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Response to the Skeptics2022-Aug-15  8:14:31 PM
Answers to the Skeptics Questions
  1. SKEPTIC: Won’t environmental protection legislation ensure our security? The extent of such legislation seems to be growing, as well as the number of international environmental treaties. Surely, all this attention by legislators and scientists will ensure sustainable scale is not exceeded.
RESPONSE: It is highly unlikely that current environmental legislation will adequately deal with the sustainable scale issue. The question of sustainable scale is not even being asked by governments. The appropriate ecosystem indicators are not being monitored, and there are no formal attempts to identify either the biophysical or ethical and social boundaries of optimal scale. Nor are any efforts being made to educate the public so that they can participate in the development of a consensus regarding optimal scale.

Most environmental legislation deals with “end of pipe” solutions, focusing on minimizing the impact of wastes rather than preventing the waste in the first place. Such legislation is confined to dealing with well specified environmental problems, rather than complex ecosystem effects. While science is learning a great deal about ecosystems (see Areas of Concern), there are few instances where the specific measures are clear enough to allow legislation. Prevention is generally more desirable and less costly than clean up (see Policy Solutions), especially as many of the ecosystem impacts may be unknown, or difficult or costly to detect and monitor.

Experience with atmospheric ozone and greenhouse gas emissions indicates that scale problems can arise fairly quickly. Exceeding sustainable scale in terms of disrupting the underlying mechanisms of any single major global ecosystem (rather than merely altering it a bit), could cause a chain reaction in other major global ecosystems. This would make remediation of any kind virtually impossible. The current magnitude and potentially irrevocable nature of scale problems require urgent attention, but they are being ignored at policy levels.

Environmental legislation is also subject to political whim. Various regulations have been rescinded by unsympathic legislators when new parties come to power. In addition, even the best environmental legislation can be subverted by weak implementation or enforcement. There are many factors pushing legislators to ensure economic growth is a policy priority (see Causes of Scale Problems), and environmental legislation of any kind is often viewed as an obstacle to such growth.

Many scientists and scientific organizations have, in fact, spoken out clearly about the potential dangers of many current practices and policies (see Areas of Concern). These have largely been ignored or dealt with in a token fashion by legislators. With respect to Climate Change, for example, the international treaty signed by many countries has an emissions reduction target that will result in concentrations of atmospheric carbon that scientists have warned will have dramatic consequences. The recommendations made by scientists regarding much higher emissions reduction targets were overlooked in favor of a politically acceptable target.

Clearly, legislation is required to deal with concerns regarding sustainable scale. But significant changes in the development of public policies are required to adequately address the issue (see Public Policy Solutions).

  1. SKEPTIC: If the science regarding the potential dangers of exceeding scale scale are so clear, wouldn’t legislators be forced to pay attention? There must be considerable uncertainty about the “danger signals,” for such warnings to be ignored.
RESPONSE: Scientists have been very clear about the potential dangers of current practices, even if they have not always expressed their concerns in a sustainable scale framework. The specific scientific evidence may not yet be definitive, but some of the most stable and powerful scientific laws clearly demonstrate the impossibility of continuous economic growth (see Understanding Scale). Legislators generally attempt to balance a broad variety of perspectives in their policy deliberations. If they are lobbied from conflicting sources, they tend to give priority to economic interests more than any other (see Obsolete Public Policies). Scale issues are of such dire importance that this approach could be disastrous. The tactic may work for parties with conflicting vested interests, but the basic laws of science cannot be suspended or mollified by political compromises.

Scientists may also disagree on some of the data and its implications. The highly technical nature of much of the scientific data makes it difficult for legislators to determine which position is valid, even when there is an overwhelming consensus among the majority of scientists. If there are any dissenting voices among scientists, legislators often simply avoid a difficult decision until a definitive conclusion is reached. However, science rarely produces unanimity, especially in an area as novel and complex as ecosystem functioning.

Scientists also tend to be very conservative in their statements so as not to overstate the facts. Legislators may interpret this approach as reflecting more uncertainty than is warranted. Sustainable scale problems of a global nature are unprecedented from both scientific and policy perspectives and miscommunication between these sectors is almost inevitable.

