Citizen Action Monitor

Are our political leaders gambling with our future by expanding economic growth?

Tim Jackson says that when resource scarcities kick in on our finite planet, it will be too late for adjustments.

No 2024 Posted by fw, August 05, 2017

To recap, I am in the process of writing a series of synopses of every chapter, section by section, of the 2nd edition of Tim Jackson’s book, Prosperity Without Growth. (Routledge, 2016-17).

On July 31, I posted the synopsis of section 4, Chapter 1, which Jackson titled “The struggle for existence”. My title for that post is: Our legacy of concern about material limits dates to Malthus’ 1798 Essay on runaway population growth.

Tim Jackson

Jackson begins a long section 5 of Chapter 1, which he titles, “Betting on our future”, with a reference to his two closing sentences from section 4:

And yet the massive increases in resource use associated with a vastly expanded global economy might still have given a sanguine observer of limits pause for thought. How could such increases possibly continue?

How, indeed? In this post-industrial age, on a finite planet, for how much longer can exponential increases in consumption continue?

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Betting on our future: a synopsis, excerpted from Chapter 1 of Tim Jackson’s book, Prosperity Without GrowthRoutledge, 2nd edition, 2016-17

In 1969, a small team of experts gathered in Rome to address this very concern. MIT’s Jay Forester was a key player on this “Club of Rome” — he outlined a system dynamics model of resource dependency for a global economy.

In 1972, the Club published its report, Limits to Growth, which charted the exponential increases in consumption in a finite world, and defined a three-stage pattern of industrial development leading to population collapse:

1/ Economic growth drives up incomes and wealth, increasing consumption of global resources;

2/ The level of consumption exceeds the environment’s carrying capacity, causing a contraction; and

3/ The decline in humanity-supporting resources triggers a population collapse.

Collapse happens because the production process becomes unsustainable, and resource extraction falls.

The crucial point in this process, says Jackson, is that –

“…as resource quality declines, more and more resources have to be diverted away from production just in order to maintain the flow of resources needed for production. This dynamic not only creates a pressure on output, it also escalates pollution, damaging the resource base itself and threatening basic aspects of society such as food, nutrition and health.”

Limits to Growth was attacked for assorted reasons – the foregoing “crucial point” was misunderstood, scaremongering, scientific illiteracy, misunderstanding the nature of progress, and false allegations. Jackson notes that nowhere did the MIT team claim that resources were already running out or that collapse was imminent. The Limits’ team did suggest that changes would occur within a century – i.e., by 2073

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Having established that “Limits to Growth” made a valid case for us to be concerned about exponential increases in consumption, a case which still holds true today, Jackson turns his attention to resource scarcity.

Post 2003, a period of “significantly greater price volatility” appeared. Oil rose from $30 a barrel in 2003 to $147 a barrel in 2008, collapsed to $30 in 2016, and may now be on the rise again.

The reasons for price volatility are complex: supply bottlenecks; climate change concerns; fracking increase in the US contributes to an oil supply glut; attempts to drive down prices and force frackers out; and geopolitical tensions.

It’s significant to note that oil scarcity is not mentioned as a cause of price volatility, because commodity prices continue to be too volatile to offer reliable information about the Peak Oil controversy. Moreover, estimates of the arrival of a peak in oil production underestimate the potential rise in unconventional supplies – reserves in tar sands, oil shales, and seaboard and Arctic drilling.

Nevertheless, Jackson does maintain that “Through both peak and trough, the underlying physical resource base moved inexorably towards exhaustion. But the market was just too self-obsessed to measure this.”

Recent studies of resource production and supply indicate the world is currently headed very much in the direction indicated by Limits.

Jackson wraps up his analysis of resource scarcity declaring that two central aspects of Limits remain valid: 1) at some point the unrestrained extraction and use of material resources has to stop; and 2) when resource scarcities arrive, it will be too late to make the changes needed to transform resource dependency of the system and its institutional basis.

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Resource scarcity is a given. Also a given is the dynamic nature of scarcity. Which raises the question of how to manage it?

It’s “feedback loops” that create the scarcity management problem. Positive feedback loops lead either to rapid growth or rapid collapse of resource supplies. Negative feedback loops tend to establish the direction of change. Stability depends on the relative strength of these two.

It’s harder both to predict and to defend against shocks that arise from accumulating pressure on resources or on ecosystems. By the time the shocks arise, it is already too late to do much about them.

Jackson employs the analogy of a vehicle out of control to make his point. When a vehicle spins out of control, there is an inevitable lag between our perception of a problem on the road, or the slope ahead, and our response to it. The magnitude of this delay depends on a mix of factors, some behavioural, some environmental, and some technological.

It’s the time lag. And the problem inherent in systems with strong positive feedbacks is that change is not slow, so time to respond is short.

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Jackson concludes section 5, “Betting on our future”, with two key takeaways: 1) the faster we drive our economies, the more challenging it will be to respond when scarcities arise 2) our best chances for success lie in planning early, long before scarcity arrives.

“The question we should be asking right now is not whether scarcity is here already, but rather whether there is any prospect at all of it arriving in the foreseeable future. If there is, we should already be acting now. And some kinds of scarcity, it seems, are already upon us.”

But our leaders are not acting now are they? No, they are “gambling with our future.”

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