Building on his previous article "Human carrying capacity and human health", Dr. Colin Butler has recently organised a workshop on the topic "limits to growth and human health" at the Population Health Congress in Adelaide, a large public health meeting that brings together members of the four main Australian public health groups. EcoHealth co-editor Prof Phil Weinstein will also be participating in this workshop. The two of them recently authored the editorial "Global ecology, global health, ecohealth" in the EcoHealth journal related to this topic.
About the idea of limits to growth and health Colin says:
"I am trying to raise awareness within the health community of the concept, term, risk and possible solutions to 'Limits to growth' (LTG). In parallel, I am trying to raise awareness within the wider community of the health risks from LTG, especially at a population level. The term LTG came into common use in 1972, and for several years it was widely considered credible, though scary. It essentially forecast the collapse of civilisation in about 2050 – which was a long way off in 1972, but is not so far away now. LTG ran into ferocious opposition especially from the 1980s. Part of this was a disinformation campaign which tried to erase the memory of its initial favourable reception. In part this disinformation worked because of the success at that time of the Green Revolution, which saw a massive reduction in the number of people classified as hungry.
LTG refers to complex inter-related phenomena (including pollution and climate change) that restrict the scale and impact of global civilization. In the last 5 years, scientific interest in LTG has been revived, driven by rising global energy and food prices, and the increasingly apparent flaws of the dominant economic system.
I have recently set up a Facebook group about this topic where I have listed six concerns (not necessarily in order) pertinent to the biophysical elements, social drivers, risk, and solutions:
Biophysical elements: 1) Fossil fuel sources of energy; 2) Phosphorus; 3) Biodiversity; 4) Rare Earths; 5) Earth's capacity to absorb greenhouse gases; 6) Fertile soils and fresh water.
Social drivers: 1) Scale of problem seems insurmountable; 2) The opposite: Ignorance, complacency, denial; 3) Suppression of understanding by vested interests; 4) Diminishing returns to investment - excessive complexity of civilisation; 5) Evolutionary novelty, i.e. while humans can anticipate some future problems but collectively we have no experience of possible planetary civilisation contraction and collapse, hence we do not prepare for it; 6) Excessive faith in technological rescue.
Six dangers: 1) Large scale nuclear conflict; 2) Policy makers abandon hope of reducing poverty and instead decide on a "triage" world; 3) Runaway climate change intervenes just as we take the problem seriously; 4) Efficient energy capture technologies remain slightly too elusive, locking us into burning all buried carbon; 5) Global protectionism, following on from the European financial crisis; 6) A mega-techno-fix (e.g. ejecting sulphur into the atmosphere) goes wrong (e.g. worsening droughts and leading to nuclear conflict.)
Six suggested solutions: 1) Greater global equality and fairness, slowing population growth in the South, strengthening their social and physical capacity to deal with the coming shocks and stresses; 2) leadership by the global middle class, including academics, scientists, business people, the military and leaders of the great faiths; 3) New forms of energy capture, especially solar; 4) More efficient use of phosphorus, new ways to recover phosphorus from sewage; 5) More recycling of rare earths and development of technologies that require less use of them; 6) New ways of measuring and promoting economic growth, consistent with a steady state physical economy, which still enable high employment.
The scale of these problems can easily seem overwhelming. That is not my intention, of course. I am also promoting the concept of a “social vaccine”. A real vaccine has a small dose of the pathogen, which provokes an immune response sufficient to reject the full dose of the pathogen, if encountered. A vaccine that is excessively immunogenic can cause illness, that is, although some people can tolerate a higher dose too much “doom and gloom” is counter-productive. But also a placebo vaccine is useless, even dangerous, as it promotes overconfidence.
It is true that almost all of the ingredients I have listed are being recognised as health issues. For example, the American Journal of Public Health had special issue of peak oil and health in 2011. Also, EcoHealth recognises biodiversity loss, and to a lesser extent climate change, as affecting human health. There are many linkages between these six ingredients and I personally prefer to think of them systemically"
Tons of provocative ideas, what are your reactions?