Author: PhD. Natig SHIRINZADE, Founder of the Institute of Global Economic Problems, Member of the European Association of Economists
Everyone living on Earth risks knowing that the probability of the onset is worse what is small for him as an individual, while everyone repeats to himself the mantra "this cannot happen to me". Such is the universal form of complacency, which allows the Earth to rotate, and life, to continue.
Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University's Earth Institute claimed that: “The most pressing task is to achieve sustainable development, which means combining economic development, social justice and ecological sustainability.”
Earth is simply not able to withstand the pace at which we plunder its resources, and begins to demonstrate this inability.
Point of no return?
In mathematics, there is a line of research called chaos theory, in which there is a phenomenon known as the butterfly effect. Its essence is that one small and at first glance insignificant event in a complex system can initiate important events in its other parts. Environmental consequences will have radically negative consequences, before which tests for coronavirus will turn out to be an easy training.
The total weight of all people on Earth is 0.01% (one ten thousandth) of the weight of all living creatures, but it is man and his activities that are responsible for the extinction of flora and fauna, analysts at the World Economic Forum (WEF) noted in a report on natural risks for 2020 the year they prepared together with PwC experts. Over the past half century they grouped 90% of negative changes in nature into five categories - all of them are somehow related to the economy, politics, consumption and other activities of people:
- changes in the use of soil and water resources;
- climate change;
- depletion of natural resources;
- the spread of invasive species, that is, “newcomers” for a certain territory or ecosystem of organisms that appeared there thanks to humans and are potentially harmful.
The risks of species extinction for the economy seem to be obvious, but often we can only see part of the entire scale, since environmental problems can be hidden deep in the logistics and production chain, the authors of the report emphasise. Earlier, experts from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD, brings together 36 of the most developed countries) estimated that only soil degradation brings the world economy from $6 trillion. up to $11 trillion in annual losses.
More fundamental is the fact that our current economic model is destroying the Earth’s natural ecosystems.
In the 21st century key constraints include fresh water, forests, pastures, ocean fishing areas, species biodiversity, and the Earth’s atmosphere. Do we recognise that the world has natural constraints and reorganise our economy accordingly or will we continue to exacerbate the environmental consequences of our forward movement until it turns out that it is too late to turn back?
Although our ancestors have struggled with water shortages since the time of ancient Mesopotamia, the increasingly widespread shortage of fresh water is perhaps the most underestimated resource problem that the world faced on the eve of the new millennium. This is evidenced by both a decrease in groundwater levels, and drying out rivers that are unable to bring their waters to the sea. As world water consumption has tripled since the middle of the century, its excessive pumping has led to lower groundwater levels on all continents. One of the most frequently offered means in connection with the lack of water is the introduction of water prices, charging consumers sufficiently high fees to be sure that this water is used efficiently. Although water researchers for the most part agree with the need for a transition to this system, only a few governments have adopted effective water pricing policies. Water charges make it possible to increase the use of irrigation devices such as sprinklers in practice, which can significantly increase productivity compared to traditional flood irrigation or furrow irrigation, which are currently widely used, especially in Asia. Drip irrigation, a technology first used in Israel, is uneconomical for use in cereal crops, but for high-value fruit and vegetable crops it can reduce water consumption by up to 70%.
For dozens of civilizations, wood was important, and the inability to use forests rationally undermined and destroyed many of them. From the middle of the 20th century demand for lumber doubled, demand for firewood almost tripled, and the use of wood for paper production increased almost six times. In addition, forests are cut down and cleared for areas where farmers settle, which, due to population growth, cannot find a place in areas previously developed for agriculture, as well as for growing agricultural products for commercial purposes and for grazing livestock. In the tropics and subtropics with increasing demographic pressure, more and more flattering areas are being cleared for agricultural use. In many regions, the combination of logging and clearing of forest land for farming and animal husbandry has worsened the condition of forests to such an extent that they become vulnerable to fires. Healthy tropical forest will not burn. But the large tracts of tropical forests in the world have ceased to be healthy.
Falling fish catch rates
Fisheries as a food source historically preceded agriculture, however, for the first time, our generation has achieved stable and even high catches in ocean fishing areas. However, marine biologists doubt that the oceans will be able to provide sustainable fish catches in the future, far exceeding the level of 95 million tons that has been achieved in the last few years. If biologists are right, then the decline in per capita seafood production, which began at the end of the 20th century, will continue until population growth stops. Those who were born shortly before 1950 had a chance to witness a doubling of seafood production per capita, while those who were born in recent years, during their lifetime, can observe a reduction of this figure by half. At the beginning of the new millennium, there will be a turning point in ocean fisheries, a shift from abundance to a situation where the best-selling fish species are in short supply, seafood prices will raise, and conflicts between countries over access to fishing zones will multiply.
Unprofitable cattle breeding
Although the data on pastoral livestock production is not as accurate as marine fisheries, it is known that the pasture area of the world is approximately two times the area of arable land, while they account for a large part of the production of beef and mutton consumed in the world. Unfortunately, as with fisheries, over-exploitation of resources - in this case, overgrazing - has now become the rule rather than the exception. Maintaining a stable production of meat and milk in the future, as well as ensuring a traditional way of life for livestock breeding peoples, will create an even greater burden on pastures, the condition of which has already worsened significantly. Thus, another of our core support systems will be destroyed by continuously expanding human needs.
