Can modernisation be “ecological”? – Part 3

This is the third and final part of my mini-critique of the school of environmental thought known as Ecological Modernisation. The first two parts having been published on 24 September and 25 September respectively. ——————- Newsflash: Today is Earth Overshoot Day for 2011. This was a genuine coincidence (i.e. I did not know this when I decided to do this 3-part story). See paragraph 2 below… ——————- Where are we now? In his seminal 1968 article on ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, Garrett Hardin had observed that it was not possible to achieve Jeremy Bentham’s hedonistic goal of “the greatest good for the greatest number” because, at the level of the individual, to do so would require food and/or energy to be used for subsistence purposes only (Hardin 1968: 1243). In 1977, William Ophuls agreed that the optimum population is not the maximum possible, which appears to imply that, if necessary, artificial limits to growth should be imposed. Furthermore, he explicitly stated that, “…this optimum level… may be as little as fifty percent of the theoretical maximum…” (Ophuls 1977: 28). Mathis Wackernagel et al have recently provided “…evidence that human activities have exceeded the biosphere’s capacity since the 1980s. This overshoot can be expressed as the extent to which human area demand exceeds nature’s supply. Whereas humanity’s load corresponded to 70% of the biosphere’s capacity in 1961; this percentage grew to 120% by 1999.” However, the authors also pointed out that, if… “12% of the bioproductive area was set aside to protect other species; the demand line crosses the supply line in the early 1970s rather than the 1980s” (Wackernagel et al 2002: 9268-9)(emphasis mine). In laboratory-controlled studies, the size of a population of, say, fruit flies can be shown to depend on the scarcity or abundance of food; and the presence or absence of predators. However, in 2005, Meadows et al pointed out that a growing population “…will slow and stop in a smooth accommodation with its limits… only if it receives accurate, prompt signals telling it where it is with respect to its limits, and only if it responds to those signals quickly and accurately” (Meadows et al 2005: 157). This pursuit of the resulting “S-curve” is sometimes referred to as the demographic transition of an increasingly affluent society through three stages: (1) high birth and death rates; (2) high birth rate but low death rate; and (3) low birth and death rates. However, in a section entitled ‘Why Technology and Markets Alone Can’t Avoid Overshoot’, Meadows et al also pointed out that if we put off dealing with limits to growth we are more likely to come up against several of them simultaneously (ibid: 223). Even though no-one seems to want to talk about population control today, neither Hardin nor Malthus was the first to raise this contentious subject because, as Philip Kreager has pointed out, this dubious honour goes to Aristotle’s treatise on Politics within which, “…population is a recurring topic, extensively discussed and integral to the overall argument…” (Kreager 2008: 599). Furthermore, according to Theodore Lianos, although Aristotle was thinking at the scale of a city rather than a country, the great philosopher recognised that there was an optimum population size, which depended on the land area controlled by the city (for food production purposes), which could be determined by, “the land-population ratio that produces enough material goods so that the citizens can live a wise and generous life, comfortable but not wasteful nor luxurious” (Lianos 2010: 3). Conclusions It has been demonstrated that dematerialisation alone cannot deal with the problem of resource depletion unless the increase in unit efficiency is greater than the increase in scale of production (i.e. something that cannot be sustainable indefinitely). Furthermore, whereas it may be possible to partially decouple environmental degradation from economic growth, pursuit of this as a sole objective is a dangerous strategy. This is because to do so is to remain ambivalent about the existence and significance of limits to growth; indeed it is to deny that growth itself may be the problem. In the final analysis, the only thing that will be sustainable is progression towards the steady-state economy proposed by Daly and others; combined with qualitative development instead of quantitative growth. Therefore, the only form of modernisation that could be ecological is one that places the intrinsic value of vital resources such as clean air and clean water – and the inherent value of a beautiful landscape – well above the instrumental value of money or precious metals. ——————- References: Hardin, G. (1968), ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, Science, 168, pp.1243-8. Kreager, P. (2008), ‘Aristotle and open population thinking’, Population and Development Review 14(34), pp.599-629. Lianos, T. (2010), ‘Aristotle’s Macroeconomic Model of the City-State’. Meadows D, et al (2005), Limits to Growth: the 30-Year Update, London: Earthscan. Ophuls, W. (1977), Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity, San Francisco: Freeman and Co.. Wackernagel, M. et al (2002), ‘Tracking the ecological overshoot of the human economy’, Proc. of the National Academy of Sciences [USA], 99(14), pp.9266-9271.


About Rick Altman

Possibly just another 'Climate Cassandra' crying 'Wolf' in cyberspace. However, the moral of the old children's story is that the Wolf eventually turned up!
This entry was posted in Civilisation, Climate Science, Consumerism, Ecological Modernisation, Economics, Environment, Growthmania, Limits to Growth, Modernity, Money Fetishism, Optimum Population, Philosophy, Politics, Scepticism and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Can modernisation be “ecological”? – Part 3

  1. pendantry says:

    You use lots of big words. I’m not sure I understand them all (and even those I do, I’m not entirely sure of their meaning in context). This is my failing, not yours; and in any case, the message I come away with is ‘growth is not always good,’ a sentiment I agree with completely (mainly through having watched “Arithmetic, population and energy” by Dr Albert A Bartlett one too many times). It saddens me that those in charge cling so strongly to an economic model that can only end in destroying all that we love. Keep up the good work!


  2. Pingback: Can modernisation be “ecological”? – Part 2 | Anthropocene Reality

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s