Natural laws, social systems and the limits to growth
Photo: BK59 on flickr cc Attribution 2.0 Generic
In the 1990s, I thought that climate change, in the following decade, would become further discernable from background climate variability – but would translate into a relatively slow and distant problem for humanity. I thought the current mass extinction of species, the sixth in Earth’s history, would pose more immediate problems for larger numbers of people. It turns out that, like many other scientists and activists, I underestimated both the shorter-term magnitude of the impacts of increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases (like carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere and the rate at which such changes are taking place. This was, in part, because of pervasive under-predictions of the sheer quantity of fossil fuels that would be burnt globally: current emissions are higher than even the most pessimistic scenarios suggested back then. In addition, we’ve discovered that ecosystems, and the people who depend most directly on them, are actually highly vulnerable to relatively small climatic changes, often with devastating consequences. Conversely, ecosystems appear relatively resilient to the loss of individual species, because other functionally similar ones often fill their roles.
However, there is a grander narrative of how wrong environmental scientists, such as myself, have been over the recent past. We largely gave up talking about the limits to infinite economic growth on a planet of finite material that can be transformed into useable resources – and the limits to the subsequent processing, by the environment, of waste materials generated by their transformation. In 1972 the Club of Rome’s (in)famous Limits to Growth study – the first scientific model spanning economics and the environment – was immediately challenged by free-market economists. This challenge was epitomised by the wager between economist Julian Simon and scientist Paul Ehrlich on the price of metals. Ehrlich bet the price of selected metals would rise as their scarcity increased. Simon, on the other hand, said market mechanisms would cause a fall in prices. And indeed, they fell. The outcome of this wager further aided the ascendance of a neoliberal ideology which held that the intelligence of the market alone could guide social progress around any environmental limits.
Yet, ‘the greatest market failure in history’, is how climate change has famously been described by the ex-World Bank Chief Economist Nicholas Stern. Environmental scientists are now back to where we were in the 1970s, having to argue that limits are real and that safety cannot be found in the invisible hands of laissez-faire economics.
Ehrich lost the wager because he failed to understand that prices are responsive to technological breakthroughs which can increase supply, and demand can alter as new materials can sometimes be substituted if prices rise. Yet, Simon was fundamentally wrong: markets can extend environmental limits but cannot abolish them. In 2008 researcher Graham Turner analysed the real data on economic growth, population, food production and so on, between 1970 and 2000, and compared these with the Club of Rome’s predictions for the same period. Their business-as-usual (‘standard run’) forecasts compare ‘favourably’ with what actually happened in the real world. The bad news is that this model predicts that while economic growth continues through the early 21st century, as does population, and food production keeps pace, there is increasing environmental stress due to long-lived pollutants, leading to a global collapse – drastic economic activity, food production and human population reductions – by the middle of the century, as environmental limits are breached.
Our socio-economic system is constructed by people and doesn’t obey ‘natural laws’ of economics akin to those of physics. However, it is a sub-system within the biosphere, and this certainly does operate according to physical laws. Without a more widespread acknowledgement of these facts, we are likely to soon see the extent to which we can destabilise our societies by ignoring our impacts on the Earth system.
Dr Simon Lewis is a Research Fellow at the Earth and Biosphere Institute, University of Leeds, where he is investigating how humans are changing the Earth’s workings as a system. He is also involved with Climate Camp in the UK