Friday, October 17, 2008

"The Killing Fields": How the economy is killing planet earth

This headline will come as no surprise to regular blog readers but now the New Scientist wants in on the act and have published a "special report".

The figures they use on the front page and illuminating but poorly constructed and generally pretty useless.

Students on my environmental economics course will have heard all this before ;-)

Special report: How our economy is killing the Earth [New Scientist]

THE graphs climbing across these pages (see graph, right, or explore in more detail) are a stark reminder of the crisis facing our planet. Consumption of resources is rising rapidly, biodiversity is plummeting and just about every measure shows humans affecting Earth on a vast scale. Most of us accept the need for a more sustainable way to live, by reducing carbon emissions, developing renewable technology and increasing energy efficiency.

But are these efforts to save the planet doomed? 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.
“Economists see no limits to 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.

In my first lecture John Stuart Mill gets a run out. The New Scientist explain more:

It is a vision John Stuart Mill, one of the founders of classical economics, would have approved of. In his Principles of Political Economy, published in 1848, he predicted that once the work of economic growth was done, a "stationary" economy would emerge in which we could focus on human improvement: "There would be as much scope as ever for all kinds of mental culture, and moral and social progress... for improving the art of living and much more likelihood of it being improved, when minds cease to be engrossed by the art of getting on."

Today's economists dismiss such ideas as naive and utopian, but with financial markets crashing, food prices spiralling, the world warming and peak oil approaching (or passed), they are becoming harder than ever to ignore.

There are a number of good and excellent articles in this special report that are worth reading although they tend, not surprisingly, to give a "non-mainstream" perspective and thus, need to be read as such.

Some articles are free, others not. Clearly the New Scientist are not above making some cold hard capitalist cash out of the death throws of the planet.

Read more:

Why politicians dare not limit economic growth (FREE FEATURE)

Harvesting renewable energy will help us to avert climate change without big changes to our lifestyles, right? Not without cutting consumption, says Tim Jackson

Interview: The environmental activist

Why do we fail to live within the constraints that nature has set for us, and fool ourselves things have never been better, asks environmental activist David Suzuki

Economics blind spot is a disaster for the planet

If we can't find a way to switch to a sustainable economy, we're heading for the ultimate crash Herman Daly

Interview: Champion for green growth (FREE FEATURE)

Gus Speth has influenced US environmental policy from the Supreme Court to the White House. He tells Liz Else why green values stand no chance against market capitalism

The trickle-down myth: Does growth really help the poor?

The argument that economic growth helps fight poverty is disingenuous and misguided, says economist Andrew Simms

We must think big to fight environmental disaster

As the ecological and financial crises mount, Susan George says our only option is to scale up positive actions to transform our economies

What would life be like in a land without growth?

What would a sustainable society actually be like? How would we make a living? And what would happen to all those bankers? New Scientist imagines the progress of a "steady state" economy 10 years after its inception

Nothing to fear from curbing growth

Breaking our dependence on profits and growth would make our lives better, not worse, says philosopher Kate Soper


1 comment:

Derek Wall said...

'We thus have any interesting problem, economic growth is unsustainable for a variety of reasons, however it is inherent in a modern capitalist economy. Providing alternatives to capitalism is no easy task but it is necessary. I suspect that ultimately it is easier to change the economic system than basic ecological realities, however most commentators reverse my approach' is my analysis that went towards the Sustainable Development Commission discussion on growth, that is in turn debated in New Scientist.