Bankrupting Nature - a book review

by Arthur Dahl 14 February 2013

Bankrupting Nature: Denying our planetary boundaries. A report to the Club of Rome. Anders Wijkman and Johan Rockström. London: Earthscan from Routledge, 2012. 206 p.

Anders Wijkman, a former politician and international official, Co-President of the Club of Rome, and Johan Rockström, the scientist who led the groundbreaking study of planetary boundaries, have combined their perspectives to provide a comprehensive but accessible overview of where we are and where we seem to be going with respect to planetary sustainability. The result is sobering, like being told you have spent your inheritance and have nothing left in the bank.

Forty years ago, the first Report to the Club of Rome, The Limits to Growth, created intense controversy by questioning the assumption of endless growth behind conventional economic thinking. This book returns to the same theme, not with computer modeling but with an integrated systems perspective and logical analysis of the implications of what science is saying about our treatment of the natural resources and planetary systems on which out economy and even survival depend.

I wrote a book review of The Limits to Growth when it was published in 1972, and this book resembles closely many lectures I have given on the state of the planet over the years. As the authors put it: "The primary purpose of this book is to clarify the relationship between the economic system and nature."

Its scope is very broad. While it gives major attention to energy and climate change, including a detailed analysis and rebuttal of the views of climate change deniers, it shows that this is only one of the interrelated environmental problems that could lead to planetary bankruptcy and collapse. "Unless we start using resources more efficiently and equitably, we will face the consequences: constraints on resources leading to tensions and armed conflicts; and the death of several billion people from starvation."

There is also a well-researched critique of the present economic and financial systems that risk driving us over the brink in the near future. A rational assessment shows that gradual change or tinkering with the system are not options. We have missed past opportunities, and it is not obvious today how to reconcile the urgency of responding to climate change, the vulnerability of our food production and trade systems, and the rising costs of energy and natural resources as demand outstrips supply. We have reached the limits of endless growth on a finite planet, as predicted 40 years ago.

The book is not totally negative. It explores many proposals for reform such as replacing GDP as a measure of progress, recognizing the value of natural capital and ecosystem services, promoting a circular economy, fixing binding targets for energy and resource efficiency, taxing resource use rather than labour, scrapping quarterly corporate reporting, rethinking compensation schemes in financial institutions, and requiring banks to report risk exposure in high carbon investments. It calls for a reconsideration of business models, strategies for planetary stewardship and global governance, and bottom-up solutions where communities successfully manage for sustainability.

Wijkman and Rockström have produced a useful and timely synthesis of much of the creative new thinking about the necessary global transition. It is realistic about the difficulties involved and the strong forces of resistance in society, particularly in economic and political circles, but it demonstrates very clearly that there is today no reasonable option. "What is needed is nothing less than a revolution, both in attitudes and in social and economic organization." The one thing I would add is that such a revolution must be founded on new spiritual principles and values if it is to motivate people to make the necessary changes before it is too late.

Reprinted from International Environment Forum blog

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Last updated 23 February 2016