Less stuff, or more blood: the world's rich people must decide whether they want to share the planet's resources, or send their children to kill and die for them.Thomas Friedman's latest book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, is a ringing and persuasive call for the United States to lead a green revolution that would restore U.S. economic strength and put the globe on the path to longterm sustainability. Amazon describes the book as "brilliant," "incisive," and "groundbreaking," and a worthy successor to his "phenomenal number-one bestseller" The World Is Flat--high praise for a wonkish volume about economic and environmental policy, even one written in the accessible prose of his previous books and New York Times columns. It's gratifying and hopeful to see a popular book (now out in paperback) that faces squarely our increasingly desperate environmental and geopolitical dilemma. Friedman is far ahead of the public on this issue and it can't hurt if his sales soar, and citizens and policymakers heed his message.
So, two cheers.
Why only two? Because, despite the book's insights, there is a deeply flawed assumption at its heart. While Friedman readily acknowledges the rapidly growing scale and urgency of our plight--as the climate threatens to tip into instability, population continues to rise, extinctions race far ahead of background rates, and political elites cling stubbornly to the delusion of perpetual economic growth--in the end he falls back, as most solutions-oriented analysts do, on technology as our savior. More specifically, he argues that we must harness technology to radically increase resource efficiency--the amount of economic benefit that can be squeezed from each input unit of materials and/or energy (sometimes called eco-efficiency). These excerpts from Chapter 3 of HF&C sum up his argument:
[T]he steady rise in energy, food, and other commodity prices since 2000 is surely a sign that the world, at present levels of science and technology, is straining to supply all the raw materials for the growth of so many Americums [sic, meaning large, rich, consumerist nations]. Without a dramatic improvement in sustainable energy and resource productivity, China, India, and the Arab world's strategy of just aping the resource-wasting development model of America is unviable. The old way is not replicable on the China-India scale in a flat world, without irreparable harm to planet earth. ... [I]f the spread of freedom and free markets is not accompanied by a new approach to how we produce energy and treat the environment ... then Mother Nature and planet earth will impose their own constraints and limits that will be worse than Communism.
Friedman's book goes on to lay out detailed suggestions for green technology and energy efficiency initiatives. He is absolutely right about the need to become much more efficient in our use of the Earth's resources; economic growth to date has been driven mainly by lavish use of cheap energy and other resources--more than 99 percent of industrial inputs end up as waste--and the result is the multidimensional ecological catastrophe now before us. Moreover, he has lots of company, for several reasons.
Hardly anyone opposes improving technology; advocates always stress the potential benefits, and most of us buy that argument. In industrial societies, technological improvement is routine and often profitable, and we're accustomed to addressing problems of all sorts with technological solutions (even those not really suited to them). And although its ability to deliver on the promise of better lives is mixed at best, we nevertheless expect technology to improve, more or less forever. It's something we do well--we have a huge R&D infrastructure and spend lots of money on it, so it's a ready and familiar tool waiting to be applied to this problem. It contributes to GDP and jobs, scratches our itch for perpetual novelty with new products, and so on.
Nevertheless, it won't save us. Technology-driven improvements in resource efficiency simply cannot solve this perfect storm of problems; they are necessary, but radically insufficient. As economist Herman Daly pointed out years ago, the math just doesn't work.
The Max Factor
Certainly we can do better. We are doing better. Businesses always have some incentive to reduce costs, whether it's labor, credit, or resource inputs, so it is not surprising that some progress has been made in recent years. According to Prosperity without Growth?, a new report for the U.K. Sustainable Development Commission, the raw material intensities (the amount of material input per dollar of output) of five advanced European countries improved about 40 percent between 1975 and 2000. Likewise, there has been an ongoing search, often desultory but sometimes frantic, for ways to reduce energy use, and that has lowered global energy intensity by about one-third over the last 40 years. Neither trend signals especially rapid progress, however, and anyway the picture is mixed; in many places and for many materials (e.g., cement, primary metals), the trends are running the other way. And the global use (and impacts) of materials and energy, which are all the biosphere cares about, are still going up.
But suppose we really put our minds to it? The 1997 book Factor Four argued that we could cost-effectively halve resource use while doubling wealth. The International Factor 10 Club, a group of academics and other experts, claimed in a 1994 Declaration that "within one generation, nations can achieve a ten-fold increase in the efficiency with which they use energy, resources, and other materials." A few industrial and government leaders have adopted this as a policy goal, but needless to say it has not been achieved--nor has the more modest factor-four target. Nevertheless, even more ambitiously, the United Nations and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development have urged businesses to aim for Factor Twenty.
