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.


End of Part 11

Is Humanity Inherently Unsustainable? Pt 10/13: Myth of perpetual economic growth in a finite world

No 27, Posted by fw, June 19, 2010

In Pt 9, Rees produced evidence of human over-exploitation of the world’s fishery, leading to the collapse of the cod industry. And his graph showing how much each species eats revealed that gluttonous humans are eating a couple of hundred times more stuff than species at the 95th percentile. Pt 9 concludes with Rees introduction of the concept and power of myth.

In Pt 10, below, Rees looks at some examples of the myth of perpetual economic growth and its potential horrific consequences. The transcribed excerpts that follow are from Part 6 of the You Tube video, which you can watch by going to the end of this post, or by going to You Tube at UBC Ecologist Bill Rees Part 6.

Myth of perpetual economic growth on a finite planet

What GDP doesn't measure

“So here are a couple of examples or statements of the current increasingly global cultural myth. This is one that emerged with that explosion of the post-enlightenment industrial revolution in Europe and is now spreading around the world – it’s the perpetual growth myth. The myth of progress. The idea that you can have unlimited growth – economic material growth – on a finite planet.”

‘There are no limits’ Lawrence Summers (1991)

“Lawrence Summers said: ‘There are no limits to the carrying capacity of earth that are likely to bind any time in the foreseeable future . . . . The idea that we should put limits on growth because of some natural limit is a profound error [with] staggering social costs.’

“Summers was the president of The World Bank when he made this statement in the early 1990s. Does anyone know his current position? That’s right. He is President Obama’s chief economic advisor. He is the chair of the US president’s Council of Economic Advisors.”

“Now it has staggering social costs because we use growth as the means by which to solve the problem of poverty. If we can grow sufficiently so that even the thinnest slice of the pies is large enough to keep people going, then they won’t bug us to share.”

So growth becomes a means by which we can avoid the question of more equitable distribution of the world’s biological and economic output.

‘Technology exists to produce inexhaustible quantities’ Julian Simon (1995)

“And just to show that he’s not alone, a couple of years later – and today, you know, still one of the most frequently quoted individuals is the late professor Julian Simon from Maryland University, the University of Maryland School of Business:

‘Technology exists now to produce in virtually inexhaustible quantities just about all the products made by nature. . . . We have in our hands now the technology to feed, clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next 7 billion years.’ “

“Now, again, not a modest statement. The point is these kinds of statements are repeated over and over again by people who believe in the progress myth and the myth of infinite growth.

‘Our economy demands we make consumption our way of life’  Victor Lebow (1955)

Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.’ Lebow

“This is a statement by a marketing expert in the mid-50s. In the post-war period there was a lot of idle factories and idle labour, returning soldiers who didn’t have enough to do and factories that had been making tanks and guns and ships. Let’s employ that capital in a productive way. In order to do that we had to bring people out of the conserver habit that they had gotten into. So that people who had gone through the depression, that had gone through the rationing, that had gone through the Second World War – they were getting used to living on very little. And by the way, they had never been happier. Suddenly, we’ve got a big problem. People aren’t working hard enough. There’s under-employed capital. So let’s organize to create a new social mythology explicitly on purpose to make people into consumers.

“This is one of the most prolific writers of the period. He was a marketing expert. And so began the history of the so-called consumer society. A deliberate social construction that gave birth to the modern advertising industry. And the compulsion that we now all seem to have to go to the store. The single most popular spare-time activity in North America is shopping at the mall – if you interview people in a certain age group. They were very successful in creating consumers of us all and this is now spreading around the world.”

“As consumption increases, because we now have an increasing number of billions of consumers, and population is still growing at about 1% per year, then the impact measured by the ecological footprint is population times per capita consumption, this is continually rising, it passes carrying capacity. That’s the Malthusian dilemma. We don’t notice because we can appropriate goods and services from all over the planet after we’ve used up all of our own. So we overshoot. And the question is: Is this decline going to be a planned, reasonable, slow soft landing or is it going to be a crash imposed by real limits when we hit the wall?”

