You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘ecological debt’ tag.

A combine harvester in a fieldJeremy Harding on food insecurity in the London Review of Books:

“The new hesitation about food reflects broader doubts about the last 30 years – the trente glorieuses of the Anglo-Saxon model: our confidence in the energetic binge-and-treadmill culture that propelled us through the 1980s and 1990s has taken a knock. We doubt, above all, whether we can pay off our rising debts to the environment. Feelings about eating and not eating are more immediate than thoughts about rainforests; like the energy or water embedded in the produce we buy, many fears, including fundamental ones about life and death, destruction and incorporation, are already embedded in food. Others migrate to it, making food the bearer of unwieldy questions about the survival of a planet whose destiny we can’t foresee and the fate of people whose problems aren’t the same as ours. Do we bolt down what’s in front of us or do we curb our appetite in the name of our children’s future, or a ‘good’ we can’t guarantee? The modern table is groaning with dilemmas.”

Read the rest of Harding’s article here, and find out about nef‘s views on food security in Nine Meals for Anarchy. The concept of ‘ecological debt’ is explored in our Interdependence work stream, and in Andrew Simms’ book.

(Image by piston9 via Flickr)


Bookmark and ShareDr Victoria Johnson is lead researcher on climate and energy at nef.

I can’t recall the last time I’ve seen a pure blue sky without the tapestry of contrails that sketch out the invisible highways of the global aviation network.

The reality of the closed airspace due to the volcanic plume from an eruption near the Icelandic glacier Eyjafjallajoekull (pronounced aya-feeyapla-yurkul) hit me whilst strolling back along the Southbank on a warm spring Sunday afternoon. As I walked along the river, the world seemed strangely calm. The overhead roar of jet engines from aircraft as they march with military precession along the flight path to Heathrow, were conspicuous by their absence.

Eruption of Eyjafjallajökull Volcano, Iceland, 17th of April, 2010 (NASA, MODIS Satellite)

But, such events also reveal that we are hugely dependent on what often seems like hidden infrastructure, woven together to create an intricate web of interdependence across the globe.

Read the rest of this entry »

Bookmark and ShareRupert Crilly is a researcher in Environmental Economics at nef

If anyone needed a wake-up call to the perilous state of biodiversity, there aren’t many statistics that hit home as hard as half of our closest relatives being in imminent danger of extinction. The IUCN has recently reported that 48% of all primate species are critically endangered. There remain about 3,300 simakobu monkeys in Indonesia, less than 300 Cross River gorillas in Nigeria and around 110 black crested gibbons in Asia. Madagascar holds less than 100 sportive lemurs, and Vietnam less than 70 golden-headed langurs. Conservation International has released similarly gloomy news on the critical threat to 25 of the most endangered primates and how-to’s on saving them. There are around 40,000 Orang-utans left, where their habitats are being rapidly destroyed for palm-oil production.

Primate and Bush-meat Trading
A blog over at Treehugger has done a good job at researching the bush-meat and pet trades. A 2004 FAO report found the bush-meat trade a massive component of both for subsistence and commercial trade. For example, the report found estimates that around 90% of Ghanaians eat bush-meat, totalling 385,000 metric tonnes per year. In Liberia, where 105,000 metric tonnes are consumed, bush-meat trade contributes around US$42m (estimated in 1991). Bush-meat contributes 1.4% to Sierra Leone’s GDP (1996). On top of this, Animal Defenders International has estimated the primate pet trade at US$12bn a year, where Europe is one of the world’s largest markets for wildlife and wildlife products.

Even considering- in fact, partly because of- the subsistence importance of bush-meat, this consumption is clearly unsustainable. A primary symptom of bad management of these resources is that, exacerbated by habitat loss, many of these species are threatened with extinction and still being hunted in the remainder of their natural range. But are industrialised countries doing any better? The figure below from the FAO shows fish balances across world regions:

It seems not. So what is to be done? Well, no big answers right now. But as a start, in a Nature article, Scholes and Biggs (2005) use a variety of different management scenarios to estimate an ‘intactness’ index of biodiversity. A graph of six different management approaches below show their impacts on biodiversity. The y-axis is the “average expert estimate of remaining fraction of pre-colonial population”.

