Monday, November 25, 2019

Why We're in the Sixth Great Extinction and What It Means to Humanity

This is another essay in Biological Extinction, and was written by Partha Dasgupta and Paul Ehrlich. Dasgupta, as mentioned earlier, is the chairman of CSER, and Ehrlich is the well-known biologist who published The Population Bomb in 1968. I thought this essay was also worth mentioning, because it recounts the causes of the current reduction in biodiversity along with the likely consequences and mentions the type of economic accounting that may become necessary if technological advances don't come to the rescue soon. A lot of this is familiar ground, such as the effects of land use change, overharvesting, pollution and climate change. Biodiversity is presented as a requirement for human habitation rather than as an arbitrary ideal.

The following passage sums up most of the current situation:

Studying biogeochemical signatures over the last 11,000 years has provided a sketch of the human-induced evolution of soil nitrogen and phosphorus inventories (more specifically of polyaromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls and pesticide residues) in sediments and ice (Waters, et al., 2016). The authors report a sharp increase in the middle of the twentieth century in the inventories. Their work shows that the now-famous figure of the 'hockey stick' (Mann, 2012) that characterises time series of atmospheric carbon emission also characterises a broad class of geochemical signatures, and signal a sharp increase in the rate of deterioration of Earth's life-support system. It has been proposed (Waters et al., 2016) that the mid-twentieth century should be regarded as the time we entered the era now widely named the Anthropocene. Not coincidentally, it roughly corresponds with the rapid expansion of the sixth mass extinction event.

These readings are consistent with macroeconomic statistics. World population in 1950 was 2.5 billion and global GDP was a bit over 7.5 trillion international dollars (at 2015 prices). The average person in the world was poor, with an annual income of a bit over 3000 international dollars. Since then the world has prospered materially beyond recognition. Life expectancy at birth has risen from a global average of 49 years to 71 years, population has increased to 7.5 billion and world output of final goods and services (global GDP) is now 110 trillion international dollars, meaning that per capita global income is about 15,000 international dollars. The proportion of the world's population in absolute poverty (regarded by the World Bank to be below 1.9 international dollars per day) has fallen so dramatically (it is now just over 10 per cent of  the world's population, down from about 50 per cent in 1980 but still, disgracefully, some 750 million individuals in a world replete with rich people), that enthusiasts predict that within a generation the blight will have been eliminated (Jamison et. al., 2013). Set against those achievements, however, is that the 15-fold increase in global output  over a 65-year period reflects not only the stresses to the Earth system in general and biodiversity in particular that we have just reviewed, but also that humanity's demands from the biosphere have for some time exceeded its capacity to supply them. 

But demand cannot exceed supply indefinitely. Translated into the language of equity, humanity's enormous success in recent decades is very likely to have been a down payment for future failure. The trade-off is between living standards today and living standards in the future. Our immediate success in raising the average standard of living has created a conflict between us and our descendants.

What I found the most interesting is the economic slant, which draws into question the reliance on GDP statistics, the almost universal measure of the success for any country:

GDP is incapable of saying much about future possibilities because of the qualifier 'gross', which signals that the depreciation of assets, especially degradation of the biosphere, is ignored. Nevertheless, GDP has assumed such a prominence in public discourse today, that if someone mentions 'economic growth', we know that they mean growth in GDP. Governments today regard GDP growth to be above all else on their list of objectives. The mainstream media extol it and the public succumb to it. That could be why it has become customary to regard an economy whose GDP is large as wealthy.

But that is to make a mistake. Because GDP is a flow (so many dollars worth of flow of goods and services in a year), whereas wealth is a stock (so many dollars worth of assets, period), it could be that a country produces lots of goods and services by running down its assets. Lack of depreciation in national accounts of natural resources in general, and of biodiversity in particular reflects this error....GDP could rise over a period of time even as an economy's wealth declines. But that could not go on forever, any more than one can continually write ever larger checks without paying attention to the balance of the account.

The essay also discusses the inequality built into the current state of affairs:

The World Bank in its World Development Indicators 2016 reports that the 1.4 billion people living in its list of high-income countries enjoy a per capita income of 40,700 international dollars. Thus, the richest 19 per cent of the world's population consume over 51 per cent of world income (57 trillion/110 trillion). Continuing to assume that humanity's impact on the biosphere is proportional to income, 51 per cent of that income can be attributed to 19 per cent of world population. If the UN's Sustainable Development Goals are to be met, consumption patterns in these countries have to alter substantially.

Consumption behavior is influenced by our urge to compete with others (Veblen's 'conspicuous consumption') and by our innate desire to conform. Each is a reflection of socially embedded consumption preferences for goods and services. As both drivers give rise to consumption externalities, the psychological cost to a person of a collective reduction in consumption is likely to be far less than what it would be if she were to reduce consumption unilaterally. The aggregate cost could even be negative, especially if the working poor were less poor relative to the working rich, as the former are far greater in number.

The authors' conclusion:

The short-range solutions to the problem of preserving biodiversity are many, and dealt with extensively in the literature of conservation biology (Sodhi and Ehrlich, 2010). But these will all prove to no avail unless the basic drivers of extermination – policies seeking economic growth at any cost – are addressed. Collectively addressing these are possibly the greatest challenges civilization has ever faced.

No mention is made in the essay of how the necessary changes might be made in the real political world, and that is something I find to be of concern. Organizations like CSER rely on world organizations such as the U.N., which have limited authority and are often ignored by wealthy countries. In the U.S. there are elements favoring the ideas of individual freedom and American exceptionalism: Americans in general tend to believe that they deserve everything they have and that there is no reason for them to make any sacrifices, particularly for poor people who live in countries that they couldn't find on a map and will never visit. Any American politician who campaigns by promoting austerity measures and reduced consumption is likely to lose. Dasgupta, in contrast, was born in Bangladesh and probably has a broader view in these matters than most Americans have ever had. If you accept the main ideas in the essay, it is difficult to see how the issues discussed could be resolved peacefully. Although some Americans would not object to sharing the resources of the biosphere, a much larger number would reject the idea vehemently. It would take a world government and the legal restriction of individual rights to enact the kinds of programs that would meaningfully sustain biodiversity, and that seems unlikely to emerge until a much more palpable deterioration of the biosphere has already occurred.

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