Home > Uncategorized > The biophysical resource limits of the planet

The biophysical resource limits of the planet

from Ted Trainer and current RWER issue

It is remarkable that the development literature has given so little attention to the “limits to growth” analysis of the global predicament. No other set of considerations has such profound implications for development in rich and poor worlds. Over the last fifty years there has accumulated an extensive and overwhelmingly convincing case that global resource consumption and ecological impacts are far beyond sustainable levels. This rules out any possibility of all the world’s people rising to the present material “living standards” presently enjoyed by the one-fifth who live in rich countries, let alone to the levels of consumption growth would lead them to (TSW, 2019).

The magnitude of the overshoot needs to be stressed.  The World Wildlife Fund’s Footprint index (WWF, 2019) shows that to provide one Australian with the amount of food, water, energy and settlement area now used, about 7 ha of productive land are required. Therefore if the possibly 10 billion people expected to be on earth by 2050 were to live as Australians live now around 70 billion ha would be required. However there are only about 8 billion ha of productive land available on the planet.  This indicates that Australians are consuming natural resources at close to 10 times the rate all people in the world could rise to.

Other measures indicate worse multiples. For instance the top ten iron and aluminium ore consumers have per capita average rates of consumption 80 times greater than all the rest (Wiedmann, et al., 2014).

But the implications of growth must be added to this analysis. If the 10 billion people expected to be on earth by 2050 were to rise to the “living standards” Australians would have then given 3% p.a. economic growth, the amount of producing and consuming going on in the world would be 20 times as great as it is now, and by 2073 the multiple would be 40.

The common response to this case is to claim that technical advance will make multiples of this order possible. It is not difficult to point out the extreme implausibility of this “tech-fix” faith. However, many studies of this thesis have found that despite decades of constant effort to improve productivity, recycling and efficiency, growth of GDP continues to be accompanied by growth of impacts and demands. That is, no absolute decoupling is taking place. Recent lengthy reviews of hundreds of studies by Hickel and Kalis (2019), Parrique et al., (2019) and Haberl, et al. (2020) confirm this finding and state that no reversal of it is likely.

Why should the analysis be in terms of the possibility of generalising rich world practices to all people? The answer is that this is the taken-for-granted goal of development and it is built into the foundations of the present global economic system, so it is important to consider the likely consequences.

This focus on the biophysical resource limits of the planet shows that appropriate development must be conceived in terms of large scale descent to a zero-growth or steady-state economy, operating at levels of GDP that are a small fraction of those in rich countries today. There is now a significant Degrowth movement based on this recognition.


  1. Patrick Newman
    March 28, 2021 at 2:17 pm

    Hard to imagine what political parties and government institutions can adopt policies and measures that match the implications of this analysis!

  2. March 28, 2021 at 4:34 pm

    The standard argument is that the developed need to cut back and the under developed allowed to rise. I suppose that there is some acceptable middle

    In the US, for example, there are movements towards decentralization, cooperatives, co ownership and community lifestyle changes. But that is only a micro movement with some spill into a more general lower consumptive lifestyle. One might include the “preppers” and others who are political variants who have retreated into enclaves.

    The problem with the lesser development alternative is that, as in the developed community, there is still a flow of capital and resources to the developed. And there is a marketing push for the under developed to accept the differential lifestyle- parallel the voluntary simplicity movement.

    The alternative is in the work of the Transnational Institute on Changing Finance and not the Climate. And there is a rising understanding that the ESG and resource changes need to start at the beginning of the pipeline (extraction and manufacturing coupled with finance). Starting at the output/consumptive side is both too diffuse/varied and too slow to affect the needed change. And the consumptive end of the pipeline has almost no control except the futility of protesting, often labeled “folk politics”- think Wall Street protest, the Arab Spring, 350.org and GretaThunberg.

