By Anders Wijkman*
Looking at ecological and economic realities, time has come for demanding a new development model, one that fits our time and circumstances. The current model – the economy in particular – was designed and developed in an empty world, with a population between 1 and 2 billion people. This was a time when the bounty of natural resources on this Earth seemed endless, i.e. during the time when the European Enlightenment unfolded and the Americas looked like places where settlers and entrepreneurs could endlessly find new space to use.
Today the world is full, with a population soon to reach 8 billion. We have to change our thinking as well as our economic doctrines to avoid a future collapse of the ecosystem and the global economy. This is one of the main conclusions in my new book – ”Come On!” – co-authored with Ernst von Weizsäcker in the form of a report to the Club of Rome.
One source of inspiration for ”Come On!” is another report to the Club of Rome – ” Limits to Growth”. The central message of the Limits report, published already in 1972 and much criticised since, was that the quest for unlimited growth in population and material goods on a finite planet is not possible and would eventually bring the economic system down.
In the new book – Come On! – an update is offered to the Limits report. In addition, it addresses a host of new challenges such as irresponsible financial markets, the digital economy and other disruptive technology trends, an increasingly skewed distribution of income and wealth and the crisis of democracy.
In today´s world the limits are palpable in almost everything people do. A host of studies has recently supported the Limits’ predictive relevance. A new term illustrating the phenomenon, and refining it, is that of the planetary boundaries introduced by Johan Rockström and Will Steffen et al. in Nature 2009. And yet, almost 50 years after the Limits to Growth became a public issue, the world still pursues more or less business-as-usual development – stemming as it does from an empty world.
When the Limits report was published, many people, notably in the political domain, feared that the implication would be that humanity had to give up on prosperity and agreeable life styles. But that was never the main proposition by the Club of Rome. Our main concern was the growing footprint of mankind and the fact that economic activity must assume radically different forms.
Almost fifty years have passed, and exponential growth of population as well as production and consumption has made the equation increasigly difficult to solve. It is hard to see how material growth can continue to be the overriding objective for development in the industrialised countries. Both with regard to “sinks”- the capacity of the planet to absorb all residue materials – and “sources” – the quest for new materials – the rapidly increasing demand in developing countries has to be taken into account. They have a right to development and, as is evident when it comes to GHG emissions and the overuse of many resources, the rich countries already occupy a large part of both the sink and source capacities.
Why has it been so hard to change our old habits and trends? Well, changing habits depend on changing mindsets. That was the experience from the European Enlightenment. That courageous process took roughly two centuries, the 17th and 18th century, and served as a great liberation from authoritarian rules and narratives defined by the Crown and the Church.
The Enlightened transformation was successful because it championed human reasoning and rational change through the application of the scientific method. The Enlightenment established the ideals of individual freedom, economic growth and technological innovation that had barely existed before in European society. The concepts of democracy and the separation of powers brought political influence to many more men (only few women) or their elected representatives. Innovators, entrepreneurs and merchants were allowed to flourish and to become a new ‘aristocracy’, this time legitimated by their own work, not by royal families.
However, there were dark sides to it, as well. European colonialism with all its arrogance and cruelty found almost no critiqu among the intellectuals of the Enlightenment. The misery of the working class and impoverished peasants, to say nothing of the colonised indigenous peoples all over the world, was hardly noticed in bourgeois circles. And unrestrained growth was perceived completely legitimate.
Looking at ecological and economic realities today, the time has come for demanding some kind of a new Enlightenment, one that fits the full world. Economic theory must be updated to adapt to the conditions of the full world. It is insufficient to incorporate environmental and social concerns by translating them into mere monetary expressions of capital. Nor is it sufficient to simply refer to various forms of pollution and ecosystem decline as ‘externalities’ – the notion being that what is at stake is some marginal disturbance. Furthermore, it is high time to do away with the notion of “homo economicus”, i.e. that human beings are only interested in maximising their utility, often at the expense of nature. Lastly, but not the least, time should be over when linear economic models are applied to non-linear ecosystems and the climate system.
Luckily, some (rare) historical evidence confirms that in mature stages of development, human happiness can improve and be maintained while the consumption of energy, water or minerals stays stable or is even reduced. Economic growth and technological progress can be accompanied, if not accelerated by an increase of elegance and efficiency of resource use, possibly in a ‘cradle to cradle’ manner.
At this moment in time, however, nearly all the trends of resource consumption, climate change, biodiversity losses and soil dgradation reflect the inadequacy and misdirection of public policies, business strategies, economic models and the underlying social values. At a more basic level, these prevailing trends also reflect the inadequacy of the system of education.
The cumulative implications of these trends must oblige all of us to dramatically change the direction of progress and to work hard on the creation of a new Enlightenment. That new Enlightenment should reinvigorate the spirit of inquiry and bold visions, and a kind of humanism that is not in a primitive manner anthropocentric but allows also for compassion for other living beings, while incorporating far more attention to the long-term future. We need a better balance between man and nature, between the short term and the long term, between private consumption and public goods and between compensation for excellence and justice.
*Co-president Club of Rome, chair Climate-KIC