A handful of remarkable improvements over current inputs per unit value have been achieved. One example is an ordinary CD-ROM disk, which is 50 times more resource-efficient at storing information than the equivalent amount of paper. But for the economy in general even the least demanding of the above goals remains a fantasy. Even conceding that we really haven't worked very hard at this, and that we will--pretty soon, any day now, given that longterm energy costs are set to rise--the more ambitious targets seem like sheer hallucinations.
Moreover, even if we could flip a switch and instantly make the global economy an order of magnitude--10 times--more resource-efficient, we would still face a wrenching and probably inescapable dilemma. Here's why:
Current global resource use. The economy currently consumes resources equivalent to roughly 1.3 Earths, according to the Global Footprint Network. That is, in achieving the status quo--with a few hundred million relatively or very rich people, a couple of billion in the middle-income group, and the rest of humanity desperately poor--we are already destroying the ecological foundations of the global economy. So for starters, we would need a 30-percent improvement in resource productivity just to achieve sustainability under current social circumstances.
Now, the footprint methodology analyzes resource use at a "meta" level, lumping everything together. Yet some resources (e.g., copper) are becoming noticeably scarcer, while others (aluminum, iron ore) seem abundant. Some areas suffer severe shortages of essential resources like fresh water, but others are swimming in it. The footprint methodology also (rightly) includes in "resources" the Earth's capacity to absorb greenhouse gases and other wastes, and half of the current global footprint is based on carbon emissions, i.e., our use of fossil fuels for energy and in agriculture, plus deforestation. So making the transition to a carbon-free energy regime--if it were done rapidly enough to avoid triggering runaway negative feedbacks--would eliminate the current overshoot at the global level.
However, that's vastly easier said than done--in fact, though technically quite achievable, getting a grip on carbon is proving to be an enormous political challenge, thus neatly illustrating some of the reasons why theoretically possible resource efficiency improvements are hard to achieve at a global scale. The first significant international agreement acknowledging the gravity of climate change was the 1992 Climate Change Convention--achieved half a generation ago. Global carbon emissions from fossil-fuel use alone have risen over 36 percent since then, and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are currently rising 33 percent faster than they did in the 1990s.
Likewise, in the case of resources that might be globally adequate but scarce in some regions, the politics of shifting surpluses to ease local shortages can be daunting, to say the least. That a starving man and an obese one are, on average, well-fed is no help to the starving man if he cannot afford to eat. Their fates are mediated by a dense and often intractable web of social, political, and economic factors.
So although the footprint methodology simplifies a highly complex situation, it's defensible as a back-of-the-envelope estimate of the current overshoot. So to begin with we would need a resource productivity increase--RPI--of 1.3 just to preserve the status quo. But that's not all.
Global population trends. The current global population is 6.8 billion but will rise to 9.2 billion by 2050, if the UN's mid-range projection turns out to be accurate (in fact, it could be lower, or much higher). Assuming it is, then an additional 2.4 billion people (35 percent) will be clamoring for their fair share of affluence. To achieve that without increasing throughput implies an additional increase in RPI of another 1.35.
So far, however, not too bad: Multiplying these two factors together yields a required total improvement of 1.76, well within the "economically cost-effective" resource efficiency level claimed to be possible in Factor Four. However, there are at least two other factors at work:
Inequity, and the expectation of endless growth. The global economy is marred by vast inequities in wealth distribution, which are both unfair and geopolitically dangerous. Americans, Western Europeans, Japanese, and elites in many other countries enjoy per-capita annual incomes of about US$30-35,000. Most of the rest of world aspires to that standard. This is a very tall order for the roughly 3 billion people living on less than $1,000 per year, let alone the several billion in the middle.
Moreover, it's a truism that people are rarely satisfied to be stuck in the pack in the great consumerist race to get ahead, and this urge has become institutionalized in economic thinking and government policy the world over. If consumerism continues to spread and nobody is ever content with a stable standard of living--even one that would have dazzled kings and emperors in times past--then resource productivity must continue rising to fulfill those expectations. (This despite the fact that, by many measures, life quality is actually flat or declining in some industrial nations; as long as GDP remains the holy yardstick of affluence, its perpetual increase will remain the goal of most politicians.) The expectation of an ever-rising standard of living is by definition a perpetual requirement unless our collective psychology of consumption, its purpose, and its meaning change. However, let's set an arbitrary horizon of 2050 (roughly the one-generation time frame set by the Factor 10 Club). Tim Jackson, a University of Surrey professor and the author of Prosperity without Growth?, calculates that the global economy would have to expand by a factor of about 15 to enable 9 billion people to all live at average European Union income levels in 2050.
Combining these three factors (1.3 x 1.35 x 15) yields a resource-efficiency multiplier of about 26, i.e., roughly the efficiency improvement required to produce the affluent lives of people in the global industrial elite nations for everybody on the planet, by 2050, without damaging the biosphere any further. Bear in mind, too, that Europeans and Japanese are already far more efficient in achieving their standard of living than North Americans, who have considerably farther to go.