  3. Ken Zimmerman
    March 29, 2021 at 8:44 am

    Clearly sociopathic actions, right? “In a sociopathic society, sociopathic individual behavior is so pervasive and socially accepted that perpetrators don’t think of themselves as doing anything wrong. When cyclist champion Lance Armstrong first acknowledged in a 2013 interview with Oprah Winfrey that he had been doping—using performance-enhancing drugs—and lying about it for years, she asked him if he believed he was cheating.
    Oprah: Did you feel you were cheating?
    Armstrong: No. At the time, no. I viewed it as a level playing field. I looked up the definition of “cheat.” The definition of cheat is to gain an advantage over a rival or foe. I didn’t do that. I viewed it as a level playing field.”

    Armstrong believed the rules of the game were such that all his rivals were doing the same as him or attempting to do so. Thus, he was not cheating. He was just following the same rules as his rivals. That world Armstrong is describing is a sociopathic one. ‘Win at all costs. No concern for who is hurt, the integrity of the contest, or the future of the society.’

    The signs of a sociopathic society are all round us. The US, with a long history of sociopathic institutions and practices, is now evolving toward a full-blown sociopathic society. We still have a chance to change course. After all, US society also has a long tradition of selflessness, mutual help, and respect and appreciation for one’s neighbors, both across the nation and down the street. But our society is increasingly structured to turn people and institutions toward sociopathic behavior that harms other individuals and entire societies, including our own. The US is beginning to socially unravel, haunted now by the specter of war with weapons of mass destruction, economic meltdowns, and uncontrolled climate change.

    In a sociopathic society such as the US, the most important sociopaths are powerful institutions such as giant corporations and the military. Economic sociopathic acts by large corporations are a crucially important form, illustrated not just by the Wall Street banks that crashed the economy but by Walmart, Disney, and other huge retail enterprises that exploit not just Americans but people around the world for the products that keep their profits up.

    We now see sociopathy on a grand scale, both legal and illegal, by other major institutions, including spectacular examples in religion (e.g., sexual crimes of Catholic priests), exploitation of violence against women by the entertainment industry) and the devolution of all sports into multimillion dollar ‘business deals.’ The most widespread and corrosive US sociopathy—much of it legal—is perpetrated by the biggest corporations not just on Wall Street but in every major economic sector. For example, global pharmaceutical companies such as Merck, giant for-profit hospital chains, such as Humana, profit by using patents and lobbying to restrict access to essential generic medicines for epidemics that could save thousands of lives. The large gun manufacturers, such as Freedom Group, and tobacco companies, such as Philip Morris, hook young people globally on their lethal high-profit products and block regulation vital to saving hundreds of thousands of lives. For-profit universities recruit students they know will not graduate but will be strapped for life with special high-interest loans that must be paid back in full, even if you are a dropout after one semester. This corporate sociopathy should not be surprising since it reflects the sociopathic programming of capitalist corporate charters, mandating profits at the expense of harm to workers or the environment, defined as “externalites,” costs on society that the companies do not have to pay. Corporations that do not pursue profit in this way can be sued for violation of their fiduciary obligation to their shareholders. The welfare of society and its citizens be damned. In this pursuit, giant retailers such as Walmart pay wretchedly low minimum wage salaries and provide no benefits to part-time workers—often desperate women, minorities, or older people at the edge of hunger or homelessness. The food and beverage companies, such as McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, sell unhealthy products dished out by low-paid workers or school vending machines, targeting low-income and young consumers. The big agricultural companies, such as ADL, take huge government subsidies as they produce monoculture industrialized crops that destroy the soil and spread fossil fuel toxins into the water and air. The giant oil companies, such as Exxon and Shell, engage in sociopathic climate denial and greenwashing while fighting climate control treaties and law to protect their profits. Most of this sociopathic behavior conforms to the expectations of investors who seek and are legally entitled to profit maximization despite the high social costs just specified.

    And now sociopathic values, norms, and institutions are common in all aspects of American culture. In the US, the extent and depth of sociopathy varies by institutional sector, region, and economic status, with strong sociopathic tendencies in parts of the system—such as the financial, prison, or military sectors—but more benign and democratic possibilities in other parts, from low-income, urban community development organizations to the local or community agricultural sector to numerous altruistic nonprofits and grassroots social movements for justice and environmental sustainability. In contrast to prevailing wisdom in the United States, we shall see that sociopathy is most prevalent and dangerous at the top, in the corporate suites, rather than on the streets below. As the Sicilian adage goes, ‘The fish rots from the head first.’ But all US strata—from top to bottom—have long been plagued by sociopathic invasion, which constitutes the real ‘trickle down’ from the top. Thus, the sociopathic behavior of gangs and drug-dealers on the street often mirrors the business strategies of the more respected sociopaths in the suites.

