WHY DO WE NEED SIMPLER WAYS?
The Limits to Growth analysis of the global situation.
The major alarming global problems we are running into are primarily due to over-production and over-consumption. Our lifestyles and economies involve rates of production and consumption that are causing grossly unsustainable rates of resource use and environmental damage. Yet our society is fiercely committed to limitless increases in “living standard” and GDP; economic growth is the supreme goal.
This “limits to growth” analysis of our situation has been gathering strength since the 1960s and is now supported by a vast and overwhelmingly convincing amount of research and literature. Following is a brief summary of some of its main lines of evidence and argument.
When the limits argument is accepted there are only two possible responses. One is to believe that technical advance will solve the problems and enable us to go on pursuing growth and affluence; for the reasons why this is highly implausible see The Tech Fix Faith. (http://socialsciences.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/TECHFIX.html) The second is to accept that we must try to move to a society in which we can live well on far lower per capita resource use than we have in rich countries today; for an outline of what such a society might be like, and an argument that it could provide all with a much higher quality of life than most of us have now, see The Alternative; The Simpler Way. (http://socialsciences.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/TheAltSoc.lng.html)
We cannot solve the alarming global problems confronting us if we continue to be committed to affluent-consumer lifestyles in growth-forever economies driven by market forces and economic growth. The figures below indicate that we probably have to aim at 90% reductions in present rich world per capita resource consumption rates. Most people have no idea of the magnitude of the present overshoot. For decades the argument that we have gone through the limits has been overwhelmingly convincing, but it has been almost impossible to get people or governments to attend to it.
There is a way out of the global situation we are in, but it requires radical shift from consumer society. It will be argued below that The Simpler Way is workable and attractive.
There are three major faults built into the foundations of our society, to do with sustainability, injustice and quality of life. All are consequences of the fact that we have run into “the limits to growth”.
The way of life we have in rich countries is grossly unsustainable. There is no possibility of the “living standards” of all people on earth ever rising to rich world per capita levels of consumption of energy, minerals, timber, water, food, phosphorous etc. These rates of consumption are generating numerous alarming global problems, now threatening our survival, notably ecological damage, resource depletion of most important resources, Third World deprivation and poverty, conflict and war over resources and markets, and declining social cohesion and quality of life. Yet most people have no idea of the magnitude of the overshoot, of how far we are beyond sustainable levels of resource use and environmental impact.
The point which such figures makes obvious is that it is totally impossible for all to have the ”living standards” we have taken for granted in rich countries like Australia. We are not just a little beyond sustainable levels of resource demand and ecological impact – we are far beyond sustainable levels. Rich world ways, systems and “living standards” are grossly unsustainable, and can never be extended to all the world’s people. Few people seem to grasp the magnitude of the overshoot. We must face up to dramatic reductions in our present per capita levels of production and consumption.
To illustrate this magnitude point, the IPCC says the average estimate of future world biomass potential is about 250 EJ/y, so if this was shared equally among 9 billion people we would all get about 9 GJ/y of electricity or ethanol...which is only about 3% of the present Australian per capita energy consumption. In addition we’d need five times present world energy production coming from renewable energy sources such as wind and sun. (Reasons for concluding that this is impossible are referred to below.)
Most people who are at all concerned about global problems are familiar with these kinds of facts and figures, but the significance of the evidence is not recognised. The magnitude of the problems is far too big for them to be solved without moving to much lower rates of production, consumption and GDP – which cannot be done in this society.
The main worry is not the present level of resource use and ecological impact discussed above, it is the level we will rise to given the obsession with constantly increasing volumes of production. The supreme goal in all countries is to raise incomes, “living standards”, sales, trade, investment and the GDP as much as possible, constantly and without any idea of a limit. That is, the most important goal is economic growth.
If we assume a) a 3% p.a. economic growth, b) a population of 9 billion, c) all the world’s people rising to the “living standards” we in the rich world would have in 2050 given 3% growth until then, the total volume of world economic output would be more than 20 times as great as it is now, and doubling every 23 years thereafter.
So even though the present levels of production and consumption are grossly unsustainable the determination to have continual increase in income and economic output will multiply these towards absurdly impossible levels in coming decades. Yet growth is the supreme and almost never questioned goal in all countries.
Why analyse in terms of 9 billion rising to our living standards? Because that is everyone’s goal, so you had best think about what is likely to happen if we all continue on that path. Is it likely to be a peaceful world if they all seek the resources to live as we aspire to by 2050?
When confronted by global sustainability problems most people just assume that technical advance will solve them and enable us to go on living with ever-increasing levels of affluence. They do not realise that the magnitude of the problems rules this out. Perhaps the best-known "tech-fix" optimist, Amory Lovins, (1997) believes we could cut the resource and ecological costs per unit of economic output to one quarter of their present levels. But this would be far from sufficient. Let us assume that present resource and ecological impacts must be halved (some of the above figures indicate that they must become much lower than that). Again if we had 9 billion people on the “living standards” Australians would have by 2050 given 3% growth then total world economic output would be more than 20 times as great as it is now. How likely is it that we could have more than 20 times as much producing and consuming going on while we cut resource and ecological impacts to half their present levels, i.e., a factor 120 reduction? Remember that despite the wizard technical advances being made just about all global problems are becoming worse at an alarming rate.