Such improvements are inconceivable, at least within the time we have before the planet becomes unfit for our habitation. Imagine having to build a car that gets 700 or 800 miles per gallon--and replicating that achievement across all critical industrial and economic sectors, within a generation.
Clinging to the fantasy of painless, technology-midwifed wealth for all dooms us to worse than disappointment. Conflict over scarce resources is such an ancient and perpetual theme in human affairs as to suggest it is built into our nature. Modern times have introduced more, and more lethal, weaponry, but the pattern has not changed and "resource wars" are common. When resource scarcity in a globally integrated economy is essentially universal, as it is rapidly becoming, then how far off is Hobbes's "war of all against all"?
The world's poor have little to lose from such a scenario. Either they can accept that the wealth taken for granted by the rich will remain forever beyond their reach--giving up the dream that the rich have taunted them with for decades via radio, television, and films--or they can attempt to claim their share of the world's bounty by migration, concerted political action, or force of numbers.
It is the world's already-rich who have the real room to maneuver here. One option is to accept a lesser, or nongrowing, material standard of living--though by no means a less satisfying way of life--in order to make some "ecological space" for the rest of humanity to enjoy some of the fruits of the good life. Choosing this option would be, in the first instance, just. While there isn't room here to make this case in detail, it should be obvious that the current, wildly skewed distribution of wealth among nations and individuals is due in large part to accidents of history and birth and the relative advantages or disadvantages thereby conferred. "Slumdog Millionaire" daydreams aside, the very best way to become rich is to be born into the right family and country.
The making-ecological-space option, in the second place, is also pragmatic. The rich can continue to rig the international trade and development rules in their favor, and if push comes to shove, they can mobilize to defend their way of life and the access to resources that makes it possible. They can devote an increasing share of their national energies to the necessary military power and action. They can send their young people to die for their material comforts.
This is, nominally, a choice, but it's discouraging to think of our history as a civilized species. The blood-for-treasure calculus has shaped big-power policy for centuries and continues to do so in rich countries, including the United States. In one recent expression, President Jimmy Carter--arguably the least warlike U.S. president of the modern era--in 1980 officially promulgated the doctrine that bears his name, which asserts that any attempt to control the oil-rich Persian Gulf would be taken as "an assault on the vital interests of the United States" and would be "repelled by any means necessary, including military force." In 1991, the United States and its allies expelled the Iraqi units occupying Kuwait, the first overt exercise of the Carter Doctrine. The cost? About 300 American soldiers died, and the Department of Veterans Affairs classifies more than 180,000 veterans of the war as permanently disabled. The most recent Iraq War and our continued presence there--cost to date: over 4,300 U.S. dead, plus tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians--owe a great deal to the secure-oil imperative.
Closer to home, we guard our affluence jealously. Some stretches of the U.S. border with Mexico already resemble the Berlin Wall, though the barriers are meant to keep people out, not in. If such barriers do not yet exist along the border with Canada, it is because the future there is shaped more by our ethnic and cultural congruence and by our mutual relationship as each other's main trading partner; we share a way of life and will likely act in parallel. (Elsewhere, the scramble to lock up resources before somebody else does can be seen in the Chinese quest for secure oil, and in the purchase or lease in the last two years of up to 20 million hectares of farmland--and the water that goes with it--much of it in Africa, by China, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, South Korea, and others.)
Combine this historical inclination with a political system that increasingly isolates most voters from the demands and consequences of war, and it would seem likely that we'll fight for our wealth. More precisely, at least in the United States, we will entice our undereducated, option-poor, and mostly impoverished working-class sons and daughters into our "voluntary" military forces, send them to far-off places where the oil and natural gas and crucial minerals lie, stuff our economy with those resources, and squander the output on a river of unfulfilling trivia, junk, and self-indulgence.
But there truly is another choice. Perhaps the American way of life could become "negotiable" after all. Its preservation is usually cast in the comforting language of defending our "vital interests." But it doesn't sound quite so compelling if described as the right to commute solo in a three-ton SUV, or choose among a couple hundred "different" breakfast cereals (most made from the same four grains) or auto air fresheners in a dozen different scents.
The truth is that we've been chasing a chimera. Sages from every culture have long argued that material wealth isn't all it's cracked up to be. Now science is catching up. For the past three or four decades, hedonic psychology (the study of what factors, apart from genes, really influence happiness) and rebel branches of economics have been upending the conventional wisdom about human economic motivation. Once we're loved, warm, dry, safe, and well-fed, what makes us happy is connections to other people, setting and achieving goals, the regard of our peers, work that challenges but does not frustrate, and so on. Above a certain income level (US$ 10,000-$ 15,000 per person), getting richer doesn't make people happier, and buying stuff becomes largely a substitute for the more fundamental needs. Real happiness is simply not achievable by means of new toys, name-brand fashions, and bigger houses. In fact, there is substantial research evidence now that the more materialistic people are, the less happiness they report. Cultures the world over are mesmerized by consumerism but would do far better to focus on meeting their primary needs. Not only is consumerism wrecking the planet, it's dispensable.
