities to develop the critical global consciousness without which there can not be a transition to a sustainable and just world. (See TSW: The Transition Process.)
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Appendix 1. A note on the book, The Limits to Growth, by D. Meadows et al., 1972.
This was an extremely important contribution, drawing widespread attention to the issue for the first time. However we now have far more impressive evidence for its basic thesis. For instance it used mineral and fuel reserve figures, whereas we now have estimates of potentially recoverable resource quantities, and evidence on declining grades. We also have “footprint” analysis”, and much clearer understandings of the greenhouse problem, the “peak oil” thesis, and the general energy problem. And there is now vast documentation on the accelerating ecological damage. The book is at times claimed to have been discredited, but in 2008 Graham Turner within the Australian CSIRO published a review concluding that we are on the path to serious troubles that the book said we appear to be on.
The Simpler Way: Analyses of global problems (environment, limits to growth, Third World...) and the sustainable alternative society (...simpler lifestyles, self-sufficient and cooperative communities, and a new economy.) Organised by Ted Trainer. Website:- thesimplerway.info