Bankrupting Nature (book review)

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 14. February 2013 - 20:48


Bankrupting Nature: Denying our planetary boundaries. A report to the Club of Rome. Anders Wijkman and Johan Rockström. London: Earthscan from Routledge, 2012. 206 p.

Anders Wijkman, a former politician and international official, Co-President of the Club of Rome, and Johan Rockström, the scientist who led the groundbreaking study of planetary boundaries, have combined their perspectives to provide a comprehensive but accessible overview of where we are and where we seem to be going with respect to planetary sustainability. The result is sobering, like being told you have spent your inheritance and have nothing left in the bank.

Forty years ago, the first Report to the Club of Rome, The Limits to Growth, created intense controversy by questioning the assumption of endless growth behind conventional economic thinking. This book returns to the same theme, not with computer modeling but with an integrated systems perspective and logical analysis of the implications of what science is saying about our treatment of the natural resources and planetary systems on which out economy and even survival depend.

I wrote a book review of The Limits to Growth when it was published in 1972, and this book resembles closely many lectures I have given on the state of the planet over the years. As the authors put it: "The primary purpose of this book is to clarify the relationship between the economic system and nature."

Its scope is very broad. While it gives major attention to energy and climate change, including a detailed analysis and rebuttal of the views of climate change deniers, it shows that this is only one of the interrelated environmental problems that could lead to planetary bankruptcy and collapse. "Unless we start using resources more efficiently and equitably, we will face the consequences: constraints on resources leading to tensions and armed conflicts; and the death of several billion people from starvation."

There is also a well-researched critique of the present economic and financial systems that risk driving us over the brink in the near future. A rational assessment shows that gradual change or tinkering with the system are not options. We have missed past opportunities, and it is not obvious today how to reconcile the urgency of responding to climate change, the vulnerability of our food production and trade systems, and the rising costs of energy and natural resources as demand outstrips supply. We have reached the limits of endless growth on a finite planet, as predicted 40 years ago.

The book is not totally negative. It explores many proposals for reform such as replacing GDP as a measure of progress, recognizing the value of natural capital and ecosystem services, promoting a circular economy, fixing binding targets for energy and resource efficiency, taxing resource use rather than labour, scrapping quarterly corporate reporting, rethinking compensation schemes in financial institutions, and requiring banks to report risk exposure in high carbon investments. It calls for a reconsideration of business models, strategies for planetary stewardship and global governance, and bottom-up solutions where communities successfully manage for sustainability.

Wijkman and Rockström have produced a useful and timely synthesis of much of the creative new thinking about the necessary global transition. It is realistic about the difficulties involved and the strong forces of resistance in society, particularly in economic and political circles, but it demonstrates very clearly that there is today no reasonable option. "What is needed is nothing less than a revolution, both in attitudes and in social and economic organization." The one thing I would add is that such a revolution must be founded on new spiritual principles and values if it is to motivate people to make the necessary changes before it is too late.

Blog comments


Hello, Arthur!

Having been a Baha'i since 1964, & now a tutor here in CT, USA, I have studied a lot of things & hopefully connected a few dots. "Web of Debt" by Ellen H Brown describes an old civilized area in the near east which had a matriarchal society that looked after the poor. Sounds like the Most Great Peace as described in the Writings. We have had several patriarchal governments since, all of which crashed. The 2nd book, "The Hydrogen Economy" by Jeremy Rifkin. He describes how we have gone from wood to coal to oil as the former one gets scarce. He postulates that we will use hydrogen in fuel cells as the next step. My research indicates this to either use fossil fuel to provide it, or expensive energy inefficient electrolysis. A more efficient electrolyzer, providing an hydrogen/oxygen mix which can be immediately burned in any engine was designed by Tesla 100 years ago. This has been powering jeweller's torches for years. Stan Meyer built one & ran his dune buggy on water only in the 1980s. Fred Wells of AZ recently ran his pickup on one for 3000 miles. Bob Boyce of FL has used it on a race boat for years. It is reported that 250,000 engines around the world are running an electrolyzer on either part water & fossil fuel or only water. Statistics show that energy production uses 100 gallons of water to get a gallon of gasoline or 1,000 cf of methane. Bio fuel water footprint is worse; 400 to 20,000 gallons of water per gallon of ethanol, depending on the crop. This compared to a gallon of rain or greywater, both of which we throw away, replacing 2 gallons of fossil or bio fuel. The energy industry is owned by patriarchs who are fearful of losing their profits. The cycle will be broken by this grass roots movement which I hope to help along. Read "Blessed Unrest" by Paul Hawken. He describes & catalogs thousands of local groups & NGOs around the world all working to better the balance of nature. See his website There is a fellow in WI who has 3 acres of greenhouses producing 1 million pounds of food a year using aquaponics, a blend of hydroponics & aquaculture. This is a new field of study since the 1990s in some universities. It shows that each person needs 500 sf of aquaponics to live. Thus we could put 3 midwest states in the USA under glass & feed the world. Thus this world could support a trillion people. With these 2 technologies, we can have a good lifestyle, cut transport down to visiting only, have no power infrastructure since all buildings will provide their own power, and the patriarchal selfish greedy system can crash.

Tallspruce, 19 February 2013


There are many technological solutions with potential for the future, within the limits of what is allowed by the laws of thermodynamics. However there are often problems in scaling them up that still need to be solved. For example. hydrogen molecules are so small that they leak easily, and require expensive and often heavy systems for safe storage and transport. The potential of hydroponics is well known, but requires a high capital investment and heating in cold climates, plus the expense of transporting food to users. The civilization we shall have to build without the cheap energy subsidy from fossil fuels may be structured very differently from that we know today. Technology will only be a small part of the solution. Moderation in all things will be an important design parameter.