Green Capitalism - Waves of the Future

Climate Change, Non-Renewable Resources, Energy, Contaminants, Carbon Pricing...

The Depletion Wall

1. Waves of Change

2. The Green Economic Environment

GHG and Carbon Emission Trading, Revenue-Neutral Carbon Taxes, and Cap-and-Trade Alternatives

Cap-and-trade is not the best option that we have to curb greenhouse gases. A revenue-neutral taxation approach (similar to carbon pricing) would be better and further serve to reduce resource depletion and toxic contaminants.

A Cost and Benefit Comparison

Overview  Reviews

See also Book I of the Waves of the Future Series




1. Waves of Change

Those of us who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s will probably have little trouble recognizing the roots of this work. In 1980 Alvin Toffler wrote a book called The Third Wave. It developed an analytical view of the world based on the concept of waves of change transforming society in fundamental ways as they washed over the earth.

The book was highly popular and became part of the culture of the time along other works such as E.F. Schumacher's (1974), Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, which argued that smaller-scale technologies and operations were better because of their lower impact on the environment relative to the earth's power to heal itself.

Toffler's First Wave
Some 10,000 years ago, humans were organized in small groups of nomadic hunter-gatherers. Their diet consisted of the animals they managed to kill as well as edible plants such as roots, nuts, grains, and berries. They would move on to a new area once the old one had been depleted of its food resources.

Their tools were very basic. They included such things as hand axes, flint cutters and scrapers, bone needles, etc. (Beers, 1986, p. 21). Even today, that way of life still exists in some tribes in the forests of New Guinea and Brazil. Toffler refers to that era as the Pre-First Wave (500,000 BCE to about 10,000 BCE).

People were often on the brink of starvation, at least compared to today's standards. Of course, some groups of hunter-gatherers were better off, especially if the land was generous and the food supply, abundant. However, as they moved around constantly, they could not gather huge stores of food to help them survive through droughts, harsh winters, and other vagaries of the weather. They were at the mercy of the elements and the climate. Life in general was precarious.

Then the First Wave hit. It started about 10,000 years ago. People began uncovering some of nature's secrets, such as how to grow food. They learned to gather seeds, till the ground, plant, and harvest. Many of their early crops were the same as today's staples. Beans and maize (corn) were grown in Central and South America. Rice was cultivated in Asia, and wheat and barley, in the Middle East and Africa (Beers, 1986, p. 22). People also began herding certain types of animals, for example, sheep and goats. Progressively, the new knowledge and tools were shared and spread around the world. That was the beginning of the Agricultural Revolution.

Agriculture had a tremendous impact on how people lived. Firstly, it increased the supply of food as the new practices were more efficient than simple gathering. Crops were more plentiful and could be grown more reliably. Domesticated animals were a readily available supply of proteins. Once a herd was built to the point where people could live off the surplus cattle, it became a fully sustainable source of food.

Agriculture forced people to alter their way of life. It took a lot of time and work to prepare the soil for cultivation. Suitable land had to be found and cleared. Seeds had to be gathered and stored over the winter. Because of this, people became increasingly sedentary and began settling around the most fertile areas.

In turn, it allowed them to build storage structures and start accumulating a surplus of food, which would help them get through winters and difficult times and significantly increase their odds of survival. Over time, settlements grew into cities which in turn gave rise to various civilizations.

The ability to accumulate surpluses resulted in another change within society: the concentration of power. As extra food could be amassed, it could also be passed on to the next generation. Stores of grains and herds of cattle could be handed down from parents to children. At birth, humans were no longer starting on an equal footing. Those inheriting huge surpluses had major advantages over others. They could trade surpluses for better tools or additional land and become even more successful. Over time, that process concentrated power and eventually led to the appearance of hierarchies and social classes.

There were obviously the rich (the nobility) and the poor (the peasantry and the slaves), but other classes also evolved. As agricultural practices intensified, tools became more elaborate and demanded more expertise in their fabrication. As well, as some people became wealthy, they no longer needed to make things or do the work themselves. They could just buy them or hire someone. As a result, a certain amount of specialization developed and a new class emerged, the artisans.

Two other groups also came into being from the fact that societies were better off economically and could afford to support more people not directly involved in food production. The military was one of them. The priesthood was the other one.

The First Wave ran its course over a 10,000-year span. It took society from dispersed small bands of humans roaming the land in constant search of food—often just one step ahead of starvation and death—to the vast civilizations and empires of the Indus Valley and Mesopotamia. Then the Second Wave hit.

