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Sustainability or Collapse? An Integrated History and Future of People on Earth

Author(s):Costanza, Robert
Graumlich, Lisa J.
Steffen, Will
Reviewer(s):Coelho, Philip R. P.

Published by EH.NET (October 2007)

Robert Costanza, Lisa J. Graumlich, and Will Steffen, editors, Sustainability or Collapse? An Integrated History and Future of People on Earth. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007. xvi + 495 pp. $38 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-262-03366-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Philip R. P. Coelho, Department of Economics, Ball State University.

This book consists of an introduction and twenty-two essays and reports with an overall focus on an “Integrated History and Future of People on Earth” (IHOPE). The authors are primarily sociologists and environmentalists with representation from earth sciences (climatology, geology) and history. In spite of its pretentious title and acronym there are some worthwhile essays. In history, a very good chapter is John R McNeill’s essay on the twentieth century, “Social, Economic, and Political Forces in Environmental Change: Decadal Scale (1900 to 2000).” While I have some quibbles with it (the discussion of decolonialization is fuzzy at best), there are insights that make it worth reading and repeating. McNeill correctly states that the economic growth that occurred in the last half of the twentieth century “… is the most unusual in the history of economic growth, although many people, having experienced nothing else, now imagine it is as normal” (315). This is emphatically true; the human race has never experienced such a widespread and rapid rate of economic growth encompassing the majority of the globe’s inhabitants. If it continues through the mid twenty-first century the world will have been transformed in a myriad of ways, some predictable others unpredictable. A possible prediction can be derived from McNeill’s discussion of urbanization. McNeill states that: “[The low birth rate in cities] if it persists, means that cities are resuming their historic role as demographic black holes. Before 1880 they consumed population because their death rates were so high; after an interval of growth by natural increase they began to consume population because their birth rates were so low. London today, as in 1750, would shrink without in-migration.” This essay is worth reading and assigning to undergraduates/graduates.

There are other good, more specialized essays in this volume. Timothy F. Flanney has a brief but comprehensive chapter (“The Trajectory of Human Evolution in Australia: 10,000 B.P. to the Present”) on (the lack) of human evolution in Australia. Richard H. Grove’s chapter (“Revolutionary Weather: The Climate and Economic Crisis of 1785-1795 and the Discovery of El Nino”) correlating crop failures, famines and revolutions with shifting ocean currents is an intriguing hypothesis. His hypothesis is that the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars and the turbulence associated with the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries can be traced back to crop failures and weather patterns attributable to changes in El Nino, the Pacific Ocean current. He marshals evidence well and he is persuasive, but I reserve acceptance until I see the hypothesis more widely debated and examined. Nevertheless Grove’s chapter is well worth reading for an imaginative, well-researched and intriguing hypothesis.

In contrast to an essay with a novel hypothesis, is Nathan J. Mantua’s data driven essay (“A Decadal Chronology of Twentieth Century Changes in Earth’s Natural Systems”). He emphasizes and presents data throughout his paper, saving speculations for presentation in his summary. Mantua details the various consensus estimates for data series ranging from temperatures to nitrous oxide, to the North Atlantic Oscillation. Whether the juxtaposition of these series makes sense is a question for climatologists/meteorologists. However he does seem to attribute too much to natural forces, while ignoring economic forces. He credits (293) the, “[r]apid declines in large predators” in the oceans of the world to changes in the chemical composition of the atmosphere and oceans. However cod fishery of the Grand Banks did not collapse because of climatological/oceanographic changes, but because of over-fishing. The over fishing was a predictable result of the lack of property rights in the Grand Banks cod fishery. Climatic change may have been occurring, but the Grand Banks cod fishery collapse could have been easily avoided by rigidly enforcing catch limits and/or assigning property rights to the fishery.

