Bankrupting Nature: Denying Our Planetary Boundaries

Anders Wijkman and Johan Rockström
ISBN: 0415539692
A Review by Susan Froetschel

When the subprime crisis and the global crisis struck after years of reckless speculation, many politicians and business leaders, especially those in the United States, argued that governments could not afford legislation to ease climate change. Regulations, taxes and subsidies to encourage use of alternative energies would cost too much, destroying jobs and communities, or so the argument went. Since 2007, more books are taking an economic approach in arguing for investment in renewables and phase-out of fossil fuels – and Bankrupting Nature: Denying Our Planetary Boundaries could be among the more engaging, even offering hope that dependence on fossil fuels can be overcome. 

As humanity continues to live beyond its means, a series of bubbles underway could make the credit crises seem like minor irritations, warn authors Anders Wijkman and Johan Rockström, both from Sweden. Winners and losers are inevitable: If governments do get serious on climate change, losers will include the investors and businesses that have failed to hedge against fossil fuels and fund substitutes. If governments continue to delay sensible policies and natural systems reach dangerous tipping points, millions more can expect to suffer from violent weather, severe food or water shortages, loss of homes and communities in disruption.

Reckless speculation with natural resources could be more dangerous than speculation in the financial markets – because ultimately, the financial world depends on a stable natural world and not the other way around. The modern economy could already be too big for the ecological base. The 1 billion in the developed world use 32 times as much as those who live in the developing world, more than 5 billion. But the developing world is catching up with energy use, carbon emissions and consumption of all kinds.  

Wijkman and Rockström insist their book is not simply about climate change and more about sustainability. Targets for their criticism are not limited to the energy industry but to industries that fail to aim for efficiency, media that focus on personality more than message, economists who refuse to recognize the costs of eroding natural resources, politicians who avoid long-term planning or policymaking, and entire societies that waste limited resources without thought for sustainability. Even education centers fail the planet by placing the challenges into separate categories, failing to address the interrelated links of population growth, fossil-fuel dependence, overconsumption, unsustainable use of natural resources and the myth of endless growth.

The warnings are clear, with 98 percent of climate researchers agreeing on Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change findings.

Yet special interests that profit from the status quo compromise with science; the ignorant deny troubling trends and punish political leaders who try to take a long-term view in policymaking. Skeptics scrutinize and cherry-pick among a huge array of scientific findings, refusing to connect that fossil fuels, along with excessive debt and consumption, are gradually destroying the livelihoods and homes of others. Instead, these skeptics pounce on every discrepancy to raise doubts. But there’s little doubt among those living in devastated communities, like the New York metropolitan area hit by a triplet of storms in October, that such disasters are the new normal long predicted by IPCC working groups.

Climate has no boundaries, and there is no decoupling from the irresponsible.

So the authors also direct arguments to those who prioritize the economy over the environment, and they address the criticisms from skeptics one by one with concise evidence.

Claims that politics have tainted decades of research could be right, but contrary to how the skeptics and deniers have claimed. Instead, Wijkman and Rockström argue that few scientists convey the full scope of the challenges: “CO2 emissions must now be reduced by at least 80 per cent; that CO2 represents only 60-70 per cent of emissions and that other gases present an equal or greater risk; in addition, that we risk undermining the major carbon sinks on Earth – the oceans and terrestrial ecosystems; that taking into account population growth, poverty, and the right to development in emerging economies, there was absolutely no chance of stabilising the climate below 2 degrees unless the rich countries phased out their emissions well before 2050.”

Rockström is well known for pointing out nine of Earth’s biophysical processes in a 2009 article for Nature. Destabilization of any one of these – stratospheric ozone depletion, acidification of the oceans, loss of biodiversity, pollutant concentration, aerosol concentration, as well as stability of the climate, the nitrogen-phosphate nutrient cycle and freshwater resources – could speed destabilization of other processes. The writers note, “The many services of ecosystems – including purification of air and water, decomposition of wastes and residues, the creation of new resources, pollination of plants, the regulation of both climate and water cycle, and a natural landscape’s ability to create optimal water flow – are not reflected in the traditional economic model.”

Without a logical emphasis on sustainability, British economist Tim Jackson has noted that “By the end of the century, our children and grandchildren will face a hostile climate, depleted resources, the decimation of species, food scarcities, mass migrations and almost inevitably war.” In sum, Wijkman and Rockström point out that today’s citizens are reducing “capacity to create prosperity for future generations.”

The book offers numerous succinct recommendations and policies already in use around the world. The authors are not radical and discourage quick fixes. For example, borders and security measures offer but temporary relief. Geo-engineering stunts by individuals or nations could have unforeseen consequences. Measures aiming for drastic growth or curbing growth could lead to inequality and conflict.

Yet governments do have options, including regulations, taxes, subsidies and tariffs, and Wijkman and Rockström point out that the world may already possess the technology to reduce energy consumption to one fifth of today’s level. Still, this is an area that supports a comprehensive approach because improvements in efficiency can paradoxically lead to growth and consumption.  

As politics and industries in the United States continue to balk at enacting climate and energy policies, the authors encourage other regions, say Asia and Europe, to cooperate on long-term policies and even set examples for global governance. “The lack of global governance to deal with a whole range of international problems is profoundly serious,” Wijkman and Rockström write. “The challenges of tomorrow are poorly served by yesterday’s institutions.”

Of course, economics, science and global governance are complex subjects, their basics little understood by most citizens even in the wealthiest of nations. Anyone intent on personal gain can easily take advantage of the general lack of understanding and sway political leaders into thinking that protecting an economic sector is more vital than protecting the natural world for all. Still, awareness, fear and doubt about the trends and government responses are building. Bankrupting Nature offers a crash-course on sustainability challenges – a sincere and polite contribution to the conversation needed between those who aim for action to slow climate change and those who want to continue with business as usual. Future texts on the economics of sustainability may not be so polite. 

Reckless speculation with natural resources could be more dangerous than speculation in the financial markets