Uncertainty and debate are normal aspects of science and should not be a justification for avoiding an issue as potentially catastrophic as exceeding scale. The uncertainty, after all, goes both ways. There is significant if not conclusive scientific evidence that some sustainable scale boundaries have already been breached , and that others are imminent (see Areas of Concern). The uncertainty which exists should serve as a motivator, not an inhibitor, for ensuring sustainable scale is not exceeded, with all its disastrous consequences. The unprecedented nature of the policy decisions that sustainable scale issues require means that legislators are on the very lowest levels of a steep learning curve.

The danger of waiting for definitive scientific answers, and/or unambiguous danger signals, runs the risk of exceeding sustainable scale before adequate attention is given to preventing such overshoot. The one opportunity for prevention will be lost; there will be no opportunity for remediation. There is sufficient scientific evidence and consensus now available to develop preventive policies that could deal with scale issues in a constructive and economical manner (see Policy Solutions). In addition, those areas where sustainable scale has already been exceeded need urgent attention even those the current impacts may be small or uncertain.

  1. SKEPTIC: Wouldn’t implementing such policies now be costly and premature, especially if we are not really sure exceeding scale has already occurred, or is imminent?
RESPONSE: The basic question is what kind of error is tolerable. If policies are implemented that address potential sustainable scale problems, and we later discover they were premature, then at most we will have made unnecessary expenditures. However, if we fail to make the necessary changes in policies, regardless of costs, we run the risk of global catastrophe.

One of the unique aspects of this issue is that both the stakes and the uncertainty are so high. Exceeding sustainable scale in even one major global system could trigger major ecosystem degradations in a short period of time. Exceeding sustainable scale in one global system makes it more difficult to both understand and improve problems with other major systems. The scientists who study these complex global systems are in the best position to understand the potential dangers we face, and there is considerable consensus on many of these issues to warrant action earlier rather than later.

Furthermore, while the adjustments needed to the global economy are significant in order to avoid exceeding sustainable scale (see Policy Solutions), there could be considerable collateral benefits to such policies in social, environmental and even economic terms. A thorough comparison of these pros and cons are not being examined at the present time. Yet this is precisely the kind of public debate that is needed globally because of the seriousness and irrevocable nature of sustainable scale problems.

  1. SKEPTIC: Isn’t the sustainable scale issue just another form of the “Limits to Growth” arguments made by the Club of Rome decades ago? These arguments have been proven wrong, so sustainable scale concerns really have no basis.
RESPONSE: It is true that some of aspects of the Club of Rome''s early work was inaccurate and had some weaknesses. However, the basic thesis that infinite growth in a finite world is a physical impossibility was and is still valid. The rapid rate of economic growth and ecosystem disruption is continuing and unsustainable. Many of the weaknesses of the earlier work have been corrected in a 2004 publication,"Limits to Growth: the 30 Year Update.” In fact, the basic conclusions of the original work have been well supported by subsequent events. Using the improved computer modeling in the latest report demonstrates that only by substantially reducing the assumptions concerning economic growth can a sustainable future scenario be realistically anticipated.

  1. SKEPTIC: Solving environmental and other global problems like poverty and hunger require funding. We need economic growth to generate the wealth to solve these problems. It is the more successful economies of the world that have the cleanest environments. If we stop growth we are effectively giving up trying to solve these problems, and that would be unfair to the disadvantaged of the world.
RESPONSE: There are several points to make in responding to these views:

