Is our economy killing the earth?
This graph, an aggregate of a whole set of historical data on human impacts on the environment, makes for some scary graph-reading. A more detailed visual breakdown of this, from the same special issue in the New Scientist:
Yikes. This brings up an uncomfortable question: are high rates of economic growth destroying the earth? Guardian columnist George Monbiot has controversially made this case, but as far as I know it has yet to enter public discussion in any significant way in India. Typically, reporting on the country’s economic growth rate and its self-evident ecological crisis are kept separate. These graphs, along with the accompanying article, make a strong case against the separation.
The developing financial crisis, and its global impact on economies and growth rates, makes this a particularly opportune moment to raise the issue. But, as the issue’s lead article puts it, this may not be entirely welcome in certain circles:
A growing band of experts are looking at figures like these and arguing that personal carbon virtue and collective environmentalism are futile as long as our economic system is built on the assumption of growth. The science tells us that if we are serious about saving Earth, we must reshape our economy.
This, of course, is economic heresy. Growth to most economists is as essential as the air we breathe: it is, they claim, the only force capable of lifting the poor out of poverty, feeding the world’s growing population, meeting the costs of rising public spending and stimulating technological development - not to mention funding increasingly expensive lifestyles. They see no limits to that growth, ever.
In recent weeks it has become clear just how terrified governments are of anything that threatens growth, as they pour billions of public money into a failing financial system. Amid the confusion, any challenge to the growth dogma needs to be looked at very carefully. This one is built on a long-standing question: how do we square Earth’s finite resources with the fact that as the economy grows, the amount of natural resources needed to sustain that activity must grow too? It has taken all of human history for the economy to reach its current size. On current form it will take just two decades to double.
That’s all fine and good for developed countries, you might say, but what about for India and China, aren’t high rates of economic growth lifting people out of poverty, and isn’t that worth some short-term damage to the environment? Not so, argues Andrew Simms:
THE last line of defence for advocates of indefinite global economic growth is that it is needed to eradicate poverty. This argument is at best disingenuous. By any reasonable assessment it is claiming the impossible.
Here’s why. During the 1980s, for every $100 added to the value of the global economy, around $2.20 found its way to those living below the World Bank’s absolute poverty line. During the 1990s, that share shrank to just 60 cents. This inequity in income distribution - more like a flood up than a trickle down - means that for the poor to get slightly less poor, the rich have to get very much richer. It would take around $166 worth of global growth to generate $1 extra for people living on below $1 a day.
Fair enough, you might think, it’s worth it. But consider the resources it would require. The measure known as the “ecological footprint” compares what we harvest from the biosphere, and return to it as waste, with the biosphere’s ability to absorb this and regenerate. It reveals whether we are living within our means or eating into our ecological capital.
Humanity has been overshooting the biosphere’s capacity to sustain our activities every year since the mid-1980s, and each year we do it sooner. In 2008, we had consumed the ration for the year by 23 September, five days earlier than the previous year. It would take at least three Earths to sustain us if everyone had the lifestyle of people in the UK; five if we all lived like Americans.
Perversely, under the current economic system, reducing poverty by a tiny amount will necessitate huge extra consumption by those who are already rich. To get the poorest onto an income of just $3 per day would require an impossible 15 planets’ worth of biocapacity. In other words, we will have made Earth uninhabitable long before poverty is eradicated. If we are serious about helping the poor rather than the rich, we need a new development model.
What would the new model look like? Visit 2020 with the New Scientist in this piece of speculative futurism. Can India afford a lower economic growth rate? Do high rates of growth mask even faster growing rates of inequality?
Finally, an article in the Encyclopedia of the Earth on the Evolution of the human-environment relationship has an even more intense graph that I will link to rather than include in this post. If you are into graphs, this is a must-see.