On Limits and Potentials

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Like in many fora across the world where sustainability is taken seriously, intense discussions are taking place about the appropriate balance between “limits” and “potentials”. The publication of the article by Rockstrom et. al. on Planetary Boundaries have brought a new urgency and intensity into these discussions. The International Resource Panel is no exception. Below is a reflection on this debate by Sangwon Suh and Mark Swilling – both members of the IRP. This reflection was discussed at a meeting of the IRP in Copenhagen in May 2012. However, it was a discussion during the module on Globalisation, Governance and Civil society that took place last week that has prompted me to post this reflection on the Footprints Blog.

Thoughts on Limits and Safe Operating Space
Mark Swilling and Sangwon Suh
[W]e are trapped in a dual excess: we have an excessive fascination for the inertia of the existing socio-technical systems and an excessive fascination for the total, global and radical nature of the changes that need to be made. The result is a frenetic snails’ pace. An apocalypse in slow motion … Changing trajectories means more than a mere apocalypse, and is more demanding than a mere revolution. But where are the passions for such changes? (Latour 2010)

Part I: Reflections on the SOS perspective  for the work of the IRP
At its most simplest, the debate that took place at the IRP meeting in Delhi in November 2011 was between a ‘limits perspective’ (LP) and a ‘potentials perspective’ (PP).
The LP argues that it is necessary to emphasize that we live on a finite planet which, in turn, means that there are limits to the amount of natural resources that can be extracted, limits to the level of exploitation of eco-system services, and limits to the amount of wastes/emissions that can be deposited into natural systems. Transgressing these limits has the unintended consequence of undermining the conditions upon which all life depends, but in particular the conditions that current consumption and production systems depend on. It therefore follows that it makes no logical sense to consider futures characterised by consumption and production systems that require more and more of a dwindling set of material resources and that result in the steady decline of a given set of eco-system services. These kinds of unsustainable futures also tend to affect the poor (to use the words of the Stern Report) ‘first and most even though they have contributed least’ to the problem.
There is no doubt about the empirical validity of the LP and it is also undoubtedly true to say that the LP conveys what has been the core message of the environmental movement and the broader sustainability movement since at least the 1970s. The notion of SOS is really the most current and influential version of the initial ‘limits to growth’ (LtG) idea (even though strictly speaking there are conceptual differences between the two notions). In other words, LtG and SOS are part of a long intellectual tradition, which can be traced back to Malthus). That said, the LP has some unintended consequences that the PP tries to address.
It is not possible to identify the key hegemonic concepts of the PP equivalent to LtG and SOS concepts. Some of them are even rooted in views that deny the LP (see below). What is discussed here, however, is a PP that accepts the basic assumptions of the LP but is worried about the paralysing consequences of the LP (as captured in the quote above by Latour). In other words, the PP emerges from those who worry about how things are going to change and, in particular, the kinds of messages (or stories) that have the greatest potential to kindle the ‘passions for change’. Put simply, the PP would prefer to emphasize the potential that could be realized if things were done differently. Or, to use a favourite phrase, how limits can become opportunities. Admittedly, this very simple characterisation of the PP covers a very broad spectrum, from conservative renditions of ecological modernization (mild reforms to the system) to very radical change (including pro-poor redistributional change as advocated by the ‘environmental space’ advocates). What will always characterise the PP is an emphasis on the importance of innovation and the significance of socio-technical transitions across the board (materials, water, eco-systems, wastes, emissions, etc).
So one option is to regard the LP-PP debate as merely about a matter of emphasis, i.e. LP emphasizes limits, and would readily concede that there is a need for innovation and transition; while the PP emphasizes the unrealised potentials and would concede that there are limits to business-as-usual (BAU). If this is all we are dealing with, then there is little to worry about. However, it is more complicated than this.
