The Elephant In The Room: The Global Economy drives the Climate Crisis

Elephant In The Room

A perspective

On World Earth Day 2023, a few dozen members of the 8-billion-and-counting Homo Sapiens species, met in an insignificantly tiny spot on Planet Earth. They met at the premises of The Institution of Engineers (India), Mysore, to discuss and think about Global Warming (GW) and  Climate Change (CC).

Climate Change gains respectability

EARTHDAY.ORG recognizes 23rd April as World Earth Day [Ref.1], and suggested the 2023 theme “Invest in Our Planet”.

World Economic Forum (WEF) suggests staving off climate disaster, using innovative green technologies to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C [Ref.2].

WTO, World Bank and WEF, launched “Action on Climate and Trade” to leverage opportunities for climate action and trade growth. [Ref.3]

Global Assessment Report 2022 (GAR2022) of United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) warns of collapse of ecosystems and biospheres [Ref.4]. It recommends “transforming governance”, and states: “Despite commitments to build resilience, tackle climate change and create sustainable development pathways, current societal, political and economic choices are doing the reverse“.

Encyclopedia Brittanica’s “Saving the Earth” states : “… human activities have disrupted the natural order of the environment by depopulating and eliminating species and adding harmful chemicals to the air, water, and soil—activities that are changing the climate and the structure and function of ecosystems, as well as the biological communities they contain”. [Ref.5]

Homo Sapiens’ investment in Planet Earth

Well-considered investment in human systems, like money in the stockmarket, or time and resources in children’s education, or purchasing tools to improve or increase production, can have positive or beneficial outcomes.

Likewise, the theme “Invest in Our Planet”, implies investment for beneficial outcomes. However, before making fresh investment, it is necessary to see what investment has been made so far, and what are its outcomes.

Let us recall that Homo Sapiens population has grown to 8-billion-and-counting, because we have learned to extract and use Earth’s (natural capital) material and energy resources.

The Global Economy

Our industrialised civilization has created a system for large-scale exploitation-extraction-use of Earth’s natural resources. This structured system is the Global Economy.

The Global Economy operates on the basis of unending and compounded year-on-year economic growth, with unending production and consumption of industrial products by exploitation of natural capital. This is made possible by money as the enabler, to measure growth and drive the economic “machine” of resource extraction, manufacture and production, and purchase and consumption, with transportation at every stage. The growth of money supply as the size of the economy grows, causes financial debt – this will bear separate discussion.

The unending industrial-scale cycles of extraction, production and consumption lead to depletion of natural capital on the one hand, and accumulating pollution on the other. Thus, the Planet, which circumscribes the Global Economy, serves as both Source and Sink, with the source getting depleted and the sink getting overloaded.

Industrial products and processes

It is not commonly appreciated that every industrially manufactured product – plastics, paper, pins, pens, phones, laptops, cars, airplanes, ships, you-name-it – is finally waste/garbage/junk (WGJ). The fuel and materials consumed at various stages of manufacture and use of every single product, show up as WGJ. They remain unwanted or toxic for periods ranging from weeks to hundreds of years, and for nuclear radioactive wastes, thousands of years. The least recognized source of WGJ is military-based industrial production, with WGJ magnified during destructive armed combat.

Industrialized production draws natural material resources – especially including oil for transportation – from Earth, in continuing cycles of resource depletion and increasing environmental pollution and ecological destruction. Re-cycling the WGJ produced also draws on natural resources and energy and produces WGJ, precisely like the WGJ first produced. Re-using waste – e.g., plastics in concrete for road construction – barely touches the fringe of the problem.

Industrial-scale carbon (carbon dioxide) capture from the atmosphere and its geological sequestration is not unlike re-cycling, inasmuch as it also consumes natural resources and generates WJG. In any case, it can handle only a small fraction of the global warming gases (carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere, while carbon dioxide generated by the Global Economy is itself a fraction of the total of waste gases.

There are other over-the-top ideas, like projecting chemicals into the stratosphere to reflect away solar heat and reduce GW. These demonstrate ignorance of energy audit, and the simplistic view that technology can solve GW, and also neglects consideration of problems it may cause. This approach fails to appreciate that a problem cannot be solved using the tools that created the problem.