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.


End of Part 10

Is Humanity Inherently Unsustainable? Pt 8/13: Oil triggers population explosion

No 25, Posted by fw, June 15, 2010

Continuing his talk on the impact of humans on the planet, in Pt 7, Dr William Rees explained how two biological tendencies that humans share with other species have pressed us up against the carrying capacity of our habitats. As we approach the upper limits of earth’s carrying capacity, the human population growth rate will be unsustainable and begin to decline.

Here in Pt 8, Rees traces the link between the explosive growth of human population during the past 150 years to the discovery and refining of oil. The corresponding industrial revolution was built on the over-exploitation of natural resources. Absent some form of growth control mechanism, Rees warns we are on a sure path to collapse. The following selected transcribed excerpts are drawn from Part 5 of the You Tube video, which you can watch by going to the end of this post, or view it on You Tube at UBC Ecologist Bill Rees Part 5

Oil + Population Explosion = Industrial Revolution = Resource Depletion = Collapse?

“Here’s the evidence. Notice this part of the curve and the levelling out [points to the steep rise of the curve]. This is the real growth of the human population when the cap of the carrying capacity has been removed.”

“For the longest period of time humans survived at carrying capacity. In fact we could draw this way, way back here. A flat line for 50,000 years, little ups and downs as civilizations or local communities rose and fell, but for the most part growth is not a persistent phenomenon in human population.”

Then we found oil. And oil gave us access to everything else: more food, more resources of every kind to create the infrastructure we needed to sustain more and more people and so more and more people came along. This explosion of human beings is unprecedented for any species and certainly unprecedented for human beings. It’s what we think of as normal. Look at the data. Only 8 generations of people have really experienced a consistent period of growth sufficient so that they would notice it really in their lifetimes.”

“Almost everything important about modern technology didn’t exist when I was born. Certainly not that camera, these computers, the projectors . . . Change is just inordinately fast today. It’s a unique period in history. It’s only been since the 1950s that any government of planet earth has taken growth to be an important part of its economic platform. Do you realize that? Only since the 1950s has economic growth been a part of any official government economic platform. It took us five or six generations to really figure out that we could use this.”

“So the point I’m really getting at here is that what each of us in this room takes to be the norm – of course growth is normal, we need 3 or 4 % just to keep the economy on its feet — is really the single most admirable phenomenon in the history of our species. Now again, there have been other cultures that have risen or fallen but the time dimensions are different and the scale is different. Up until – this is 3,000 years ago [pointing at the graph] — there were less than a million people on the entire planet. And it had been that way for thousands of years and continues to be that way for almost 2,000 more years before this incredible explosion in just the last 150 years.”

“In the 20th century we saw a four-fold increase in human numbers in just a hundred years alone. Completely unprecedented and remember that this will always flatten out [points to the peak of the curve] at some point and perhaps come down which is what we want to avoid. It’s inevitable. What goes up – even in population – must at some point come down.”

Canada's black hole of shame -- Alberta Tar Sands

“Now, just a couple of things. Some of you may yet be thinking, well, surely we don’t use all the resources  . . . There have actually been studies of the history of human resource exploitation. One of the more famous ones was undertaken by three of my colleagues at UBC in the 90s. This is a quote from an article in Science: ‘Although there’s considerable variation in detail, there’s remarkable consistency in the history of resource exploitation. Resources are inevitably over-exploited often to the point of collapse of extinction.’ ” (Source: Uncertainty resource exploitation and conservation Lessons from history)

There oughta be a law

“That is a fact of human resource exploitation. As our technology improves we will take the last one unless powerfully restrained by international regulation or some other form of federalism. You need a basis in law to inhibit what humans would otherwise do naturally.”

“So that’s the history.”

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.


End of Part 8