The PP is a broad church that brings together people who do not always share the same assumptions – the result can be narratives that are of deep concern for the LP. There are those who advocate a version of the PP that is actually rooted in a denial of limits. This is rarely made explicit and is expressed in rather palatable terms. For example, there are some at the Earth Institute at Columbia University (which has an annual budget of $120 million) who like to argue that limits are really only a function of our current technologies. It follows that changing the technologies can make certain limits redundant. For them all the small reforms such as energy efficiency and decarbonisation of production will not fundamentally change the ball game. Instead what is needed is grand-scale geo-reengineering to limit carbon emissions (via e.g., large-scale aerosol application), giant-scale renewable energy infrastructures (e.g. solar space stations) and very radical system-wide energy efficiency drives (e.g. banning the private car for a wide range of uses or legislating – like the UK has done  – that all buildings must be energy neutral by a certain date). Recent breakthroughs in cold fusion are also cited. For them, the water and food problem disappears when the energy-carbon problem is resolved – desalination and endless recirculation of water resolves the water problem, and with enough cheap energy food can be produced almost anywhere under a wide variety of conditions (with current experiments using GM crops and desalination in the Saudi desert cited as leading edge examples). For the Earth Institute and similar outfits, the problem is that virtually no investment is taking place in these kinds of grand-scale geo-reengineering solutions.
Another version of the PP is the market perspective reflected in the ‘substitution’ idea, i.e. that if certain goods and services become too expensive due to scarcities, markets will take care of this by providing incentives for substitutes.  In this perspective, a combination of internalization of externalities and the market mechanism will resolve any natural resources and environmental problems. These models can get quite sophisticated, including arguments that the market is actually the best protector of the environment. If only state subsidies of environmentally problematic production and consumption could cease, the market signals would be sufficient to stimulate alternatives within the required time frames. For them, therefore, potential is realised by reducing state intervention and freeing up the market. There are, of course, advocates of this perspective who accept the idea of ‘limits’, but most within this camp are soft on limits because for them limits are limits because of the current technologies protected by vested interests via the state.
Factor Five probably brings together a third PP perspective that draws inspiration from both the techno-fix and free market traditions. It provides large amounts of evidence that innovations can drastically improve resource productivity (but does not advocate the grand-scale geo-reengineering variety) and it argues that significant state interventions will be needed to ensure that there is an appropriate set of market conditions. These interventions are not just about withdrawal of the state to free up the market, nor are they about ‘command-and-control’, but rather they are about using ‘economic instruments’ to reshape markets in ways that result in resource substitutions (i.e. a shift from one resource to another, e.g. fossil fuels to RE) and resource productivity (better use of existing resources). If there is a name for the movement associated with Factor Five type thinking, it would be the Bright Green Movement that likes to distinguish itself from the doom-and-gloom brigade associated with what they label as the Dark Green Movement.
What worries the LP about the PP is that it is never clear which of these three versions of the PP is at play. For extreme LP pessimists like James Lovelock, for example, no matter what innovations and reforms are undertaken we face a massive adjustment over the forthcoming decades as population size reduces down to what the planet can support, i.e. 2.5 billion people. For him, the PP is naïve (although he likes the geo-reengineering potential of large-scale nuclear power). For the mainstream advocates of the LP, the more pernicious threats come from PP strategies that drum up support for massive investments in technologies that are represented as solutions but will actually make things worse. Biofuels is, of course, the classic example of this now. But there are many others: organic food for developed world markets that may be better for ecosystems but are more carbon intensive because they are flown in from around the world; green consumption campaigns riddled with rebound effects that reinforce accelerated material consumption; new ‘green’ elite enclaves that celebrate conspicuous consumption, etc.
The LP is terrified of geo-reengineering because of the unintended consequences of messing with highly complex systems. Examples include worries about seeding oceans with iron filings to increase algae (that could also spawn giant marine species), genetically engineering lignocellulosic solutions for second generation biofuels (that could threaten forests), or converting the global coal fleet to a nuclear fleet. Systems thinking, however, reinforces both perspectives: the geo-reengineers build systems dynamics models to show how they can reboot the system, and their opponents build systems dynamics models to show that there are too many connections to accurately predict what will happen.
Given what can be disguised in the name of a PP, advocates of the LP fall back on the security of LtG or SOS because at least this draws a clear line in the sand. To this extent they go beyond the Brundtland Commission which refused to acknowledge that there is an absolute limit to natural resources favouring, instead, the notion that the only limits are organizational and technological. For the LP, the PP that pervades the Brundtland Report has not resulted in the radical changes needed to reverse the unsustainable development trends identified by the Commission. Yes, a lot has changed and at least limits are now being recognised, but unless these limits are reaffirmed and even refined to demonstrate there is less and less ‘operating space’ as time goes by without radical action, more and more will be said about realising potentials without much being done to implement the changes that are needed.
