Quentin Grafton reprises his series on what’s wrong with Business-as-Usual and where it’s leading us.
2024 has arrived, exactly 40 years after the dystopian and authoritarian future of ‘1984’ written by George Orwell in 1948. These three years are connected; 1948 coincided with the start of the USD 12 billion Marshall Plan (named after US Secretary of State George C. Marshall who was later awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for this initiative) to restore the economies of war-torn Western Europe. The Marshall Plan was spectacularly successful and was the stepping stone for a global economic resurgence following World War II. This global economic ‘take-off’ has become known as the Great Acceleration.
The Great Acceleration refers to the rapid rise, post 1950, in key global socio-economic trends including the human (and especially urban) population, real Gross Domestic Product (GDP), primary energy use, and world trade. The take-off has helped to lift billions of people out of poverty and contributed to very large improvements in welfare, as measured by life expectancy, calorie intake, and education levels.
These benefits have not been evenly distributed with some regions (initially Western Europe and then East Asia, South-east Asia, and China) doing better than others. Nevertheless, the welfare of even the worst off globally has improved dramatically coincident with the Great Acceleration. For instance, in 1950 about two in three people were in extreme poverty and lived on the equivalent of USD 1.90 per day per person but by 2015 this had become just one in ten. In terms of child health, in 1950 about a quarter of all children failed to live to five years of age but by 2015 it was about one in 25 children globally. In 1950, about two persons in three could not read and write but by 2015 only one in fifteen people were illiterate.
Despite the overwhelming benefits for boomers there has been a downside to the Great Acceleration; the unintended consequences to the Earth system have been toxic including ocean acidification, unsustainable water use, deforestation, degradation of wetlands, catastrophic declines in biodiversity, and global warming.
In 1950, global anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel use and industry (not including land use change) were 6 billion tonnes, by 2015 it was 35 billion tons, an almost 6-fold increase and they are still rising. This has resulted in an atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide rising from 311 parts per million in 1950 to 400 ppm by 2015 and is now more than 420 ppm. As a consequence, the Earth’s annual average surface temperature in 2015 was about 1.0 Celsius greater than it was in 1950 and is continuing to rise. In 2023, the average surface temperature was 1.1 Celsius warmer than in 1950 and was the hottest year yet recorded. In turn, this has contributed to ‘wild weather’ across the globe in recent years (and particularly in 2023).
Biodiversity, as defined by average species abundance or population, has declined dramatically in many parts of the world since 1970. The rate of extinction of species since 1900 is orders of magnitude greater than before humans and has been called the Sixth Great Extinction. It may, eventually, result in a mass extinction in which 75% or more species disappear.
Species abundance has been in decline for centuries but appears to have accelerated since 1950. One estimate is that directly or indirectly humans have been responsible for the extinction of 7.5-13% of the 2 million known species since 1500 and in terms of the measured wildlife populations (mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish) there has been a 69% decline since 1970.
The biggest contributor to terrestrial extinctions has been land-use change but accelerated warming may soon become the most important factor in what is described as a ‘global double emergency’.
Biodiversity loss is not just a concern for the species that go extinct. Rapid declines in biodiversity undermines the ability to provide sufficient food and clean water for humans. The monetary value from maintaining the current level of biodiversity has been estimated at USD 24 trillion per year, or about one quarter of the world’s total GDP in 2023.
The environmental degradation associated with the Great Acceleration is also contributing to the Great Injustice whereby critically important planetary services (e.g. stable climate) are transitioning into more variable and less desirable states. This means that future generations will inherit a natural world that is more dangerous (e.g. more frequent and severe floods and droughts) and impoverished (e.g. fewer species and less forest). This is both inter-generational injustice and inter-species injustice.
It’s also intra-generational injustice. This is because the current generation most directly dependent on the health of ecosystem services, includes Indigenous Peoples, suffer the most from declines in Nature yet they conserve, manage, own or occupy about one quarter of the global land area. Notably, Indigenous lands are degrading but at a slower rate rather than non-Indigenous lands due to Indigenous cultural and land practices.
At a country-level, estimates are that to-date (not future) climate change has already greatly increased income inequality over what it would have been in its absence. This impact affects the poor the most. Higher temperatures have increased the ratio between the highest and lowest income deciles by about quarter relative to what it would have been without global warming.
The Great Injustice is not just about the costs and unintended consequences of a prioritisation of economic growth. It’s also about who are responsible. In terms of climate change, a consumption-based analysis of fossil fuel emissions found that, in 2019, the emissions of the top one percent of income earners (80 million people) were similar to the emissions of the poorest two-thirds of people (5 billion people). This Great Injustice in terms of carbon emissions is mirrored in other Earth injustices; billions of people still lack access to safe water and sanitation and are food insecure.
The outside impact of income on carbon emissions gets proportionally bigger with wealth. Not only do the world’s billionaires (of which there are over 2,000) have as much wealth as the 60% of the global population, their estimated carbon footprint at 8,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year is 100 times larger than the average per capita emissions of the richest 1%. Yet it is the ‘super rich’ that are the most protected from climate change and, ironically, have the greatest power and influence, if they so wished, to stabilise and then reduce fossil fuel emissions.
To mitigate the unintended effects of the Great Acceleration there needs to be co-operation from the local to the global scale. This is what global agreements on climate change and biodiversity, among others, seek to do because one country acting alone, not matter how large, cannot resolve the problems of the global commons (e.g., biodiversity, climate).
For co-operation to work at a community, national or international level there must some degree of trust. A disturbing trend in many democracies over the past decades is an increase in dissatisfaction with democracy such that in the 1990s about two in three citizens in EU and North America were ‘satisfied with democracy’ but by 2020 a majority were dissatisfied. With few exceptions (Austria, Denmark, Ireland, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland), this phenomenon has been observed globally including in Africa, Australasia, East Asia, Lain America, and the Middle East. Dissatisfaction with democracy is increasing at a faster rate among the young and across the global population has increased the fastest in in some of the larger democracies (Nigeria, Spain, United Kingdom, and the United States).
Increasing levels of dissatisfaction with democracy are accompanied by a decline in trust in governments, media, or trust in other people. In the United States, trust in the national government has declined from 73 per cent in 1958 to 24 per cent in 2021 along with trust in others. Across 62 high and middle-income countries, the proportion of people expressing ‘Trust in Government’ peaked in early 2000s at one half, and by 2019 has declined to about one third by 2019.
Multiple reasons are attributed to increasing dissatisfaction that differ across countries. Nevertheless, increasing dissatisfaction in democracy and decreasing trust in government is fundamentally about a deterioration in what governments are delivering for their citizens relative to what people need and expect. This is especially true for youngest generation of adults.
To get the co-operation and adaptive responses to the challenges posed by the Great Acceleration requires trust. This is a ‘chicken and egg’ problem and requires governments to step up and deliver a better future for the majority who are currently dissatisfied with governments. If governments fail to deliver, some voters will seek alternatives, including authoritarian leaders. But as George Orwell showed us in ‘1984’, authoritarianism does not result in good government.
More, rather than less, democracy and empowering people and their communities to respond to the great crises confronting the world is what is needed. This is the next Great Transformation and we need it desperately. As Karl Polanyi writing 80 years ago observed, it is only by placing society first, and I would add understanding humanity’s place within Nature, can we hope to resolve the global challenges. I will return to what this next great transformation might involve in future blogs.