Another relatively good essay that could be improved by introducing economic analysis is that of Christian Pfister (“Little Ice Age-type Impacts and the Mitigation of Social Vulnerability to Climate in the Swiss Canton of Bern prior to 1800″). The essay is marred by the misuse of economic data. He uses eighteenth century data to calculate the percentage change in prices within localities and to assess relative scarcity among localities. For example, if the price of grain rose by 60 percent in London and 300 percent in Lwow, the difference is indicative of greater scarcity in Lwow relative to London. But if Lwow is an inland area (true) with high-transport costs (true) then it could be indicative of either scarcity in Lwow or scarcity elsewhere. Imagine that the price of transport is so high that in normal times Lwow is not an exporter of grain even though its prices are very low compared to the export markets of London and Amsterdam; the low prices are not sufficiently low enough to compensate for the high transport costs given the “normal” price of grain in the export markets. If the price of grain outside of Lwow rises sufficiently beyond the threshold where it becomes profitable to export grain (the additional price compensating the high transport costs) from Lwow, the price in Lwow will rise penny for penny with the market (non-Lwow) price. Whether this was the case, I do not know; however if it is not true, then were there grain imports into Lwow? If there were no grain imports into Lwow, what is the explanation? Regardless Pfister should be wary of criticizing Robert Fogel for “questionable statistical manipulation” (204) and completely rejecting the claims that famines are man-made catastrophes. Appealing to authority is not a strong argument, but when Nobel Laureates and other eminent economists claim (with evidence) that famines are typically not the result of natural phenomena, it would be wise to tread cautiously. Pfister has one citation (204) to buttress his case against Fogel, and Karl Gunnar Persson (and by extension Amartya Sen). More modesty in the presentation of his hypothesis and less hubris in his claims would avoid potential embarrassments.

The essays I have mentioned are outliers because they are acceptable scholarly exercises; the other essays are not. The worst that this book has to offer is that by Dennis L. Meadows (“Evaluating Past Forecasts: Reflections on One Critique of The Limits to Growth“). This essay is an extended attack on a book review of The Limits to Growth that appeared in the New York Times on April 2, 1972. What can we say about an author placing in a collected volume an essay that is devoted to attacking reviewers thirty-five years after the review? Well self-indulgent, monomaniacal and bizarre are some adjectives that come to mind. Meadows’ main complaint of the review is that the authors (P. Passel et al.) did not read his book. To ascertain the truth of his complaint I dutifully read the original review, and then checked out The Limits to Growth. I cannot say whether Meadows’ claim is correct, but I believe it may be because the book is truly unreadable. In Meadows’s (et al.) book there are charts of time series that have multiple simultaneous outcomes, impenetrable flow diagrams, numerous unquantified feed back effects, and, all-in all, the diagrams and prose are impenetrable. The passage of time has not been kind to The Limits to Growth ? literally, empirically, and figuratively. In the distant future, given past behavior, there is a non-trivial probability that Meadows will savage me for these comments; so be it.

I will stop my comments on the individual essays following parental injunctions about not saying anything if unable to say anything nice. The basic problem with the remainder of the essays and the book itself is captured in its title: “Sustainability or Collapse?” The hubris evident in the title infects the remaining essays. They are typically self-indulgent, jargon-ridden, confused and confusing, replete with self-citations, and dogma. The dichotomy in the title is false; it is supported by neither science nor history. Entropy is continually reducing complexity to uniformity. To maintain civilization (complexity) humans have to utilize dense packets of energy to offset entropy. What is “sustainable” is a function of how effectively humanity can discover and manipulate the resources available to combat entropy. What is “sustainable” now, was not sustainable two centuries ago. There is a possibility that humanity’s ability to find new and more productive ways to manipulate the material world will cease in the near future, but that possibility is dwarfed by the chance that the Earth will be negatively affected by an asteroid, and that is a remote, albeit real, possibility. Inherent in any prediction of “collapse” are necessary corollary predictions on the basic limits to human knowledge. There will be no fusion, fission energy will remain costly and politically difficult, nanotechnology will be fruitless, genetic engineering will never produce organisms that reduce the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere, and so on, and on. I suspect that most predictions that today’s futurologists make about future technology will prove to have been overly modest given what we have seen happen to humanity’s knowledge and control of the material world over the past quarter century. So, when we talk about “sustainability,” what level of technology are we specifying and what margin of error is “reasonable” for that specification? These questions are not considered.

With the exceptions noted, the essays in the volume are also innocent of economic principles. Considerations of costs and benefits are tertiary; what discount rate to apply to future cost/benefits is of no concern. Critics of catastrophic environmentalism are completely ignored. The majority of the essays contained in this volume are simply normative exercises in du jour environmentalism. If you are a believer and want to reinforce the faith, read it; but if you want a serious discussion of the issues, by and large, it is to be avoided.

Philip R. P. Coelho is Professor of Economics at Ball State University. His current research is on the effects of morbid diseases on economic productivity, and economic methodology and ethics.

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative