Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Calamity or sustainability: the choice is ours

The world population is expected to hit 9.2 billion by 2050, according to the UN's World Population Prospects report. That's up 2.5 billion over the next 43 years. The report puts this figure in context thus:
This increase is equivalent to the overall number of people in the world in 1950 and it will be absorbed mostly by the less developed regions, whose population is projected to rise from 5.4 billion in 2007 to 7.9 billion in 2050.
Yet consider that the fundamentals of our market system, and the economics that underpin it, stem from before 1950, when 'natural' factors were abstracted away as immutable constants, and not considered as non-renewable resources.

There are already overwhelming signs that the world population is at its limits, not only in terms of sheer numbers, but also the level of resource consumption per individual. As Asia rises (again) and demands the standard of living the West has kept to itself for the past two centuries,
non-renewable resources will only be further stretched.

And even ignoring for a moment energy and food, one of the biggest issues the world faces is fresh water. Just about region in the world is suffering from some level of water shortages, and wealthy nations are not immune. And without water, not only do you get famine, but you also get war.

This is not just all idle speculation and environmental rhetoric, it's the words of Professor Jeffery Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute, and world renowned economist and advisor to the likes of United Nations Secretaries-General Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon and presidents and prime minsters around the world.

I had the privilege of attending a lecture by Sachs last night at the launch of Sydney University's Institute for Sustainable Development. Sachs spoke with his trademark passion about the crisis facing the world in terms of environment, climate change, population growth, resource consumption and the impact of the rise of China and India on the world economy. Simply put, our course at the moment, if left unchecked, is driving us towards the cliff.

While previous generations had their own watershed challenges - depression, world wars, the spectre of nuclear holocaust, just to name those from the 20th century - ours will be to find a way of living sustainably and peacefully through the 21st century. This is in the face of market forces that are - not by design but by principle - opposed to any measures that might curb growth.

Consider this chart of world wealth over the past 2,000 years. The different colours represent the wealth of various regions, but the overall trend is what is most important. Come the industrial revolution in the mid-19th century, and wealth skyrockets, particularly in Europe and the United States. We can thank two main things for this growth: 1) is readily available energy; 2) is capitalism and market economics.

There can be no question that market economics along with increased trade between nations is the lubricant that has enabled other innovations and technologies to flourish and wealth to grow.

However, as I suggested at at the beginning of this post, the very strength of market economics is its ability to steer itself towards the most productive ends, yet that could be our greatest problem. This system only works if there are no hard bounds to growth. Even if there are a few hard bounds, as long as there it at least one unlimited resource that itself is not dependent on finite resources, then it can continue to grow. Thus we've seen innovation and technology push growth to levels beyond what was thought possible even in the 1970s. But the sad fact is, there aren't any infinite resources that are not themselves bound by other factors. Not a one. Even technology is finite, as it's dependent on humans themselves, and human require an environment to live in, air to breathe and water to drink.

My biggest concern with developing a sustainable world is how to ween us from unchecked market economics without scuttling the market entirely. As Sachs said in his lecture "have no nostalgia for pre-industrial times." We certainly don't want to wind back the clock of health, information technology, food production, science or social liberalisation if we can help it. But how to create a new economics that is not dogmatically driven by the pursuit of short term growth?

The good news is, I think it can be done. People like David Suzuki have been harping on for years about the need to quantify environmental and relatively insubstantial factors so we can incorporate them in our economic thinking. For example, if we place a price on carbon emissions, then the market - instead of being the enemy - can be the most powerful weapon in our arsenal to combat carbon emissions. Hence: carbon trading.

This is no easy feat, however. It requires enlightened long term vision by politicians, and by the people who elect them. And it's notoriously difficult to encourage people to make a short term sacrifice for a long term gain. In psychology, it's called discounting.

But it's also immensely significant that economists - like Sachs and the editor of The Economist, John Micklethwait, who I saw speak a couple of weeks ago - are speaking so passionately about the environment. They are not individuals who necessarily place an intrinsic value on the environment for its own sake, as do many environmentalists. They place a value on the environment for our sake. This move does not diminish the environment, but it enhances it for millions of people in the world who don't share the sentiments of environmentalists. In fact, while I have deep respect for environmentalists, I believe it will be the pragmatic approach of economists who will actually motivate the world to change its behaviour and steer towards sustainability, not so-called 'treehuggers'.

However, making things all the more difficult are external forces of ignorance and dogma that only serve to drive the world closer to the cliff. Take Sydney's Catholic Cardinal George Pell and his recent appeal for the West to increase its population. As mentioned at the opening of this post, population is already reaching calamitous levels, and things are only going to get worse. What the world needs is not more people, but less. Add to this the Catholic Church's abominable policy against family planning and contraception, particularly in Africa - which as you can see by the fertility map at the top of this post, is undergoing dramatically unsustainable population growth, coloured in red - is causing untold misery for millions of people. Enlightened?...

Sachs made mention of Pell in his lecture too, suggesting in his characteristic droll manner that he "remains unconvinced" of this strategy of increasing population.

And on a closing note, in light of World Youth Day happening right here in Sydney at the moment, the Catholic Church is exactly what the world doesn't need. Besides its half-hearted (and philosophically dubious) attempts to update its Seven Sins to be relevent to the modern world, its dogmatic approach to the world is the way of the past, not of the future.

Any ideology that seeks to improve the lot of humanity in the future needs to go beyond religious singlemindedness and embrace empiricism along with reason and a moral code that is in accordance with the natural world, rather than being based on the supernatural.

Any ideology based on the supernatural will inevitably draw a line at some point of reasoning at some arbitrary point and appeal to faith. For example: contraception. The question of whether contraception is good or bad is a complex one, and requires us to explore the evidence for the harm or good it serves to humanity. Yet the Vatican doesn't care about the evidence for harm and care, it only cares about its interpretation of its religious texts - written many centuries ago in a very different world. This cannot be the way we seek answers.

In fact, some say you can't have morality without religion. I disagree. I think you can't have a complete moral system with religion. And right now, humanity has to develop a moral and ethical system that will help us find the right values that will enable us to survive this watershed moment in history - this quest to find a sustainable way to live.

Sachs finished his lecture on an optimistic note by referring to John F. Kennedy's Peace Speech, given only months after the Cuban Missile Crisis - and a catalyst for the first nuclear weapons treaty between the US and the USSR. In this speech he says we should certainly acknowledge our differences, but far more important are our commonalities. And we all want to live in a peaceful world, a sustainable world, a world we can pass on to our children knowing they can find happiness for themselves and their children.

Here is a passage from the speech that might just as well be about our great challenge as it was about finding peace in the age of nuclear war:
Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many of us think it is unreal. But that is dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable - - that mankind is doomed - - that we are gripped by forces we cannot control.

We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade - - therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man's reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable - - and we believe they can do it again.

We are living through history right now. And we may be seeing a turning point for the world, starting in 2008. New leadership in Australia and the United States could be the start of a shift from 20th century thinking into 21st. There are still many pieces of the puzzle missing, but the beginning of the solution may be coming into focus. We just need to maintain our commitment and not be distracted in our quest to make this a sustainable and peaceful world.


At 6:12 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well written mate. THanks for writing it. Sally


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