Is any of this sinking in? Here and there, yes. The research findings about happiness have begun to creep into the popular media (see the February 2009 issue of Psychology Today, for instance). And although Thomas Friedman's books express his faith in technology, it must be said in fairness that, at a recent National Council for Science and the Environment conference, he reportedly acknowledged both the limits to gains from higher efficiencies and the ultimate probability of a future steady-state economy--that is, an economy that does not grow physically. (Global GDP, which only measures money flows, can grow indefinitely; it's just a number.) Ecological economists argue that the steady state is the ultimate end of economic development--and so, though it's often forgotten, did some of the most revered fathers of modern conventional economics, including Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill. A steady-state economy recognizes that the huge, but not infinite, capacities of the biosphere to support economic activity impose a cap on the total throughput of materials, on how much we can convert the natural world to our own ends before we sweep away the foundation upon which the economy rests. Nature is not just a warehouse, it's where we live, and make our livings. We cannot turn all the trees into houses without destroying ourselves.
Of course, a steady-state economy can take many forms. It does not mean stagnation, its critics' favorite straw man. No economy is without the continual overturning of existing structures, their breaking down and recycling into new--hopefully better--ones. But it would be all too possible to lapse into a steady state of maldistribution--one marked by the wide and persistent wealth gaps so common in human societies. This would conserve resources and the biosphere but invite even more savage conflict, as ruling elites' traditional strategy of placating the have-nots with a perpetually enlarging economic pie was eliminated.
Americans, and the world's other rich, have the power to avert these outcomes. Neither the catastrophe of an economy obsessed with unbridled growth, nor the tragedy of a steady-state economy festering with vast wealth gaps and endless battles to narrow them, is inevitable. What's required is that the world's rich come to understand and accept what makes for a life worth living, and relax their destructive and disproportionate claim on the world's wealth. There are countless ways to do this, but I'll mention just two, reducing consumption of energy and meat.
Energy may be the single most important focus, both symbolically and practically. Most of the world's energy comes from fossil fuels. These are ubiquitous and deeply embedded in our economy and culture, but they are destabilizing the Earth's climate and must cease to be regarded as routine, timeless energy sources. We simply must come to treat them as a bridge to an energy regime based on renewables--a bridge that we must burn even as we rapidly leave it behind (see page 22). A critical chance for collective action here is the international meeting in December in Copenhagen to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. The United States especially, but the other long-industrialized nations as well--whose wealth has been built on a mountain of fossil fuels--have to take the lead in forging a strong agreement to slash carbon emissions and lead the way toward a fairer allocation of the planet's capacity to absorb carbon. Among other things, this will require radically more efficient use of fossil energy, and then its termination.
Meat consumption bears on this issue as well. The industrial model of meat production uses enormous feedlots to raise staggering numbers of animals under generally cruel conditions. This system depends heavily on fossil fuels at every stage from feed production to product transport, and along with the animals' own output of methane accounts for at least one-fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions. (Some experts believe the livestock share is as much as two-thirds; this argument will be made in an upcoming article in the November/December issue of World Watch.) So simply eating less meat, and being more selective about how the meat we do consume is raised, can achieve major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
The alternative to these and other relatively painless actions offers little comfort. As environmental journalist Andrew Revkin put it not long ago, the human story has become a "story about conflict ... about the fact that there are a billion teenagers on planet earth right now. A hundred and thirty years ago there were only a billion people altogether--grandparents, kids. Now there are a billion teenagers and they could just as easily become child soldiers and drug dealers as innovators and the owners of small companies in favelas in Brazil. And little tweaks in their prospects, a little bit of education, a little bit of opportunity, a micro loan or something, something that gets girls into schools, those things--that's the story of our time."
Of course that's actually two stories: the one about child soldiers and drug dealers, and the one about children going to school and becoming innovators. But we are writing both, and we have the novelist's power to pick the one we like. As Wendell Berry has famously said, the environmental crisis is a crisis of character; it's about how we choose to live. We can make individual choices, and we can reshape our institutions to encourage the right choices. We can teach ourselves to live lives that are comfortable but not extravagant, to make room for others to do the same--or we can give our young people automatic rifles and send them off to battle the drug dealers and child soldiers on our behalf. Put that starkly, it's pretty simple.
Tom Prugh is the editor of World Watch.
For more information about issues raised in this story, visit www.worldwatch.org/ww/moreorless