The Great Acceleration

You know, it is easy to understand how it gets to be a drag, having to think about things in new and different ways.

If you have been working on international development over the past 30 years since the end of the Cold War, in a government, or inter-governmental agencies, or non-governmental organisations, or switching among them, you will know what I mean. First there was development, then you had to add gender and human rights, then environment, and then conflict and peace. Wouldn’t it be great to get back to working just on development? And those folk over there could work on environment or gender or peace and conflict if they want and, you know, just get on with stuff.

Likewise, there are complaints and doubts within the humanitarian community about how their work is complicated by the people who want them to think about development and peace as well as simply meeting immediate human needs.

But watch out. As they say, people who are wise: be careful what you wish for.

In various governments among the traditional donors of international development assistance, things are beginning to unfold that could lead to a distinct narrowing of focus, leaving much of development and peace out of the picture and concentrating on meeting humanitarian emergencies.

This blog post is about one reason – an environmental reason – why that is deeply problematic, why it is essential to grasp the nettle and think about the full range of problems that confront peace and development today. Just one reason among several. The argument swings on the big changes in human impact on the environment that have unfolded since about 1950.

The 1950 watershed

The impact of human activity on the natural environment has not proceeded at an even pace. Globally aggregated data sets combining indicators of human activity and variables critical to the Earth system show a sharp increase in the pace of change and deterioration in the ecosphere after approximately 1950.

This step change is appropriately known as the “Great Acceleration”. It has been driven by economic growth . The 2021 Dasgupta Report (p101) on the economics of biodiversity summarises the big picture background to what has happened:

  • World population in 1950 was around 2.5 billion and global GDP at 2011 prices was around 9 trillion dollars; by 2019, global GDP was just over 120 trillion dollars in 2011 prices and the human population was 7.7 billion people. 
  • The proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty was nearly 60 per cent in 1950; today it is less than 10 per cent (though it increased in 2020 and 2021 as a direct result of the Covid-19 pandemic).
  • The global average for life expectancy in 1950 was 46 years; today it is around 73.

To sum up this extraordinary story, over seven decades – a drop in the ocean of human time, let alone planetary time – population has trebled, economic output has risen 13-fold and average life expectancy has increased by 50 per cent. This is what human progress is: thanks to the most successful period in economic history, if measured by output, more people live longer and better than ever before. 

Progress – not for all, but progress

Now, the statistics above, of course, are averages that mask wide variations. Progress has been real in countries and societies and for people where and for whom it has been real – but not for everybody. To understand both parts of that equation – the progress and the inequality – a good starting point is how long people live and a good point in history for comparison is 1800 or thereabouts – the start of the industrial revolution, around the time when the world population first reached the one billion mark.

Today, the Central African Republic (CAR) has the lowest average life expectancy of any country; at 54 years, it is some 31 years lower than Japan’s and Hong Kong’s, which are the highest. But CAR’s average life expectancy today is higher than any country’s in 1800.

Take a look at some other indicators on poverty and inequality over the same long period. In 1820 some 75 per cent of the world population lived in extreme poverty, an estimated total of 756 million people; the proportion fell to about 60 per cent  by the end of the 19th century and was about the same as late as the mid-1950s. And across those first 150 years of the Industrial Age, progress and prosperity for some was built on on the backs of the more numerous poor.

From the mid-1950s on, the proportion of poor people in the global population fell but, with a growing population, the numbers rose. There were 2 billion people living in extreme poverty by 1995. And then the improvement kicked in. By 2018, only 10 per cent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty.

By a heartless statistical quirk, the number of people living in extreme poverty in 2018 was 764 million, barely different from the number two centuries earlier.

But regress for nature

However, in whatever way we assess the social balance sheet of progress and injustice, the further problem is that the cost for nature has been spectacularly high.

The world faces a catastrophic loss of biodiversity. The  sixth mass extinction of animal species in the planet’s history is well under way. For those for which the counting has been done, an average of around 25 per cent of animal and plant species are threatened; the rate of extinction is between tens and hundreds of times higher than it has averaged over the past 10 million years.

The loss of biomass (how much animal and plant life exists) is on a comparable scale or worse. It has been estimated that 83 per cent of wild mammal biomass has been lost since the dawn of human civilisation. More recently, the abundance of wild vertebrates (fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds) fell by 60 per cent between 1970 and 2014.

In short, success in the economic sphere, from which many benefit, is destroying the biosphere, on which we all depend.

