Two Views of Our Future

In his book, "World On The Edge," Lester R. Brown explores two contrasting views of the world as seen by economists and natural scientists. Is environmental destruction and economic recession merely a bump in the road or something more serious?


| June 27, 2012



Fotolia_carloscastilla

Lester R. Brown worries that overconsumption of the Earth's natural resources will lead to the natural desctruction of our world — sooner than most people realize.


PHOTO: FOTOLIA/CARLOS CASTILLA

The following article is posted with permission from the Earth Policy Institute.

No previous civilization has survived the ongoing destruction of its natural supports. Nor will ours. Yet economists look at the future through a different lens. Relying heavily on economic data to measure progress, they see the near 10-fold growth in the world economy since 1950 and the associated gains in living standards as the crowning achievement of our modern civilization. During this period, income per person worldwide climbed nearly fourfold, boosting living standards to previously unimaginable levels. A century ago, annual growth in the world economy was measured in the billions of dollars. Today, it is measured in the trillions. In the eyes of mainstream economists, our present economic system has not only an illustrious past but also a promising future.

Mainstream economists see the 2008-09 global economic recession and near-collapse of the international financial system as a bump in the road, albeit an unusually big one, before a return to growth as usual. Projections of economic growth, whether by the World Bank, Goldman Sachs, or Deutsche Bank, typically show the global economy expanding by roughly 3 percent a year. At this rate the 2010 economy would easily double in size by 2035. With these projections, economic growth in the decades ahead is more or less an extrapolation of the growth of recent decades.

But natural scientists see that as the world economy expanded some 20-fold over the last century, it has revealed a flaw: a flaw so serious that if it is not corrected it will spell the end of civilization as we know it. At some point, what had been excessive local demands on environmental systems when the economy was small became global in scope.

A study by a team of scientists led by Mathis Wackernagel aggregates the use of the earth's natural assets, including carbon dioxide overload in the atmosphere, into a single indicator — the ecological footprint. The authors concluded that humanity's collective demands first surpassed the earth's regenerative capacity around 1980. By 2007, global demands on the earth's natural systems exceeded sustainable yields by 50 percent. Stated otherwise, it would take 1.5 Earths to sustain our current consumption. If we use environmental indicators to evaluate our situation, then the global decline of the economy's natural support systems — the environmental decline that will lead to economic decline and social collapse — is well under way.

How did we get into this mess? Our market-based global economy as currently managed is in trouble. The market does many things well. It allocates resources with an efficiency that no central planner could even imagine, much less achieve.





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