Is Humanity Inherently Unsustainable? Pt 11/13: Myth shattered — Economic growth does NOT reduce world poverty

No 28, Posted by fw, June 21, 2010

In Pt 10 Rees offered some examples of the cultural myth of perpetual growth and its horrific consequences.

In Pt 11, below, he says the really inconvenient truth is that if the developing world is to have its fair share of the earth’s finite resources, those of us in the developed world must drastically reduce our consumption. The transcribed excerpts that follow are from Parts 6 and 7 of the You Tube video. Watch Part 7 by going to the end of this post, or watch Parts 6 and 7 on You Tube at UBC Ecologist Bill Rees Part 6 and UBC Ecologist Bill Rees Part 7.

The rich get richer and the poor get shafted

Consumption inequality

“The problem – the other side of the problem — I keep going back and forth between the cultural, economic and the biological – these are the latest numbers I could get my hands on from The World Bank on the distribution of income on planet Earth today. Now keep in mind that when the growth dynamic got under way, really about 50 years ago and became the primary means by which to obliviate poverty, you would think that we would pay attention to the impact of that growth on poverty. But what we see here is that as of right now 20% of the world’s population are the wealthiest on earth. And by the way, everyone in this room is in that category. We use about 76.6% — we get that much of the world’s income – actually consume about 80% of world output.”

The poorest 20% of people on earth get by on 1.5% of global output. And those ratios are worsening. The question is, if you are an intelligent species, if growth is being designed as a means of reducing poverty, why is it that we can go for 30 years in an experiment and not pay attention to the fact that it’s not solving the problem that we set out to do?

“So the share of the private consumption by the poor is in decline. Most world growth goes to the rich who don’t even benefit from it.”

If all earth’s people consumed like North Americans, we’d need four more earths

“Why is this problematic? Because if we’re already at carrying capacity – we’re actually about 20% over carrying capacity – and it’s 20% of the world’s people who use 80% of everything – that right away shows you that we’ve got a problem. If everyone on the planet today consumed at the level of North America, we’d need the equivalent of four additional earth-like planets to produce all those resources and to assimilate all of those wastes.”

“Now if you don’t believe that, just think about it in terms of two nations. The Unites States has 4.7% of the world’s population. It uses between 20 and 25% of everything – about 22 or 23% of petroleum for example. China has over four times the U.S. population. If China achieves its goal of the same material standard as is now enjoyed by Americans, U.S. plus China is 125% of the entire global economic and biological output. And you haven’t even begun to count countries Canada, Europe, India, Africa and so on and so forth.”

The really inconvenient truth

Industrialized world reductions in material consumption, energy use, and environmental degradation of over 90% will be required by 2040 to meet the needs of a growing world population fairly within the planet’s ecological means. Source: Business Council for Sustainable Development (BCSD) 1993, ‘Getting Eco-Efficient’ “

For sustainability with equity, North Americans should be taking steps to reduce their ecological footprints by 80% from about 9 global hectares per capita (gha) to their equitable Earth-share (1.8 gha). That is:

We should be designing a smaller, equitable ‘steady-state’ economy that maintains itself within the means of nature.’ “

“So the really inconvenient truth, which we do not wish to discuss, and certainly is not on any political platform to date, are these ones. This is actually a statement from The World Business Council on Sustainable Development, or at least the output of a workshop they held in the early 90s in Antwerp Belgium, looking at the data on material resource trends, pollution around the Earth, matching this against productive and carrying capacity – that workshop concluded that in the industrial world reductions of up to 90% would be required by the middle of this century in order to enable necessary growth to occur in the Third World and to keep the whole within the carrying capacity of the planet.

Contraction and Convergence

“So this is now a version of what we call contraction and convergence. We in the rich countries have got to slow down, in fact reduce our consumption, to create the ecological space necessary for those who deserve to grow, so that they can come up to a decent standard. Keep in mind there’s now officially a billion people on earth who are calorically malnourished, another two billion who are deficient in some dietary standard or other.”

Malthusian catastrophe

“We don’t notice because we’ve always had plenty in this resource-rich part of the planet but the fact is that half the people on earth are still living the Malthusian dilemmaWe should be deigning a smaller, equitable steady-state economy that maintains itself within carrying capacity. This is not difficult. The concepts are easy. The getting there is the difficult part because of the conflictive nature of the human animal.”

“Now many people are horrified at the thought that we would have to shrink. But there’s plenty of evidence to show that this shouldn’t be a problem if we really were an intelligent species.”

March 7, 2011 UPDATE: I have recently discovered that a full transcript and mp3 audio recording of Rees’ lecture is available on The Radio Ecoshock ShowClick here to access these free downloads.

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End of Part 11