The biosphere can't stand it

By Guest Author 05/10/2009


A paper by Dr George Preddey,  Physi­cist, futur­ist, ter­tiary teacher, dis­as­ter man­ager, edu­ca­tion pol­icy ana­lyst, inter­na­tional con­sul­tant (retired),  envi­ron­men­tal activist and marathoner

Global Eco­nomic Cri­sis and Copen­hagen – missed chances for avert­ing a human catastrophe?

If at first an idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.’

We shall require a sub­stan­tially new way of think­ing if mankind is to survive.’

[Albert Ein­stein]

Toitu te marae a Tan­garoa, toitu te marae a Tane, toitu te Iwi.

Gov­ern­ments pur­sue eco­nomic growth as a fun­da­men­tal objec­tive of their eco­nomic poli­cies.   Reserve Bank gov­er­nor Dr Alan Bol­lard has expressed opti­mism that ’the worst is over’: eco­nomic growth is about to resume fol­low­ing the worst eco­nomic crash in 80 years [DomPost’s Busi­ness Day of 29 August 2009].

His opin­ion is ques­tion­able on two accounts:

– nei­ther he nor any other cen­tral banker pre­dicted the Global Eco­nomic Cri­sis [GEC]  – indeed HM the Queen asked her eco­nom­ics advis­ers why she had received no warn­ing of it;

– rep­utable sci­en­tists advise that the worst isn’t over, indeed it has hardly begun.

As any sci­en­tist would know — I am a physi­cist although retired – eco­nomic growth in a finite bios­phere is [ulti­mately] unsus­tain­able.  Fur­ther­more, sci­en­tists have con­cluded that the bios­phere can­not sus­tain the cur­rent global human econ­omy, let alone a grow­ing one.

The pre­dicted con­se­quences of exceed­ing the lim­its to growth have been known for 40 years: sud­den and dras­tic decreases in indus­trial capac­ity and human pop­u­la­tions before mid-century.  These dire pre­dic­tions have been val­i­dated by Australia’s CSIRO as recently as 2008. Dr Bollard’s opti­mism, if jus­ti­fied, would mark an accel­er­a­tion to the precipice.

The Earth’s bios­phere is cur­rently expe­ri­enc­ing a Mass Extinc­tion Event [MEE] that is unprece­dented since the aster­oid impact that ended the dinosaur era 65 mil­lion years ago.  Humans today are liv­ing in an eco­nomic par­a­digm described as ’The Age of Stu­pid’ and are dri­ving the cur­rent MEE, know­ingly, by their unfet­tered eco­nomic and pop­u­la­tion growth.

The sur­vival of human civil­i­sa­tion beyond mid-century requires a new [green] eco­nomic par­a­digm informed by evidence-based sci­ence in which eco­nomic growth and pop­u­la­tion growth are ade­quately fet­tered.  Indeed the response to the GEC may offer a last chance for the sur­vival of human civil­i­sa­tion beyond mid-century and could also ame­lio­rate the cur­rent mass extinc­tion event.

[This Exec­u­tive Sum­mary has been pub­lished in a peer-refereed jour­nal: Dom­Post Let­ters, 9 Sep­tem­ber 2009].

A long-term view of the human predica­ment: Mass Extinc­tion Events

The most appar­ent les­son from his­tory is that humans rarely learn from his­tory.  Accord­ing to The Finan­cial Times [3 August 2009], the great­est weak­ness in eco­nom­ics today is eco­nomic his­tory.  Accord­ingly this sub­mis­sion takes a very long-term his­tor­i­cal perspective.

The Earth is 4.567 bil­lion years old.   The ear­li­est life, single-celled anaer­obes, appeared 3.5 bil­lion years ago.  These organ­isms evolved an abil­ity to release oxy­gen through pho­to­syn­the­sis, but the result­ing oxygen-rich atmos­phere that we still breathe today was toxic for them.  Most suc­cumbed dur­ing this first Mass Extinc­tion Event [MEE].

The first MEE enabled single-celled oxygen-breathing aer­obes to emerge and dom­i­nate the Earth’s bios­phere for the next 2.3 bil­lion years.   About 530 mil­lion years ago a Snow­ball Earth event caused another MEE, enabling com­plex multi-cellular plants and ani­mals to become dom­i­nant.   Since that event 520 mil­lion years ago, the Earth’s bios­phere has been char­ac­terised by enor­mous biodiversity.

There have been at least six sub­se­quent MEEs.  The fifth penul­ti­mate MEE was caused by an aster­oid impact 65 mil­lion years near cur­rent Mex­ico.  It ended the dinosaur era but also allowed mam­mals to emerge.  Anatom­i­cally mod­ern humans emerged in cur­rent Ethiopia about 0.16 mil­lion years ago – just 0.0035 per­cent of the age of the Earth.

