books environment globalisation

Book review: Earth for All

Earth for All: A Survival Guide for Humanity is the latest report from the Club of Rome. It was they, if you remember, who issued the original Limits to Growth report in 1972. There have been many other reports in the interval, one or two of which I’ve covered (see below). This one is once again a multi-authored expert review of the future, grounded in computer modelling.

There’s a long list of contributing experts to Earth for All, including some globally recognised economists, thinkers, scientists and systems analysts. It’s an admirably multi-disciplinary group that spent two years working out “what is necessary to build a fairer, more resilient economic system to weather current interconnected crises and future storms.” A commission on new economics discussed ideas that were then tested by a new computer model. The model’s findings were then critiqued by the commission. Two years of deliberation later, we get to read what they’ve come up with.

This is a usefully robust way to go about things. Lots of people have ideas that they think might make a difference, from basic incomes to four day working weeks. It’s not often that anyone models these properly. Would they increase or reduce inequality? What about emissions? Do they raise or lower social tensions? Do they lead to improved wellbeing? And putting all these ideas together, what kind of programme will lead to long term prosperity for everyone on a stable planet?

Earth for All focuses on five goals. They call them ‘turnarounds’, because acheiving them will take a fairly drastic change of direction:

  • ending poverty
  • addressing extreme inequality
  • empowering women
  • a healthy and sustainable food system
  • clean energy

The book then looks at these in more detail, a chapter on each, and compares outcomes across two contrasting scenarios. There are slow but positive trends in some of those areas, so the model’s ‘business as usual’ scenario does include some progress. This isn’t a prediction of doom. It does however lead to runaway inequality, which in turn leads to social instability and conflict, all in the context of increasing environmental breakdown. They call this the ‘too little too late’ scenario, and it’s the one we’re on.

Their second scenario is called ‘the Giant Leap’, and shows how clean energy, regenerative farming and more inclusive economic policies can begin to rebalance inequality and end poverty faster. There are important interventions for each of the five goals. For poverty, for example, the ones that make the biggest difference are debt relief and greater fiscal freedom for developing countries, reform of trade rules, rebalancing ‘special drawing rights’ from the IMF to favour poorer countries, and facilitating access to technology.

Along the way, the book deals with some interesting questions: how much inequality is acceptable? Will ending poverty raise carbon emissions too much to prevent disastrous global warming? (No, thankfully) It explores the idea of a carbon tax and dividend as a mechanism to reduce inequality and emissions at the same time, something I support. It takes a nuanced view of economic growth, and its measures of progress bring wellbeing and social stability to the foreground.

Ultimately, I found Earth for All rather hopeful. “The model can easily generate more doom-and-gloom scenarios if anyone feels the need for it,” the authors point out. “The Earth for All team did not.” Instead, it’s an exercise in tapping the collective wisdom of experts, applying a systems thinking approach, and seeing what might work. “We are not presenting an exhaustive list of solutions,” they say. But these are “some of the ideas, in our opinion, that could have the most leverage in the shortest time. We hope they spark debate. And we invite better ideas!”

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