PCDForum Column #18, Release Date August 15, 1991

by Paul Ekins

The prevailing prescriptions for resolving the global problems of poverty and environmental devastation from the New International Economic Order of the 1970s, to the structural adjustment and Brundtland Commission prescriptions of the 1980s are all variants on a single theme. Each is grounded in a faith, embraced and propagated with the fervor often associated with religious fundamentalists, that sustained economic growth, undifferentiated between North and South, is the principle instrument of just and sustainable development. Environmental issues are to be addressed primarily through technological innovations intended to green the industrial economy to make perpetual growth "sustainable."

A simple formula, suggested by Paul and Anne Ehrlich, reveals this faith to be nothing more than wishful thinking.

I (environmental Impact) = P (Population size) x C (per capital levels of Consumption) x T (destructive consequence of the Technology employed per unit of consumption).

Existing studies suggest that the ecological impact of our economic activities may already exceed sustainable limits by more than twice. Thus to sustain present per capita consumption at our current population size we must immediately reduce the destructive consequences of our technology by at least fifty percent.

Now lets look fifty years ahead. The most optimistic projections indicate that global population (P) will double over the next fifty years. A growth in per capita consumption of just under 3 percent, a rate most countries consider unacceptably low, would double C every twenty-five years and quadruple it over fifty years. Inserting these additional values in our formula I=PxCxT we see that to pursue green growth over the next fifty years we must reduce the environmental impact of our technology per unit of consumable output to 1/16 (six percent) of its current level to maintain a sustainable relationship with earth's ecology.

Now let us project another fifty years ahead. If population stabilizes at ten billion, and output continues to double each twenty-five years to the end of the next century, we would have a sixteen fold increase in per capita global output by 2090. This would be well above the ten-fold increase that the Brundtland Commission report tells us is required to eliminate absolute poverty if current income differentials between rich and poor remain unchanged. This would mean, however, that the environmental impact of our technology must be reduced to 1/64 (1.6 percent) of its current level over the next 100 years.

Even though our current economy is immensely environmentally inefficient and the potential for technological innovation is enormous, nothing in prospect portends these sorts of technological achievements and some rich country governments are already squealing about the costs of simply stabilizing CO2 emissions over the next 15 years. We must acknowledge "green growth" for what it is: an article of religious faith without practical foundation put forward by those who are determined that the environmental crisis should not infringe either on their established lifestyles or their dominant position in the global economic system.

Those who have looked the environmental crisis in the eye and done their sums recognize the essential need to look beyond green growth to find more practical strategies for sustainability. I take as a given the desirability of stabilizing population levels as soon as possible. Beyond this there are three basic requirements.

  • The Northern establishment must accept that it bears primary responsibility for the environmental crisis and take radical action to address it though eliminating wasteful and unnecessary consumption, shifting to available technologies, such as organic agriculture and solar energy that are environmentally beneficial or benign, and spurring the rapid development of new technologies that are energy and materials conserving. It must also support the concessional transfer to the South of such technologies for appropriate development. Such steps may not lead to aggregate growth in production, but they can substantially enhance aggregate human well-being in both the short and long-term.
  • Recognizing that current structures of trade, aid and debt make Southern sustainable development impossible, the Northern establishment must also work with the South toward a wholesale reform of such institutions as the GATT, the World Bank and the IMF.
  • Southern elites must let their poor lead their own development process by allowing them equitable access to resources and political space for their grassroots movements.
  • Only be rejecting the myth of green growth can we get down to the serious, difficult, and inescapable tasks required to create a just and sustainable global economy.

Paul Ekins is coordinator of the Living Economy Network, 42, Warriner Gardens, London SW11 4DU, United Kingdom and a contributing editor of the PCDForum, which prepared and distributed this column based on his paper "A Strategy for Global Environmental Development."

David C. Korten

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