This article appeared as an opinion piece on page 45 of the Canberra Times on Saturday 3 September 2022:
The national State of the Environment report shocked us, detailing environmental degradation across Australia’s ecosystems.
While Labor has blamed the Coalition for a decade of neglect, our predicament is over two hundred years in the making. In the past, our environment has run a poor second to the economy, being seen as largely a sentimental issue of beautiful landscapes and cute, furry mammals.
In contrast, the most important message from the State of the Environment report is that the wellbeing of Australians is critically dependent on a healthy environment. This has been amply demonstrated by the impacts of recent bushfires, floods, and the Covid pandemic.
In this vein, the State of the Environment report made a chilling warning: “Environmental degradation is now considered a threat to humanity, which could bring about societal collapses with long-lasting and severe consequences.”
This statement is striking because it is delivered by cautious scientists in a government report. It also eerily echoes a warning to humanity from many years earlier.
In 1972, the Club of Rome released the report, Limits to Growth. Limits to Growth used a systems approach to model future outcomes for five global variables: non-renewable resources, industrial output, food, population and pollution. It ran projections for nine scenarios, but the Standard Run scenario received the most attention, because it assumed continuation of existing policies – especially ongoing growth in consumption. The Standard Run found that industrial and food production would peak in the first half of this century and then steadily drop off, leading to global population decline.
The key messages from Limits to Growth were that global material consumption could not increase indefinitely; once sustainable limits are exceeded, contraction is inevitable. The authors, however, were clear that disaster could be avoided if economic policy changes were made quickly.
Industry and economists criticised the report vociferously, often either misunderstanding or wilfully misrepresenting it. Their responses were very similar to those by more recent climate deniers. Yet, the Standard Run scenario might well be the most accurate macroeconomic projection ever.
In 2008, CSIRO’s Graham Turner found that the Standard Run had closely matched historical data over three decades. In 2020, Gaya Herrington from KPMG US found the Standard Run was still on track and projected that economic growth would peak around 2040 and then collapse.
These projections should not be surprising. Since 1968, when Apollo 8 beamed back photos of Earth from space, we have been able to see clearly the finite nature of our beautiful planetary home.
While in theory GDP growth can continue indefinitely through productivity improvements, there are clear physical limitations. Agricultural yields are constrained by biology and even the shrinking of computer chips is running into limits due to the size of atoms.
In practice, global GDP remains strongly linked to the volume of physical resources used, and there is no evidence for believing the two can be decoupled long-term. The lessons from Limits to Growth are critical to understanding our current global environmental predicament.
Climate change needs to be seen as just one example of the problems caused by humanity exceeding Earth’s capacity to self-repair. Others include freshwater pollution, degradation of soils, overfishing and the rapid extinction of plant and animal species.
Understanding Limits to Growth also leads us to look beyond the immediate causes of environmental degradation, such as land clearing and the burning of coal. We need to identify and address the drivers of these activities, particularly society’s dominant mental frames.
For example, our prevailing modernist perspective is that humanity is no longer bound by nature’s constraints. Neoclassical economics also teaches us that the environment is primarily a resource for use in economic production. Perhaps most importantly, governments worldwide have economic growth as their foremost policy goal.
The Labor party’s proposed changes to environment legislation and establishment of an Environmental Protection Agency are important steps to turning around our environmental decline, but are not sufficient. The government’s introduction of a wellbeing budget hints at more important and fundamental required changes. We need to move away from our fixation with economic growth if we are to reach a sustainable settlement with our magnificent but fragile Australian natural environment that sustains us. It is time to finally heed the message of Limits to Growth.
Steady State ACT
Jonathan Miller is an ecologist who has worked on environment and economic policy in the Australian and ACT governments, and as a parliamentary advisor. He has managed national programs for threatened species and invasive species.