Facing the Facts


It is both surprising and welcome to find a story in the New York Times that paints the future in the stark terms it deserves, unless something happens to change course dramatically.

Try to imagine a world with three Americas. Three giant economic powerhouses, with citizens who buy, sell and consume, all in pursuit of their versions of the American Dream. Difficult to envision? But that’s where economists say we’re heading.

The broad consensus is that China will overtake the U.S to become the world’s biggest economy within two decades. And by 2050, India will be as big as well.

No technological optimism can possibly blunt the recognition that a world with 3 or 4 (if you add Europe) economies the size of the United States is impossible. There simply are not enough resources to keep such large economies humming along. No hedging. No denial. No sending the excess population off into space. But it is rare to see statements like this in print in the mainstream media.

With the invention of the footprint analysis and other means to estimate the scale of economic activities relative to the Earth's resources being consumed by keeping these economies going, it is patently clear that we, the population alive today, are pushing the Earth beyond the limits of sustainability. Something will have to give. We are already over the limit by about half an Earth, and the article notes that, when the Asian giants grow to the same size as us (predicted to happen around 2050) we will need at least four Earths. To hold any belief or hope that we can have both a healthy Earth and such a large economy is imprudent (if one is polite) or simply insane (if one calls it as it is).

Whenever we, in the US, see a problem so large that it exceeds our rational abilities to understand its magnitude, causes, and systemic implications, we declare war or simply make war without a declaration: think war on drugs, cancer, poverty, Iraq, Afghanistan. I do not believe that "war" is the correct metaphor or solution to these problems, but if that is what it takes to get the Nation mobilized, it's time for a war on growth and inequality. If there is to be any hope of sustainability in the future, both of these factors must be curbed. Partisan politics, at its best, is inadequate to the job. This is a war that will extend beyond the terms of any politician in office today. Lobbyists have none of the answers, nor do the wisest of economists. The solutions needed are completely outside the range of vision of people operating within present institutions. Russell Ackoff's wonderful aphorism I quoted in a recent post fits again, "It is difficult for those inside a box to think outside of it." But that it exactly what it will take.

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David M. Carter said:

Bill McKibben's story in the current National Geographic points out that the Chinese government is fighting a losing battle with the clock; maintain high levels of growth or contend with devastating social and political upheaval. It's unlikely that China's growth will continue at its current pace much longer, suggesting that the tipping point you refer to is unlikely to be reached. In my opinion, China, India, and other USA wannabes are way to late to the party, and that it is highly unlikely that we will experience a 3-4 Earths scenario.

John Ehrenfeld Author Profile Page said:


Maybe McKibben is closer to the truth, so it might be only a couple of Earths by 2050. Any more than one is unsustainable, and since we are already using more than one, the conclusion remains the same.