A summary of the proceedings from the APCSE conference on Economic Growth, Climate Change and the G20 is now available on Medium.com
There has been some speculation in recent weeks as why 16,000 dead pigs floated down the Huangpu River. The rotting carcasses threatened the water supplies of those depending on this river system including the 23 million inhabitants of Shanghai. (Now, to add insult to injury, there are dead ducks to contend with as well).
Characteristically, there has been plenty of sooth-saying from Chinese government officials, but the scepticism aired on Chinese social media platform Weibo suggests that this is doing little to reassure residents.
The problem, according to a report in The Guardian yesterday, is the sheer scale of pig production. Last year, China produced and consumed half the world’s pork (about 50m tonnes), and with a mortality rate of 2-4%, up to 300,000 carcasses need to be disposed of each year. Things become difficult when the capacity to process dead pigs does not keep up with the growing number of pig farms. Until now, it seems, this issue has been managed by some ‘entrepreneurs’ who have been buying up dead and diseased pigs and butchering them for sale as pork to unsuspecting consumers. A crackdown on black market traders has put a stop to all this and so farmers have resorted to dumping the carcasses in the river.
Mainstream economics refers to this as a ‘negative externality’ arising from a market transaction. I call it wanton destruction of natural capital, fuelled by rampant consumption and unsustainable production. GDP will go as a result of the expenditure required to rid the waterways of dead animals, but this is not economic development.
Paul Gilding tells us it is the end of economic growth. Not only is the earth full, but we have gone beyond its carrying capacity. In other words, we are over the credit limit on the ecological ‘credit card’ and now we are starting to experience the consequences. The question is, do we restructure to get back within our ‘ecological budget constraint’, or are we intent on becoming extras in a Mad Max type world?
This clip is a mashup of Paul Gilding’s TED talk The Earth is Full. I stumbled across it when searching for an engaging summary of the key messages in Gilding’s The Great Disruption for my MBA class at the Reims Management School in France.
Gilding’s TED talk is fine, but a little wordy, and TheSustainableMan does a great job of editing the speech, picking out key sound bytes and matching them with appropriate imagery from The 11th Hour and a host of other clips advocating sustainability.
Image source: thinkingouttabox.wordpress.com
A report in the NYT the other day, Plan for China’s Water Crisis Spurs Concern, provides an update on the ambitious attempt by the Chinese government to redirect water from the south of the country to the increasingly dry north.
The Chinese, it seems, have a very sanguine view of their ability to control the forces of nature. As Chairman Mao once famously declared:
Natural science is one of man’s weapons in his fight for freedom. For the purpose of attaining freedom in society, man must use social science to understand and change society and carry out social revolution. For the purpose of attaining freedom in the world of nature, man must use natural science to understand, conquer and change nature and thus attain freedom from nature.
As no-one has yet successfully managed to replicate biodiversity, I confidently predict that this plan will add to China’s water problems rather than ameliorate them. What worries me most is that there does not seem to be a ‘Plan B’, or at least it is not publicly stated. Where will China go for its water when the well runs completely dry?
We live in an increasingly full world. During 2011 we pass the 7 billion mark. This means that world population has more than doubled during my lifetime. When J.F. Kennedy was President of the United States, humankind numbered a mere 3 billion. How has it been possible to sustain such burgeoning population growth? Answer: access to fossil fuel energy that has enabled huge increases in productivity. Back in 1800, before the industrial revolution took hold, production could only sustain 1 billion. Is the globe over-populated by the human species? On the face of it — yes, but not necessarily. The real problem is social justice (or the lack thereof) and failure to live within our ‘ecological budget constraint’. Based on the current business-as-usual model, we exceeded the carrying capacity of the Earth in the mid-1980s. In a non-polluting, renewable energy-fuelled world based on the principles of intra- and inter-generational equity, a population of 7 billion human beings may be sustainable.
Image source: UNEP
The WWF released its latest Living Planet Report yesterday, and I went along in person to the Botany Centre in the beautiful Botanic Gardens here in Singapore to get it from from the Chair of the Board of WWF himself, Dr Christopher Hails.