It is, therefore, arguable that the debate between LP and PP is not just a matter of emphasis. As things get worse, the LP becomes more insistent about LtG and SOS. As the mind-set of limits becomes an increasingly entrenched basis for non-action, the PP becomes increasingly insistent that we can resolve our problems – that we need to avoid despair – if we realise that there are many different economically sensible ways of doing things. To use Latour’s poetry: an ‘apocalypse in slow motion’ versus ‘passions for change’.
The next question, of course, is whether the body of ideas emerging within the IRP helps go beyond this LP-PP dualism. In my view, the IRP needs the core elements of both perspectives – we need to emphasize limits (or SOS) in order to demonstrate that BAU is unsustainable, but we also need to accept that these limits change (in both positive and negative ways) in response to wider system changes, i.e. limits are to some extent relative. Or, to put it simply, limits with a small ‘L’. In other words, our use of limits has a specific limited but strategic purpose, namely to demonstrate the unsustainability of BAU. Secondly, we need to accept that the PP is far more effective in arousing the ‘passions for change’ which means making sure that we emphasize not just ‘good policies that can result in good things’, but also the fact that there is already a movement of change out there that is responding across many sectors and geographical spaces to the underlying threats of resource depletion and eco-system degradation (Factor Five way of thinking).
It is arguable that a body of ideas is slowly bubbling up from the various reports of the IRP that may help to create a balance between the LP and PP perspectives on the world. Indeed, it might be worthwhile to evaluate our work in these terms, i.e. does our work in general and in each report contain an adequate balance between ‘limits’ and ‘potentials’?
Although it is not captured in explicit terms anywhere, I think the materials flow and impacts perspectives that pervade the work of the IRP clearly shows that we do like to emphasize limits. But we are not in the James Lovelock camp (or, at least not yet – Stefan’s surprise discovery that we might not in fact have enough land to meet our needs is the first sign of a shift towards a stronger sense of limits). At the same time, sitting in IRP meetings and reading IRP documents comes nowhere close to what it is like in other fora totally dominated by a strong LP perspective where the dark clouds of pessimism and despair hang heavily in the air. There is a pervasive sense that it is possible to quantify what needs to be done and an equally strong sense of the socio-institutional mechanisms and processes of transition that will be needed. However, this is not a free market sensibility of state withdrawal, market rationality and substitutions. It is what could be called a ‘radical pragmatism’, a kind of opportunistic approach – as opposed to ideological approach – to the tools and instruments available to states and the global governance system to reshape markets, invest in R&D, regulate and persuade.
It is in this regard that there may be a couple of cross-cutting concepts that are emerging which could combine in ways that express our radically pragmatic ‘limits’ and ‘potentials’ approach. Decoupling  seems to have survived as a synthesizing theme because it implies both a response to limits and the potential of resource productivity. Furthermore, we have evolved this concept in a way that takes into account the global regional contexts (developed economies, BRIC plus economies, and developing economies). For these reasons it might well be controversial. The 626 page Green Economy Report only uses the decoupling idea in the chapter on manufacturing, and the 251 page UN World Economic Survey 2011 (subtitled The Great Green Technological Transformation) only discusses the concept in a brief paragraph saying that while there is evidence of relative decoupling, ‘absolute decoupling’ will not happen as long as total global consumption keeps rising.  While the GER and UN WESS can be criticised for not engaging with decoupling, we should not make the mistake of non-engaging the ‘green economy’ idea.
Maybe the synthesis of our work should be written as a contribution to the Green Economy discussion. The point of departure could be a quote from the introductory chapter of the Green Economy Review:
“The causes of these crises vary, but at a fundamental level they all share a common feature: the gross misallocation of capital. During the last two decades, much capital was poured into property, fossil fuels and structured financial assets with embedded derivates. However, relatively little in comparison was invested in renewable energy, energy efficiency, public transportation, sustainable agriculture, ecosystem and biodiversity protection, and land and water conservation.”
Our work on material flows, environmental impacts, decoupling, resource productivity, resource efficiency, innovations in practice, metals, water and cities could be synthesized to present an alternative capital investment strategy that will address the above problem statement. We need to go beyond where everyone is at: namely they all insist on what should happen, we should be seen as the thinkers who have a grip on how it could happen.