Toffler's Second Wave
The Second Wave is closely associated with the Industrial Revolution. Toffler discussed some of its precursors, for example, the extraction of petroleum on a Greek island around 400 BCE. Large population centers were emerging in Asia and South America. Currency systems and trade routes became established in Europe. However, the Second Wave did not really take off until other developments occurred.

In general, agricultural economies were mostly based on self-sufficiency. Eventually, that began changing. Trade expanded. People started concentrating on the production of fewer goods and exchanged them for what they needed. Specialization increased and the division of labor was born. That was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the Second Wave.

Specialization was good in many ways. People were able to do what they could do best. This allowed them to acquire more experience and knowledge relating to their work. Quality and production levels increased. This process culminated with the invention of the assembly line (first implemented by Henry Ford in 1914), in which each worker in a factory specializes in very few steps of a job that is otherwise fairly elaborate.

Specialization and the assembly line led together to mass production, or the fabrication on a large scale of goods that are identical. It gave rise to enormous efficiencies and cost reduction and transformed the agricultural society of the time. Mass production made many of the luxuries reserved for the rich affordable to the masses but rendered factory work somewhat mindless and alienating.

Medieval Markets and Price
Today, we live in a lowest-bidder world. On the one hand, governments, organizations, and companies will generally pick the lowest bids for the contracts they award, assuming everything else is equal. On the other, consumer prices are determined by demand and competition between suppliers in the marketplace.

This was not the case in medieval times, at least in Europe. Prices were fixed by Church authorities and quality—as opposed to quantity—was prioritized. Production standards had to be met and selling a given product for higher than the set price was deemed immoral. So was underpaying for it.

Artisans were organized in guilds, which worked in cooperation with other authorities to set standards. They did not compete against one another—which was viewed as subversive by Church ideology—but cooperated (Baillargeon, 2002, p. 39-40, 68). Religious authorities were heavily involved in shaping economic activities. St. Thomas Aquinas (1235-1274), an influential Catholic theologian (author of Summa Theologica), was a well-known advocate of the just price.

Obviously, society has changed immensely in that respect. Everything nowadays is about efficiency and profits, rather than quality. Where prices are not fixed, consumers haggle in order to pay producers the lowest possible price, and vendors try to get as much as they can for their goods. Companies compete against each other.

Toffler's Third Wave
Toffler places the Third Wave's origins in the 1970s with the first oil crisis. Up until that time, industrialization had reigned supreme. Economies were growing, unemployment was low, and everybody reaped the benefits of the assembly line and mass production. When the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) almost quadrupled the price of oil in 1973, all the euphoria came to a screeching halt.

According to Toffler, this is when industrialization met its first significant challenge, forcing economies to alter their course. They would move away from single and concentrated sources of energy such as fossil fuels to smaller-scale, more varied and dispersed alternatives such as solar and wind power. This is now beginning to take place.

The essence of the Third Wave itself was not about fossil fuels but rather an information age that would change the world in more ways than one. Its influence would extend to all areas of human activity. Rapid communications would enable the decentralization of businesses into satellite offices and eventually lead to the rise of the electronic cottage, the home office. This would reduce unnecessary commuting, therefore decrease pollution and the dependency on foreign sources of energy.

These are just some of the topics covered by Toffler in 1980. The Information Age has transformed just about every aspect of our lives, from the home environment, to the way we learn in school, to access to information, to how we buy the goods and services we need everyday. Unfortunately, it has had little effect on reducing dependency on fossil fuels.

The Fourth Wave
The Fourth Wave might be a little bit more difficult to pin down as it is much broader in scope than the earlier three. Toffler argued that change was happening at a faster pace as time went on. His First Wave took some 10,000 years to run its course before being challenged by the second, which ran for about 350 years. The Third Wave is only about four decades old, but already the world has been entering a new era.

For a few years now, we have been feeling the effects of global warming. Babies in most developed countries are now born with dozens of toxic chemicals and carcinogens in their tissues. Some of the world's renewable resources, for example fisheries, are being lost to overexploitation, environmental damage, and toxicity. Worse, we seem incapable of averting any of it. For decades these problems grew mostly silently, but only now are we really starting to feel their effects.

The Fourth Wave is partly the cumulation of environmental problems and their destructive effects, and partly the potential for reversing those in a dramatic way with targeted changes to the economic system, changes which could translate into an environmental revolution in as little as a decade.

