Conservator Society Still a Dream

Environment & Energy

JOHN H. GIBBONS

Conservator Society Still a Dream

Society is all too committed to the notion of “progress” as measured through economic growth and population expansion. The notion of working toward a “sustainable future” is not given much serious thought. Energy policy, for example, concentrates on expanding supply, with relatively little R&D being devoted to improving the efficiency of energy use or developing low-carbon fuels. Yet without a change in course, human activities are destined to further degrade the global environment.

That was my message in 1988, when I argued that it was imperative to create what I called a “conservator society.” After reviewing humanity’s “progress” during the intervening years, however, I have concluded, sadly, that I would change my argument very little. To say that more sustained effort will be needed to achieve the conservator society is obviously an understatement.

The first and foremost requirement is to understand that our traditional exponential model of progress is, at best, anachronistic and desperately needs to be succeeded by an equilibrium model.

Has humanity made any progress during the past 15 years, or have we been retrograde? Consider the following:

The end of the Cold War was the most memorable happening and, at first, appeared to provide a rare opportunity for a “peace dividend” that could be applied to humanitarian investments in economic renewal, health, and the environment. But such was not to be. Today, the United States is deeply drawn into conflicts around the world, its budget deficit is screaming upward, and attention to Third-World economic development, environmental protection, and population stabilization has been disastrously smothered.

Since 1988, the world’s human population has increased by 1.2 billion. By far the majority (over 90 percent) of global population growth is occurring in the developing world–about 75 million more people per year–placing extraordinary strains on global systems to provide for it. Mercifully, population growth rates have fallen in some parts of the world, such as South America. But the rates remain disastrously high in other regions, such as the Middle East. For example, if Saudi Arabia’s 3 percent annual growth rate continues, its population will double in 23 years. Today, nearly half of its citizens are under 15 years of age.

Led by conservative elements of organized religions that do not seem to understand arithmetic, pronatalist public policies are forcibly muzzling efforts in sex education and birth control–a situation that is also occurring in the United States as well as many other nations. The whole notion of the demographic transition that must be navigated as we move to population equilibrium seems to be unfamiliar (or lost) even to thoughtful business leaders, such as Peter Peterson, who proclaims that the United States needs more people in order to sustain its economic growth. The goal of population equilibrium seems to be receding.

Since 1988, knowledge about the science of global climate change and the human contributions to it has steadily improved, and there now is virtually complete consensus about the phenomenon, even though many technical uncertainties remain. But this scientific progress has not triggered significant action to slow or reverse the impacts. Rather than moving to lessen and delay global climate change, we in the United States tend to politically ignore the evidence, largely because of the argument that to take definitive action would hurt economic growth. The Clinton administration, in response to the Kyoto Protocol, proposed reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2010 to a level about 10 percent below those that occurred in 1990. That would be only a modest step, but it would be a start on a long journey. But the Bush administration nixed the Kyoto Protocol and offered instead a voluntary program that would, in effect, merely maintain the growth trend of the past several decades. Assuming historic average economic growth, the Bush plan over its 10-year lifetime would result in a net increase in CO2 emissions of about 14 percent.

In the energy sector, emphasis remains on subsidizing oil and gas. Federal support for research has continued its long decline. Despite efforts, most notably in the Clinton administration, to work with the auto industry on developing more efficient cars, there has been a decline in fleet fuel efficiency as automakers aggressively market heavy, high-powered (and high-profit) machines. Meanwhile, U.S. production of oil continues to decline.

Signs of promise

Not all of the news is bad, however. There has been some movement toward the conservator society.

On the positive side of the energy ledger, for example, fuel-efficient gasoline-electric hybrid cars are in production and are becoming increasingly popular; combustion turbines that produce electricity far more efficiently than those of the past are being introduced; and fuel cell technology has advanced surprisingly fast. If research support is maintained vigorously, we could see major improvements in the next several decades. There is similar good news in the improved energy performance of lighting, buildings, and appliances, thanks to advances in materials, computer controls, and construction methods.

Perhaps the best news comes from the growing recognition that improved efficiency results not only in reduced demands on resources and lower environmental externality costs, but also in generally reduced costs to consumers. As a consequence, resource and energy efficiency are now widely viewed as an attractive option from virtually every perspective–except for automobiles, where smaller, lighter cars are criticized by the industry as being more dangerous than heavy sport-utility vehicles.

Another positive trend is that in at least a few instances, the net flow of raw materials is diminishing, with attendant decreases in the footprint of human activities on the biosphere. For example, new green designs of some products require at least a minimum content of post-manufacturing recycled materials. And though we mostly continue to think and act in terms of open rather than closed systems, some engineers and a few economists are now committed to taking into account externality costs and other phenomena that provide a truer picture of environmental costs and benefits. These factors are not now included in the national accounts that are used to measure economic progress.

Of course, the amount of time that has passed since I first offered my observations is but a moment in human history, so perhaps we should not expect great change in things such as global biodiversity, global climate, energy resources, and human population. These phenomena are all characterized by relatively slow change. But human population has advanced with lightning speed in terms of numbers and economic and environmental activities, so fast that we have probably no more than 100 years left to stabilize population, CO2 atmospheric concentrations, biodiversity, and energy systems, to cite but a few items–otherwise, humankind will be forced to settle for a substantially compromised future.

The conservator society can be achieved, but only by sustained effort. The efforts must be global, but the United States should, by all rights, lead. The first and foremost requirement is to understand that our traditional exponential model of progress is, at best, anachronistic and desperately needs to be succeeded by an equilibrium model. The second requirement is to devise a new economic perspective that incorporates environmental costs and benefits into national accounts, so that these factors are considered in making market decisions.

Let’s face it: Humans are not only the most powerful members of Earth’s community; we arguably are also the most intelligent and creative. Thus, it is in our grasp to creatively and productively build an ever more attractive future for ourselves, our descendants, and for the rest of the biosphere. But right now, we can be more accurately described as the most invasive and exotic species ever imagined. Surely, we can–and must–do better.


John H. Gibbons () was director of the U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment and science advisor to President Bill Clinton.