“A man who falls from a 100-storey building will survive the first 99 storeys unscathed,” wrote the economist EJ Mishan in response to critics of his attack on the costs of economic growth. It was the 1960s and then, as now, it was heresy to question growth. The cry went up: “But natural resources haven’t actually run out yet, and what about the costs of not growing?” Mishan returned to his falling man: “Were he as sanguine as our technocrats, his confidence would grow with the number of storeys he passed on his downward flight and would be at a maximum just before his free-fall abruptly halted.”
The environmental movement was labelled alarmist and wrong in reaction to the subsequent Limits to Growth report, written by scientists at MIT, which projected the natural resource constraints of trying to grow indefinitely in a finite space. When, last year, a detailed study compared the original report with 30 years of data and trends, it found a solid correlation between projections and reality. Among environmentalists there was less a sense of final triumph than sadness at a critical opportunity lost.
Now, with the UK’s ecological debt still rising, and perhaps about 90 months to go before the world enters a more perilous phase of warming, we cannot afford another lost month. We must look for new models of economy that can operate in dynamic equilibrium with the biosphere on which we depend. In getting out of this mess, our creativity needs more help than anything. How can we begin to imagine what it looks like to live within our environmental means?
Britain is an island nation, and we could start by looking at the experience of other islands, especially small ones. Try to grow indefinitely on a small island, and you’ll come a cropper. It’s not so different on a small island planet. When societies get it wrong on small islands the consequences are clear, think of the Pacific island of Nauru, mined to virtual destruction for its rich phosphate. But when islands get it right, they show how it is possible to lead good lives at much lower environmental cost.
The Happy Planet Index is a measure that assesses the relative efficiency with which natural resources are converted into meaningful human outcomes. It compares peoples’ ecological footprints with life expectancy and life satisfaction. On average, island nations score better than other states on all three indicators. Within different global regions, islands come top. Malta was ranked highest in the western world, the top five nations in Africa are all islands, and two of the top four are in Asia. Sitting on top of the index was the island of Vanuatu.
Several reasons might explain why. Isolation and relative vulnerability have probably encouraged more adaptive and supportive ways of organising island societies and economies. Traditional Pacific agriculture is, for example, highly resilient to extreme climatic conditions. Island economies like that of Tuvalu developed around sharing and gift giving, helping to create highly co-operative and mutually supportive communities.
In Karl Polanyi‘s classic work The Great Transformation, he presents various types of social and economic organisation on islands as evidence against some of Adam Smith’s more sweeping assumptions on the central role of markets. Complex forms of “gift exchange”, in which people partly meet their needs not through markets mediated with cash, but through the giving and receiving of gifts, operated over vast areas, revealing a system that met people’s needs in a challenging environment, and bonded society together.
In their book The Spirit Level – on the comprehensive importance of equality – Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett point out that economies more based on sharing and reciprocity equalise access to resources and create more equal, resilient communities. Conversely, unlimited growth, fed by individualistic, beggar-thy-neighbour competition, is no recipe for survival on an ecologically stressed and finite planet.
The next lesson is deceptively simple: on islands you have to respect environmental limits. Close contact with nature may also help develop deeper cultural respect for ecosystems and ingrain notions of environmental stewardship. But we are challenged at the global level to learn – in a few short years – lessons that such small communities often took millennia to arrive at. We can bail out the banks, but if we bankrupt the biosphere there is nowhere else to go.
This article was first published in The Guardian, Monday 13th April 2009.