Managing our Natural Resources for the Benefit of All

Khosla, Ashok | September 19, 2017 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF


This article was originally published by Alternative Perspectives on August 17, 2017. The original article can be found here.


To achieve a sustainable future, the world clearly has two priorities that must come before all others.  The first is to ensure that all citizens have access to the means of satisfying their basic needs.  The second is to evolve practices that bring the environmental resource base on which their lives and future integrally depend, back to its full health and potential productivity.  To achieve these two primary goals requires urgent action on two fronts.  We must immediately get the public, governments and the international community to commit to:

  • Efficiency, as the primary means of reducing the pressure on natural resources, particularly by reducing waste.
  • Sufficiency, as the accepted goal to ensure that all citizens have access to enough resources for a decent life without transgressing the planetary limits.

With today’s production systems, whether industrial or agricultural, there are very large opportunities for raising efficiency. From simple housekeeping or technological measures to logistical and systemic ones, great increases in efficiency can be obtained at very little marginal cost to enable producers and consumers to get much more with much less.  Resource efficiency, which is related to resource productivity is a self-evident ‘good’, delivering ‘win-win’ outcomes for the economy, society and the environment.

The need for sufficiency (‘raising the floor’, ‘at least enough for survival’) at the lower end of the economy where the poor and marginalised live is self-evident for any society that aims to be socially just.

The Obstacles: Objectives Too Narrow, Time Horizons Too Short 

Policy makers who wish to deal with these difficult choices are confronted by factors that further obfuscate their decisions: growing complexity, rapid change and significant uncertainty in the system – political, social, economic or technological – that they must deal with daily.  Often the short-term takes inordinate precedence over longer time horizons (which are themselves shortening by the day).

Adopting leaded petrol for automobile efficiency, Freons (CFCs) for air conditioners and foams, DDT for malaria control were all well-intentioned policies, which led to unintended consequences that were so negative that use of these ‘miracle’ substances is no longer permissible.  The promise of plastics has led to the mass murder of marine life and widespread deterioration of terrestrial ecosystems, making it another material headed for oblivion.  The convenience of fossil fuel use has led to the ultimate threat to life on Earth – Global Warming.

The introduction of the ‘Green Revolution’ in the mid-1960s enabled Punjab and other states in India to literally save the nation from starvation, but within 50 years, it has left these states with poisoned soils and water bodies, loss of soil fertility and declining crop productivity, explosion of cancer and other diseases, rampant unemployment and drug use and a general breakdown of social systems.

Every day, we see the conflict between different sets of otherwise desirable social objectives where policies designed to solve immediate problems end up creating bigger problems later.  Free electricity for farmers leading to over-irrigation and unnecessary contamination of aquifers; building of ill-planned overpasses leading to even greater traffic congestion; promotion of biofuels leading to competition with food crops, irrigation water and forests – these are all common examples of counter-intuitive and countervailing impacts of well-intentioned but narrowly conceived decisions.

Could any of these unintended outcomes have been avoided?  Given the complexity of human and social systems and the inadequate state of scientific knowledge, perhaps not all.  However, it is becoming clear that we need better tools to minimise such mistakes in the future.  Such tools are in their infancy but becoming more available because of academic research and some corporate application.  

Redefining Progress: Beyond GDP and Growth 

Despite several decades of advocacy for alternative economic models, global and most national economies are still ruled by a virtual total reliance on the paradigms of GDP and economic growth.  All measurement, analysis, tracking and subsequent communication is based on the flawed and highly limited index of gross production and the bulk of subsequent policy formulation is aimed at how to accelerate its growth.

Under these circumstances, it is no wonder that even fundamental issues such as growth of joblessness, resource depletion, environmental destruction or community vulnerability hardly figure in national policies.

Policies to promote GDP growth tend automatically to focus the minds of policy makers on increasing investments and providing incentives to industry, urban and other infrastructure, mining and resource extraction – implicitly promoting increased resource use and producing more waste and pollution i.e. encouraging more of the ‘bads’ that actually need to be reduced.

Globalisation in the sense of international economic integration has brought with it many goods and bads of its own.  Growing trade, transfer of technology, movement of skilled professionals and the exchange of knowledge have all contributed to improving the lives of people in many countries.  At the same time, rising inequity, lopsided accumulation of wealth and the concentration of economic and political power that comes with it, has now started to limit how much integration will be tolerated, either by the poor or the rich.

