2015, we're told, is the year the developed world (that's us) and the emerging economies (China, India, etc., etc., etc.) will close ranks to formulate an effective plan of action to fight climate change. It's going to be Kyoto on steroids, a true hallelujah moment, a meeting of minds, a global joining of hands, a flexing of collective muscle and sinew.
2015 is probably our final chance to reach some sort of meaningful, global consensus. In case you haven't noticed we're already being overtaken by climate change impacts, and this is the 'early onset' stuff.
So why am I writing this off? That's simple, it's not going to work. We're focusing on a symptom, not the disease. That's right, - climate change, anthropogenic global warming, call it what you like - is a symptom, a major symptom to be sure but just one aspect of the really lethal malady that lurks beneath it.
Let's consider another symptom - population. We're now at 7+ billion and headed to 9-billion and more. That's nearly triple the number of mouths to feed than we had when I was born. There's something stirring inside that 7+ billion, an emerging middle class of gargantuan proportions. It's said there's a larger middle class in India than in the United States. China has an even larger middle class. It's a phenomenon of social mobility that's sweeping every emerging economy in Asia, South Asia, Africa, South America, pretty much everywhere.
Here's the thing. This emerging mega-middle class wants the same things we have. They want more and better food, bigger homes, they want cars and consumer goods of every description, they want travel and luxuries. They want more, a lot more. And, as they get what they want, it consumes more energy, more resources especially freshwater, and produces more CO2, more waste and more pollution of every variety.
In the half century following the end of WWII, India added roughly a billion people to its population. The United States, during this same interval, grew by about 100-million. Here's the thing. A hundred million people in the ultimate consumer society had about the same overall environmental footprint as those billion Indians. So you can see where I'm going with this emerging mega-middle class issue.
Now, consider this. Even before this onset of the mega-middle class, mankind, our global civilization was using about 1.5 Earths worth of resources. We're using resources at an ever growing rate that's already one and a half times greater than our planet's ability to replenish them. That's impossible, isn't it? Well eventually it will be but for now we've come up with some conjuring tricks to keep the party rolling.
There's a term for it. We're 'eating our seed corn.' Instead of settling for what nature puts on the table before us, we're also raiding the pantry and we're hitting it hard. You can see it with the naked eye from space. Astronauts can see the state of deforestation as we raid our forests, the 'lungs of the planet' to satisfy all that middle class demand. We can see rivers that no longer flow to the sea. We can see the dust plumes that rise in China and now cross the Pacific to North America. We can see the encroaching deserts. We can see the tailing ponds of Athabasca. We can monitor the collapse of one global fishery after another as our commercial boats, responding to middle class demands, 'fish down the food chain.' We have satellites that can now measure surface subsidence triggered by our exhaustion of groundwater - aquifers.
We even awarded a Nobel prize to the fellow who came up with the greatest conjuring act of them all, the Green Revolution. His idea was that a country that was food insecure could boost agricultural production by tuning up its marginal farmland through the use of irrigation and the application of modern fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. It worked. India, for example, once beset by periodic famines, became a major food exporter. The bounty was so wonderful that nobody paid much mind to what awaited in the long term. Now, just decades later, the land is becoming exhausted. In some places more than twice as much fertilizer is needed to grow crops and, worse yet, the groundwater resource is in distress. If you pump out water at many times the natural recharge rate, you're heading for 'empty.'
We usually overlook the critical fact that not only does nature put food on our table, she also empties our bedpans. The biosphere cleans our waste. It always has and, if it hadn't, we wouldn't be here having images of bedpans run through our brains. Rain cleans pollution from our atmosphere. Rivers are magnificent at cleaning waste as they run to the oceans. Our oceans suck CO2 in massive tonnage from the atmosphere. Soil, the microbes and chemicals within it and the plants that grow from it, absorb and then clean waste in a variety of ways. It's just another vital function of our biomass. But, here's the thing. It's a finite planet, remember? That means our biosphere has a finite limit to the amount of waste it can process. Once it reaches capacity, waste backs up, accumulates. We're familiar enough with polluted rivers and lakes, polluted air. China is now hitting a major soil contamination problem, the result of massive industrial pollution of some really bad stuff like arsenic building up in soil to the point where crops are unfit for human consumption. We've got all sorts of this going on in just about every corner of the world, especially the heavily populated hot spots.
