Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die (Tennyson, The Charge of the Light Brigade)The United States of America account for less than 5% of world population and for around 30% of energy consumption in the world. Highly polluting fossil fuels still account for over 80% of energy generation worldwide. Even at the present levels of industrial output and energy consumption we are already able to feel the strain on the environment throughout the world. Rapid economic growth in China, India and Brazil, which account for roughly 40% of the world population, as well as in other emerging markets will inevitably result in a huge increase of the already existing heavy burden on the environment. If 5% of the population use 30% of the energy, what are we to expect when 40% attain the same level of economic activity? Can we subscribe to this vision? It should be obvious to anyone that to blindly follow the current pattern and pace of economic development is to invite disaster. It is highly probable that we will suffer damage to the environment, to people and to social cohesion on a worldwide, unprecedented and horrendous scale. We have been promised a dream but we face a nightmare. Why must we follow this path? If we can learn anything from history, we ought to question current policies before it is too late, the damage done. Borrowing Barbara Tuchman’s expression, we are once more witnesses to the March of Folly, on a stunning scale. It is folly triumphant. We are becoming more conscious of the impending dangers but even as we realize that a change of course is necessary we do not really seem to know what to do. The sheer complexity of the situation seems to leave us mostly paralysed or at best implementing stop-gap solutions, averting the core issues by giving more attention to treating the symptoms instead of taking care of the underlying causes. We can only become more effective in changing the course of developments if we concentrate our efforts on the truly critical issues and show the courage to come to grips with the root causes behind the main dysfunctions which face us. We can not eat our cake and have it too. If we want to ensure the well-being of future generations we will have to change our habits now. However, as Pete Petersen says (1), it is politically very difficult to propose that anyone give up anything. Well, either we do, or we will die. As time is running out we should look for more effective ways to induce change and if we still want to believe in the western political and economic models of democracy and capitalism as the best option for social development we will have to be quicker and more effective in reviewing our current ideas and practices with regard to sustainable growth. Population and economic growth, energy generation, pollution, food and water supply, global diseases and global climate change are the key concerns which require global attention and for which we should seek global solutions and global consensus. All other considerations, however important, are at least for now subordinate. The more pressing issues with regard to poverty, famine, education and health can be addressed through regional or local initiative to give relief in the worse situations and to the more immediate needs.  (1) “Are you worried about America’s economy?” (Big Think, Business & Economics, December 14 2007).
Population growth is obviously our main concern, as all other issues are ultimately linked to it in one way or the other. How did China eventually cope with this issue? One child per family. Although this might seem Draconian, I suppose most people are able to see that in this case there probably were no other really feasible, effective options left. This issue is certainly not being addressed adequately on a worldwide basis. The next critical issue, requiring more immediate attention than population growth, is economic growth. No matter how effectively we deal with the issue of population growth and regardless of how many people are living in the world, we can not maintain the current pattern and pace of economic growth if we wish to avoid catastrophic developments in the very near future. No technological development will enable us to avoid the profound systemic dysfunctions which are already discernible but we can at least still try to minimize the degree of these dysfunctions and reduce the extent of the resulting damages as they unfold over time.  A further key issue is that unless the more developed countries are willing to change their lifestyle patterns, forfeiting or curbing their more wasteful habits and bringing their standards of living to a level which is globally sustainable, we will not reach any agreement on sustainable growth. No one can honestly expect the emerging markets to accept propositions which require curbing the expansion of their economies and abandoning the promise of attaining such levels of economic development as have been achieved and are maintained by the more developed nations, which are precisely held up as models of social development, without a corresponding commitment to change on the part of the developed countries as well. If only in the name of coherence, we should all conform to the same rules and we should all be offered the same opportunities. In the end we must all face the same global reality: there is a limit to growth. It is a simple matter of arithmetic. If we persist on the current course of wasteful and polluting growth patterns we will quickly face grave, perhaps catastrophic and even irreversible environmental and social dysfunctions. Developed nations and the more affluent segments in the emerging and less developed countries must set the example or we will not even be able to propose and much less effect change. We must offer an alternative to the mindless pursuit of growth and consumption, with its attendant generation of waste, pollution and depletion of all major natural and mostly non-renewable resources. Despite all the warnings of dangers ahead, we have up to now still been unable to agree on ways to slow down and to change our growth patterns, believing that we will somehow find the answers, if not now then further down the road, confidently trusting in human ingenuity and resourcefulness to cope with whatever problems arise. As history has time and again shown us, Hubris leads inexorably to Nemesis. Why don’t we learn from past experience?We can realistically envision a scenario of terrible turmoil within the next few decades followed by a new, better page in human history. This is one, terrible, possibility. It is optimism for the few and terrible reality for the many as, in this case, it most certainly will be the under-privileged who will pay the highest price for our lack of vision, resolve and action.