The first book of the Waves of the Future series, The 21st Century Environmental Revolution, argues that we have the means today to bring about an environmental revolution and that it can be done in a financially feasible way. The knowledge already exists, and the economic instruments needed for it are well known and have been tried and tested.

The strategy proposed, the Green Economic Environment (GEE), is essentially revenue neutral, meaning that neither governments nor businesses or taxpayers would have to pay the bill. This would ensure support from all sectors of society and make the approach both economically feasible and politically viable.

The Fourth Wave could transform the world as we know it and lead to a much greener planet and eventually to a sustainable economy, but our failure to act, and to do so decisively with a strategy like the GEE, will result in a continued accumulation of problems and our children living in an increasingly polluted and harmful environment.

The Fifth Wave
While the current situation regarding pollution and greenhouse gases is serious, the depletion of nonfuel minerals (metals) is acutely critical. Unlike fossil fuels, which have alternatives that are fully renewable and available at relatively low prices, metals are generally not substitutable. Once they run out, it is the end of the road. Economically exploitable reserves of nonfuel minerals are not counted in centuries, but in years and decades. Some metals are already in short supply, and most will become scarce, undergoing stiff price increases in a few decades.

To make things worse, the world population is growing rapidly and would continue to do so for decades even if we tried to stop it. It now stands at almost 7 billion people and, according to UN estimates, will not peak until it reaches over 10 billion, assuming a moderate fertility variant (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2010).

Population growth will increase the demand for, among other things, non-renewable resources. Its effect will be to propel us towards a depletion wall, a point at which most minerals will run scarce and see doubling and tripling in prices over very short periods of time. Because metals are non-renewable and not readily replaceable, there will be no way out, only acute shortages getting worse and worse. The Depletion Wall will likely be the worst crisis that the international community has ever faced and could result in a world collapse in the second half of the century.

Resources and the Economy—A Historical Perspective
Humanity has faced many challenges in the past. Centuries ago, wars and epidemics were probably the main sources of concern. In the last few decades, conflicts have remained an issue, but mineral resources have played an increasing role on the world scene. Islamic terrorism makes headlines everyday, but the issue is intimately related to minerals. Oil has played a role in funding it and is an underlying cause of war in the Middle East.

Crashing the World Economy
It is really in 1973—when the first oil crisis hit—that mineral resources began playing a major role in the international arena. The huge increases in the price of petroleum driven by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) sent shock waves through the world economy. The rise in the cost of energy meant that not only gasoline but also consumer goods became more expensive.

In response to the hardships created by rising oil prices, governments began borrowing. Trying to catch up or stay abreast with the increasing cost of living, labor unions negotiated contracts that called for wage hikes sometimes in the double digits, which lead to equally high inflation rates.

Many of us will remember this as a time of economic hardships. Interest rates were kept high to reduce inflation but worsened unemployment, which was already at an elevated level. In the 1980s and 1990s, governments ran huge deficits on account of the high interests they paid on their national debts, which, as a result, often mushroomed and even put some countries on the brink of bankruptcy. To bring budgets back into the black, they reduced many of the services, programs, and social benefits.

Crashing the World Economy Again
In 2008, thirty-five years after the first oil crisis, the world economy crashed again. While bankers were generally held responsible for it, some people put a large part of the blame on high oil prices and OPEC. Jeff Rubin, former chief economist at CIBC World Markets and author of Why Your World Is About To Get a Whole Lot Smaller, argued that the rise to unprecedented levels of the price of oil bore a significant part of the blame for the crash. In 2009, he wrote:

Between 2005 and 2007, soaring oil prices transferred roughly a trillion dollars from consumers' wallets throughout the OECD to OPEC producers. And when gasoline prices were $4 per gallon last Memorial Day weekend (or as much as $1.50 per liter in Canada), many North American households found themselves paying more to fill their gas tanks than feed their families. (2009, June 02)

On the one hand, massive amounts of money were taken out of Western and other economies—and the pockets of homeowners— and shipped out express to the Middle East as opposed to being used for mortgage payments or the purchase of local goods which would have created jobs and increased wealth domestically. On the other hand, excessive oil prices drove inflation up, which in turn resulted in significantly higher mortgage rates and caused many homeowners to default on their payments.

While bankers were certainly at fault in managing risks, OPEC's greed in terms of oil prices does bear some of the responsibility for the recent banking crisis. As such, OPEC and resource speculation were at least partly involved in crashing the world economy once again.

