Industrialised world reductions in material throughput, energy use, and environmental degradation of over 90% will be required by 2040 to meet the needs of a growing world population fairly within the planet’s ecological means.
Business Council for Sustainable Development1
It’s not as if we’re unaware of the problem. Symptoms were already so persistent two decades ago that a proclamation by many of the world’s top scientists warned that “a great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.”2 This assertion was echoed a dozen years later by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment’s no less urgent warning that “human activity is putting such a strain on the natural functions of the earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.”3
One might think that humanity’s best science would be enough to stimulate a decisive policy response, but the feeble effort so far has done little to stem the cumulative cascade of dismal data. No national government, no prominent international agency, no corporate leader anywhere has begun to advocate in public, let alone implement, the kind of evidence-based, visionary, morally coherent policy responses that are called forth by the best science available today.
On the climate front, the first six months of 2010 were the warmest ever recorded, and 2010 tied with 2005 and 2008 for hottest year in the instrumental record. (This while we should have been experiencing modest cooling—the world is just emerging from the longest solar minimum in decades.) Earth and paleoclimate scientist Andrew Glikson posits that the world may be experiencing the fastest climate change in 34 million years. Atmospheric CO2 concentrations are rising at 2+ parts per million by volume per year (ppmv/yr) and the rate is increasing. Already, at 392 ppmv CO2 and 470 ppmv CO2 equivalent (CO2e) (read: a level of greenhouse gases equivalent in climate forcing to 470 ppmv of CO2), the atmosphere/ocean system is just below the 500 ppmv CO2e upper stability limit for the Antarctic ice sheet.4
Some climate scientists are now stepping into the policy arena. Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows argue that the world will be hard-pressed to stabilize greenhouse gases at 650 ppmv CO2e, which implies a 50 percent chance of a catastrophic 4°C increase in mean global temperature, the desertification of much of the world’s habitable land mass, dramatically rising sea levels, and hundreds of millions of climate refugees by the end of the century. Indeed, unless we can reconcile economic growth with unprecedented rates of decarbonization (in excess of 6 percent per year), avoiding this increase will require a “planned economic recession.”5
Of course, climate change is just one symptom of generalized human ecological dysfunction. A virtual tsunami of evidence suggests that the global community is living beyond its ecological means. By one measure, the human “ecological footprint” is about 2.7 global average hectares per person (gha/capita), yet there are only 1.8 gha/capita on earth. The human enterprise has already overshot global carrying capacity by about 50 percent and is living, in part, by depleting natural capital and overfilling waste sinks.6,7
Coming to Grips with Reality
In theory, Homo sapiens is uniquely equipped to confront this self-made crisis. Four critical intellectual and emotional qualities distinguish people from other advanced vertebrates. Humans have
- an unequaled capacity for evidence-based reasoning and logical analysis;
- the unique ability to engage in long-term forward planning;
- the capacity to exercise moral judgment; and
- an ability to feel compassion for other individuals and other species.
As noted above, despite decades of hardening evidence, mainstream global society nevertheless remains in policy paralysis, stymied by cognitive and behavioral barriers to change that have deep roots in both human nature and global society’s culturally constructed economic growth fetish.8
But what if mounting public pressure (think Occupy Wall Street) or a series of miniclimate catastrophes finally overwhelms these barriers? Assume the world community becomes fully motivated to deal effectively with biophysical reality. Now the question becomes, What would truly intelligent, forward-thinking, morally compassionate individuals do in response to available data, the historical record, and ongoing trends?
In a more rational world, political leaders might come together in a special forum to acknowledge the nature and severity of the crisis and to establish the institutional and procedural basis for a worldwide “Survival 2100” project.8 This initiative would formally recognize (a) that unsustainability is a global problem—no nation can achieve sustainability on its own; (b) that unsustainability springs, in part, from the failure of a global development paradigm that is based on integration and consolidation of the world economy (globalization), deregulation, and unrelenting material growth; (c) that the failed paradigm is a social construction, a product of the human mind; and (d) that this is good—it means that the model can be deconstructed, analyzed, and replaced. In effect, the metagoal of Survival 2100 would be to rewrite global society’s cultural narrative to achieve greater social equity and economic security in ways that reflect biophysical reality.
The major elements and themes of the new story are, in some respects, self-evident. The practical goal of Survival 2100 would be to engineer the creation of a dynamic, more equitable steady-state economy that can satisfy at least the basic needs of the entire human family within the means of nature. (“Steady-state” implies a more or less constant rate of energy and material throughput compatible with the productive and assimilative capacities of the ecosphere.9 Contrary to simplistic criticisms, a steady state is anything but static. Innovation will be more necessary, and necessarily more creative, than ever.)