Biodiversity is dying
Perhaps the best indicator of the current state of the Earth is the declining number of species that live with us on the planet. Over most of the history of evolution, the number of plant and animal species has gradually increased, and today we observe an extremely rich variety of life on Earth. Unfortunately, we are now in the early stages of the largest extinction of plant and animal life in 65 million years.
Equally causes concern and the condition of the animal world. Of the 9,600 species of birds that live on Earth, two-thirds are now experiencing a decline in numbers, and 11% are threatened with extinction. This is mainly caused by a combination of such factors as changing or destroying habitats, excessive shooting by hunters and uncontrolled introduction of exotic species. Of the 4,400 species of mammals that live on Earth, among which we are only one of the species, 11% are threatened with extinction. Another 14% may fall into this category if existing trends continue. Of the 24,000 species of fish living in the oceans and freshwater lakes and rivers, one third is now at risk of extinction.
Bioremediation and CO2 concentration
The globalisation unfolding in recent decades also leads to a decrease in the diversity of life on Earth. Rapidly expanding trade and tourism have broken the ecological barriers that have existed for millions of years, which allow thousands of plant species, insects and other living organisms to penetrate into remote areas, and often completely displace local species and disrupt important environmental processes. Recently, such “bio-invasions” forced the abandonment of more than 1 million arable lands in South America and devastated fishing grounds on Lake Victoria in East Africa.
The loads on the earth's atmosphere are also increasing. With the expansion of our global economy based on the use of fossil fuels, emissions of carbon compounds into the atmosphere have exceeded the ability of natural systems to bind carbon dioxide. According to leading scientists, the concentration of CO2 and other greenhouse gases has caused temperatures to rise over the course of this century.
If the world continues to focus on the use of fossil fuels, then, according to forecasts, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere as early as 2050 will be twice the level observed before the beginning of the industrial era, which will lead to an increase in the average temperature of the Earth’s surface by 2100 -3.5°C (2-6°F). This is expected to have more severe climate consequences, including more damaging storms and floods, as well as melting glaciers and rising water levels in the oceans.
An economy can be environmentally sustainable only when it obeys the principles of sustainability, principles whose roots go back to environmental science. In a sustainable economy, fish catch does not exceed the reproductive capacities of fishing zones, the amount of water pumped out from underground does not exceed the restoration of groundwater reserves, soil erosion does not exceed the natural rate of soil formation, tree felling does not exceed the planting of new ones, and the emissions of carbon compounds into the atmosphere do not exceed it natural ability to bind carbon dioxide. A sustainable economy does not destroy plant and animal species faster than new species emerge.
When it becomes obvious that in the long run the existing model of industrial development is not viable, the question arises: what would an environmentally sustainable economy look like? Since we are aware of the fundamental constraints that the world is currently facing in its development, and some of the available technologies, we can describe this new economy in general, if not in detail. It is based on a new principle, which provides for the transition from a one-time consumption of natural resources to the one based on the use of renewable energy sources and on the constant reuse of materials and the processing of industrial waste. This is an economy using solar energy, with the predominant use of bicycles and railways to move people, with the reuse of materials and the processing of industrial waste - an economy in which energy, water, land and materials will be used much more efficiently and rationally than we do today.
Rethinking the progress
It is believed that our economy, based on informatisation, is able to develop independently of the global ecosystem of the Earth.
The complacency reflected in this view of the future leads to the fact that our constant dependence on the natural world and the resulting vulnerability to natural disasters are overlooked. It also leads to the fact that attention is focused on economic indicators, while environmental indicators, indicating the physical degradation of the Earth, are significantly underestimated. Such a view is dangerous because it can interfere with the restructuring of the economy necessary to continue economic progress. If we need to build an environmentally sustainable economy, we must move beyond traditional economic indicators of progress. If we achieve that in the next century every home will have a computer, but at the same time destroy half of all plant and animal species that live on Earth, this can hardly be called an economic success. And if we again quadruple the size of the global economy, but many of us will starve even more than our ancestors engaged in hunting and gathering, then we cannot say that 21st century was successful.
One of the first steps in rethinking progress should be recognising that we are the first generation that can really help make the planet fit for the next generation. We have acquired this ability not because of conscious choice, but as a result of the development of a global economy that now goes beyond the capabilities of the ecosystems that support it. In essence, we have acquired the ability to change the Earth’s natural systems, but have refused to accept responsibility for this. We live in a world obsessed with real concern. By focusing on quarterly profit and loss statements, we act as if we have no children. In short, we have lost our sense of responsibility towards future generations.
Parents everywhere take care of their children. Seeking to provide them with a better life, they invest in education and health care. But if we do not take responsibility for the evolution of the global economy now, it may turn out that our short-term investments in our short-term investments in the future of our children will cost a little, because the environmentally destroyed world will be the main legacy that we will give them with a recession in the economy and disintegrated social ties.
We know what we need to do. We imagine what a restructured economy should be, an economy that ensures economic and social progress. The challenge is to mobilise public support for such a transformation of the economy.