  • All wealth is not to be measured in financial terms. Ecosystems are the source of all our wealth, and make significant contributions to our well being. Simply because most ecosystem services have no market value does not mean they are worthless. Part of the problem with current public policy is that it focuses almost exclusively on financial factors and largely ignores these other values. Ecosystem health is the basis of a sound economy. While both are important, protecting ecosystem health is a greater priority than protecting economic growth. The value of healthy ecosystem functions is too poorly understood by decision makers for them to be concerned about threats to these unique and finite life-support services. [box with data re dollar value of ecosystem services]
  • Funding is definitely required for environmental protection. The cost of cleaning up the toxic wastes sites in North America alone is estimated to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars. But does it make sense to generate the wealth required to undertake this cleanup from economic activities that generate yet more such toxic wastes? It is the kind and amount of economic growth that requires careful review and redirection that can assist in dealing with the sustainable scale challenge.
  • It is a fallacy to attribute cleaner environments in successful economies with economic growth. First of all, many environmental improvements do not require huge expenditures. The environmental legislation that has contributed to the cleanup in developed nations has often resulted in reduced operating costs for business and industry. In addition, a significant portion of these improved conditions have at least as much to do with the export of dirty industrial work to less developed countries, where environmental protection is weak or nonexistent. Failure to recognize that ecosystem threats are global means that these tactics are at best a temporary reprieve. It is the sheer volume of material throughput, and the toxic nature of a significant portion of it, that is the problem – not the country of origin.
  • Dealing with the sustainable scale issue does not require the end of all economic growth, but it does require change. Economic activity based on sustainable business development principles such as zero waste, and production processes that only make goods that are recyclable or compostable, and that only use recycled materials, could go a long way to remaining within sustainable scale. These principles are designed to increase resource productivity and decrease material throughput, and will be important components of operating an economy within sustainable scale.

    A sustainable economy is an ideal to strive for. Technologies are currently available to make radical improvements, of 400% or more (see Factor Four), in resource productivity and waste reduction. But supportive public policies are required (see Policy Solutions), to not only support the necessary transition but to ensure it occurs as rapidly as possible. The uncertainty regarding scale boundaries, and the mounting evidence that irrevocable harm could occur in a matter of decades, suggests haste would be prudent (see Areas of Concern).

    During the transition phase from the current emphasis on material throughput to a sustainable economy, principles of social justice give priority to the world’s poorest peoples to be the primary recipients of continued economic growth. This is perhaps one of the most difficult of issues for decision makers in wealthier countries. They fear that even a slow down in economic growth would be the beginning of their political demise. They appear to be operating on the assumption that electoral happiness is dependent on continued economic growth and ever increasing material well being. Considerable evidence suggests otherwise.
  1. SKEPTIC: Economic growth has improved the human condition considerably over the last century and a half. It has allowed science and technology to improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people. To stop it now would be to turn the clock back and prevent further progress.
RESPONSE: There is no denying that economic growth has contributed to the material well being of many. Accepting the sustainable scale argument does not mean denying these realities. But it does mean looking at all the evidence. The enormous wealth accumulated by those in the top 10% of the global population occurred by impoverishing millions more (see Ponting). [ some stats on wealth disparities] While many people benefit from economic growth, the vast majority are disadvantaged by the same processes.

More relevant from a sustainable scale perspective is that the accumulation of this wealth is inextricably linked to the disruption of every major ecosystem and biogeochemical system on the planet (see Areas of Concern). Continuing to accumulate financial wealth using the existing economic model will only contribute to the further disruption and possible destruction of these same global systems. Continued economic growth involving ever increasing material throughput is a biophysical impossibility. Even if no one had been harmed by the dominant economic model from a justice perspective, the potential harm to ecosystem functioning and human civilization means attention to the sustainable scale issue is urgently needed.

Dealing with sustainable scale issues would actually represent progress, not a retreat. Addressing sustainable scale would represent progress in terms of using or devising scientific knowledge and technologies, as well as social institutions that ensure the sustainable use of naturally occurring ecosystem services. Addressing sustainable scale would also represent progress in terms of recognizing there are fatal flaws in our dominant mythologies so that individuals and nations can take control of their futures and ensure their survival. Any contest between immutable laws of nature and a defunct economic theory will not be won by relying on what produced benefits for the relatively few in the past.

In thinking about solutions to the sustainable scale challenge it is useful to make a distinction between growth and development. Growth refers to a physical or quantitative increase in size; this is the meaning that has been used consistently throughout this discourse. It is economic growth based on ever increasing material throughput that is pushing us beyond sustainable scale. By way of contrast, development refers to a qualitative improvement. An economy based on qualitative improvement, rather than material throughput, would help address the challenge of sustainable scale. Such an approach can be considered in terms of moving from an economy based on economic growth to one based on economic development (see Policy Solutions and Attractive Solutions). Such a direction indicates that broadly based progress will be a very integral part of implementing sustainable scale relevant policies.

