Progress and Its Long-Term Cost
Technological development has played an enormous role in expanding human progress. Over the past 40 years in 135 countries representing 92 percent of the world’s population, average life expectancy rose from 59 to 70 years, primary school enrolment grew from 55 to 70 percent, and per capita income doubled to more than US$10,000 (United Nations Development Programme [UNDP], 2011). We are just beginning to understand the very significant environmental costs associated with achieving these very laudable goals. The UN secretary general is blunt:
For most of the last century, economic growth was fuelled by what seemed to be a certain truth: the abundance of natural resources. We mined our way to growth. We burned our way to prosperity. We believed in consumption without consequences. Those days are gone. In the twenty-first century, supplies are running short and the global thermostat is running high. Climate change is also showing us that the old model is more than obsolete. It has rendered it extremely dangerous. Over time, that model is a recipe for national disaster. It is a global suicide pact. (Ki-Moon, 2011)
In short, we are simply living beyond the biocapacity of the planet, and our deficit spending is growing larger. The “Living Planet Index” measures changes in the health of the planet’s ecosystems by tracking post-1970 trends of more than 9,000 populations of 2,688 species of birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and fish. The index reveals a decline in health of approximately 30 percent from 1970 to 2008 (World Wildlife Fund [WWF], 2012). Analysis of our global ecological footprint, a measure of our aggregate impact on the planet, reveals that the earth is taking 1.5 years to fully regenerate the renewable resources that people are using in one year, so instead of living off the interest, we are actually eating into the natural capital of the planet (WWF, 2012).
Attempting to raise all the planet’s citizens to the enormous material consumption levels enjoyed in North America would require the biocapacity of four planets: a physical impossibility (Rees, 2010). Despite this, all major economies are firmly committed to this trajectory. Although major scientific studies have rediscovered truths long held by many indigenous peoples— namely, that poverty alleviation, protecting human health, and ensuring longterm prosperity all critically depend on maintaining the flow of benefits from healthy ecosystems (Sukhdev, 2010)—we continue to degrade them in the name of short-term economic progress. Global carbon dioxide emissions in 2012 were the second highest on record (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA], 2013), and hopes to stabilize the global average temperature increase to no more than 2°C, the threshold level for “dangerous” climate change, are rapidly receding (Kirby, 2013). In fact, greenhouse emissions are rising faster than the worst-case scenario projections laid out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Whether we are prepared or not, human beings—the primary change agents on the planet, architects of their own “Anthropocene”—are being drawn into becoming “active stewards of our own life support system.” As Steffen and Persson explain, “The Anthropocene is a reminder that the Holocene, during which complex human societies have developed, has been a stable, accommodating environment and is the only state of the Earth System that we know for sure can support contemporary society. The need to achieve effective planetary stewardship is urgent. As we go further into the Anthropocene, we risk driving the Earth System onto a trajectory toward more hostile states from which we cannot easily return” (2011, p. 739).
As Ehrlich, Kareiva, and Daily (2012, p.68) conclude, “In biophysical terms, humanity has never been moving faster nor further from sustainability than it is now,” raising questions as to whether humanity can steer clear of major societal collapse in the near to long-term future. If this “litany” sounds familiar, it is because it is. More than twenty years ago in 1992, the United Nations Rio Conference summary document, Agenda 21, concluded, “The major cause of the continued deterioration of the global environment is the unsustainable pattern of consumption and production” (UN Agenda 21, Chapter 4, 1992).
The story remains little changed today. The UN Human Development Index (HDI) is a measure of well-being. The average person in a very high HDI country produces more than four times the carbon dioxide emissions and about twice the methane and nitrous oxide emissions of a person in a low, medium, or high HDI country. High HDI citizens produce about thirty times the carbon dioxide emissions of a person living in a low HDI country (United Nations Development Programme [UNDP], 2011). Addressing this inequity involves creating more “ecological space” for the poorest inhabitants to enjoy more material growth, while simultaneously shrinking the ecological footprint of the world’s richest countries.
But it is not only ecological systems that are threatened by our consumption behaviors; a number of the world’s rare earth minerals are being depleted at an alarming rate. Minerals such as indium, tantalum, and platinum, which are crucial for the manufacture of things like flat-screen LCD monitors, catalytic converters, photovoltaic panels, and fuel cells, are being rapidly depleted (Cohen, 2007). Across the planet, governments and transnational corporations are aggressively pursuing whatever mineral and agricultural resources they can in remote and ecologically sensitive regions. As Klare explains, these groups recognize that “existing reserves are being depleted at a terrifying pace and will be largely exhausted in the not-too distant future. The only way for countries to ensure an adequate future supply of these materials, and thereby keep their economies humming, is to acquire new, undeveloped reservoirs in those few locations that have not already been completely drained. This has produced a global drive to find and exploit the world’s final resource reserves—a race for what’s left” (2012, p.11).
The trends described here help set the background context for considering the idea of eco-technological literacy. I now turn to briefly examine the social psychology that lies behind the “race for what’s left.”