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February 2010 newsletter
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February 2010 printable subscriber newsletter

Ecologist

1st February, 2010

In this month's newsletter, we look at using historical records to understand today's fish populations; we wonder whether existing sustainable businesses will support tomorrow's economy; we look at the worrying prospect of peak phosphorus and uncover the green truth about tetrapak food cartons. To download the newsletter, log in and scroll to the bottom of the page...

So, the UK is officially out of recession. Judging by the ambivalence of the headlines writers (‘UK crawls out of recession’, admitted the FT at the end of January), no-one is quite sure what to make of it.

On the one hand there is clearly a reason to be cheerful – no-one wants recessions. Even those most committed to steady-state,
ecological economics realise that a recession is not a sustainable way in which to reduce an economy to its ecologically appropriate size – it is messy, causes great amounts of non-economic suffering, reduces investment in environmental projects and encourages politicians to reach for the nearest quick-fix solution. If that means shovelling in the coal, oil or gas even faster then so be it, most politicians would reason.

But at the same time there is a pervasive feeling that the recession woke the West up from its collective dream, and, like most dreams, certain parts of it don’t make a right lot of sense.

Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, told MPs in late January that, in light of the fact that the UK banking sector was five times the size of the nation’s GDP, ‘one way or another it doesn’t make sense to pretend... that this is a system we can credibly, easily support’.

It’s true that in the last couple of years King has enjoyed rocking the boat, but the significance of these words from the man whose institution is busy pumping money into propping up the banking sector should not be underestimated.

And his words are important on a broader scale: they remind us that, sooner or later, no matter how well a system seems to be functioning it will have to acknowledge natural limits.

Several of our writers have addressed the very same issue this month. Professor Tim Jackson, author of the highly influential Sustainable Development Commission report ‘Prosperity Without Growth’, argues (page 4) that ‘to resist growth is to risk economic and social collapse; to pursue it relentlessly is to endanger the ecosystems on which we depend for long-term survival’. He suggests that the existing ‘Cinderella economy’ of sustainable businesses might form part of a new economic blueprint.

Like him, Ewan Kingston (page 6) blows the whistle on the extraordinary failings of governments worldwide to face up the possibility of ‘peak phosphorus’ – the point beyond which supplies of that element, indispensable in all types of agriculture, will go into a terminal decline.

And last but not least, environmental researcher Paul Mobbs (page 10) argues in his comment article that, despite the popularity of ‘efficiency’ projects, there are simple physical limits to have far we can decarbonise our economy using existing approaches. We will, he argues, simply have to make do with less.

If 2010 is to be the year of recognising financial limits, let’s hope we might start to recognise some natural ones too.

Mark Anslow,
Editor


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