Saturday, June 30, 2018

Planetary Overshoot

                                                                                                written 25 June 2018
                                                                                                published 30 June 2018

             It is insane to believe that unlimited growth is possible on a finite planet.  Humans are now so numerous and consumptive, that we consume the annual production of the planet every 8 months.  We need 1.5 planets to keep going as we are, which is planetary overshoot.   
            It may be difficult to understand how we can exceed planetary capacity.  When financial capital is invested well, it generates interest as an annual return.  Spending only the interest is sustainable because the capital remains intact, to generate more interest the next year.  In the short term, it is possible to consume more than your annual interest income by spending some of your capital.  This leads to a smaller interest income the next year, requiring even more capital consumption to stay even.  This unsustainable consumption pattern eventually exhausts your entire capital, leaving you bankrupt.         Living systems have similar sustainability limits.  If a herd of 100 beef cows gives birth to 100 calves every year, it is sustainable to slaughter 100 cows a year.  It is possible to slaughter more cows per year, but the breeding herd starts to diminish, producing fewer calves every year, and eventually there are no more cows.  The productive capacity of the herd has been exceeded and system collapse is the result.
            When trees are harvested faster than the rate of growth, timberland productivity declines.  When fish are caught faster than they grow, the fisheries decline.  If the topsoil lost during cultivation is greater than the amount of topsoil produced each year, the soil becomes sterile and unproductive.  Our ever-growing economy of consumption extracts value faster than nature can replenish.  The planet is bountiful, but eventually the system will collapse.
            Our culture tells us that the price of things includes all the costs, so if we can afford it, we think the planet can afford it.  This is capitalist fiction.  The destruction of natural resources happens out of sight, and the warning signs go unheeded.  The huge oceanic gyres of plastic trash occur far from land.  Coral dies unnoticed underwater.  The people who actually fish know the fishing industry is declining, while the rest of us just notice when prices go up, or some varieties fall off the menu.  Nobody notices the water table dropping until the well suddenly runs dry.
            This is just the human impact.  When ecosystems are destroyed, all species that depend on that system die.  In 2000, it was estimated that human cropland and pasture occupy 1/3 of ice-free land area on Earth.  If we add logging and forest management, the least productive half of land is left for other species.
            And even that tragedy is an incomplete picture, for human consumption is not distributed equally.  If all 7.5 billion humans consumed like Americans, it would take the productivity of five planets to support us all.  Long before this happens, some part of the system will surely collapse.  If we can agree that everyone, including other species, have a right to life on this planet, we need to make some changes.
            Annie Leonard's "Story Of Stuff Project" has been examining the details of our economy for decades.  99% of all natural resources extracted ends up as garbage in 6 months.  This means that our consumptive economy is only 1% efficient!  That is like setting the house on fire to cook dinner.  We can do better than that.
            In order to give basic material comfort to every human, and leave half the planet viable for other species, we need to reduce consumption and increase our efficiency of production.  We are learning that stuff doesn't make us happy.  The growth in storage lockers is proof that we have more than we need, and it costs to keep that extra stuff.  If we cut consumption by a half, and increase efficiency of production to 5%, everyone could thrive.  
            A friend said that he is reluctant to give up some of what he has.  I asked if he would rather give up some stuff voluntarily, or have it all lost to system collapse, as that seems to be our choice.  Nature knows how to deal with ecological overshoot.  Unsustainable consumption is, well, unsustainable.