Obviously, these problems must be addressed urgently.
While this paper does not suggest that all the answers are known, some practical solutions are identified that should be implemented without further delay. Among these are:
It has been difficult to argue persuasively that the economy itself is suffering and will suffer increasingly from such "distant" factors as environmental pollution, climate change, and resource depletion. Usually, in current economic thinking, the environment is regarded as a cost factor, and not as a kind of capital stock, while resources are considered to be either infinite or smoothly substitutable.
There is reason to believe, however, that today's economic and political crisis is deeply rooted in the way society manages its ecological resources, as well as the way it decides about production and consumption, income and its distribution, fiscal policies and other incentive instruments.
The raison d'être of production is to create human welfare. Welfare is more than wealth and consumption. It includes factors such as income, consumption, employment, education, health, safety (freedom from violence), environmental quality, social security, leisure, and equity. Conventional wisdom dictates that increasing production creates increasing wealth.
Present indicators of production activities such as GDP are known to be both inadequate as measures of welfare and of taking into account the destruction of the ecosphere. Nordhaus and Tobin introduced the Measure of Economic Welfare (MEW) in 1974 to prove the adequacy of the GDP as a surrogate. While justified by the then available data, the marked divergence of the two measures observed since has given rise to the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW) and the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI).
In these calculations, which include some of the missing factors in the GDP-measure, the current economic and resource crisis is clearly manifest. While the GPI shows a parallel development of production growth and welfare between 1950 and 1970/75 in most western countries, by the mid '70s the direct correlation between the two had begun to vanish. Although production as measured by GDP was still expanding, the creation of welfare, as measured by GPI, increasingly lagged behind. GPI-figures show that the factors of welfare mentioned are either leveling off or have been on the decline ever since. This appears to be so in countries examined so far such as the US, the UK, Denmark, Austria and the Netherlands.
The implications of this are dramatic. Policies are geared toward promoting production for the sake of "progress", yet for twenty years this "progress" has not shown up in the alternative measures of welfare such as the ISEW or GPI.
GDP growth was closely correlated with the growth of labour productivity. In the manufacturing sector it has increased about 100-fold. Resource productivity, by contrast, did not significantly increase: resource consumption per unit of GDP hardly changed until 1973. After the oil crisis, a modest decoupling occurred in OECD countries but not in developing countries.
In other words, the extraordinary increase in labor productivity was accomplished by, or "paid for" by a corresponding increase in the extraction and processing of raw materials. All raw materials extracted from the earth are potential wastes. Billions of tons of materials are extracted each year to feed the production machine, and billions more are displaced and dumped without having acquired any economic value of their own. Machines now move more than twice as much material as geological forces on the earth´s surface. Of these billions of tons of materials displaced by human activity -- including fossil fuels, water, sand, gravel and rocks -- a substantial percentage is returned to the environment in a chemically degraded and/or mobilised form within a few weeks or months. Only a fraction (consisting largely of structural materials) is preserved in useful form for more than a year or two.
Environmental damages are caused by direct interference with environmental resources or processes, or indirectly by way of the dissipative use of material products (e.g. fuels, lubricants, solvents, cleaning agents, pigments, etc.), or by the emission of (toxic) waste products.
The impact of all this disruption is increasing, and is beginning to be reflected in economic terms. For example there is an increase in the number and severity of natural catastrophies such as storms, floods and droughts, to which the insurance market is responding by sharply raising premiums. We believe that there is strong evidence for a correlation between the ecological imbalances we have created and such events. The massive material translocations, as well as the emissions of toxic materials and greenhouse gases are exceeding the absorptive capacity of the ecosphere and shifting ecological balances.
The trend is going in the wrong direction. So called "externalities", i.e. the processes which cause damage to ecosystems are becoming more significant in quantitative as well as qualitative terms. They are growing faster than those which generate economic "value". The term "externalities" does not do justice to their internal impact. What is happening is that we are losing "natural capital". We are also losing "social" aspects, as society tends toward becoming a "collective intensive care unit" with limited areas of human activity left unregulated. Furthermore, we are impoverishing culture and cultural development, as resources have to be primarily invested in survival strategies.
