We Might Be Near Peak Environmental Impact

Future growth won't depend on using ever-more resources.

Seeing the forest.

Photographer: Thomas Trutschel/Photothek/Getty Images

The Northeastern U.S. is full of forests these days, and those forests are increasingly full of bears, coyotes and other wildlife. This probably would have seemed inconceivable 150 years ago, when the region’s trees were being clear-cut to oblivion. Undesirable, too. "Wilderness” didn’t have really positive connotations at the time.

What happened? Coal replaced wood as heating fuel. Rising agricultural productivity reduced the need for farmland. And so the trees began to come back.

The initial drivers were economic and technological. Only later did changing attitudes come into play. Forested acreage has been increasing in the Northeast since the early 20th century, according to the U.S. Forest Service. There was a slight decline in the 1960s and 1970s as suburban sprawl took its toll. That also happens to be when the U.S. environmental movement rose to prominence, and since then the reforestation has resumed.

Similar trends have been playing out in temperate zones around the world. Deforestation in the tropics is still outpacing reforestation elsewhere, but worldwide losses of forested acreage have slowed. We also may be nearing peak global demand for wood.

wood
source: breakthrough institute

For those attempting to read this on a smartphone, the bars are total wood consumption, divided into wood for fuel (brown) and wood for other purposes (blue). The green line shows per-capita wood consumption, which has been steadily declining.

Focusing on wood may seem a little retro, but the above chart comes from a report out this week that suggests that its trajectory is a precursor of what is to come for other natural resources and environmental indicators. It is now conceivable that the human race will reach “peak impact” before the end of this century, Linus Blomqvist, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute, an Oakland, California, environmental think tank, write in “Nature Unbound: Decoupling for Conservation.”

The decoupling to which they refer is a breaking of the link between economic and population growth on the one hand and resource use on the other. Some decoupling indicators from the report:

The per-capita farmland requirement (cropland and pasture) has declined by half in the last half-century. In absolute terms, cropland has expanded 13 percent and pasture 9 percent in that time period, but the sum of the two has remained stable since the mid-1990s. … Total water consumption increased by 170 percent between 1950 and 1995, but per-capita water consumption peaked around 1980 and declined thereafter. The least decoupled environmental impact is greenhouse gas emissions from energy: global per-capita emissions increased by nearly 40 percent between 1965 and 2013.

A couple weeks ago I made a few charts and wondered if maybe the global decline in commodity prices was perhaps not just a cyclical drop but “the beginnings of a plateauing in the world's demand for things -- and, even more, the resources needed to make those things.” That prompted an e-mail from Jesse Ausubel, director of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University in New York, who, it turns out, has been making similar arguments for 20 years.

Instead of berating me for ignoring his work, Ausubel said a few nice words and included links to the Breakthrough Institute report, which leans heavily on his research, and some of his own writings. For a concise, bracing and quite entertaining summing-up of the peak-impact evidence, you can’t do better than Ausubel’s “Nature Rebounds,” a 15-page essay that begins with the true tale of a bear eating a college student in New Jersey.

That story is one indication that hitting peak impact won’t necessarily be great for every last human. So is the account by Margaret Newkirk, Tim Loh and Mario Parker in the new Bloomberg Businessweek of what falling coal demand is doing to towns in Appalachia. Many wrenching changes await us as the makeup of global economic activity shifts. Still, this is far better than any conceivable alternative future in which resource demands don’t abate, right?

It isn’t all a done deal, though. “Peak impact is not inevitable,” write the authors of the Breakthrough Institute report, “but rather depends on concerted action by governments, NGOs, and private actors.” What kind of action? Well, that’s where things get interesting. Breakthough founders Nordhaus and Shellenberger are known for a pragmatic, optimistic, technology-friendly brand of environmentalism that can sometimes deliver jarring advice, and they don't disappoint here.

The continued spread of high-tech, high-yield agriculture is essential to shrinking the land footprint of food production, they write. Organic farming requires more land and more resources, and in most cases shouldn’t be encouraged. The production of biofuels using current sources such as corn and sugarcane should be actively discouraged -- it’s far more damaging to the environment than drilling for oil. Meanwhile, hydroelectric dams can reduce dependence for wood and greenhouse-gas emitting fossil fuels. Instead of opposing them, environmental groups should help countries find locations for them that cause the least environmental damage. Technological innovation is more important to reducing environmental impact over the long run than conservation efforts are. And so on.

The overarching message is that it’s time for “a framework that reduces trade-offs between development and the environment.” For the past couple hundred years, the trade-offs have been big, and the environment has usually lost out. If that’s changing, it may be the most important news of our time.

 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

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