A growing band of experts are looking at figures like these (see graph in detail, or explore the data) and arguing that personal carbon virtue and collective environmentalism are futile as long as our economic system is built on the assumption of growth. The science tells us that if we are serious about saving Earth, we must reshape our economy.
This, of course, is economic heresy. Growth to most economists is as essential as the air we breathe: it is, they claim, the only force capable of lifting the poor out of poverty, feeding the world's growing population, meeting the costs of rising public spending and stimulating technological development - not to mention funding increasingly expensive lifestyles. They see no limits to that growth, ever.
In this special issue, The Folly of Growth, New Scientist brings together key thinkers from politics, economics and philosophy who profoundly disagree with the growth dogma but agree with the scientists monitoring our fragile biosphere.
That was when I realised that economists have not grasped a simple fact that to scientists is obvious: the size of the Earth as a whole is fixed. Neither the surface nor the mass of the planet is growing or shrinking. The same is true for energy budgets: the amount absorbed by the Earth is equal to the amount it radiates. The overall size of the system - the amount of water, land, air, minerals and other resources present on the planet we live on - is fixed.
The most important change on Earth in recent times has been the enormous growth of the economy, which has taken over an ever greater share of the planet's resources. In my lifetime, world population has tripled, while the numbers of livestock, cars, houses and refrigerators have increased by vastly more. In fact, our economy is now reaching the point where it is outstripping Earth's ability to sustain it. Resources are running out and waste sinks are becoming full. The remaining natural world can no longer support the existing economy, much less one that continues to expand.
The economy is like a hungry, growing organism.
At the launch last year of our "Redefining Prosperity" project (which attempts to instil some environmental and social caution into the relentless pursuit of economic growth), a UK treasury official stood up and accused my colleagues and I of wanting to "go back and live in caves". After a recent meeting convened to explore how the UK treasury's financial policies might be made more sustainable, a high-ranking official was heard to mutter: "Well, that is all very interesting, perhaps now we can get back to the real job of growing the economy."
The message from all this is clear: any alternative to growth remains unthinkable, even 40 years after the American ecologists Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren made some blindingly obvious points about the arithmetic of relentless consumption.
The Ehrlich equation, I = PAT, says simply that the impact (I) of human activity on the planet is the product of three factors: the size of the population (P), its level of affluence (A) expressed as income per person, and a technology factor (T), which is a measure of the impact on the planet associated with each dollar we spend.
I was trying to get to grips with a paradox: the environmental community is stronger, better funded and more sophisticated than ever, so why is the environment going downhill so far that we face the prospect of a ruined planet?
...we're trying to do environmental policy and activism within a system that is simply too powerful. It's today's capitalism, with its overwhelming commitment to growth at all costs, its devolution of tremendous power into the corporate sector, and its blind faith in a market riddled with externalities. And it is also our own pathetic capitulation to consumerism.
Can we can really reform capitalism?
We need a new political movement in the US to drive this. The economy we have now is an inherently rapacious and ruthless system. It is up to citizens to inject values that reflect human aspirations rather than just making money. But groups, whether they're concerned about social issues, social justice, the environment or effective politics, are failing because they're not working together. I want to see them join into one hopefully powerful political force.
Sorry, but "we" can't save the planet even if "we" halve our energy use by tomorrow. I'm not suggesting that individuals should not make every change they can, but they should not harbour any illusions that personal behaviour, however carbon-virtuous, can do the trick. The worst offenders will not desist and voluntary measures are ineffective. Scale is the problem, and our task is to promote a quantitative and qualitative leap in the scale of environmental action, recognising that big can be not just beautiful but crucial if we hope to avert the worst.
Is such a leap possible? Is the planet salvageable as long as international capitalism prevails, with its focus on growth and profits at all costs, predatory resource capture and footloose finance? As a wise man said: "All for ourselves and nothing for other people seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind." That was Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations, not Karl Marx.
...because our present system seems bent on catastrophe, we need a third way between red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism and a worldwide uprising as unlikely as it is utopian. The political point is that ecological Keynesianism is a win-win scenario that could provide something for everyone.
(a section especially for the Waynesters among us)
THE last line of defence for advocates of indefinite global economic growth is that it is needed to eradicate poverty. This argument is at best disingenuous. By any reasonable assessment it is claiming the impossible.
Perversely, under the current economic system, reducing poverty by a tiny amount will necessitate huge extra consumption by those who are already rich. To get the poorest onto an income of just $3 per day would require an impossible 15 planets' worth of biocapacity. In other words, we will have made Earth uninhabitable long before poverty is eradicated. If we are serious about helping the poor rather than the rich, we need a new development model.
Redistribution becomes the only viable route to poverty reduction.
(a section especially for the space guys among us)
I can't imagine anything more important than air, water, soil, energy and biodiversity. These are the things that keep us alive.
The option of going into space allows you to pretend that technology will get our asses out of any problem so we don't have to worry, which is just not true. Limitless resources are a fool's dream that we can never achieve. The reality is we are biological beings dependent on the biosphere. What kind of intelligent creature, knowing that these are our crucial limitations, would act as if we can use Earth as a garbage can and not pay a price for that?
Anybody that's not passionate about this doesn't give a shit about their grandchildren.
IT'S 2020, and we are a decade into a huge experiment in which we are trying to convert our country to a sustainable or "steady-state" economy. We have two guiding principles: we don't use natural resources faster than they can be replenished by the planet, and we don't deposit wastes faster than they can be absorbed.
In our society, scientists set the rules. They work out what levels of consumption and emission are sustainable - and if they're not sure they work out a cautious estimate. Then it's up to the economists to work out how to achieve those limits, and how to encourage innovation so we extract as much as possible from every scrap of natural resource we use.
They are using two main mechanisms for doing this. The first is a cap-and-trade system. The second is to change what we tax. We are gradually abolishing income tax (a very popular decision!)
...the widespread presumption that becoming more sustainable will inevitably make our lives worse, which leads to green campaigners being dismissed as regressive killjoys bent on returning us to a primitive existence. Perhaps to counter this idea, those who take global warming seriously tend to focus on technical fixes that might allow us to continue with our current ways.
It doesn't help that virtually all representations of pleasure and the life we should aspire to come from advertising, with its incessant message that our happiness is dependent on consuming ever more "stuff". We hear little about the joys of escaping the stress, congestion, ill-health, noise and waste that come with our "high" standard of living.
In fact, there is plenty of evidence that the work-dominated and materially encumbered affluence of today is not giving us enjoyable lives, and that switching to a more sustainable society in which we work and produce less would actually make us happier.
New Scientist reviews twelve recent books on economic growth and overconsumption, and the consequences for environmental sustainability.
Common Wealth: Economics for a crowded planet
Ecological Economics and Sustainable Development
The Dominant Animal: Human evolution and the environment
The Bridge at the Edge of the World
Earth in the Balance
The Shadows of Consumption: Consequences for the global environment
How the Rich are Destroying the Earth
Do Good Lives Have to Cost the Earth?
Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet
Blubberland: The dangers of happiness
Enough: Breaking free from the world of more
The Big Earth Book
Plus: The Sustainability Project