Looking back into our very recent past, in one of the most nightmarish chapters of history, we might even want to consider the argument that people did not really know the extent of what was going on in their own back yard and that even if they did have some sort of idea it was very difficult for the individual person to do anything about it, as much of the world was in the grip of totalitarian states which very effectively used terror as a means to control society and to keep their grip on power. We have no such excuses. We know very well what is going on in practically every corner of the earth and we live in democracies where we can exert our rights and fulfil our duty towards future generations by fighting for the needed changes at no great personal risk to ourselves. Millions of human beings are already suffering and dying and the outlook is just too horrendous to contemplate. Why don’t we do something about it?We can still avert a major disaster in the coming decades but it will take radical ideas and measures to alter the course of current developments. We must find the courage to face the facts, as we must also find better ways to act intelligently. We must use all the means at our disposal, looking for new forms of moral suasion, political pressure, economic incentives and legal coercion while we can still do so in a civilized manner. We must mobilize citizens all over the world to participate directly in this effort. We can not wait any longer, as our existing political and economic systems are intrinsically unable to face the challenge without a corresponding shift in the consumer’s and in the voter’s attitudes. Which politician today will propose getting along with less, which corporation today will survive if it projects diminishing returns? We must understand that the scope and the speed of decisions required are in a way beyond their current capacities mainly because such decisions are contrary to their immediate interests and needs in terms of survival and profit. We can consequently only reasonably expect them to make the right decisions in time if we succeed in finding new, direct ways to exert our political will as citizens and economic pressure as consumers. We, as citizens of the world, as consumers and as voters are unquestionably and ultimately responsible for our own destiny and the keys to solving these problems certainly lie in our own hands. We will have to propose intelligent, sensible and acceptable ways to cut back on our lifestyles, we will have to change our attitudes and our behaviour, we will have to make individual sacrifices now in order to secure a future for all of us. We will have to tell our governments and our corporations that we want less. We want less pollution, we want less waste, we want less inequality, we want less growth because we want sustainable growth. We will have to make people realize that our current lifestyles threaten our very survival. We are not just condemning the poor and under-privileged to unnecessary and unacceptable suffering, in the process we are placing our own mode of existence and whatever progress we have attained in the civilized congress of nations at great risk as well. We will all have to help to develop innovative ideas and act upon them to bring about radical change. We will have to improve our capacity to bear pressure on our elected representatives and on the business community. It is not a matter of defending our rights as consumers and as citizens. It is a matter of taking the initiative in forcing major changes of policy. Mostly, though, it is a matter of a difficult change of mind and of heart, not by the few but by the many. It is our change of mind and our will to act that can change the course of history.
