This clear and cogent book is an important wake-up call. It should not need saying that it is impossible for human populations and economies to grow without limit on a finite planet, but that delusion is widespread. This book is a reminder of the inconvenient truth that should be informing our leaders, as well as an excellent analysis of the way public understanding of our global predicament has been systematically subverted for decades by powerful vested interests.
More than forty years ago, the Club of Rome published its first report, The Limits to Growth (1972). Subtitled ‘a report for the Club of Rome’s project on the predicament of mankind’, it caused a storm by using computer models to show that there were limits to the growth of population, resource use, agricultural production, manufacturing, and pollution. The cover of my battered paperback edition says that ‘even under the most optimistic assumptions about advances in technology, the world cannot support present rates of economic and population growth for more than a few decades’. The report went on to argue that the existing trends were not inevitable: ‘It is possible to alter these growth trends and to establish a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future’ with the possibility that this redesigned future could meet every person’s basic needs and give every person the opportunity to realise their potential.
In an ideal world, leaders might have been expected to embrace the report with enthusiasm and gratitude, delighted to be shown a way to avoid serious problems and smooth the path to a sustainable future. Instead, the report was vigorously attacked by economists and politicians, many of them clearly offended by the very idea of limits. The attacks usually took the form of portraying the report in dishonestly simplified terms, claiming that it said we would run out of resources by 1990 or be choked by pollution, then appealing to our faith in human ingenuity or market forces to avoid this particular problem. It was an approach described by Alan Coddington as ‘cheer-mongering’: portray the problem in simplified terms, make the obvious observation that the real world is more complicated, then express a cheerful optimism that the more complex situation will always yield to the combination of market forces and human ingenuity. It works, Coddington argued, because it tells people what they want to hear: don’t listen to the alarmists; human ingenuity and the market have made us more comfortable, so you can rest assured they will continue to work their magic.
‘It should not need saying that it is impossible for human populations and economies to grow without limit on a finite planet, but that delusion is widespread.’
More generally, as this book reminds us, economists argued that economic growth had been the key to improving material living standards, so the only hope of lifting the world’s poor out of their desperate living conditions was further growth. The implication was that continuing growth would eventually allow the poorest peasants in the world to live a life of middle-class comfort. Those making that claim ignored the scale of resource use (and consequent waste production) necessary for that future utopian world. Any critics who questioned the claim were portrayed as heartless people, content to allow widespread poverty to continue.
Higgs shows the two fundamental problems with that argument. The neo-liberal economic agenda, adopted enthusiastically by governments in English-speaking countries, has not benefited the poor but has dramatically widened inequality, within and between nations. Secondly, the limits shown forty years ago are now becoming apparent. The book draws on recent studies by CSIRO scientist Graham Turner, as well as systems ecologists Charles Hall and John Day. Their work shows that the pattern of human development since 1970 has been following the ‘standard run’ in The Limits to Growth, the path which leads to what that report called ‘a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity’.
As Higgs notes, the pie has grown, but its growth has ‘utterly failed to yield sufficiently large slices to afford everyone even modest security’. Prosperity is ‘concentrated among a privileged minority’, while more than half of the world’s people remain desperately insecure. At the same time, it has become increasingly clear that total human consumption is straining the capacity of natural systems.
Climate change is an obvious symptom of the problem, with the science showing that future generations will pay a very heavy price for our profligate use of fossil fuels. But it is not the only problem, and arguably not even the most serious problem. In principle, the damage we are doing to the climate system could be repaired within a few hundred years. If we were to move decisively to reduce our energy use and obtain our supply from the renewable sources like wind and solar, we could stabilise the climate this century and then set about restoring it to something like the average over the last 10,000 years. That is physically possible, if politically challenging.
‘Future generations will pay a very heavy price for our profligate use of fossil fuels’
On the other hand, the loss of the Earth’s biological diversity is permanent; extinct species do not return. As I was preparing this review, the WWF (in partnership with the Zoological Society of London, Global Footprint Network and Water Footprint Network) released the Living Planet Report 2014. It reviewed the populations of some 10,000 vertebrate species: mammals, reptiles, fish, birds, and amphibians. On average, those populations have declined by more than fifty per cent since 1970. That current rate of species loss is comparable with those during the five previous great extinction episodes of the planet’s history. The Millennium Assessment projected that we could lose up to a third of all mammal, bird, and amphibian species this century, if present trends continue. We know what is causing the decline of populations and the loss of species: habitat destruction, introduced species, chemical pollution, and climate change. All of those forces are driven by increasing human population numbers and increasing consumption. The Living Planet Report estimated that we are now using 150 per cent of the sustainable productivity of natural systems. While there might be an economic case for deficit budgets in the short term, especially if the borrowing is used to invest in ways that allow future prosperity, there is absolutely no ecological case for the current approach of running down our natural capital.
Higgs argues convincingly that the pursuit of economic growth is now a serious threat to our future. Unfortunately, the ideology of many leaders makes them incapable even of recognising the problem. The thought process of these people seems to be that they deeply believe governments should not impede private corporations from profitable activities, so if the science says that governments should intervene to slow climate change or protect threatened species or just keep the planet habitable, the science must be wrong and the scientists must be engaged in some sort of giant left-wing conspiracy to undermine civilisation. While the people of Australia are putting solar panels on their houses, cycling or using public transport, and organising community gardens, our national government has said the G20 meeting in Brisbane has to focus on economic growth. It would be easy to get depressed.