The world is facing incredibly serious natural resource and environmental challenges: Climate change, fresh water depletion, ocean over-fishing, deforestation, air and water pollution, the struggle to feed a planet of billions.
All of these challenges are exacerbated by ever rising demand – over the next 40 years estimates are that demand for fresh water will rise 50%, demand for food will rise 70%, and demand for energy will nearly double – all in the same period that we need to tackle climate change, depletion of rivers and aquifers, and deforestation.
One view of these looming threats is that we’ve exhausted planet’s resources. We’ve overshot the planet’s carrying capacity. Economic growth – the root problem driving our growing consumption and pollution – has to end. Indeed, the global economy may even need to shrink to avoid complete ecological disaster, but that's life.
The problem isn’t economic growth, per se. Nor is the problem that our natural resources are too small. While finite, the natural resources the planet supplies are vast and far larger than humanity needs in order to continue to thrive and grow prosperity for centuries to come. The problem, rather, is the types of resources we access, and the manner and efficiency with which we use them.
And the ultimate solution to those problems is innovation – innovation in the science and technology that we use to tap into physical resources, and innovation in the economic system that steers our consumption.
The situation we’re in isn’t a looming wall that we’re doomed to crash into. It’s a race – a race between depletion and pollution of natural resources on one side, and our pace of innovation on the other.
I’m not claiming here that we’re assured of victory. Rather, I’m claiming that winning – greatly expanding the global economy while at the same time shrinking or even reversing our impact on the planet – is possible. Whether or not we achieve that depends in very large part on the choices we make.
So with that, let’s take a closer look at the problems, at why ending growth isn’t a viable solution, at the true resources of the planet, and at what we need to do to win this most important race.