Civilization Faces Perfect Storm of Ecological and Social Problems by John Vidal

Abuse of the environment has created an absolutely unprecedented emergency, say Blue Planet prizewinners

Celebrated scientists and development thinkers warn that civilization is faced with a perfect storm of ecological and social problems driven by overpopulation, overconsumption and environmentally malign technologies.

In the face of an “absolutely unprecedented emergency”, say the 18 past winners of the Blue Planet prize—the unofficial Nobel for the environment—society has “no choice but to take dramatic action to avert a collapse of civilization. Either we will change our ways and build an entirely new kind of global society, or they will be changed for us”.

The stark assessment of the current global outlook by the group, who include Sir Bob Watson, the British government’s chief scientific adviser on environmental issues, US climate scientist James Hansen, Prof José Goldemberg, Brazil’s secretary of environment during the Rio Earth summit in 1992, and Stanford University Prof Paul Ehrlich, was published in February 2012 on the 40th anniversary of the United Nations environment program (UNEP). The paper, which was commissioned by UNEP, will feed into the Rio +20 earth summit conference in June.

Apart from dire warnings about biodiversity loss and climate change, the group challenges governments to think differently about economic “progress”.

“The rapidly deteriorating biophysical situation is more than bad enough [to get our attention], but it is barely recognized by a global society infected by the irrational belief that physical economies can grow forever, disregarding the facts that the rich in developed and developing countries get richer and the poor are left behind. And the perpetual growth myth is enthusiastically embraced by politicians and economists as an excuse to avoid tough decisions facing humanity.”

“The perpetual growth myth … promotes the impossible idea that indiscriminate economic growth is the cure for all the world’s problems, while it is actually the disease that is at the root cause of our unsustainable global practices”, they say.

“The shift of many countries, and in particular the United States, towards corporate plutocracies, with wealth (and thus power) transferred in large quantities from the poor and middle-classes to the very rich, is clearly doing enormous environmental damage.”

The group warns against over-reliance on markets, and instead urges politicians to listen and learn from how ‘poor’ communities all over the world see the problems of energy, water, food and livelihoods as interdependent and integrated as part of a living ecosystem.

“The long-term answer is not a centralized system but a demystified and decentralized system where the management, control and ownership of the technology lie in the hands of the communities themselves and not dependent on paper-qualified professionals from outside the villages,” they say.

“Community-based groups in the poorer most inaccessible rural areas around the world have demonstrated the power of grassroots action to change policy at regional and national levels…. There is an urgency now to bring them into mainstream thinking, convey the belief all is not lost, and the planet can still be saved.”

The answer to addressing the critical issues of poverty and climate change is not primarily technical, but social, say the group. “The problems of corruption, wastage of funds, poor technology choices and absent transparency or accountability are social problems for which innovative solutions are emerging from the grassroots.”

To transition to a more sustainable future will require simultaneously redesigning the economic system, a technological revolution, and, above all, behavioral change.

“Delay is dangerous and would be a profound mistake. The ratchet effect and technological lock-in increase the risks of dangerous climate change: delay could make stabilization of concentrations of CO2 at acceptable levels very difficult. If we act strongly and science is wrong, then we will still have new technologies, greater efficiency and more forests. If we fail to act and the science is right, then humanity is in deep trouble and it will be very difficult to extricate ourselves.”

The paper urges governments to:

  • Replace GDP as a measure of wealth with metrics for natural, built, human and social capital—and how they intersect.
  • Eliminate subsidies in sectors such as energy, transport and agriculture that create environmental and social costs, which currently go unpaid [and therefore unappreciated].
  • Tackle overconsumption in the rich world, and address population pressure by empowering women, improving education and making contraception accessible to all.
  • Transform decision-making processes to empower marginalized groups, and integrate economic, social and environmental policies instead of having them compete.
  • Conserve and value biodiversity and ecosystem services, and create markets for them that can form the basis of green economies.
  • Invest in knowledge through research and training.

“The current system is broken,” said Watson. “It is driving humanity to a future that is 3-5 degrees Centigrade warmer than our species has ever known; and it is eliminating the ecology that we depend on for our health, wealth and sense of self.”

Source: The Guardian (UK), 20 February 2012, <>  John Vidal is the environment editor for The Guardian. This report appeared in the environmental section of The Guardian’s website titled “Global Development”. The report is based on a synthesis paper created from individual papers written by the past 18 winners of the Asahi Glass Foundation’s Blue Planet Prize. The Blue Planet prize is reported to be the “unofficial Nobel for the environment”.

