Are our dealings with nature sustainable? Can we expect world economic growth to continue for the foreseeable future? Should we be confident that our knowledge and skills will increase in ways that will lessen our reliance on nature despite our growing numbers and rising economic activity?
These questions have been debated for decades. If the debate has become increasingly shrill, it is because two opposing ways of looking at the world continue to shape it. If, on the one hand, we look at specific examples of natural assets (fresh water, ocean fisheries, the atmosphere as a carbon 'sink': ecosystems generally), there is convincing evidence that at the rate at which we currently exploit them, they are very likely to change character for the worse, with very little warning. On the other hand, if we study historical trends in the price of marketed resources, or improvements in life expectancy, or recorded growth in incomes in regions that are currently rich or on the way to becoming so, the scarcity of resources would appear not yet to have bitten us. If you were to point out that there are acute scarcities in the troubled nations of sub-Saharan Africa, those whose perspective is ecological will tell you that people living in the world's poorest regions are poor because they face acute scarcities relative to their numbers; while those whose perspective is economic will argue that people experience scarcities precisely because they are poor.
LRB 19 May 2005 | PDF Download