01. 06. 2016

Re-inventing the 'Limits to Growth' debate

Still barely a mention about the environment in the Referendum campaign – just another reminder that these issues still have very little cut-through in UK politics. Beyond the debate about climate change (which, to be fair, does get some cut-through, though rarely in ways that would be desirable), it’s pretty much a silent, barren desert.

So congratulations to that handful of UK parliamentarians who recently set up an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Limits to Growth. Can you imagine – serious politicians sitting down and talking about alternatives to economic growth! This, after all, is the big one, and the fact that we rarely if ever talk about it is startling. And chronically irresponsible in terms of what our generation owes all future generations.

It wasn’t always thus. People today tend to forget that the publication of Limits to Growth back in 1972 triggered a decade-long debate about economic growth, resources, carrying capacities, population, the environment, food and so on.

And then Mrs Thatcher got elected in 1979, and Ronald Reagan in 1981, and that was that. What has followed is three and a half decades in that silent, barren desert.

My good friend Tim Jackson (and his colleague Robin Webster) is hoping to change all that. Working with the APPG, they’ve just published a short new report: ‘Limits Revisited: a Review of the Limits to Growth Debate’.

Do have a look. It’s such a smart summary, reflecting back on the debate itself – including some discussions on how the emerging neo-liberal right wing in the USA managed to close down that debate in the 1980s – and looking forward to a time when a rejuvenated variation of the same debate just has to move to the centre stage of UK and global politics.

Their conclusions are sobering – though interestingly understated, in a way that is probably aimed at other parliamentarians rather than at the usual suspects outside parliament.

“There is unsettling evidence that society is tracking the ‘standard run’ of the original Limits to Growth study – which leads ultimately to collapse. Detailed and recent analyses suggest that production peaks for some key resources may only be decades away. Perhaps the most striking amongst those lessons are the dynamics of overshoot and collapse. One of the most important of these dynamics is that collapse proceeds not from the absolute exhaustion of resources, but from a simple and inevitable decline in resource quality. Given that this decline is already visible for many resources, prudency dictates that we take these dynamics seriously.”

So there’s that disturbing, controversial notion of collapse. This is a word we need to get back into the public domain, just in case anybody is foolish enough to suppose that today’s encouraging developments around the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement have set us on a steady course to a stable future.

If you do come across anyone giving in to such premature complacency, direct their attention to a Nasa-funded report published in the journal Ecological Economics. This is based on something called the HANDY model (Human And Nature DYnamical), focussed particularly on population, climate, water, agriculture and energy. An article in the Guardian (by Nafeez Ahmed on 14th March 2014) highlights how the Study is so relevant to us today:

“Noting that warnings of ‘collapse’ are often seen to be fringe or controversial, the study attempts to make sense of compelling historical data showing that ‘the process of rise-and-collapse is actually a recurrent cycle found throughout history.’ Cases of severe civilizational disruption due to ‘precipitous collapse – often lasting centuries – have been quite common.’ And it finds that, according to the historical record, even advanced, complex civilisations are susceptible to collapse, raising questions about the sustainability of modern civilisation.”

I was particularly interested in the analysis the study presents of the role of ‘Élites’ in the collapse of former civilisations, where almost all of the surplus generated by society is controlled by the Élites, rather than distributed more fairly across society as a whole. (Just think of today’s version of klepto-capitalism – where the 1% of the 1% take more and more of that net surplus for themselves.) The authors of this study spell things out pretty clearly:

“A civilisation may appear to be on a sustainable path for quite a long time, but even using an optimal depletion rate and starting with a very small number of Élites, the Élites eventually consume too much, resulting in a famine among Commoners that eventually causes the collapse of society. It is important to note that this type of collapse is due to an inequality-induced famine that causes a loss of workers, rather than a collapse of Nature.”

For one of the most horrendous examples of “an inequality-induced famine” in our own times, we need look no further than what has been happening in Syria.

As has now been analysed in considerable detail, Syria suffered one of the most severe droughts in its recent history between 2006 and 2009. Climatologists are agreed that climate change played a significant role in this, though there is still no consensus as to exactly how critical that role was.

Interestingly, many commentators in Syria itself are really keen that climate change should not become ‘the scapegoat’ either for the drought or for the ensuing social disruption, with three million people (according to the UN) reduced to extreme poverty, many of whom migrated into Damascus and other big cities, exacerbating the pressure that led to the outbreak of civil war in 2011. These critics want us to focus instead on the total failure of the Syrian Government’s agricultural policies in the run-up to the drought in 2006 – seen by some as “the culmination of 50 years of sustained mismanagement of water and of land resources”.

A brilliant article by Megan Perry (published by the Sustainable Food Trust on May 6th) analysed the full extent of this failure:

“The Government had been pursuing a policy of agricultural intensification and economic liberalisation, based on the expansion of irrigated crops for export such as wheat and cotton that were reliant on chemical fertilisers. The chemical inputs and monocultural cropping contributed to the degradation of Syria’s soils, while poor irrigation infrastructure led to salinization, particularly in areas such as the Euphrates. And with the Government’s decision to cut subsidies to fertiliser, diesel, pesticides and seeds in the 2000s, many small-scale farmers could no longer afford the inputs on which their crops had come to depend.

Syria’s grazing land also struggled under intensification. Former Bedouin commons had been opened up to unrestricted grazing, turning the fragile ecosystem of the Syrian steppe, an area that covers half the country’s land mass, into an eroded desert. In 1950, there were three million sheep grazing the steppe, but by 1998, there were over fifteen million.”

That particular tale is all too familiar in all too many countries – and there are many experts in the world of mainstream agribusiness who are still keen to do exactly the same across the whole of Africa, regardless of the vast weight of evidence we now have as to the calamitous consequences of that process of intensification.

The calamity in Syria could not be starker, with 80% of the remaining population facing dire poverty, with sky-rocketing food prices, and with all factions involved in the conflict using ‘food as a weapon’ to secure their military objectives.

Eventually, that conflict must end. And at the heart of any post-conflict, peace-building regeneration for that tragic nation must be a deep understanding of the inherent limits to growth that it faces. As Megan Perry says:

“As the Government’s free trade policies and lack of adequate resource management appear to have contributed to the current crisis, reclaiming degraded pasture and involving local communities in land management decisions will be key to ensuring future stability. In particular, farming in ways which help to rebuild soil organic matter and make crop production less reliant on the region’s finite water resources should be a top priority. Moving away from intensive agriculture, over-reliant on irrigation and chemicals, would be an important step in restoring Syria’s ecosystems, and therefore its ability to produce food without degrading its resources.”

All of which tells us that this stuff about limits is real, not theoretical, and already affecting the lives of countless millions of people. As every single one of those MPs who’ve chosen to get involved in the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Limits to Growth knows only too well, the vast majority of their colleagues in parliament have not the first clue about all of this, and remain ideologically allergic to anything that begins to challenge the orthodoxy of conventional economic growth.

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