It has been argued that economic activity is tied tightly to consumptive use of materials. To cut back on the one can only be accomplished by cutting back on the other. We challenge this notion. We believe that, while "traditional" economic growth is linked to materials and energy use, many opportunities exist for increasing the productivity of materials and energy use without sacrificing real human welfare. In effect, we suggest that the productivity of materials and energy is the key. Their levels of productive use will have to be increased enormously - by as much as a factor of ten, or more - in the long run.
The traditional argument is that if such opportunities really existed, entrepreneurs would exploit them. If all relevant markets operated perfectly, and if there were no barriers to entrepreneurial innovation, major increases in resource productivity would occur. However, the prices on the markets are wrong, the markets do not operate perfectly, and barriers do exist. Furthermore the time horizons employed by firms are usually too short.
Many large and powerful economic interests have evolved over the past century in a societal climate in which it made economic sense to exploit cheap raw materials, including water and air, in order to industrialise. Exploitation of raw materials -especially fossil fuels- was viewed as an "engine of growth". Numerous subsidies, direct and indirect, have helped to create this situation.
Seven major areas of interventions that distort the market can be identified:
To achieve this, it is our view that a political commitment to a tenfold increase in the average resource productivity of the presently industrialised countries is a prerequisite for meeting the goal of long-term global sustainability. As this strategy is based on present conditions, increases in world population and further economic expansion in the industrialised world would obviously require a factor higher than 10.
The technical potential for such a goal over fifty years is enormous. Already some market prices and other signals are encouraging a timid transition to what is technically feasible. However, institutional constraints and vested interests against the trend remain formidable. Deliberate actions by governments and other actors are needed to provide the right incentives for change. An ecological tax reform, which would increase the price of resources and concomitantly reduce the cost of labour, would be a particularly well-suited option.
Governmental incentives toward increasing resource productivity, alone, are not enough. Perceptions of welfare are changing. Wellbeing is becoming increasingly, though slowly, dissociated from levels of material consumption. Similarly some shifts are taking place in the structure of society toward a renewed emphasis on decentralisation of political and technical decisionmaking systems. Already many groups derive their livelihoods from non-consumptive activities and even through non-market modes of exchange. These shifts meet people's aspirations and needs. Such institutional trends should be positively encouraged.
The process of dematerialisation must involve a shift in thinking toward the 'life-cycle' approach, meaning that improvements are in no way limited to products, but can and will have to incorporate changes in the way products are produced, packaged, transported, sold, used, reused, cascaded, recycled and disposed of. Entirely new products and services have to be developed. Product longevity, and intensity of product utilisation will be a key feature. Although it is commonly believed that we can only enjoy many services by buying the service delivery machines (products), this need not necessarily be the case. Use-sharing, renting, leasing and borrowing are just a few examples of concepts which result in reduced material flows.
If the policy incentives are matched with the changes in industrial organisation and practice and societal change, the goal of achieving our present level of well-being with one tenth of the material input can be realised. Decisionmakers on all levels -in the public and private sectors and working at international, national and local levels- will have to strive to increase resource productivity now. But only governments can provide the necessary framework in which ecologically sound investment decisions are economically rewarding. The main challenge is therefore to guarantee that prices become such that labor is decisively cheaper relative to energy and materials. It must become attractive to put kilowatt hours out of work instead of people.
Such a shift in the OECD countries would give the people of the less industrialised world a valuable breathing space to increase material flows in order to meet their needs. Still they should also be encouraged to adopt material conserving practices. In Eastern and Central Europe great efficiency gains can be realised now.
Major technical changes take 10 to 20 years just to gain momentum, and some of them much longer to diffuse widely throughout society. Accomplishing a radical de-materialisation can be expected to take at least half a century. But as recent history has shown, during such a period the technical underpinnings of industrial societies can -and will change radically. Thus a 10-fold increase in resource productivity may occur almost painlessly in many countries -- if the public policy and economic signals point in the right direction.
We do not suggest that all the answers are known. There are problems to be faced. The limits to open international competition is one example. The role of industry with respect to social and political issues is another. Should we perhaps revive the concept of a long-term social contract for industrial enterprises? What new international accords or organisational structures are required to make a level playing field?
Despite these uncertainties we remain convinced that if the process of dematerialisation does not begin, both the social fabric of our societies and the global ecosystem are seriously at risk in the medium-term. Furthermore, by starting now, we would have the option of achieving a transition slowly by evolution rather than being forced to change suddenly through revolution.
In order to follow through with the changes outlined above, governments, industry, social institutions, citizens and NGOs will need to address the following issues: