EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 1. the Economy and the Earth: The Acceleration of History

The pace of change is reaching an extraordinary rate, driven in part by technological innovation. Bill Joy, cofounder and chief scientist of Sun Microsystems, warned in an early 2000 article in Wired magazine that rapid advances in robotics, genomics, and nanotechnology could yield potentially unmanageable problems. He is particularly concerned that our growing dependence on ever more intelligent computers could one day enable them to dominate us.51

Rapidly advancing technology is accelerating history, making it difficult for social institutions to manage it effectively. This is also true for unprecedented world population growth, even faster economic growth, and the increasingly frequent collisions between the expanding economy and the limits of the earth's natural systems. The current rate of change has no precedent.

Until recently, population growth was so slow that it aroused little concern. But since 1950 we have added more people to world population than during the preceding 4 million years since our early ancestors first stood upright. Economic expansion in earlier times was similarly slow. To illustrate, growth in the world economy during the year 2000 exceeded that during the entire nineteenth century.52

Throughout most of human history, the growth of population, the rise in income, and the development of new technologies were so slow as to be imperceptible during an individual life span. For example, the climb in grainland productivity from 1.1 tons per hectare in 1950 to 2.8 tons per hectare in 2000 exceeds that during the 11,000 years from the beginning of agriculture until 1950.53

The population growth of today has no precedent. Throughout most of our existence as a species, our numbers were measured in the thousands. Today, they measure in the billions. Our evolution has prepared us to deal with many threats, but perhaps not with the threat we pose to ourselves with the uncontrolled growth in our own numbers.

The world economy is growing even faster. The sevenfold growth in global output of goods and services since 1950 dwarfs anything in history. In the earlier stages of the Industrial Revolution, economic expansion rarely exceeded 1 or 2 percent a year. Developing countries that are industrializing now are doing so much faster than their predecessors simply because they do not have to invent the technologies needed by a modern industrial society, such as power plants, automobiles, and refrigerators. They can simply draw on the experiences and technology of those that preceded them.54

More sophisticated financial institutions enable societies to mobilize the capital needed for investment today more easily than in the past. As a result, the countries that were successfully industrializing in the late twentieth century did so at a record rate. Economic growth in the developing countries of East Asia, for instance, has averaged almost 7 percent annually since 1990far higher than growth rates in industrial countries at any time in their history.55

In another example of rapid change, since 1974 some 28 new infectious diseases have been identifiedranging from HIV, which has claimed 22 million lives, to new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human form of bovine spongiform encephalopathy ("mad cow disease"), with nearly 100 known cases. Some disease agents are new; others that were located in remote regions are simply being linked to the rest of the world by modern transport systems.56

The pace of history is also accelerating as soaring human demands collide with the earth's natural limits. National political leaders are spending more time dealing with the consequences of the collisions described earliercollapsing fisheries, falling water tables, food shortages, and increasingly destructive stormsalong with a steadily swelling international flow of environmental refugees and the many other effects of overshooting natural limits. As change has accelerated, the situation has evolved from one where individuals and societies change only rarely to one where they change continuously. They are changing not only in response to growth itself, but also to the consequences of growth.

The central question is whether the accelerating change that is an integral part of the modern landscape is beginning to exceed the capacity of our social institutions to cope with change. Change is particularly difficult for institutions dealing with international or global issues that require a concerted, cooperative effort by many countries with contrasting cultures if they are to succeed. For example, sustaining the existing oceanic fish catch may be possible only if numerous agreements are reached among countries on the limits to fishing in individual oceanic fisheries. And can governments, working together at the global level, move fast enough to stabilize climate before it disrupts economic progress?

The issue is not whether we know what needs to be done or whether we have the technologies to do it. The issue is whether our social institutions are capable of bringing about the change in the time available. As H.G. Wells wrote in The Outline of History, "Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe."57

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51. Bill Joy, "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us," Wired, April 2000.

52. United Nations, op. cit. note 25; IMF, op. cit. note 10.

53. USDA, op. cit. note 3.

54. IMF, op. cit. note 10.

55. Ibid.

56. Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, Report on the Global HIV/AIDS Epidemic (Geneva: June 2000), p. 6; The U.K. Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease Surveillance Unit, "CJD Statistics," , updated 7 July 2001; CJD Support Network, "Variant CJD," Information Sheet 4, Alzheimer's Society, April 2001.

57. H.G. Wells, The Outline of History (London: The Macmillan Company, 1921).


Copyright © 2001 Earth Policy Institute