  1. SKEPTIC: Granted that environmental problems are real and significant, we must keep in mind that technology has saved us before and will likely save us again. We are likely to devise new source of clean energy and other technologies that will allow us to easily avoid exceeding sustainable scale.
RESPONSE: Technology will continue to play an important role in dealing with sustainable scale issues. Currently, technologies are available to radically increase resource productivity by 400% or more (see Factor Four); and new technologies are under development that promise increases of 1000% or more. There are several points to make about the role of technology in achieving sustainable scale:

  • Despite the availability of technologies that can increase resource productivity by 400% or more, and simple energy conservation measures that are available across a broad range of applications, this knowledge is not being used. Few organizations require application of the most resource productive technologies available; no government regulation makes such a demand. Useful technology is available; the political will to use it is not.
  • If all existing technologies that are environmentally friendly were the only ones in use, we would at least have more time before coming up against sustainable scale boundaries. But we are far from this ideal, and even a transition to resource productive technologies will take time. Without knowing where the sustainable scale boundaries are, we have no idea how much time we have for a transition that has hardly begun.
  • The economic model that is driving material throughput is itself a complex human system, consisting of many institutions which are mutually supportive. Specific technological innovations, regardless of how much they might contribute to alleviating the sustainable scale problem, will not be adopted if they do not fit into this system. Policies are needed that require such technologies to be explored and adopted. It is considerably easier to modify economic mechanisms to adapt to these new technologies than it is to change the laws of nature.
  • An economy based on continually increasing material throughput will eventually and inevitably come up against sustainable scale boundaries. Using environmentally friendly technologies as soon and as extensively as possible is highly desirable. This would be a useful but inadequate step in dealing with the challenge of sustainable scale. Sustainable scale needs to be dealt with directly (see Policy Solutions).
  • Relying on innovative technologies to solve the sustainable scale problem is a high risk strategy. New technologies first have to be invented, will take time to be implemented, and often have unintended and negative impacts that take years to identify. Indeed, the history of environmental damage involves the discovery of significant harm occurring from what originally appeared to be benign and useful technologies (e.g. DDT, CFCs, industrial agriculture, nuclear energy, fossil fuels, etc). To have faith in such a process to avoid the issue of sustainable scale, when we are not even using the clean technologies we have, seems unwarranted. We should certainly be exploring new technologies, but these should not be the main strategy for dealing with the problem of sustainable scale. [ quote from Ellul “History shows that every technical application from its beginning presents certain unforeseeable secondary effects which are more disastrous than the lack of the technique would have been.”
  • It is also useful to keep the entropy law in mind when considering technological innovations. Technology only transforms energy from a more organized and ordered state to a less organized and ordered state – i.e. it inevitably ( according to the entropy law) degrades whatever materials are involved in its processes. [ Rifkin p 81 “ The disorder created by each new technology is not a side effect. Nor is it less costly in the long run than the benefits derived from the particular technology. …The truth is, every technology creates a temporary island of order at the expense of greater disorder to the surroundings.”]
  1. SKEPTIC: Human history has many examples of substituting new resources and sources of energy for old ones that were running out. Human ingenuity and creativity is infinite and will be used to solve the challenge of sustainable scale.
RESPONSE: Human history is indeed a story of new resources and sources of energy. And each change contributed to more economic activity and financial wealth. There are several points to make about this history:

  • As the world moved from wood to coal to petroleum as sources of energy, more energy became available, more economic growth was stimulated and more general wealth generated. The same transition also resulted in considerably more pollution and ecosystem disruption. This is an inevitable consequence of the entropy law. More economic activity means more degradation of matter and energy, and the faster the technologies allow us to proceed, the faster the degradation.
  • The same is true of the broader range of resources that have been appropriated for human use. We now mine a considerable range of non-renewable resources that were not even known 200 years ago. And our technologies involve new combinations of these basic minerals and metals that never existed before through the wonders of modern chemistry. The result is increasing amounts of toxic substances entering global ecosystems. The process of extracting these resources from ever poorer sources (in terms of yield per ton) is also increasing ecosystem disruption on a massive scale. There are costs to human ingenuity that are not always taken into account.
  • The history of new resources is also the history of using materials of increasingly low entropy ( ie naturally occurring resources of great value because of the available energy they represented). Petroleum is a more concentrated form of energy than coal, and coal more than wood. Iron ore and nickel are of lower entropy than clay and mud. There is no question that access to these high energy sources and rarer minerals and metals has contributed significantly to economic growth and increased material well-being for millions. But to fully appreciate this history, the negative aspects of this transition must also be recognized. The use of fossil fuels is threatening the stability of the global carbon cycle which regulates global climate, and the impact of toxic materials is threatening ecosystems around the world (see Areas of Concern). [ box with stats about how poorer yields are now than previously – eg nickel now about 100Xs less concentrated in mined ore than when first extracted] box re toxic eg
  • At some point in human history we will run out of valuable low entropy materials that are nonrenewable. The faster they enter the economic cycle, the sooner will they be depleted and humanity will be confined once again to using clay and mud. There is a limit to the substitution of one resource for another in a finite biophysical world.[ box re Odum quote re alternative energy sources pp 160 and 169 “…these (various renewable energy sources reviewed) are not extensive enough to support the global economy that has developed on fossil fuels. …(as fossil fuels decline) global consumption (of energy from all sources) has to be reduced to less than one-third of its current level.”
  • The human ingenuity perspective is similar to the “technology will save us” view (see # 7 above for additional comments).
  • There is no question that ingenuity and creativity are uniquely human traits. But unless they are applied to the scale issue, they cannot contribute to a solution. The application of these traits to particular, novel areas does not seem to occur until some catastrophe has drawn attention. Once a scale boundary has been exceeded, no amount of ingenuity will recreate an ecosystem that took millions of years, along with a complex and unique set of circumstances to evolve. For scale issues, prevention is the only cure.
  • The complexity, pervasiveness, seriousness and unprecedented nature of the scale problem, along with the irrevocable loss if we exceed scale boundaries, suggests that the most creative minds on the planet should be encouraged to stop the damage currently being done.
  1. SKEPTIC: If we were really running out of natural resources their prices would be increasing. The scarcer they become the higher their price should be. This is a basic fact of economics.
RESPONSE: Supply and demand dynamics are powerful market mechanisms and can do an excellent job of establishing prices in a competitive market. However, there are several aspects of economic theory and practice that significantly distort the prices of most if not all natural resources:

  • Economic theory treats natural resources as income rather than as a draw down of natural capital. Accounting for natural resources follows different rules than accounting for other matters. The result is lower natural resource prices.[ Deepak, please elaborate – in a short, simple way for a lay reader]
  • Natural resources only have monetary value once they are extracted. Consequently the size of the above ground reserve influences marginal costs – not the amount left in the earth. Scarcity is not viewed from the perspective of what is left in the ground; market prices are therefore disconnected from actual reserves in the ground. [ Deepak – ditto above]
  • Large financial government subsidies characterize mining and petroleum extraction. Hundreds of billion of dollars are spent annually to keep market prices of these commodities low. [box with examples of subsidies to various industries] Additional subsidies in such areas as transportation also lower their final price.
  • Political considerations are also a significant factor in the setting of many natural resources. Oil, for example, is keep artificially low because of the potentially negative impact price rises could have on the global economy. The central role that energy plays in the global economy means that these lower energy prices also make other prices lower than they would be under open market pressures. Lower prices mean more use of materials and therefore more material degradation.
  • Political and economic pressures can also be brought to bear on many developing nations to keep natural resource prices low. In several smaller developing countries, resource extraction may be the major or sole source of foreign revenue, and/or opportunities for great wealth. If appropriate democratic institutions are not in place, the controlling ruling elite is often only too willing to make deals with foreign investors as personal wealth enhancement strategies ( see Resource Wars).
  • Another major factor in the distorted pricing of most natural resources has to do with the fact that their extraction and use often result in considerable costs to other parties. These costs are rarely calculated in the market price. The costs of displacement of indigenous peoples and their consequent loss of culture and livelihood as a result of mining do not generally enter pricing. Nor do the costs of smog and air pollution that result in health problems; nor the costs of habitat destruction that accelerates the extinction of species.
If all of these real costs directly associated with natural resource use were actually included in the price, less of these resources would be used. It is not in the short term financial interests of industries involved in natural resource extraction to have these costs reflected in prices. Economic practices are therefore permitted by public policies which allow these costs to be externalized (borne by others than the industry involved and those who use its products). Where attempts have been made to calculate these externalized costs, they are often many times higher than the market price of the commodity.[ box with examples of externalized costs in $s].