The cur­rent MEE is attrib­uted to humans who, despite their brief tenure, are behav­ing as if they own the planet.    More than half of all cur­rent liv­ing species are head­ing for extinc­tion this cen­tury, tes­ti­mony to human greed and inven­tive­ness in envi­ron­men­tal destruc­tion.   The sci­en­tific dis­cov­ery that more than 99 per­cent of species that have ever lived on Earth are now extinct is cause for reflec­tion.  Most humans are com­pletely obliv­i­ous to the MEE they are causing.

Anthro­pogenic cli­mate change

The con­sen­sus of sci­en­tists on the Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change [IPCC] is that anthro­pogenic global warm­ing of between 2°C and 6°C will hap­pen this cen­tury.   Sci­ence warns that a warmer earth isn’t just [in for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Al Gore’s words] ’an incon­ve­nient truth’: most of Africa, China, south­ern Europe, west­ern United States, and Aus­tralia are pre­dicted to become unin­hab­it­able — too hot or dry to sus­tain human pop­u­la­tions.  A dire head­line ’Earth 2099: pop­u­la­tion crashes, mass migra­tion, vast new deserts, cities aban­doned’ on the cover of New Sci­en­tist [28 Feb­ru­ary 2009] pro­vides an apt description.

These dire con­se­quences are fore­cast if the Earth warms by IPCC’s mid-range pre­dic­tion [4°C increase] pos­si­bly as soon as 2050.   The recent con­fer­ence of 2,500 cli­mate sci­en­tists in Copen­hagen deliv­ered a strong mes­sage to politi­cians: ’act now or face cli­mate cat­a­stro­phe’ [The Guardian Weekly, 20 March 2009].   Unchar­ac­ter­is­tic activism by cli­mate sci­en­tists is under­stand­able since their recent obser­va­tions indi­cate global warm­ing is hap­pen­ing even faster than IPCC’s worst-case scenarios.

Pres­i­dent Obama does not require con­vinc­ing: ’The sci­ence is beyond dis­pute and the facts are clear.  Delay is no longer an option.  Denial is no longer an accept­able response’ [New Sci­en­tist, 20/27 Decem­ber 2008. p30].  [Despite his fine rhetoric, Obama’s pro­posed emis­sions tar­get reduc­tion is not an accept­able response either, but is an improve­ment on his predecessor’s].

Polit­i­cal lead­ers who remain cli­mate change scep­tics — i.e. con­sider they know bet­ter than Pres­i­dent Obama or even IPCC — might ben­e­fit from read­ing Poles Apart: beyond the shout­ing who’s right about cli­mate change by Gareth Mor­gan & John McCrys­tal [Ran­dom House, 2009].

The great­est threat to life on Earth

Since the aster­oidal MEE 65 mil­lion years ago, the great­est threat to life on Earth has been, and remains, the unfet­tered growth of the global human pop­u­la­tion and econ­omy. A defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic of reces­sion and depres­sion is weak or zero eco­nomic growth or even so-called neg­a­tive growth.  Sci­ence warns that, to be seri­ous about sav­ing Earth, humans must sub­stan­tially reshape the global economy.

Address­ing human pop­u­la­tion growth is out­side the scope of this sub­mis­sion, beyond not­ing that politi­cians gen­er­ally avoid the issue and if humans don’t resolve it, the Earth will resolve it for them.  Inter alia, I recall a 1970s New Sci­en­tist edi­to­r­ial that drew a com­par­i­son between the human mis­ery caused by a Papal ban on con­tra­cep­tion with that caused by Hitler – but I am a physi­cist, not an his­to­rian, and couldn’t offer informed com­ment [see also para 39 on legal risk.]

Politi­cians and main­stream econ­o­mists see no lim­its to eco­nomic growth despite very strong warn­ings from sci­en­tists that it threat­ens life on Earth [New Sci­en­tist, 18 Octo­ber 2008. pp40-54.  The advice on appro­pri­ate action prof­fered by New Sci­en­tist is: ’Buy less stuff.  Go out­side and con­nect with the envi­ron­ment.  Get involved in pol­i­tics.  Vote for green economics.’

Eco­nomic growth is dri­ving: air pol­lu­tion [par­tic­u­late, acid rain]; oceanic and fresh water pol­lu­tion [dead zones, increas­ing acid­ity]; resource deple­tion [oil, top­soil, fish­eries, arte­sian water, min­er­als]; shrink­ing forests and expand­ing deserts; coral reef bleach­ing; ozone deple­tion; ris­ing sea lev­els; and, unsur­pris­ingly, the cur­rent MEE.   Cli­mate change is impli­cated in many of these calamities.