Again, for a discussion of the difficulties confronting technical advance regarding limits to growth problem see The Tech-Fix Faith. (http://socialsciences.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/TECHFIX.html) A crucial assumption made by those who believe technical advance will eliminate any need for radical change that renewable energy sources can be substituted for fossil fuels. There is a strong argument that this is not correct. (See Trainer, 2012.)
This “limits to growth” perspective is essential if we are to understand the most serious global problems facing us:
We in rich countries could not have anywhere near our present “living standards” if we were not taking far more than our fair share of world resources. Our per capita consumption of items such as petroleum is around 17 times that of the poorest half of the world’s people. The rich 1/5 of the world’s people are consuming around 3/4 of the resources produced. Many people get so little that abound 1000 million are hungry and more than that number have dangerously dirty water to drink. Three billion live on $2 per day or less.
This grotesque injustice is primarily due to the fact that the global economy operates on market principles. In a market need is totally irrelevant and is ignored --- things go mostly to those who are richer, because they can offer to pay more for them. Thus we in rich countries get almost all of the scarce oil and timber traded, while millions of people in desperate need get none. This explains why one third of the world’s grain is fed to animals in rich countries while around 20,000 children die every day because they have insufficient food and clean water.
Even more importantly, the market system explains why Third World development is so very inappropriate to the needs of Third World people. What is developed is not what is needed; it is always what will make most profit for the few people with capital to invest. Thus there is development of export plantations and cosmetic factories but not development of farms and firms in which poor people can produce for themselves the things they need. Many countries get almost no development at all because it does not suit anyone with capital to develop anything there…even though they have the land, water, talent and labour to produce most of the things they need for a simple but satisfactory quality of life. (On Appropriate development, see within the Third World Development item above.)
Even when transnational corporations do invest, wages can be 30c an hour. Compare the miniscule benefit that flows to such workers from conventional development with what they could be getting from an approach to development which enabled them to put all their labour into producing the simple things they most urgently need, via mostly cooperative local firms. But development of this kind is deliberately prevented, e.g., by the Structural Adjustment Packages the World Bank and IMF make them accept in order to get rescue loans. These packages are now the main mechanisms forcing them to do things that benefit the rich countries and their corporations and banks. “Assistance” is given to indebted countries on the condition that they de-regulate and eliminate protection and subsidies assisting their people, cut government spending on welfare, etc., open their economies to more foreign investment, devalue their currencies (making their exports cheaper for us and increasing what they must pay us for their imports), sell off their public enterprises, and increase the freedom for market forces to determine what happens. All this is a bonanza for our corporations and for people who shop in rich world supermarkets. The corporations can buy up firms cheaply and have greater access to cheap labour, markets, forests and land. The repayment of loans to our banks is the supreme goal of the packages. Thus the produce of the Third World’s soils, labour, fisheries and forests flows more readily to our supermarkets, not to Third World people.
For most Third World people the effects of “neo-liberal” globalisation are catastrophic. (See the discussion in Third World Development and the accompanying Documents.) Large numbers of people lose their livelihood, access to resources is transferred from them to the corporations and rich world consumers, and the protection and assistance their governments once provided is eliminated.
These are the reasons why conventional development can be regarded as a form of plunder. The Third World has been developed into a state whereby its land and labour benefit the rich, not Third World people. Rich world “living standards” could not be anywhere near as high as they are if the global economy was just.
Again the unavoidable implication is that, as Gandhi said long ago, “The rich must live more simply so that the poor may simply life.” Unless we must move way down to living on something like our fair share of the world’s resources via some kind of Simpler Way, it will not be possible for the Third World to rise to satisfactory conditions.
These considerations of sustainability and global economic justice show that our predicament is extreme and cannot be solved in consumer-capitalist society. This society cannot be fixed. (This is the central theme in Trainer, 2010.) The problems are caused by some of the fundamental structures, processes and values of this society. There is no possibility of having an ecologically sustainable, just, peaceful and morally satisfactory society if we allow market forces and the profit motive to be the major determinant of what happens, or if we retain a growth economy or insist on raising “living standards” without limit. Many people who claim to be concerned about the fate of the planet refuse to face up to these fundamental points. (The Economy http://socialsciences.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/Economy5p.html and The New Economy http://socialsciences.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/TheNewEc.html provide detailed discussions of these themes.)
Advocates of transition to a Simpler Way put two arguments, the first being this “limits to growth” case that for reasons to do with sustainability we have to move to ways in which we consume far less. The second is that it is not difficult to imagine the form that a satisfactory alternative society must take (for one vision see The Alternative; The Simpler Way http://socialsciences.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/TheAltSoc.lng.html), and that the transition would actually greatly improve the quality of life in even the richest countries today.
Meinshausen, M, N. Meinshausen, 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., (2010), The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World, Envirobook, Sydney.
World Wildlife Fund, (2009), The Living Planet Report, World Wildlife Fund and London Zoological Society, tp://assets.panda.org/downloads/living_planet_report_2008.pdf
Von Weizacker, E. and A. B. Lovins, (1997), Factor Four : Doubling Wealth - Halving Resource Use : A New Report to the Club of Rome, St Leondards, Allen & Unwin.