System Failure: We Are Approaching the End of Society As We Know It -- And That May Be a Good Thing
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It's important to differentiate that from being not sustainable because it's "not nice" or "not fair" or because "it's bad for polar bears." It's not sustainable in the simple physical sense of supply of resources.
We're using up our capital. If, for example, land area of soil is not strong enough to sustain current food production, then the soil is being degraded. We're not running out of food yet but we're degrading aquifers. We're depleting water supply, we're depleting soil quality, and we're polluting the air with CO2 and other gases. The essence of the problem is that, whether it's the millennium ecosystem assessment; the Stockholm Resilience Center's work on planetary boundaries; the Nicholas Stern report on climate change; or the Global Footprint Network, everybody who looks at the whole global system comes to the same conclusion. We're not behaving sustainably. We're using our resources faster than the earth can provide them.
TM: You point out that it's not just that we have to figure out how to deal with using 150 percent of Earth's capacity, but also that -- between population growth and economic growth -- we're aiming to multiply that number by two, four or six times.
PG: Correct, this is where the math becomes unarguable in my view. The simple math of 3 percent growth per year -- which is forecast in the long term globally, remembering that China is growing at 8 or 9 percent -- means a global economy four times this size by 2050. So even allowing for improvements in efficiency and renewable energy and a whole range of ways to improve resource consumption, we'll need three or four Earths by 2050.
My point is not that that's unpleasant, not that it's bad for biodiversity, which it certainly is, my point is: It's not possible.
There won't be enough resources for the economy to grow that much, and, therefore, the economy won't grow that much. That is actually a very big social crisis because our economic system depends upon growth to sustain employment and social stability and so on. We have to recognize that we have not just an environmental problem but a fundamental human problem.
TM: Your subtitle reads "Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring on the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World." But more than a climate crisis, you're talking about an entire integrated system falling apart. I suspect there are people who might not react as much to climate change as to the whole system breaking down. Oil prices have shot through the roof, food prices have led to uprisings, the Eurozone is in grave danger, etc. Might more people be reached and motivated by the notion that the system is breaking down than by the threat of climate change?
PG: "It's the economy, stupid." People respond when their personal economic situation looks bad or at risk. When the economy goes bad, we throw out governments, we try new things.
I refer you to Lester Brown's excellent work at the Earth Policy Institute. The food supply and the water supply are under threat in many countries. The Chinese are buying up farm land in other countries. This sort of economic stress on the system will soon come home to roost. The crisis in Europe and the US debt crisis are all part of the same system problem. We are desperate for more growth, so desperate to get the economy moving in terms of consumption of resources that we borrow from the future to make it happen today.
Richard Heinberg wrote a very important book recently called The End of Growth, in which he points out that the economic growth we're getting today in most Western countries is not real growth. It's actually debt that governments have borrowed from our children and are spending today to keep economies going.