THE ENVIRONMENT PROBLEM
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 official support for more energy efficient technologies such as electric cars.
The following argument is that this world view is fundamentally mistaken. It will be argued that this is evident when commonly understood facts and figures on the environmental problems are considered, but that powerful ideological forces thwart this recognition, and that the problem cannot be solved in consumer-capitalist society.
The fundamental cause of the problem.
The crucial point with which a satisfactory understanding of the environmental 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 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 the 8 billion ha of productive land will remain available, which is disputable in view of current soil loss rates etc.) What is important in 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.
Now add growth.
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.
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 in this discussion.
Consider two example 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 index 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.)
This figure indicates 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 we are harvesting from habitats other species once lived in a rate that is around 1.4 times that which might be maintained continually. Not only are we expropriating the sustainable surplus that could be harvested from nature, we are increasingly harvesting the stocks needed to produce that surplus.
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 with 3% economic growth?
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, or achieving enormous technical advance which firstly brings the impacts down to tolerable levels and secondly holds them there despite constant increase in economic output.
b. The Greenhouse Problem.
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 Meinschausen, 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, (2008, 2010a, 2010b) details the case that alternative energy sources are not capable of sustaining energy-intensive societies. 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) derives the conclusion that to provide the global average monthly quantity of energy in winter from renewable energy sources would require a quantity of overlapping plant imposing an investment cost in the region of 30 times present total world energy investment p.a. Many significant cost factors were not included in this analysis. There would in addition be the problem of meeting demand through those periods when there was no sun or wind.
These are not arguments against moving to renewable energy sources. We could live well on them, but not in 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. There are several considerations supporting a strong case against this largely unexamined faith.
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 many decades there have been plateaus for the efficiency of electric motors, production of electricity, fuels, 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.) His Fig. 4.21a shows no increase in the overall energy efficiency of the US economy since 1960.
Thus there would seem to be a strong case that technical advance is not likely to gain on the problems, especially in view of the underlying constant drive for ever-increasing volumes of production and consumption.
Is sustainability compatible with capitalism?
It is generally assumed by green people that although much regulation of the economy is needed it could still remain capitalist in form, i.e., involving private ownership of productive capacity and the drive to invest, make profits and accumulate wealth.
It has been argued above that ecological sustainability is not possible unless global levels of producing and consuming are kept stable, i.e., economic growth is incompatible with ecological sustainability. Some people, such as Herman Daly, believe capitalism could continue because gains in productivity would enable growth in investment, profits wealth etc., for a given stable level of material inputs. But firstly remember that zero-growth is not enough and production and consumption in rich countries probably should be cut to one-fifth or less of present levels. (Again, indices of resource input levels such as the Footprint measure suggest the need for larger reductions than this.) Therefore we are confronted by the prospect of an economy in which the GDP will be a small fraction of its present value.
More importantly, most of the gain in productivity is not due to technical advance but to increased inputs of labour, capital and especially energy. When there can be no increase in the material components of these items productivity gains will be minute, and they will probably soon be overwhelmed by rising energy costs, and the costs of all other inputs because they all require energy. (Ayres, 200.) (For a more detailed discussion see Trainer, 2010c.)
So in a sustainable economy there would at most be negligible scope for accumulating capital in order to invest to make profits and accumulate more capital to invest, in an endless spiral of increasing wealth. It is difficult to see how anything like this is compatible with the existence of a capitalist economy or a market economy.
It would seem that a satisfactory society would require social control over the economy and rational social planning of production, distribution and investment so 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, 2010.)
Yet environmental agencies ignore these issues.
In this society the supreme values are to do with wealth, possessions, consuming, getting richer, and ensuring constant increases in GDP. These elements are built into personal and national goals, taken for granted world views standards, and the concept of “progress”. There is therefore great reluctance to think 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, including governmental departments NGOs, and green political parties, do not attend to the perspective sketched above. 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 good works within existing socio-economic systems but showing little or no interest in working for change to a radically different system. If ecological sustainability cannot be achieved without transition from consumer-capitalist society then it would seem to follow that although environmental agencies and Green political parties perform many valuable functions, they are not contributing significantly to saving the planet.
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 lifestyles on a planet where resources will not permit that for more than a few. Yet there seems to be an almost universal refusal to even 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 wealth. However in addition there are difficulties coming from the nature of the political and cultural 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. Any change typically has more or less zero sum consequences on interested parties. Some will benefit and some will be 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. Governments can lose office if they alienate a small proportion of voters so it does not take great effort on the part of threatened interests to scare governments off initiatives..
This zero-sum situation would not be such a problem if the socio-economic system enabled cooperative and sympathetic adjustments to be made, sharing the impacts, but the system is based on a competitive-individualistic winner-take-all culture. As in the economic sphere, in the policy realm affected groups must struggle desperately to win, knowing that if they lose they will not be helped but will be trashed and eliminated. When a government phases out protection or subsidies for an industry the cost is dumped on those who will then become unemployed or bankrupt (although some compensation is sometimes given.) 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 means potentially affected parties have a powerful incentive to resist change even though it might be obvious that it is socially desirable. Thus it is understandable that many socially undesirable behaviours, such as cigarette marketing, continue, as those involved desperately seek to retain their livelihoods in a situation where there are few if any alternatives for them to move to. If sensible cooperative and sympathetic action to facilitate the adjustments was forthcoming changes of this kind would be more easily achieved.
However sensible adjustment would require significant contributions from all in society, often in the form of willingness to give up privileges so that resources can be transferred to provide for those adversely affected by change. However little willingness of this kind is institutionalised in this maximizing, winner take all culture. The failure of the Copenhagen Climate Conference, the debate over carbon trading in Australia, and the failure to restore adequate flows to the Murray river testify to this reluctance to share and accept costs (such as higher taxes) in order to assist others or to solve a common problem. Such problems are trivial compared with, those we should be working on, for instance, 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 that are already grossly unsustainable and could not be spread to all the world’s people. This conclusion could only be refuted by a case 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 moving 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, 2006.) 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 such a transition, 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, most obviously in response to peak oil, increasing attention will be given to this option.
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