During the Second World War, in several South Pacific Islands, and notably on what is now Vanuatu, local people saw the US and Allied military forces landing earth-moving equipment and quickly building makeshift airstrips. They noticed that very shortly afterwards, big aircraft landed and unloaded a cornucopia of cargo for the Allied troops. The locals were convinced that if they also cleared airstrips then they would be blessed by aircraft landing with cargo for them. Since then, any belief in future prosperity based on false premises has become known as a ‘cargo cult’.
For the past two centuries, so seemingly wondrous have been the increases in industrial production and wealth of Western societies that we have come to believe that production will increase forever from unlimited resources of land, biomass and minerals, delivering us ever-increasing wealth. We are trapped in a cargo cult of our own making. Our cargo cult is degrading the environment within which we live, it threatens the very source of the resources we rely on for that production, and is changing our climate, mostly for the worse. Climate change, nevertheless, is but one of the symptoms of the disease that belief in ever-continuing growth in production has become: as our collection of ‘stuff’ becomes greater, our quality of life is in decline.
Since the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, the population of the globe has increased more than nine-fold. Of that increase, two-thirds has occurred since 1950. The increase in the global economy has been even more dramatic. Global Gross product has grown forty-fold since 1750, of which growth 87 per cent has occurred since 1950: that is, within my own personal memory. Clearly, any anthropogenic effect on climate is related to the size of the global economy and is therefore much more recent than the mid-18th century. It really only dates significantly from the great industrial upsurge after World War II. Today’s warming is most likely a combination of natural and artificial causes, but artificial causes, largely over the past 70 years, do now appear to be dominant. In fact, anthropogenic warming may well be masking a current natural cooling cycle.
Weather creates climate – not the other way round – and climate change is nothing new. Earth’s climates are in a state of constant change. Climate is never stable. However, apart from minor effects of forest clearing and agriculture prior to the industrial age, only in the past 70 years or so have the activities of human beings significantly affected the climate of the globe.
Human-caused global warming can no longer be denied. Concentrations of anthropogenic carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases have grown steadily, and most likely exponentially, through the 20th century and into the 21st. The resulting climate crisis indeed threatens agricultural production and human comfort, but if climate change were our only concern, I have little doubt that human society could adapt to the new circumstances.
The greater threat comes from our production processes themselves. At the outside, the resources of the Earth can sustain a doubling of current human production. More likely an increase of 50 per cent over current global production will take us to the limits of physical production growth, for adverse effects of physical production are already clearly evident and numerous. Demand for energy runs parallel to that of production. The developed ‘Western’ nations – Western Europe, the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and a handful of other small, wealthy societies, between them currently have about 18 per cent of the global population. In 1990, however, this 18 per cent accounted for more than 70 per cent of global production, that is, a per capita share 11 times that of the remaining 82 per cent.
That remaining 82 per cent is bidding hard to catch up with the West. This is especially notable in the most populated parts of South Asia, China and India. If industrial growth continues apace, not only will human emissions lead to increasing warming of climates but, even more threateningly, global economic growth will batten on the world’s natural resources and especially on the biosphere (the total of all living things) which is the ultimate source of all physical wealth: indeed it is already doing so.
Within decades, economic growth, at least as we currently define it, must cease. If we want a world where we are not running down our natural capital, where poverty is eliminated, where societies, if not individuals, are more or less equal in per capita wealth and opportunity, and people can lead interesting and fulfilling, if less materialistic lives, then the per capita physical production and consumption of the West must fall to something like 25 per cent of its present value.
Chris Cunningham is a retired associate professor of urban and regional planning at the University of New England, Australia and is the author of Climate Change and the Cargo Cult, out now, published by Austin Macauley, London
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