In the aftermath of the subprime mortgage crisis, the environment continues to take a backseat to everything else. World hunger has now passed the one-billion person mark (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2009). The problem gained intensity with the rise in the cost of food from peak oil prices in 2007 and 2008 and then with the subprime mortgage crisis. OPEC has every intention of raising oil prices back up as soon as the current recession is over.

In the last four decades alone, resource shortages and speculation have had a dramatic impact on the world economy and poverty. How much more of this can we take? What happens when most metals start running scarce and speculation kicks in?

We are already decades down the depletion road, with the world economy having crashed twice already on that account. Yet, nobody seems to notice or heed the lessons of the past.

The Baby Boomers' Debt
Since the 1970s, governments have been borrowing heavily to pay for a variety of programs and infrastructural projects. While the North American general government gross debt dropped somewhat in the mid 1990s and early 2000s, it reached over 80% of GDP (Gross Domestic Product, an approximate measure of a country's total annual production) in Canada and stood above 90% of it in the US in 2010. It was also high for most European countries and Japan, for which it reached over 200% (International Monetary Fund, October, 2010, World economic and financial surveys. World economic outlook database).

For decades baby boomers have not been paying their way. Countries started borrowing heavily in the 1970s to solve their financial problems and, with few exceptions, have never stopped doing so since. The idea is to simply pass national debt down to our children. Borrowing money and paying it back is called a loan. Borrowing and not paying back is commonly referred to as theft.

Not only have we, baby boomers, accumulated massive debts at the national level, but we are also responsible for a huge amount of environmental destruction, resulting in the loss and degradation of many resources as well as a huge cleanup bill for, again, our children. Some believe that the world population needs to keep increasing—resulting in further environmental destruction, cleanup bills, depletion of non-renewable resources, and hunger—in order to support the increase in healthcare costs associated with the aging of the baby boomer generation.

The 20th Century's Environmental Record
The 20th century has seen many successes. Medicine, knowledge, and technology have advanced by leaps and bounds. However, environmental contamination and degradation have increased at an alarming rate. Pollutants are found just about everywhere, from newborns' tissues to polar regions.

Mercury is harming the oceans' fisheries. The flesh of beached whales is so toxic that it cannot be disposed of in regular dump sites. A lot of our freshwater systems are also contaminated. And it is only getting worse. Babies are born with dozens of harmful chemicals already in their bodies.

The toxicity of some substances has been common knowledge for centuries. Anne Nadakavukaren (2000), an author and lecturer in environmental health, reported that the harmful effects of lead poisoning were discovered well over two thousand years ago. Mercury was also a known cause of death during the Roman Empire, slaves in Spain suffering the lethal consequences of its fumes in mines (p. 225).

But, we, in the 20th century, were smarter than people in those times. Fuel companies added lead to gasoline to boost its performance, spreading the toxic metal thinly everywhere in our living environment. The practice has been regulated and stopped. However, that it occurred in the first place is aberrant.

As far as mercury is concerned, there is still very little regulation. It is used in many industrial processes, in the pulp and paper industries among others. It is a major problem as the liquid metal evaporates into the atmosphere and spreads around the world. It bioaccumulates (i.e. does not get eliminated through the digestive system) in fish and animals. Native populations in northern Canada—an area that most would think in pristine condition and pollution free—are seriously affected by the problem as their diet depends on fish and ocean mammals, many of which now have significant concentrations of mercury in their tissues.

Despite having known about the danger of mercury for centuries, little has changed. If anything, things are getting worse. Over the decades, its concentration in the environment has increased. The toxic metal is now found in tuna fish—an ocean species that has supported and fed many for centuries—in concentrations high enough to be harmful to pregnant women and young children.

PCBs, a range of toxic compounds, are now pervasive in the environment all around the world, and still being used in closed systems despite their production having been banned in the US in 1976. Nadakavukaren (2000) reported that by that time the contaminant was being detected in almost all the breast milk samples of American women tested (p. 232, 234).

Recent research in the US has shown brominated fire retardants—a known thyroid toxin—to also be present in mothers' milk in surprisingly high concentrations and in all the samples examined (Lunder and Sharp, 2003, September 23).

This is just a snapshot of what is going on. Even more shocking than the data is that we are doing very little about these things. Only the worse issues are addressed. We deal with the tip of the tip of the iceberg, only taking action after much damage has been done.

The conservation of non-renewable resources is even lower down on the priority list. Saving trees is on the news regularly, but who has heard of the depletion crisis? It is not on any government's agenda. On the contrary, the faster we mine metallic resources, the more jobs are created.

The planet has been around for about five billion years and needs to sustain the thousands of generations to come. We do not want to wipe out the world's non-renewable resources on top of the harm we have already done to the environment. The Depletion Wall is perhaps the biggest challenge that this generation and its children will face.

This is what the Fifth Wave is about. Either we will take preemptive action—although time may have already run out for this—and change the very nature of the world economy in order to soften up the impact ahead, or we will hit the Depletion Wall at full speed and reap the consequences of our inaction. One way or the other, the Fifth Wave will transform the world we live in.

2. The Green Economic Environment

The first book of the Waves of the Future series, The 21st Century Environmental Revolution, focused on a strategy for the environment and the conservation of non-renewable resources: the Green Economic Environment (GEE).

This chapter will briefly review the approach and discuss its underlying logic, solid economic foundation, and political justification, all of which make the difference between brushing it off as an idealistic plan and realizing that it would be much cheaper and more feasible than other approaches. Unlike most other environmental strategies it addresses the problem of resource depletion in a meaningful way.

The GEE's First Pillar: Resource Conservation
Every ounce of ore that we dig out of the ground every year ends up in the environment. As per the basic law of physics that states that nothing is created nor destroyed, one ton of ore eventually equals one ton of garbage in the environment as metals do not magically disappear after they have been used. Some, such as lead and mercury, are toxic and contaminate land and water. Others are not harmful in themselves but still pose a problem as they eventually end up in landfill sites, when not in the environment at large.

In addition, the mining and transformation of metals into finished goods requires energy—which means the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere—and involves a battery of chemicals, many of which are highly toxic. Finally, the disposal of garbage is often a source of pollution as well.

A logical conclusion from this is that reducing our consumption of non-renewable resources would also significantly decrease pollution. As such, conservation would yield a double dividend by reducing our environmental impact and saving resources for future generations.

In other words, we can achieve twice as much as we currently do with the funding and social support that exist at the moment. Conservation must be central in a comprehensive environmental strategy, rather than a secondary goal or a minor issue as it is often the case.

This is the first pillar on which the approach developed in The 21st Century Environmental Revolution is based. If we were able to decrease our consumption of non-renewable resources by 50% over the next decade, garbage would drop by dozens of percentage points and pollution would be significantly reduced. The positive impact on the environment would be staggering in terms of reduced pollution and the massive cut in the amount of garbage produced every day.

The Second Pillar: Revenue Neutrality
The second pillar has to do with funding. Money is always the main stumbling block for many socioeconomic issues, including the environment. Nothing gets done due to a lack of financial support. People do not want to pay more taxes, and governments will not raise those of corporations for both political and economic reasons.

The only way for a comprehensive and effective environmental strategy to ever be implemented is to ensure that nobody has to pay for it, i.e. that it is revenue or cost neutral. This is one of the cornerstones of the Green Economic Environment and what makes it a serious contender in terms of environmental strategy as we go forward.

Designing an approach based on conservation is easy. Developing one that does not cost anything is a different story. Under a GEE system, money would be taken with one hand and given back with the other, taxpayers essentially breaking even in the end. The approach rests on deterrence taxation, such as exists on cigarettes and alcohol in many countries, but handled in a revenue-neutral way.

The underlying principle of the strategy is that, one way or another, taxes have to be collected to pay for social services, roads, the army, and government operations. When income is taxed, only one benefit is derived: the filling of the government's coffers. One million dollars' worth of taxation produces one million dollars' worth of services.

However, if taxes were to come from environmental sources (deterrence levies on toxic chemicals, unenvironmental goods, etc.), two benefits would be derived from the same tax: money to fill the government's coffers and an incentive to protect the environment. One million dollars' worth of taxation would produce one million dollars' worth of services plus one million dollars' worth of deterrence to pollute and waste.

In essence, the strategy would create a new landscape for businesses and people, making unenvironmental goods and behaviors more expensive, therefore acting as a deterrent for what is harmful to the environment and bad for society. Consumers would see themselves compensated for the new levies—which would be charged at the producer level to maximize efficiency—through lower taxation on income and on general retail sales. Revenue neutrality makes the GEE much more politically viable than any other strategy currently available.

Creating a green economic environment has several advantages in addition to revenue neutrality. Deterrence taxation is currently used in many countries. It is well understood and does not conflict with the economy in general. In other words, the GEE is a system that has essentially been tried and tested already.

In terms of firepower for the environment, the potential of the Green Economic Environment is just massive. In 2000, governments' tax take in the US and Canada alone was over two trillion dollars. A significant part of that could easily have come from environmental levies instead of taxes on income and not cost anyone an additional penny.

