Waylaid Dialectic

January 6, 2011

End of the Golden Weather?

Filed under: Environment,Poverty — terence @ 7:47 pm

The last decade may have been the best ever for human development. But that doesn’t mean the next will inevitably be better still. There are lots of reasons why current trends may reverse (The Crazy Party winning the next election in the US, resurgent conflict, a new cold war…) but the most likely one is simply that we may well be running into the environmental constraints imposed by our planet.

In the Guardian:

Soaring prices of sugar, grain and oilseed drove world food prices to a record in December, surpassing the levels of 2008 when the cost of food sparked riots around the world, and prompting warnings of prices being in “danger territory”.

An index compiled monthly by the United Nations surpassed its previous monthly high – June 2008 – in December to reach the highest level since records began in 1990. Published by the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the index tracks the prices of a basket of cereals, oilseeds, dairy, meat and sugar, and has risen for six consecutive months.

Over the last few decades economic development has served as a remarkable tail wind — making poverty reduction and human development that much easier. GDP growth doesn’t invariably lead to poverty reduction or improved human development outcomes but in most circumstances it certainly helps. The trouble is that as countries’ gross domestic products have been growing so have their ecological footprints. We’ve become slightly more efficient at turning resources into welfare but not so much so that we’ve managed to decouple economic development from environmental degradation.

And now, the (factory farmed, petroleum intensive) chickens may be coming home to roost.

How much of a challenge might this pose? Paul Krugman is relatively sanguine about the medium term difficulties:

So what are the implications of the recent rise in commodity prices? It is, as I said, a sign that we’re living in a finite world, one in which resource constraints are becoming increasingly binding. This won’t bring an end to economic growth, let alone a descent into Mad Max-style collapse. It will require that we gradually change the way we live, adapting our economy and our lifestyles to the reality of more expensive resources.

Perennial pessimist that I am, I’m not so sure. With appropriate legislation and and incentive generating taxation in place we could almost certainly marry rising wealth with a finite planet (at least for quite some time yet). But what are the odds we’ll actually get there? As opposed to lapsing into chaos and conflict instead? Looking at the trouble we’re having to do something relatively easy, like impose a global price on carbon, and given that global cooperation really is needed to tackle modern environmental issues, I’m not at all confident we’ll get there. Or that the worst consequences of our inaction won’t be felt by the globe’s poorest in coming years.

I may be wrong — I hope I’m wrong — but at present I find it incredibly hard to be bullish about the prospects for development in coming years…

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