Sci­en­tists are express­ing par­tic­u­lar con­cerns about:

– run­away global warm­ing dri­ven by pos­i­tive feed­back loops between melt­ing per­mafrost, methane hydrates, and methane releases poten­tially capa­ble of increas­ing mean global tem­per­a­ture by 10°C [New Sci­en­tist, 28 March 2009. p32];

– polar ice­cap insta­bil­ity and asso­ci­ated sea level rises of sev­eral to tens of metres; and

– increas­ing oceanic acid­ity and asso­ci­ated adverse impacts on: coral reefs [bleach­ing, loss of bio­di­ver­sity]; shell­fish; and krill, the base of the food chain on which cetaceans [whales, dol­phins] depend.   An acidic ocean largely devoid of life is a sober­ing possibility.

Easter Island offers an insight.   Dur­ing the late 18th cen­tury, its human inhab­i­tants cut down all its forests and drove many plants and ani­mals to extinc­tion.   A com­plex soci­ety spi­raled into can­ni­bal­ism and near-extinction.   New Zealand sci­en­tists are cur­rently inves­ti­gat­ing whether the cull hap­pened because the island’s pop­u­la­tion over­shot the capac­ity of its degraded vol­canic soils to sus­tain them.

There is grow­ing evi­dence that per­sonal car­bon virtue and col­lec­tive envi­ron­men­tal­ism are futile as long as the global econ­omy is reliant on eco­nomic growth to mit­i­gate reces­sion or depres­sion.  The nec­es­sary change will require a new green eco­nomic paradigm.

Lim­its to Growth [LTG]

In 1972, futur­ists at the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy study­ing com­puter sim­u­la­tions of a future Earth pub­lished the infa­mous Lim­its to Growth report [LTG].  Their sim­u­la­tions took into account five global con­cerns: accel­er­at­ing indus­tri­al­i­sa­tion, rapid pop­u­la­tion growth, wide­spread mal­nu­tri­tion, resource deple­tion, and a dete­ri­o­rat­ing environment.

In sum­mary, LTG’s qual­i­ta­tive con­clu­sions from its business-as-usual sim­u­la­tion are that:

– the lim­its to growth will be reached some­time mid-century if present eco­nomic growth continues;

– the prob­a­ble con­se­quences will be sud­den, uncon­trol­lable col­lapses in pop­u­la­tion and indus­trial capacity;

– lim­it­ing eco­nomic growth to achieve sus­tain­abil­ity will be very dif­fi­cult but not impossible;

– lim­it­ing eco­nomic growth will require long-term goals and commitment;

– with­out goals and com­mit­ment, business-as-usual eco­nomic activ­i­ties will drive growth to the lim­its of the Earth’s bios­phere and a cat­a­strophic col­lapse some­time mid-century; and

– with goals and com­mit­ment, human civil­i­sa­tion could begin a tran­si­tion to a sus­tain­able future.

Unsur­pris­ingly, LTG was strongly attacked by politi­cians and mis­rep­re­sented by main­stream econ­o­mists for whom eco­nomic growth is axiomatic.   That a col­lapse didn’t hap­pen around 2000 was used to den­i­grate LTG, even although col­lapse at this time was not one of its pre­dic­tions.  In a 1992 update of LTG, the authors con­cluded that humans had already over­shot the lim­its of the Earth’s biosphere.

LTG’s con­clu­sions are pure heresy for politi­cians and main­stream econ­o­mists for whom growth is as essen­tial as the oxygen-rich atmos­phere they breathe as aer­obes.  They claim eco­nomic growth is the only way to lift the poor out of poverty, feed a grow­ing pop­u­la­tion, and fund increas­ingly expen­sive lifestyles.

Such claims are disin­gen­u­ous.  Grow­ing the global econ­omy in response to a finan­cial cri­sis caused by exces­sive greed and con­sump­tion in the over-developed world arguably is irra­tional.  Con­vert­ing food into vehi­cle fuels while there is famine in the under-developed world is uncon­scionable.   The often-repeated trickle-down argu­ment that eco­nomic growth erad­i­cates global poverty is self-serving and fallacious.

Whereas the under-developed world has unmet needs, the over-developed world has over-met wants.  This dis­par­ity is grow­ing.  Through con­sumerism, the over-developed world con­fuses needs with wants.  Chil­dren edu­cated by Dr Seuss [The Lorax] under­stand this.  Pow­er­ful mar­ket­ing sec­tors in the over-developed world economies exist purely to cre­ate such con­fu­sion and to increase con­sump­tion.  TV com­mer­cials arguably threaten our children’s future.

The New Zealand Min­is­ter of Finance, Hon Bill Eng­lish, promised on 23 Jan­u­ary 2009 that ’in these tough eco­nomic times … the [National] gov­ern­ment will imple­ment a cred­i­ble medium to long term eco­nomic plan that will raise New Zealander’s incomes and achieve sus­tain­able eco­nomic growth.’    The Min­is­ter is promis­ing more consumption.

