This article looks into The Great Acceleration. This is a set of graphs created by Steffen, et al in 2015. It is very much the case that the impact of the infographic is greater than the sum of the individual charts.

What they display is exponential growth, which we know is not possible on a finite planet.


I like the juxtaposition of the socio-economic trends alongside the earth system trends. This is the problem that sustainable development was created to solve. The graphs make it very clear that there are a lot of phenomena that are happening at the same time and many of these are linked.

I remember when I saw the graphs of The Great Acceleration for the first time, my immediate thoughts were of how important an ecological economics perspective is in this debate.

ecological economics

Particularly with regards to the earth system trends, I think that there needs to be a greater realisation that the economy and society exist within the environment. Without a viable environmental system, there will be no society or economy.

This should be used to inspire action by businesses, governments and individuals.

The charts for the socio-economic trends show all of the categories growing at a rapid rate.

For the earth system trends, the ones that stood out for me were the carbon dioxide graph, the methane graph and the tropical forest loss graph. Especially with regards to tropical deforestation, rates have been so high for so long, that we face passing on this ecosystem to the next generation in a very different state than we found it.

What is clear, is that particularly post 1950, these indicators have taken off like a rocket. Particularly when you look at the two datasets together, it is easier to see why many argue that we are living in a new geological age, one where humans are the dominant influence on climate and the environment.

If it is the case that we are living in the Anthropocene, then it makes the case for sustainable development based on the principles of ecological economics far stronger.

One positive takeaway would be that the data for atmospheric methane concentration and stratospheric ozone loss have been slowing or stabilising over the past decade. This shows that change is possible.

What you need to know

This article looked into The Great Acceleration. We looked at the graphs located within the 2015 paper by Steffen, et al.

The data clearly point to an exponential level of growth in the socio-economic indicators and a rising level in the earth system trends, which much change built into the system.

The graphs should work to sharpen the resolve of those who are interested in sustainable development.

Especially with regards to what framework should be used to evaluate progress on sustainable development, it is my belief that it makes the need for an ecological economics perspective greater.

Thank you for reading,

By Barnaby Nash

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below or reach out to me on social media. What do you think of The Great Acceleration?

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I can be reached on LinkedIn and on Twitter @FollowBarnaby

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