We will only succeed if we are able to get people to become aware of what is at stake, well informed about the issues and interested and involved in the process of change. To do this we have to find ways to build a strong, working network of like-minded citizens. This is a big challenge but we have never before been so equipped to communicate directly with each other on a global scale. It is a matter of choice, not for a better future but for the survival of our planet as we know it. We will have to change our way of living if we want to survive. The incident immortalized by Tennyson took place in 1854 during the Crimean war. By failing to question orders the Light Brigade charged ahead and was massacred. If we do not question and change the current world order we will have to answer for the consequences. Right now, we still seem to be intent on charging ahead in the wrong direction. Let us take a look at climate change, arguably the most imminent and serious threat we face as a result of our current pattern of economic development. Gas emissions from cars are one of the main causes of this problem. A clear and more or less effective way to deal with the problem is to offer much bigger tax incentives for smaller, more fuel efficient and less polluting engines concurrently with tighter restrictions and higher taxes for larger, less efficient engines and for high emissions. In addition we can think of further improvement of public transportation, wider use of traffic restrictions as already implemented in many cities and incentives towards more frequent use of shared-ride services, car sharing programs and so on. The real issue, however, the root cause of car emissions, is obviously the car itself. Perhaps we should formulate this as “too many cars”. Even if we are able to improve emission levels, even if we were able to eliminate emissions altogether we would still have too many cars. The most effective way to solve the problem of pollution would of course be to get rid of the car altogether. This is obviously not a real option but we could think of setting down targets or limits to the number or on the use of cars. Perhaps we could think in terms of a target or limit of cars per household, with the possibility of households who cannot afford, do not want or do not need a car selling or leasing their "car rights" (in a similar way to carbon credits). Or we could think of a limit on the use of cars per household: you can have as many cars as you like (per household) but you can only use one of them at a time. The possibility of trading the right to use your car, even on a daily basis, would make such a proposal much more attractive and acceptable. The classical (and radical, even if not new) solution is of course fuel rationing. In this case, electronic trading in fuel coupons would also be innovative. Twenty years ago we wouldn’t be able to put forward such ideas. The development of information and communication technology makes such proposals feasible. If you think such proposals are too radical what do you think of limiting the number of children per family? However, these are just a few ideas to illustrate the kind of innovation we are talking about, perhaps more provocative than practical.How serious is the threat from the automobile industry? In this case, as well as in most other cases, we can get a good picture with a little simple arithmetic. There are today between 600 and 800 million passenger cars in the world, more or less one car for every 10 inhabitants. In the USA the ratio is close to 1 car for every 2 inhabitants. If you use this ratio for the entire world, this would mean something like 4 billion cars, more or less five times the current number. Can anyone really sanely imagine and defend such a scenario? Well, of course we will really never get even close to such a number. But the population of the major emerging economies is so huge that even a relatively small growth will still cause a significant increase in the total number of cars. If we already have good cause to worry with the current levels of pollution, significantly compounding the existing problems raises the stakes to irresponsible levels. Why then not try to maintain the number of cars being used at or only slightly above the current level by diminishing the number or the use of cars in developed countries to compensate for growth in emerging economies and concurrently work towards significant improvement of fuel efficiency and reduction of emissions? If this doesn’t sound at all feasible, then we should aim at far more stringent restrictions on the size of cars, improved fuel economy and lower emission levels. In any case, we should try to find globally binding and sustainable solutions. Cars are such a critical issue because they do not only pollute the environment. By not facing the root issue of too many cars we end up by looking for quick solutions such as substituting bio-fuels for oil, an idea which is far easier to sell if we conveniently fail to give adequate consideration to the highly probable and very negative impact on food prices as we divert resources from the production of food for the many towards fuel for the few. Last but not least we must consider the added burden of manufacturing so many and too many cars in terms of energy and raw material consumption, in terms of manufacturing waste and pollution and also in terms of the immense disposal and recycling problems. If anything defines our lifestyles, it is the passenger car. If we manage to induce significant change here we will have walked a long way towards facing and solving our problems.As Pete Petersen points out, attitudes have changed markedly for the worse over the last three decades. The prevalent attitude today is one of immediate gain, to obtain every advantage we possibly can right away, regardless of the price we will pay further on. We couldn’t care less. The concept of saving, of investing to secure our future is glaringly absent at present. Short-term financial thinking is now clearly dominant. We live in a society of grabbing and it would certainly be better to live in a society of caring. We want more and we want it now, not tomorrow. If more now means less tomorrow then that is tomorrow’s problem. To change this attitude is probably the greatest challenge we face, especially as this short-term vision is what is driving the economy, this is the prevailing attitude in the business world. It is growth at whatever cost, perhaps because it is the quickest and easiest way to increase results. Results being the ultimate measure of success, the bigger the results, the better. Nothing really wrong with that as long as we do not overlook the fact that it is quality of growth and results which counts in the long run and that growing just for the sake of growing or just for the sake of bigger and quicker results is also the quickest and surest way to increase the risk of making major mistakes. The prevalent guiding idea is “the bigger the better and the sooner the better too”. We should pay more attention to nature’s lessons, as the message is clearly survival of the fittest, not the biggest. We are now running huge, irresponsible and unnecessary risks, fuelled by our own boundless, senseless and shameless greed, underwritten by business myopia. However, in the final analysis it is our choice which defines which way the market moves and it is our conscience which guides our choices. We must examine our consciences and make sure that it is the interest of the many which prevails over the interest of the myopic few. What are we waiting for?