Development on a finite planet

Jeffrey Sachs, while not uncontroversial, has been a great populariser of development issues. Johan Rockstrom is doing similar things with sustainability. Put the two of them together, and you get one of the clearest descriptions of the 21st century’s big dillemma that I’ve come across.
It’s a longer quote than I’d normally post, but it’s a neat articulation of the problem. It seems a shame for it to languish in a background discussion paper for UN officials, so here it is in full. Citation below.

The world faces a serious challenge, indeed one that is unique to our age. Developing countries rightly yearn to catch up with the living standards enjoyed in developed countries. If incomes in middle- and low-income countries were to catch up with incomes in high-income countries (roughly $41,000 per capita), there would be a roughly 3.4-fold increase in global income from $87 trillion to $290 trillion, which would increase even further if high-income countries grow further and as the world population grows. And therein lies the problem.

If the Earth’s natural resource base were infinite, catching up by developing countries, continued growth in high-income countries, and further global population growth, would all be relatively straightforward. To catch up with the rich countries, the developing countries would invest in technology, infrastructure, and human capital (especially health and education), and step by step, would narrow the income gap with today’s high-income countries. That, after all, is the current trajectory of Brazil, China, and India. It is also the preceding path of Japan and Korea. It is the hoped-for path of Africa as well.

Yet the Earth’s natural resource base is not infinite. There is a global “adding-up” constraint that is not evident at the country level. Until recently, there were always under-utilized primary resources on the planet: for example new lands, new fossil-fuel reserves, and newly mined groundwater. Moreover, the world’s ecosystems could absorb the waste of human activity: carbon dioxide from fossil fuels, nitrogen runoff from fertilizers, and even toxic pollutants dissipated by the oceans and rivers. Humanity could improve the productivity of hunting, fishing, mining, logging, and other “harvesting” activities without fear of ultimate depletion of those resources.

Now, however, the planet is crowded with 7.2 billion of us demanding primary resources, and the Earth’s seemingly vast limits are being hit and hit hard. As a result global sustainability has become a prerequisite for human development at all scales, from the local community to nations and the world economy.

Those are the opening paragraphs from a paper by Jeffrey Sachs and Johan Rockstrom for the Sustainable Development Solutions Network. The whole thing is worth a read, despite having a honking misrepresentation of the contraction and convergence solution early on that made me want to throw it at the wall. The paper’s own proposed solutions aren’t fully fleshed out, as they’re mainly introducing work in progress, but it’ll be a project to return to as it moves forward.


  1. Jeremy, The point about a finite planet imay be found also in the introduction to our 2010 paper for the Economics for Ecology conference:

    “This conference primarily focuses on environmental economics, economics of ecology. My 2009 presentation to this conference was titled “Economics in Transition: The ‘Triple-Bottom Line’ of financial, social benefit, and environmental benefits. Among three main areas of economics, the financial sphere remains dominant over social economics and environmental economics. The reason for this is very simple: in order for any system of economics to be sustainable over time, it must first be financially sustainable. If a system costs more than it produces, it requires infinite inputs over time. Infinite inputs are not available in a finite world, and we live in a finite world. If we pursue a system that costs more than it produces financially, it must and will necessarily collapse. But now, the financial system itself is broken: it costs far more than it produces.”

    Unlike Sachs continuing focus on the overwheming burden of people however, it is follwed by the treatise from our 1996 paper arguing for an economic paradigm which serves people rather than creation of debt as abstact numbers which lead to the accumulation of wealth in a hands of a minority such that a considerable number of humans are excluded.

    These are often the same people in which we observe explosive population growth.

  2. The fact that we are using, or “spending,” our natural capital faster than it can replenish is similar to having expenditures that continuously exceed income. In planetary terms, the costs of our ecological overspending are becoming more evident by the day. Climate change—a result of greenhouse gases being emitted faster than they can be absorbed by forests and oceans—is the most obvious and arguably pressing result. But there are others—shrinking forests, species loss, fisheries collapse, higher commodity prices and civil unrest, to name a few. The environmental and economic crises we are experiencing are symptoms of looming catastrophe. Humanity is simply using more than what the planet can provide.

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