How can a global population of 9 billion live well using no more resources than were consumed by only 4.5 billion (in 1980)? Not the way we live and work now. Methods to do this are well known: Re-use, re-purpose, remanufacture, recycle, redesign, substitute, restore ecology, and so on – but they are not deployed widely. Doing so will take widely deployed work and ingenuity. And we’ve barely begun to exercise human ingenuity devising better ways to do this.
We can reduce the scope of almost all other problems by reducing the resources extracted from the earth, and those dumped back into it by agriculture, manufacturing, services, and personal consumption. Growth in resource use keeps accumulating problems, so go for quality over quantity, always. But to focus on this we need measureable direction based on arbitrary goals, like:
Globally improve quality of life to an industrial society equivalent using no more than half the energy and half the virgin raw materials as in the year 2000, while reducing known toxic releases to zero by the year 2040.
This is a global objective. Advanced industrial economies must cut consumption by more than half. Low consumption economies can’t cut resource use very much and attain an industrial society quality of life, and they can’t count on much “trickle down” from developed economies. All economies must learn how to increase the human benefit from resources available to them, not count on more, more, more.
Among developed economies today, the United Kingdom has one of the most aggressive goals in its Climate Change Act of 2008: By the year 2050 reduce carbon emissions to 20% of 1990 levels. That may seem radical, but it only covers carbon emissions, so broaden the scope and tighten the deadline. Let developed economies cut the use of all major resources by 80% by 2040, closer to what is really required, although 80% reduction goals and related challenges seem outrageous.
Such goals are terrifying unless we can see how to meet them. We resist leaving any status quo while it remains comfortable. Financial failure of the present system seems more immanent. We prefer to trust that technical genius will let life (and commerce) go on much as now.
If very little has been done so far, starter ideas for techniques to improvement what we do not (and learn) are the EPA Handbook and Brett Wills’ book Green Intentions. A great deal of more technical science and engineering work is in progress. But the key is apt to be something harder to do: change business models.