Skip to main content

Jayati Ghosh is a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a member of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism.

In 1972, in the run-up to the United Nations’ first environmental summit in Stockholm, a group of scientists wrote The Limits to Growth, a report for the Club of Rome that became an unlikely bestseller. The authors argued that Earth’s finite natural resources could not support ever-increasing consumption, and warned of likely ecological overshoot and societal collapse if the world did not recognize the environmental costs of human activity.

In the decades that followed, many brushed the report’s shocking conclusions aside as a doomsday scenario that human ingenuity and technological progress would render moot. But The Limits to Growth did not provide a single forecast. Rather, the authors explored several alternative paths based on different human strategies – and recent Club of Rome research has shown that three of the four scenarios they outlined align quite closely with empirical data. This is deeply worrying, because two of these three scenarios suggest a major collapse by mid-century (the third entails a smaller decline).

But all is not lost. The fourth scenario, which involved significant economic and social transformations, allows for widespread increases in human welfare within Earth’s natural boundaries. This is the motivation behind Earth for All, a new report produced by the Club of Rome’s Transformational Economics Commission (of which I am a member) and a team of computer modellers.

The report’s authors argue that achieving well-being for all on a (relatively) stable planet is still possible, but will require major changes in economic organization. In particular, it calls for five major initiatives to eliminate poverty, reduce inequality, empower women, transform food systems, and overhaul energy systems by “electrifying everything.”

Of course, this will require significant new investments, led by massive increases in public spending. Higher taxation, especially of the extremely wealthy and of large firms, must therefore be an important part of the agenda. Restricting the wealth and consumption of the super-rich is also important for limiting carbon dioxide emissions and unnecessarily wasteful consumption. In addition, creating global liquidity and dealing with the sovereign-debt overhang would give developing-country governments more fiscal space.

Global food systems are clearly broken. They currently create unhealthy and unsustainable patterns of production and consumption, as well as enormous waste. More systematic and effective regulation is necessary not only with respect to food, but also in markets for goods and services, finance, labour, and land, and to those connected to nature and the environment. Giving women and workers more power is also essential, not only for making societies happier, healthier, and more just, but also for stabilizing population numbers.

The Earth for All report contains the results of a global modelling exercise that focuses specifically on two scenarios. The first, Too Little Too Late, is our current trajectory, in which governments and international institutions talk a lot about sustainability and climate change, but produce little transformative action.

This scenario points to growing inequalities and declining social trust, as people and countries turn against one another in competing for resources. Without sufficient collective action to limit the immense pressure on nature, Earth’s life-supporting systems (such as climate, water, soil and forests) will keep deteriorating, and some regions will come close to or even cross irreversible tipping points. For many people already living in poverty and for many other species, what is effectively hell on Earth awaits.

But in the second scenario – The Giant Leap – policymakers seek to implement major shifts and do a much better job of increasing well-being. That means ensuring dignity (so that everyone has the means to live in security, health, and safety); nature (a restored and safe environment for all forms of life); and connection (a sense of belonging and institutions that serve the common good). It also means ensuring fairness (providing justice in all its dimensions, with much-reduced gaps between richest and poorest) and participation (actively engaged citizens in rooted communities and economies).

Widespread, sustainable gains in well-being necessarily require active governments that are willing to reshape markets and pursue long-term visions for societies. This in turn requires both political will and a sea change in governments’ perceptions – and the latter is unlikely without significant public pressure and mass mobilization. But, given our proximity to so many tipping points, the default option is terrifying: environmental devastation, extreme economic disparities and fragilities, and potentially unbearable social and political tensions.

So, Earth for All is not just a report – it is a call to action. History shows that inertia and defeatism can become self-fulfilling. But it also shows that governments ultimately must respond to popular pressure or be replaced by it.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.