Materials, energy and the Global Economy

Economics and technology experts trained in the school of market economics, hold that the “innovative green technologies” of non-conventional energy sources (solar, wind, ocean wave, ocean tidal, ocean thermal, geo-thermal, are NCES) can solve our energy problems.

Hydrogen generated by electrolysis of ocean water, with energy for electrolysis provided by solar/wind/ocean energy, is particularly attractive. The technologies for the system of hydrogen production, storage, handling, bulk-transportation and consumer-level storage and use, are reportedly in an advanced stage. The “hydrogen economy” is expected to replace the oil-based economy, and serve to keep the wheels of economic activity within the Global Economy, moving.

However, the hardware needed for harnessing of low-flux energy sources and hydrogen, can only be produced-transported-deployed-consumed by using the present sources of energy, namely, oil – and to a lesser extent, coal – and sourcing materials from Earth’s natural capital.

Thus, utilizing NCES is dependent upon the functioning of the Global Economy, and will add to the WJG on land, in oceans and inland water bodies, and the atmosphere.

Nuclear energy

Nuclear energy is in a separate class. Proponents claim that it will reduce carbon emissions. However, carbon dioxide and other gases are produced by the industrial processes of raw material acquisiton, refining, transportation, construction-assembly, etc., for the nuclear cycle infrastructure, all with non-nuclear energy.

It is little known that nuclear power plants (NPPs), when shutdown for maintainence, safety or decommissioning, require substantial external power sources to keep stored nuclear material from overheating and melting down. All this accounts for conventional energy required to produce nuclear energy and keep NPPs operating. Thus NPPs directly and indirectly produce gaseous wastes including carbon dioxide, besides toxic solid and liquid WGJ. The nuclear industry’s low-carbon claim is unsubstantiated.

Nuclear energy is dependent upon oil and materials drawn from natural capital, for precisely the same reasons as NCES. Nuclear radioactive waste disposal – especially including decommissioned reactors and high-level radioactive materials – undoubtedly add to the WGJ on the Planet. In the event of nuclear accident the WGJ problem is hugely magnified. Notice how USSR and Japan – and the international nuclear industry – downplayed the Chernonbyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011) disasters.

Thus, nuclear energy is dependent upon the functioning of the Global Economy. It adds to the WJG on land, in oceans and inland water bodies, and in the atmosphere, although differently than other energy production methods.

The engines of economic growth

The critical sectors of governance which drive the growth of every national economy, and which draw resources and energy from, and discharge WGJ into, the Planet’s ecosystems and biosphere, are: Oil and energy, Banking-finance-trade-commerce, Natural resource extraction, Manufacturing and production, Transportation, Services including tourism-and-hospitality, and Agriculture.

The budget allocations to People-related sectors such as education, health, social welfare, family welfare, labour, small-and-medium scale industry, are minuscule compared to the main drivers of economic growth. Economic growth has been the priority of successive Indian governments beginning with economic reforms of NEP-1991.

Inconvenient facts

# Every industry uses resources and energy extracted from the Planet to produce goods and services.

# Every manufacturing process of goods and services, and transportation (including vehicle manufacture for transportation) between stages of manufacture and consumption, generate wastes.

# Every industrial product is junk at some time in the future, beginning on the day following production (like a newspaper).

# All wastes and junk are on or in land, water and air of our Planet.

The investments of the Global Economy

Economics includes audit processes, especially for financial audit. However, contemporary economics fails to conduct audit to include material-and-energy used in the processes of the Global Economy. The reason for this shortcoming is that the value of natural capital sourced by the Global Economy, and the consequent WGJ on land, water and atmosphere, are treated as externalities, and therefore fail to figure in a holistic energy balance sheet. Indeed, economics or technology experts are unlikely to have considered costed energy audit.

Fundamentally, contemporary economics fails to recognize that unending (exponential) growth, driven by unending consumption of finite natural capital, and cumulative dumping of WGJ into the Planet’s environment-ecology, through advertisement-driven consumption of industrial goods and services, is the “investment” of and by the Global Economy in our Planet.

