The United Nations Development Policy and Analysis division has published their World Economic and Social Survey for 2011. The full report can be downloaded from http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/policy/wess/index.shtml.

This body has published a series of reports on the world economy since 1947, with earlier reports covering several years or several decades of economic development. Since 1983, these reports have been issued on an annual basis. Before 1994, they were called simply “economic” surveys. Starting in 1994, they were titled “economic and social” surveys. Reports from 1947 to 2010 are available for download at http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/policy/wess/archive.shtml.

The web page introducing the report says:

“Enormous improvements in human welfare have taken place over the past two centuries, but these have been unevenly distributed and have come at a lasting cost of degradation of our natural environment. At the same time, we cannot stop the engines of growth, because much more economic progress is still needed in order for people in developing countries to have a decent living. But using the traditional environmentally irresponsible development paths is no longer defensible. To meet both the objectives of conquering poverty and protecting the environment, the World Economic and Social Survey 2011 calls for a complete transformation of technology on which human economic activity is based.”

While “we” perhaps cannot stop the engines of growth, those engines are in fact being stopped by ongoing resource depletion (particularly peak oil) and by an environment already severely degraded. Many ocean and inland fisheries have long since collapsed and those that remain are threatened. Commercial crops all over the world are under pressure from an unusual degree of both droughts and flooding, on top of chemical pollution and groundwater depletion. High fuel prices not much relieved by recent releases from strategic petroleum reserves make any harvest more expensive to transport. Stubbornly high fuel prices are the brakes of the global economy, and they have been applied forcefully for some years now.

If the engines of growth are going to stop and even reverse whether we like it or not, then regardless of what applications of technology are allowed, we are not going to see much conventional progress in developing countries or already developed ones. We’ll do better to focus on how to adapt to this situation locally than on dreaming about technology for growth that will not happen. Technology that can help us adapt will be useful.

Much of the technology discussed in this UN report can be used for adapting to the natural limits of the world. While the government policy recommendations of the report may amount to no more than pious wishes, ways to create clean energy, sustainable farming and forestry, climate proof infrastructure and reduce non-bio-degradable waste production – all topics covered in the report – are worth learning about.

Art Myatt

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