The past 200 years have brought untold technological and economic progress which has changed the standard of living for millions of people around the world at a rate that is unprecedented in human history. At face value it would be absurd to describe these changes as anything but good.
However there is a downside to these advances. In our pursuit of economic development we have greatly altered the natural environment, disrupting natural processes and damaging or destroying vast areas of forests, lakes, savannahs etcetera.
- 24% of the land surface on earth has been converted by humans
- 40%-50% of fresh water flowing of land is consumed by humans
- Atmospheric concentrations of Green House Gasses have increased by 45%
- Species extinction rates have increased 100 to 1,000 fold
These impacts have often been dismissed as ‘purely environmental’ but this fails to recognise that much of our economic activity is dependent on functioning natural processes. For example the loss of pollinator species can threaten the future of agriculture. Forests provide food and fibre products that are essential to the wellbeing of almost half the global population. Natural areas purify air and water without which we can’t survive.
These services that are provided at no cost by nature are collectively referred to as Ecosystem Services. A 1997 study published in Nature estimated that the total value of ecosystem_services was almost twice as high as the Global GDP.
Apart from impacts on the natural environment our economic progress relies on an unsustainable supply of materials. Global reserves of many key materials (including oil, phosphorus and a range of metals) will be past peak production or nearing exhaustion within a generation. The depletion of these reserves will in first instance result in increased prices due to supply constraints but ultimately jeopardise the continued production of the products and services made from these materials.
For example the production of LCD screens requires the mineral Indium (In) which has global reserves that will be exhausted in less than 20 years. Many pharmaceutical drugs require Antimony (Sb) which has reserves that will be exhausted in about 30 years time. Reserves for some of the more common metals are likely to last longer (Tin (Sn) 40 years, Copper (Cu) 61 years, Nickel (Ni) 90 years). But these too will be exhausted within a foreseeable future as global demand for them rises with a growing population and a growing middle class.
If we want to continue to enjoy our current quality of life, and indeed if we want to support development for the 1.2 billion people worldwide currently living on less than $2 a day we will need to completely transform our economic system and transition towards a Green Economy.
In a Green Economy land use planning occurs at the landscape, national and even continental scale to avoid loss of good quality agricultural land and ensure the preservation and protection of a viable and resilient network of conservation areas that support the provision of ecosystem_services and the ongoing evolution of life on earth.
In a Green Economy materials are not extracted from the earth to be used for a little while and then end up in landfill but they are cycled continuously through our economy serving as base materials in an endless line of products. The cradle-to-cradle approach to design seeks products in this manner.
In a Green Economy there is no waste, instead the outputs of one industry serve as the inputs of another. Industrial Ecology precincts like Kwinana in WA or Kalundborg in Denmark provide examples of this. The use of urban effluent (containing water, phosphorus and nitrogen) in food production is another example that is getting increasing attention worldwide.
In a Green Economy energy does exhaust the finite supply of oil and gas but is harvested from renewable sources.
In a Green Economy agriculture does not rely on large amounts of pesticides and fertilisers or deplete soils but it uses natural processes to restore soil health and support crop development and it enhances biodiversity in its area. Many commercial farms in Australia and around the world are turning to biological farming practices which are resulting in better yields and lower input costs.
In the wake of the Global Financial Crisis the United Nations have published a report on the Green Economy which demonstrates that rather than being an economic burden the transition to a Green Economy will actually stimulate the economy, create jobs and play a pivotal role in alleviating poverty.
In a related project the United Nations and the European Union have been studying the Economic of Ecosystems and Biodiversity. Their research has confirmed earlier studies that indicate that the value of ecosystem_services to our society is greater than the value of our GDP and has further underlined the economic importance of maintaining a network of resilient conservation areas to support ecological processes that are critical to our environmental, social and economic well-being.