• Source document: <http://www.UNEP/Blue-Planet-Synthesis-Paper>

• The Blue Planet Prize: <>


Demographic Challenges

The global population (which has now passed 7 billion people) and the average per capita energy consumption have both increased sevenfold over the past 150 years, for an overall fifty-fold increase in the emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And both are still increasing.

As a global average, total fertility rates (TFR) are decreasing, as a result of more females completing primary and secondary education, along with availability of fertility control. But this global average conceals many local difficulties. In some parts of the world fertility remains high—and decline in these countries is by no means certain. More than 200 million women in developing countries still have unmet needs for family planning, and increased investment in reproductive health care and family planning programs along with education programs will be critical. Although the desire and the need [for family planning] are increasing, it is estimated that funding decreased by 30% between 1995 and 2008, not least as a result of legislative pressure from the religious right in the USA and elsewhere.

The ageing of populations in many countries around the world is also a relevant sustainable development issue. The economic, social and environmental implications are as yet unclear—but this trend will undoubtedly have an impact. Whether it is positive or negative depends to a large extent on how countries prepare; e.g., in evaluating what an ageing population will mean for economic productivity, consumption of goods and services, and in terms of urban planning, financial, health and social care systems.

Both culturally and genetically, human beings have always been small-group animals, evolved to deal with at most a few hundred other individuals. Humanity is suddenly, in ecological time, faced with an emergency requiring that it quickly design and implement a governance and economic system that is both more equitable and suitable for a global population of billions of people, and sustainable on a finite planet.

 Economic Challenges

Uncontrolled economic growth is unsustainable on a finite planet. Governments should recognize the serious limitations of GDP as a measure of economic growth and complement it with measures of the five forms of capital, built (produced), natural, human, social and institutional/financial capital, i.e., a measure of wealth that integrates economic, social and environmental dimensions and is a better method for determining a country’s productive potential.

The failure of the economic system to internalize externalities leads to the continuation of environmentally damaging activities. If externalities are uncorrected then markets fail: they generate prices that do not reflect the true cost to society of our economic activities.  Emissions of greenhouse gases represent a market failure as the damages caused by emissions from the burning of fossil fuels are not reflected in prices. The price of fossil fuels should reflect the true cost to society, resulting in a more level playing field for environmentally sound renewable energy technologies, and a stimulus to conserve energy.

There are a number of other relevant market failures that must also be corrected if we are to manage the risks of climate change. For example, there are failures in the provision of information, and there are failures in valuing ecosystems and biodiversity. In addition, environmentally damaging subsidies in areas such as energy, transportation and agriculture, which total about $1 trillion per year, cause further market distortion and are in general leading to environmental degradation and should be eliminated.

The benefits that we derive from the natural world (biodiversity and ecosystem services) are critically important to human well-being and economic prosperity, but are consistently undervalued in economic analysis and decision-making. Recognizing the value of ecosystem services would allow the world to move towards a more sustainable future, in which the benefits of ecosystem services are better realized and more equitably distributed.

Technology Challenges

The over-reliance on fossil fuel energy (coal, oil and gas) and inefficient end-use technologies has significantly increased the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. We are currently putting one million years worth of sequestered carbon into the atmosphere each year. Recent efforts to reduce the carbon intensity (CO2/GDP) were made in a large number of countries particularly in China and Russia where the carbon content has declined significantly in the last 30 years (albeit from very high levels). However the carbon intensities of India, South Africa and Brazil (including deforestation) have not declined significantly in that period. It is therefore clear that all countries have to take serious measures to reduce their CO2 emissions in the next few decades.

Socio-Political Challenges 

There are serious shortcomings in the decision-making systems on which we rely in government, business and society. This is true at local, national and global levels. The rules and institutions for decision-making are influenced by vested interests, yet each interest has very different access to how decisions are made. Effective change in governance demands action at many levels to establish transparent means for holding those in power to account. Governance failures also occur because decisions are being made in sectoral compartments, with environmental, social and economic dimensions addressed by separate, competing structures.

The shift of many countries, and in particular the United States, towards corporate plutocracies, with wealth (and thus power) transferred in large quantities from the poor and middle-classes to the very rich, is clearly doing enormous environmental damage. The successful campaign of many of the fossil fuel companies to downplay the threat of climate disruption in order to maintain the profits of their industry is a prominent example.

Cultural Challenges 

The importance to reducing inequity in order to increase the chances of solving the human predicament is obvious (just in the differences in access to food and other resources) caused by the giant power gap between the rich and the poor. The lack of funding for issues (such as the provision of family planning services) contrasts sharply with the expenditures by the United States and some other rich nations to try to assure that oil flows to themselves are uninterrupted. The central geopolitical role of oil continues unabated despite the dangerous conflicts oil-seeking already has generated and the probable catastrophic consequences its continued burning portends for the climate.

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