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It is not the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

By Graham Harris - posted Thursday, 24 November 2011

The title is, of course, a slight misquote from Winston Churchill in World War II. Make no mistake; this is a war - us versus the planet. There are abundant signs that all is not well.

Almost daily we hear about increasing risks associated with poverty, inequality, failed states, economic instability, climate change, water availability, food security and loss of biodiversity. And these risks are real; they are not just some kind of green litany.

But as we pass the 7 billion people milestone this is not the end. I see signs that this may be the end of the beginning – a new debate is emerging. We are actively seeking ways to manage the transition from unending growth and resource depletion to a world of a declining human population and a stable planetary economy. It is no longer a debate about "if?" But, "when and how?"


Naomi Klein's recent blog and article in the Nation "Capitalism vs. the climate" vividly illustrates that the real debate about climate change is not actually about climate: It is about what we might have to do to manage the transition to a more sustainable world.

So the debate is not really about rising temperatures; rather it is about the economic and ethical implications of this. The underlying resistance to climate change action is, she argues, resistance to the kinds of fiscal adjustments and public and private investments that will have to be put in place to rein in excessive consumption and growth and ensure intergenerational equity (and the limits to individual freedom that might ensue). The active debate around carbon taxes and carbon trading in this country has a similar basis. We are slowly beginning to have the real debate, rather than an argument by proxy.

What such fiscal adjustments do is to encourage a shift to a low carbon economy and more rapid eco-innovation. I have been away in the United Kingdom for the last 3 years. Strangely you hear little here about the fact that in its 2011 budget, the UK government introduced floor price of a £16 per tCO2 effective from 2013.

Whilst in the UK I visited a small printing company in northern England that had cut its energy consumption by 50% through making big efficiencies in electricity use, the installation of solar panels (yes, even in northern England!) and introducing a major waste recycling program. The firm was more profitable as a result.

At Lancaster University, where I worked, the Environment Centre had an EU funded program in eco-innovation that linked it with over 450 companies in NW England, with the objective of assisting them to capture benefits from the emerging low carbon economy. We already know enough to achieve deep cuts in energy consumption. These innovations could be more widely adopted. This is a valuable beginning, what we now need are the public and private investments to speed the change.

Economists tell me that one of the biggest challenges is to design a new macroeconomics that will allow us cut resource use and prosper with a declining human population.


Tim Jackson's recent book, "Prosperity without growth; economics for a finite planet," begins to explore the parameters of a new economic, social and environmental order. One of the key challenges will be to tackle economic and social inequality and to invest heavily in service-based industries and ecological assets.

We are beginning to tackle the challenge of balancing multiple values in the environment and society, and to design the necessary scientific and economic tools to do the job effectively. An initiative like the Mineral Resources Rent Tax can turn a short-term non-renewable benefit into an investment delivering long-term prosperity for the whole of society. Fiscal adjustments and investment in environmental goods and services are essential.

The long-term prosperity of the human population on the planet is both a political and a moral challenge. Stephen Gardiner, in "A perfect moral storm: the ethical tragedy of climate change," argued that by passing the impact of today's inaction onto the poor, the disadvantaged and future generations, we are guilty of moral corruption.

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About the Author

Graham Harris is an Affiliate Professor at the Centre for Environment, University of Tasmania and an Honorary Research Professor in the Sustainable Water Management Centre at Lancaster University, UK. Graham has published more than 140 papers, and three books. His latest book Seeking sustainability in an age of complexity was published by Cambridge University Press in June 2007.

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