Thursday, June 21, 2012

Turning Point?

From New Scientist - 

"Some say humanity's ever-rising environmental impact is about to go into reverse. Fact or just fantasy?

HUMANITY is doomed. Or it was in 1798, when English scholar Robert Malthus published his influential An Essay on the Principle of Population. Malthus predicted that unchecked growth in human numbers would condemn our species to a "perpetual struggle for room and food" and an unbreakable cycle of squalor, famine and disease. Nearly two centuries later, biologistPaul Ehrlich was no less pessimistic. We had exceeded the planet's "carrying capacity", he declared in his 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb. "The battle to feed humanity is over. Sometime between 1970 and 1985, the world will undergo vast famines. Hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death."

In 2012, our mood has hardly improved. The focus has shifted from how to feed ourselves to our rapacious appetite for energy and raw materials, and the greenhouse gases we pump into the atmosphere to satisfy it. Sooner or later, the argument goes, we must send our planet's climate and ourselves past the point of no return - if we haven't done so already.
Might these reports of our imminent demise also be exaggerated? That is the reasoning of those who see a pattern in recent statistics from the industrialised world. People in the US are driving less. Europeans are using less energy. Water use is down in countries such as the US and UK; so is calorie consumption in the UK.
The talk is of "peak stuff": that beyond a certain level of economic development, people simply stop consuming so much. Technology and the course of economic evolution allow prosperity to keep rising without a linked increase in our use of energy and materials. Our demands on planetary resources stabilise - and ultimately begin to fall.
Others are unconvinced, seeing in peak stuff a dangerous myth and a thinly veiled excuse to abandon efforts to limit our planetary impact. Without large-scale intervention to curb our excesses now, they argue, peak stuff, if it exists, will be too little, too late. So who is right? Is humanity really about to lose its appetite for stuff - and if so, will it help?
Predictions such as those of Malthus and Ehrlich fell down on a simple point: they failed to see what came next. Malthus missed the industrial revolution and its ways of mass production, which ultimately allowed more people to live longer and more comfortably. Ehrlich failed to factor in the "green revolution", the widespread use of more productive crop strains and chemical fertilisers and pesticides that has kept food production ahead of the population curve since the 1960s. Perhaps we are missing a similar trend now.
Although Ehrlich arrived at the wrong conclusion, his analysis provides a useful framework for assessing arguments about peak stuff. Ehrlich described our planetary footprint as the product of three factors: how many of us there are, how much each of us consumes and how we produce what we consume - that is, the prevailing technology.
Will we grasp the nettle? The Danish agricultural economist Ester Boserup argued that throughout history, population growth and the pressure of shortages have been necessary spurs to technological developments, which seem to arrive just in time to avert the sort of disasters that exercised the likes of Malthus and Ehrlich. The signs are that we already have the know-how to live long and prosper without demanding ever more from a finite planet. The question is whether we will make the decisions to realise that promise before "just in time" becomes "just too late"."

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