The Stockholm Resilience Center are the group behind the Planetary Boundaries. Their latest project is a ‘global dashboard’ that shows human activity and its consequences. The centerpiece of this is a set of 24 graphs that show an acceleration in the economy and in consumption, and the concomitant impact on the environment.
Most of this acceleration, from 1950 onwards, represents real progress – people lifted out of poverty, gaining access to energy and running water. You can also see the democratization of travel opportunities, growing food security, and the widening access to communications. These are all good things.
But they do a have a price.
The problem that continues to motivate me is that the work of human development is unfinished. Plenty of people still lack the most basic amenities of clean water and sanitation, medical care and electricity. As we work towards providing those things to everyone – what happens to the bottom set of graphs? Is it possible to provide universal energy access without tipping us into runaway climate change? Can we eliminate hunger without unbalancing the nitrogen cycle?
The answer to those questions is almost certainly ‘no’ – unless we can curb overconsumption, improve efficiency, and eliminate waste in the developed world. And how are we going to do that in an economic system that is predicated on everlasting increases in consumption?