Friday, June 2, 2017

Climate: limits and opportunities for the new economies

A post by Ilaria Perissi, from her blog "Systems". Ilaria is a researcher at the University of Florence, Italy, currently working at the EU "MEDEAS" project aimed at modeling material fluxes of the EU economy. 

by Ilaria Perissi

In a previous post titled Information, Energy and Human development, I concluded saying that we don’t know what will happen to our society if the planet will be overheated. I don’t have the answer, and maybe I will never have it, but I have surely been gaining new insights on what has been the influence of the climate on the history of civilisation, and what could be its role, if there is any, into a more equitable future and a sustainable society.

I start exactly from this last point: how are we now imagining a future civilisation?

We need a new source of energy that should be renewable (in the way we do not risk total depletion of it, at least till the sun will shine), also thinking about a new economy not based on an intensive exploitation of fossil fuels. That would represent a powerful tool to make a step forward to a better future. But, recently, interesting currents of thought are emerging in the economic scenario promoting alternatives to the incessant growth that already in the 70's revealed, thanks to the study of ‘Limits to Growth’, the weakness of continuing this economic vision on a planet with a limited carrying capacity.

One of these currents is the ‘Circular Economy’ (CE) that proposes a greater resource productivity aiming to reduce waste and avoid pollution, including the shift from fossil fuels to the use of renewable energies, promoting the role of diversity as a characteristic of resilient and productive systems, so that it represents an interesting way out from the limits of the present ‘Linear Economy’.

Another idea is the ‘Degrowth Economy’ (DE) that not only is based on the previous pillars of the CE, but it is also a new philosophy of lifestyle. The DE affirms that prosperity can be of better quality and more equitable for all the humankind even with fewer materials things, abandoning the frenetic rhythms of today's life and harmonising the economy production according to the natural cycles (and I completely agree).

We can grasp from the previous description why this current is called 'Degrowth': it simply pushes in the opposite direction of the widespread concept of 'Growth' economy, whose prosperity is based on the increasing demand of always new goods and services.

To be more precise, 'Degrowth' refers to the lowering of the indicator called Gross Domestic Product (or GDP), that measures the economic performance of a system according to, in simplified terms, the number of goods and services it can provide. Therefore, the DE assesses that more valuable prosperity is possible if we consistently lower the value of this indicator, in particular in those countries we call ‘Developed Countries’, that stand out for their very high level of GDP in comparison to the world average. DE underlines also that this difference in GDP exists because there is a huge gap, both in economic and development terms, between the North and the South of the planet. The predominance of the North holds hostage the South's socio-economic system, slowing down also its potential alternative trajectories toward a better life.

Look at this paragraph, extracted from the very interesting book 'Degrowth: Vocabulary for a new era':

The message is clear and the reality too: the condition of the South of the Planet is very different from that of the North of the Planet. The DE aims at re-equilibrating this difference, conquering a new welfare for all the humans based on more equity and environmental justice. Mumble to do it?

Usually, when we want to change something in any situation, it is a good idea to check some facts in the past, probably the reasons of the existence of certain things in the present have their roots in history.

Thus, when, in the past this predominance of the North economy started, was it due to random factors or are there any facts/evidence in the history of civilisation that advantaged the North in comparison to the South?

Take a look at the following picture:

Figure 1. Chronology of the most important ancient civilizations.

All the most ancient cultures were born in the North hemisphere.

I started to think this fact can not be ‘only’ a coincidence. Why civilization and the economy historically have progressed more in the North than in the South? Could this mainly due to a ‘physically different ‘ space instead of a ‘conceptual different space'?

I think so…The economy is made by humans exchanges, interactions, cooperation: all these conditions in which humans live and lived in the past determine the economy and the characteristics of their civilization (Here, I refer to 'civilization' as the attitude of humankind to dominate the environment according to the fundamentals of rationalism). In particular, the capacity to produce (manufacturing) and the capacity to distribute (transport) are the foundations of any world economic system.

Let’s start to examine which could be the macroscopic differences, in terms of the capacity of transportation and productivity, between North and South of the Earth.

First, we are terrestrial creatures, we move more easily by land than by sea. Also many domesticated animals that have been crucial for transportation, hunting, agriculture and so on, are terrestrials too. Take a look at the following picture:

Figure 2. The surface extension of emerged lands.

As we can see in figure 2, between the parallels - 60°S and + 60° N, i.e. in a climate that is not polar, the available land is much larger in the North than in the South.

Thus, an important macroscopic physical difference between North and South of the planet is the extension of emerged lands in temperate zones.

Moreover, the South portion of emerged lands is fragmented in 3 continents: South America, Africa and Oceania: if we move in the direction West- East (W-E, or vice-versa) we note that these three portions of land are at a distance of several hundreds of kilometers of water. Thus, any civilization born in the South would expand preferentially along the N-S direction.

Quite different is the availability of movement W-E in the North hemisphere. Here, Asia and Europe cover the largest portion of Northern emerged land. It was in these two continents that the most ancient civilizations in the history of humankind were born: China, Egypt, Greek, Romans and others, as already shown in figure 1. Probably, the presence of the Mediterranean sea, that is an almost ‘close’ sea in a temperate zone, permitted the development of navigation techniques and the development of commercial trade routes in more safe and protected areas.

We can summarize saying that the larger the available surface of emerged lands, the more there are possibilities of creating a network of connections and more are it possible to develop cities and manufacturing centers.

So, you will say that today the problem of the trade connections have been overcome by technology, so let’s say that the oceans or the extension of emerged lands don't represent any more serious obstacles in exchanging goods or information also in the South hemisphere.

But there is another problem, if you note, that still remains: along the N-S pathways (meridians), in any point of the globe, we had/have to face with a change in the climate conditions (figure 3).

Figure 3. The figure shows a rough, but significant split, of the three climate zones of the planet: polar, temperate and tropical zones.

Thus, I go back to the opening question of the post: did the climate have any impact on civilization? And could it be related to the productivity of the human beings?

There is an interesting book, ‘Civilization and Climate’ by E. Huntington, that for the first time examined this issue at the beginning of the 1900s.

Huntington, as himself reports, had the mission to investigate: “step by step, the process by which geologic structure, topographic form, and the present and past nature of the climate have shaped man's progress, moulded his history; and thus played an incalculable part in the development of a system of thought which could scarcely have arisen under any other physical circumstances."

I admit I haven’t yet read the entire book but if you search accurately in this treatise you can find that the author clearly reports that the temperate climate is the best environment for the development of civilization, under several points of view. And figure 3 shows that the portion of temperate climate zone in the North of the globe is decisively larger than in the South one.

Here, as one of the examples that reinforce the thesis of the author, I just report the following graphs, from his book:

This figure reports the main temperature in which a man, employed in a factory job, is able to reach his best performance in terms of productivity, intended as the best combination of mental and body energies. This temperature it is around 50 °F or 10 °C.

More recent studies assess that, in an office, the ideal temperature for mental activities is around 20-22 °C, and it makes sense: we probably need a warmer environment to reach the optimal mental-body energy combination to work in an office in which we stay sitting almost all the time. And we are sure enough that these average values of temperature are typical of the temperate climate zones.

The book from Huntington offers several more interesting examples, worth thinking about. It simply reveals that the human activities, and even the moral issues, still depend upon Nature. And this is a positive aspect, the author says, because it gives us the opportunity to correct our behaviour, knowing that there are climate physical conditions to take into account, even in planning a new economy.

Especially in a Degrowth Economy, the relationship between our body energy and the climate is, probably, the most important to keep in mind if we want to achieve more equity in the opportunity of future sustainable development for all the cultures, independently of the latitudes they are.
What I would like to point out with these ideas, is that the productivity of humans, on which civilization and economy both rely, have been and still remains highly conditioned by climate.

The North and the South of the planet are different environments, have different availability of space and climate, i.e. a mainly physical differences, that, reasonably, have affected the history of the world economies with an active role in originating the inequalities we are observing now.

Changing our economy implies to face these climate diversities, maybe now more than in the past, to image a future more equitable civilization as it is described in the vision of a Degrowth Economy, or another new desirable more equitable Economy, that I think, we need so much precisely ‘now’.

The message of Huntington is full of hope, he concludes his treaty saying: ‘If we are able to conquer the climate, the whole world will become stronger and nobler”.

But something is telling me…that we are going exactly in the opposite direction. The domain on climate risks to go out of our hand, and for this reason, the climate issue remains, in my opinion, the most urgent problem to face to leave a dignified human legacy to the future generations.


  1. "If we are able to conquer the climate, the whole world will become stronger and nobler".

    It is always the same....always about conquest and control. Man needs to learn some humility; to see that he is not alone on this planet; to see that he is just one small part of a whole. In 'conquest and control' mode there will simply be more of the same. Huntington just doesn't 'get' it. There is no hope in his message.

  2. For clarity: should 'treaty' as used, be edited to 'treatise'?

    GDP seems so flawed to me, I suggest DE be recast in terms of (increasing) GPI (Genuine Progress Indicator). This indicator shows global GPI has been declining for some time , most industrial economies for some decades.

    My own view is that casting any aspiration in terms of decreasing social inequality is self defeating since the majority of individual consciousnesses are still internally referenced and motivated by increasing this aspect (to their own 'advantage') Additionally the current climate warming problem is crucially a 'most species' survival problem in fact and group survival is lodged in most sane individuals' consciousness as a primary and overriding motivator. If we don't tap into that we are doomed.
    It also follows that we need sane people in power.
    The logical outcome of warming only a little more than currently is that large continental expanses become unfit for habitation and sustaining a population, within a few decades. So that puts paid to Northern advantage. In addition tropical zones also become uninhabitable at a certain point. So Southern domination in a geographic sense at least (I expect they will be invaded and overrun by Northerners in the meantime) is on the cards. All of this sits concurrent to a backdrop of an unpredictably unstable climate and ramping feedback responses in an atmosphere with no precedent in mammalian pre history.

  3. First, we are terrestrial creatures, we move more easily by land than by sea.

    We may move more easily, but not our possessions.

    The first and most powerful non-muscle energy converter was the sailboat. In colonial America it was easier and cheaper to send a ton of cargo to Europe by sea than send the same ton 30 miles over land. Similar ratios prevail today.

    There may be good reasons why most civilizations developed in the northern hemisphere, but material transport efficiency requires water-born trade, something that was certainly available to anyone living near an ocean, large river or lake in either hemisphere. There are plenty of resources in southern continents to support a civilization and plenty of water to move them on. Total land area comparisons are irrelevant.

  4. I thought that geographical determinism was outdated! As a theory, it didn't pass any serious test. Even people like J. Diamond would admit that the raise and collapse of civilizations are complex and multi-causes processes. By the way I don't really get the final message of the article. What should we do? develop technologies to control the climate to reduce North-South inequality? is that possible? desirable? safe for the planet? those are essentially political questions. North-South gap is essentially political! Any form of determinism has proved to be inadequate to answer this kind questions!



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" to be published by Springer in mid 2017