How far wrong have we gone as a ‘civilisation’? About 180 degrees.
Time for a turn-around strategy!
2.1 Less bad is not good enough
The default strategy during decades of persistent global problems has been incrementalism – planning for ‘less bad’. However, less bad has proven not to be good enough. For example, incremental planning to cut waste has produced net increases in waste and incremental planning to cut emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) has produced net increases in emissions. The consequent continuing global loss of resources and rise in GHG concentrations is removing the potential for future security. Incrementalism was plausible when gradual long-term problems seemed to require gradual long-term solutions. Unfortunately this didn’t solve any global issue. Today’s critical problems invite immediate switching to another strategy on an entirely new scale of ambition and effectiveness.
2.2 The Illusion of Progress
The urge to advance is so fundamental that there is a tendency to imagine progress and development even when it isn’t happening. The looming planet crunch reveals a civilisation that has lost its way, where self-interest is misdirected to make things worse for everyone rather than better. Is it still progress when a billion people go to sleep hungry? When ecosystems are exploited to the point of collapse? When debts outpace incomes? When nations seek peace and security behind walls of weapons? When accumulating waste gases re-approach the inhospitable atmosphere of the primordial past? The planet crunch is progress in reverse, with systematic losses of financial, societal and ecological stability that undermine any realistic prospect of security in any region. Civilisation can proceed only with a new understanding of what it means to develop.
2.3 Which Way for Growth?
Economic growth, the increase in income of nations, is the political icon of progress and development. Positive growth means more economic activity and growing tax revenues for government. However, the inventor of national income statistics, Simon Kuznets (1934) was the first to point out that growth was not designed to measure progress: “The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income…”. Growth provides no protection against running an economy that systematically removes the potential for future growth and progress. The innumerable consequences of the planet crunch are expensive to cause, mitigate and adapt to, and all that spending contributes to economic growth but not progress. If the economy is like a vehicle then growth displays the changing speed but says absolutely nothing about which way it’s going.
2.4 No Growth is No Answer
There are three possible strategies for future growth. The first is less-bad growth, funded by rising ecological and financial debt; ‘greener’, ‘cleaner’, ‘responsible’ adjustments to today’s activities. This is the default incremental strategy that is still promoted on the world stage despite its record of reinforcing rather than challenging conventional paradigms. The second strategy sees planetary destruction as the only possible outcome of continued growth; it sees the failures of markets but not their potential. It calls for the goal of economic growth to be abandoned and for markets to be constrained with centralised caps (or fixed limits) on resources and emissions (Jackson, 2009). However, growth ignores resources, emissions and destruction; it is interested solely in the added-up financial value of economic activity. Just as a bad diet cannot be corrected by limiting the grocery bill, no-growth limits on economic activity would do nothing to inspire the necessary flourishing of valuable new patterns of activity. A scarcity mentality is no answer to the world’s growing scarcities.
2.5 Aim to reverse not Reduce Problems
Any future for growth requires a third strategy. People are not inherently destructive and economic activity need not remain dependent on exploiting people, planet and the potential of the future. The economic vehicle need not remain stuck in reverse, making reverse progress. Janis Birkeland (2008) offers the third strategy option of ‘positive development’: “The view that negative impacts are an inevitable consequence of development has blinded us to the obvious. We could design development to increase the size, health and resilience of natural systems, while improving human health and life quality.” This strategy is applicable to every planet crunch issue. For example, international climate talks have pursued a less-bad strategy of lower emissions (flows to atmosphere) when the crucial target (Hansen, 2008) is lower concentrations (stocks in atmosphere), which are potentially achievable by positive development. All global problems must be reversed, not just worsened less fast.
2.6 The Primary limit is imagination
Anyone whose car is drifting backwards towards a cliff edge knows that the strategy for success is not to go slower or more steadily, but to change into forward gear and accelerate away safely. Humanity is speeding towards economic, social and ecological cliff-edges so why is attention absorbed by the decoy strategies of less-bad and no-growth? Less-bad is an appealing strategy for those focused on awareness and political will as limiting factors. The aim of reducing damage can be widely agreed and endlessly debated, with all participants ‘doing what they can’. Those who focus on the limits of nature’s capacity to accommodate human activity are attracted to the no-growth vision of tough government-enforced boundaries to contain unsustainable aspirations. Positive development offers both groups the opportunity to unite society and markets in achieving far more than just limiting further damage. This strategy is limited not by politics nor by nature, but by imagination.
2.7 Real Lasting Value
Positive development goes further than not making things worse. It invites attention to the neglected stockpiles of financial debt (personal, corporate and national), ecological debt (such as lost nature and surplus concentrations of GHG) and social debt (such as overpopulation, surplus concentrations of weapons, habits of conflict and surplus concentrations of wealth). These combined ‘debts’ reveal the extent of civilisation’s self-harm and must be promptly ‘paid back’ to ensure any form of future security. All this activity should not be viewed as a cost but as investments in the future that also boost current economic growth. Illusory progress and invented financial value can be replaced with real lasting value. The following policy switches can, if all are implemented soon enough, rapidly institute positive development world-wide.
- Birkeland, J. 2008. Positive Development: From Vicious Circles to Virtuous Cycles through Built Environment Design. Earthscan. Case studies.
- Hansen J, Sato M, Kharecha P, Beerling D, Berner R, Masson-Delmotte V et al. 2008. Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim? Open Atmos. Sci. J., vol. 2, pp. 217-231 http://arxiv.org/abs/0804.1126
- Jackson, T. 2009. Prosperity without Growth? UK Sustainable Development Commission. www.sd-commission.org.uk/publications.php?id=914
- Kuznets, S. 1934, National Income, 1929–1932. 73rd US Congress, 2nd Session, Senate Document no. 124, pp. 7.
This text is part 2 of 8 of my Advanced Research Workshop paper, Seven Policy Switches for Global Security, for the NATO Science for Peace and Security Programme. Please see the abstract, full list of parts and downloads here.