The limits to growth, revisited

Fifty years ago, in 1971, a team of young scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology released findings from a year-long study of the capacity of Earth’s natural systems to sustain a rising rate of growth in population and economic activity. 

What they had to say – published a year later as The Limits to Growth (LTG) – opened up a divide that has continued to this day, between people advocating stronger restraints on economic activity and those favouring the status quo.

Dennis Meadows, a member of the LTG team who at 79 is as sharp as ever, believes that population and economic decline are now inevitable. “Whether we retain equity among people and avoid more violent forms of conflict remains to be seen, but sustainable development is no longer an option,” he said in 2019. Resilience was a better strategy.

The LTG study didn’t differentiate between rich and poor people and countries. As Meadows sees it, innovation can enable some peoples to reduce local impacts of contaminated water, soil and air, but will not protect us from the global disruption that our excess has inflicted on natural cycles. “Rich people can buy their way out of food shortages, they can buy clean water, but they’re not going to be able to buy a benign climate.”

In 1972, the overwhelming response of politicians, economists and business leaders to The Limits to Growth was derision. Most of those detractors would now concede that the impact of human activities is beyond question, and getting worse. Yet they all continue to behave as if nothing is wrong. 

There’s a clear logic in this response. All of those detractors depend for their political and commercial power on an ever-rising rate of growth. Despite the growing deployment of renewable energy, we still face expanding use of non-renewable resources by growing numbers of people.

In an interview last year Meadows pointed to this “central problem of our society… that we have developed a set of institutions, expectations and other social mechanisms fundamentally based on and dependent on the assumption of continued growth.”

So what are we to do? Meadows cited a Japanese saying, “If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” If your only tool is GDP, every problem is an economic one. We need alternative indicators of success, and a vision of future societies that can function without growth. 

This won’t be easy. Population growth is fundamental to the way governments work. Instead of subsidising higher birthrates and such like, leaders will have to envisage living with static populations, where building stock and tax revenues don’t keep rising, and where there’s no steady flow of young people to support pension-age people.

At more local levels governments and population alike will have to reach agreement about the right population for their own communities and how they will get there and stay there. 

We know that humanity can get along without growth because that was always the case until the Industrial Revolution. But as Meadows points out, a future without growth looks like a series of zero-sum negotiations – which no politician would want. Democracies depend heavily on the forward momentum of growth.

Like the public debate around Covid-19, Australia’s debate about the human impact on global systems should always have been about the physical processes involved and the real physical threat they pose to life, human and other. But it hasn’t.

Efforts to suppress the virus threaten economic growth. So do efforts to mitigate greenhouse emissions. On both matters, faced with restrictions imposed by reality, frustrated governments and business interests have driven a rising level of public debate about how far we should compromise growth to tackle the impact of these natural forces.

But the forces we’re up against arise from the growth which that debate has taken for granted. Something has to give, and as climate change takes hold that something looks like a lot less room to move for the decision-makers amongst us. By 2030, for instance, Australian aspirations for a fleet of nuclear submarines may seem even more vainglorious than now.

All that is understood by natural systems scientists like Meadows. Unlike economists they are unconstrained by the boundaries of human systems. It’s their job to go outside the box.

Economic growth happened very recently in humanity’s 200,000 years of existence. Our own First Nations people lived without it for many millennia. But empowered by coal to venture forth and colonise, the British treated them as inferior. That was mistake number one.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The murky world of environmental regulation

In the depths of the Great Depression, a writer named Upton Sinclair stood for governor of California. His platform was to “End Poverty In California” (EPIC) by taking over disused properties and turning them into cooperative ventures for the unemployed.

Sinclair’s ideas struck a chord with Californian Democrats who formed hundreds of EPIC clubs and delivered him the party’s nomination. But well-resourced opponents overwhelmed his campaign with smears, dirty tricks and voter intimidation, and he lost.

Sinclair’s 1935 book about his campaign – “I, Candidate for Governor” – became required reading for political reformers up against big money. One of its memorable lines was this: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Let’s call it Sinclair’s Law.

There are many reasons why Sinclair’s Law is so relevant today in Australia, especially Tasmania. One is that over the past decade environmental science, a leading source of information on the physical world, has had to endure a succession of federal funding cuts culminating in a devastating 30 per cent hit in last year’s budget.

The natural environment, which underlies everything we are and do, is anything but political. But that word “environment” makes this branch of science especially vulnerable. For some politicians, especially but not only Coalition ones, it is a red flag for left-wing extremism, an attitude as foolhardy as it is monumentally tragic for the country.

This was on full display in a report by the ABC’s Ellen Coulter last week on the state of Tasmania’s water resources in the face of government plans for a massively expanded irrigation system – despite a major official report warning of lowering river flows and poor water quality.

When the Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and the Environment (DPIPWE) released the report to the Greens on a Right to Information request, all recommendations were blocked out. DPIPWE said this was because none of those recommendations had been approved by water minister Guy Barnett.

Coulter reported that Barnett admitted not having read this critical year-old report, which sadly is no surprise. He also said it was up to DPIPWE to release it publicly – knowing full well that public servants who release information that questions assumptions behind big government schemes risk ending their careers.

It’s clear why the report was released only on an ROI request and why it took so long. But why on earth would a minister planning a massive increase in Tasmania’s irrigation capacity fail to consult a major report on river flows by his own government? There’s reason to suspect the answer comes down to the minister’s indifference to all things environmental. 

Coulter highlighted the distress of a DPIPWE water ecologist who resigned over the withholding of the water report. His story is backed up by a 2018-19 survey finding that over half of scientists and other environmental professionals in Australian governments face similar ethical challenges in their work, and a fifth report lost jobs and damaged careers.

A big user of Tasmania’s freshwater is today’s talk of the town, salmon farming, which has been in damage control since April when Richard Flanagan’s “Toxic” hit the bookshops.

Nowhere is Sinclair’s Law more applicable than in this controversial industry. Flanagan charges that whenever serious questions arise about the marine environment under and around fish pens and the freshwater environment downstream from salmon hatcheries, the industry and the government act together to prevent open scientific debate.

Environment – that word again. A state of the environment report is required every five years under a 1990s law passed by a Liberal government, but there’s not been one since 2009 – for which no-one has paid a penalty. Now the government says it’s trying to work out who should do it and expects an outcome at the end of the year. What’s that all about?

Laws are meant to apply to everyone – weak and powerful, rich and poor – but the government has been very selective in applying them. While keen to impose sanctions on action by environmental defenders, it has chronically and persistently refused to tighten restrictions on the industries that attract the protests.

NEXT MONDAY at 6 pm, the Tasmanian Independent Science Council will host a free two-hour online forum on the salmon industry’s environmental impact and regulation. The forum panel comprises ecologists Jeff Ross and Christine Coughanowr, biologist Lisa Gershwin, marine conservationist Kelly Roebuck and environmental lawyer Claire Bookless.

Previously planned as a Hobart public meeting, the forum is now online which will allow state-wide participation. Register by googling salmon eventbrite.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Will the Jacobs review shake the government into action?

When it passed Tasmania’s parliament in 2008, the Climate Change (State Action) Act earned a measure of respect because it gave the state Australia’s first legislated emissions reduction target, a very modest 60 per cent by 2050.

That respect has faded. The original Act provided for outside advice in the form of the Tasmanian Climate Action Council (TCAC), representing business, science, environmental and community concerns. But the loss of that independent deliberative process when the Hodgman government abolished the council in 2014 rendered the Act ineffectual. 

There was, however, one saving provision that stopped ministers ignoring it altogether. Section 18 says that every four years the Act must be reviewed to check that it is effective and determine new laws to achieve its objectives, and reviewers must consult with “relevant business, scientific, environment and community bodies”.

Measures recommended in the first review in 2012, including a more ambitious emissions target and better integration of climate change in planning and decision-making, were supported by then-minister Cassy O’Connor, but that was ditched when Will Hodgman’s Liberals won office in 2014.

For the 2016 review, Matthew Groom as climate minister contracted Jacobs, a US-based consultancy firm. It recommended a new 2050 target of zero net emissions, making climate action plans a statutory requirement, and mandating that government decisions include assessment of emissions and other climate risks.

The government did set a net-zero target for 2050, but has not given statutory authority to climate action plans and has not mandated climate risk assessment in government decision-making. A striking outcome of that has been government  promotion of forest harvesting despite the state’s heavy reliance on a low harvesting level to maintain net-zero emissions.

For the next review, due in 2020, the government again contracted Jacobs. It received the consultants’ report early in June, and last week released it to the public.

The report would not have been easy reading for the government. It found that while momentum is growing abroad for ambitious climate action, in Tasmania emissions from transport, industrial energy, waste and agriculture have grown by 1.2 per cent since 1990.

It found that changing markets and forest conditions would put in doubt the state’s net-zero emissions target, which relies on sustained carbon take-up by growing forests, and that emissions would need to be cut in other sectors to meet a net-zero 2050 target.

With that in mind, the review recommended that the state should bring its net zero emissions target forward to 2030 and focus on how that target might continue to be met beyond then. This would require “considerable climate action”.

It recommended that to avoid compromising the emissions target, potential climate risk and impact on carbon emissions needed to be scrutinised in formulating policies, strategies and plans for government actions.

The review called for assessment of climate risks for communities, the economy and natural ecosystems, and decarbonisation and resilience plans for communities and sectors. And it repeated the call made in 2016 to give statutory authority to the state’s climate action plan.

This will be hard for premier Peter Gutwein and his new climate change minister Roger Jaensch to swallow. Adopting key recommendations will demand a strong resolve to move decisively on climate change. There’s no evidence that this is forthcoming any time soon.

If the government responds as it did in 2016 it will agree to measures amenable to being reinterpreted or postponed, or ones that can be passed on to cooperative businesses or communities. It might go halfway with the target; 2040 may seem far enough away not to be a problem. 

The government will do all it can to avoid getting stuck with more prescriptive legislation, but this time around it won’t be so easy. Global concern about the climate has moved up several notches since the previous review. Pressure on governments to take it seriously and adopt substantive measures has grown accordingly.

Last month, absenting himself from a parliamentary debate on a climate emergency, Peter Gutwein said the Greens were frightening children by raising it. 

But what really scares people of all ages is authority’s failure to acknowledge the gravity of the climate crisis, evidenced by the continuing absence of legislated muscle to support Tasmania’s climate response. That inaction is unforgivable, but it is also an indication that the government has its own fears around climate change. 

A positive response to the Jacobs recommendations would be a sign that the government accepts responsibility for the enormous task ahead and will now act. Perhaps Jaensch’s weekend appointment as minister will be the switch of focus we need.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Will the Jacobs review shake the government into action?