More than anything, the Worldwatch Institute’s latest annual update on the challenges of sustainability — “State of the World 2012″ — is a reminder of how much time has been wasted since the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. And, with Rio+20 just a few months away, the main message of this year’s report is: time is running out.
It’s a message we’ve been hearing repeatedly of late: from the International Energy Agency, from an international gathering of scientists that released the first-ever “State of the Planet” declaration, from climate researchers and many others. We’re fast approaching so many global tipping points, noted a 2009 study from Arizona State University, that “it’s too late to be a pessimist.”
The non-stop pursuit of economic growth gets much of the blame, but that blame isn’t evenly distributed across the globe. In fact, a lot of the environmental stresses we’re creating today could be alleviated considerably by what Worldwatch Institute senior fellow Erik Assadourian calls “degrowth in overdeveloped countries.” Both of those words — “degrowth” and “overdeveloped” — are arresting terms that in themselves provoke a lot of thought: Can a country really be “overdeveloped” as opposed to “developed”? The answer, at least in terms of resource consumption, is yes.
“At very low and low per capita consumption levels,” Smil notes, “higher use of energy is clearly tied to rising index of human development, but once energy per capita reaches about 150 gigajoules per year, the correlation breaks down. More is not better.”
A few years back, Australian researcher Graham Turner conducted a study finding that the long-maligned 1972 “Limits to Growth” study was right: we are on an unsustainable economic path and have been for some time now. That was 40 years ago … yet the answer from policy-makers around the world continues to be (delivered with fingers in ears), “La, la, la, I can’t hear you.” What will it take to change that? The clock continues to tick away.