A con­clu­sion that may rea­son­ably be drawn from LTG is that sus­tain­able eco­nomic growth as pro­moted by politi­cians and main­stream econ­o­mists is an oxy­moron, albeit expressed in the lan­guage of sci­ence.   A physi­cist famil­iar with closed sys­tems would con­sider this con­clu­sion to be self-evident [as I do] as would a biol­o­gist famil­iar with bac­te­r­ial growth in finite petri dishes.

Evi­dently there is a seri­ous dis­junc­tion between the cur­rent eco­nomic par­a­digm and a new [green] eco­nomic par­a­digm informed by evidence-based science.

Lim­its to Growth revis­ited: a com­ing human cull?

A stan­dard prac­tice in sci­en­tific research is to col­lect data from obser­va­tions and develop math­e­mat­i­cal sim­u­la­tions that best fit these data.  The sim­u­la­tions can then be used to study trends and to pre­dict future out­comes.   LTG fol­lowed this prac­tice using the best data that was avail­able to researchers in 1972.

A simulation’s valid­ity can be tested by com­par­ing its pre­dicted out­comes with the actual out­comes revealed by more recent obser­va­tions.  In 2008 the Aus­tralian Com­mon­wealth Sci­en­tific and Indus­trial Research Organ­i­sa­tion [CSIRO] car­ried out this test on LTG’s predictions.

CSIRO’s analy­sis showed that the pre­dic­tions of LTG’s business-as-usual sim­u­la­tion in 1972 accu­rately track the actual out­comes observed in 2008.   In sum­mary, LTG’s pre­dic­tions were val­i­dated by CSIRO [hardly a rad­i­cal organ­i­sa­tion] 36 years later, and accord­ingly have con­sid­er­ably enhanced credibility.

In sum­mary, LTG’s quan­ti­ta­tive con­clu­sions from its business-as-usual sim­u­la­tion are for:

– a cat­a­strophic decline in global pop­u­la­tion beyond 2027 to one-half of the cur­rent population;

– a sub­stan­tial increase in crude death rates beyond 2018; and

– a sub­stan­tial decrease in avail­able food per capita beyond 2013.

Entirely con­sis­tent with these dire pre­dic­tions is the grow­ing con­cern that the increas­ing food short­ages pre­dicted for 2013 could col­lapse human civil­i­sa­tion.   Some poorer coun­tries are already descend­ing into chaos as food prices increase in 2009 – attrib­uted to grow­ing mid­dle classes in China and India, the diver­sion of food into bio­fu­els, and the impact of peak oil on trans­port and fer­tiliser costs.  The crises in these fail­ing states are being exac­er­bated by dis­ease, ter­ror­ism, water short­ages, soil degra­da­tion, illicit drug traf­fick­ing, eco-refugees, and anthro­pogenic cli­mate change [respected futur­ist Lester Brown in Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can, May 2009].

Although quan­ti­ta­tive time-scales indi­cated in para 35 should be treated with cau­tion, a com­ing human cull is an apt descrip­tion of the pre­dicted out­come of a business-as-usual future.

It could be even worse

Some rep­utable sci­en­tists are more pes­simistic than LTG.   The Astronomer Royal Lord Mar­tin Rees pre­dicted in 2004 that ’this cen­tury will be mankind’s last’, a chill­ing assess­ment from a mem­ber of the sci­ence establishment.

James Love­lock, the archi­tect of Gaia, has pre­dicted a 90% cull of humans around mid-century.  [The Gaia hypoth­e­sis posits that life on Earth mod­er­ates phys­i­cal and chem­i­cal processes through com­plex inter­ac­tions allow­ing the bios­phere to exist].  Lovelock’s pre­vi­ous work on man-made CFCs con­tributed sig­nif­i­cantly to a global ban on these ozone-destroying chem­i­cals, thereby sav­ing humans – and many other species – from poten­tially lethal sun­burn.  [Digres­sion on legal risk: I pub­licly expressed con­cern about CFC use in 1974 and was promptly sued for $3m by a multi­na­tional CFC man­u­fac­turer.  The law­suit was sub­se­quently with­drawn on a technicality.]

The ozone layer will take cen­turies to recover from human deple­tion, whereas car­bon diox­ide released by humans will per­sist in the atmos­phere for tens of thou­sands of years.   Anthro­pogenic global warm­ing has very long-term impli­ca­tions on a human, if not geo­log­i­cal, time scale.  Rapid and sub­stan­tial reduc­tions in car­bon emis­sions are crit­i­cal for the sur­vival of human civilisation.

