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In an environmentally focused edition we look at whether economy growth and ecosystem degradation are inversely related, and how do we measure change?

Prosperity without growth

Tim Jackson,  Sustainable Development Commission

It's now widely acknowledged that an estimated 60 per cent of the world's ecosystem services have been degraded or over-used since the mid 20th century. During the same period the global economy has grown more than five times. If it continues to grow at the same rate, it will be 80 times bigger in 2100 than it was in 1950.

This extraordinary activity has no historical precedent. It's totally at odds with our scientific knowledge of the finite resource base and the fragile ecology on which we depend.

A world in which things simply go on as usual is already inconceivable. But what about a world in which an estimated nine billion people achieve the level of affluence expected in the OECD nations? Such an economy would need to be 15 times the size of today's by 2050 and 40 times bigger by the end of the century.

For the most part, we avoid the reality of these numbers. The reasons for this are easy enough to find. The modern economy is structurally reliant on economic growth for its stability. When growth falters - as it did dramatically during the latter stages of 2008 - politicians panic. Businesses struggle. People lose their jobs and sometimes their homes. A spiral of recession looms.

The idea of a non-growing economy may be an anathema to an economist. But the idea of a continually growing economy is an anathema to an ecologist. No subsystem of a finite system can grow indefinitely, in physical terms.

In short, we have no alternative but to question growth. The myth of growth has failed us. It has failed the one billion people who still attempt to live on half the price of a cup of coffee each day. It has failed the fragile ecological systems on which we depend for survival. It has failed, spectacularly, in its own terms, to provide economic stability and secure people's livelihoods.

The uncomfortable reality is that we find ourselves faced with the imminent end of the era of cheap oil, the prospect of steadily rising commodity prices, the degradation of air, water and soil, conflicts over land use, resource use, water use, forestry and fishing rights, and the momentous challenge of stabilising the global climate.

In these circumstances, a return to business as usual is not an option. But the economic crisis presents us with a unique opportunity to invest in change. To sweep away the short-term thinking that has plagued society for decades. To replace it with considered policy capable of delivering a lasting prosperity.

Prosperity goes beyond material pleasures. It transcends material concerns. It resides in the quality of our lives and in the health and happiness of our families. It is present in the strength of our relationships and our trust in the community. It is evidenced by our satisfaction at work and our sense of shared meaning and purpose. It hangs on our potential to participate fully in the life of society.

Prosperity consists in our ability to flourish within the ecological limits of a finite planet. The challenge for our society is to create the conditions under which this is possible.

Tim Jackson is economics commissioner at the Sustainable Development Commission. This column is a condensed extract from his new book, 'Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet', published this month by Earthscan (£12.99) and available from www.earthscan.co.uk/pwg [new window].

Between the devil and the deep blue sea

Nick Smith management editor

One of the odd things about being a journalist is you never know what's going to cause the next controversy. When I recently reported on a press conference in London announcing the release of a set of Arctic ice-thickness data ('Arctic survey data confirms rapid ice loss' E&T #18), I had no idea that the story of explorer Pen Hadow's Catlin Arctic Survey would cause a heated debate.

The survey confirmed what I think we all hold to be patently obvious: that global warming is contributing to the reduction in the ice cover on the Arctic Ocean. The survey released figures stating that the mean thickness of the ice is now 1.8m - lower than expected - and this could mean that there will be no permanent sea ice up at the North Pole during the summer in the very near future. Great for shipping, but not much else.

I've been commenting on polar environmental affairs for more than a decade and while I admit that the above is a huge oversimplification of what's going on, the ice is without doubt disappearing and the world is getting warmer. Earlier this year I visited the Geographic North Pole and was alarmed by how little ice there was up there. Of course, this is only anecdotal evidence, but it's also one of the reasons why Hadow's team of explorers was unable to complete the 1,000km transect they had originally set out to achieve.

The problem for the Catlin Arctic Survey - and its worthy intention of gathering environmental data for the science community - is the same as whenever anybody thinks outside the box. They get shouted down by organisations with a vested interest in prolonging the debate.

No one, it seems, is happy with real explorers getting out there and having a look for themselves. What's so interesting about Hadow's situation is that he's caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

On the one hand, he's got the 'bad science brigade' crying foul, angry that the money raised for his expedition was somehow wasted, that it should have gone to more academic or integrated pursuits (or, "my underfunded faculty"). Well, the truth is that despite the economic slump there's still lots of sponsorship cash in the corporate sector if you know where to find it, and anyone can pitch for it in our free market economy. Hadow's good at fund-raising and sponsors do business with him because he can align corporations with ecological issues.

On the other hand, there are the global warming 'deniers', who claim that Hadow's survey is somehow contributing to the conspiracy theory that climate change exists at all. The problem with these deniers is simply that they're in denial. No serious scientist today rejects the idea that the overall global temperature is increasing. They may differ over the reasons, but to say that climate change isn't happening is simply a falsehood. All Hadow's team was doing was getting out there, getting their hands cold and doing their bit for a better world by collecting data for their science partners in Cambridge University and elsewhere. Give them a break.

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