  • Because resource prices are so distorted and considerably lower than they would otherwise be if market forces were left to operate, resources are overused and wasted. This phenomenon has implications not only for current impacts on ecosystem functioning, but also on the resources available to future generations.
  • Because various economic practices serve to keep resource prices low, prices are not a good indication of resource scarcity. There is considerable other evidence that natural resources are indeed becoming scarcer. World oil production is expected to peak sometime in the next decade or so, even though there are more oil wells pumping more oil now than ever before. [ graph with Hubert curves] Production will begin to decline because the new reserves are not being discovered as quickly as known reserves are being depleted. This is occurring despite ever increasingly sophisticated techniques for detecting oil deposits.

    Further evidence of decreasing natural resources comes from the declining yield produced by mining ores of various kinds. A ton of nickel ore, for example, now yields only one 1/100th of the yield when nickel was first mined. [box with other examples]

    Nonrenewable resources that are becoming scarcer are in fact part of the scale problem. But the far more significant issue is the even greater scarcity of renewable resources. Several fish stocks have been depleted, and thousands of species have been made extinct by various kinds of economic activity (see Areas of Concern). In addition, the disruption of ecosystem services by economic activities is threatening the planet’s life support systems. This is at the heart of the scale problem.
  1. SKEPTIC: Even if the scale issue is real, we are likely still a very long way from any scale boundaries. If we were close to catastrophe surely scientists and politicians around the world would be active to fix the problem. Things seem to be getting better rather than worse, and human ingenuity is such that we are likely to be able to solve the problem when it arises.
RESPONSE: There is no question that the issue of sustainable scale is real. One does not have to refer to basic laws of science to know that infinite growth in a finite world is an impossibility. The real question is how close or far away are we from a sustainable scale boundary that, if exceeded, would mean global catastrophe. The precise answer to this question is that we do not know. But this is hardly a reassuring answer, given the magnitude and irrevocable nature of a major ecosystem crash.

Scientists have indeed been sending out warning signals on many issues related to scale (see Areas of Concern). Evidence and logic indicate that some sustainable scale boundaries have already been breached, and others may occur in decades rather than centuries. But sustainable scale is not on the political agenda, and there are many factors working against giving it serious consideration (see Causes of Scale Problems and other Responses above).

  1. SKEPTIC: Even if the scale problem is real, there must be another way to solve it other than giving up economic growth. We have gained too much from such growth and it would be too difficult to give up the material well being that growth has produced.
RESPONSE: The basic laws of science and common sense tell us that sustainable scale is a real problem. And enough scientists are sending out warning signals to suggest we should all be concerned. This is the first and most important step: to seriously consider the relevance and immediacy of the dangers posed by exceeding sustainable scale, at a national and international level. If alternative analyses of the problem identify causes other than ever increasing amounts of material throughput, then the appropriate adjustments can be made in terms of policy changes to ensure we do not exceed sustainable scale. The important point is to ask the significant questions about the sustainable scale of our global economy, and address the findings.

It is a misconception, however, to equate dealing with sustainable scale with a reduced quality of life, even if the cause is economic growth based on material throughput. Considerable evidence from around the world indicates that financial wealth and material goods are not the most important source of human happiness and well being. These issues are important, but only below a certain level (see Determinants of Human Happiness and Well Being).

