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Economic Growth is Killing Us Part 3: Warnings and Solutions
Climate scientists at the Post Carbon Institution have concluded that, “The human economy is currently too big to be sustainable.” Moreover, the “Global Footprint Network…informs us that humanity is now using 1.5 Earths’ worth of resources.” This overuse of resources can only go on so long. We need to take deliberate, immediate and drastic action or face global environmental collapse.
Here is a list of problems we face as mentioned in parts 1 and part 2 of “Economic Growth is Killing Us”:
1. Population Growth
2. Decline in fossil fuels for rapid economic growth
3. Climate Change
4. Decrease in biomass and carbon sinks
5. Reduction in potable water and water for agriculture
6. Reduction in arable land (desertification)
7. Food production is not able to meet population growth, mass world hunger
8. The agricultural industries environmental impact and use of resources
9. Health of the hydrosphere
10. Reduction of available minerals for industry
Despite all of these issues, each having the capacity to end growth and lead to dire economic and environmental disasters, there is hope. There are many concerned people working on these issues. The real barrier is politics: getting governments to listen and take action. However, we can make a difference as individuals.
In order to address the expansion and collapse of human populations on this planet, we must address all of these issues. This can’t be done piece meal. There is no magic bullet, one shot solution. The most likely scenario at this point is that there will be a major extinction event, the sixth this planet has faced. There is evidence that we are in the middle of such extinctions, “…we are currently running at 1000 times the normal rate.” And extinction this time around might include humans or major portions or the human population.
We are in trouble, for “If you look at the past, the driver of four out of the five mass extinctions has been carbon dioxide…by eliminating species, we’re actually producing an environment that is conducive to disease.” Reducing the world’s population is technically easy but politically difficult. A mass die off of humanity might be the only way for the species to survive.
We have two choices. We can reduce the planet’s human population over time from 7 billion to 2 billion to continue our high standard of living, or we can all live like the people in the poorest nations, without electricity, without internet, and living off of marginal land, “Current global population of over 7 billion is already two to three times higher than the sustainable level. Several recent studies show that Earth’s resources are enough to sustain only about 2 billion people at a European standard of living.” The best idea is a combination of a reduction of resource use and a reduction in the human population.
The first solution is to have only one-child families, “One child families can save humanity!” There is an economic myth that says you need ever growing populations to sustain us as we get older. First, if that happens, we can say goodbye to humanity. However, if we changed our economic system, change the way we allocate resources, and allow nature to take its course, it can be done.
Family planning education can reduce population, for example, in countries like Iran. Educating women and offering birth control for free is another solution to our population problem. It also increases the economy of nations where women attain a higher education.
We must also address the end of fossil fuels. There are three strategies for solving the fossil fuel resource crisis. First, we can look for more costly and harder to extract and more polluting resources like Alberta tar sands oil, deep sea oil deposits, drilling for oil in the arctic or fracking. All are more expensive than near surface deposits and all cause extreme amounts of environmental damage as I wrote in parts 1 and 2 of this report. Second, we can develop alternative sources of energy such as solar, wind, geothermal, wave power and others. However, those energy sources don’t give the same return of power for resources used and still consume resources to develop. The third way to address the reduction of fossil fuels is to reduce our consumption. Reducing consumption is the only way to address the GHG released by use of fossil fuels. Part of that would be accomplished by reducing the earth’s population.
Radical ways to deal with this is to use more human power for fueling our homes. Human power is fueled by renewable plants and animals on this planet (food). Hook people up to generators to produce their own energy with a bicycle, plant your own food to reduce resource use and buy more local products. For example, pedal powered washing machines can not only be hooked up to wash laundry, but a generator can be attached to produce energy.
Anthropogenic climate change is the overriding problem. Reducing the use of fossil fuels will help address climate change. However, there are other things we need to do. We need to reduce the consumption of certain foods that release greenhouse gases such as ruminants (cows, lambs, sheep and others). First, we can reduce the consumption of these animals. That is something everyone can do with little sacrifice. We can also give them natural grasses that will reduce their methane production.
For more on what food to eliminate or reduce from your diet, read my post on Top Ten Worst Food for the Planet. Obviously, beef is out.
Some agricultural economists say we can cut GHG emissions from agriculture by 30%. Much of that could be saved in feed, transportation and how we treat animal waste. It is essential that we eat locally grown meats, as much as possible. That is another reason that it’s completely unreasonable that the U.S. F.D.A. approved sending U.S. chickens to China to save poultry companies a few dollars in slaughtering costs. Many of the chickens will then be sent back to the U.S. for consumption. It at least triples the carbon output and energy use from transportation to send the chickens back and forth over the Pacific Ocean for processing.
