The Road to an Unsustainable Economic Development for 2010 and Beyond


(B) Rising world population, ever growing demands of goods and services, destruction of the earth ecosystems and resources and climate change are the four major challenges for our global human society for 2010 and beyond. Out of the four challenges, the Conference of Copenhagen which was supposed to address the challenges of climate change failed in December 2009. The sooner we face the reality of every one of those four challenges, the sooner we take the path to commit to their solutions. And, the sooner the human civilization can continue to flourish but definitely not in the same way.

Since the industrial revolution at the beginning of the XIX century, our pursuit of economic growth, consumption and wealth have led us to take advantage of the Earth resources and ecosystems as if they were inexhaustible. We have depleted the Earth resources for water, food, land, wood, energy and raw materials as we did not realize that we had only ONE PLANET. And, the scale of the human activity is so overwhelming and so ubiquitous that it does not give any home for any other species on our Blue Planet. We have been harvesting the Earth resources and ecosystems at a much faster rate than they can regenerate and killing the other species at a much faster rate than they can reproduce. We have simply reached a point where the Earth cannot give us anymore what we need for our on-going well-being.

A Very Crowded Planet – Just One Planet as the Home for 6.9 Billion People!

Our Universe is 13.7 billion years old. Our earth is 4.5 billion years old. The first living cells on earth appeared 4 billion years ago and mankind only 1 million years ago. From the Roman Empire to the Renaissance, the human population was stable and around a few hundred million people. It reached its first billion in 1800, 4 billion in 1950 and will reach 6.9 billion in 2010 and 9.2 billion in 2050 according to the projections of the United Nations (UN). Growth in the world human population is coming mainly from Asia (in particular China and India) and Africa with the remaining from South America.

The two major drivers of human population growth are fertility rates and progress in health care. We all know that with higher standards of living and better education, fertility rates are rapidly dropping. And better health care changes the profile (shaped by size per age and per sex) of a population. In African countries, most of the size of the population is at a young age, sometimes up to 50% under the age of 15, and declining steadily as the age of the population augments while, in developing countries, the profile of the population size is most evenly distributed across ages.

While urban areas account for only 3 to 4% of the world’s land areas since 2007 this is the home for half of the world population. Furthermore, the UN projects that all the 1.7 billion population increase between now and 2030 will come not only from the developing world but in the urban areas of the developing world! People from rich countries are moving to big cities to look for new jobs while people from poor countries are moving to big cities to escape hunger. More than twenty megacities in the world have more than 10 million inhabitants and with that will encounter many common challenges such as a concentration of pollution, infectious disease transmissions and greater vulnerability to flooding and earthquakes.

Climate change will force population migrations from desertification (in particular in Sub-Saharan Africa and in the Gobi desert in China), rising sea levels (in particular South Pacific Islands, Bangladesh, and many large coastal cities) and from melting permafrost (in particular in Alaska). It is expected that 50 million people might be displaced by environmental disasters in 2010 and 150 million people in 2050 according to the UN.

Globalization of Prosperity in a World of Connected Consumers

The world has become a global marketplace fueled by borderless trade, production, consumption, and financing of goods and services. Because of globalization, China, India, and Brazil have started their economic growths based on the competitiveness of their exports. Those exports have brought to those countries, the know-how, the technology, the infrastructure, and the financing to develop internally domestic consumer markets. As a consequence, an economic circle has been created in the developing world where international trades and exports spark internal economic growth and where internal economic growth drives in return new types of international trades and exports.

The gross household consumption was $8.7 billion and the per capita household consumption was $29,000 in 2005 in the US while it was $1.7 billion and $1,000 (at purchasing power parity) in China and $1 billion and $17,000 in France according to the World Bank. As China, India, and Brazil achieve market-based economic growth based on globalization, those countries raise their living standards and narrow their per capita income gaps with the United-States, Japan and Europe.

On-going information and communication, affordable and convenient air travel and people migrations from East to West and from South to North have crafted the foundations for the global marketplace. The hundreds of millions from China, India, and Brazil that are joining and re-creating the worldwide middle class are eager to live and to consume in the same way as the US, Japan, and Europe do; buying cars, gourmet food, fashionable clothes, cell phones and so on. The world has become a marketplace of connected consumers where consumer behaviors and brands are borderless. Apple, Zara, Nintendo, Facebook, Hermes, Honda, and many others have target markets that cross across geographies and cultures.

As the world population is rising, the income per household is rising in the developing countries, and the developing world is consuming more in addition to the developed world. There is more economic growth in the years to come for the entire world.

The Destruction of the Earth Ecosystems and Species

With human impact on nearly every ecosystem on the planet, hundreds if not thousands of animal species most of them still unknown are disappearing. We all know the reasons: the destruction of animal habitats, deforestation, overhunting, overfishing and climate change. According to some research from the Zoological Society of London, one in four mammals is in danger of extension. Ubiquitous animal habitat destruction is a major crisis in particular in Southeast Asia, Central Africa, and Central and South America. Tropical regions were biodiversity is the richest are the poorest regions where protection of the environment is the most missing. The species that are the most threatened are in a nutshell:

 Fish: According to the UN, 46% of the 28,000 known fish species are threatened dues to overfishing, industrial and agricultural pollution, changes in the chemical composition of the water (in particular lower rate of oxygen in the water due to global warming). Unfortunately, wild fish cannot be a substitute for farming fish since fish farming is extremely polluting. According to Doctor Arnaud Filleul, a French zoologist, ideally, we should urgently stop eating many endangered wild fishes to give them a chance to reproduce themselves.

 Corals: Coral reefs are suffering from rising sea surface temperatures and acidification of the oceans without mentioning the effects of tourism, harvesting, and pollution on them.

 Amphibians: For many reasons, habitat destruction, pesticides, and herbicides, an introduction of new diseases, exposure to ultraviolet radiations are impacting large-scale amphibian populations in particular many species of frogs and toads.

 Pollinators: The flowers, the fruits the vegetables in my garden, all of them are dependent on the honeybees and other pollinators. Fewer honeybees result in less food. The reasons are complex and involve habitat destruction, attacks from parasites, infections from pesticides.

 All large mammals including whales, polar bears, elephants, gorillas, and many others: In general, the large mammals that are easily hunted and need large habitats, habitats that are destroyed or fragmented are under continuous threats from mankind.

It goes without saying that climate change is challenging more the survival of the animal species. Some species must change their migration paths, some must go higher in the mountains to find lower temperatures and some simply cannot escape because they are not mobile or have lost completely their habitats such as the polar bears.

The Depletion of Precious Resources

Our economies have never valued “The Natural Capital”. We have widely tapped into the Natural Capital without understanding its Value. Any valuable item is precious. And so are the limited resources from Earth. We have consumed as if the resources of the Earth were infinite. As a consequence, we are likely going to miss in the future water, food, wood, raw materials, and fossil fuels.

 Water: One of the most critical resources for life is water. Without drinking water, there is no survival. Without water for crops, there is no food. Without water for the industry, there are not new products. In many parts of the world, we have exceeded sustainable limits on the withdrawals of water from groundwater aquifers. We have disrupted water flows with the damming of rivers. Global warming is only going to accelerate the scarcity of water in particular in poor countries and in Asia. Less than 1% of the Earth’s water is accessible freshwater – the rest for around 97% is sea water and 2% are the ice caps and glaciers. And, the amount of fresh water has not changed.

 Food: According to the Economist of November 21st, 2009, demand for agricultural goods will rise by 70% by 2050. A quarter of the earth’s fertile soils have already been degraded by intense fertilization. Agricultural production will have to grow without farmers clearing large amounts of new lands and with more limited water supply. Global warming is only going to accelerate the stress of agricultural production with more desertification and water rarefaction. A billion people do not have today proper alimentation. To feed 9.2 billion people on the planet with the agricultural capacity already fully utilized today, agroecology will have to innovate with new agricultural techniques at the same time as sustainable land management and water conservation.

 Forests: Deforestation has been driven to produce paper and various other items and for heating homes. The largest forests on Earth in Brazil and the Amazon, Indonesia, New Guinea, and Congo have been under severe destruction. From 2000 to 2005, the Amazon forest has lost 3.47 million hectares and the Indonesia forest has lost 1.45 hectares! And with deforestation, the concentration of CO2 increases, some rich ecosystems existing only in large tropical forests are lost, and animal species losing their homes dye.