Mechanisation and digitalisation, including robotics, artificial intelligence while delivering great improvements in lives and opportunities are now threatening jobs, making it necessary to question the future of work and accelerating the need for alternative sources of taxation.

The major guzzlers of material resources are construction, infrastructure, transportation, industry and energy production.  Together, these account for the bulk of the major raw materials used in the economy: steel, cement, aluminium, copper, sand, clay, etc.  Agriculture is a major consumer of fresh water, energy, phosphorous, and other minerals.  It has now become apparent that the goods and services provided by these sectors could with improved technologies and logistical systems, be provided with far lower inputs than they do at present, thus resulting in far less geophysical damage and also producing much fewer wastes and pollution.  The cumulative impact of doing so on maintaining biodiversity is a huge additional bonus.

Thus, while GDP and other conventional indicators of economic progress will no doubt continue to be important inputs for decision-making, we now also need to incorporate measures of other social and environmental outcomes of economic activities to obtain a better understanding of what is the degree of genuine human progress.  This, science, often termed ‘full-cost accounting’ is still in its infancy and needs to be rapidly advanced if costly, possibly irreversible changes in the biosphere that sustains us are to be avoided.

Cure or Prevention?

Despite received wisdom, we continue to think of implementing end-of-pipe solutions rather than mitigating causal factors.

Systems thinking provides policy makers the framework and a toolkit to understand seemingly disconnected effects of actions; and why for example, solutions in the short term (such as focusing only on cash crops) in later years exacerbate the very problems (farmers’ financial security) they were designed to solve. We urgently need to strengthen our nation’s ability to build the skills of our policy makers, planners and programme implementation personnel.  In summary,

  • Deep linkages exist across sectors, geographies, social and institutional systems.
  • Ignoring these inter-linkages leads to outcomes that diminish the value of development interventions.
  • Frameworks for policies, laws and regulations and implementation processes must be designed to generate synergies among these components, minimise trade-offs and reinforce sustainability.
  • A systems view is essential for promoting resource and energy efficiencies, healthy local economies and equitable and fulfilled societies over the long term.
  • To achieve this, requires a paradigm shift in mental maps of our development planners and implementers, which needs Systems Thinking Skills Systems Modelling Ability.

The new paradigm thinking that is based on Systems Thinking for Sustainable Development compels users to seek direct-indirect, spatial, temporal, sectoral and hierarchical linkages in policy strategies and solutions.  It widens perspectives and induces decision makers to look critically at the indicators of development beyond the traditional economic and growth measures of GDP.  These are the areas that the Development Alternatives Group seeks to explore and implement.


This article was originally published by Alternative Perspectives on August 17, 2017. The original article can be found here.

Follow Dr. Ashok Khosla and Development Alternatives on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. Development Alternatives also has a YouTube Channel.


The MAHB Blog is a venture of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org

MAHB Blog: https://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/managing-natural-resources/

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The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.
  • Arnold Byron

    Dr. Khosla focuses on sustainability. He speaks of sustainability in terms of efficiency and sufficiency. He is right on the mark when he implores the people of the world and the governments of the world to commit to these elements: efficiency to make Earth’s resources last as long as possible and sufficiency to recognize when Earth is unable to continue providing the resources needed to sustain humanity.

    We want to define overpopulation as the point where the population can no longer be sustained by Earth’s resources. Substantiating this definition is not an easy task. The world is very large. People living at one place in the world have different cultures than those living elsewhere. There are more resources in one place than in another. The resources are different here than there. Nothing is very equal, but, nevertheless, we have to decide on whether sustainability exists and when the planet has or has not become overpopulated.

    Humanity has grown from a small number of humans to over seven billion. At the beginning humanity had a planet rife with resources and has been using these up as the population has increased. Will there come a time when Earth will no longer be able to sustain the population? Who will decide when that time has come? Were there already too many people on Earth, millennia ago, when humanity started to use fossil fuel for energy? Did overpopulation drive the reason why we elected to use gasoline as the energy source when the automobile was invented? What about the need for more factories and more electricity? Did those needs have anything to do with overpopulation? Was humanity overpopulated at the time of the green revolution, when there wasn’t enough food in some parts of the world?

    I wish Dr. Khosla would have addressed overpopulation more directly in his essay. There are so many questions. My personal belief is that the world has been overpopulated for a very long time; much longer than we all want to admit; and that the population needs to be reduced. Humanity needs to learn how to practice population control in a nonviolent, non-eugenic, safe and humane way. It can be done. The challenge is that everybody in the world will have to agree and be compliant.

    The formula to control the population in a nonviolent, non-eugenic, safe and humane way is as follows: 1. to reduce – one child is raised to adulthood by two people, then those people have done their duty; 2. to maintain – two children are raised to adulthood by two people, then those people have done their duty; 3. after having one or two children as required the male will subject himself to a vasectomy; 4. after giving birth to one or two children as required the female will make an official promise to not get pregnant again and if she does that she will carry the pregnancy to term and give the child up for adoption to two people who do not have the required number of children; 5. Many people living as couples will not have children of their own; 6. today adoptions are secretive – tomorrow adoptive parents will be extended family.

    New laws will have to be promulgated for a new society. The problems of population and family planning will become medical and legal in their orientation. Humanity is experienced at dealing with things medical and legal. Humanity has done so since the beginning.

    Who will decide when the world is overpopulated and when it is not? Nobody wants to talk about this part of the picture. Dr. Khosla didn’t even mention it in his essay. My choice for this job is a committee that has been duly elected. I have written a book. It is entitled Of Population and Pollution. Chapter 12 of my book lays out my thinking of how this can be done.

    To read Chapter 12, go to: https://mahb.stanford.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/ByronA_Chapter12ForDistribution_10Aug2017.pdf.

  • Stefan Thiesen

    Although I completely agree with the basic tenor of this article I must say that it presents absolutely nothing new. I also disagree that all the unintended consequences were and are as counter-intuitive as the author suggests. It is not at all counter-intuitive that biocides accumulate in the environment and cause damage to organisms, ecosystems and man – in short: it is rather unsurprising that poison is poisonous. It is equally unsurprising that resources are diminished by being extracted and utilized – that they are used up by being used. All examples the author mentions are unintended consequences that, on the contrary, are very intuitive. They could have been – and in fact were – foreseen, but it was humans who decided to ignore the evidence in the name of the three Ps PROFIT, PROGRESS and POWER. As it happens the decision makers as well as the profiteers are rather unaffected by the consequences of their decisions. Nothing short of global systemic collapse can reach their version of the echo chamber, their bubble of wealth, luxury and mutual self affirmation. Meanwhiles the warnings against overuse of resources, against the dangers of a free wheeling materalistic world view, are resounding throughout the millenia. There are ample examples, including the core of all major religions that call for humility and modesty. For our time – need I point out works such as Silent Spring, Ancient Futures, Limits to Growth? In his acclaimed book “Risikogesellschaft” (Risk Society) the Sociologist Ulrich Beck wrote in the 1980s that for example concentration limits – alleged safety thresholds – for damaging substances are nothing but a mutually acceptable level of poisoning. An acceptable level of risk that is. The concept is difficult to sell to those whom the dices of chance assign an early painful death from cancer. The point I want to make is that the risks we talk about – and the consequences these risks lead to – are neither counterintuitive nor unknown. They may be unintended, but by and large they are, quite simply, accepted, usually also because the negative effects and related costs are, as we all know, externalized.

    In this context I often point out that the European Environment Agency has published comprehensive reports on the issue under the title “Late Lessons from Early Warnings”. These reports show clear examples for my claim that the facts very often have been on the table, and clearly so, but the were willfully ignored. The reports are available for free on the web in many formats: https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/late-lessons-2

    A book that I would like to recommend is “The Good Society Without Growth” by Prof. Reinhard Loske (former German MP of the Green Party, Scientist with the Wupeprtal Institute and now Professor for Transformation Studies with the University Witten Herdecke in Germany). It is a short but very much to the point summary of the issue and sees the incentives defined by the religion of economic growth as the main culprit. He does not, however, resort to complaints but instead presents clear and tangible strategies towards an environmentally and economically sustainable and socially just world. It is not impossible. The facts have long been on the table – also regarding the deep flaws of the mechanistic ideologically driven neoclassical school of economics.

    An ebook version of Loske’s book is available through Amazon.com: https://www.amazon.com/Good-Society-without-Growth-Enough-ebook/dp/B018EF3OH8/mindquest

    A printed version seemingly is only available through their German branch: https://www.amazon.de/gp/offer-listing/394136538X/mindquest