The ‘Great Acceleration’ graphs, originally published in 2004 to show socio-economic and Earth System trends from 1750 to 2000, have now been updated to 2010. [Figure 2 is shown below.] In the graphs of socio-economic trends, where the data permit, the activity of the wealthy (OECD) countries, those countries with emerging economies, and the rest of the world have now been differentiated. The dominant feature of the socio-economic trends is that the economic activity of the human enterprise continues to grow at a rapid rate. However, the differentiatedgraphs clearly show that strong equity issues are masked by considering global aggregates only. Most of the population growth since 1950 has been in the non-OECD world but the world’s economy (GDP), and hence consumption, is still strongly dominated by the OECD world.
As I have discussed recently, however, there are signs that we could avoid catastrophe if we have the collective will to do so.
There are several glimmers of hope that the growth/collapse pattern may be avoided. As noted in the section ‘Extending the Great Acceleration to 2010’, exponential population growth is over and global population seems more likely to stabilise this century. Regulation of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) through the Montreal Protocol has resulted in early signs of recovery of Antarctic stratospheric ozone (Figure 1). Policies in OECD countries to regulate excessive use of fertilizers have stabilised their consumption in these nations. The amount of domesticated land is increasing more slowly as agricultural intensification takes over (albeit with pollution problems from excessive use of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers in some agricultural zones (Steffen and Stafford Smith, 2013)). The rapid rise of mobile telecommunication devices in the developing world is an excellent example of leapfrogging. If such leapfrogging could be extended to energy systems, the developing world may lead the way in decoupling development from environmental impacts. On the other hand, greenhouse gases are still rising rapidly, threatening the stability of the climate system, and tropical forest and woodland loss remains high. The pursuit of growth in the global economy continues, but responsibility for its impacts on the Earth System has not been taken. Planetary stewardship has yet to emerge. Will the next 50 years bring the Great Decoupling or the Great Collapse? The latest 10 years of the Great Acceleration graphs show signs of both but cannot distinguish between these scenarios, or other possibilities. But 100 years on from the advent of the Great Acceleration, in 2050, we’ll almost certainly know the answer.