Clearly the economic policy emphasis would have to shift from efficiency and quantitative growth (getting bigger faster) toward equity and qualitative development (getting truly better). Indeed, the steady-state economy would be a smaller economy. Eliminating overshoot requires a 50 percent reduction in global fossil energy and material throughput. And to address egregious inequity, wealthy countries will have to reduce their consumption by up to 80 percent to create the ecological space necessary for justifiable growth in developing countries. Implementing an equity-oriented planned economic contraction in turn requires that the underpinning values of society shift from competitive individualism, greed, and narrow self-interest—all sanctioned by the prevailing narrative—toward community, cooperation, and our common interest in surviving with dignity.
The emotive rationale for such a developmental about-face is captured in the last phrase above. Global change is a collective problem requiring collective solutions. Individual actions produce inadequate, even trivial improvements; no individual, no region, no country can succeed on its own. Perhaps for the first time in history, individual and national interests have converged with the collective interests of humankind. Governments and international organizations must therefore work with ordinary citizens to devise and implement policies that serve the common good on both national and global levels. Evidence abounds that failure to act in ways that reflect humanity’s shared interest in survival with dignity will ultimately lead to civil insurrection, geopolitical tension, resource wars, and ecological implosion.
The magnitude of the required value shift is daunting but manageable given sufficient resources. The world community will have to agree to fund worldwide social marketing programs to ameliorate “pushback” and bring the majority of citizens on board. Public reeducation is necessary both to inform ordinary citizens of the nature/severity of the crisis and to advance a positive vision for the future that will be more attractive than the future likely to unfold from maintaining the status quo. (Those who dismiss such broad-scale social learning as social engineering should remember that the denizens of today’s consumer society already represent the most thoroughly socially engineered generation of humans ever to walk the planet, and billions are spent every year to ensure that they remain wedded to the status quo.)
Essential Steps Forward
One thing that has passed its “best before” date is the contemporary cult of consumerism. The material ethic is spiritually empty and ecologically destructive. A sustainable society, by contrast, will cultivate investment and conserver values over spending and consumption.
A sustainable conserver society would also abandon predatory capitalism with its unbridled confidence in markets as the wellspring and arbiter of all social value. Unsustainability is quintessential market failure. Society must relegitimize public planning at all levels of government. We need selective reregulation and comprehensive extramarket adaptation strategies for global change.
A necessary first step would be to acknowledge that globalization encourages the externalization of ecological and social costs (think climate change). Many goods and services are therefore underpriced in the marketplace and thus overconsumed. As any good economist will acknowledge, government intervention is legitimate and necessary to correct for gross market failure. Indeed, resistance to reform makes hypocrites of those who otherwise tout the virtues of market economies. Truly efficient markets require the internalization of heretofore hidden costs so that prices tell consumers the truth.
Consistent with the concept of true-cost economics, Survival 2100 would recognize the need to
- end perverse subsidies to the private sector (e.g., to the fossil fuel sector, the corn ethanol industry, and private banks “too big to fail”);
- reregulate the private sector in the service of the public interest;
- introduce scheduled ecological fiscal reforms—tax the bads (depletion and pollution) not the goods (labor and capital)—which might require a combination of pollution charges/taxes on domestic production and import tariffs on underpriced trade goods; and
- tie development policy to the “strong sustainability” criterion (i.e., maintain constant, adequate per capita stocks of critical natural, manufactured, and human capital assets in separate accounts).
This final point requires that we learn to live on sustainable natural income, not natural capital liquidation. Society must therefore
- implement “cap-auction-trade” systems for critical resources such as fossil fuels (i.e., place sustainable limits on rates of resource exploitation, or waste discharges; auction off the exploitation rights to available capacity; and use the rents captured to address subsequent equity issues);
- revise systems of national accounts to include biophysical estimates of natural capital stocks and sinks in support of such a system; and
- replace or supplement gross domestic product with more comprehensive measures of human well-being.
Survival 2100 would also require that society unravel the increasingly unsustainable eco-economic entanglement of nations induced by globalization. Without becoming isolationist, nations should strive for greater self-reliance. In the service of “efficiency,” unconstrained trade allows trading regions to exceed local carrying capacity with short-term impunity, while increasing the risk to all by accelerating waste generation and depleting remaining reserves of natural capital. In the process, this creates mutual dependencies that are vulnerable to accelerating global change, energy bottlenecks, and geopolitical instability. The world and individual nations should therefore revise or abandon World Trade Organization rules and similar regional trade treaties (e.g., NAFTA). In place of these agreements, we instead need economic plans and accords that also foster local economic diversity and resilience. “Trade if necessary, but not necessarily trade” is a suitable mantra. Nations should therefore
- develop deglobalization plans to reduce their dependence on foreign sources and sinks (i.e., reduce a nation’s ecological footprint on other nations’ ecosystems and on the global commons);
- simultaneously relocalize (i.e., reskill domestic populations and diversify local economies through import displacement);
- generally increase national self-reliance in food, energy, and other essential resources as a buffer against climate change, rising scarcity costs, and global strife; and
- invest in rebuilding local/regional natural capital stocks (e.g., fisheries, forests, soils, biodiversity reserves, etc.) using revenues collected from carbon taxes or resource quota auctions.
