“Enough is Enough” by Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill Nov06


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“Enough is Enough” by Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill

The authors argue here that GDP is not a good indicator of global health or happiness. It also rises in line with population and population has exploded – from 1.5 billion in 1900 to almost 8 billion in 2020. Our behaviour, especially when it comes to consumption, means that we’ve passed the “safe operating boundary” for three earthly activities: climate change; biodiversity loss; and the nitrogen cycle. Our ecological footprint, the land we need to make the stuff we want and to absorb the waste products of that activity, is heavy and large because our practices are unsustainable.

Dietz and O’Neill successfully guide the reader through a story of where we’re going unless we change and while the book is certainly not jargon-free, what technical terminology there is is well-explained. For instance, the EROEI is simply “energy return on energy invested;” in other words, what’s the ratio of benefit to cost with respect to resources. In 1930, the EROEI of oil (the benefit of having the oil to use compared with the cost and effort of its acquisition and refinement) was 100:1; in 2005 that ratio was 15:1. Put another way, using oil has become more than six times less efficient in 75 years.

We’re told – some are reminded – that GDP (gross domestic product) is linked directly with pollution: the more GDP, the more pollution, and yet we think GDP is synonymous with happiness but it’s not. Sure, income is good; we all like to have money to buy the things we like to have but this is only true to a certain point beyond which there are ever-decreasing returns. You only need a certain amount of money to be happy; after that it just becomes about competition, wanting to have more than the other guy. Instead of carving up the cake differently, many people just want a bigger cake. The upshot of this is that while GDP continues to grow the ecology of the world stays the same; a 3% annual global growth rate means that in 23 years the economy doubles in size.

The book is very interesting and educational in many, many respects. Here’s just one: the “techno-fix decoupling” myth.” This is simply the assumption that technology can solve the problem of how we break the link between economic activity and resource use. Clearly, our resources are under enormous strain – clean air, clean water, grasslands, habitats, recreational areas and so on. The problem is that the more efficient our use of a resource becomes, the more we use that resource simply because we’re always trying to maximise profits. I say “we” but of course I mean corporations for the most part. The “direct rebound” effect is this: if our technology allows us to drive further on less petrol (think of the fuel economy of a car in 1965 compared with one produced today) we just buy more and drive more which totally undermines the original environmental gain of the better technology. The most obvious example of the “direct rebound effect” of the “techno-fix decoupling” myth is how micro computers can exploit massive amounts of cheap energy from the ground and thereby increase consumption.

The book is a trove of eye-opening statistics like this one: if everyone on Earth lived like the average American, it would take six planet Earths to sustain ourselves. Another one: use of material resources has increased eight-fold in 100 years. The result will be either resource scarcity or environmental degradation.

The book advocates a steady-state economy, one in which consumption is stabilised and kept within ecological limits, where natural capital such as trees, water, fertile earth, minerals, raw materials and so on is always compared with the built capital and where that ratio is managed carefully. The economy should only be allowed to grow if the benefits can be shown to outweigh the costs; unfortunately uneconomic growth, where the costs outweigh the benefits is all too often allowed to happen because the rich make a killing while everyone else has to pay the price.

Ultimately, the goal should be to stop using GDP as a measure of success and instead look to things like lifestyles, cultural enrichment, leisure time, sustainable environment, rewarding jobs and manageable population. Again, Dietz and O’Neill have a clever, quick way of saying it: the abstract quantitative (how much of it is there?) should never be more important than the concrete qualitative (what is it?)

Getting the balance wrong has brought us to where we are – the brink of collapse.