development sustainability

The Great Acceleration

The Stockholm Resilience Center are the group behind the Planetary Boundaries. Their latest project is a ‘global dashboard’ that shows human activity and its consequences. The centerpiece of this is a set of 24 graphs that show an acceleration in the economy and in consumption, and the concomitant impact on the environment.


Most of this acceleration, from 1950 onwards, represents real progress – people lifted out of poverty, gaining access to energy and running water. You can also see the democratization of travel opportunities, growing food security, and the widening access to communications. These are all good things.

But they do a have a price.


The problem that continues to motivate me is that the work of human development is unfinished. Plenty of people still lack the most basic amenities of clean water and sanitation, medical care and electricity. As we work towards providing those things to everyone – what happens to the bottom set of graphs? Is it possible to provide universal energy access without tipping us into runaway climate change? Can we eliminate hunger without unbalancing the nitrogen cycle?

The answer to those questions is almost certainly ‘no’ – unless we can curb overconsumption, improve efficiency, and eliminate waste in the developed world. And how are we going to do that in an economic system that is predicated on everlasting increases in consumption?


  1. My feeling is access and opportunity.

    Everyone should have access and opportunity to the basics in life like food, clean water, health care and education. What happens from there is the hardest question and answer I can think of, as you have posed.

    Ideally if we have access and opportunity we can then hope to choose people, time and the planet but we are a very long way from doing that as our first choice…

    My wishes for humanity is to meet in a spot where we all have access and opportunity to the basics in life and where we also see just enough as plenty and aim to become ‘rich’ in family, community, time, environmental custodianship, giving and living simplistically and happily. I know this is a bit of a pipe dream but it is what I dedicate my life and passions towards…

    This is my attempt so far:

    1. Yes, universal access to the basics is a non-negotiable, but we can’t deliver that and then start thinking about the environmental consequences. It will be too late, so reducing consumption and changing our cultural goals has to go hand in hand with development.

      Convergence is perhaps the best word for it, and practical projects like yours that help people imagine what we’re talking about are powerful elements of that change.

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