We are no longer golden.
Intuitively we know that we can’t have limitless growth on a limited sized planet; and, if we don’t limit our growth, the planet will limit it for us – in a way that will not be pleasant. Destructive storms, flooding, forest fires etc. are indicators that we are pushing the boundaries. Eventually the economy will spiral downwards as we spend a larger portion of the economy dealing with catastrophes.
Another intuitive notion is that if you have a fixed-sized pie and you let some people gobble up most of that pie, there will be little or no pie for anyone else. As the rich get richer, the poor get poorer. If you allow people to take as much as they want on a fixed-sized planet, then you have to have some way of redistributing wealth.
The third notion is not intuitive. It’s based on empirical data. It has to do with population growth. Presently the world population is growing at an exponential rate. Putting aside wars and catastrophic events, two main factors have been shown to reduce population growth. They are: when people are better off and when women are better educated.
A fourth notion that should be obvious is that continuous growth is not the road to happiness and GDP is not its measure. GDP measures economic activity. In a poverty stricken community, there is a direct correlation between GDP and well being up to a certain income level. After that, the correlation between the two falls apart. As an example, increased traffic, smog etc. are associated with one but not the other.
A few takeaways from the above:
• Widespread education and the elimination of poverty and inequality are prerequisites to the survival of the planet.
• Addressing the above requires some form of redistribution of wealth. Trickle down economics would only work on a limitless planet. On a limited one like ours, we can’t afford to allow a few to gobble up most of the pie.
• We should be questioning the impact of continuous growth models on well being – such as questioning the policy of continuous construction for the purposes of increasing a municipal tax base rather than for the purpose of creating a better place to live.
Technology is not going to save our bacon. It will just buy us more time. We should be going green using green technologies as quickly as possible but going green will only buy us time in one area. There are other areas where we are degrading/depleting/polluting our planet beyond sustainability limits.
Not everyone was blissfully ignorant in 1972. The Club of Rome commissioned MIT to build a computer model of the world and try multiple scenarios. The model was updated in 1992 and again in 2002. The associated book was called “Limits to Growth”. In 2022 another book called “Earth for All” was written. The original 1972 models turned out to be accurate. They showed that by the year 1990, we had already surpassed some of the earths sustainability limits. “Earth for All” is the 50-year update but it takes a different approach. It’s more of a how-to guide on how to get ourselves out of the sink-hole we have managed to get ourselves into. Instead of modelling all of the scenarios that were in “Limits to Growth”, it looks at two scenarios “Too Little Too Late” (basically the business as usual scenario) and a scenario where we do all the right things. It follows four imaginary girls through the two scenarios as they grow up. One is in Los Angeles, one in Bangladesh, one in China and one in Nigeria. The “Too Little Too Late” (business as usual) model is not a pretty picture.
Maybe there never was a Golden Age – just blissful ignorance. Many of us were vaguely aware of the Club of Rome sustainability models in 1972 but few of us paid any attention to the results. Fifty years later we are still only vaguely familiar with the Club of Rome but we are no longer blissful and we are no longer ignorant. We are merely complacent. However, maybe we wouldn’t be if we took the time to have a closer look at what some people were trying to tell us 50 years ago.