Are We Any Closer to Saving the Planet Than Ten Years Ago?

Draft Version

The answer to this question should be yes and no.

Yes, we are closer than ten years ago. During all of he 1990s, an irritatingly optimistic mindset was dominating the world. The very expression of ‘saving the planet’ would not have been politically correct in these days, because it sounds ‘pessimistic’.

What caused the air of optimism of the 1990s? The Cold War was over, alright, that was a great relief because it was also the end of the fear of a Third World War. Capitalism was celebrated as the only remaining ideology, constituting the ‘end of history’, as Francis Fukuyama put it. In its radical, Anglo-Saxon version it was politically hailed as the engine of growth and thereby as a cure-all, with slogans like “rising tide lift all boats”. ‘Creative destruction’ was seen as legitimate whenever what was to be destroyed had a smell of communism. Well, markets are a growth engine and a healthy cleansing mechanism, but at least two billion people felt outright cheated and exploited. They saw their ‘boats’ sinking, not rising at all.

Stock exchange quotations were another cause of optimism, as they seemed to rise without limits. That was a deception, too, as the collapse of the ‘dot com’ bubble showed in 2000. Concerning the environment, the prevailing paradigm was the optimistic Kuznets curve of pollution, meaning that once countries turn rich they will spend enough money on pollution control, and countries end up rich and clean. In terms of local pollution, the Kuznets curve was a reality, but for global warming and biodiversity losses the paradigm was dead wrong.

I must say, I was in a state of alarm during the late 1990s about the careless optimism and the uncompromising arrogance behind it. I felt rather helpless raising my voice against it.

So I see with a degree of relief that the days of the blatant type of arrogance are over and that it has become almost mainstream once again to address the real problems. What made this sea change happen? There were many different factors. The billions of people in their ‘sinking boats’ are no longer silent. The world community has addressed their situation in the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), acknowledging that markets will not do the trick. The end of the dot com bubble was a wake up call to some but the broader public did not hear the signals until the sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2007, originating in America but spreading worldwide. Some of the once celebrated investment gurus and their institutions got unmasked as irresponsible speculators using the money of credulous clients.

In the political arena, the military and ideological answer to the insidious attacks on the World Trade Center and other targets (‘9/11’), the “War on Terror”, more and more became a nightmare for all parties involved. The arrogant US unilateralism once impersonated by the Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz Pentagon lost its support even in the White House, let alone the US Congress after its mid term elections.

The environment is back on stage, after a quarter century of denial among the leading classes in the USA, and under the weight of evidence from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the devastating pollution in the industrial centres of the high growth countries, notably China. The EU has taken the lead in politically addressing global warming, setting up the ETS, the European Trading System for carbon dioxide emissions. The two remaining candidates for the US presidency have expressed a clear commitment on mitigating global warming. China has become very serious about addressing pollution, climate, and energy efficiency. Renewable sources of energy constitute a dynamic growth sector. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is enjoying increasing visibility in the signatory states, i.e. nearly all states except the USA.

It is fair to summarise, then, that the last ten years have seen a tidal change in appreciation of the real problems the world community. Overcoming the arrogant optimism of the 1990 has been a huge and necessary progress.

It was necessary, but is surely not sufficient for an agenda of saving the planet. This is the core of the No answer.

Global warming got worse throughout the past ten years. New figures and extrapolations, e.g. from NASA’s James Hanson seem to show that stabilising atmospheric carbon dioxide at 450 ppm is far from sufficient and that we should rather aim at 350 ppm, which is still well above the pre-industrial levels of 280 ppm.

Biodiversity losses have accelerated, notably in the tropical countries. Fish stock depletion went on and partly accelerated. China aggressively began to access mineral and energy resources in Africa and elsewhere so as to continue its steep increase of resource consumption. India, Brazil, South Africa, Angola and a few other countries enjoy tremendous growth rates, all based on accelerated resource extraction, at a comfortably high price level. No end of the trend is in sight, not even a flattening of the curves. All countries of the world seem to work under the assumption that they have a right to the same kind of prosperity as the USA. And after many years of brainwashing that the American way of life was the best one could aim at, this assumption is hard to deny. But six or eventually ten billion people living by US American life styles is just not possible. We would need four or five planets Earth to accommodate their ecological footprints, according to the Global Footprints Network.

Thus in terms of climate and the ecological situation, the picture has become quite a bit grimmer, not better.

How can we now deal with this odd combination of the Yes and No answers? I submit that we can break out of the vicious circle of seeking wealth in material growth alone. I suppose we can decouple wealth creation from energy and material consumption very much like we decoupled wealth creation from the number of hours of human labour. The latter was the achievement of the Industrial Revolution. Labour productivity rose easily twenty fold in the course of 150 years of industrialisation. In other words, from one hour of human labour we learned to extract twenty times more wealth. Now is the time to do the same for energy and materials. We can learn and must learn to extract four times, ten times, and eventually twenty times as much wealth from one barrel of oil or from one ton of bauxite as we do today. Technologically speaking, this should not be more difficult than the rise of labour productivity. Resource productivity should become the core melody of the next industrial revolution.

Labour productivity rose in parallel with wages. Rising wages were justified by rising labour productivity, and rising labour cost stimulated ever further increases of labour productivity. Energy prices, on the other hand saw a secular decline (in constant dollars) over 200 years. The latest price hikes have not even brought us back to the price levels of some thirty years ago. Tragically, the political zeal has always been to keep energy prices as low as possible, thereby frustrating most attempts at increasing energy productivity. Energy price elasticity is very much a long term, not a short term affair. Infrastructure investments, which are crucial for an energy efficient society, take a lot of time.

What our societies ought to learn now is creating a long term trajectory of energy prices slowly but steadily and predictably rising in parallel with energy productivity. By definition, this would not cause any hardship, on average. But it would set a clear signal to investors and infrastructure planners that energy efficiency and productivity will become ever more profitable and necessary. It is bound to become more profitable and sexier even than the renewable energies.

If our societies, starting perhaps with the EU, embrace this new agenda of technological progress, and if later historians see the period between 1998 and 2008 the kick-off period for this new technological revolution, I suppose that those historians will agree that this time span has brought us closer to saving the planet.