What Cannot Go On Forever Will Not

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One of the inescapable conclusions I took home from the sustainable consumption conference I spoke about is very simple. The Planet cannot and will not support the material consumption levels of today and certainly not those levels projected as affluence becomes global. Bill Rees, one of the keynoters and developer of the ecological footprint concept, claims our rates of resource utilization are already equal to more than one and a half Earths and we are on the way to three or four.

Technology cannot change this. The Nobelist economist, Robert Solow, who once thought that resources was a meaningless term because technology would always find something new as each “resource” began to run out, has changed his tune. One of his famous earlier quotes says it all. “If it is very easy to substitute other factors for natural resources, then there is, in principle, no problem. The world can, in effect, get along without natural resources.” I guess he is not so sanguine about the wonders of artificial substitutes.

Interesting proposals for some sort of transition to a world that recognizes and lives within the limits of our spaceship Earth are popping up with increasing frequency. One group that has been addressing this dilemma for several decades is the UK New Economics Foundation. They have recently released a study, entitled “The Great Transition,” inspired by the work of the same name by Karl Polanyi. It’s free, but you have to register online. A few paragraphs from the Foreward tell the story of the report.

Humanity appears caught in a trap with no way out. ‘Business as usual’ is no longer an option. However, halting and reversing our consumption of more and more ‘stuff’ appears likely to trigger a massive depression with serious unemployment and poverty. This is certainly true if all we do is ‘apply the brakes’ without fundamentally redesigning the whole economic system. We are facing a series of interlinked systemic problems - consuming beyond our planetary limits; untenable inequality; growing economic instability and a breakdown in the relationship between ‘more’ and ‘better’. The only way to overcome these systemic problems is through a set of solutions which themselves address the whole.

In this report we have sketched out how, in the light of these challenges we face as a country and as a world, things could ‘turn out right’ by 2050. We have focused particularly on the UK, but many of the solutions we outline apply globally. We have called the process by which this could happen the Great Transition as a
deliberate echho of The Great Transformation, written by Karl Polanyi in the 1940s. While in a relatively short report such as this we could not hope to achieve anything remotely comparable to Polanyi’s great work, the scale of the change we need to see is at least the equal of the changes he described.

Their research points to pathways to make this transition towards a different kind of consumption and provisioning system that may be able to guide us, although with massive obstacles in the way, to a future that fits my definition of sustainability—flourishing for all life on the planet which means a healthy environment as well. They strike a hopeful note throughout the report.

By sharing our resources more equally, by building better communities and a better society and by safeguarding the natural environment, we can focus on the things that really matter and achieve genuine and lasting progress with higher levels of well being. Taken together this would amount to what we have termed the Great Transition.

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