    Who are the targets in such a society? These can be vulnerable individuals—disproportionately African American or other minorities in the United States—who are dispatched to unemployment, prison, or death. Other major targets are foreign countries the US claims it can rightfully attack (which can be any country in the world since any person in any country may after all be an anti-US terrorist) or the core infrastructure of one’s own society. In the US, all three targets are under assault, reflected in mass surplus triaged populations, endless wars around the world waged in the name of a highly moralistic militarism, and a particularly devastating new assault on the social and environmental infrastructure of the US itself.

    In his best-seller, Collapse, Jared Diamond examines factors leading earlier societies to collapse, concluding that environmental variables often play a leading role, along with adverse military, trade and economic forces, and overpopulation. Americans in a fossil-fuel-driven capitalist system committed to unlimited growth and consumption need to look closely at the history of such extinct societies. Anti-environmental government and corporate practices, along with mass consumerism by the general population, now threaten the long-term survival of civil society and are undoubtedly the most dangerous sociopathy in the world today.

    Finally, we need to look at the extent to which the sociopathy can be healed. Some sociopathic societies cannot self-correct, because of the depth and scale of the problem. In the US, the prognosis is less gloomy; we can lead ourselves out of our structural crisis if we—the mass of ordinary citizens—open our eyes and imagination, think clearly about our collective survival, and mobilize to force ‘leaders’ to change course. Yet some elements of the sociopathic crisis, such as climate change, are already so severe that even in the most positive scenario, great damage will be done, and mitigation rather than total solution may be our best hope.

  4. March 29, 2021 at 8:26 pm

    A carefully censored analysis; moral outrage with very convenient blind spots. Malthus for today’s short attention span theater. The poor, working-class, and middle class as an Extinction Event. Can the Super Wealthy rescue us from this disaster?
    –In the 1970s environmental regulations were changing factories, making a real difference. What happened? Those factories were whisked off to the other side of the planet sans regulations to pollute like pigs and kill workers. Here it destroyed unions, towns, counties, cities, and states. It was the extinction of the modest way of life my Grandfather and Great-Grandmother built on factory jobs. Because of pervasive bribery, Fortune 500 CEOs and major shareholders pocket their wages now.
    –We’ve never seen a properly regulated modern technological society. We’ve never seen a safe closed-loop production system. Criminal butchery, predation, and excesses are unrestrained or even assisted by the Governments because of bribery. And THAT is flown as the banner of modern technology. So we have to gut modern technology and roll back to before the Watts steam engine because the Super Wealty are above the law, sacrosanct, and MUST be allowed to bribe up heaps of wealth.

    • Ken Zimmerman
      March 30, 2021 at 12:46 am

      And then the new-Confederates, Fascists, white supremacists, plutocrats, neocons, militias, etc. moved in behind the smiling face of Ronald Regan. You know what they say about Nazis – they kill with a smile.

  5. Gerald Holtham
    March 30, 2021 at 6:45 pm

    The United States is a plutocracy. But it has usually been a plutocracy. Sometimes when the system experiences a crisis, democratic influences predominate for a whole before plutocracy. restores control. I am slightly surprised that people are surprised by this. It’s only been going on for 250 years, The plutocrats have the same interest as the rest of us in preserving a habitable biosphere. In a crisis the more far-sighted generally impose moderation on the hard-liners. That is why destruction of civilization, though quite possible, is not assured.

    • Ken Zimmerman
      March 31, 2021 at 12:45 am

      Gerald, this works if the more far-sighted and moderate have sufficient influence to control the others in their cohort. Also, this moderating influence may not be successful if enough members of the cohort are subsumed by absolutist ideologies. For example, millennialism, psychosis, or fear of cultural contamination.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.