For this to work, I think we will need to strengthen our thinking in five areas: (1) We need to trongly emphasize the significance of rising resource prices and rising costs of negative environmental impacts. These are the rising costs that really undermine BAU. Without decoupling, these trends will undermine any strategy aimed at resolving the global economic crisis. Rising resource prices effectively puts a financial value on limits – the market has, finally, become a friend of the environment. On the other hand, higher resources price will help deploy efficiency technologies and to some extent help distribute wealth more equally throughout the supply-chain. The interplay between the economy, resource prices, resource productivity and equity issues needs more scrutiny. (2) We also think that there is a key concept missing from our body of work, namely ‘transition’. There is now a significant body of literature on transitions and a global network of transition scholars (including a new journal – Environmental Change and Societal Transitions). We need to draw on this in some way to complete our story.  The advantage is that it is linked to the emerging literature on sustainability-oriented innovations which is what will be needed to make sense of Decoupling 2. (3) We need to move beyond a ‘minimising damage’ perspective to a ‘restoration’ perspective, especially with respect to our eco-system related work (i.e. land & soils, and water). Retarded collapse is clearly not the way to build a Green Economy and does not inspire action. (4) Maximizing the value or utility of consumption– I liked the way Marina distinguished between countries that need to consume ‘more with less’ from countries that need to consume ‘less with less’. To date we have skirted around this issue by saying that decoupling makes possible the maintenance of consumption while using less resources, i.e. dematerialisation. Maybe we need to address this issue.  (5) Resource potential – a new word that emerged at the 9th meeting of the IRP.  We expect more discussions among our members on resource potential.
Part II: Specific comments on the Land WG report
The debate about SOS raised by the Land and Soil Report is an important one and deserves further reflection. It might be worth capturing the debate and then unpacking it further to reveal the underlying assumptions so that we can check the rigour and validity of these assumptions.
Besides the questions on scientific rigour and validity issues, we believe that it is strategically unwise for the IRP to draw fixed limits on issues like additional land use and land conversion, livestock density, Nitrogen flux, fertilizer use, etc. suggested by the report. Neither have we any legal or institutional mechanism under which such limits can be enforced, nor did we go through rigorous multi-stakeholder consultation and consensus building processes to draw these conclusions. Furthermore, setting a limit on e.g. land use ignores the complexities of geopolitics as well as inter-temporal and inter-spatial equity issues. For instance, simply limiting additional land use and land conversion implicitly accepts and grants a free ride to previous land use and land conversion, and imposes an unfair burden on the countries whose local agricultural infrastructure is yet to be built. Limiting future land use and land conversion may be received by some as tantamount to the following argument: “You can’t cultivate your own land to feed yourself because I have done mine first.”
Lastly, we believe that providing a vision that shows ‘how something could be done’ can better draw positive actions and, more importantly, “passions for change”. A scare tactic – as opposed to providing a vision – has shown to be an ineffective way to draw a desired action. We believe that the messages from the IRP can be stronger by emphasizing how certain changes can take place to maximize the potential of the resources available rather than by drawing fixed boundaries and defining fixed limits. The concepts of resource productivity and decoupling better capture such a positive perspective rather than an emphasis on limiting resource use. This is not because we do not see the importance of understanding the limits of finite resources, but because we believe that our work can be more impactful if we emphasize potential rather than limits. For instance, the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), which was not mentioned in the report, is about mechanisms which can preserve forests by financially rewarding the provision using economic incentives to protect forests from agricultural expansion. Such an initiative, though, may be small but it is nevertheless about how certain desirable changes could happen, rather than about what should not happen.

To conclude, we think we should avoid a divisive tug-of-war between a ‘limits perspective’ and a ‘potentials perspective’. If we define what each means to avoid the extremes in each case, they become the basis for an integrated ‘limits’ and ‘potentials’ perspective that potentially has great relevance in developed, ‘BRIC plus’ and developing economy contexts. We need to engage with the Green Economy agenda by deploying the decoupling concept in ways that make it clear that rising resource productivity should become the ‘operating system’ of the Green Economy. We need to be seen as the group that tracks the modalities and temporalities of the transition and has a solid grip on real-world trends that reveal transformative potential. Decoupling 2 is clearly a key document in this regard.