Malthus was wrong but Pope is still Catholic
It is over 200 years since the Rev. Thomas Malthus published his Essay on Population. In the short-term, he was completely wrong; population growth did not exceed growth in food supply: Understandably perhaps, he failed to predict that a six-fold increase in the global population would be accompanied by growth in the global economy more than an order of magnitude greater (i.e. it is now almost 70 times what it was when Malthus was born).
However, was he wrong; or has he just not been proven right yet? Malthus clearly failed to realise the implications of the Industrial Revolution that was unfolding around him; but that does not mean he could not now be proven right: The industrialisation of food production has made amazing things possible; but the gulf between rich and poor today is greater than it was 200 years ago. Furthermore, technology may have increased the Earth’s capacity to accommodate humans; provide for their needs; and recycle their wastes but… Technology is not magic; and it cannot change the nature of reality. We live on a finite planet with finite resources. We cannot treat all our inherited assets as a source of income indefinitely. That is no way to run a business; and it is no way to run a planet either.
Fortunately, there is a solution; and it does not require a return to the Dark Ages (although that may happen if we continue to deny the nature, scale and urgency of the problems we face). However, solving our problems will require us all to admit to ourselves (and each other) that the Earth cannot cope with 10 billion people all consuming and polluting resources at the rate so-called developed countries do. In order to achieve the utopian dream that we all seem to insist globalised Capitalism seeks, many of us are going to have to moderate our over-consumption.
The good news is that consuming things does not make us happy. What we need is qualitative development rather than quantitative growth. However, this change will not be easy to make (which is why so many prefer to deny its necessity)… I will therefore defer to the wisdom of Professor Tim Jackson; whose words from the foreword to the Sustainable Development Commission’s Prosperity Without Growth in March 2009 still remain largely ignored by governments around the World.
Every society clings to a myth by which it lives. Ours is the myth of economic growth. For the last five decades the pursuit of growth has been the single most important policy goal across the world. The global economy is almost five times the size it was half a century ago. If it continues to grow at the same rate, the economy will be 80 times that size by the year 2100.
This extraordinary ramping up of global economic activity has no historical precedent. It’s totally at odds with our scientific knowledge of the finite resource base and the fragile ecology on which we depend for survival. And it has already been accompanied by the degradation of an estimated 60% of the world’s ecosystems.
For the most part, we avoid the stark reality of these numbers. The default assumption is that – financial crises aside – growth will continue indefinitely. Not just for the poorest countries, where a better quality of life is undeniably needed, but even for the richest nations where the cornucopia of material wealth adds little to happiness and is beginning to threaten the foundations of our wellbeing.
The reasons for this collective blindness are easy enough to find. The modern economy is structurally reliant on economic growth for its stability. When growth falters – as it has done recently – politicians panic. Businesses struggle to survive. People lose their jobs and sometimes their homes. A spiral of recession looms. Questioning growth is deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists and revolutionaries.
But question it we must. The myth of growth has failed us. It has failed the two billion people who still live on less than $2 a day. It has failed the fragile ecological systems on which we depend for survival. It has failed, spectacularly, in its own terms, to provide economic stability and secure people’s livelihoods.
Today we find ourselves faced with the imminent end of the era of cheap oil, the prospect (beyond the recent bubble) of steadily rising commodity prices, the degradation of forests, lakes and soils, conflicts over land use, water quality, fishing rights and the momentous challenge of stabilising concentrations of carbon in the global atmosphere. And we face these tasks with an economy that is fundamentally broken, in desperate need of renewal.
In these circumstances, a return to business as usual is not an option. Prosperity for the few founded on ecological destruction and persistent social injustice is no foundation for a civilised society. Economic recovery is vital. Protecting people’s jobs – and creating new ones – is absolutely essential. But we also stand in urgent need of a renewed sense of shared prosperity. A commitment to fairness and flourishing in a finite world.
Delivering these goals may seem an unfamiliar or even incongruous task to policy in the modern age. The role of government has been framed so narrowly by material aims, and hollowed out by a misguided vision of unbounded consumer freedoms. The concept of governance itself stands in urgent need of renewal.
But the current economic crisis presents us with a unique opportunity to invest in change. To sweep away the short-term thinking that has plagued society for decades. To replace it with considered policy capable of addressing the enormous challenge of delivering a lasting prosperity.
For at the end of the day, prosperity goes beyond material pleasures. It transcends material concerns. It resides in the quality of our lives and in the health and happiness of our families. It is present in the strength of our relationships and our trust in the community. It is evidenced by our satisfaction at work and our sense of shared meaning and purpose. It hangs on our potential to participate fully in the life of society.
Prosperity consists in our ability to flourish as human beings – within the ecological limits of a finite planet. The challenge for our society is to create the conditions under which this is possible. It is the most urgent task of our times.
Tomorrow, I will discuss the possible reasons for the absence of any constructive government response to this report.