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Questioning economic growth

Peter Victor, Nature
The idea that governments of developed countries should no longer pursue economic growth as a primary policy objective is widely regarded as heresy. Yet a growing number of scholars, policy-makers and citizens are coming round to the idea that the planet cannot sustain continued global economic growth.

… The reasons for disenchantment with economic growth as a paramount policy objective are not hard to find. Humanity has gone beyond the ‘safe operating space’ of the planet with respect to climate change, nitrogen loadings and biodiversity loss, and threatens to do so with six other major global environmental issues2. This excessive burden on Earth can be traced to the massive increase in the materials, fossil fuels and biomass used by the world’s economies.

… The view that we should curb planetary impacts by reducing growth in richer countries is reinforced by several considerations.First, there is mounting evidence that this growth is largely unrelated to measures of happiness. Second, in recent decades, increasing inequality has accompanied much of this growth, leading to problems ranging from poor public health to social unrest. Third, the prospects for real improvement in the developing world are likely to be diminished if developed countries continue to encroach on more ecological space.

… Regular estimates of GDP by governments date back only to the 1940s, and the measure was initially used in support of specific objectives, such as stimulating employment. Only in the 1950s did economic growth become a policy priority in its own right.

… I constructed a fairly conventional model of the Canadian economy and found circumstances under which employment can be increased, poverty and greenhouse-gas emissions reduced, and government debt effectively managed without economic growth. A key ingredient is a shorter work year, which would help to spread employment among more of the labour force. …

Nature 468, 370-371 (18 November 2010) | doi:10.1038/468370a;

Peter Victor is an economist at York University in Toronto, Ontario and author of Managing Without Growth: Slower by Design, Not Disaster. e-mail: [email protected]
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(17 November 2010)

Sustainable Growth Is An Oxymoron

Rudy M. Baum, Chemical & Engineering News
The following is based on an after-dinner talk delivered by C&EN Editor-in-Chief Rudy M. Baum at the 25th Annual William S. Johnson Symposium at Stanford University on Oct. 8, 2010.

… One of the most unnerving aspects of global climate change for the human psyche to absorb is that it drives home with absolute finality the notion that Earth is finite. I know, that sounds obvious, but people have never behaved as if Earth were finite. They have behaved as if Earth and its resources, the environment itself, were infinite.

… If Earth is finite, then by definition, so is our capacity to produce and consume. Yet we exist within a socioeconomic system that is predicated on endless growth. The rate of growth—in population and economic activity—turned exponential about 200 years ago with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. We call it the Industrial Revolution, but that revolution was really a revolution based on the extraction of fossil fuels from Earth and their use to power machines and eventually to produce electricity. Civilization as we know it is entirely dependent on burning fossilized sunshine cheaply. Because that’s what fossil fuels are—yes, they’re the fossils of dead plants and dinosaurs, but those flora and fauna were just the machines that converted hundreds of millions of years of sunshine into compounds buried in Earth waiting for us to extract them. We burned the fossil fuels on the cheap because we treated the atmosphere as a free dumping ground for the waste products of combustion, primarily CO2.

Eventually, humanity was going to hit a wall. A wall that told us that a system based on endless growth was not sustainable on a finite planet. What seemed obvious was that, at some point, we were going to use up Earth’s reserves of fossil fuels. In the case of petroleum, some experts believe we have already reached or will very soon reach “peak oil,” the point at which we have consumed half of all the petroleum on Earth and at which point production will begin to decline. Whether we’ve reached peak oil or not, we’ve certainly reached the peak of oil that’s reasonably easy to extract from Earth. Otherwise, why are we drilling in 5,000 feet of water through another 13,000 feet of rock in the Gulf of Mexico? Why are we contemplating drilling in the Arctic Ocean or in 2 miles of water off the coast of Brazil?

It turns out the availability of fossil fuels wasn’t the wall that put a limit on growth; climate change, global warming, climate disruption—whatever you want to call it—turned out to be the wall. There are enough fossil-fuel resources left on Earth for us to keep the economic engines that have powered 200 years of exponential growth going for another 100 or 200 years or so, but the climate isn’t going to let us do that.

… To live off the sun in real time, we’re going to have to do two things: We’re going to have to slow down, and we’re going to have to get a lot smarter. Slowing down will involve making the wrenching transition to an economic system that is not predicated on growth. I don’t know what that system looks like. In my mind, I have a notion of something I call a high-tech subsistence economy in which consumption is not the sine qua non of success.

And we’re obviously not going to make the transition to living off the sun in real time in a year or two or even a decade or two. It will require a transition period during which we still burn fossil fuels, but hopefully learn to burn them in a cleaner fashion. During which time we build more nuclear power plants to produce electricity. During which time we adapt to a changing, disrupted climate.

… What role will chemistry and the chemistry enterprise play in this? We don’t call it the “central science” without good reason, and in this world of a changing, disrupted climate and an evolving economic system, chemistry will take on an even more important role than it has in today’s society and economy.

