‘No matter how much money you throw on the glaciers, they won’t stop melting’

The author of a new book on the planet’s limits says the old models aren’t working – and points to China as a way forward
Bankrupting Nature: Denying Our Planetary Boundaries
Anders Wijkman and Johan Rockstrom
Routledge, 2012
Forty years after its landmark report The Limits to Growth, the Club of Rome – a Switzerland-based global think tank – has published a new book warning that humanity is pushing the planet past its breaking point. Corinne Purtill spoke to Bankrupting Nature co-author Anders Wijkman, a Swedish politician and former member of the European Parliament, who with Johan Rockstrom advocates for an overhaul of the political and economic systems.
Corinne Purtill: Your central thesis is that perpetual growth on a planet with finite resources is impossible, that “nature’s cupboard is not infinite”. Why is this so hard for people to accept?
Anders Wijkman: The kind of economic model that has been entertained over the last 100 to 150 years has focused on money, which is an instrument that has no value in itself. You cannot substitute money for ecosystem services. No matter how much money you throw on Greenland, on the glaciers, they won’t stop melting. Economists have looked upon nature as a constant. That, to me, has been the main barrier to really having a debate that is more insightful and more considerate.
While we do accept that many things have to grow and should grow, we have to be smarter. We have to redesign the system so that the total output of energy and materials is not exponentially growing. But of course, you can do things in a much more efficient way. You can extend the lifetime of a product. You can design products so that they are very easy to disassemble. You can recycle them. You can probably design a system that is many, many times more efficient in terms of resources and energy. Then at least you would buy time and not continue to transgress what we call “planetary boundaries”, risking tipping points and very serious consequences.
CP: How equipped is the current political system to deal with the resource and climate crises?
AW: Both the economic system and the political system are very short-term in nature. In order for the market system to incorporate long-term risks and long-term objectives, you need political intervention. The market system is not ethical, so if you want it to be ethical you have to design it that way.
The political system is very short-term as well. The US is probably the worst, because they have elections every second year. They are 100% dependent on financial contributions from the private sector. You can really question whether it’s a democracy. It’s very tragic to see how different forces are blocking each other. I’ve spent almost 20 years of my life in politics. Today, it’s much more pragmatic, short term – it’s a question of staying in power.
CP: What is China’s role?
AW: Chinese leadership is much more long-term in their thinking and design of policies than we are in this part of the world. So that’s positive. There are also many more engineers or natural scientists by education, which means they have a better understanding of many of the problems that Johan Rockstrom and I discuss in our book.
One of the problems in a place like Westminster or the US Congress or the Swedish parliament is that there are very few members that have a scientific background. You need a certain number of natural scientists to help the others understand. Otherwise, a very simplified view of things dominates the debates. From that point of view, I’m a bit optimistic about China.
The conditions for responsible decision-making are quite promising. I’ve seen some interesting papers (ahead of the National People’s Congress). I haven’t seen the same kind of policy papers in a European or American context.
On the other hand, China is growing so fast that even with good policies, it’s very difficult for them to do anything but increase emissions and the negative impacts on the natural system. They are in a double bind, I would say. So are we, but in a very different way.
CP: What’s it going to take to move politics and the public beyond, as you put it, “the logic of the industrial society”?
AW: If you look at history, the only time when societies have really brought about profound change is in the context of war or natural disaster. That’s a very pessimistic response, of course. We wrote this book to convince people to be more preventative, and to do things to reduce the risk of runaway climate change and ecosystem collapse.
But I’m starting to wonder whether logic and common sense and more facts on the table is really the answer. There are very strong psychological factors underpinning the resistance, and also strong vested interests. Fossil fuel companies earn a lot of revenue from what they’re doing. I think natural scientists have to work more closely with behavioural scientists and help them design communication strategies that are more successful, because simply banging new facts into people’s heads is probably not going to change anything.
We have to show people it’s not only ethical, it’s in their self-interest to be more long-term in their thinking, and to understand that their children and grandchildren are going to have a hell of time if we don’t do things in a different way.
CP: What are the key steps for recalibrating human activity within planetary boundaries?
AW: I would remove taxes on labour and I would put a tax on the use of natural resources. Not all of them, but in critical areas, to really provide incentives for much more efficient use of energy and materials, and at the same time making it less expensive for companies to hire people.
The second thing I would do would be to introduce a carbon tax, probably in the $50-70 per tonne. That would have a tremendous effect on business and consumption practises. I applaud (China’s proposed carbon tax) very much. I hope that will be successful.
A third thing I would do would be to rethink the education of economists. You can pass through the Stockholm School of Economics or the London School of Economics and not know anything about ecosystem services or climate change. It’s as if the economy was disconnected from the natural world. We are producing millions of economics every year with the wrong training.
CP: What makes you optimistic? Is anyone doing it right?
AW: I think it’s dangerous to generalise and give the impression that the Chinese system would be the solution, but at least on paper there seems to be a larger capacity for long-term thinking and strategising than what we are used to. We have become so short-term that it’s dangerous.
CP: How does that long-term thinking account for the environmental crises we are seeing in China at the moment?
AW: It must be very difficult at the local level to reconcile long-term climate and environmental protection with demand for 8 to 9 percent economic growth. There is a contradiction, of course. What I hope would happen is that somewhere in the world – I think Scandinavia is one of the most likely regions – we could develop a model that would help us reconcile these two contradictory objectives. You can’t grow the economy the way we have, and at the same time you can’t just stop consuming. We need to find a third way. That’s what its all about.
I would think that some of the solutions could come from China. The pressure for them to do things in a different way is obvious. You don’t have to stay long in Beijing to realise it’s not healthy to live there.