Less hay and more corn for animals can reduce methane production in cattle as do pellets created of hay and alfalfa. Farmers can also grind up corn can make these foods easier to digest and thus reduce the methane belching in cows, “Cattle fed diets high in carbohydrates typically have a faster rate of weight gain. Highly digestible feeds like corn and distillers grains are more easily digestible than grass or hay.” There are other options for high-fiber diets including soybean husks. However, using these grains can lead to other problems as corn uses a lot of fertilizers and herbicides that release GHG into the environment and pollute our waterways.
Another solution is to use manure for fertilizer and capture methane and other gases for energy use. Covered areas and methane capture facilities will help. Reducing herd sizes also reduces GHG emissions. Open grazing on land will also help reduce total emissions from farms. Raising awareness of livestock’s role in GHG emissions will be required to reduce consumption and improve production methods.
Of course, these issues would be minimized if we scale back the world population by sticking to one child per family.
We need to keep Earth's biomass at a sustainable level to capture the carbon humans release into the atmosphere. Decreasing biomass leads to an increase in global warming by decreasing the amount of carbon captured by plants. This decrease in biomass also reduces the fertility of the land by reducing rotting biomass that replaces nitrogen in the soil. More fertilizer is used to replace that missing nitrogen, creating more environmental issues. And with deforestation, droughts are more likely, which in turn reduces biomass.
Another solution would be to leave, “…rainforests intact and harvesting it's many nuts, fruits, oil-producing plants, and medicinal plants, the rainforest has more economic value than if they were cut down to make grazing land for cattle or for timber.” Moreover, “The latest statistics show that rainforest land converted to cattle operations yields the land owner $60 per acre and if timber is harvested, the land is worth $400 per acre. However, if these renewable and sustainable resources are harvested, the land will yield the land owner $2,400 per acre.” The rainforest has more value intact than clear cut.
Humanity must keep destructive and extractive multinational corporations out of the rainforests. We need more world commons and less large agriculture to increase the world’s total biomass to address climate change. The world must promote the local economic benefits of the rainforests, i.e. medicines, nuts, fruits and other foods. And we must keep big pharma and other companies from patenting the rainforest products, “Since the philosophy of a free-market economy encourages individuals and corporations to utilize the environment to their maximum benefit, without considering environmental effects, it has contributed to the present situation. Northern-based institutions seek access to tropical biodiversity for the primary purpose of developing patented and profitable products.” (ibid)
The lives of the people who call the rainforest home matter little to these pharmaceuticals, let alone all the species that live there. Let the local population use the rainforest to create medicine to patent so more people benefit.
Two things we can do other than create awareness and try to elect local candidates that understand the value of our resources (right now, working to elect national candidates seems pointless), is 1) stop using products containing palm oil, and 2) don’t eat Brazilian beef (or beef in general), a product too often produced on land where rainforests used to be.
Humans are polluting their water supplies. As we know, “As the earth’s temperature continues to rise, we can expect a significant impact on our fresh water supplies with the potential for devastating effects on these resources. As temperatures increase, evaporation increases, sometimes resulting in droughts. The U.S. is currently in one of the most severe, multi-state, multi-year droughts in decades.”
There is also the loss of glaciers, an essential part of watersheds all over the world. Moreover, “The relationship between climate change and water doesn’t end there. The systems used to treat and move public water supplies require large amounts of energy, produced mainly by burning coal, natural gas, oil and other fossil fuels.” So, when we use water we also use energy and contribute to climate change. (ibid)
Reclaiming and reusing water, “...is an imperative in the face of a growing national population and the challenges posed by a changing climate…The United States Conference of Mayors estimates that $4.8 trillion in capital investment will be needed over the next 20 years to repair water and wastewater systems and maintain current levels of service. It’s a daunting task, but it also represents an enormous opportunity.”
Infrastructure investment in reclaiming and reusing water resources is needed if we are to maintain water resources for today and the future. Not only will this reduce our impact on the planet, but it could create thousands of permanent jobs.
We must stop the spread of deserts to keep land livable for human habitation. Deserts from the Sahara, the Gobi, the Atacama and Sonoran are expanding. First, we must stop desertification. Then we must reverse it.
Some ways to reduce and prevent desertification include: water management systems, vegetation protection, the creation of more green zones, working with farms and industries to reduce use, reusing water, utilizing local and indigenous agricultural techniques that were developed for thousands of years before massive irrigation and water drilling reduced the need for conservation. We must go back to traditional, low water agriculture techniques.
Again, reducing the world's population would also help address this issue.