The opinion of economist, educator and interdisciplinary philosopher Kenneth Ewart Boulding, is apt: “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad or an economist”.

The Elephant in the Room, and ‘Saving the Planet’

The Global Economy is the “elephant in the room” – it is not understood as the problem. World leaders over decades have unquestioningly accepted economic growth as a cardinal principle of development. When persons in positions of power define economic policy and derive material or monetary benefit from the economy (in a self-serving loop), they would have little reason to question it.

Many persons and organizations have written and spoken about “Saving our Planet”. However, entertaining the idea of “Saving our Planet” displays ignorance that our species is part of and dependent upon our Planet. Our Planet does not need “saving”. It is industrialized civilization, the “investment” of Homo Sapiens, which is under existential threat, along with humongous numbers of our species and other life-forms.

Humanity’s investment in our Planet by creating, building and operating the Global Economy, has caused negative outcomes on societies (unrest due to growing economic inequality), on global environment-ecology, and on the biosphere. It has impacted all forms of life on our Planet, and drives many species to extinction.

Reverting to Climate Change

The highlights of India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) – strangely undated – accessed in 2023 and presumably current, are:

# Sustain rapid economic growth while dealing with the global threat of climate change.

# Maintain a high growth rate, to increase living standards.

# Promote natural resource conservation, understanding climate change adaptation and mitigation, and energy efficiency.

# Implementation of the eight Missions with PPP and involvement of civil society.

Clearly, all governments including ours, prioritize economic growth over addressing the effects of climate change. There is little if any realization or understanding, that continuing with business-as-usual of unending economic growth, which depletes rather than conserves natural resources, will exacerbate GW and CC. The rationality that Homo Sapiens credits itself with, is in question.

Paradoxically, while NAPCC envisages involvement of civil society, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) prevents civil society from getting information concerning environmental impact of projects. [Ref.6] Government’s dichotomous approach to climate change may indicate confusion on a vital issue.

Investing wisely

As UNDRR advises, governance needs transformation, so as to convert the current exploitative, unsustainable economic paradigm of unending economic growth, to People-centred economics. Governance policies need to be socially responsible, environmentally-ecologically sound, and economically sustainable. This may stave off collapse of ecological systems and the biosphere.

No single idea, no single leader, no single expert group, can provide a solution or even a viable way forward. Investing in technologies which exploit the Planet and its living species, will be wrong and counter-productive.

Democratic and informed discussion, and People-oriented (not corporate-oriented) fast-track decision-making mode of governance, will bear active and immediate consideration. In default, there will be irreversible and unaffordable social, economic, environmental-ecological costs to living species, including humanity.

Wanted!

Humanity needs thought-leaders in societies and nations, who have understanding, imagination and vision transcending the Global Economy’s destructive dogma of unending economic growth.

References (hyperlinked in the text)

  1. “Earthday.org announces theme for Earth Day 2023”; <https://www.earthday.org/press-release/earthday-org-announces-theme-for-earth-day-2023-invest-in-our-planet/>.
  2. “Limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees celsius to avoid catastrophe”; <https://www.weforum.org/topics/climate-change>; World Economic Forum.
  3. “WTO, World Bank, WEF launch joint effort to provide tailored trade and climate analysis”; <https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news23_e/envir_20apr23_e.htm>; World Trade Organization; April 20, 2023.
  4. “Our World at Risk: Transforming Governance for a Resilient Future“; Global Assessment Report; <https://www.undrr.org/gar2022-our-world-risk-gar>; United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction; 2022.
  5. “Saving the Earth”; <https://www.britannica.com/explore/savingearth/>; Encyclopedia Brittanica.
  6. “Centre stops sharing information on environmental impact of projects on its Parivesh website”; <https://scroll.in/latest/1047763/centre-stops-sharing-information-on-environmental-impact-of-projects-on-its-parivesh-website>; Scroll.in; April 21, 2023.

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**Maj Gen S.G.Vombatkere can be contacted at <[email protected]>.

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