We've engineered a global cult of living large. The high priests mass in the financial districts and legislative assemblies of every major centre on the planet. They lead us in the worship of growth. If we have a problem they teach us that the solution lies in growth. Their liturgy is founded in 18th century neo-classical economics, 19th century industrialism and 20th century geo-politics. There you will find the faith, chapter and verse. That this might be madness almost never occurs to us.
Here's the thing. China may zoom off the charts with 10% annual growth in GDP but we in the West target about 3% annual GDP growth. It's compounded growth. We expect the current year to be 3% larger than the previous year. Now let's run the math. As a scale let's use a hypothetical adult lifetime of 50-years - 35 working years, 15 years of retirement. Let's begin at Year 1 of lifetime 1. By the time lifetime 1 is over, at year 50, 3% annual GDP growth would mean the economy had grown 4.4 times larger overall. At the end of lifetime 2, the economy would have grown over 19 times larger than it was in Year 1. After lifetime 3, GDP would have swelled by 84 times. At the end of lifetime 4, Year 200, GDP would have grown 369 times what it had been in Year 1. Not 369 per cent larger. No, 36,900 per cent larger. 369 times larger. That would be reflected in commensurate massive increases in consumption of energy and other resources and massive increases in consumption of goods and services and massive increases in waste and pollution of all sorts. How do you squeeze all that growth into a finite world?
You do it by eating your seed corn, raiding the wine cellar and, eventually, you empty the pantry. What then? Well, at that point, your options are narrowed considerably. You start wondering what your neighbour might have left in their pantry. If you're tribal, you might go raiding. Happens all the time. Eventually something has to give. Usually the strong take from the weak, the rich take from the poor. Hell, rich countries are already buying up the best farmland in food insecure countries like Somalia where we routinely have to provide famine relief. Go figure, eh?
This essay started with climate change. That morphed into a look at population and the approaching plague of the mega-middle class and then into rapacious excess consumption and finally into our addiction to growth and how that leads us to the edge of a cliff. See, they're all connected.
Climate change is not a disease. It's a symptom of the disease that underlies all of these other symptoms. That disease is the lethal and dysfunctional manner in which we, as a global civilization, have become organized - socially, economically and politically. We have crafted institutions and modes of interaction based on a bountiful supply of cheap energy and the remarkable advancements in technology and science. We have evolved into a civilization of "because we can" with scant regard to whether we should.
Fighting climate change is like a needle exchange programme for heroin addicts. It's harm prevention and that's really, really great and wonderful and necessary. It reduces the transmission of HIV and other diseases that create enormous costs to society. It does not, however, remedy the addiction itself. Fighting climate change isn't going to save us any more than a clean needle will save a junkie from the inevitable ravages of addiction. It may buy us time and that's a good thing but, with everything else that's building, it probably won't be much.
There are solutions - logical, equitable, justifiable solutions if we, as a global civilization want to take them. Rapidly decarbonizing our economies and societies is one and it's essential. We have to get rid of our fossil fuel addiction.
Getting free of our toxic, growth-based, neo-classical economics model is just as essential. We need to shift to steady state or 'Full Earth' economics. You can search that on this blog.
Population. What to do? We must calculate our biosphere's population carrying capacity. It is said that we began exceeding our planet's resource replenishment rate in the second half of the 70s at between three to four billion people. Much has changed since then. We've not only packed on another three plus billion in numbers but we've also significantly increased our per capita consumption, our environmental footprint which means we're probably looking at a maximum very close to the three billion mark.
How do we get from 7-billion to 3-billion. There's just one way that I can think of short of resorting to mass annihilation. We gradually phase out globalized agriculture. Each country should restrict agricultural exports by something in the range of 5 to 10% each year. Eventually the nations of the world, rich and poor, are left with a reality of self-sufficiency. That would be a shock to countries like the U.K. that have found it cheaper to import food than grow it domestically and now rely on 75% imported food. It would entail rationing in some countries and the diversion of investment from financial and industrial growth into agriculture. I just cannot think of any other way to drive depopulation.
We need institutions to oversee and enforce the protection and allocation of common resources including global fisheries. No longer can we have massive commercial fleets pillaging our oceans.
In effect there are real solutions, not just the cheap and dirty fixes we have used in the past but real solutions. We need the resolve to take them. If we don't do this on our own terms, we'll reach the same point in other ways. That would be insanely tragic. We have a choice.