This provocative report by Neil K. Dawe, director of the Qualicum Institute, appeared in the spring of 2008 in Salt Spring Island Conservancy’s newsletter, the Acorn:
For unnumbered centuries of human history the wilderness has given way. The priority of industry has become dogma. Are we as yet sufficiently enlightened to realize that we must now challenge that dogma, or do without our wilderness? — Aldo Leopold
In March, 2005, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) was released. This report, based on the work of over 1,300 scientists, is the most comprehensive look at the state of the Earth’s ecosystems ever completed. It reports some significant conclusions:
“Human activity is putting such strain on the natural functions of Earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.
The provision of food, fresh water, energy, and materials to a growing population has come at considerable cost to the complex systems of plants, animals, and biological processes that make the planet habitable.”
After over a century of conservation efforts around the world, 60% of the 24 ecosystem services the MEA reviewed were either being degraded or used unsustainably; they noted that “Human activities have taken the planet to the edge of a massive wave of species extinctions, further threatening our own well-being.”
The 2007 IUCN Red List for Threatened Species supports the MEA findings, noting that over 20% of the species in the groups where most of their species have been assessed (Gymnosperms, amphibians, birds, mammals) are now in danger of extinction. And only 3% of the world’s 1.9 million described species have been assessed.
Other studies have shown similar results. The Global Ecological Footprint analysis to 2003 indicates that humanity exceeded the carrying capacity of the biosphere in the mid-1980s. The Living Planet Index, shows that we have eroded about 40% of our natural capital since 1970, a little over one human generation.
Now, consider this: today we have more wildlife professionals and environmental organizations and volunteers working on more ecological research, and environmental awareness, education, and stewardship programs than ever before; we have more rules and legislated regulations in place to protect biodiversity; more conservation and ecosystem restoration projects; and more protected areas than ever before. Despite all this effort, there is more environmental degradation than ever before. What conservationists are collectively doing is not working. And yet we keep doing it, environmental business as usual.
One of the main reasons we, at the Qualicum Institute (www.qualicuminstitute.ca) believe this has happened is quite simple: for the most part we’ve only been addressing the symptoms of the problem rather than the root cause. We spend our efforts, acquiring habitats, cleaning streams, dealing with endangered species through recovery plans and so on, but we fail to address the root cause of these environmental problems. If we continue in this vein there is little doubt we’ll fail in virtually all of our conservation efforts.
So what is the root cause of these problems? A number of scientific and non-governmental organizations-including the Qualicum Institute-have concluded that it is economic growth. To understand this fully, one must have some appreciation of our conventional economic model and of economic growth itself.
Economic growth is an increase in the production and consumption of goods and services and is a function of increasing population and per capita production and consumption. Thus, it can also be considered an increase in throughput, or flow of natural resources, through the economy and back to the environment as waste.
This required throughput unavoidably results in the removal of structural ecosystem elements; the depletion of non-renewable resources; actual displacement of healthy ecosystems, their biodiversity and their life support services; and degradation of the remaining ecosystems with wastes. So, as the GDP continues to rise we know that somewhere, ecosystems are being degraded or displaced or both, along with their biodiversity and life-support services. Since everything humanity depends upon comes from global ecosystems, economic growth only occurs when natural capital from the economy of nature is appropriated for use by the human economy where it is converted to manufactured capital and consumer goods. Because of the tremendous breadth of the niche that we occupy, the human economy grows at the competitive exclusion of wildlife in the aggregate. This is fundamental to our understanding of the basis of our economy and biodiversity loss.
The conventional or neoclassical economic model, under which much of the global economy operates today, assumes that infinite economic growth on a finite planet is possible; the economy is considered to be the whole rather than a subset of the biosphere and is not governed by physical and ecological laws and principles such as thermodynamics and carrying capacity. The economy is seen as a perpetual motion machine that can run forever on its own output.
But the flow of economic throughput is not circular. It flows one-way from low entropy (useful) resources to high entropy (used-up-ness) waste, according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. To grow, the economy must take more and more useful matter and energy from the finite biosphere to produce goods and services; wastes are inevitable by-products. Ultimately, all our goods become wastes as well. The economy cannot function simply by using only its own labour, manufactured capital, and waste as input.
While mainstream economists may think we can ignore carrying capacity and the laws of thermodynamics, “Facts do not cease to exist just because they are ignored,” as Huxley observed.
Biologist and ecological economist, Brian Czech, using an ecological analogy, identifies economic growth as a limiting factor to wildlife conservation. He shows that there is a fundamental conflict between economic growth and ecosystem health, including biodiversity and the ecosystem services on which we all depend.
As conservationists, we can no longer ignore the fact that an economic model based on infinite growth on a finite planet with finite resources-a model with no connectivity to the biosphere-is fatally flawed and is causing the loss of ecosystems, their biodiversity and the life support services upon which we all depend. Even many of our so-called “protected areas” are no longer providing secure habitats for the wildlife dependent on them as the effects of economic growth continue to impact them directly.
If economic growth is the limiting factor to biodiversity conservation, economic growth is what has to be addressed. Otherwise, everything else we do to try and conserve biodiversity will be for naught, as the economy continues to steamroll over more and more ecosystems further reducing biodiversity and the ecosystem services that support all life on the planet. That, appears to be what is happening.
There is a solution to this dilemma: we can choose to move towards a sustainable economy with a reasonably stabilized population and levels of consumption: an economy that ecological economist, Herman Daly, calls a “steady state economy.” He summarizes the concept:
The main idea of a steady-state economy is to maintain constant stocks of wealth and people at levels that are sufficient for a long and good life. The throughput by which these stocks are maintained should be low rather than high, and always within the regenerative and absorptive capabilities of the ecosystem.
The scale of the steady state economy must be sufficiently below the ecological limits so that enough natural ecosystems and biodiversity remain to allow the maintenance of the planet’s biodiversity which is integral to normal ecosystem functioning and the provision of the ecosystem services necessary for life.
So what can we do? Well first we have to choose to make the change from doing only the “sexy” tasks of dealing with the symptoms and start to include significant efforts to address the root cause. Once that choice is made, here are some other choices:
1. learn as much as you can about our current (neoclassical) macroeconomic model and its replacement model from ecological economics. You can do both by reading the excellent book Ecological Economics, by Herman Daly and Joshua Farley.
2. learn about the steady state economy. The Society for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE) web site has an excellent resource centre with papers that discuss a number of aspects of this topic: http://www.steadystate.org/CASSEResources.html
3. join the over 1,500 individuals who have signed on to the CASSE position statement on the fundamental conflict between economic growth and ecosystem health: http://www.steadystate.org/CASSEPositionOnEG.html
4. encourage all the environmental or social justice organizations you belong to, to adopt a position statement on the fundamental conflict between economic growth and ecosystem-and thus our own-health. Have them register their position with CASSE (to see position statements that other professional organizations and NGOs have adopted, go to: http://www.steadystate.org/CASSECompilationPositions.html) and publicize their decision.
5. talk to your local, provincial, and federal politicians/decision-makers about dealing with the fundamental conflict. Ask them, e.g., to explain how the economy-a human construct that is totally dependent on natural resources for its growth-can keep up its perennial economic growth when those resources are finite. Ask them to explain-if growth is so good-why the disparity between the rich and the poor keeps growing, why our taxes keep rising despite the growth, and why environmental quality worsens and biodiversity declines despite the fact that the GDP continues its astronomical rise.
6. talk about the fundamental conflict between economic growth and ecosystem health to the people you know who may be able to influence decision makers. 7. hold a dinner or dessert party and talk this topic up among friends and colleagues. Include the viewing and discussion of documentaries such as The end of suburbia or What a way to go.
8. work to have your community begin to prepare for the oncoming effects of peak oil, climate change, and biodiversity loss. What will these changes mean for your community if food no longer arrives from afar with regularity, if sea level rises a metre, if temperatures increase and precipitation decreases? What is the human carrying capacity of your region in terms of food and water, considering the experts views of the upcoming changes?
9. call into talk shows, write letters to the editor, and voice your opinion on the fundamental conflict between economic growth and ecosystem health. We need a critical mass of people to change from our fatally-flawed economy to a sustainable, steady state economy.
10. encourage invitations to the Qualicum Institute or others, such as conservation ecologists and ecological economists (e.g., Bill Rees), to speak on the fundamental conflict at conferences, chambers of commerce, etc. It is important to understand that Smart Growth concepts are good liveability concepts but they’re not sustainability concepts and that technological optimists are not speakers to effectively address these issues. Common sense tells us that we have more technological progress than ever before in the history of civilization and yet at the same time, the ecosystems of the Earth are in the worse shape they’ve been in recorded history. We all need a good dose of reality.
Finally, while we may know all these facts, that is not enough; we also need to act. Recall the words of Robert F. Kennedy: “It is not enough to understand, or to see clearly. The future will be shaped … by those willing to commit their minds and their bodies to the task.”