Forty years on from the seminal Limits to Growth report, the idea that there are environmental limits to human activity is still contentious. The report’s projections are largely spot on, so the debate should be more relevant than ever. It’s just been denied, obstructed and wished away, while industrial society has gone ever deeper into overshoot.
There are a whole variety of reasons why the conversation was lost in the noise. There are vested interests. Many people still don’t have the basics, and resent talk of reducing consumption when they don’t have enough. There are opposing ideologies and deliberate choices not to engage, perhaps best symbolised by Reagan taking the solar panels off the White House. Maybe, as the book of Genesis suggests, there’s just something in the human psyche that rebels against a perceived limit.
There’s also been a lot of confusion. The biggest is over what it is that is limited. ‘Limits to Growth’ can be read as population growth, economic growth or materials growth. It’s really about all of those together, but there’s no particular word for that – the human project? Civilisation? Industrial society? Lacking the big-picture language, the debate has often settled on one aspect of it: economic growth.
The trouble is, economic growth is an abstraction from the underlying human activity that creates it. You can make money from money, as the City of London demonstrates every day. That obscures the relationship between the economy and the environment, and suggests that the economy somehow transcends the natural world and that it can therefore growth can continue indefinitely. That’s true in theory, but in practice economic growth and ecological impact are still tightly bound together, particularly on CO2 emissions. Even if they can be picked apart, it is highly unlikely that it can be done fast enough to avoid catastrophic climate change.
So the debate gets skewed. Talk about limits to economic growth, and you will be told that you don’t understand economic theory. Talk about the science of sustainability, and it will be assumed that the economy doesn’t matter.
A second problem is around what is and what isn’t a limit. Limits to growth are often interpreted as ‘running out of stuff’, such as oil and metals. These are ‘soft’ limits rather than ‘hard’ ones. If a resource is renewable, like timber, or recyclable, like copper, you don’t every need to run out of it unless you’re being careless. Some things can be substituted too. You can run an electric car instead of one with a petrol engine, so surely the end of oil isn’t a real limit either.
The answer to whether these are limits is again a theoretical no, those don’t need to be limits, but only if you manage them right and plan properly. In practice, they are limits, because we’re not doing that planning or not allowing those substitutions to happen. Countries lie about their oil reserves or subsidise fossil fuel consumption, masking the inexorable rise in prices and decline in energy returns. Products are made to be thrown away rather than re-used, making retrieval of metals complicated and expensive.
The debate stalls again. Mention resource depletion, and you’ll be told that you don’t understand economic theory. Acknowledge substitution and recycling, and you risk minimising the very real problems of unsustainable resource use – as seen in government briefings on peak oil, for example.
So are there any real limits, or should we just let it go? The answer is a qualified yes on both counts. There are limits to the scale of human activity and they are real, but we need to let go of that language and find new ways of talking about the problem.
Fortunately, the Stockholm Resilience Centre has given us a potential new start with the idea of planetary boundaries. They gathered a conference of scientists in 2009 and investigated all the areas where human activity is in conflict with natural systems, and identified nine boundaries that we need to keep within – a ‘safe operating space for humanity.’
It’s not an entirely new idea – the Gaia folks have been talking about ‘planet management’ for some time, but it’s a new framing of the problem and it’s already been influential. “While planetary boundaries are still a young concept,” says Alex Evans, “they are becoming the most important idea in sustainable development to emerge in the 25 years since the Brundtland report. They recognise natural resource limits as critical – but, importantly, focus not on abstract, polarising ideas like ‘limits to growth’, but instead on evidence-based, quantified limits to the sustainable use of particular renewable and non-renewable resources. In so doing, the approach aims for a clear definition of the safe operating space for a sustainable global economy.”
Building on this work, I plan to write a series of posts on the planetary boundaries. I’ll look at them one at a time, looking at the tipping points and how close to them we might be. I’ll be drawing on the Planetary Boundaries report in Ecology and Society, Mark Lynas’ book The God Species, the Stockholm Resilience Centre and various other sources. Time allowing, I’ll try and post one a week over the next couple of months.