 Raw Materials: The present growth of the new developing countries has set off a new boom for the extraction of raw materials in particular minerals, metals, and ores. Commodity prices went through a bubble before the 2008 financial crisis but the bubble is unlikely over yet. Those prices are leading to a new large-scale search for new mines both for common ores such as copper, iron, tin, and for rare metals such as platinum and tungsten. Some of those materials will be disappearing in the future such as zinc which is widely used and for which a substitute will have to be found.

 Fossil Fuels: The depletion of fossil fuels is probably the one that is most talked by the politicians, the economists, and the media. It is very difficult to predict when we will run out oil – may be in the next 20 years – may be in the next 40 years. But we will run out of oil. Like most commodities, because of the demand for oil exceeding the supply, oil prices are likely to skyrocket in the future. Gas reserves will last longer than oil maybe 80 to 100 years while the reserves for coal are still enormous and could last for over 200 years.

The Impact of Climate Change

Since the start of the industrial revolution in the 1820s, human combustion of fossil fuels and destruction of forests have increased the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere by 35% from 280 parts per million (ppm) to 380 ppm today. There have been now a greater concentration of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than there have been for up to 800,000 years. The rate of this change does not give any time to any species on Earth to change the path of its Darwinian evolution to adapt. We have altered the biosphere in a few decades in ways that would have naturally taken 1,000 years or more. Since 1850, the Earth has already experienced an average near-surface temperature increase of 0.8 0C (or 1.4 0F). A doubling of CO2 will increase the average temperature from 2 to 4.5 0C (or from 3.6 to 8.1 0F). 2 0C or 3.6 0F is considered in the scientific community as the tipping point beyond which climate change becomes uncontrollable.

The consequences of climate change have been described in details in many publications and briefly include:

  • Rising ocean levels due to the thermal expansion of seawater and the melting of the ice of the North and South Poles;
  • Large-scale extension of the most vulnerable species, in particular, those with constrained habitat ranges or limited mobility to adapt to new lands;
  • New types of diseases and an increase of disease transmission due to an increase in temperatures and decline in rainfalls;
  • Decrease in agricultural productivity due to altered seasons, rainfall patterns and biodiversity;
  • Decrease of water availability due to increase evaporation, changes in rainfall patterns and river flows;
  • Increase destruction from natural hazards in particular flooding and droughts;
  • Acidification of the oceans and waters due to rising COthat will change the ocean chemistry and alter marine biodiversity.

My hope is that we can start 2010 and this second decade of our XXI century having learned from our mistakes from the first decade of our XXI century.

Europe was the political and economic leader from the Renaissance to the XIX century and attempted to expand its dominance to Africa, North and South America. The XX century was the American century with two World Wars, a Great Depression, European colonization ending and the United-States economic expansion since World War II.

The XXI century started with a new type of war (that is not a Napoleonic state war), the collapse of the worldwide financial system and the rise of Asia’s economic power. China and Asia will produce in this XXI century more than half of the world income, will be the center of gravity of the global population and as a consequence will have the largest impact on further climate change.

Please let’s not carry our journey toward an unsustainable economic development for 2010 and beyond.

I have used many over the last few months to start thinking about the content of this article but the following are the ones that have inspired me the most:
 Jeffrey Sachs, Common Wealth, Penguin Books
 Jared Diamond, Collapse, Penguin Books
 Paul and Anne Ehrlich, the Dominant Animal, Island Press
 Joanna Yarrow, Ecological, Duncan Baird Publishers
 National Geographic, State of the Earth 2010, Collector’s Edition
 Le Monde Bilan Planete 2009, Les temps forts et les acteurs de l’annee

Note 1: My background is in technology and in business so I have obviously no expertise in particular in agriculture, fisheries, animal species etc… – so for those subjects, please read and learn from the experts.

Note 2: The twenty largest megacities are from West to East: New York, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, San Paulo, Buenos Aires, Istanbul, Cairo, Moscow, Karachi, Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkatta, Dhaka, Beijing, Shanghai, Seoul, Manila, Osaka, and Tokyo.

Note 3: The picture above is one of my paintings.

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Categories: Economy, Sustainability