By Donella Meadows
–July 10, 1997–
Lay the world’s economists end to end, goes an old joke, and they’ll still point in every direction. Ask the world’s scientists about the environment, goes a modern myth, and they’ll disagree.
But surprisingly large numbers of scientists and even economists have been agreeing lately and issuing stunning public statements — stunning because of the extent of agreement, because of their seriousness, and because they flatly contradict what many politicians and corporations are telling us.
The most amazing of these manifestos was issued last winter by 2000 economists, headed by the highly respected Kenneth Arrow, Dale Jorgenson, Paul Krugman, William Nordhaus, and Robert Solow, two of them Nobelists, none of them known for green leanings. But their topic was the climate, and, yes, 2000 economists agreed, “from the newish left to the skeptical center to the libertarian right,” as Peter Passell of the New York Times commented.
“Global climate change carries with it significant environmental, economic, social, and geopolitical risks,” the economists say. “Preventive steps are justified…. There are many potential policies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions for which the total benefits outweigh the total costs.”
These policies, say the economists, could slow climate change even while raising economic productivity. They recommend carbon taxes and the auction of greenhouse gas emissions permits, the revenues from which could be used to reduce other taxes or government deficits.
Incredible. Especially since such policies are never mentioned by either party in Washington.
Then in April sixty biologists did something biologists seldom do — they got political. They sent an open letter to the U.S. Forest Service warning against a proposal by the logging industry to abandon the “species viability rule.” That rule requires the Forest Service to keep our national forests in a condition that supports healthy populations of fish and wildlife.
The biologists use strong language, for scientists. They say weakening the rule would be “short-sighted and scientifically unsupportable.” It would “substantially and irreversibly contribute to an already alarming pattern of species extinction” and make recovery of endangered species “more crisis-driven, more expensive, more difficult, and ultimately more controversial.”
Then this June the Royal Society of London and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences — probably the most august scientific bodies in the world — issued a statement on a subject that is almost taboo in political or commercial discourse: overconsumption.
“It has often been assumed that population growth is the dominant problem we face,” say the two academies. “But what matters is not only the … number of people in the world, but also .. how much natural resource they utilize and how much pollution and waste they generate.”
They give a clear definition of what they’re talking about — “consumption is the human transformation of materials and energy” — and why it’s important — “consumption is of concern to the extent that it makes the transformed materials or energy less available for future use, or negatively impacts biophysical systems in such a way as to threaten human health, welfare, or other things people value.”
Consuming more than the earth can regenerate is not a problem that lies in the future, the scientists say: “We now know that many renewable and nonrenewable resources are being drawn down.”
And high consumption levels are a matter not just of sustainability, but of fairness: “We know that a minor fraction of the world’s people consume a disproportionate amount — and influence the aspirations of the others — and that the poorest people need to consume more.”
Their report contains some shocking numbers. The population of Bangladesh increases by 2.4 million a year, the population of Britain only by 100,000. But each Briton uses 50 times as much fossil fuel as each Bangladeshi. So each year’s addition to the British population raises carbon dioxide emissions by almost twice as much as each year’s addition to the Bangladesh population.
Since 1950 the richest 20 percent of the world’s population has doubled its per-person consumption of meat and timber, quadrupled its car ownership, quintupled its use of plastic. The poorest 20 percent has increased consumption of these things hardly at all.
“As scientists but also as citizens of the world,” say the academicians, “we must strive to see that its riches are used in such a way that our descendants throughout the world can continue to enjoy them.”
Now just because a lot of highly educated people agree on something, that doesn’t make it right. There was a time when all the world’s scientists would have said that the atom couldn’t be split, that continents never move and that an adult sheep couldn’t be cloned. But when people like these speak together with urgency and clarity and lay out the reasons for what they say, we probably should pay at least as much attention to them as we pay to rock stars, bizarre crimes, self-interested corporations, or uninformed politicians. What the scientists and now also the economists are telling us is that our planetary life-support system is in danger — and that it needn’t be, if we take perfectly feasible steps to protect it.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1997