The launch of the Report was billed as an important precursor to the next gathering of the UN Convention of Biological Diversity scheduled to be held in Nagoya, Japan later this month and I had assumed, therefore, that there would be a focus on biodiversity loss. Instead Dr Hails gave a broad and far ranging presentation that described the general health of the planet (or lack thereof). He certainly did not disappoint and the audience (all of whom, it’s fair to say, could be counted as converts) was more numerous than I expected and certainly well-informed.
One surprise for me was that, for the first time, I was presented with data on the ecological footprint for Singapore. For some reason, Singapore has always been missing from any international league table of ecological footprints. Less surprising, given the passion for consumption in this country, was the world ranking of 21st, each person requiring 5.34 biologically productive hectares to fuel this consumption and dispose of the associated waste. Putting it another way, if everyone in the world lived like Singaporeans, we would need three planets.
Breaking the Singaporean ecological footprint down, carbon emissions is the biggest offender. This came as a surprise to some members of the audience, but Jurong does house one of the top three largest oil refining centres in the world. Then there is the aircon! If the owners of some of the buildings in Singapore turned the thermostat down a notch, maybe a Singaporean lifestyle would only require two planets.
Any more of this left-wing, environmentalist, clap-trap and I might just be forced to subscribe to this magazine!
Seriously, though, having managed to get up my nose for several decades now with its doctrinaire free-market editorial, The Economist is actually starting to talk sense, analysing issues such as the plight of the world’s forests in a manner that would have been total anathema a few years ago. The narrow, neoclassical approach is nowhere to be seen and instead we are treated to some penetrating insights that are extremely timely from a periodical of such standing, given the looming crisis in global biodiversity and ecosystem services.
Lester Brown’s book, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, asks whether we can cut carbon emissions fast enough to save the Greenland ice sheet, whether we can close coal-fired power plants fast enough to save the glaciers in the Himalayas, and whether we can we stabilise population by lowering birth rates before nature takes over and halts population growth by raising death rates. The political imperative looms ever larger as finite resources — long exploited as though they are in infinite supply — become exhausted. Brown makes reference, for example, to Saudi Arabia which, in early 2008, announced that it would no longer be self-sufficient in wheat because the non-replenishable aquifer it has been pumping for irrigation was largely depleted. Production will cease entirely in 2016, meaning a population of 30 million will need to import all its wheat. The problem of over-pumping is far more acute in India where 175 million Indians are being fed with grain produced from wells that are running dry, and in China where 130 million are affected. Meanwhile, with the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets melting at an accelerating pace, sea level rises are set to inundate much of the Mekong Delta, which produces half of the rice in Viet Nam, the world’s second-ranking rice exporter.
Brown observes that food shortages led to the demise of earlier civilisations such as the Sumerians and the Mayans, and that dwindling food supplies may be the undoing of twenty-first century civilisation as well. “It is decision time,” says Brown. “We can stay with business as usual and watch our economy decline and our civilisation unravel, or we can adopt Plan B and be the generation that mobilises to save civilisation.”
Image source: sundancechannel.com
An article in the New York Times last week drew attention to two instances of local governments looking to reduce their ecological footprints in recent weeks. First of all, the Belgian city of Ghent has declared that Thursdays will be a “meatless day” on the grounds that eating vegetarian meals will improve health and reduce the impact of raising livestock on the environment. In Australia, meanwhile, the NSW town of Bundanoon voted to ban bottled water this week to reduce carbon dioxide emissions associated with bottling and transporting the water.
I came across a post at Greendig recently about Bunker Roy and his work in Rajasthan, India. It provides a good example of ecological economic efficiency; that is, the efficiency with which capital — man-made capital (MMK) and natural capital (NK) — are used to provide life support and life-enhancing services. Far too often, MMK takes precedence over NK in the name of progress when, over the long term, rather than progress, the well-being of a community may deteriorate. Consider the case of the water supply in rural Rajasthan, for example. An increase in the availability of pumps (MMK) to access ground water is all well and good, except to the point where there is no ground water (NK) left to pump up. At Barefoot College, which Roy founded, the guiding philosophy is that solutions to rural problems lie within the community. Thus, the college has overseen the construction of rain water harvesting systems in over 150 schools, providing more than 8.7 million gallons of potable water each year, and it has an innovative solar-electrification programme whereby illiterate women from rural villages throughout India are admitted to the college to learn how to fabricate solar panels. To date, the college has solar-powered over 350 villages in India and many more in Africa, Afghanistan and South America.