Thank you. As a long-term environmental activist I must admit that I have been pleasantly surprised by the acknowledgement by Dr. Schelling that global warming is a serious problem that must be addressed.
I hope that you realize that recognition of the potential threats due to global warming represents a chink in the armor of the neoclassical economic model that argues that there are no real limits to economic growth. Such recognition could be the beginning of the economic paradigm shift so many environmentalists and others with a deep conservation ethic have been longing for.
My basic premise is that the growth dominated economic system that the modern world has embraced over the past 250 years has helped to drive a wedge between humans and the natural ecosystems that surround and nurture us. Our ardent pursuit of economic growth has lead to a condition where the vast majority of humans live completely out of touch with the natural ecosystems that, according to ecological economist Robert Costanza and colleagues, provide tens of trillions of dollars of annual natural capital we all benefit from free of charge. Unless we develop a new economic system that re-establishes links between humans and nature, man made imbalances in natural systems could jeopardize those free services.
The economic link to the imbalances we are now seeing in natural systems lies in how insults, e.g., pollution, are considered by our economy. Currently, when producers or consumers do not bear all of the costs related to a transaction, then the extra costs, say from pollution, are absorbed into the larger system. In economic terms these costs are called “externalities”. Natural systems pay those costs.
Our growth based economic system was built during a time when human populations were small relative to the size of the natural world. However, as the human population continued to grow, and our industrial might allowed us to more rapidly consume natural resources, the magnitude of the externalities generated increased dramatically. Think about energy, where we once used animal power, or burned wood, we now principally burn fossil fuels.
And boy are we good at using fossil fuels! According to British historian Clive Ponting (“A new green history of the world”, 2007) we now use more than 500 times as much coal in a year as was used in 1800. Oil is now consumed at a rate nearly 380 times the rate it was consumed in 1900. Natural gas use is up 175 times compared with its use a century ago. Of course, burning these fuels has released CO2 to the atmosphere far in excess of CO2 released from the burning of wood or the use of animal power. Thus, CO2 has been an ever-present externality to virtually all of our economic growth over the past two and a half centuries.
At the beginning of the industrial revolution the atmosphere contained approximately 275 parts per million CO2, today the atmosphere contains just over 385 ppm. How much CO2 is too much?
Recent studies have lead to new estimates of the amount of CO2 in our atmosphere that would be too much. According to NASA climatologist James Hansen and colleagues in an article published this June, “If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm.” So, by perpetuating an economic system that has maintained CO2 generation as an externality, with very few paying for its production, we now have a massive problem on our hands that must be addressed by everyone.
As I’ve suggested earlier, if we simply focus only on patching the problems related to global warming, we will be treating the symptoms, and not the root causes of this problem. Through the ever-constant push for growth, our economic system has produced many other externalities whose costs are now starting to come due. For example, a study published in 2006 in the Journal Science suggests that the loss of biological diversity in oceanic ecosystems due to exploitation, pollution, habitat destruction, and climate change may lead to the complete collapse of human fisheries by mid century. Threats to our agricultural system could represent the worst-case scenario. Economists and politicians have done a lot of talking about trying to fix environmental problems (e.g., carbon taxes and other resource depletion fees), but few if any new proposals to deal with emerging environmental threats have come from their discussions.
What can we do? As I suggested earlier, the reason we’ve gotten into so much trouble is that humans in general have forgotten that we, too, are members of natural ecosystems.
But everyone hasn’t forgotten about natural ecosystems, and one group – Ecologists – have been studying them for many years.
One thing ecologists have learned about mature, undisturbed ecosystems is that they tend to be stable over long periods of time. Researchers have found evidence that some ecosystems (e.g., in the Amazon Rainforest) have remained essentially the same for millions of years. Maybe we can learn a thing or two from natural ecosystems that might help us live sustainably.
I’ll discuss three key elements of natural ecosystems that help contribute to their sustainability:
The first criterion for ecosystem sustainability is the need for populations of plants and animals in ecosystems to be relatively constant from year to year over the long-term. The human population has grown to unimaginable numbers over the past century, and globally, continues to grow exponentially. Historian Ponting points out that the human population increased 3.8 times from 1900 until 2000, with urban populations growing 12.8 times larger. The stresses of so many people on the only natural life support system we have are overwhelming. We must figure out ways to arrest our growth, and possibly even allow our population to decline somewhat over several generations to better match resources with our numbers. If we do this in a rational, morally acceptable way, without coercion, I believe most people would chose that option rather than the population crash that nature would/will ultimately bring.
A second component of stable ecosystems is that there is no such thing as waste. Everything in an ecosystem that humans might call waste is either recycled or reused. Humans talk a lot about recycling, but we still generate huge quantities of waste in just about everything we do. We will have to rethink wastes throughout our economy.
The final component of stable ecosystems we should emulate is the fact that with rare exception, the energy source that runs ecosystems is solar energy. We know a great deal about ways we can capture the energy imbedded in solar radiation; wind power, biomass power, solar panels, thermal heat, among others. We’ve just got to figure out how to make these energy sources serve as the basis for energy in our economies.
Now, I have basically set neoclassical economists with their lust for infinite growth up as the bogyman in my argument. But, as with any field of study, there isn’t only one way of thinking about our economy. There are economists, sometimes called radical economists, who have been proposing novel solutions to the problems of externalities for many years. And guess what? They essentially base their new economies on the balancing principles found in natural ecosystems.
Should we not be successful with this economic paradigm shift, the prospects for sustaining human civilization are bleak. The problems associated with running into natural limits will continue to get worse. As with any species in a natural ecosystem that exceeds the ability of that ecosystem to sustain it, the population of that species will crash. So we all must begin to think about how we are going to make this change, and become dedicated, no – devoted to the task. We must be successful for the sake of our children, grand children, and all those to come. Please help to spread the word that we can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing. Talk to everyone, especially politicians, to let them know that you want to see the establishment of a sustainable system. If the sustainability revolution is successful, then like the Native American Iroquois tribes, maybe we, too, will ultimately take for granted planning that requires us to think about the effects of our actions today on the seventh generation, 150 years from now. If we can do this then maybe will all live sustainably, in harmony with nature, as did the Iroquois.
Thank you for your kind attention.
Henry G. Spratt, Jr., Ph.D.
Biological and Environmental Sciences Department
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga