By Donella Meadows
–April 16, 1992–
The human population grows by 95 million people a year and degrades its fertile land by 64 million acres a year. Any moderately intelligent Martian could take one look at those numbers and conclude, “That can’t go on very long.”
Each year 40 million acres of tropical forest fall to chainsaws and cattle. Overfishing has reduced the catch in the world’s major fisheries. Landfills are filling, the ozone layer is depleting, and scientists say that our fossil fuel consumption must drop by 60 percent to stabilize the global climate. You’d think even Earthlings would be saying, “Maybe we’re going too far, too fast.”
But space observers monitoring our leaders, our media, and our daily conversations would probably make jokes about how a species that calls itself “man the wise” is eroding its carrying capacity while planning for more growth.
There are many reasons, from political short-sightedness to economic vested interests to psychological denial, why we are doing that. The most intractable reason has to do with the way we get and use information. We don’t know where we are with respect to our planetary limits. Many of the signals that tell us are confused, distorted, and delayed. It’s as if we were driving along with a foggy windshield, relying on a drunk passenger to tell us about the road ahead. By the time we decipher the confusion and find out what’s ahead, we’ve already passed it — or hit it.
For example, it takes about 15 years for the pollutants that destroy the ozone layer to work their way up from the earth’s surface to the stratosphere where they do their dirty work. The damage we see now is a consequence of our actions of 15 years ago. This year’s emissions will show up 15 years from now — and once those pollutants get into the stratosphere they’ll stay there for decades. It’s pretty hard to steer an ozone policy on the basis of information that’s delayed by more than a decade.
We have the same problem with global warming. We generate more greenhouse gases each year than the year before. We measure their increasing concentration in the atmosphere, which should be warning enough. But instead of taking our cue from the cause, we wait for the consequence — an unmistakable change in the climate. Climate is a 20-30 year average of that jumpy, noisy, varying phenomenon we call weather. If we wait for its signal, we’ll argue about global warming for decades, while we go on making it worse.
It can take years for toxic chemicals in soils to seep down and poison groundwater. We can harvest fish or forests faster than they grow for a long time. If we monitor the chemicals in the soils and the regeneration of fish or forests, we’ll know that what we are doing is unsustainable. If we monitor only the fact that there are still forests, fish, and drinkable groundwater, we’ll get the news of their destruction only when it is too late to bring them back.
Some people think that the price of a commodity will reveal its scarcity in time for us to avoid its over-exploitation, but the price channel carries too many other signals for us to get the message. Oil price is manipulated by cartels, speculators, nations, and corporations, according to their relative power. It zooms up and down and gives no reliable information about how much oil is left to burn, much less how much burning the atmosphere can take.
Price signals can even stimulate, rather than discourage overexploitation. The Atlantic bluefin tuna population is 94 percent depleted. Its price as sushi in Tokyo is hitting $100 a pound. The Japanese are rich enough to pay that, so overfishing is still profitable and it still goes on.
Not only is our windshield foggy, but the road is icy. It takes a long time to stop. If we all decided unanimously tomorrow that the world population is too big, and all families immediately limited themselves to two children, our numbers would go on growing for a generation, because so many of us are young people who haven’t yet formed our families. The population would rise from 5.4 billion to 8 billion. If we all agreed today to that 60 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, it would take decades to replace the furnaces, cars, factories, power plants that are dependent upon burning fossil fuels.
And of course we don’t make agreements in a hurry. It took 13 years from the first warnings about ozone depletion to the first international agreement to do something about it, and it will take 13 more years before that agreement takes full effect.
An economy that doubles every 20 years and that takes 26 years to respond to a warning signal is just plain out of control. It is unmanageable. It can’t help but shoot beyond its sustainable limits; in fact it has already done so. There have been local crashes, and there are likely to be global ones, unless we make some changes.
Now, what would you tell a driver who has a foggy window and slow reflexes and an icy road, and who insists on accelerating? The first thing you’d say would be: SLOW DOWN! The second would be: clear the window. And the third would be: now that we can see ahead, let’s find a steady, sustainable pace, so we can get where we’re going without running into something.
How to do that with an accelerating global population and economy? What would the world be like if we did? More on that next week.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1992