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1 July 2006 SEEING CLEARLY NOW
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From Resource Scarcity to Ecological Security: Exploring New Limits to Growth. Dennis Pirages and Ken Cousins, eds. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 2005. 280 pp. $24.00 (ISBN 0262661896 paper).

How accurate were the models and projections of The Global 2000 Report to the President, commissioned by Jimmy Carter and released in 1980? Dennis Pirages, Harrison Professor of International Environmental Politics at the University of Maryland, and Ken Cousins, a doctoral student at the same university, have collected essays by 19 authors who provide assessments of the projections in 12 areas. It turns out—not too surprisingly, if one thinks about it—that the record is mixed, the scorecard spotty; some projections have turned out to be remarkably accurate, while others were way off. The big news, however—and it is big, if not really news—is that the questions, perhaps more than our answers to them, have changed.

The chapters of the book unfold as well-informed authors survey current trends in global population, water availability, food policy, energy, political challenges, climate change policy, forestry, and biodiversity protection, and compare the best available current information with the projections of the 1980 report. It's fun to read the book as a sort of ideological scorecard—Paul Ehrlich and neo-Malthusian cohorts set against Julian Simon and the cornucopians—and each chapter brims with facts and with surprising as well as commonplace observations about the current state of the problem areas highlighted by The Global 2000 Report. For example, the report was prescient in identifying rising CO2 emissions as an impending threat, and its dire predictions of tropical deforestation and degradation, while difficult to measure, are generally considered accurate. On the other hand, the report's projections of world population growth overestimated growth from a 1970 baseline to the year 2000 by about one-third. Likewise, the 1980 report significantly overestimated water demand in 2000, and alarmist predictions that the world would run out of petroleum in the short term turned out to be in error. In the area of world hunger, food supplies have grown more rapidly than projected in 1980.

For this reader, however, the important message is not about the differences between the report's projections for 2000 and the actual figures for that year. The message, rather, is in the ways straightforward questions, once boldly queried, must be qualified and redirected. According to this message, environmental problems are more complex today, and the issues involved in environmental and resource policies are less clear than they were on the original Earth Day. For example, most demographers 30 years ago would have considered the more-rapid-than-expected drop in birthrates, especially in South Asia, to be positive news, because it reduced rapid population growth and strongly affected projected growth in the future. But now many countries, especially in South Asia, face aging populations, which may threaten their rapid economic growth when productivity decreases as the workforce share of the population dwindles because of retirements.

The editors' choice of title captures the central theme of the book: The concept of “resource scarcity”—and the exercise of projecting dates of impending exhaustion of a given resource—has proved too simplistic to capture the complexity of today's environmental and resource-use problems. The editors propose adopting a goal of “ecological security” as a more constructive characterization of environmental challenges. One key aspect of this shift is to put more emphasis on questions of equity and access than on shortages and available supply. When measured against the old standard, per capita production of cereal grains increased 28 percent during the last three decades of the 20th century in the developing world, leading to lower prices; but if measured against the goal of universal food security, there are now more food-insecure people in South Asia than before, because rapid population growth outstripped gains on the supply side.

The editors, I think intentionally, use the term “security” in two ways. Speaking narrowly, authors and editors speak of “food security” and “energy security” as implying a concern for both supply and equitable access. More broadly, I think they mean to connect resource issues to safety and security, as many renewable resource systems, especially in developing nations, are ravaged by war, and famine is often the result if the agriculturalists cannot protect their crops. So one aspect of the new approach developed here is to link resource security to military security.

Another aspect of the shift in thinking—and in the questions asked—is a recognition that, in general, there is more a shortage of “sinks” for wastes than there is a shortage of resources. Global warming and degradation of waters, caused by pollution and sedimentation, lead to ecological insecurity that is visited upon individuals, even as supplies of many resources glut world markets.

One resource that is in short supply, given the degradation just mentioned, is fresh water. Humans now use 54 percent of accessible fresh water run-off (p. 63). Since human usage competes with the needs of wildlife, and in-stream flow is needed for other ecological reasons, water will surely become more scarce, and how this scarcity is managed is fraught with dangers. Improving the efficiency of water use seems to demand the development of markets, so that water would flow to the best use based on willingness to pay; but traditional access rights to water may be seriously infringed if international water markets dominate access to water supplies and traditional users are excluded. Again, when looked at through the lens of ecological security, the challenge is daunting: How to improve efficiency and retain equitable access to water supplies for individuals is as much a social as a technical problem.

The exercise of rechecking The Global 2000 Report's projections is a useful one, but its use is much wider than monitoring trends that seemed important 30 years ago. Taking stock also stimulates a reconsideration of the nature of environmental problems, and forces us to confront the simplicity of earlier formulations of the problems of resource scarcity. From Resource Scarcity to Ecological Security contributes to a better understanding of how to address future problems by setting in relief current trends with earlier projections. The recognition that ecological security still eludes many inhabitants of today's world, even as productivity increases and prices for natural resource products remain level or fall, shows that addressing the world's problems will require more attention to equity and to access, and equity and access require a socially secure situation. Only community building and capacity building can meet the daunting social task of protecting the vulnerable from insecurity in the age of globalization. Perhaps this new formulation of some old problems will encourage more integrated thinking about resource use.

BRYAN G. NORTON "SEEING CLEARLY NOW," BioScience 56(7), 622-623, (1 July 2006). https://doi.org/10.1641/0006-3568(2006)56[622:SCN]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 July 2006
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