Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Limits to Growth, Planetary Boundaries and Planetary Health: history and future

This is a background paper for a workshop held at the University of Sydney on December 13, 2017, in conjunction with the launch of a platform about planetary health. My slides are here.

Planetary health has been described as the amalgamation of the health of human civilisation and its underpinning natural systems. There is wide agreement among natural scientists that the current modification of nature is unprecedented, judged by biodiversity depletion, easily accessible fossil fuel, nitrogen in soil and water, and the level of atmospheric greenhouse gases, indicators which, are key “planetary boundaries”.(1) At the same time the number and average life expectancy of humans (and the numbers of the tiny range of animal and plants which humans eat) has never been higher.

Civilisation, in fact, may be likened to an enormous nature-transforming machine, with a seemingly unstoppable trajectory. But is there a limit? If so is it near?

Almost 2,000 years ago Tertullian lamented how the Mediterranean world was becoming full.(2) 219 years ago, another Christian, Malthus, published his analysis of the “principle of population”,(3) arguing, essentially, that humans would fill whatever ecological niche was available to them, limited by their capacity to grow food. Malthus informed Darwin and Wallace’s theory of evolution,(4) but revealed ignorance of at least one exception to his principle, that of Indigenous Australians, who appear, on the whole, at that time, to have lived within their “eco-social” limits for millennia, thanks mainly to the preventive check of child spacing rather than the “malignant” checks of periodic famine, epidemic, or genocide.(5)

In the 1960s, when global human population growth peaked as a percentage, before the success of the Green Revolution (which greatly increased crop yields due to new crop strains and the use of fossil fuel-dependent fertilisers, pesticides and irrigation) was fully appreciated, concern grew that parts of the world were destined for what some called “Malthusian” traps, as regional human carrying capacity(6) was exceeded, including in parts of sub-Saharan Africa.(7) About then, the Club of Rome commissioned a computerised study to try to dynamically and quantitatively model the human future until 2100.

This study, called the Limits to Growth, became an unexpected best seller, but was intensely criticised by an emerging generation of “neoliberal” economists. The Limits to Growth found that the supply of natural resources, obviously essential for well-being, would become scarce by 2100 under all but the most optimistic scenario, in which human population growth was slowed. Critics dismissed this core assumption, arguing that even if scarcity did occur, market forces would evolve substitutes.

By 2000, the Limits to Growth was almost forgotten, considered by many experts to have been discredited as civilisation still persisted at that time. Among these critics was the 2003 Global Environmental Outlook 3, the flagship report of the United Nations Environment Programme, which incorrectly claimed that Limits to Growth predicted world collapse by 2000.(8)

In contrast, The Limits to Growth concluded that collapse, were it to occur, would be well after 2000. In the “standard run” (see figure) collapse commences by 2050, though this may be postponed by more “enlightened” policies, even if introduced late. Under all of its range of assumptions the study concluded that global food supplies would keep pace with population growth for at least several decades into the new millennium.(8, 9)

Figure The standard run of the Limits to growth finds that human population size declines in the 21st century. If so, this implies a phenomenon of “peak health”(10), likened to peak oil. After Turner.(11) Figure forthcoming.(12)
Although the long version of the early Planetary Boundaries study(13) acknowledges a debt to the Limits to Growth,(14) the Planetary Boundaries work only hints at the effects on health, well-being and civilisation, should too many boundaries be transgressed. Perhaps its authors (of whom few if any would be recognised as leading social scientists) wisely sought to leave such considerations to other writers, aware of the furore encountered by the authors of the Limits to Growth and other bearers of bad news, from Malthus to the Ehrlichs(15) and Lester Brown.(16)

Planetary Health literature draws extensively on the Planetary Boundaries framework, but seems to shy away from mentioning the Limits to Growth.(14) Nonetheless Planetary Health courageously extends Planetary Boundaries towards a domain where controversy and perhaps vilification await, fates experienced by other health writers who have attempted to sound the alarm.(17)

Malthusian checks in 2017 and the role of inequality in shaping Our Common Future

Optimists contend that market forces and ingenuity will continue to long outwit limits, even as famines have returned to parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Yemen,(18) and as awareness and apprehension of the enormous scale of future refugee numbers increase, including by the military.(19) The suffering of 600,000 Rohingya, driven from Myanmar in 2017, is but one recent example, a flight not driven by climate change, but other aspects of Limits to Growth, including limited tolerance and co-operation.(12)

It is important to recognise that policies and views are shaped by those with the greatest military and economic power, whose influence permeates the scientific literature and academic appointments. Civilisation remains extremely unequal, with a global Gini co-efficient (a widely used measure of inequality) which far exceeds the most unequal individual nation.(20) This inequality is mentioned in planetary health scholarship but is probably generally interpreted as a call for greater health justice. This call is valid, but in my view, there is insufficient appreciation, including within planetary health writing, that the extent of inequality helps propel civilisation towards a brink, essentially because elites feel disconnected from the masses, and immune to whatever perils lie ahead.(21, 22)

The release of the Paradise Papers(23) shows, again, the scale of legal tax evasion which results from and fuels global inequality.(24) Prestigious companies and at least one anti-poverty campaigner, Bono, have been revealed as participating in this. It is as if powerful individuals and companies distrust society, thinking their personal control of resources will do more good. But such individualism is a recipe for collapse. We need a return to the idealism at the birth of the United Nations, born from sober judgement, following two World Wars,(22, 25, 26) and we need more courage in academic and political spheres.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Dr Graham Turner for providing the data in the figure, Dr Devin Bowles and Professors Andy Morse and Jouni Jaakkola for helpful comments


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