The anthropocene and the "more" principle

Humans operate on the “more” principle: enough is not enough. Happily, we have been able to make and deliver more of nearly everything for more and more people. How we can go on doing that is a core policy issue for the next decade or two.

We have delivered more by radically re-engineering our physical environment and ecosystems over the past two centuries or so: land, landscape and buildings, plants and animals, waterways, supply of raw materials, capacity to travel and connect quickly. This blink of geological time in which science and ingenuity have vanquished the constraints of subsistence and distance has become known as the anthropocene.

Humans have been adjusting the environment for many millennia, particularly since inventing agriculture. But until the industrial revolution the interferences were relatively minor and populations were mostly back-breakingly engaged in producing food.

Mechanising production of food, goods and services enabled far more people to be fed by far fewer producers far more cheaply and to have far more made things and far more of those things. Having got used to more, we can never quite get enough. The more efficient the service, the more of it we use. The more efficiently and cheaply goods are produced, the more we consume.

This has translated into insistent public demand that government policy is geared to constantly raising per capita gross domestic product (GDP) and so consumption. If not, voters get grumpy or emigrate. GDP growth has required radical alteration of ecosystems and increasingly rapid extraction of raw materials. In 1750 humans had to live within planetary limits. Now the planet is assumed to be humans’ servant.

The big benefit of this radical remake has been far more humans living far longer. Without this geo-engineering we would not feed 7 billion people, let alone the 9 billion-plus projected for 2060, nor supply the paraphernalia of modern living, cellphones, cars, washing machines and electronic fun, still less over time lift all countries to rich-country levels.

So far all this has worked, though with irksome side-effects such as rivers running dry or dirty, choking air and poisonous waste dumps. Most people most of the time would say that price is worth it.

Governments comply. That is because governments live forever in the short term. Pre-emptive action which delivers benefits only in the long term is electorally chancy and usually unrewarding. An economist captured this dilemma luminously at a meeting last August (name withheld out of respect): “Then we come to the short term, which is where we are going to live for quite a long time. We can’t get to the long term for quite a while.”

That comment was in the context of farmer response to climate change. It might also have been said of the cabinet’s major watering down of climate change policy last year. In the short term that serves local GDP-growth purposes but it risks longer-term costs in concessions not won if (when?) global talks get serious. At a public seminar on December 14 on their return from the Doha summit, officials were unusually frank about the negative vibes in Doha towards New Zealand.

Tim Groser seems to have treated the Doha show as give-and-take trade talks. Climate change is a global all-in-it-together matter in which any party’s failure to give denies all parties the corresponding take, to all parties’ cost.

The same goes for the future of the anthropocene, which the United Nations scientific Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says is the creator of climate change.

Sceptics disagree with the IPCC. Optimists among them reckon that even if the IPCC is right humans’ adaptive and inventive capacity will generate technologies to ameliorate and/or offset the impact of climate change.

This illustrates the anthropocene paradox: without more re-engineering of the physical environment and ecosystems, we will not feed 9 billion-plus people nor deliver to them more of the goods and services they can’t get enough of; but we are already consuming planetary supplies faster than they are being replenished and there is a real risk ecosystems will collapse, taking with them their capacity to sustain human life.

This paradox will have to be resolved unless the alternative solutions kick in — widespread pestilence, starvation and wars, which drastically cut global population to sustainable levels.

One way to resolve the paradox is to remove it. We decide enough is enough and adopt a more modest lifestyle. Preachers of various sorts take this line. The great majority of humans are unlikely to. We are programmed for “more”.

The other way to resolve the paradox is human ingenuity, in technologies that maintain, invest in and develop the anthropocene’s infrastructure: that is, the environment and ecosystems.

This may come about organically. Or it may require government action, that is, policy geared to the long term — which, however, we “can’t get to for quite a while”.