It would hard to overstate the importance of this study, as Monbiot explains.
The belief that economic growth can be detached from destruction appears to be based on a simple accounting mistake.
Before we get into this, remember that "mistake" is a Flatland word. Here at DOTE we interpret the word "mistake" as typical exercise in human self-delusion.
We can have it all; that is the promise of our age. We can own every gadget we are capable of imagining —' and quite a few that we are not. We can live like monarchs without compromising the Earth’s capacity to sustain us. The promise that makes all this possible is that as economies develop, they become more efficient in their use of resources. In other words, they decouple.
There are two kinds of decoupling: relative and absolute. Relative decoupling means using less stuff with every unit of economic growth. Absolute decoupling means a total reduction in the use of resources, even though the economy continues to grow. Almost all economists believe that decoupling — relative or absolute — is an inexorable feature of economic growth.
On this notion rests the concept of sustainable development. It sits at the heart of the climate talks in Paris next month and of every other summit on environmental issues. But it appears to be unfounded.
The reality of "decoupling" is unfounded.
Here’s how the false accounting works. It takes the raw materials we extract in our own countries, adds them to our imports of stuff from other countries, then subtracts our exports, to end up with something called “domestic material consumption”. But by measuring only the products shifted from one nation to another, rather than the raw materials needed to create those products, it greatly underestimates the total use of resources by the rich nations.
For example, if ores are mined and processed at home, these raw materials, as well as the machinery and infrastructure used to make finished metal, are included in the domestic material consumption accounts. But if we buy a finished product from abroad, only the weight of the metal is counted.
So as mining and manufacturing shift from countries like the UK and the US to countries like China and India, the rich nations appear to be using fewer resources.
A more rational measure, called the “material footprint”, includes all the raw materials an economy uses, wherever they happen to be extracted. When these are taken into account, the apparent improvements in efficiency disappear.
Some actual numbers may help here (Science Daily, September 2, 2013).
In 2008, the total amount of raw materials extracted globally was 70 billion metric tons — 10 billion tons of which were physically traded. However, the results show that three times as many resources (41% or 29 billion tons) were used just to enable the processing and export of these materials.
The study's lead author explains its meaning.
The researchers made a point to include the true resources that go into all of the goods that a country imports. That means not only the resources that make it into a finished product, but also the materials—from biomass to metal ores to fossil fuels—that go into enabling the complicated web of global trade. "It's very similar to a carbon footprint," says Tommy Wiedmann, the study's lead author. "It's exactly the same principle."
"As an example you might think of Japan exporting cars to the U.S.," Wiedmann explains to Co.Exist. The existing indicator measures consumption in terms of trade statistics, and trade statistics show that the U.S. consumes a certain tonnage of cars per year. "But further upstream in the production processes, somewhere in Japan or in another country there would be mining of iron ore to produce steel," Wiedmann says. "Maybe you get one ton of steel out of 1,000 tons of iron ore, and this amount of material of iron ore is actually not recorded in trade statistics."
They learned that a whopping two-fifths of all global raw materials were extracted for the purpose of exporting goods in 2008 [= 41%, 29 billion tons in 2008, as noted above].
Overlooking figures like this has allowed countries that are huge importers to seem like they’ve slowed their growing environmental footprints.
In the study, a nation's actual material footprint includes fossil fuel consumption, so once again we can confirm that the rich importing nations have effectively outsourced their carbon emissions. I talked about this in the second Flatland essay, but did not know about this study when I wrote it. This is why the developing exporting nations have large carbon footprints but relatively low per-capita consumption numbers. In theory, carbon emissions are accounted for properly by all nations, but false material footprint accounting props up the decoupling illusion in the OECD nations.
These findings are broadly consistent with Tim Garrett's work, which I also discussed in the second Flatland essay. We might go further and say that this material footprint study strongly supports Garrett's physical model of the global economy. The important word here is "global" because current accounting makes it appear that some nations have successfully decoupled economic growth and resource consumption.
But we can not look at importing nations in isolation without distorting the big picture. Don't tell me stories about Denmark. Don't tell me stories about Sweden or British Columbia. Don't tell me stories about Germany or the U.S. or the U.K. Human stories needn't reflect reality, and usually don't.
George Monbiot finishes up (reformatted, read the original linked-in above).
Governments urge us both to consume more and to conserve more.
We must extract more fossil fuel from the ground, but burn less of it. We should reduce, reuse and recycle the stuff that enters our homes, and at the same time increase, discard and replace it. How else can the consumer economy grow? We should eat less meat, to protect the living planet, and eat more meat, to boost the farming industry. These policies are irreconcilable.
The new analyses suggest that economic growth is the problem, whether or not the word sustainable is bolted to the front of it.
It’s not just that we don’t address this contradiction. Scarcely anyone dares even to name it.
It’s as if the issue is too big, too frightening to contemplate.
We seem unable to face the fact that our utopia is also our dystopia; that production appears to be indistinguishable from destruction.
I agree with Monbiot's conclusions of course. Going further, my Flatland model attempts to explain why the decoupling delusion is "too big, too frightening to contemplate." I have attempted to explain why "our utopia is also our dystopia."
There is no decoupling. There is no free lunch. "Scarcely anyone dares even to name [this contradition]," Monbiot writes.
I guess the key word is "scarcely" because I did name it. I called it Flatland.
Being "scarcely anyone" can be a lonely experience. Thanks for reading.