SAVING THE ENVIRONMENT; WHAT IT WILL TAKE.
It is generally assumed that the environmental problem can be solved in and by the present socio-economic system, which is characterized by affluent lifestyles, market systems, a globalised economy, and economic growth. Although it is thought that significant action might be required it is taken for granted that sufficient reduction in environmental impact can be achieved by a combination of personal lifestyle change towards conservation and recycling, more environmentally friendly products, and the development of better technologies such as renewable energy.
The following argument is that this world view is fundamentally mistaken. It will be argued that this is evident when the significance of commonly accepted facts and figures on the environmental problems is considered. It will be argued that the environmental problem, along with the other major global problems such as Third World poverty, resource depletion and international conflict, cannot be solved in or by consumer-capitalist society.
The crucial point with which a satisfactory understanding of the situation and its solution must begin is that the destruction of the environment is being caused by volumes of producing and consuming are far beyond sustainable levels. Natural resources are being taken from the planet's ecosystems, and wastes are being dumped back into them, at rates that Footprint analysis shows would now take 1.4 planet earths to provide sustainably. (World Wildlife Fund, 2009.)
Most of these resource flows are going only to the few who live in rich countries. If all 9 billion people expected to be living on the planet by 2050 were to have present Australian lifestyles then consumption of basic resource items would be 6 – 10 times as great as at present. For instance Australia's per capita use of productive land, 8 ha, is 10 times as great as will be possible for all people in 2050. (This is assuming that 8 billion ha of productive land will remain available, which is unlikely in view of current soil loss rates etc.) What is important about this figure is the magnitude of the overshoot, the level of unsustainability. It indicates that it will not be possible for all the world's expected people to rise to more than a small fraction of the productive land use, resource consumption rates or"living standards" we have in rich countries at present.
Most people concerned about the fate of the planet are familiar with these kinds of facts and figures, but generally do not seem to recognise their significance. Either the evidence requires heroically optimistic assumptions regarding the potential of technical advance to reduce impacts (see below), or it requires accepting the need for dramatic reductions in present rich world per capita rates of production and consumption.
However the most daunting problem is not the present grossly unsustainable level of production and consumption. It is the commitment to economic growth which is built into the foundations of our economy and culture, i.e., the determination to increase rates of production and consumption, constantly and without limit.
If Australia averages 3% growth to 2050 and all the world's people come up to the"living standards" we would have then, the total amount of producing and consuming going on in the world would be 30 times as great as it is today. Over recent decades a few have attempted to draw attention to the significance of economic growth for the future magnitude of the environmental problem but governments, media and the general public appear to have almost completely ignored the issue. Indeed even peak environmental agencies and Green political parties tend to avoid it. (See Moseley's 2010 account of the failure/refusal of the ACF to discuss economic growth.)
The most clearly unavoidable implication of the above basic facts and figures is that not only is ecological sustainability incompatible with economic growth, it requires dramatic reduction of present rich world levels of production, consumption, affluence, investment, trade and GDP. Such goals cannot be contemplated without embracing an extremely radically different social vision, i.e., social systems, structures and values which contradict many of the foundations of our present society. Some of the implications in this domain will be considered after further support is given for the central thesis.
Consider two illustrative issues.
a. Species Extinction.
We are probably entering a period of rapid and massive loss of species. This is primarily because one species, out of the possibly 30 million on the planet is taking so much of the planet's area and biological production. The mass of big animals in the sea is down to 10% of its original value. Most fisheries are being harvested beyond sustainable limits. Many rivers such as the Colorado and the Murray are dying because humans are taking far more water than these ecosystems can tolerate. Water tables are falling. Forests are reducing by perhaps 20 million ha p.a. Melbourne's growth plan includes destruction of a large area of scarce remaining native grassland. Soils are being eroded or otherwise lost. A general indicator of these kinds of impacts is evident in Vitousek's conclusion that humans are taking about 40% of the net primary productivity of all the land on the planet. (Vitousek et al., 1997.)
These figures indicate the extent to which humans are taking, converting and eliminating habitats. The loss of habitats is the main factor responsible for species loss. Of the c. 8 billion ha of productive land on the planet humans have taken 1.4 billion ha for cropland, 3+ billion for pastures, and much of the productivity of the 3+ billion ha under forest cover. As the footprint analyses make clear habitats other species once lived in have been taken by us and are being harvested at 1.4 times the rate that might be maintained continually.
Again consider the probable future of habitats in view of the multiples stated above. What will the availability of habitats be if 9 billion live as affluently as Australians do now, or as affluently as they expect to in 2050 with 3% economic growth, that is if global economic output is 30 times as great as it is now;?
Enormous areas would have to be returned to nature in order to restore habitats to quantities and qualities that might halt species loss. This cannot be done without dramatic reduction in the amount of resources humans take from nature and the associated amount of wastes they dump back into nature. This in turn would not be possible without either cutting production and consumption dramatically. It is not plausible that technical advance could bring the 2050 impacts down to tolerable levels and hold them there despite constant increase in economic output.
b. The Greenhouse Problem.
Indices of global warming are tracking above the levels anticipated by the IPCC in 2007. The Fourth Assessment Report did not take into account the feedback mechanisms that will accelerate warming, such as drying out of the tundra and the acidification of the oceans. For these reasons it is likely that in the near future it will be generally agreed that carbon emissions to the atmosphere must be completely eliminated by 2050. (Hansen 2008. See especially Meinshausen, et al., 2009.)
The common, unexamined assumption is that if we switch to renewable and nuclear energy sources and use coal with geo-sequestration we can meet our energy demand while retaining affluent lifestyles and continuing the pursuit of economic growth. However there is a strong case that this faith is mistaken. Trainer details the case that alternative energy sources are not capable of sustaining energy-intensive societies. (2007, 2010a, 2010b, 2012a, 2012b.) The supporting considerations include the problems of winter supply, the intermittency of sun and wind energy sources, the difficulty of energy storage, the need for redundant plant, and energy conversion and losses (especially associated with the use of hydrogen).
Trainer (2010a, 2012a, 2012b) derives the conclusion that to provide the global average monthly quantity of energy demand in winter from renewable energy sources would require a quantity of overlapping renewable energy plant imposing an investment cost at least 15 times the present total world energy investment p.a. Many significant cost factors were not included in this analysis.
These are not arguments against moving to renewable energy sources. Trainer (2007, 2010b) argues that we should move to full dependence on them as soon as possible and that we could live well on them, but not in an energy intensive consumer-capitalist society.
"But better technology will solve the problems."
The dominant view is that better technology, tighter legislation and lifestyle adjustments will reduce the impacts sufficiently to avoid any need to think about curbing the commitment to the pursuit of affluence and growth. This is the essential assumption in the dominant"Ecological Modernisation Theory." (York and Rosa, 2003.) There are several considerations supporting a strong case against this view.
It should not be assumed that technical advance is continually making large gains in energy and resource use efficiency. Ayres (2008) points out that for decades there have been plateaus for the efficiency of production of electricity and fuels, electric motors, ammonia and iron and steel. The efficiency of electrical devices in general has actually changed little in a century (p. 126.)"…the energy efficiency of transportation probably peaked around 1960", partly due to greater use of accessories since then. (p. 128.) Remarkably his Fig. 4.21a shows no increase in the overall energy efficiency of the US economy since 1960.
“But isn't the energy intensity of the economy falling?" Energy related factors probably largely explain this common but misleading claim. See the appendix for more detail.
Thus there would seem to be a strong case that technical advance is not likely to reverse present aggregate and average trends and begin to gain on the major resource and ecological problems. The two overwhelming considerations here are firstly the sheer magnitude of the impacts, already in key areas many times beyond sustainable levels, and secondly the commitment to an economy and a culture obsessed with the pursuit of ever-increasing volumes of production and consumption.
These considerations support the case that ecological sustainability is not possible unless global levels of producing and consuming are stabilised at much lower than present global levels. It is difficult to see how this could be compatible with the existence of a capitalist economy or a market economy. In other words there are strong grounds for concluding that there can be no solution to the environmental problem in a consumer-capitalist society. As Smith () argues surely an ecologically satisfactory society would require extensive social control over the economy and the rational planning of production, distribution and investment to ensure that a constant and severely limited amount of productive activity is geared to meeting social and environmental need as efficiently and frugally as possible. (This does not necessarily mean a state centralized or authoritarian economy, or the absence of private enterprise. The possibility of locally self-sufficient economies under local participatory control and involving mostly private firms and cooperatives is elaborated in Chapter 4 of Trainer, 2010b.)
The indifference of environmental agencies.
The supremely important values in modern societies are to do with wealth, possessions, consuming, becoming richer, and ensuring constant increases in GDP. These elements are built into personal and national goals, taken for granted world views and standards, and the concept of"progress". There is therefore great resistance to thinking about the possibility that these fundamental assumptions, values and systems are literally catastrophically mistaken and that global problems cannot be solved unless we face up to abandoning this syndrome.
It is therefore not surprising that environmental agencies dependent on public support, including governmental departments NGOs, and green political parties, do not attend to the above perspective on the ecological problem. If they did so their chances of attracting subscribers, voters and government grants would be meager. Thus green agencies and parties are overwhelmingly reformist, focusing on curbing impacts within existing socio-economic systems but showing little interest in working for change to a radically different system. (Smith, 2010, also argues this point effectively.) If ecological sustainability cannot be achieved without transition from consumer-capitalist society then it follows that although environmental agencies and Green political parties perform many valuable functions, most are not contributing significantly to saving the planet.
