A just-released international study reveals remarkable gains in the global economy.
Last year, for example, aluminum and steel reached unprecedented production levels, with China alone accounting for one-third of the world’s steel consumption. In addition, an unparalleled 45.6 million vehicles were manufactured worldwide and mobile phone sales reached an estimated 816 million, all contributing to a record Gross World Product of $59.6 trillion (all figures U.S.). From a strictly economic vantage, these figures point to fabulous levels of commerce and consumption in a burgeoning global marketplace. Yet, from an environmental perspective, these rosy statistics take on a darker hue.
The study from which they spring, Vital Statistics 2006-2007: Economic Gains Mask Underlying Crisis, was produced July 12 by the environmentally focused Worldwatch Institute. The study attempts to look at these growth statistics more from the perspective of global ecosystems than traditional economics. And the vista is sobering. For example, in 2005, according to the report, the average atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration increased 0.6 per cent over the previous high in 2004, marking the largest annual increase ever recorded. Moreover, the average global temperature reached 14.6 C, making 2005 the warmest year on record.
The report also notes that, as of late last year, an estimated 20 per cent of the world’s coral reefs had been razed, as were 20 per cent of the globe’s mangrove forests. So what? you may ask. Well, both provide a natural shield for coastlines against weather-related disasters, the cost of which hit a record $204 billion in 2005, with $125 billion of this caused by Hurricane Katrina alone. “Business as usual is harming the Earth’s ecosystems and the people who depend on them,” according to Erik Assadourian, Vital Signs 2006-2007 project director. “If everyone consumed at the average level of high-income countries, the planet could sustainably support only 1.8 billion people, not today’s population of 6.5 billion.
Yet the world’s population is expected not to shrink but to grow to 8.9 billion by 2050.” These statistics suggest that the growth model that animates our economy is a demise model that is decimating our planet. This thesis was provocatively explored in Ronald Wright’s 2005 Massey Lectures entitled A Short History of Progress (Anansi Press), claiming that many of the great civilizations of world history declined in part because they destroyed the ecosystems upon which they were built. Fortunately, however, not all businesses are pursuing “business as usual.” One exemplar of an alternative business model is Ray Anderson, founder and chairman of the carpet company Interface, Inc. Anderson experienced a “spear in the chest” epiphany when reading Paul Hawken’s, The Ecology of Commerce, (HarperCollins, 1993), which describes a type of “natural capitalism” built not on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) but Gross Earth Product (GEP). Anderson, who was featured in the Canadian documentary The Corporation, claims that his vision is “not just to change our company and eliminate our environmental footprint, but, through the power of our influence on others, to become restorative. “In nine years, at the end of 2003, we had progressed about one-third of the way from where we started in 1994, toward our goal of zero footprint — what we call the top of Mount Sustainability.” According to Interface, the company has made progress, with its greenhouse gases down 46 per cent, the number of smokestacks reduced by 33 per cent, the number of effluent pipes reduced by 47 per cent, and water usage down 40 per cent per yard of broadloom.
In an average of 80 speeches a year over the last 10 years, Anderson has espoused a new world view where the economy is recognized to be the “wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment.” “What CEO, given a subsidiary that required a constant and continual infusion of capital (natural capital, in this case) just to keep it going, would keep that subsidiary very long?” he asks. “None that I know, and nature is a better manager than any CEO I know, and capable of being far more ruthless if she needs to be.” In embracing the vision of “natural capitalism,” Anderson challenges the reigning growth model of economic progress and evokes the Greek word oikos, meaning home or household, which is, etymologically speaking, the source of both “economy” and “ecology.” What the Worldwatch report suggests, and Anderson implements, is a “unified field theory,” as it were, of economics and ecosystems, whose core value is not growth, but sustainability. And that is real progress.
Stephen Scharper teaches religious and environmental ethics at the University of Toronto.
We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.