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close this bookEco-restructuring: Implications for sustainable development (UNU, 1998, 417 pages)
close this folder1. Eco-restructuring: The transition to an ecologically sustainable economy
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentIntroduction: On sustainability
View the documentThe need for holistic systems analysis
View the documentEnvironmental threats and (un)sustainability indicators
View the documentSharpening the debate
View the documentNon-controversial issues: Population, resources, and technology
Open this folder and view contentsControversial issues: Pollution, productivity, and biospheric stability
View the documentFinding the least-cost (least-pain) path
View the documentConcluding comments
View the documentNotes
View the documentReferences

Sharpening the debate

It is important now to confront three basic questions:

(1) Is continued economic growth (appropriately defined) compatible in principle with long-run ecological sustainability?

(2) If so, is our current mix of technologies and economic instruments consistent in practice with this goal?

(3) If not, what is the "least-cost" (and "least-pain") political/ institutional path from where we are now to a sustainable world economy? Will it be very expensive, as claimed by many conservatives, or are there enough opportunities for energy and material savings by intelligent use of "clean technology" to compensate for many of the costs?

This trio of central questions, as stated, currently elicits passionately opposed positions. Fortunately, several of these questions can be restated in a way that leads toward an answer. The first question above can be restated:

(1') Bearing in mind that most economists have been trained to believe that substitution of capital and/or technology for natural resources is virtually always possible, one can ask: is there any class of environmental assets or services both that is essential to human life (or to the biosphere) and for which there are no plausible substitutes?

If substitutability (e.g. of capital for environmental resources) is more or less without limit, or if the limits are very remote, then it can be argued that present trends are sustainable, or could become sustainable (depending on one's exact definition of sustainability) with a few marginal changes in policy.

A majority of business and political leaders appear to assume that only minor changes in current technology and/or regulatory policy would suffice to overcome any environmental threat. In fact, even most so-called "environmentalists" appear to believe that the most serious environmental threats we face are direct threats to human health (contaminated water or food, skin cancer) or loss of amenity (forest die-back, oil spills, dirty beaches, litter, haze, bad smells, etc.) No doubt ax-president Bush truly saw himself as an "environmentalist" because of his long-standing love of hunting, boating, and fishing. It has to be said, at the outset, that the problems that appear on most lists of "priority concerns" are localized, not global, problems. Even the rising public concern about loss of "endangered species" is limited to birds, fish, whales, and mammals - especially large mammals such as pandas and tigers. These are not the environmental problems of greatest concern from the standpoint of long-term survival of the earth as a habitable planet.

The second question can also be restated:

(2') If there are environmental assets and services that are both essential and non-substitutable (i.e. the answer to the first question is "yes") - as I believe - a second question follows: are any of these environmental assets or services now threatened by irreversible and/or irreparable damage? Is there a credible - not necessarily probable - threat to the long-term survival of life on this planet?

The answer to this question is obviously critical for what follows. It can be further broken down into several subsidiary questions, for example:

(2.1) Is continued global population growth compatible with long-run eco-sustainability? Can the most densely populated countries (China, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh) continue to feed themselves as their numbers increase? If not, what is the relationship between demographic variables and economic growth potential in various regions (notably China, India, and Africa)?
(2.2) Do industrial activity and its associated demand for raw materials and depletion of high-quality deposits of natural mineral or other environmental resources constitute a major constraint on continued environmentally sustainable economic growth? If so, how and why?
(2.3) Do waste and pollution (including acidification and environmental accumulation of toxic elements) constitute a direct threat to human welfare or to the habitability of the planet? For example, do they constitute a constraint on food production? If so, do they constitute a constraint on economic growth? If so, how and why?
(2.4) Does anthropogenic disturbance of balanced environmental systems (including ecosystems) constitute a major threat in the above sense? If so, how and why?

A brief digression is appropriate in connection with (2.4): the earth system depends on several balanced, biologically controlled recycling systems for nutrient elements that are required by living organisms in forms or amounts greater than would be found in the earth's crust or the prebiotic atmosphere or hydrosphere. Nitrogen, for instance, constitutes the major part of the atmosphere, but molecular nitrogen (N2) is so stable that it is virtually unusable by plants or animals. It is only when this strong nitrogen bond is split by some external agency (yielding nitrogen compounds such as ammonia, ammonium, nitrates, or nitrogen oxides) that the nitrogen becomes a nutrient element. Free oxygen would not exist at all without living organisms; it would all be combined with other elements as water, carbonates, silicates, sulphates, etc. Carbon, too, would be tied up (mostly as insoluble carbonates) and unavailable. Thus, a truly "dead" planet (such as Mars or Venus) is literally uninhabitable.

Destruction of the earth's nutrient recycling systems would probably be the surest way of destroying all life on earth. To be sure, human intervention at present can better be characterized as "eutrophication", in the sense of sharply increasing the availability of these nutrients. Yet eutrophication in a lake or stream can be disastrous if it leads to an unbalanced and explosive growth of a few species, which exhaust the supply of some other nutrient (e.g. oxygen) resulting in a "crash" that destroys the whole food web. What we do not (and probably cannot) predict is the probability or imminence of such a threat at the global level. (I do suspect that it is more likely than being struck by a comet!)

Turning to the third major question, which concerns strategies for change and their cost, here too a breakdown into subsidiary questions is helpful. For example:

(3.1) Are there any feasible strategies, and implementable means, of bringing population growth to an end without government coercion, war, or epidemic? Which of them would involve the least economic cost and/or the least conflict with deeply held religious beliefs?

(3.2) Is there any fundamental technological limit (other than the second law of thermodynamics) to the energy and materials productivities that can be achieved in the long run? Is there any fundamental limit to the long run efficiency of materials recycling? To put it another way, is there a plausible set of technological "fixes"? We seek, in effect, an "existence proof" that solutions are possible.

(3.3) Among the technological "fixes" postulated above, is there one (or more) that is inexpensive, even profitable? Can the needed technology be harnessed at modest, or even negative, cost? From the macroeconomic perspective, the question is: can continued economic growth be achieved simultaneously with environmental improvement by increasing resource productivity - thereby reducing the need for resource inputs and the generation of wastes - without significantly decreasing labour and capital productivity? To put it another way, is it feasible to find ways to increase all factor productivities simultaneously, i.e. without substituting energy or material resources for labour? In simpler words, is there a mother-lode of "win-win" possibilities - "free lunches" - for reducing pollution and increasing the value of output at the same time?

It is interesting to note that affirmative answers to (3.2) and, especially, (3.3) - the existence of possible technological "fixes" at low (or no) cost imply a high degree of technological optimism. Curiously, most economists adopt an extremely optimistic stance in regard to questions of resource availability (2.2) but become pessimists when it comes to eliminating or repairing damage caused by pollution (3.3). It would seem logical that a Malthusian pessimist would be entitled to be pessimistic about the existence of "win-win" opportunities, but an opponent of the neo-Malthusian position should also be optimistic with regard to finding low-cost or profitable solutions to the growth problem. Simple consistency would seem to require that both question (2.2) - resource substitutability - and question (3.3) - technological "fixes" - be answered the same way: either "yes" to both or "no" to both.