Avoiding the Ultimate Recession

Avoiding the Ultimate Recession

Professor John Beddington is the chief scientific advisor to the U.K. government. He is big on evidence. On the facts. He doesn't really do hyperbole. On Thursday, he delivered a powerful presentation warning of a "perfect storm" of social and environmental crises all converging around 2030.

That's exactly what I've referred to as "the ultimate recession": a recession caused not by failed regulation and bankers' greed, but by very high oil prices, food and water shortages, disappearing forests, accelerating climate change, forced migration and mass civil disruption. The only point where John and I part company is on the date: He says 2030, I think it will be nearer to 2020.

There is now very wide consensus around this kind of analysis. A combination of very rapid population growth over the last 50 years and reckless economic growth during the same time has stored up massive problems for societies the world over. No nation is immune. The scientific evidence tells us all we need to know: Carry on with business-as-usual growth-at-all-costs, and we're stuffed.

Avoiding that ultimate recession (and, in particular, the potentially horrific impact of accelerating climate change) has therefore to be our top priority. But right now, perhaps understandably, politicians' top priority, all over the world, is sorting out the recession. And some people are even using this as an excuse to keep the environment stuff on the back burner.

They couldn't be more stupid! As I've argued in Forum for the Future's latest pamphlet, "Living Within Our Means," the surest route out of this recession would be a vast surge in new investments in precisely those things that will help us avoid the ultimate recession: energy efficiency, renewables, smart electricity grids, new transportation technologies and so on. We enforce that with collective international action to protect the "natural assets" on which our future absolutely depends (all the remaining rainforests, for instance, or endangered fisheries), and we will have a solid, job-generating foundation on which to build tomorrow's economy.

Genuinely sustainable wealth creation on a massive scale.

So are our politicians up for it? Sort of. Obama's certainly got the message. China has started out on its own transition to a lower-carbon future. Several EU countries are making the right noises.

But it's all much too patchy. Too half-hearted. The back to business-as-usual brigade is still very powerful. And preparations for the meeting of the G20 on April 2nd show little sign of demonstrating just how big an opportunity this could be to set the world on a very different path.

The long and the short of it, unfortunately, is this: More politicians still believe that economic recovery depends on continuing to live beyond our means (financially and ecologically) than on learning to live within our means. And that's why the ultimate "perfect storm" recession still looms on the horizon.

Jonathon Porritt is founder director of the sustainable development nonprofit organization Forum for the Future.

Storm Photo — CC licensed by El Garza.