THE LIMITS TO GROWTH PERSPECTIVE:
Our society's most fundamental mistake is our commitment to affluent-industrial-consumer lifestyles and to an economy that must have constant and limitless growth in output, on a planet whose limited resources make these impossible goals.
Our way of life is grossly unsustainable. Our levels of production and consumption are far too high. We can only achieve them because we few in rich countries are grabbing most of the resources produced and therefore depriving most of the world's people of a fair share, and because we are depleting stocks faster than they can regenerate. Because we consume so much we are rapidly using up resources and causing huge ecological damage. It would be impossible for all the world's people to rise to our rich world per capita levels of consumption. Most people have no idea how far we are beyond sustainable levels.
Although present levels of production, consumption, resource use and environmental impact are unsustainable we are obsessed with economic growth, i.e., with increasing production and consumption, as much as possible and without limit!
Most of the major global problems we face, especially environment, Third World poverty, conflict and social breakdown are primarily due to this limits problem; i.e., to over-consumption. (This does not mean over-population is not a serious problem.)
Following are some of the main facts and arguments that support the limits to growth position.
Š Rich countries, with about one-fifth of the world's people, are consuming about three quarters of the world's resource production. Our per capita consumption is about 15-20 times that of the poorest half of the world's people.
Š World population will probably stabilise around 9 billion, somewhere after 2060. If all those people were to have present Australian per capita resource consumption, then rates of production of resources would have to be 5 to 10 times as great as they are now. If we tried to rise to those levels of resource output we would completely exhaust all probably recoverable resources of coal, oil, natural gas, tar sand oil, shale oil and uranium (assuming the present "burner" reactors) well before 2050. We would also have exhausted potentially recoverable resources for one third of the mineral items by then.
Š Petroleum is especially limited. World oil supply will probably peak between 2005 and 2010.
Š If all 9 billion people were to use timber at the rich world per capita rate we would need 3.5 times the world's present forest area.
Š If all 9 billion were to have a US diet, which takes about .5 ha of land to produce, we would need 4.5 billion ha of food producing land. But there is only 1.4 billion ha of cropland in use today and this is likely to decrease.
Š Recent "Footprint" analysis estimates that it takes about 8 ha of productive land to provide water, energy settlement area and food for one person living in an Australian world city. So if 9 billion people were to live as we do in rich world cities we would need about 72 billion ha of productive land. But that is 10 times all the productive land on the planet. (Note that a number of other factors could be added to the footprint calculation, such as the land needed to absorb pollution.) Even though only one-fifth of the world’s people are resource-affluent, we are using resources at rate that would take 1.4 planet earths to provide sustainably, (because we are consuming stocks such as forests faster than they can reproduce.)
Š The biological diversity and resilience of the planet is deteriorating alarmingly. There are serious problems of water, food scarcity, forest and soil loss, decline of fish stocks, loss or coral reefs and tropical forests and mangroves and grasslands. We are heading into an era ofmassive species extinction. The cause of these problems is the fact that humans are taking so much from nature and dumping so many wastes back into nature.
Š It will probably soon be generally accepted that we must totally eliminate all CO2 emissions to the atmosphere by 2050. (Hansen, 2008, Meinschausen et al, 2009.) There is a strong case that it will not be possible to do this while maintaining consumer-capitalist society. Firstly it will not be possible to burn coal and sequester the resulting CO2 because only 80-90% of it can be captured for storage, and because the 50% of emissions from non-stationary sources cannot be captured. Secondly there is a strong case that it will not be possible to substitute alternative energy sources for carbon emitting fuels on the scale required. (Trainer, 2008.)
These are some of the main limits to growth arguments which lead to the conclusion that there is no possibility of all people rising to the living standards we take for granted today in rich countries. We can only live like this because we are taking and using up most of the world’s scarce resources, preventing most of the world's people from having anything like a fair share, and depleting the planet’s ecological capital. Therefore we cannot morally endorse our affluent way of life. We must accept the need to move to far simpler and less resource-expensive ways.
To this we must now add the absurdly impossible implications of our commitment to economic growth and increasing "living standards." If we in rich countries have 3% p. a. economic growth, by 2070 our "living standards" will be 8 times as high as they are now. If all the people likely to live on earth then were to have risen to the living standards we would have in 2070, total world economic output would be 60 times as great as it is today!!
The present levels of production and consumption are grossly unsustainable yet we are blindly obsessed with increasing them towards multiples that are absurdly impossible. There is therefore an extremely powerful case for the limits to growth position.
The magnitude of the overshoot is far too great for technical advance and more conservation and recycling effort to solve the problems, i.e., to reduce resource and ecological impacts to sustainable levels while we go on committed to affluent living standards and economic growth.
The fundamental conclusion is that consumer-capitalist society cannot be fixed. It cannot solve the problems its basic structures and commitments generate. It has to be largely replaced by a society that will allow us to live well on a small fraction of the present levels of consumption. The Simpler Way vision is that such a society must involve simpler lifestyles, mostly small and local economies under local participatory control and not determined by market forces, no economic growth, and the abandonment of competitive, individualistic and acquisitive values.
The coming era of scarcity will push us in the required direction, which the Ecovillage and Transition Towns movements are more or less pioneering. The best way to contribute to this transition is to work in local community gardens and co-ops towards local control of local affairs, stressing the need for vast and radical system change (e.g., to a zero-growth economy that is not driven by profit or the market but is run by us to maximise the quality of life of all people..)
Hansen, J., (2008), “Tipping point” in E. Fearn and K. H. Redford, Eds., The State of the Wild Island Press, Washington.
Meinshausen, M, N. Meinschausen, W. Hare, S. C. B. Raper, K. Frieler, R. Knuitti, D. J. Frame, and M. R. Allen, (2009), “Greenhouse gas emission targets for limiting global warming to 2 degrees C”, Nature, 458, 30th April, 1158 -1162.
Trainer, T., (2008), Renewable energy can not sustain can energy intensive society”, http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/RE.html