Since John Howard won his third election recently, there have been questions concerning his future policies. However, one thing is certain – Mr Howard shares the obsession of modern human societies with economic growth. It has been accepted by governments of all political persuasions as the key source of power and wellbeing. Why
then are pro-growth policies now under increasing challenge?
In a nutshell, material economic growth is not sustainable. Nor can it produce net environmental benefits as often claimed. Rather, it can only proceed at the expense of non-human parts of the global system (the ecosphere) because Earth is materially finite.
Crucially, the ecosphere provides the ecological goods (eg food, fibre) and services (eg climate control, atmospheric gas balance, soil stabilisation, pollination) that underwrite human survival and wellbeing. But economic accounting methods have heavily discounted these services even though their annual value has been estimated at
an amazing US$33 trillion globally and A$1327 billion for Australia (about 4x GNP). Consequently, quite apart from ethical considerations, it makes good utilitarian sense to protect the environment.
Unfortunately, despite panglossian claims to the contrary by the statistician Bjorn Lomborg, we are degrading our environment via atmospheric changes, deforestation, species extinctions, soil erosion, salinisation, eutrophication of waterways,
depletion of groundwater, desertification and bioinvasions. For example, every year, globally, approximately 26 billion tonnes of topsoil are lost, 17 million hectares of forest are cleared, deserts expand by six million hectares and probably >10,000 species become extinct. During the last century, half the world’s wetlands were
lost, nearly 40,000 large dams were built, and aquifer water levels are falling Two-thirds of the world’s agricultural lands suffer soil degradation (40% seriously) and 70% of the world’s major fisheries are fully fished or overfished.
Nor is Australia free of similar trends. Indeed, concerning the loss of biodiversity, clearing of vegetation, and degradation of productive lands and waterways, we are the worst performer of all developed countries. The bill for restoring Australia’s productive lands is $65 billion over 10 years and problems are worsening. For
example, dryland salinity may increase to 15 million hectares by 2020. But appreciation of these catastrophes is only just dawning and effective remediation far off. It may take decades or even centuries before the causative processes can be reversed. As Rick Farley and Phillip Toyne said in July, 2000 ‘We, like just about every
other Australian, greatly underestimated the scale of the problems and the effort and resources needed to come to grips with them.’
Causing these ecological changes is the unprecedented 20th century growth in human economies and populations. Since 1900, the gross world product has multiplied by 20 and fossil fuel consumption by 12. Between 1860 and 1985, energy throughput grew by a factor of 60 and every year, one billion tonnes of hazardous wastes
Growth in the human population has also been spectacular. It increased from two billion in 1927 to six billion in 2000 and is currently growing by about 78 million people per year. Humans consume 40% of terrestrial net primary production and divert 54% of accessible freshwater runoff. And these pressures will multiply as the
population balloons to nine billion by 2050 and material aspirations and economic growth in developing countries increase. Already the total human demand for resources exceeds natural income by a factor of 1.3. In short, we are living on capital rather than interest, a situation not ecologically sustainable, globally or nationally.
These great economic and demographic changes have consequences for our life-support systems and sustained wellbeing that can scarcely be overstated. In fact, the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme has asserted that the Earth System has moved well outside its range of natural variability of the last half-million years. Thus
we are operating in a no-analogue state characterised by environmental decline. Indeed, the World Resources Institute claims that halting this decline may be the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced.
Meeting this challenge will not be met by ad hoc, short-term, business-as-usual growth policies. Rather, it requires shared long-term goals and strategies for humanity. Surely, these goals would include survival of the species and sustained wellbeing for all people. The protection of nature would also be fundamental.
Interestingly, there are global and national-level statements that espouse these goals. For example, the Council of Australian Governments in 1992 set goals, principles and strategies for ecologically sustainable development (ESD). Included were the protection of future generations and non-human species.
Given the increasing urgency documented above, why do we not hear more about ESD from the Government? Perhaps because democracy imposes the need for short-term popularity. But addressing the problems of ESD (eg salinity in the Murray-Darling basin) requires huge commitments whose benefits are long term. Mr Howard’s mission, should
he choose to accept it, would be to achieve ESD goals within a democratic framework.
First he should initiate comprehensive public education about national direction, key issues and sustainable strategies. He should foster the cultural sea-change necessary to replace the present exploitative, no-limits attitude to nature with a conserver ethic. This would value the maintenance of life-support systems and living
within our means as the top priorities. Supporting such a change is evidence that Americans are dissatisfied with the materialism, greed and excess that characterises their way of life and which creates social and environmental ills. Assuming this applies to Australians, it seems that many of us are open to the profound changes in
personal beliefs and behaviour that are necessary to achieve ESD.