Once a comfortable sufficiency is reached, in terms of food, shelter, basic amenities, education and healthcare, more money does not contribute to more happiness or well being. Beyond comfortable sufficiency human happiness is primarily determined by a person’s connection to friends, family and community – all nonmarket factors (see Determinants of Human Happiness and Well Being).

Dealing with sustainable scale boundaries may mean giving up our current rate of consuming material goods. This does not mean giving up human happiness or well being. But it does mean reorienting social priorities on a global level and using human ingenuity in a manner very different from current applications. Indeed, a greater focus on these nonmarket factors, which are wholly compatible with sustainable scale, could contribute to greater human happiness and well being.

  1. SKEPTIC: If resources and ecosystem services are indeed limited and we are approaching these limits, then our government must do everything in its power to ensure that we continue our way of life, and others will simply have to adjust. This is not a just world and we should use any means available to us to ensure we survive and are well off. Survival of the fittest will be best for everyone.
RESPONSE: There is no doubt that ecosystems are being challenged, perhaps beyond their limits. The idea that any nation could appropriate the remaining resources and ecosystem services for their own use is both morally repugnant and realistically impractical.

Any national policy based on an “us first” approach would violate moral precepts at the heart of each of the world’s major spiritual traditions. All notions of justice and respect for the legitimate rights of others would have to be violated; people and nations that resisted would have to be physically subdued, and resources would have to be stolen. Theft and murder of such magnitude, regardless of the rationalizations that would be concocted, would be a transgression of basic moral precepts that have guided humanity for centuries.

There is no doubt that there would be religious leaders within the “us first” nation who would justify such a policy. It would be interesting to see if any religious leaders outside the “us first” nation were to agree. Citizen in the “us first” nation would also have to be convinced that such an approach is not only moral, but also doable.

An “us first” policy would involve unlawful exploitation of global resources, denying the rights of others, and would undoubtedly require extensive military actions to secure access to these resources. An extensive global reach would be required unless the “us first“ nation was self sufficient - an unlikely circumstance given the current advance of economic globalization. In either case, the majority of citizens in the “us first” nation would likely experience a significant reduction in their customary way of life because the same global reach would be impractical.

Since other peoples’ and nations’ survival would be at stake, bloody conflicts would increase. As the nation that pursued this policy moved ahead, other nations would become increasingly impoverished, desperate and aggressive. Attacks on the “us first” nation itself, as well as its global supply chain, would increase. International cooperation on a wide range of issues would come to an end, as other nations either joined forces to thwart the “us first” nation, or to compete with it. Such a world would likely hasten the very ecosystem degradation the “us first” strategy was intended to delay.

Life within the “us first” nation would change dramatically. In addition to not having access to the same range of previously available resources (because of unpredictably interrupted supply chains in a much more hostile world), attacks on the homeland itself would likely increase. The kinds of protective actions the “us first” nation would enact would severely restrict citizens freedoms and civil rights. The decline in quality of life that the policy was designed to avoid would be hastened.

Even if the “us first” policy allowed some semblance of continued prosperity, it would be a pyrrhic victory at best. It would simply delay the destruction that is inevitable from breaching sustainable scale. In such circumstances, having children would take on a new meaning, highlighting the hopeless future that would lie ahead.

Slowly sliding into a world where sustainable scale could be breached is a frightening enough scenario. A world where one or more nations openly or secretly embark on a policy of unbridled self interest is even worse, rejecting and thrashing the very best that humans are capable of. Survival for all is most hopeful by building on these very virtues and values that an “us first” policy would violate (see A Cultural Framework to Support a Sustainable Future).

Malthus was indeed wrong in his timing about the relationship between food production and supply, and population growth, for he failed to anticipate industrialized agriculture. But the essential connection between food supply and population is one which has characterized the rise and fall of societies around the world. Today’s population is poised to increase substantially, at a time when there are greater and greater losses of cropland and soil fertility ( see Population, and Soil Fertility). The issues he raised are still very much with us, and need urgent attention now more than ever.

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