Economic contraction and massive structural change inevitably have adverse social effects. Consistent with the principles of community solidarity and cooperation, as well as society’s shared interest in the peaceful resolution of the sustainability conundrum, Survival 2100 would explicitly renew the social contract and repair holes in the social safety net. This would include
- a return to more progressive taxation policies encompassing income, capital gains, and estate and corporate taxes;
- recognition that a negative income tax may be necessary to assist low-income families through the transition;
- using the tax system and related policies to promote a cultural shift from private capital accumulation to investment in public infrastructure (e.g., transit, community facilities) and human development;
- designing and implementing new forms of social safety nets to facilitate peoples’ transition to the postcarbon economy in which obsolete, unsustainable “sunset” industries are phased out (e.g., coal-based electricity generation);
- implementing job-training and job-placement programs to equip people for employment in emerging “sunrise” industries (e.g., solar energy technologies);
- capitalizing on the advantages of a shorter work week and job sharing to improve work-life balance (self-actualization); and
- implementing state-assisted family-planning programs everywhere to stabilize/reduce human populations.
Conclusions: Can Survival 2100 Fly?
The forgoing is only an introduction to the kinds of policies implicit in a Survival 2100–type project, but it is sufficient to show that sustainability does, indeed, demand what many scientists (and even politicians) have been asserting for decades. We are engaged in a genuine paradigm shift—the abandonment of the beliefs, values, assumptions, and behaviors underpinning the status quo and their replacement by an alternative development paradigm. The good news, of course, is that the alternative offers a more economically secure, ecologically stable, and socially equitable future for all than does staying our present course.
The bad news is that there will be strident resistance from those with the greatest stake in the status quo, from people who reject global change science, from extreme libertarians, from those who worship at the altar of the marketplace, and from anyone who regards regulation and government—particularly in the international arena—as the spawn of the devil (e.g., factions of the U.S. Republican and Tea Parties who “repudiate sustainable development and describe the global effort to achieve it as ‘destructive and insidious’” and who regard UN agencies and various NGOs as anti-American conspiracies).10 More generally, planned economic contraction hardly resonates with the times. Indeed, if the basic science of global change is correct, resistance to change may well be the greatest threat to the future of global civilization and overcoming it a more difficult task than implementing the transformation itself.
And failure is possible. As anthropologist Joseph Tainter reminds us, the most intriguing thing about complex societies is the frequency with which their ascent to greatness is interrupted by collapse.11 Collapse on a global scale, however, would be unprecedented. Should H. sapiens fail in efforts to implement something like Survival 2100, evolution’s great experiment with self-conscious intelligence will have finally succumbed to more primitive emotions and survival instincts abetted by cognitive dissonance, collective denial, and global political inertia.
But if we succeed … !!
- Business Council for Sustainable Development (BCSD). Getting Eco-Efficient. Report of the BCSD First Antwerp Eco-Efficiency Workshop, Geneva (November 1993).
- Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). World scientists’ warning to humanity [online] (UCS Cambridge, MA, 1992). www.ucsusa.org/about/1992-world-scientists.html.
- Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Living beyond our means: natural assets and human well-being (statement from the board) [online] (2005). www.maweb.org/en/BoardStatement.aspx.
- Glikson, A. Trends and tipping points in the climate system: portents for the 21st century (draft report) [online] (2011). www.countercurrents.org/glikson241111.pdf.
- Anderson, K & Bows, A. Reframing the climate change challenge in light of post-2000 emission trends. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A [online] 366, 3863–3882 (November 2008). doi:10.1098/rsta.2008.0138.
- Rees, WE in Encyclopedia of Biodiversity 2nd edn (Levin, S, ed), Ecological footprint, concept of (Academic Press, San Diego, in press).
- WWF. Living Planet Report 2010. (World Wide Fund for Nature, Gland, Switzerland, 2010).
- Rees, W. 2010. What’s blocking sustainability? Human nature, cognition, and denial. Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy [online] 6(2), 13–25 (2010). http://sspp.proquest.com/static_content/vol6iss2/1001-012.rees.pdf.
- Daly, HE. Steady-State Economics 2nd edn (Island Press, Washington, 1991).
- Roberts, N. Paranoid GOP sees global conspiracy in U.N. and small nonprofit. Care2 [online] (February 7, 2012). www.care2.com/causes/paranoid-gop-sees-global-conspiracy-in-u-n-and-smal....
- Tainter, J. The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1988).