Two: Social challenges: causes, explanations and solutions


In one of the first systematic discussions of its type, US political scientist and government adviser Lynton Caldwell (1970 [1963]) wrote that effective public decision making regarding natural resources and the environment is seriously hampered by the dissimilarity between two intellectual tendencies or viewpoints: the market and the environment. The polarities of ecology and the market induce a fundamental conflict, in the political and business spheres especially. ‘The search for common denominators of environmental policy that are both ecologically valid and politically feasible’, he proclaimed, ‘has become a major task of environmental administration today, and will be for a long time to come’(1970 [1963]: 12). By ‘ecologically valid’, Caldwell meant that the natural world, including its human inhabitants, must maintain a constant state of ‘moving equilibrium’ or ‘dynamic balance’. By the early 1970s, it was obvious that this equilibrium was being critically disturbed, necessitating the formulation of a proactive public policy to protect the quality of the environment.

But how, first of all, is the environmental crisis to be explained?

There are three main explanations of this ‘environmental disturbance’ and the substantial challenge to society that it poses: limits to growth, the treadmill of production and the consumerist ethic. While these approaches are in some ways interlocking, nonetheless, each provides an identifiable diagnostic leading to a distinctive set of policy options. For a summary see Table 2.1.

According to the limits to growth interpretation, our planet is in peril due to an escalating mismatch between human population growth and available material resources, notably, fuel, food and water. Writing in 1970, the same year that Caldwell made his observation, US population biologists Paul and Anne Ehrlich (also 1968) warned that human over-population posed a serious threat to terrestrial life.

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