This is not a full book review as such, but rather a reflection on the fact that Smil’s views and mine are quite similar on the somewhat barbed nature of economic growth, and on the dilemmas this poses for humanity, especially in the context of the crossroads we face regarding the unsustainability of our current human-made systems and economies.
Here are a few pertinent excerpts.
“The largest externality that remains unaccounted for [in GDP] is the undoubtedly very large cost of relatively rapid global warming … [but] the complexities, interactions, and feedbacks of change attributable to rising concentrations of greenhouse gases are extremely difficult to monetize … many of these impacts will not be seen in force for decades to come (and hence will be steeply discounted by today’s valuations).”
“Economists have suggested fixing many inadequacies of GDP with suggestions … the World Bank now argues that measuring wealth is a superior approach … and does so by quantifying both natural and human capital …”
“All of these attempts to fix GDP’s shortcomings have one thing in common: their valuations of natural capital or environmental services would be very different if they could monetize such fundamental changes as the loss of biodiversity and the biospheric impacts of anthropogenic climate change.”
“.. the biosphere’s indispensability and degradation … are never mentioned in the Kurzweilian promise of infinite growth. In contrast, it is not difficult to offer a very different scenario that, while not highly likely, is not implausible. African fertilities decline much faster than expected. Indian population growth declines rapidly. Rest of the world sees population stagnations and declines. … economic growth moderates while advances in energy conversion and storage usher in affordable all-electric or hydrogen economies. Natural ecosystems begin their comeback … I wish all of this came to pass as rapidly as possible – but acting as responsible risk minimizers we cannot simply hope for low-probability outcomes [such as these].”
“There is no need to be a catastrophist in order to see what I call the great obverse: [which is] all that we have lost as a result of growth in general and mass consumption of artifacts and experiences in particular, the extent to which we have already imperilled the life on Earth, and the potential for further damage resulting from a growing population and rising aspirations. The overall environmental cost of growth is still going up as it spans an enormous range of impacts.”
“But if it were only anthropogenic disturbance of our biosphere, our lives would be negatively affected but the future of our civilization would not be fundamentally compromised. Unfortunately, there are too many anthropogenic transformations whose increasing intensity and combined effect have been doing precisely that [ie fundamentally compromising our civilization], and while two or three generations ago the same actions had overwhelmingly local or regional consequences, their impacts are now truly global.”
“There is no need to resort to exaggerated claims about species loss to realize that the decline of global biodiversity has been proceeding at rates that, on geological timescales, may already amount to the Earth’s sixth mass extinction wave (Barnosky et al. 2011).”
“People and their animals have been steadily marginalizing all wild species … Some insects are also in retreat …Losses of high-quality arable land in alluvial regions and destruction of natural coastlands … All of these concerns, some going back many generations, have been recently both intensified and overshadowed by the worries about the impact of anthropogenic global warming, an environmental change with truly global effects.”
“The long-term outlook is unclear … the estimated aggregate greenhouse gas emission levels resulting from [the NDCs] do not fall within least-cost 2 degree scenarios but rather lead to a projected level of 55 Gt in 2030 (UNFCCC 2015). As a result, 2030 emissions would be more than 50% above the 2015 level and higher than the logistic forecast for 2050!”
“The second half of the 20th century does not mark the beginning of the Anthropocene, but most likely the beginning of the end of strong anthropogenic impacts, maybe even the beginning of a transition to a sustainable future.”
“Good life within planetary boundaries is possible even if the global population continues to grow – but not without fundamental restructured provisioning systems, a shift that would entail substantial challenge to current economic strategies (O’Neill et al. 2018).”
“A small minority of economists, and many historians, environmentalists, and students of complex systems … recognize the obvious; the impossibility of infinite growth on a finite planet, but the steps we have taken so far have been insignificant and largely ineffective compared to the ubiquity and the scale of the required temporary remedies and eventual long-lasting solutions.”
“Not surprisingly, no government has ever made policies with the biosphere in mind. No government has advocated moderate, subdued economic growth as its priority; even in the world’s most affluent countries no major political party has been serious about reconsidering the pace of economic growth.”
“Continuous material growth, based on ever greater extraction of the Earth’s inorganic and organic resources and on increased degradation of the biosphere’s finite stocks and services, is impossible. Dematerialization – doing more with less – cannot remove this constraint. So far, it has been only a relative phenomenon… Recognition of these realities leads to decidedly non-Kurzweilian conclusions.”
“Unfortunately, concerns are legion, and after decades of efforts we have yet to arrest the growth of all kinds of the most widespread environmental degradations, the first necessary step before reversing such undesirable trends.”
“Concerns about rapid global warming – now generally seen as an average tropospheric temperature increase of more than 2 degrees centigrade above the pre- 1850 mean - are only the latest, and the most prominent, expression of that irreconcilable conflict between the quest for continuous economic growth and the biosphere’s limited capacity to deal with its environmental burdens. (IPCC 2014).”
“But we must try, and for that we need new visions.”
“We may not know every detail of doing the right thing, but the direction of the required actions is clear; to ensure the habitability of the biosphere while maintaining human dignity … to preserve our species while inflicting the least possible damage on other organisms with whom we share the biosphere.”
“Given the scope of our challenges, adjectives such as radical and bold, to describe the needed vision, and such terms as fundamental shifts and unprecedented adjustments, to characterize the many required changes of policies and everyday practices, are self-evident.”
“… [and] past practices – pursuit of the highest possible economic growth rates, extending the culture of excessive consumption to additional billions of people, and treating the biosphere as a mere assembly of goods and services to be exploited (and used as a dumping ground) with impunity – must change in radical ways.”
“The long-term survival of our civilization cannot be assured without setting such limits on the planetary scale. I believe that a fundamental departure from the long-established pattern of maximizing growth and promoting material consumption cannot be delayed by another century and that before 2100 modern civilization will have to make major steps toward ensuring the long-term habitability of its biosphere.”
The Planetary CFO - working towards a sustainable World Balance Sheet.