This is an unheard of amount of deterrence, one that could be used for the environment and one that is available year after year without increasing overall taxation. In fact, most environmental issues are ones of deterrence: we want to deter the use of toxic chemicals, the consumption of non-renewable resources, etc.

In many cases, environmental problems can be addressed by increasing either funding or deterrence. While raising taxes is unpopular, deterrence can be generated at no cost (as a second dividend) simply by shifting taxation. The real beauty of the system and why it would work is that deterrence is essentially free. The GEE would be the first large-scale environmental strategy that could be afforded by both developed and developing countries.

One of the most powerful aspects of the approach is that it works with the economic system and private sector. It does not call for higher taxation or massive spending. Businesses and markets would continue to operate normally, if with slightly modified rules. The levies charged to producers would be passed down to consumers and would not affect the competitiveness of individual businesses within a given industry as they would be charged equally to all.

In a green economic environment, pollution and the depletion of natural resources would no longer be rewarded with profits. What would become lucrative is the conversion to cleaner energy and processes, the elimination of toxic chemicals and their replacement with green alternatives, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, the use of environmentally friendly products, the conservation of non-renewable resources, etc.

Under the new structure, the more companies do this, the higher the profits would be. The GEE would transform the worst enemies of the environment and resources—the market system and the industry—into their best allies. The incentive for companies to do better would be continuous (unlike regulations) and move businesses to make the world greener not only up to the minimum standard but beyond it, and do so year after year.

An otherwise destructive economic system would become a large part of the solution to today's environmental problems, a massive and powerful force for the betterment of the world. The strength and spirit of the GEE lies in the idea of restructuring the economy so that there is profit in preserving resources and the environment rather than in destroying them.

The Third Pillar: Depopulation
There is another pillar to the environmental strategy discussed above: depopulation. Fewer people on the planet would result in lower consumption levels and yield triple benefits: less garbage, less pollution, and reduced use of natural resources. As such, depopulation should be as central to an environmental strategy as the conservation of non-renewable resources.

Of course, this does not mean that regulations regarding toxic or harmful chemicals should not be part of an environmental strategy. In fact, they are a component of the GEE but not its mainstay. The conservation of non-renewable resources and depopulation are center stage because they offer respectively two and three times the impact of other strategies. This is an extremely significant factor since national initiatives and international environmental accords often fail over costs and financial matters.

The Failure of the Economic System
It always seems that the world is perpetually hanging on the hopes of an economic recovery or faster growth. If only we had more money, the world's problems could be solved. While this avenue might have been helpful in the past, we have reached a point in history where even economic growth will not help.

Remember the summer of 2008 when the economy was going full steam ahead? The production of biofuels started to compete with food for land. The news headlines talked of food riots on account of a tripling of the price of rice. There are just too many people to feed, and statistics are fairly explicit on the issue. Almost 15% of the world's population doesn't have enough food to meet its nutritional requirements.

In addition to this, economic growth accelerated the depletion of non-renewable resources, resulting in higher mineral prices and inflation. While it might have been the solution in times of plenty, economic expansion will make things worse in a future of diminishing resources.

Everything that we do and consume has an environmental impact. Organic food, for example, may appear to have no negative effect on nature, no environmental footprint. However, the machinery used to harvest crops, whether they are organic or not, is primarily made of metal, the extraction and processing of which has a significant environmental footprint. Goods have to be transported to markets, again with vehicles being made primarily of metal and generally powered by fossil fuels. The farmers that produce organic foods have to live in houses that are made of a number of components that are not always environmentally friendly.

The point is, nobody and nothing is perfectly green although some types of products do have a much smaller environmental footprint. As such, both continued economic expansion and population growth are bad for the environment even in the greenest of worlds.

An aspect of the growth debate is that people in developed countries consume a lot more goods and resources and have a much higher impact on the environment than do individuals in poorer parts of the world. On the other hand, developing countries have some of the largest and fastest-growing populations on the planet.

As such, in either case, rising standards of living will result in a significant increase in consumption levels and have disastrous consequences for both the environment and the depletion of resources. In turn, this will mean higher mineral prices, which will eat away at potential improvements in standards of living. Growth will increasingly be limited in its ability to alleviate problems in the future.

Let's now take a closer look at the past—and a possible future—and see how other societies have collapsed or dramatically declined as a result of their own actions.

Copyright Waves of the Future, ©2012

More information: UN Sustainable Development Alvin Toffler