And 50 billion tons. That’s the magic number. That’s how much we can take from the environment for our own purposes each year without destroying the underlying web of life.
There are days when it's tempting to see the good in everyone who isn’t part of the Trump circus, especially when it comes to the environment. Compared to the US president and his Republican enablers - the feeling suggests - the rest of the world has its act together. The Paris Agreement might not be perfect, but it’s got the backing of 194 nations - and it’s got the right ambition.
We need to check this feeling. It is of course true that Trump stands out for rejecting Paris, as well as for dismantling the limited protections the environment had under federal law. But how different - really - is his agenda from the mainstream consensus on what to do about environmental crises? The sobering truth is, not as much as we might like to assume.
The top economic aide to Dmitry Medvedev, then Russian president, let the cat out of the bag in July 2009, just ahead of the Copenhagen Climate Summit. “We won’t sacrifice economic growth for the sake of emission reduction,” he told reporters.
Web of life
There you have it. It happened to be a Russian adviser saying it - but it could have been practically any mainstream politician. Economic growth is the paramount global political objective. Because, of course, when the heavy wheels of the economy slow, things start to shudder and fall apart. It’s the economy, stupid.
This logic is all-pervasive. Trump might take it to the ridiculous degree that more production and consumption is actively good for the environment, but the assumed need for growth even persists in the 2015 UN Sustainable Development Goals and the 2016 Paris Climate Accord.
In documents like these, though, it is called ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ growth. What this means is that they call for and simultaneously promise a form of growth that benefits from such technological innovations and efficiencies that it ceases to cause unsustainable damage to the environment.
There are two sides to the environmental coin: the chemical make-up of the atmosphere and oceans, which is what drives climate disruption, and the linked but separate rate at which we take and use materials and life forms. Both tell the same story. Let’s look at the latter, as it tends to be more often overlooked.
And 50 billion tons. That’s the magic number. That’s how much we can take from the environment for our own purposes each year without destroying the underlying web of life. This includes everything from raw materials to livestock, minerals to metals: everything humans consume.
Right now, we’re using about 80 billion tons each year – roughly 60% more than the safe limit. This is why there has been a 40 percent drop in the amount of phytoplankton in the last 50 years; a species upon which the ocean food web, and thus much of human civilisation, rests.
It is why we have smashed through four out of nine planetary boundaries, one of which is genetic diversity. It is why we have triggered the sixth mass extinction event in planet’s 14 billion year history, with around 200 species now going extinct every 24 hours; as much as 10,000 times the background rate.
As any evolutionary biologist will tell you, the eradication of species on this scale has the very real potential of destabilising the whole ecosystem. Our habitats, which is another way of saying, our ability to live, evolved in this now rapidly-degrading ecosystem.
We cannot unravel the underlying web of life without also unravelling many of the structures and ways of life that define this civilisation, because the latter are, ultimately, entirely and completely dependent on the former.
In order for growth to genuinely be “green”, then, we need to be able to get back down to 50 billion tons, while continuing to grow GDP. There have been three major studies looking at the feasibility of this proposition.
In 2012, a team of scientists ran a model showing that under the current business-as-usual conditions, we will be using a staggering 180 billion tons per year by 2050. At over three times the safe limit, this unquestionably threatens the ecological basis on which human civilisation depends.
A second team tried again in 2015, and found that even with aggressive policy measures like a carbon price rising to $250 per ton and a doubling of technological efficiency, we hit about 95 billion tons by 2050. And bear in mind, of course, we’re a long way, politically, from any carbon taxes at all, let alone $250 per ton.
Finally, in 2017, the UN Environment Program released its own research. They assumed a carbon price of $573 per ton, a material extraction tax, and rapid technological innovation all around the world. The result? 132 billion tons per a year by 2050.
The evidence could not be clearer: there’s no making growth genuinely green. We might as well try and turn the sky green. There is simply no possibility of continuing to grow our globally-organised, hyper-consumptive way of life. That party is over, save for the realisation.
The question is, if not endless economic growth, then what? An essential first step is to change how we define progress, which means changing GDP in favour of something like the Genuine Progress Indicator.
Buying and selling
Replace the childish idea that progress must always mean growth in the size of the economy with the idea that progress also means maturing, and that it has to do with the many dimensions of life that contribute to wellbeing rather than the crude ability to make more profit and buy more stuff.
Rich countries and large corporations must lead the way to allow ecological space for poorer parts of the world, even as we all embrace the possibilities for thriving within circular economic models.
Cracks are already appearing in the consensus around GDP; be it the large and growing degrowth movement, or political leaders like New Zealand Prime Minster Jacinda Ardern who recently declared, “It will no longer be good enough to say a policy is successful because it increases GDP".
And this is coming on the heels of some other high-profile realizations. IMF head Christine Lagarde, and Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz have both stressed that as the world changes, so too should the way we measure progress.
Even Simon Kuznets, the man who invented GDP, knew it was the wrong measure. As explained by MIT Professor Erik Brynjolfsson to a gathering of the World Economic Forum in Davos, “He understood that GDP is not a welfare measure....It counts the things that we’re buying and selling, but it’s quite possible for GDP to go in the opposite direction of welfare”.
There’s a stark choice to be made: stick with GDP growth as our Prime Directive and continue to unpick the web of life, or evolve beyond it and create new possibilities for human and planetary flourishing.
Martin Kirk is co-founder and director of strategy for /The Rules, a global collective of writers, thinkers, coders, farmers, artists and activists of all types dedicated to challenging the root causes of global poverty and inequality. Prior to /TR Martin was the head of campaigns at Oxfam UK, and head of global advocacy for Save the Children.