Realisation is dawning that action to dealing effectively with the greenhouse and other problems (such as returning sufficient water to the Murray-Darling river system) will require painful costs and reductions, such as carbon taxes hiking electricity and petrol prices and the phasing out of industries, and as a result enchantment with green policies and parties is likely to fade. Noble green rhetoric attracted many when this entailed no nasty consequences for budgets and lifestyles. Hence the impossibility of getting radical system change through parliamentary systems becomes evident. In a society where the pursuit of growth is not just desired but is an economic necessity and governments are dumped if they cannot deliver it, where many unavoidable 3costs and actions intended to protect the environment reduce the capacity to generate GDP and jobs, governments simply cannot impose the draconian policies required to solve the problems.
Thus it can be seen that the basic environmental problem is systemic and cultural. It stems from commitment to an economic system which must have growth, and from deeply entrenched ideas and values which enshrine the continual increase in material wealth as the supreme social goal. The powerful ideological forces evident in this issue indicate that our prospects for solving global problems must be judged to be poor. The primary cause of the major global problems confronting us, including resource depletion, Third World poverty and deprivation, armed conflict over resource and market access, and deteriorating social cohesion, is the determination to have ever-more affluent consumer lifestyles on a planet where resources will not permit such lifestyles for more than a very few. Yet there seems to be an overwhelmingly dominant refusal to think about these issues, making it unlikely that we will clearly recognise the nature of our predicament or get ourselves out of it.
The socio-political handicap.
The foregoing argument has been that appropriate action to solve the environmental problem is thwarted by ideological forces blocking recognition of its essential nature. Those forces operate mostly in the economic domain where attention is focused on the limitless maximization of material wealth. However in addition there are difficulties deriving from the nature of the political systems we have.
Even if the case presented above came to be widely understood and accepted it is not likely that the huge adjustments it requires could be achieved. Our political systems make it very difficult to bring about significant change. Change often has at best zero sum consequences on interested parties; some benefit and some are disadvantaged. Those who stand to lose resist strongly and have considerable capacity to block change. For instance the unsatisfactory state of the US health system is understandable in terms of the refusal of the medical profession, health insurance companies and pharmaceutical industries to forego some of their privileges. Similarly the Murray – Darling river system cannot be restored adequately unless water withdrawals are drastically reduced, but this is not likely to happen because the savage impacts on irrigation farmers and country towns is understandably generating irresistible political pressures.
The affected groups would be less inclined to resist so strongly if they knew society would fully compensate them for the required painful adjustments. A satisfactory society would make cooperative and sympathetic adjustments ensuring a fair sharing the impacts, but existing political systems are based on a competitive, individualistic, adversarial and winner-take-all culture. Affected groups must struggle desperately to win, knowing that if they lose they will be given little help and probably left to die off. When a government phases out protection or subsidies for an industry most if not all of the cost is dumped on those who will then become unemployed or bankrupt. It is not the case that in this society we make sure those adversely affected are fully and justly compensated, or helped to move into alternative livelihoods without suffering disadvantage. This again means potentially affected parties have a powerful incentive to resist change even though it might be obvious that the change is socially desirable.
The problems mentioned above, e.g., to do with sharing the water in the Murray Darling system, are trivial compared with crucial issues confronting us, such as phasing out the entire coal, petroleum and gas industries. It is highly implausible that our political institutions and culture are capable of meeting challenges of that scale.
If the forgoing argument regarding the nature, magnitude and causes of the environmental problem is basically sound, then the problem cannot be solved in a consumer-capitalist society. The problems are directly caused by the fundamental structures and procedures of a system which involves determination to constantly increase levels of production and consumption which are already grossly unsustainable and could not be spread to all the world's people. This conclusion could only be refuted by demonstrating the capacity of technical advance to reduce the ratio of impacts to GDP to perhaps one-fifth of its present rich world value, and keep it there.
If the key to solving the environmental problem, and the other major global
problems threatening us, is to dramatically reduce production and consumption
then the goal has to be to move to a society which is radically different to
consumer-capitalist society. A vision of such a society is discussed under the
heading of The Simpler Way. (Trainer, 2010b, 2012c.) Its core principles
are frugal lifestyles focused on non-material satisfactions, mostly small and
highly self-sufficient local economies under local participatory control
and not driven by profit maximization, and without growth. This vision requires radically different geographies of settlement, economy, forms of government and, most problematic, it requires values which contradict competitive, individualistic acquisitiveness.
Given the gulf between present society and this vision, the fact that it is not on the agenda, and the fact that it is late in the day, the probability of such a transition must be regarded as remote. However many are working for it, for instance within in the Global Eco-village and Transition
Towns movements. It is likely that as the problems being generated by
consumer-capitalist society intensify, especially in response to peak oil,
increasing attention will be given to this option.
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