… Another chemical concept that will be key to our future is “atom economy,” a concept originally developed by Stanford University chemistry professor Barry M. Trost in a seminal paper in Science (1991, 254, 1471). Certainly the atom economy of chemical reactions is key, but I’m talking about atom economy more broadly defined, not just in chemical reactions but in the life-cycle analysis of all products. Where do the atoms that go into a product come from, and where do they go at the end of the life of the product? We’re going to have to get much, much better at accounting for and conserving all of those atoms if we are going to develop truly sustainable manufacturing processes.

… I’m not as pessimistic about humanity’s future as [James Howard] Kunstler is. Humans are amazingly adaptable and amazingly creative. But cheap energy in the form of fossil fuels burned without any concern for their impact on climate has allowed humans to be stupid in the way we’ve developed our civilization. It’s as simple as that. We have no choice but to get smarter. And we have to do it very quickly. I think it is up to scientists to lead this charge, and lead it in two ways. One is through research to mitigate the worst aspects of climate change and help humans adapt to the change that is inevitable. But at least as important, we must also be vocal advocates for changing the course we are on. Why? Because not enough people with the credibility of scientists have taken up this cause with the passion it deserves. We’re talking about the future of Earth. Because scientists know that this problem is real and serious and can explain that the arguments of those who deny that it is real and serious are specious.
(8 November 2010)

ALBA nations declare: Nature has no price

Climate and Capitalism

Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela declare: “Nature is our home and is the system of which we form a part, and therefore it has infinite value, but it does not have a price and is not for sale.”

Ministers, Authorities of the Ministerial Committee for the Defense of Nature of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, Republic of Cuba, Republic of Ecuador, Republic of Nicaragua, Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, members of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas – Treaty of Commerce of the People (ALBA-TCP), gathered in the city of La Paz in the Plurinational State of Bolivia, from November 3rd to 5th, 2010.

Considering that:

1. There is within the United Nations is a push to promote the concept of a “green economy” or a “Global Green New Deal”[1] in order to extend capitalism in the economic, social and environmental arenas, in which nature is seen as “capital” for producing tradable environmental goods and services that should then be valued in monetary terms and assigned a price so that they can be commercialized with the purpose of obtaining profits.

2. Studies are being carried out and manipulated, such as the Stern Report on the Economics of Climate Change and the study on the Economy of Ecosystems and Biodiversity,[2] among others, in order to promote the privatization and the mercantilization of nature through the development of markets for environmental services, among other instruments.

3. Those who promote this new form of privatization and mercantilization of nature wish to develop a new kind of property rights which are not exercised over a natural resource in itself, but rather, over the functions offered by particular ecosystems, thus opening up the possibility of commercializing them in the market through certificates, bonds, credits, etc.

4. Under this capitalist conception that seeks only to guarantee benefit for those few who wield economic power: water should be privatized and distributed only to those that can afford to pay for it, forests are only good for capturing emissions and for selling on the carbon market that allows rich countries to avoid reducing emissions within their own territories, and genetic resources must be appropriated and patented for the enjoyment of those who possess modern technology.

Recognizing that:

The right to safe drinking water and sanitation is a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life, which has been endorsed by the United Nations and can only be guaranteed through the recognition and defense of the rights of Mother Earth.

Convinced that:

States are responsible for guaranteeing the sovereignty of the peoples over their natural patrimony and natural resources.

We declare:

1. That nature is our home and is the system of which we form a part, and that therefore it has infinite value, but does not have a price and is not for sale.

2. Our commitment to preventing capitalism from continuing to expand in the spheres that are essential to life and nature, being that this is one of the greatest challenges confronting humanity.

3. Our absolute rejection of the privatization, monetization and mercantilization of nature, for it leads to a greater imbalance in the environment and goes against our ethical principles.

4. Our condemnation of unsustainable models of economic growth that are created at the expense of our resources and the sovereignty of our peoples.

5. Only a humanity that is conscious of its present and future responsibilities, and states with the political will to carry out their role, can change the course of history and restore equilibrium in nature and life as a whole.

6. That instead of promoting the privatization of goods and services that come from nature, it is essential to recognize that these have a collective character, and, as such, should be conserved as public goods, respecting the sovereignty of states.

7. It is not the invisible hand of the market that will allow for the recuperation of equilibrium on Mother Earth. Only with the conscious intervention of state and society through policies, public regulations, and the strengthening of public services can the equilibrium of nature be restored.

8. Cancun cannot be another Copenhagen; we hope that accords will be reached in which developed countries truly act according to the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, and effectively assume their obligation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, without making climate change into a business through the promotion and creation of carbon market mechanisms.

9. That, committed to life, the countries present at this meeting agree to include in our permanent agenda, among other actions, the realization of a referendum on climate change and the promotion of the participation of the peoples of the world.

10. That it is urgent to adopt at the United Nations a Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth.


[1] Global Green New Deal, 2009

[2] The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity


(15 November 2010)
Spanish version at original. -BA