Entries tagged with “Millennium Ecosystem Assessment”.
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Wed 17 Aug 2011
I’ve been at this blogging thing for a little over 13 months, and on twitter for maybe nine months. I’ve found both venues tremendously productive – I feel like I have a whole new community to which I belong that has helped to expand my horizons and change some of my perspectives on development and aid. Nearly every day I learn something from the folks I am connected to via these social media – and that is the highest praise I can offer anyone or anything. I get bored easily, and when I am bored I get cranky. My wife thanks you for keeping me interested and amused.
So, after 13 months I think I have a sense of the landscape around these here development/aid parts . . . and I am stunned to realize there is something missing. How is this blog the only one I know of that engages both development and global environmental change at roughly equal depths? Well, this one and Global Dashboard, sort of . . . I do like Global Dashboard, though.
Now, I can see why the aid/relief (as opposed to aid/development focused – see my parsing below) blogs really don’t spend a ton of time on climate change – mostly, they are coming from the front lines of work, the sharp end of the implementation spear, as it were. Folks are caught in the immediacy of response to disaster, or buried in the myriad small tasks that can completely overwhelm staff at the implementation end of a recovery project. There is an existential quality to these blogs, because there is an existential quality to that existence. I can understand this.
Then there are the aid/development blogs – those that are focused on thinking about the long-term transition from poverty to something better for the global poor. Yes, aid is part of how we address this challenge, but really development is about long-term social, economic and political transformation. It does not unfold in rapid manner, and therefore lends itself to more protracted musings. Further, because aid/relief is focused on an acute situation, there is a short time horizon for planning and thinking – ideally with some sort of handover to long-term development programs, though we all know this does not happen as often or as smoothly as anyone would like. Aid/development, on the other hand, has a much longer time horizon – the intervention, ideally, should be producing results on a generational timescale (project reporting requirements aside, of course). Yet even on these blogs, I see very little attention being paid to climate change or environmental change – though these are processes that are likely transforming the very future worlds we are planning toward with our development projects and policies.
Here’s the thing: both the relief and development communities need to be thinking about global environmental change. Period.
Today, my thoughts for the aid/relief blogs and thinkers – and I offer this with genuine sympathy for their situations as acute responders who are overburdened by various administrative requirements: climate/environmental change is not somebody else’s problem. Nobody wants to hear this when they are on the front lines, as it were, but how we do relief and recovery has tremendous implications for global environmental change . . . and of course these changes will shape a lot of relief and recovery going forward. I know that most relief agencies start from the mandate of saving lives – everything else is secondary to that. I respect this . . . but it does not exclude the idea of thinking about and addressing environmental issues in their work. If we are serious about saving lives, lots of lives, we’d better get ahead of the curve in thinking about future response needs – what is going to happen, and where. For example, we expect to see ever-greater climate variability over the next several decades, which means that we are going to see less predictable weather, and perhaps more extreme weather events, in many places. While there is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the timing of these events and the ranges of variability we might see, we are already coming to understand where some of the most acute changes are taking place (a lot of them in Africa, sadly) – and we can plan our resources for those areas. At the same time, we see fisheries collapsing around the world, with huge impacts on the diets and well-being of onshore communities – we know exactly where these events are happening, and we know exactly why, so we certainly can plan for this slow onset emergency.
As we think about recovery programs, we will have to do more than put it back as it was (the common mandate) . . . we will have to help build something that has the flexibility and resilience to adapt to a changing future. Neither of these efforts requires a fundamental rethinking of relief and recovery work, just some will to spend a few minutes BEFORE a disaster happens to think through how to address these challenges.
More difficult is thinking through the impact of our relief and recovery efforts on the global environment. What we use for temporary shelters, how we move and dispose of rubble, where we procure food aid, all of these things and much more result in varying levels and types of environmental impact. When we are busy saving lives in the here and now, I understand it can be hard to think about these issues – but many times we botch this part of the relief work, creating long-term environment and health issues that end up costing lives. Our recovery work often recommends new land uses and agricultural strategies, which have ecological and greenhouse emissions ramifications. We often suggest new livelihoods practices, which involve the use of new natural resources, and therefore introduce new environmental impacts with uncertain long-term ramifications. Someone needs to do an accounting of how many lives are saved in the immediate post-disaster setting by ignoring these issues, and how many are lost over the longer term by the impacts of ignoring these issues. I am willing to wager that there are many cases were the long-term losses exceed the short-term saved . . . mostly because I am not all that convinced that considering such issues will really slow things down that much if we have decent forward planning. This holds true even for the greenhouse emissions – I wonder how many extra tons of carbon we put out unnecessarily each year because we don’t consider the greenhouse implications of our relief/recovery work? Further, I wonder if those emissions are contributing in a meaningful way to the climate change trends that we see globally, or if they are just tiny noise in a giant ocean of emissions. If these emissions are the latter, then I think we are free to ignore them . . . but I don’t see anyone presenting that data.
So, to summarize for my aid/relief colleagues, despite your completely overtaxed, over-mandated and over-paperworked lives, you need to be reading blogs like Global Dashboard, Climate Science Watch, and RealClimate (OK, RealClimate is probably too technical). You need to become aware of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and familiarize yourself with the Working Group 2 report (human impacts) – it gives you the scientific community’s best assessment of what the coming challenges are, and where they will occur. When the Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation goes public, that will be a crucial tool. All the IPCC stuff is free for download, and written in relatively clear language (well, clear compared to the journals). The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment might be useful, too – check the Current States and Trends report. And, failing that, keep reading this blog – even the posts on climate change. You’ll find them useful, I swear.
Next up: the aid/development argument: seriously, I need to go over this? Fine, fine . . .
Mon 15 Aug 2011
This graphic, from Skeptical Science, is just awesome. I spend a good bit of my time thinking about climate change and its impacts on the global poor – mostly how we might address both global poverty and climate change, maximizing synergies and minimizing trade-offs between these efforts. I’ve been a lead author of two major global environmental assessments (the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and GEO-4) and I am now a review author of the IPCC’s AR5. Despite all of this, I find that people still question my understanding of climate change – they want me to be deluded by false data, or somehow motivated by another political agenda that I can only accomplish through an environmental hoax. In short, they want me to be either stupid or a liar. Not that anyone will say that to my face, of course, but that is really what it boils down to.
So, I greatly appreciate when someone comes up with a means of communicating what we know about the changing climate that is both simple and clear. In one post, Skeptical Science has managed this. Everyone should take a look and have a quick read. First, the graphic:
Second, the explanation of the graphic:
1) If greenhouse warming is taking place, the stratosphere should cool while the troposphere warms (heat is being trapped in the troposphere). Check.
2) If greenhouse warming is taking place, nights should warm faster than days, as the nighttime radiation of heat into space will be limited by the greenhouse effect. Check.
3) For similar reasons, if greenhouse warming is taking place, winters should warm faster than summers. Check.
4) If greenhouse warming is taking place, and #1 is true, the troposphere/stratosphere boundary should rise as the warmer troposphere expands relative to the stratosphere. Check.
5) If greenhouse warming is taking place, out of the total carbon we find in the atmosphere, a rising percentage will be fossil carbon. There is really only one way for a lot of fossil carbon into the atmosphere, and that is burning fossil fuels (remember, oil, natural gas and coal come from the decomposition of long-dead animals). Check.
6) If greenhouse warming is taking place, the oceans should be warming up overall, not shifting heat around. Check.
In short, every theoretical predictor of the greenhouse effect is being realized in empirical measurement – again, not models, but the actual instrument record. So, unless folks are willing to argue that all thermometers, weather satellites, weather balloons, and tools for measuring atmospheric chemistry are wrong or somehow perverted to a hoax, there is no empirical basis to argue that greenhouse warming is not taking place – nor is there much of an argument to be made, given the rising presence of fossil carbon in the atmosphere, that humans have nothing to do with it . . .
Time to start dealing with reality, instead of denying it. What is happening in the global climate is affecting how we do development – or at least it should be. Changes in the global climate have manifest in various environmental shifts that in turn are impacting livelihoods, migration decisions, and the food security of the global poor. I’ll address this in a subsequent post . . .
Tue 31 May 2011
Andrew Revkin has a post up on Dot Earth that suggests some ways of rethinking scientific engagement with the press and the public. The post is something of a distillation of a more detailed piece in the WMO Bulletin. Revkin was kind enough to solicit my comments on the piece, as I have appeared in Dot Earth before in an effort to deal with this issue as it applies to the IPCC, and this post is something of a distillation of my initial rapid response.
First, I liked the message of these two pieces a lot, especially the push for a more holistic engagement with the public through different forms of media, including the press. As Revkin rightly states, we need to “recognize that the old model of drafting a press release and waiting for the phone to ring is not the path to efficacy and impact.” Someone please tell my university communications office.
A lot of the problem stems from our lack of engagement with professionals in the messaging and marketing world. As I said to the very gracious Rajendra Pachauri in an email exchange back when we had the whole “don’t talk to the media” controversy:
I am in no way denigrating your [PR] efforts. I am merely suggesting that there are people out there who spend their lives thinking about how to get messages out there, and control that message once it is out there. Just as we employ experts in our research and in these assessment reports precisely because they bring skills and training to the table that we lack, so too we must consider bringing in those with expertise in marketing and outreach.
I assume that a decent PR team would be thinking about multiple platforms of engagement, much as Revkin is suggesting. However, despite the release of a new IPCC communications strategy, I’m not convinced that the IPCC (or much of the global change community more broadly) yet understands how desperately we need to engage with professionals on this front. In some ways, there are probably good reasons for the lack of engagement with pros, or with the “new media.” For example, I’m not sure Twitter will help with managing climate change rumors/misinformation as it is released, if only because we are now too far behind the curve – things are so politicized that it is too late for “rapid response” to misinformation. I wish we’d been on this twenty years ago, though . . .
But this “behind the curve” mentality does not explain our lack of engagement. Instead, I think there are a few other things lurking here. For example, there is the issue of institutional politics. I love the idea of using new media/information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D) to gather and communicate information, but perhaps not in the ways Revkin suggests. I have a section later in Delivering Development that outlines how, using existing mobile tech in the developing world, we could both get better information about what is happening to the global poor (the point of my book is that, as I think I demonstrate in great detail, we actually have a very weak handle on what is going on in most parts of the developing world) and could empower the poor to take charge of efforts to address the various challenges, environmental, economic, political and social, that they face every day. It seems to me, though, that the latter outcome is a terrifying prospect for some in development organizations, as this would create a much more even playing field of information that might force these organizations to negotiate with and take seriously the demands of the people with whom they are working. Thus, I think we get a sort of ambiguity about ICT4D in development practice, where we seem thrilled by its potential, yet continue to ignore it in our actual programming. This is not a technical problem – after all, we have the tech, and if we want to do this, we can – it is a problem of institutional politics. I did not wade into a detailed description of the network I envision in the book because I meant to present it as a political challenge to a continued reticence on the part of many development organizations and practitioners to really engage the global poor (as opposed to tell them what they need and dump it on them). But my colleagues and I have a detailed proposal for just such a network . . . and I think we will make it real one day.
Another, perhaps more significant barrier to major institutional shifts with regard to outreach is the a chicken-and-egg situation of limited budgets and a dominant academic culture that does not understand media/public engagement or politics very well and sees no incentive for engagement. Revkin nicely hits on the funding problem as he moves past simply beating up on old-school models of public engagement:
As the IPCC prepares its Fifth Assessment Report, it does so with what, to my eye, appears to be an utterly inadequate budget for communicating its findings and responding in an agile way to nonstop public scrutiny facilitated by the Internet.
However, as much as I agree with this point (and I really, really agree), the problem here is not funding unto itself – it is the way in which a lack of funding erases an opportunity for cultural change that could have a positive feedback effect on the IPCC, global assessments, and academia more generally that radically alters all three. The bulk of climate science, as well as social impact studies, come from academia – which has a very particular culture of rewards. Virtually nobody in academia is trained to understand that they can get rewarded for being a public intellectual, for making one’s work accessible to a wide community – and if I am really honest, there are many places that actively discourage this engagement. But there is a culture change afoot in academia, at least among some of us, that could be leveraged right now – and this is where funding could trigger a positive feedback loop.
Funding matters because once you get a real outreach program going, productive public engagement would result in significant personal, intellectual and financial benefits for the participants that I believe could result in very rapid culture change. My twitter account has done more for the readership of my blog, and for my awareness of the concerns and conversations of the non-academic development world, than anything I have ever done before – this has been a remarkable personal and intellectual benefit of public engagement for me. As universities continue to retrench, faculty find themselves ever-more vulnerable to downsizing, temporary appointments, and a staggering increase in administrative workload (lots of tasks distributed among fewer and fewer full-time faculty). I fully expect that without some sort of serious reversal soon, I will retire thirty-odd years hence as an interesting and very rare historical artifact – a professor with tenure. Given these pressures, I have been arguing to my colleagues that we must engage with the public and with the media to build constituencies for what we do beyond our academic communities. My book and my blog are efforts to do just this – to become known beyond the academy such that I, as a public intellectual, have leverage over my university, and not the other way around. And I say this as someone who has been very successful in the traditional academic model. I recognize that my life will need to be lived on two tracks now – public and academic – if I really want to help create some of the changes in the world that I see as necessary.
But this is a path I started down on my own, for my own idiosyncratic reasons – to trigger a wider change, we cannot assume that my academic colleagues will easily shed the value systems in which they were intellectually raised, and to which they have been held for many, many years. Without funding to get outreach going, and demonstrate to this community that changing our model is not only worthwhile, but enormously valuable, I fear that such change will come far more slowly than the financial bulldozers knocking on the doors of universities and colleges across the country. If the IPCC could get such an effort going, demonstrate how public outreach improved the reach of its results, enhanced the visibility and engagement of its participants, and created a path toward the progressive politics necessary to address the challenge of climate change, it would be a powerful example for other assessments. Further, the participants in these assessments would return to their campuses with evidence for the efficacy and importance of such engagement . . . and many of these participants are senior members of their faculties, in a position to midwife major cultural changes in their institutions.
All this said, this culture change will not be birthed without significant pains. Some faculty and members of these assessments want nothing to do with the murky world of politics, and prefer to continue operating under the illusion that they just produce data and have no responsibility for how it is used. And certainly the assessments will fear “politicization” . . . to which I respond “too late.” The question is not if the findings of an assessment will be politicized, but whether or not those who best understand those findings will engage in these very consequential debates and argue for what they feel is the most rigorous interpretation of the data at hand. Failure to do so strikes me as dereliction of duty. On the other hand, just as faculty might come to see why public engagement is important for their careers and the work they do, universities will be gripped with contradictory impulses – a publicly-engaged faculty will serve as a great justification for faculty salaries, increased state appropriations, new facilities, etc. Then again, nobody likes to empower the labor, as it were . . .
In short, in thinking about public engagement and the IPCC, Revkin is dredging up a major issue related to all global assessments, and indeed the practices of academia. I think there is opportunity here – and I feel like we must seize this opportunity. We can either guide a process of change to a productive end, or ride change driven by others wherever it might take us. I prefer the former.
Tue 29 Mar 2011
Posted by Ed under Adaptation, Africa, Climate Change, Delivering Development, development, Development Institutions, environment, Food Security, globalization, Livelihoods, policy, research
On Global Dashboard Alex Evans discusses a report he wrote for ActionAid on critical uncertainties for development between the present and 2020. Given Alex got to distill a bunch of futures studies, scenarios and outlooks into this report, I have to say this: I want his job.
The list he produces is quite interesting. In distilled form, they are:
1. What is the global balance of power in 2020?
2. Will job creation keep pace with demographic change to 2020?
3. Is there serious global monetary reform by 2020?
4. Who will benefit from the projected ‘avalanche of technology’ by 2020?
5. Will the world face up to the equity questions that come with a world of limits by 2020?
6. Is global trade in decline by 2020?
7. How has the nature of political influence changed by 2020?
8. What will the major global shocks be between now and 2020?
All are fair questions. And, in general, I like his 10 recommendations for addressing these challenges:
1. Be ready (because shocks will be the key drivers of change)
2. Talk about resilience (because the poor are in the firing line)
3. Put your members in charge (because they can bypass you)
4. Talk about fair shares (because limits change everything)
5. Specialise in coalitions (and not just of civil society organisations)
6. Take on the emerging economies (including from within)
7. Brings news from elsewhere (because innovation will come from the edges)
8. Expect failure (and look for the silver lining)
9. Work for poor people, not poor countries (as most of the former are outside the latter)
10. Be a storyteller (because stories create worldviews)
I particularly like #10 here, as it was exactly this idea that motivated me to write Delivering Development. And #7 is more or less the political challenge I lay out in the last 1/4 of the book. #9 is a clear reference to Andy Sumner’s work on the New Bottom Billion, which everyone should be looking at right now. In short, Alex and I are on the same page here.
I have two bits of constructive criticism to offer that I think would strengthen this report – and would be easy edits. First, I think Alex has made a bit of a mistake in limiting his concern for environmental shocks to climate shocks. These sorts of shocks are, of course, critical (hell, welcome to my current job), but there are other shocks out there that are perhaps not best captured as climate shocks on such a short timescale. For example, ecological collapse from overuse/misuse of ecosystem resources (see the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment) may have nothing at all to do with climate change – overfishing is currently crushing most major global fisheries, and the connection between this behavior and climate change is somewhat distant, at best. We’ve been driving several ecosystems off cliffs for some time now, and one wonders when resilience will fail and a state change will set in. It is near-impossible to know what the new state of a stressed ecosystem will be after a state change, so this is really a radical uncertainty we need to be thinking about.
Second, I am concerned that Stevens’ claim about the collapse of globalization bringing about “savage” negative impacts on the developing world. Such a claim strikes me as overgeneralized and therefore missing the complexity of the challenge such a collapse might bring – and it is a bit ironic, given his admonition to “talk about resilience” above. I think that some people (urban dwellers in particular) would likely be very hard hit – indeed, the term savage might actually apply to those who are heavily integrated into global markets simply by the fact they are living in large cities whose economies are driven by global linkages. And certainly those in marginal rural environments who are already subject to crop failure and other challenges will likely suffer greatly from the loss of market opportunities and perhaps humanitarian assistance (look at contemporary inland Somalia for an illustration of what I am talking about here). However, others (the bulk of rural farmers with significant subsistence components to their agricultural activities, or the option to convert activities to subsistence) have the option to pull back from market engagement and still make a stable living. Opportunity will certainly dry up for these people, at least for a while, as this is usually a strategy for managing temporary economic fluctuations. This is certainly a negative impact, for if development does nothing else, it must provide opportunities for people. However, this sort of negative impact doesn’t rise to “savage” – which to me implies famine, infant mortality, etc. I think we make all-to-easy connections between the failure of globalization/development (I’m not sure they are all that different, really, a point I discuss in Delivering Development). Indeed, a sustained loss of global connection might, in the long run, create a space for local innovations and market development that could lead to a more robust future.
So to “be ready” requires, I think, a bit of a broadening of our environmental concerns, and a major effort to engage the complexity of engagement with the global economy among the rural poor in the world. Both are quite doable – and are really minor edits to a very nice report (which I still wish I wrote).
Sat 11 Dec 2010
Well, Cancun did not totally collapse . . . but the outcome was maybe worse. What we now have is a one-year stall with very little to show for it. The targets are basically useless. The only thing this agreement has created is an excuse to keep talking without doing anything. As I argued the other day, we might be better off if the whole thing just collapsed, creating the space and urgency needed to really push forward the various state, city and local initiatives that seem to be the only effective measures that are moving us toward real emissions reductions and a sustainable future. Instead, this agreement creates a counter-argument – just hang on, don’t do anything yourselves, and the countries will figure this out soon.
First, I doubt the countries will get to a place where a real, meaningful agreement could be put in place in a timely manner. Second, as I argued in the post the other day, there is empirical evidence, via the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment’s Scenarios, to suggest that a global agreement isn’t the best way to get to a sustainable future anyway.
I know everyone working on this was well-intentioned, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions . . . and we’ve not yet taken the off-ramp.
Tue 23 Nov 2010
Well, the Cancun Conference of the Parties (called COP for short) is upon us, where everyone will sit down and accomplish pretty much nothing on a global climate change agreement. There is real concern circulating in the diplomatic world that this meeting could see the fracturing of the push for a global agreement such that it never happens – at least from this framework. This outcome is problematic in all sorts of ways, not least of which in the chaos it will unleash in the development world, where a huge amount of money was slated to be used for adaptation to climate change under what amounted to a glorified memorandum of understanding coming out of Copenhagen. If the whole process bites the dust, it isn’t very clear what happens to that money or the programs and projects under development to use it.
That said, if it all goes totally bad in Cancun it doesn’t mean that we are beyond creating meaningful paths toward a lower-emissions future that might be manageable. Indeed, one might argue that the death of the global framework might be the only way forward. States like California, and cities like New York, are now starting to implement policies and programs to cut their own emissions without a national mandate. They are creating locally-appropriate policies that maximize environmental benefit while minimizing the local “pain” of the new policies. This is all well and good for these cities, but what I find interesting is that there is some evidence – however loose- that this city-by-city, state-by-state approach might actually be more efficient at achieving our climate goals than a global agreement.
I was part of the Scenarios Working Group for the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment – my group was tasked with running four future scenarios for ecosystem services (the goods and processes we get from ecosystems) under different future political, economic and social conditions. Once we got our baselines and assumptions for each scenario in place, a team of modelers ran the scenarios for various issues (temperature change, water availability, etc.) and then we attempted to link the model runs to meaningful statements about how ecosystems might fare under each scenario.
This is relevant here because, interestingly, we had a “global orchestration” scenario that, to some extent, looks like what the world was going for with Copenhagen and Cancun. We also had another scenario called “adapting mosaic”, which assumes decentralized control and adaptive management of environmental resources. Neither scenario was a clear winner – each had strengths and weaknesses. An “adapting mosaic” approach is great at managing new and emerging environmental challenges, whether from climate change or other issues. It might also serve as the very legitimate basis of a bottom-up approach to an eventual global accord on climate change. However, this approach risks ignoring global commons like fisheries, which often leads to the loss of that resource through overuse. There is a real risk that inequality will go unaddressed, at least across countries and at the global scale, but at the same time economic growth will not be as robust as under other scenarios. Global orchestration is good at maximizing income. While I dissented from this view*, the group argued that under global orchestration a Kuznets Greening Curve would kick in (as people get wealthier, they pay more attention to the environment – thus, economic growth and consumption can result in better environmental quality), and we would have strong global coordination on everything from trade to environmental issues. However, this approach is much more reactive, and focused on the global scale – thus it is not very good at dealing with local surprises. In my opinion, adapting mosaic looks better, over the long run, than global coordination (especially if you factor in my concerns about the Kuznets Curve assumption).
In short, in the efforts of California and New York we are seeing the emergence of a de facto adapting mosaic as the global orchestration efforts of Cancun and Copenhagen fall by the wayside. This actually might be a good thing.
In uncertainty, there is hope.
*the Kuznets curve rests on a key assumption – that with enough wealth, we can undo the damage we do while building wealth to the point that we start caring about the environment. Kuznets has no answer for extinction (a huge problem at the moment), as that is gone forever. Further, the Chinese are starting to provide an object lesson in how to blow up the Kuznets curve by damaging one’s environment so badly that the costs associated with fixing the problem become overwhelming – and those are the fixable problems. Basically, assuming a Kuznets Greening Curve allowed those framing these scenarios to put an overly-happy face on the global orchestration scenario for political reasons – they wanted to provide support for a global effort on climate change. A more honest reading of the data, in my opinion, would have made adapting mosaic look much better.
Mon 9 Aug 2010
It seems to me that one of the more interesting debates to be had around global environmental change and development is that of the nature of growth in the modern world. There are those that argue (or at least implicitly argue) that growth is effectively unlimited by the biophysical world – the real barriers to growth around the world are capacity, governance, etc. Operating from this assumption (or something near to it), the logical decision is to foster growth everywhere in the world, and to assume that the absence of growth is a symptom of problems with human capacity, attitudes and institutions that can and should be rectified. At another pole are those that argue that our growth is fundamentally pinned to the biophysical world – this is the implicit assumption behind ecological footprint calculators, that we draw upon natural resource for growth in a manner that is fixed and measurable -and the measurements suggest, rather strongly, that growth is highly constrained by the biophysical world.