In conserving biodiversity, clearly ‘protected’ is best. But for those of you who think ‘protected’ means non-use to humans, have a look here on how protective management can provide resources sustainably. Fishing around (<5km) a protected area of New England Coast provided 73% of the US catches of haddock. Without this fishery Closed Area stocks would probably be decimated.

If we want sustained development, better management of resources is needed over short-sighted consumption. There is a lot more to the issues than covered here, but there’s enough to say that management that respects the environment – even a ‘free’ environment – is far more likely to sustain our needs in the long-run. And the biggest issue of all is time. And, thankfully, the Tick has a thing or two to say about this as well.

“Time’s a-wasting and evil’s out there making hand-crafted mischief for the swap meet of villainy. And you can’t strike a good deal with evil. No matter how much you haggle. We don’t need to look for a bargain; goodness is cheap because it’s free, and free is as cheap as it gets. Cut. What was that pig about?”

Bookmark and ShareAndy Wimbush is nef‘s Communications Assistant and blogmaster.

Last week, Professor Jayati Ghosh of Jawaharlal Nehru University, India, argued that the Nobel Prize for Economics was in need of an overhaul. For too long, she complained, the prize has been won by economists in a more-or-less neoclassical mould. The prize has never been awarded to a woman, and only twice to economists from developing countries. This would have to change, she concluded, if the prize was to retain any ‘wider legitmacy’ beyond the confines of Western academia and policymaking.

Here at nef, we could think of plenty of deserving economists who would break the mould: Herman Daly, Manfred Max-Neef and indeed Professor Ghosh herself. But we’re pleased that it’s gone to Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to have won the prize.

Ostrom’s work focuses on the management and protection of natural resources, making her an excellent choice in an age of ecological debt. She argues that the solution to the over-exploitation is neither increased Government control nor mass privatisation of vast tracts of land. Instead, she claims, the people best able to take care of these resources are those who live closest to them.

Through exhaustive studies of fisheries, forests and water supplies, Ostrom found that common control and shared decision-making was most likely to lead to the resources being used sustainably. Her work is a vindication of the ideas found in peasant and indigenous people’s movements the world over.

Ostrom was also one of the originators of one of nef‘s key concepts: co-production, a means of engaging people and communities to develop solutions to problems that would otherwise be tackled in a top-down manner. Ostrom first developed the concept in the 1970s, when she was asked to explain to the Chicago police why the crime rate went up when the police came off the beat and into patrol cars. She used co-production as a way of explaining why the police need the community as much as the community need the police.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Bookmark and ShareAndrew Simms is nef‘s Policy Director and head of nef’s Climate Change programme.

The first 'green budget' is very balanced – every measure to stop climate change is balanced with one that makes it worse

Faced with worsening projections for global warming and energy security, learning that the wind turbine maker Vestas will be closing its factory on the Isle of Wight is a bit like hearing that pharmaceutical companies are closing down the production of flu vaccines just as the alert for swine flu goes from level five to full pandemic.

The comparison is useful in more ways than one. It reveals how governments can recognise and act to avert systemic risk in some areas like high finance and flu, but have blind spots or grossly inadequate responses in others, such as climate change. It’s also a useful reminder that when natural systems cross a critical threshold – for example, the number and distribution of people infected with a virulent flu virus, or the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – humanity quickly finds that it is no longer in the driving seat and able to control the direction of travel.

Last month the budget demonstrated the continuing confusion of a political system still struggling to come to terms with the inescapable parameters set by natural systems. The budget was balanced, but only in the sense that anything positive done to promote a low-carbon economy was cancelled out by other measures that will lock in fossil fuel-intensive infrastructure. Both the car and oil industry were happy recipients of budget bungs.

Grasping at the few optimistic straws still blowing around the economy, the chancellor, Alastair Darling, pointed out that the global economy still stood to double in size over the next 20 years.

What he forgot to mention, or didn’t know, is that with each “doubling” of the economy, you use as many resources as with all the previous doublings combined.