Research on reducing desertification:
A major problem in addressing our growth issues is that market maximization and profit based on incentives is counterproductive to long term sustainability. Welfare, poverty mitigation programs, and other aid to small farmers, especially in third world countries, will be necessary to keep food production worldwide at its maximum. Regular market policies that are promoted in the FAO report linked above won’t solve the problem. Again, I look at the Heinberg analysis that tells us that market forces created this global climate and food crisis and market forces won’t solve them.
The sharp increase in food prices in 2008 was due mainly to market speculation in staples and other food products. Free floating market-based grain prices is not the way to have stable prices and food security. Only by taking food off the speculative markets and focusing on local production will there be increased food security for people and nations of the world. And we must stop feeding livestock human food, for “the bulk of industrially-produced grain crops goes to biofuels and confined animal feedlots rather than food for the 1 billion hungry. The call to double food production by 2050 only applies if we continue to prioritize the growing livestock population and automobiles over hungry people.”
Moreover, even when there is a bumper crop, hunger goes up, “The extraordinary increase of hunger during the recent food crisis in 2007/2008 occurred in spite of a record cereal harvest in 2008. This is a clear reminder that ensuring an adequate supply…does not guarantee that all people have enough to eat and that hunger will be eliminated.”
Guaranteed salaries for farmers no matter how much they produce is one solution. There could be added incentives if they produce more, but they will be guaranteed a living wage, regardless of output. Food should be considered a human right and food production a global, cooperative human project. And this project should focus on local food sources while sharing farming techniques and technologies globally.
There are also crops and food we need to reduce or stop consuming if we are serious about slowing climate change.
Humans must drastically change our land use. First, reduce the consumption of beef, “The popular red meat requires 28 times more land to produce than pork or chicken, 11 times more water and results in five times more climate-warming emissions. When compared to staples like potatoes, wheat, and rice, the impact of beef per calorie is even more extreme, requiring 160 times more land and producing 11 times more greenhouse gases.”
Moreover, agriculture is a significant driver of global warming and causes 15% of all emissions, half of which are from livestock. Furthermore, the huge amounts of grain and water needed to raise cattle is a concern to experts worried about feeding an extra 2 billion people by 2050. But previous calls for people to eat less meat in order to help the environment, or preserve grain stocks, have been highly controversial.”
About 15-20% of all GHG emission result from deforestation. There are some plans to reduce emissions by planting and saving forests, giving poor farmers compensation for guarding forests, “By creating incentives to keep forests intact, REDD+ has the potential to not only limit climate change but also protect biodiversity and livelihoods.”
However, this is not a long term solution as long as people will pay money for coffee, cocoa, palm oil and other products produced by clear cutting forests. Unless demand changes through reduced consumption or reduced populations, deforestation will continue. Shade grown agriculture is an effective solution to reduce the climate impacts of coffee and cocoa production.
Unfortunately, the earth’s oceans and water ways are also losing it’s ability to provide food for human populations. As mentioned in parts 1 and 2 of this article, fish stocks are declining all over the world due to overfishing and destruction of the earth’s hydrosphere. Japanese fishermen have faced declines in all their commercial fish stocks, and “To ensure sustainable management of these fish stocks, it is essential to set a species-specific total allowable catch at a level that would not negatively impact the populations of these species.”
Today, 47% of the fish we eat now is factory farmed. However, aquaculture doesn’t solve the worlds fish stock and food problems. A major concern is that in order to produce desirable, high value fish, you have to use more fish than you produce. For example, to raise 1 kg of salmon, you have to feed it 5 kg of wild fish. That is not sustainable nor a net positive in calories for humans.
The only way to end overfishing is through regulation of harvesting. There will continue to be overfishing unless harsh penalties are put in place for those that break fishing quotas. (See previous installments for more on this crisis.)
We are also salinating our fresh water supplies at an ever higher pace. Chemical runoff from agriculture has added more chlorine and salt to our fresh water, and “Given its global scale, international collaboration is needed to investigate the impact of freshwater salinization on ecosystem functioning and human welfare and to look for management solutions.”
Meanwhile, we are changing the ph balance of the oceans. Acidification of the oceans occurs because, “Some of the CO2 pollution dissolves into the ocean, creating carbonic acid and making the ocean more acidic…Acidification makes it harder for organisms to make shells or other protective structures -- they essentially dissolve in the more acidic water. So reducing your own carbon footprint and helping reduce the carbon footprint of others is essential. The obvious solutions include driving less, eating less or no beef, and so forth. Buying food grown without pesticides and herbicides will also help reduce the chemical runoff into the oceans, lakes, rivers and other waterways
Industrial mining also produces massive pollution. Unfortunately, some people think that “Mining can become more environmentally sustainable1 by developing and integrating practices that reduce the environmental impact of mining operations...measures such as reducing water and energy consumption, minimizing land disturbance and waste production, preventing soil, water, and air pollution at mine sites, and conducting successful mine closure and reclamation activities.” Again, like Heinberg, I am doubtful that neoliberal solutions can fix the environmental problems with neoliberalism.
Some earth minerals are more renewable than others. Some are rare and some of the less rare minerals that have industrial uses such as diamonds may some day be synthesized. However, all require energy inputs to become useful and use energy when used.
Since the 1980s, however, these minerals are being more efficiently used, up to 50% more value per ton of material. However, use of these minerals has increased by 70%. We must reduce, reuse, and find cheaper more abundant minerals to replace them. There is no easy solution, but the good news is some minerals are highly recyclable, though it takes energy to reuse them.
Another problem is that “…about one fifth of the raw materials extracted worldwide ends up as waste. This corresponds to over 12 billion tonnes (Gt) of waste per year.” (ibid, OECD) And while recycling is increasing in general, there is a reduction of recycling of certain products such as plastics, for there is little market for the plastics when oil prices are low. We need to pass laws that not only give incentives for recycling but punishing those who don’t.
We need to keep a large percentage of what fossil fuels are left in the ground if we want to stop climate change, “Three-quarters of known fossil fuel reserves must be kept in the ground if humanity is to avoid the worst effects of climate change, a group of leading scientists and economists have said in a statement timed to coincide with Earth Day.”
We must stop the neoliberal growth model that will kill us, “...there is no theoretical reason or empirical evidence to support the notion that all the growth of the financial sector in the last 40 years has been beneficial to society.”” In fact, this growth has increase income inequality and increased climate change. (see parts 1 and 2 for more)
Germany is highlighted as a nation that has taken on the challenge of climate change by producing over 75% of their energy regularly from renewables. However, if only a few nations like Germany address this challenge, and nations that export to Germany such as China with 9% of German imports and Russia around 3%, they are still a major contributor to the increase of GHG globally through consumption.
However, there are other hopeful indicators, “In the past six months, both China and India have announced steps to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, which would decrease their Ecological Footprints. China, in particular, has invested substantially in renewable energy, and its decades-long focus on reducing fertility has also helped preserve its biocapacity per person. But more recent news that China’s annual GDP growth should remain at 7 percent for the years to come suggests its Ecological Footprint will continue on an upward trajectory…” The double challenge for some nations is low biocapacity and low income.
And India and China are still using massive amounts of fossil fuels along with the U.S. and Europe.
Solar Roadway Solution?
Most of the world is facing this double challenge, “Overall, approximately 71 percent of the world’s population lives in nations with a double challenge: They earn below world-average income (based on Gross National Income) and are running a biocapacity deficit."
What if growth is no longer possible
As growth is currently conceptualized, it requires an educated workforce, technological advances, and fossil fuels. However, “we now understand…that the postwar growth paradigm is not environmentally sustainable.” And as we have seen the last few decades, we realize that growth is not evenly distributed throughout the globe. And with the earth’s current population, “There is simply not enough planetary bio-capacity to grow our way out of the messy moral discussions of distribution.” (ibid) Inequality is not just a poorly functioning market and distribution mechanism, it is part of the growth model itself.
Oxfam recognizes that human populations are suffering under the weight of massive inequality, and it’s ready to explode, for “…1 in 9 people do not have enough to eat and more than a billion people still live on less than $1.25-a-day." They conclude this message with a warning about global revolts on a scale never seen in human history.
Oxfam’s 7 point solution includes:
(1) Clamp down on tax dodging by corporations and the rich,
(2) invest in universal, free public services health, education etc.,
(3) Fair tax laws to shift taxation from labour and consumption towards capital and wealth,
(4) Enforcing minimum wages and a living wage for all workers,
(5) Equal pay and conditions for women,
(6) Adequate safety-nets for the poorest,
(7) And a global goal to tackle inequality.
We need more structural change than that, such as a Universal Basic Income, end of profit, a retaking of the commons around the world and a global bill or rights that guarantees food, work, and shelter for everyone on the planet.
Redistribution of existing wealth is a short term solution. It won’t solve our long term growth issues and the loss of resources in general. As resources diminish, a larger percentage of what is left of the wealth of the world will be held by the top 1% as it has since the end of WWII at an ever increasing rate.
Heinberg, author of End of Growth states, “…our economy is hitting biophysical limits at a speed and scale that are outpacing humanity’s ability to adapt. The most critical limit to economic growth is the availability of affordable fossil fuels…” Paul Krugman thinks we can solve our problems with slight changes in our neoliberal focus and some scientific solutions. However, climate change isn’t the only problem, even though it might be the most pressing, “Ultimately…economic growth is incompatible with a finite planet. The world faces a suite of ecological problems related to water, soil, and biodiversity, all stemming from past growth, and all seemingly requiring reduction in human consumption levels…”
World hunger stats will only get worse:
- The vast majority of the world's hungry people live in developing countries, where 13.5 percent of the population is undernourished.
- Asia is the continent with the most hungry people - two thirds of the total. The percentage in southern Asia has fallen in recent years but in western Asia it has increased slightly.
- Sub-Saharan Africa is the region with the highest prevalence (percentage of population) of hunger. One person in four there is undernourished.
- Poor nutrition causes nearly half (45%) of deaths in children under five - 3.1 million children each year.
- One out of six children -- roughly 100 million -- in developing countries is underweight.
- One in four of the world's children are stunted. In developing countries the proportion can rise to one in three.
- If women farmers had the same access to resources as men, the number of hungry in the world could be reduced by up to 150 million.
- 66 million primary school-age children attend classes hungry across the developing world, with 23 million in Africa alone.
- WFP calculates that US$3.2 billion is needed per year to reach all 66 million hungry school-age children.”
Solutions to the problems of growth, as well as those mentioned thus far, should include:
Stop having kids and only adopt.
That will require having a sustainable economic system that does rely on social security from new workers to pay for retired workers.
A systematic de-growth campaign is necessary in order to keep our planet habitable in our future.
Steps to de-growth will include:
- Replacing fossil fuels with renewable sources including human and animal power
- The end of beef production and consumption.
- Stop feeding human food, cereals and grains, to livestock. Pigs will eat scraps, peels of everything and chickens and other fowl will eat bugs and grasses. We don’t need to be feeding pigs corn.
- Grow and eat local food, food produced as close as possible to our homes to reduce the energy and cost of shipping.
- Practice agriculture without fossil fuel fertilizers and with more human labor instead of machines. Moreover, mix forests with food production.
- Car use for only emergencies.
- Take care of the aging population through cooperatives.
If we don’t take drastic steps before 2025-50, the planet will surpass its tipping points for human habitation.
Arturo Escobar, in his book Imagining a Post-Development Era? Critical Thought, Development and Social Movements, discusses the history of development, “Development was chiefly a matter of capital, technology, and education and the appropriate policy and planning mechanisms to successfully combine these elements.” However, after early successes, the development model has failed. The developed world invests in and funds development that has worked for them, “development seems to be one of the last and most insidious chapters…” of Western hegemonic development. (ibid)
Escobar and others warn us that industrialization, family planning, Green revolutions and trade policies have failed, because they “‘…all exist within the same space, all repeat the same basic truth, namely, that development is about paving the way for the achievement of those conditions that characterize rich societies: industrialization, agricultural modernization, and urbanization…Seeking to eradicate all problems, it actually ended up multiplying them to infinity.’” (ibid) For example, the technologies of the green revolution exist within the economic space of capitalism, and thus aren’t solutions. If green technologies can be decoupled from neoliberalism, they mgiht serve as a viable solution. As it is, they will only lead to more consumption and be available only to only rich nations and people.
The problem is with capitalism itself and the terms capitalism sets on development. Even the term “third world” is a capitalist invention. Development was the Trojan horse that allowed developed countries to extract value from third world and developing countries. Neoliberalism and economic colonialism means value in minerals, precious metals, fossil fuels and cheap labor was and is extracted from the periphery to the metropole.
Local and indigenous social movements are an important solution to the problematic development of the IMF, World Bank and investors from wealthy nations. They are the only actors that can break neoliberal hegemony and create a sustainable economy at the end of growth.
Neoliberal development leads to a loss of resources and long turn damage to sustained growth. Destruction of the Brazilian rain forest is a prime example of this as the loss of forest land and is one of the causes of the current Brazil drought.
To the horror of environmental activists, soybeans are claiming increasingly bigger swaths of rainforest to make way for plantations, adding to the inroads by ranching. The Amazon has lost some 10,000 square miles of forest cover last year alone -- 40 percent more than the year before.” We can thank neoliberal, top down, hegemonic economic strategies for the loss of the rain forests.
Only if we drop neoliberalism, stop practicing the zero sum logic of capitalism, work for each other as a collection of world citizens instead of for our neoliberal masters in enclaves we call nations, can we end this economic development that is well on its way to killing us.