The Opportunity of Limits

The Limits of Earth

Debates over limits is not new. From Parson Malthus to Donella and Dennis Meadows to Herman Daly and, most recently, Tim Jackson, Juliet Schor, Peter Victor and many others – economists, policy-makers, ecologists, and biologists have all debated the limits we face and where they are encroach on society (or rather, where society encroaches on them). Economists from the very creation of the social science to recent shapers of the field have recognized the limits to a growth economy.

In the 19th century John Stuart Mill, a political economist who believed in free markets and utilitarianism, expounded the idea of a ‘stationary state,’ or a steady state, economy, one which remained stable without expanding in size. In Mills stationary state vision our economy would maintain a constant population and stocks of capital. He envisioned an enlightened state where “there would be as much scope as ever for all kinds of mental culture, and moral and social progress; as much room for improving the Art of Living and much more likelihood of its being improved, when minds cease to be engrossed by the art of getting on.”

John Maynard Keynes, the grandfather of current economic thought, even acknowledged that growth was a means to an end. Keynes referred to the dilemma of growth as “the economic problem” that someday will “take the back seat where it belongs, and the arena of the heart and the head will be occupied or reoccupied, by our real problems – the problems of life and of human relations, of creation and behavior and religion.”

Where does that leave us today? In a world seemingly full of ecological limits playing out in numerous arenas – peak oil, water scarcity, climate change, dwindling resources – how do we find that stationary state equitably? Do any of these limits play out in our favor?

The Challenge Is The Opportunity

Today we are faced with the greatest challenges ever faced by humanity. A multitude of constricting elements that are forcing us to come to grips with our way of life on Earth. Yet we are not new to adversity as a species. Our past is highlighted with times of strife and hardship. In nearly every case these times of struggle are highlighted by a renaissance of life – improvements in our lives, our society as a whole and our understanding of human nature. Why would this be need to be any different?

The caveat here is that we must actually rise to the challenge. Lester Brown, author of Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, recently wrote an uplifting article about our economy’s role in transitioning from oil, coal and natural gas to renewable energies like solar, wind and geothermal. This transition is needed in wartime speed, not only to avert the affects of Peak Oil on our economy, but also to reduce the odds of runaway climate change wiping most of humanity from the planet.

Here’s a tidbit from his article:

“Implementing Plan B entails cutting net carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions 80 percent by 2020. This would keep atmospheric CO2 levels from exceeding 400 parts per million (ppm), up only modestly from 387 ppm in 2009, thus limiting the future rise in temperature. To make this ambitious cut, the first priority is to replace all coal- and oil-fired electricity generation with renewable sources. Whereas the twentieth century was marked by the globalization of the world energy economy as countries everywhere turned to oil, much of it coming from the Middle East, this century will see the localization of energy production as the world turns to wind, solar, and geothermal energy.

“Can we expand renewable energy use fast enough? I think so. Recent trends in the adoption of mobile phones and personal computers give a sense of how quickly new technologies can spread. Once cumulative mobile phone sales reached 1 million units in 1986, the stage was set for explosive growth, and the number of cell phone subscribers doubled in each of the next three years. Over the next 12 years the number doubled every two years. By 2001 there were 961 million cell phones — nearly a 1,000-fold increase in just 15 years. And now there are more than 4 billion cell phone subscribers worldwide.”

Of course, climate change is simply one means by which our ecosystem is constricting us, though obviously one of the most prominent. Ultimately we must realize that economic growth cannot continue forever. Once we’ve built the renewable energy systems we need (and decommissioned the oil and coal industry) we will still need to recognize our economy must find a sustainable scale. The fact that the world economy is already using 150% of the Earth’s bio-capacity and has exceeded, or is encroaching, on every other biophysical limit, shows that we have to take these limits into account in our economic system – or else.

In doing so we will be presented an opportunity to change our society for the better. Instead of focusing on material wealth, superficial whims and “keeping up with the Joneses” we can focus on expanding our knowledge, understanding, leisure time, building stronger communities and confronting poverty, social justice, hunger and inequality. Once we build a steady state economy we can increase the well being of everyone while remaining within ecological limits.

This seems to be to be quite an opportunity for our generation and the next. Shall we rise to the challenge?