Prof Roderick Smith of the Royal Academy of Engineering at Imperial College identified these resource implications of economic doubling. Engineers, it seems, are more adept at understanding material limits. He wrote that the physical view of the economy “is governed by the laws of thermodynamics and continuity” and so, “the question of how much natural resource we have to fuel the economy, and how much energy we have to extract, process and manufacture is central to our existence”.

This year, on a conservative analysis, the UK started to live beyond its environmental means – consuming more and producing more waste than the UK itself can handle – by Easter Sunday, 12 April. This was our “ecological debt day“.

Given that both the UK and the world as a whole already use more resources and produce more waste than collectively our forests, fields, oceans and atmosphere can safely provide and absorb, where, we must ask, will the resources come from to double the size of the global economy?

Darling’s speech was to introduce the first “green budget”, a package meant to put the country on a path to sustainability. It included the world’s first legally binding carbon budget. Yet its targets to reduce emissions are roughly half of what is necessary, according to the climate research work of Prof Kevin Anderson at the Tyndall Centre at Manchester University.

The budget also included roughly £1.4bn of apparently new money to reduce emissions across a range of measures for energy efficiency and renewables. That sum amounts to about 0.09% of the UK’s GDP, and compares sadly to the 20% of GDP that the International Monetary Fund estimates the UK set aside for bailing out its financial sector.

But even here the green hue is darkened by our continuing dependence on oil, coal and gas, and plans to build more runways, roads and new coal fired power stations that capture only a small proportion of their carbon emissions.

Support in the budget to extract an additional 2bn barrels of North Sea oil will produce extra greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to the UK’s entire emissions in 2006, including shipping and aviation. Funds for car scrappage schemes, lacking any meaningful environmental criteria, could also see emissions rise rather than fall.

Funds for car scrappage schemes, lacking any meaningful environmental criteria, could also see emissions rise rather than fall.

Plans for electric cars may sound attractive, but you still need the clean energy to power them. More than a low-carbon vehicle strategy, if the UK is to improve its own energy security and environment, and tackle climate change, we need a low-car vehicle strategy.

Ultimately, the message sent by the budget was confusion. Setting an emissions reduction target in these circumstances is like setting someone a deadline to give up smoking, and then pushing them into a smoke-filled bar where all the walls are lined with cigarette machines.

Nature may be beautiful, but it also has a mind of its own and can take or leave humanity. That’s why we have to respect it and work within its parameters. Both flu pandemics and global warming are lethal. One difference is that if we go through the next 91 months without changing course, the climate roulette of runaway warming will not blow over. It will endure.

91 months and counting…

This article was originally published at Comment is Free.

Bookmark and ShareAndrew Simms is nef‘s Policy Director and head of nef’s Climate Change programme.


The experience of small islands can teach us a lot about living good lives at low environmental cost

“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.


Vanuatu is a happy nation with a tiny ecological footprint. And yet it is seriously threatened by climate change thanks to the high ecological footprints of industrialised nations.

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.

Bookmark and ShareAndy Wimbush is nef‘s Communications Assistant and blogmaster.

Today sees the release of two rather sobering reports. First up, we have the 2008 edition of the WWF’s Living Planet Report. It calculates that human beings are using natural resources up faster than the world can replenish them: this year we’ve overshot our ecosystems’ carrying capacity by 30%. Not surprisingly, WWF have chosen to describe this situation as an ‘ecological credit crunch’. Our estimated ecological debt in monetary terms is £2.5 trillion (about twice as much as this year’s credit crisis). More coverage of this at the Guardian and the BBC.

Next is the latest from Green New Deal co-author Jeremy Leggett and his colleagues at the UK Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy Security. They warn that the UK is going to start feeling the pinch of peak oil around about 2013. We should expect oil prices far higher than the record $147-a-barrel of this summer. More on this at the Daily Telegraph.

It’s not all bad news, however. Only a few weeks after Ed Miliband, the new Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, announced that Britain will commit to an 80% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, it seems he’s now agreed to include aviation and shipping in the climate bill. These are some encouraging promises. Now let’s get on with that Green New Deal.


This blog is operated by nef (the new economics foundation).

Follow us on:



Put People First
Airplot - join the plot
nef employees blog in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the new economics foundation.