The acceleration

The human impact on the natural environment is a reality since earliest times. The impact became heavier and deeper and, generally speaking, more destructive with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. And then came the economic growth of the 1950s and thereafter. That changed things, not least in the use of natural resources.

As the Industrial Age picked up speed and modern manufacturing techniques spread to more and more countries, there was a distinct increase in the use of raw materials. From the 1850s on this was significant but for about a century it was broadly in line with population growth. Since 1950 that has changed.

During a period when the human population has trebled, the annual global extraction of raw materials has increased at twice that speed – sixfold. During this time, the increasing use of raw materials has been driven primarily by rising incomes and consumption in the industrial world.

That is what the Great Acceleration is all about. Since 1950 or thereabouts, economic activities among the richest countries have been using more and more natural resources. That date is also around the time that the plastics age began and not far off when the nuclear age began.

Cities and water

Last bit of statistical overload coming up:-

Along with population growth, a central demographic trend of the current era is urbanization. Until the industrial revolution, the global population was overwhelmingly rural; according to different estimates using different definitions of “urban”, towns and cities were home to only 3-7 per cent of humanity when world population first passed the one billion mark in about 1810. By 1950, as the Great Acceleration started, the world’s urban population was about 750 million people, some 30 per cent of the total. Around 2007, the urban population became more than 50 per cent of the world total – about 3.4 billion people out 6.7 billion. On current projections, the urbanised percentage will grow to about 70 per cent by 2050

So far, perhaps that’s so familiar. But the material point is that much of the urban infrastructure that will be required to accommodate that demographic trend has not yet been built. If it is built using today’s technologies and normal materials, the consumption of raw materials by cities is expected to double by 2050. The relentlessness of this consumption of resources is unsustainable.

One basic resource is water. Enormous amounts are needed to build cities, even though the main use of freshwater is for agriculture – about 70 per cent of the total. Over the past century, global water use has increased at a rate variously estimated from six-to-eight-fold. Its use grows by about one per cent a year and, without changes in current practices, it will keep on growing due to continued population growth, urbanisation and increasing economic output and consumption. Until it cannot grow any more.

At the same time, the increasing use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers that makes increased food production possible affects both the soil and the water table. The dangers lurking in the water are multiplied because most municipal wastewater in developing world cities goes untreated, creating significant public health risks.

Combining this with the effects of climate change means that security of supply of water is increasingly aspirational for much of the world’s population. The UN’s definition of water security is cumbersome but instructive. It emphasizes access to water of adequate quantities and acceptable quality for supporting human health and well-being and for preserving ecosystems. Defined thus, every aspect of water security is endangered. 

  • About 4 billion people, representing nearly two-thirds of the global population, experience severe water scarcity during at least one month of the year.
  • Just over 3 billion people, about 40 per cent of humanity, live in agricultural areas with high to very high levels of water shortages or scarcity.
  • About 2.3 billion people, just under 30 per cent of all of us, live in water-stressed countries, and 733 million live in countries where water stress is already critical.
  • There are 1.2 billion people – roughly one-sixth of the world’s population – who live in agricultural areas characterised by water scarcity.[24]
  • In 2020, 771 million people lacked access to a clean, basic drinking water supply.

The biosphere and us

I continue to feel that this is a truth that modern, urbanised, supermarket-shopping life hides from those who live  in rich, economically developed societies.

Just as there is no economy without a society in which it is embedded, there is no society that is not embedded in the biosphere. Food, timber, fibre, clean air, drinking water and medicines are available only if there is a functioning biosphere. Leave to one side for the moment all questions of social inequality: a society cannot function without the biosphere; destroying it ultimately destroys society. Regardless of human ingenuity and technology, development cannot be decoupled from the biosphere.

And because of that, neither can peace be decoupled from the biosphere or, indeed, the ecosphere as a while. Communities across the world are already suffering the consequences of climate change and other kinds of environmental deterioration in the shape of deepening insecurity. As the weakening of the biosphere continues, this effect will spread, sharpen and interact with other causes of insecurity.

Unless action is taken, the prospect is bleak. That is why December’s UN Biodiversity Conference (COP 15 for short because it was the 15th Conference of Parties to the Biodiversity Convention), held in Montreal, was so important. That is why it is essential to implement to the full the agreement reached there by 188 governments to take decisive action by 2030 to halt the loss of biodiversity.

It is not “just an environmental issue”, it cannot be sidelined. It is at the core of thinking about development, peace and human well being. Or, rather, if it is not, we are all in trouble.


One thought on “The Great Acceleration

  1. Pingback: Insecurity, the Anthropocene & nature’s tipping points | Dan Smith's blog

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