Summary: This page speculaties on the prospects for building a sustainable economy.
My Statement of Concern explains why I am not sanguine about the prospects for a sustainable economy. While I can identify trends toward Overshoot, I can also cite reasons that the economy might adapt. Certainly others express more optimism than I. I explain the sides of the issue with a brief explanation as I see it.
For many, optimism is the wellspring of the human spirit since the Enlightenment. Human reason will win out over the prior historical period, which will exhaust itself. Some factors and trends:
Human population growth has slowed and will continue to slow. The Demographic Transition means that as the global middle class expands, the number of births per woman decreases. Thus, economic growth will slow down population growth, a positive sum game.
Technological advances improve and will accelerate. An example is the response to energy prices from the expansion of fracking. The expansion of energy conservation techniques and shift to less polluting technology has always led to progress, despite the temporary dislocations.
Such scourges as poverty and hunger are down and will continue to decrease. The progress toward the achievement of the U.N. Millineum Goals have been successful, if even partial and uneven.
The widespread public awareness and acknowledgement of large-scale problems such as AIDS in Africa and climate change evoke remedial actions, if not public policy --- yet. Althouth uneven in rate of change, the change is unstoppable. The greater and more intractable the dilemma, the more philanthropy, government, and science will focus on these problems and solve them.
Markets quickly adapt to shortages with the production of alternatives and substitutes. Energy sources will shift as shortages lead to price spikes.
The wellspring of innovation inherent within capitalism will undermine the dysfunctional aspects and promote solutions that will offer superior economic periods. Capital formation will follow innovation with results hard to anticipate or to imagine.
As incomes rise, so does the demand for environmental protection. The elicits conservation and punishes companies that pollute. The problem of growth-induced pollution is thus self-correcting.
Globalization improves means of communications that enriches the lives of all, opens up democracy and transparency, and spreads innovation around the globe. A prime example is the rapid spread of the World Wide Web. (Consider the impact of the web. Ask where it came from. Who owns it? What are network effects? How does Google or Facebook make money?)
While globalization interconnects nations and regions, much evidence suggests that an invigorating counter-trend toward localization has also taken root. While the USA shows little appetite for national public policy to alleviate climate change, cities take action and provide leadership.
The emergence of civil society into a catalyst of global and local change has provided a new sector to societies and cultures around the world. Civil society fills niches not capably implemented by government and outside the realim of money and profit.
The status of women, while still unacceptable, is improving unevenly. Diversity, basic to ecology and to sustainability, needs to be nurtured. Women may well provide the leadership potential for sustainability. Girl power!
The field of sustainability science has emerged, potentially liberating the project of science from clients who thwart free exchange. This movement facilitates the enormous potential of the scientific community to engage in research and action to promote sustainability as opposed to economic masters who hire scientists for commercial activity, a mixed bag.
The Commons is now on the agenda of civil society organization. Defense of global common property from the encroachment of commodification offers hope that the Commons will be defended from predation.
The conditions that will intensify the global crisis defined here stress the rapacious character of economic growth rather than human population increase. These trends intertwine, of course.
Humans have exceeded the carrying capacity of Earth, resulting in deterioration of ecosystems and resource depletion. The condition of Overshoot will result in civilizational collapse with horrific consequences. This is the core argument of the pessimists (including me).
The atmosphere of the Earth has risen rapidly, a grave form of Overshoot, climate change. While widely documented, the trend, driven by human emissions into the atmosphere continues unabated despite widespread agreement on means if not consequences. A propoganda effort to deny the veracity of the climate science intensifies, espcially in the USA.
While population grows more slowly, the base of seven billion inhabitants itself threatens sustainability. The prospect of human population rising to ten billion by the middle of the 21st century is naively optimistic.
The magnitude and character of the economic growth experienced since World War II has been rapacious and destructive. As resources become more scarce, prices surge, and methods used to obtain the resources become even more destructive.
The systemic imperative for economic growth has such overwhelming institutional momentum that economic growth cannot be restrained despite rhetoric to the contrary. The growth consensus has the backing of public policy all over the world. Entrenched economic interests, particularly, global-level corporations will thwart all efforts to restrain growth.
The extant mode of economic and political decision making involves short-term goals and considerations. Thus, what some call "short-termism" fails to consider an adequate horizon, neglecting consequences that unfold in space and time.
The Bretton Woods trio promotes growth regimes at the global level: the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO will continue to engender growth through the ideology of neoliberalism. Some backlash to, say, austerity, will push back but the growth imperative will continue to be orchestrated with marginal adaptation. This complex and dynamic forms the dialectic of sustainability on a global scale.
The vast and growing inequality of income, wealth, and power among human populations, nations, and regions increases with economic globalization. This trend, too, has been widely acknowledged but accelerates. The schism makes national policies and international agreements harder to achieve.
Humans get in the way of economic growth and must be removed, even forcibly. This process, called dispossession, has played out through history, especially since the origins of capitalism and industrialism. Dispossession and resource wars, often thinly veiled, will not stop but will be resisted and at times tempered. Eventually, Africa and Alaska will be mined for resources as those resources become scarcer and remain essential to fuel economic expansion. The human toll will continue to be horrific, but now those stories are likely to be told.
Impressive increases in agricultural yields, particularly in grains, has fed an expanding human population. However, the improvement of methods and technologies may experience diminshing marginal returns and exhaust soil productivity. Thus, the Malthusian trap of human population outpacing food cannot be ignored.
© Wayne Hayes, Ph.D. | ProfWork | email@example.com
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