Thomas Malthus famously argued that the human population was doomed to collapse because, as it continued to grow, food production would not be able to keep up, preventing the population's previously inexorable rise. When Malthus was writing, at the end of the 18th century, the world's population was around 1 billion. It is now roughly 7 billion. Clearly he was wrong, the reason being his failure to account for productive advances in agriculture.
So how is this relevant to climate change? Well we face a similar problem now. The earth's system has natural limits on orthodox economic growth, climate change being the most well known and simply put, by continuing to grow now, we put immense and insupportable, pressure on future generations with potentially catastrophic consequences.
The idea that unlimited economic growth is incompatible with our earth's biosphere may be hard to digest. To understand it, imagine if the whole world was lucky enough to share the lifestyle we enjoy in the UK. Providing all the resources it takes to support such a lifestyle we would need three planets like Earth. If we wanted a worlds population living a US lifestyle that would increase to six or seven.
This would not be a problem if we were steadily reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, using less energy and generally just being a bit nicer to our host planet. The problem is that the reverse is true. It a sobering thought to think that there are currently more species in existence, more fish in our oceans, lower carbon dioxide emissions and fewer people in poverty now than at any point in the remainder of our lives if current trends are to continue.
Malthus, however, was wrong. He failed to take into account the possibility of technological change, so are we wrong to think that the same thing won't happen here? Some would say that we are, throughout history we have avoided similar problems, and given the advances made in energy efficiency, green technology and renewable energy sources it seems like this time is no different.
I would disagree. We must remember that the majority of economic growth now takes place in the vast emerging economies such as India and China, both of whom have burgeoning populations that are already in excess of one billion. This growth is being achieved by increasing the throughput of natural resources and materials, putting ever more pressure on our delicate biosphere. Not to mention the vast population growth. This brings with it increased consumption of cars, coal, cows and many other goods that contribute to climate change, which our planet simply cannot afford.
In addition time is fast running out. To avoid catastrophic climate change (that is over 2°C), we can burn 1 trillion tonnes of carbon. We have currently burned over half that, and the rest will be burned in the next forty years if current projections are correct. This means that if technological progress is to save the day, it will have to do so under a stringent time constraint, one that did not exist in the time of Malthus. Perhaps I'm being pessimistic, but it seems unlikely that we will avoid emitting that one trillionth tonne without a vast change.
To prevent the emission of tonne number one trillion it seems necessary that we must remove ourselves from our obsession with economic growth. Doing so is fraught with difficulties since interest rates, government budgets and private enterprise are all geared around economic growth, and as we have seen when this growth doesn't come the consequences are dire.
In the long term these problems need to be overcome. We are a long way from a coherent ready-to-go macroeconomic framework now and it is quite shocking that there are only a handful of economists even looking at the issue.
A shorter term solution is to focus on a different measurement of economic and social progress, instead of the traditional GDP. A measure that included human well-being and sustainability would be a good place to start. Fortunately our government has begun calculating a figure for well-being but this needs to go further, taking into account sustainability too, it should also replace GDP as our absolute measure of progress.
As Robert Kennedy said as long ago as 1968 'Gross National Product counts air pollution, and cigarette advertising and... the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play... the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriage. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.' It is now time for these words to be taken more seriously than ever.