Such dire pre­dic­tions should not be regarded as scare mon­ger­ing: they are evidence-based con­clu­sions drawn by rep­utable sci­en­tists.   In my expe­ri­ence, many rep­utable sci­en­tists are deeply pes­simistic about the next few decades [a view inci­den­tally I share], but are reluc­tant to voice their con­cerns.  Per­haps they are afraid of being labeled doom-mongers or that their employ­ers [or politi­cians or indus­try] do not want to hear them?  One highly respected New Zealand atmos­pheric sci­en­tist has spo­ken out recently and lost his job [see also para 39 on legal risk].

A par­a­digm shift to a steady-state economy

A steady-state econ­omy is required in place of a steadily-growing econ­omy [albeit cur­rently emerg­ing from con­trac­tion] to avert cat­a­strophic col­lapse.   A steady-state econ­omy may seem a rad­i­cal con­cept but its alter­na­tive [the cur­rent econ­omy that is struc­turally required to grow beyond Earth’s abil­ity to sus­tain it] is com­pletely irra­tional.  Nev­er­the­less that has not dis­cour­aged [ratio­nal?] politi­cians and main­stream econ­o­mists from per­ceiv­ing eco­nomic growth as the prin­ci­pal objec­tive of eco­nomic pol­icy required to sus­tain a business-as-usual economy.

One of LTG’s pre­dic­tions in 1972 [para 24: that delib­er­ately lim­it­ing eco­nomic growth to achieve sus­tain­abil­ity will be very dif­fi­cult but not impos­si­ble] arguably may require recon­sid­er­a­tion in 2009.  The cur­rent GEC has resulted in a quasi steady-state [zero growth] econ­omy, albeit as a con­se­quence of finan­cial mis­man­age­ment and greed and in a highly unsat­is­fac­tory form.   It is not yet, in the words of George W Bush, ’mis­sion accomplished’.

Nev­er­the­less the GEC may have pro­vided, inad­ver­tently, an oppor­tu­nity to begin the required tran­si­tion.   By anal­ogy, it is eas­ier to escape from a vehi­cle while it is sta­tion­ary than while it is accel­er­at­ing towards the precipice.

The detailed fea­tures of a steady-state econ­omy are out­side the scope of this sub­mis­sion, beyond not­ing it would be carbon-neutral [or bet­ter], have sus­tain­able inputs from renew­able resources or recy­cling, and have out­puts [goods, ser­vices, and wastes] that didn’t fur­ther degrade the Earth’s biosphere.

Growth in those activ­i­ties that do not con­sume non-renewable inputs nor pro­duce out­puts that fur­ther degrade the bios­phere would be com­pat­i­ble with a steady-state econ­omy.  They include the cre­ation of knowl­edge and intel­lec­tual prop­erty [‘zero-mass’ exports], cul­tural and artis­tic enhance­ment, social and human­i­tar­ian activ­i­ties and ser­vices, sport, and recre­ation.  They are cus­tom­ar­ily not cap­tured by cur­rent mea­sures of eco­nomic per­for­mance such as GDP growth.

Human lifestyles in over-developed coun­tries are embed­ded in a socio-economic sys­tem addicted to over-employment.  Many jobs rep­re­sent exces­sive human activ­i­ties that, sus­tained by fos­sil fuels, pro­duce unnec­es­sary prod­ucts to meet exces­sive wants

As a thought exper­i­ment, a globally-mandated 20-hour work­ing week would halve car­bon emis­sions rapidly [New Sci­en­tist, 14 March 2009. p24], save the Earth from irre­versible global warm­ing, help to dis­tin­guish wants from needs, and address unem­ploy­ment – not a bad start.    Para­dox­i­cally, the man­date would be eas­ier to imple­ment in under-developed coun­tries where there is endemic under-employment than in over-developed coun­tries where there is endemic over-employment reflected by a chronic work-life imbalance.

Fur­ther­more, switch­ing from a work-dominated and materially-encumbered lifestyle to a more sus­tain­able lifestyle in which peo­ple work, pro­duce, and con­sume less would result in increased human hap­pi­ness [New Sci­en­tist, 18 Octo­ber 2008. p54].  A leisure soci­ety has real benefits.

A more mea­sured response than a globally-mandated 20-hour work­ing week would be to make the cur­rent quasi steady-state econ­omy more equi­table for its par­tic­i­pants.   Pro­pos­als from the recent New Zealand jobs sum­mit would facil­i­tate this more mea­sured response, includ­ing a nine-day fort­night albeit intended to pro­vide tem­po­rary respite until sus­tain­able [sic] eco­nomic growth resumes.   The dif­fer­ence between a nine-day fort­night and a globally-mandated 20-hour work­ing week, although sub­stan­tial, is only one of degree and the prin­ci­ple has been established.