Like most people, I exist somewhere in the middle of this continuum. Ecological footprint calculators, imperfect though they may be (for example, converting our resource use into acres of land is a problematic and weak process/proxy), demonstrate rather clearly that if we are to get everyone in the world up to the average standard of living in the United States, we would need the natural resources from around three Earths. Many of the arguments about future policy built on these footprint calculations end up discussing rather steep resource and wealth redistribution curves if we want to see a more equal world. However, there is a significant flaw in this reasoning – these measures (let’s just assume that they are reasonably accurate for the purposes of this argument) and the resultant policy prescriptions assume the per capita intensity of use to be a constant going forward into the future. This discounts future technological developments that will, no doubt, lower the per capita resource use of those in the advanced economies, such as the US.
On the other hand, the news here isn’t all good – while the intensity of use might decrease over time, such decreases typically translate into the market in the form of reduced prices, which tend to spur increased production. Put another way, 5 years in the future we may only use 75% of the resources we do today to make a shirt, thus lowering the footprint of that shirt and the person who buys that shirt. However, the price of that shirt will likely decrease to remain competitive in the market, encouraging consumers to buy more shirts than they used to. If the price drop of the shirt is such that the consumer who typically buys four shirts a year decides to buy five, we’ve already lost the decreased footprint created by increased efficiency to a larger footprint created by greater consumption. In other words, improved resource efficiency related to growth won’t do us much good if it spurs the growth of consumption such that the per capita resource uptake remains constant or rises.
There is another bit of bad news here – even if those of us living in the advanced economies decided to freeze our amount of consumption, locking in our current standard of living while allowing increased resource use efficiency to translate into greater availability of goods and services in the Global South, I don’t see a point any time in the near future where these benefits will be of a scope that will allow for a real closing of the gap in the material standard of living between the developing and the developed. We’re looking at differences of orders of magnitude right now, accrued over several centuries of differential political economic activity when the Earth’s population and total resource uptake was much, much smaller. So if we want a truly equal world, those of us in the advanced economies are going to have to give something up.
While I am an indefatigable optimist (hey, I am writing this post but I still work in development), this doesn’t absolve me from a serious consideration of reality – so maybe I am a constrained optimist. The size of the global population today, coupled with our current regimes of resource use, have taken most, if not all of the slack out of the global resource/growth equation. No, we are not yet at a zero-sum world where growth in China means loss somewhere else, like the US – it is still possible to see growth in multiple sites, as technological advances create a bit more space for growth via increased efficiency. But there will come a day where we will cross this curve – where our inability to make things more efficient as quickly as our increased demand on resources rises will finally come to a point where the resources themselves become the restrictor plate on growth – the world will effectively become a zero-sum economy.
In my work on the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, I saw trends that make the math above a lot more pressing. The rates of resource degradation around the world are astonishing. Not everything is getting worse, of course – temperate forests, for example, are doing pretty well – but an astonishing percentage of the resources we rely upon for our standard of living are under threat right now, not in some distant future. So our current use of the environment (much of this use in the name of growth, incidentally), with its various impacts, is hastening the day when we cross the curve into a zero-sum economy. Some might argue (or hope?) that we will generate enough wealth and capacity between now and then as to come up with some sort of a solution for this – or to put back the damage that we have done to our environment, thus uncrossing the curve for a while longer. This strikes me as a hell of a gamble*, where the stakes on a bad bet are getting larger and larger. Meanwhile, the nature of this bet has been shifting from betting one’s house on red to betting one’s house on red 16 . . .
No, we are not there yet. But, barring a remarkable revolution in our ability to generate energy and food (I won’t rule these out, but the sort of revolution we need is on the order of fusion, which isn’t all that close right now), zero-sum is coming. But what should we call this not-quite-zero-sum world we are living in? Surely someone has a name for this already . . .
*in the case of extinctions, this is a pointless gamble – there is no putting back extinct, and anything that goes extinct will have effects (some obvious, others difficult to discern) throughout ecosystems . . . and often there will be one or more impact parts of that ecosystem that humans see as useful. or necessary.