Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Survival in the Anthropocene - Part 1


Good evening everybody, and what a thrill it is to be at Peking University, and to be together with you. And what a thrill it is for me to have the chance to give this unique lecture series, the Reith Lectures, and to take part in a global discussion, a discussion that we must have in the beginning years of our new century, if we are to achieve what we hope to achieve -- shared peace and prosperity around the planet. I think we all sense that we are at very important decision points in the planet, with obvious risks and huge opportunities. As Sue just said, there is no place on the planet of more significance for these choices -- for its own sake as well as for the world's sake -- as China today, a country that calls for superlatives in its role, its dimensions, and the stakes for the world. Here we are in the famous, beautiful, magnificent Hall of the Ten Thousand Masses, as it's called, but to account for China's vastness we would need a hundred thirty thousand such halls of ten thousand people each to accommodate the 1.3 billion people of this country, which makes up one fifth of the world's population and is quickly becoming an absolute epicentre of the global economy as well as many of the challenges that I'll discuss tonight.

China has been at the centre of world history for millennia, and for large stretches of world history China has been the leading power. Roughly from 500 AD to 1500 AD China was clearly the dominant economic power and the dominant progenitor of fundamental and leading technologies of all sorts, which empowered the world and changed it in magnificently positive ways. And of course we all see and expect China to play that role in the twenty-first century as well. After a long period of difficulty, economic hiatus and internally and externally caused disarray, China clearly is in the ascendancy in this century. It is far and away the most dramatic case of economic growth in the history of the world. Never before have we seen rates of economic progress, and what they signify -- deep improvements of human well-being taking place at not only the pace but obviously the scale that we're seeing now, with each decade bringing a doubling or more of living standards -- in a country of these vast proportions.

So the superlatives of the economy are well known and they cross lips around the world every day, but we're going to talk about another aspect of that challenge this evening, and that's the superlatives of the environmental challenge that China faces. Not only is it the world's most populous country, it is one of the world's most crowded countries, and it is certainly one of the world's most environmentally stressed regions. This is a challenge that has existed throughout China's history, but what has happened in recent decades and what will happen in the decades to come poses qualitatively new challenges that are emblematic of the unique environmental stresses that we all face on the planet together -- some because of the special role that China will play in the future, and some because China is experiencing the same kinds of phenomena as in other parts of the world.

I called my lecture today 'The Anthropocene' - a term that is spectacularly vivid, a term invented by one of the great scientists of our age, Paul Crutzen, to signify the fact that human beings for the first time have taken hold not only of the economy and of population dynamics, but of the planet's physical systems, Anthropocene meaning human created era of Earth's history. The geologists call our time the holocene --the period of the last thirteen thousand years or so since the last Ice Age -- but Crutzen wisely and perhaps shockingly noted that the last two hundred years are really a unique era, not only in human history but in the Earth's physical history as well. The Anthropocene is the period when human activity has overtaken vast parts of the natural cycles on the planet, and has done so in ways that disrupt those cycles and fundamentally threaten us in the years ahead.

Now considering how we're going to face the dual challenge of continued economic progress, which we dearly hope for in this country and in other parts of the developing world, and continued economic well-being of course and progress, in today's high income world, with the profound and growing environmental dangers that we face, is the subject of our Reith Lecture today.