Main­stream eco­nom­ics has few answers to the cur­rent GEC

In the after­math of the great­est eco­nomic calamity in 80 years, the rep­u­ta­tion of eco­nom­ics itself has taken a beat­ing.  The great­est weak­ness in eco­nom­ics today is eco­nomic his­tory [Finan­cial Times, 3 August 2009].

Two cen­tral com­po­nents of the so-called dis­mal sci­ence [macro­eco­nom­ics, finan­cial eco­nom­ics] are now being severely re-examined.  The three main cri­tiques offered are that macro and finan­cial main­stream econ­o­mists helped cause the cri­sis, failed to pre­dict it [as HM the Queen has noted], and have no idea or can­not agree on how to fix it [Edi­to­r­ial in The Econ­o­mist, 18 July 2009, p9].

Macro eco­nom­ics is now per­ceived as hav­ing been at best com­pletely use­less over the past 30 years and at worst pos­i­tively harm­ful accord­ing to Paul Krug­man of Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity and the New York Times [ibid, p58].  Finan­cial eco­nom­ics today is blighted by moral haz­ard includ­ing bank deposit guar­an­tees.  These may have saved the bank­ing sec­tor from total col­lapse but may also encour­age fur­ther impru­dent lend­ing that ini­ti­ated the col­lapse in the first instance [ibid, p62].

It appears main­stream eco­nom­ics has few answers to the cur­rent GEC other than business-as-usual wrong solu­tions.  Cen­tral banks hith­erto have stim­u­lated their economies and growth by reduc­ing their Offi­cial Cash Rates [OCRs] used to reg­u­late money sup­ply.  Since bor­row­ers can­not be paid to bor­row, OCRs can­not have neg­a­tive val­ues, yet sev­eral major economies cur­rently in strife have set their OCRs only frac­tion­ally above zero.  The cus­tom­ary levers are not working.

More dras­tic responses to the GEC include stim­u­lus pack­ages — injec­tions of tril­lions of dol­lars of credit [pub­lic money] into col­lapsed finan­cial sys­tems.  These injec­tions have not yet [or barely] resus­ci­tated eco­nomic growth, have loaded mas­sive debt onto future gen­er­a­tions, and have rewarded the greedy and prof­li­gate.   [Inter alia, New Zealand exporters com­plain that the NZD is ris­ing against the USD: per­haps the USD is plum­met­ing because of an exces­sive US stim­u­lus package?]

Look­ing back from 2055 to the Age of Stupid

The Age of Stu­pid is a 2008 film about cli­mate change.  Its cen­tral char­ac­ter, an Archivist liv­ing alone in the dev­as­tated world of 2055, looks at film footage of 2008 and laments why cli­mate change wasn’t stopped.   Despite warn­ings from con­cerned sci­en­tists, the actions of cur­rent polit­i­cal lead­ers sug­gest many are unin­formed or are in denial about the lim­its to growth and its many dire con­se­quences includ­ing cli­mate change.

Some illus­tra­tions of ques­tion­able actions include:

* the new National Gov­ern­ment in its first 100 days in office repeal­ing the out­go­ing Labour government’s 10-year mora­to­rium on new base-load fossil-fuelled power sta­tions; and

* Welling­ton City Coun­cil in April 2009 qui­etly aban­don­ing its plan to become carbon-neutral by 2012 offer­ing short-term sav­ings for ratepay­ers at who knows what real cost.

Both actions may make sense in an ortho­dox eco­nomic par­a­digm but are not sen­si­ble responses to the threat of cli­mate change.  They are also pre­dictable behav­iours: most humans includ­ing those in gov­ern­ment and busi­ness are func­tion­ing in an ortho­dox eco­nomic par­a­digm and plan for a business-as-usual future believ­ing that the future will be a sim­ple extrap­o­la­tion of the recent past.

Most humans includ­ing those in gov­ern­ment are obliv­i­ous to the dire warn­ings from sci­ence: for exam­ple, despite hav­ing lived on Earth for just 0.0035 per­cent of its his­tory, humans are dri­ving the cur­rent MEE and are accel­er­at­ing towards a cat­a­strophic col­lapse.  Both of these calami­ties are attrib­uted by sci­en­tists to unfet­tered pop­u­la­tion and eco­nomic growth.

It is uncon­scionable that politi­cians, despite these dire warn­ings, demon­strate their ongo­ing obses­sion with eco­nomic growth by actively remov­ing per­ceived con­straints on it: for exam­ple, recent amend­ments to the Resource Man­age­ment Act 1991 agreed by both major polit­i­cal parties.

It is the role of sci­en­tists – and econ­o­mists [failed] – to pre­dict future cat­a­strophic events [GEC] and the role of politi­cians to devise ways of avert­ing them tak­ing into account expert advice.  The sci­en­tists’ role is vir­tu­ally impos­si­ble within New Zealand’s cur­rent pub­lic sec­tor sci­ence sys­tem while funded sci­ence out­puts — unknow­able by def­i­n­i­tion – are decided by bureaucrats.

There is a miss­ing com­po­nent in pol­icy devel­op­ment — long-term futures research for­merly car­ried out by the ill-fated New Zealand Com­mis­sion For the Future [CFF] dur­ing the 5-year period 1978—1982.   Dis­clo­sure: I was a sec­re­tariat mem­ber of CFF dur­ing 1980—82.

CFF encoun­tered the clas­sic government-imbedded think tank dilemma.  If it told the gov­ern­ment only what the gov­ern­ment wanted to hear, it would be con­sid­ered redun­dant and accord­ingly dis­es­tab­lished.  If it told the gov­ern­ment what the gov­ern­ment didn’t want to hear, it would be con­sid­ered polit­i­cally embar­rass­ing and accord­ingly also dis­es­tab­lished — the fate of CFF in 1982.

A pos­si­ble res­o­lu­tion through con­testable expert pol­icy advice

The Prime Min­is­ter has recently estab­lished an infor­mal think tank [here­after des­ig­nated the A-team] headed by Dr Don Brash to advise the Gov­ern­ment on how to re-establish strong growth in the New Zealand econ­omy through inno­va­tion and other means to close a per­ceived gap in liv­ing stan­dards com­pared with Australia’s.

The tenor of this present sub­mis­sion is that such a strat­egy, with­out strong caveats, would be exactly what New Zealand should not be try­ing to do – i.e. accel­er­ate towards the cat­a­strophic col­lapse pre­dicted by scientists.

An appro­pri­ate res­o­lu­tion would be for the Prime Min­is­ter to estab­lish a sec­ond infor­mal think tank [here­after des­ig­nated the B-team] — per­haps chaired by his chief sci­ence adviser Dr Peter Gluck­man – to pro­vide expert con­testable advice.  Its very wide brief would include pre­dict­ing, or at least imag­in­ing, what New Zealand might be fac­ing in 2050.

Its evidence-based research would encom­pass: the con­se­quences of exceed­ing the lim­its to growth as CSIRO under­took in 2008 [paras 33—34], cli­mate change, peak oil, oceanic acid­i­fi­ca­tion etc; and what New Zealand should be doing now to improve its sur­vival prospects beyond 2050.   The Age of Stu­pid look­ing back from 2055 would pro­vide rel­e­vant moti­va­tion for conjecture.

An advan­tage of such an approach over [say] re-establishing a government-embedded CFF is that the Gov­ern­ment would not be oblig­ated to take any notice of either think tank.  It would, how­ever, be able to cherry-pick their respec­tive rec­om­men­da­tions that jus­ti­fied long-term, poten­tially unpop­u­lar poli­cies intended to enhance New Zealand’s sur­vival prospects beyond 2050.

It would be unsur­pris­ing if the A-team adopted the cur­rent eco­nomic par­a­digm and the B-team adopted a new green eco­nomic par­a­digm informed by evidence-based science.

Accord­ingly the A-team could rea­son­ably be expected to devel­oped cogent argu­ments for:

– addi­tional base-load fossil-fuelled power sta­tions to meet growth in elec­tric­ity demand;

* expand­ing new motor­way construction;

* weak­en­ing the emis­sions trad­ing scheme to min­imise neg­a­tive effects on eco­nomic growth; and

* an expan­sion of min­ing into the con­ser­va­tion estate, etc.

The B-team could also rea­son­ably be expected devel­oped cogent argu­ments for:

* rein­stat­ing a mora­to­rium on the con­struc­tion of new base-load fossil-fuelled power stations;

* intro­duc­ing a mora­to­rium on new motor­way construction;

* strength­ened car­bon emis­sion reduc­tion tar­gets [e.g. SignOn’s 350ppm, 40% by 2020]; and

* impo­si­tion of a full-cost car­bon tax on all non-sustainable extrac­tive indus­tries, etc.

The Gov­ern­ment would be strate­gi­cally placed to decide on the respec­tive mer­its of con­testable advice pre­sented by both teams, whereas cur­rently it hears almost exclu­sively A-team advice.

[Digres­sion on atmos­pheric CO2: lev­els have increased from 280ppm [parts per mil­lion] pre-industrial rev­o­lu­tion to 387ppm today.  A level of 350ppm pro­posed by SignOn is widely accepted as a max­i­mum ’safe’ ele­vated level.  450ppm has been sug­gested as a com­pro­mise between what is ’safe’ and what is ’achiev­able’.  How­ever the West Antarc­tic ice­cap has pre­vi­ously dis­in­te­grated – caus­ing a sea level rise of 5m – at CO2 lev­els of 450ppm: accord­ingly 450ppm can­not be con­sid­ered ’safe’.  China antic­i­pates its indus­tri­al­i­sa­tion will increase global CO2 lev­els to 600ppm and mean tem­per­a­ture by 4°C. See para 12 for the pre­dicted con­se­quences of a 4°C rise for China.  Evi­dently the dire warn­ings of sci­en­tists are not heeded by Chi­nese polit­i­cal lead­ers and economists.]

Sir Nicholas Stern in his report to the UK Gov­ern­ment on the eco­nom­ics of cli­mate change argues that the pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple must be applied for poten­tially high impact events such as cli­mate change.   The costs of an inad­e­quate response if sci­en­tific con­cerns prove to be valid will mas­sively out­weigh the costs of over-responding if sci­en­tific con­cerns prove to be over­stated.  On a pure eco­nomic risk analy­sis, over-responding to the risk of cli­mate change is prudent.

The CO2 level of 350ppm pro­posed by SignOn sat­is­fies the pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple.  [Digres­sion on Greenpeace’s cam­paign: its object is surely to save human civil­i­sa­tion, not to ’save the cli­mate’.  Noth­ing that humans can do will affect the cli­mate or bio­di­ver­sity over longer-term [geo­log­i­cal] time scales.  The Earth and its bio­di­ver­sity are resilient: human civil­i­sa­tion is not.]

Four (John) Key ques­tions: a new Age of Fetterism?

This sub­mis­sion posits that the sur­vival of human civil­i­sa­tion beyond mid-century requires a new green eco­nomic par­a­digm informed by evidence-based sci­ence in which eco­nomic growth and pop­u­la­tion growth are ade­quately fet­tered.   The cur­rent Age of Stu­pid char­ac­terised by unfet­tered growth and free-market cap­i­tal­ism some­how has to tran­si­tion into a new Age of Fetterism.

HRH the Prince of Wales has long called on peo­ple and politi­cians to rethink their atti­tudes to the planet, eco­nomic growth, and con­sump­tion.  This submission’s con­tent is con­sis­tent with HRH’s advo­cacy.  Respond­ing pri­vately to an ear­lier draft of it, HRH made the pre­scient obser­va­tion that humans ’must now always put the envi­ron­ment before the econ­omy and not the other way round as we have always done’.   As arguably the Earth’s best known Fet­ter­ist, HRH urges that B-team argu­ments must always pre­vail [paras 70—71], some­thing that rarely hap­pens today.

The require­ments for avert­ing a human cat­a­stro­phe by mid-century if that is still pos­si­ble are:

* polit­i­cal recog­ni­tion that unfet­tered con­sumerism is unsus­tain­able in a finite biosphere;

– polit­i­cal recog­ni­tion that unfet­tered growth will lead to a cat­a­strophic col­lapse mid-century;

* polit­i­cal com­mit­ment to poli­cies [guided by the pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple] and pol­icy imple­men­ta­tions [actions] that pro­vide ade­quate fet­ter­ing of eco­nomic growth required to avert the dis­as­trous con­se­quences of unfet­tered growth includ­ing run­away global warn­ing [para 20] and a cat­a­strophic col­lapse [para 35]; and

* rapid and sub­stan­tial global reduc­tions in car­bon emis­sions to ’safe’ lev­els: i.e. 350ppm, 40% by 2050 [para 73].

Ade­quate fet­ter­ing of eco­nomic growth to avert a human cat­a­stro­phe is the respon­si­bil­ity of politi­cians.  Sci­en­tists are respon­si­ble for advis­ing politi­cians on what needs to be done but it is politi­cians who must decide how it is to be done.  It is politi­cians who are account­able for their deci­sions or lack of deci­sions: i.e. ’act now or face cli­mate cat­a­stro­phe’ [paras 12—13].

The Inter­na­tional Con­fer­ence in Copen­hagen [Decem­ber 2009] to set car­bon emis­sion reduc­tion tar­gets replac­ing the Kyoto agree­ment could be the most sig­nif­i­cant con­fer­ence in human history.

Q1: Do the Copen­hagen tar­gets and ongo­ing responses to the GEC offer last chances for avert­ing a human catastrophe?

Q2: Have humans missed that last chance if Dr Bollard’s opti­mism [para 1] proves jus­ti­fied and/or the Copen­hagen con­fer­ence fails to reach an agreement?

Q3: Could tar­gets set at Copen­hagen and ongo­ing responses to the GEC allow ade­quate fet­ter­ing of eco­nomic growth to avert the dis­as­trous con­se­quences of unfet­tered growth; and

Q4:  If not, are most humans des­tined to be part of the cur­rent Mass Extinc­tion Event?