Book Review for "Bankrupting Nature: Denying Our Planetary Boundaries" - Fundamental changes required to save our nature from bankruptcy

In In Japan Spotlight
Volume (Issue): 2013 March/April
Non Peer-reviewed Article

Book Review on Club of Rome report “Bankrupting Nature: Denying Our Planetary Boundaries” by Anders Wijkman and Johan Rockström
Published 5 November 2012 by Routledge, 224 pages

Fundamental changes required to save our nature from bankruptcy

The revised English edition of the book Bankrupting Nature, authored by Anders Wijkman and Johan Rockström, as a report to the Club of Rome, was launched recently.

Ringing powerful warning bells to current unsustainable production and consumption systems, this book clearly showed that human beings are depleting their natural assets, some of which are exceeding or very close to the thresholds of global collapse. Not merely showing the pessimistic views about the fate of continuing conventional economic model that is built on endless material growth and the generation of negative impacts on ecosystems, the authors presented opportunities through the transformation of our economic system and adopting alternative business models, such as moving from products to services or towards a circular economy based on re-use, reconditioning and recycling.

Although this book is largely aimed at policy makers, business persons, economists and scientists, I would rather recommend it to anyone who cares about our children and their children, in particular young people and mothers with young children. As pointed out in the book, “the lack of adequate education about the indispensable role that ecosystems and biodiversity play in the provision of welfare and well-being” and “unwillingness among most people to change habits and lifestyles” are major factors, among others, accountable for the slow movement towards sustainable development. This book can be a good contribution to help raise awareness and awaken the sense of urgency for taking action.

Supporting many standpoints of this Report, I would like to emphasize the importance of fundamental changes of values and cultures in guiding people’s daily life, habitual formation and attitudes towards nature. Pursuing material richness should be abandoned and the concept of ecological civilization should be respected and be dominant in our values. This is particular important for emerging economies, such as China and India, and a large number of developing countries which are pursuing the same lifestyles as in the West, as a symbol of “the good life”. Not only are mass production, mass consumption, over-packaging and mass disposal type of societies established in industrialised countries unsustainable and should not be duplicated in today’s developing countries, but also our Earth simply cannot afford a situation whereby those in developing countries consume in the same way as an average American or European. Our planet has its boundaries. Education of children and young people is therefore extremely important in developing countries.

Based on the messages from the Report, the Environmental Kuznets Curve should not apply to emerging and developing countries because the underpinning theory of emissions path of a peak and then a downward trend with an increase of income is dangerous. The serious way in which our natural world is bankrupting itself cannot leave any room for the pattern of “pollute first and clean-up later” for developing countries, even under a fast peak scenario. In order to save our nature, we must conclude that there is no time to allow developing countries to repeat the same mistakes and correct them afterwards. In this respect, emerging economies together with other developing countries should take the lead in exploring new economic models from the beginning, based on lessons learned from conventional economic models introduced by industrialised countries and experiences of new business models such as moving from material possession to use and share, zero emissions and circular economy. Current policy trends in developing countries have indicated certain political concerns over local pollution problems and ecological and health damage. However they still do not depart far from the conventional development model. International organisations should concentrate on assisting and channelling funds to steer developing countries in this direction.

Indeed, in 2008 there were still about 1.3 million people living on less than USD1.25 a day (PPP) and one-quarter of the world’s population currently lives without electricity. The Report emphasized that developing countries have every right to develop and modernise, and called upon rich countries to hold back their material growth to leave room for a rising living standard among poor countries. However part of this should be given to satisfy the basic needs which are supplied by new economic models with low-carbon and resources in poor countries.

When basic human needs are satisfied, more material possessions do not buy us much more happiness. As pointed out in the book, GDP as a measure of economic development is misleading. GDP is realised by expanding the production scale and consumption scale, which will lead to development based on material growth at the costs of resource depletion and ecological degradation. Other indicators on human welfare, giving more values on happiness and spiritual fulfilment, should be developed and adopted. There are many local initiatives in developing countries taken in this direction. For example, in recent years there is a ranking system every year showing the Urban Happiness Index in Chinese cities.

There are many opportunities to save our nature by taking actions in emerging economies and developing countries. Mitigation by reducing fossil fuel consumption to stabilise the GHG concentration in the atmosphere and prevent global warming is both costly and relies on taking actions on the margin. If we give more respect to the precautionary principle, we may need to gradually phase out fossil fuels from our energy mix to avoid irreversible climate disasters hitting the next generations. It is both costly and difficult to transform current energy systems and infrastructure in industrialised countries which have been built on conventional fossil fuels. However new investments in renewable energy to produce low-carbon electricity such as wind, solar and hydro in developing countries are cheap and infrastructure can also be built easily because all these can be started from the beginning. As exemplified by Nordhaus and Shellenberger in their book “Break Through”, "smart grids" may cost millions of dollars for an American city to install, simply because the electrical grid was not designed to handle distributed, intermittent power sources such as renewables. However, the developing world could build smarter electrical grids from the start, on a more local scale and with better handling of renewable energy. Many cases in China and India have already shown great potential to alleviate energy poverty, generate economic benefits and create new jobs by investing in renewable energy. International aid groups should work to help developing countries leapfrog the conventional energy development path and supply electricity directly from renewable energy sources.

The book stressed the necessity to use a holistic approach in science and in links poverty reduction with the issues of climate, environment and the strength of integrated systems perspective of world development. I would like to add another dimension to the perspective that industrialised countries and developing countries should fulfil different tasks, despite facing the same planetary boundaries. Developed countries should devote themselves to transforming their current economic model and lifestyles while developing countries should made their own contributions by establishing new economic models and forming new consumption pattern. The spill-over effects of innovation either from developed countries to developing countries or the inverse direction, can make both worlds better off. Driving our planet closer to a saturation point is mainly attributable to the industrialisation process of developed countries; however saving our planet may largely, if not mainly, count on the immediate and proper actions from developing countries.

Again, I would like to recommend this book to all who care about our children and all future generations.