Let me set the stage. Our era is unique. We've never before experienced anything like the human pressures on the environment as well as the human successes in sustained and broad-based improvements of well-being. Ensuring that we can continue those successes without going right over the cliff will prove to be our generation's greatest challenge. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, which we could date roughly to the beginning of the nineteenth century - 1800 or so, perhaps a few decades earlier by some historians' accounts, a couple of decades later in most places in the world - the human impact on the environment has increased approximately one hundredfold. Human population has risen from six or seven hundred million in the middle of the eighteenth century to our 6.6 billion today, roughly a tenfold increase. Per capita economic activity -- that is how much each of us on the planet consumes, produces, draws upon natural resources for our sustenance and well-being -- has also risen by typical statistical account, as hard as it is to compare over the course of two centuries, roughly tenfold as well. With ten times more people, each of whom is engaged in ten times more economic activity, we have two orders of magnitude, or one hundred times, the influence of human activity on the planet. And this is coming at unprecedented cost to physical earth systems. What's absolutely striking, and the puzzle we need to solve, is this basic fact: What we are already doing on the planet in terms of effects on physical systems is unsustainable. We cannot go on doing what we're doing. We have already reached a point of literal unsustainability, in the sense that if we continue on our current path, using resources the way we use them now at the scale we use them now, we will hit very harsh boundaries that will do great damage to human well-being, to the earth, and to vast numbers, literally millions, of other species on the planet. But we have an even harder problem to solve than that one, and that is that we do not want to stop here in terms of consumption or economic activity. The developing countries -- and we're in the most populous of them today -- which together make up five sixths of humanity, rightly and understandably and from my point of view absolutely accountably and responsibly, say they would like their place in the sun as well. If the high income world has achieved certain levels of wealth, comfort, safety and life expectancy, what about the rest of humanity? From my point of view as a development economist, something absolutely wonderful is happening, something that I think we could even dub the Age of Convergence, and that is that the measure of economic development, the methods, the institutions, the processes, the adaptation of advanced technologies, are becoming a worldwide phenomenon. Now tragically not every part of the world is yet part of that phenomenon, and I will have the chance to discuss that in a later lecture, when we talk about the poorest of the poor who are still not part of this dynamism. But the wonderful news is that large parts of the planet are part of this dynamism - China of course is at the very forefront in an unprecedented manner -- catching up in technology, economic activity, and human well-being. Let's not doubt the improvements of living, not only of conventionally measured living standards but of human well-being and life expectancy, in nutrition, in opportunities, in chances to fulfill life's hopes that come along with this economic improvement.

The processes now are made powerful by the strong winds of globalization -- the market forces and the ability of ideas and technology to flow across national boundaries at an unprecedented rate. The world economy is now growing at approximately five per cent per annum, and that is four per cent approximately of per capita income increases, and one per cent per year roughly of global population increase. That means we are on course for a massive increase of economic activity, just what we would like to see in the still poor countries of the world, those who aspire to have the chances that technology and science have brought us. It is fair to say that, given current trends, we have a powerful force of economic convergence in most parts of the world, and if the processes of convergence continue to operate as they have in recent decades, one could expect that perhaps the average per person income on the planet could rise as much as four times between now and mid-century. If the average income as measured by economists, statisticians, taking into account the purchasing power of income in different parts of the world, is roughly eight thousand dollars per person, one could expect perhaps that that would reach thirty thousand dollars by mid-century, given the powerful and positive forces of economic development.

Population of course, though increasing more slowly in proportional terms than it did in the second half of the twentieth century, is still increasing in absolute terms by an astounding amount of 70 to 80 million people per year. And on the medium forecast of the UN Population Division, that leads to a projection of roughly an increase of another two and a half billion people on the planet by the year 2050. That is a world population increase of roughly fifty per cent, with income on a path, barring various disasters, to increase approximately fourfold. Multiplying one and a half by four suggests that the current trajectory would lead to an increase of world economic activity of six times between now and 2050. That is the goal from the point of view of economic development, but think about the paradox, if we already are on an unsustainable trajectory and yet China, India, and large parts of Asia are successfully barrelling ahead with rapid economic development at an unprecedented rate. We are asking our planet to somehow absorb a manyfold increase of economic activity on top of an already existing degree of environmental stress that we've never before seen on the planet.

It is possible that we will not be able to increase sixfold in economic activity with current technologies before the environmental catastrophes would choke off the economic growth. The hardships in water stress, deforestation, hunger, and species extinction, would cause this process to go awry, even before we are able to do more damage to the planet. But that does pose the fundamental question - what will give in the end? Many people think the only thing that can give are living standards in the high income world, whereas others believe that we are bound for a bitter struggle between the rich and the poor in the years ahead. I want to argue that the only viable, peaceful way forward is a change of the way we live that allows for continued improvement of living standards in all parts of the world and for catching up, but that also permits us to square the circle of environmental stress and economic development.

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