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Questioning Growth: “I Want You To Imagine A World”

"Questioning growth is deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists and revolutionaries. But question it we must."

"the only thing that has actually remotely slowed down the relentless rise of carbon emissions over the last two to three decades is recession."

— Tim Jackson

British Economist Tim Jackson studies the links between lifestyle, societal values and the environment to question the primacy of economic growth.

He currently serves as the economics commissioner on the UK government’s Sustainable Development Commission and is director of RESOLVE – a Research group on Lifestyles, Values and Environment. After five years as Senior Researcher at the Stockholm Environment Institute, Jackson became Professor of Sustainable Development at University of Surrey, and was the first person to hold that title at a UK university.

He founded RESOLVE in May 2006 as an inter-disciplinary collaboration across four areas – CES, psychology, sociology and economics – aiming to develop an understanding of the links between lifestyle, societal values and the environment.

In 2009 Jackson published "Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet", a substantially revised and updated version of Jackson’s controversial study (.PDF, 136 pp.) for the Sustainable Development Commission, an advisory body to the UK Government. The study rapidly became the most downloaded report in the Commission’s nine year history when it was launched in 2009.

Filmed in July at TEDGlobal 2010, here is Tim Jackson’s economic reality check, a 20 minute talk he gave for the TEDGlobal audience…

I want you to imagine a world, in 2050, of around nine billion people, all aspiring to Western incomes, Western lifestyles. And I want to ask the question — and we’ll give them that two percent hike in income, in salary each years as well, because we believe in growth. And I want to ask the question: how far and how fast would be have to move? How clever would we have to be? How much technology would we need in this world to deliver our carbon targets? And here in my chart. On the left-hand side is where we are now. This is the carbon intensity of economic growth in the economy at the moment. It’s around about 770 grams of carbon. In the world I describe to you, we have to be right over here at the right-hand side at six grams of carbon. It’s a 130-fold improvement, and that is 10 times further and faster than anything we’ve ever achieved in industrial history. Maybe we can do it, maybe it’s possible — who knows? Maybe we can even go further and get an economy that pulls carbon out of the atmosphere, which is what we’re going to need to be doing by the end of the century. But shouldn’t we just check first that the economic system that we have is remotely capable of delivering this kind of improvement?

Transcript:

I want to talk to you today about prosperity, about our hopes for a shared and lasting prosperity. And not just us, but the two billion people worldwide who are still chronically undernourished. And hope actually is at the heart of this. In fact, the Latin word for hope is at the heart of the word prosperity. "Pro-speras," "speras," hope — in accordance with our hopes and expectations. The irony is, though, that we have cashed-out prosperity almost literally in terms of money and economic growth. And we’ve grown our economies so much that we now stand in a real danger of undermining hope — running down resources, cutting down rainforests, spilling oil into the Gulf of Mexico, changing the climate — and the only thing that has actually remotely slowed down the relentless rise of carbon emissions over the last two to three decades is recession. And recession, of course, isn’t exactly a recipe for hope either, as we’re busy finding out. So we’re caught in a kind of trap. It’s a dilemma, a dilemma of growth. We can’t live with it; we can’t live without it. Trash the system or crash the planet. It’s a tough choice. It isn’t much of a choice. And our best avenue of escape from this actually is a kind of blind faith in our own cleverness and technology and efficiency and doing things more efficiently. Now I haven’t got anything against efficiency. And I think we are a clever species sometimes. But I think we should also just check the numbers, take a reality check here.

So I want you to imagine a world, in 2050, of around nine billion people, all aspiring to Western incomes, Western lifestyles. And I want to ask the question — and we’ll give them that two percent hike in income, in salary each years as well, because we believe in growth. And I want to ask the question: how far and how fast would be have to move? How clever would we have to be? How much technology would we need in this world to deliver our carbon targets?

~~ Ed. Note: This transcript is copyrighted material; the original can be read in its entirety at TED.com. ~~

On May 16, 2009 a collaboration between the British medical journal The Lancet and University College London released the first UCL Lancet Commission report, assessing the impact of global warming on global health, and on populations.

Titled Managing the health effects of climate change (.PDF), the year long study highlights the threat of climate change on patterns of disease, water and food insecurity, human settlements, extreme climatic events, and population migration. The report also highlights the action required by global society to mitigate the health impacts of climate change.

"Climate change," the report concludes, "is the biggest global health threat of the 21 century."

The report presents the two distorted maps shown below – density equalizing cartograms depicting a comparison of undepleted CO2 emissions by country for 1950-2000 versus the regional distribution of four climate sensitive health consequences (malaria, malnutrition, diarrhea, and inland flood-related fatalities).

lancetclimateadjusted.jpg
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The first image shows the world in terms of carbon emissions. America, for instance, is huge. So is China. And Europe. Africa is hardly visible.

The second map shows the world in terms of increased mortality — that is to say, deaths — from climate change. Suddenly, America virtually disappears. So does Europe. Africa, however, is grotesquely distended. South Asia inflates.

In Barack Obama’s commencement address Sunday May 17, 2009 at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, Obama exhorted the graduates to recognize that "that our fates are tied up, as Dr. King said, in a ‘single garment of destiny.’" and "Your generation must decide how to save God’s creation from a changing climate that threatens to destroy it."

But the peoples of the world are not bound equally.

"Loss of healthy life years as a result of global environmental change (including climate change) is predicted to be 500 times greater in poor African populations than in European populations," states the UCL Lancet Commission report bluntly.

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