The financial crisis – our great opportunity

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Throughout
the developed world, the financial crisis is prompting frantic calls
for the restoration of economic stability as the number one priority
for the immediate future. But as a procession of unsustainable
organisations line up for bailouts, we are in danger of missing an
opportunity to deal with a much bigger problem.

In 1972,
the Club of Rome published ‘The Limits to Growth’,
its report on the predicament of mankind, termed the ‘World
Problematique
’. This was the first attempt to explore the
implications of exponential growth in population, consumption and
pollution within a finite system, using a then-revolutionary world
dynamics computing model developed at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology – requiring computers occupying hundreds of square
metres of floor space, today available on a single laptop! The
particular emphasis of the study was to examine the holistic
interaction of humanity and biosphere, rather than looking at each
issue in its separate silo. It also used scenarios to explore rather
than predict, another novelty at that time.

The report
was much maligned, both then and since, as being overly pessismistic
and too academic. However, some of its scenarios are now turning out
to be spot on, as a recent analysis by CSIRO scientist Graham Turner
demonstrate.1

At the end
of WWII we had 2.5 billion people on this planet – a relatively empty
world. Today we have 6.7 billion people, all aspiring to improved
standards of living and increasing consumption. The result is already
a full world in which we are exhausting the planet’s ability to
accommodate the human species,2
and yet population is forecast to grow to 9 billion by 2050.

Since
1972, considerations of the ‘problematique’ and
the common good have taken a back seat to our unbridled
individualistic dash for economic growth. We have proved incapable of
accepting, so far, that the most important factor for our own
survival is the preservation of a biosphere fit for human habitation.
Given the current convergence of climate change, peak oil, food and
water shortages, something clearly has to give, as conventional
economic growth is untenable. Do we have the maturity to develop a
genuinely sustainable alternative? Is the financial crisis the
trigger to make it happen?

Green New Deal

Image: Urban Sprout

Ideas for a Green New Deal

It is
heartening that in response to these daunting challenges, new ideas
and leadership are flowing freely. Lester Brown’s ‘Plan
B – Mobilising to Save Civilisation
3 was one of the first. Jonathon Porritt’s ‘Capitalism
as if the World Matters
’,4
lays out a blueprint for reframing capitalism on a sustainable basis.
Thomas Homer-Dixon’s ‘The Upside of Down –
Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilisation’5
,
gives a fundamentally optimistic message of our potential to
regroup and renew in the face of current challenges built around
resilience concepts, provided we first accept the size of the
problem. Worldwatch’s ‘Low Carbon Energy’6 outlines a framework for global low-carbon energy solutions. ‘Zero
Carbon Britain
7 is a plan for simultaneously eliminating carbon emissions in Britain
within 20 years and delivering energy security. ‘Green New Deal’8 proposes a fundamental reframing of the UK economy to meet the triple
crunch of credit, climate and energy. ‘Beyond Zero
Emissions’
9 are developing similar concepts for Australia. To see how the
‘official future’ has changed, read the International
Energy Agency’s ‘World Energy Outlook 2008’10,
a comprehensive analysis of the energy and climate change challenge
we face, calling for an ‘energy revolution’. The
report is still too sanguine on oil supply, but represents a vast
improvement on their previous unfounded optimism on the future of
cheap energy. The Tallberg Foundation’s ‘Grasping the
Climate Crisis’11
challenges the widespread perception that nations are dealing
effectively with climate change: “in fact almost nothing is
happening yet at the global scale”
. Their paper argues that
policy should now be structured around risk management, the latest
science (not just the IPCC), ethics and the common good rather than
national self-interest. Finally, the Club of Rome is being
rejuvenated to complete the task of catalysing solutions to the
‘problematique’.12

There is
no shortage of ideas and the solutions are clear. The challenge is
now for the community to demand change from the political and
corporate world. The financial crisis provides our great opportunity
to set the world on a new sustainable path, as many sacred cows,
which have stood in the path of change, are being slaughtered by the
day as the crisis unfolds. It is an opportunity we cannot afford to
waste. If bail-out funds are to be provided, then they should come
with very stringent conditions attached to ensure we move rapidly on
to that new path and not just shore up an unsustainable system, to
create an even bigger problem a few years hence.

1.‘A comparison of The
Limits to Growth
with 30 years of reality’, Global
Environmental Change 18 (2008), P397-411, Elsevier Publishing

3. Plan B 3.0 –
Mobilising to Save Civilisation
’, Lester R. Brown, Earth
Policy Institute, 2008 (latest version)

4. Capitalism as if the
World Matters
’, Jonathon Porritt, 2005

6. Low Carbon Energy’,
Worldwatch Report 178, 2008 

7. Zero Carbon
Britain
’, 2007

8. ‘Green New Deal’,
July 2008

9. ‘Beyond Zero Emissions’,
Melbourne 2008

10. World Energy Outlook
2008
’, International Energy Agency, Paris, November 2008

11. ‘Grasping the Climate
Crisis
’, Tallberg Foundation, Stockholm, November 2008 

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