How did it all get so scary that it became painful even to write about it? How did it all go so wrong?
We're confronted by a bucketful of challenges today, some existential, the rest mere crises. But it seems we're surrounded by them. We've got the big one, global warming, the civilization ender. And then we've got all the associated environmental scourges - deforestation, desertification, species extinction and migration, pest and disease migration, the fisheries collapse, the freshwater crisis (the second biggie) and the food crisis, air/soil/water contamination, and that other biggie, overpopulation. Then we've got the non-environmental crises - the debt crisis, terrorism and other global security threats, nuclear proliferation and various regional arms races and the realignment of major powers and their spheres of influence.
I'm old enough, just barely, to remember the Cuban missile crisis. Where I was brought up, we looked across the river at Detroit. We all knew that the Soviets had Detroit in their nuclear crosshairs. We got air raid siren drills every Saturday at noon. We watched the Nike Hercules missiles pop out of the ground on their gantries, one by one, glistening white in the midday sun. So, when the Cuban missile showdown came, even kids like me were under no illusions what it would mean if the crisis got out of control.
I also remember that, while we thought we were at serious risk of annihilation, we had confidence that John Kennedy would find a way to keep that from happening. We had apprehension but we didn't live in utter terror. And we knew that when we got through this one, things would get better - and so they did.
Ah the good old days when all you had to fear was nuclear Armageddon. What I wouldn't give to feel that secure again. The thing is today I sure don't. I feel we're in far worse trouble than anything we faced in the 50's and 60's. And I feel we've arrived at this point when we're all saddled with huge leadership deficits. Obama has proven as useless as tits on a boar hog. We've got Harper and he's completely out of his depth on any of this stuff. The Euros don't seem to be doing much better and a deep rift is developing between the frugal northern states and their wastrel southern cousins. Can't imagine how that's going to turn out.
China and India are arriving at the party only to find we've wolverined the cabin. We gorged ourselves on everything we could possibly eat and then pissed on the rest. It's hard to blame them for being a bit angry. If we think we've got problems what lies in store for China and India is far worse.
Today there doesn't seem to be even one country with a leader capable of dealing with this cornucopia of challenges, all needing answers. Not one grasps that the solutions to these problems are inter-related. There are common threads that run through them all and it is in these that any solutions to be had will be found. These threads are all tied to one core reality - that we're trying to live beyond the limits of a very finite biosphere. Solving these troubles is going to require answers first and foremost configured to address that reality.
We're going to pay a horrible price if we don't see three forces at play in our crises - overpopulation, over-consumption and over-contamination. There are too many of us, we eat too much and we don't clean up after ourselves. Each of those prevents us from living in balance with our one and only source of life, our biosphere. It's the only one we've got. There aren't any others. If we can't live in balance with it, the biosphere will become uninhabitable and it's nearing the brink of that right now.
These are the realities we have to accept if we're to have any hope of getting out of this mess more or less intact. These realities have to be accepted as the guiding considerations on which solutions are to be devised. All things that cannot be made to conform to these guiding considerations prevent us from finding balance within our biosphere and must, therefore, be abandoned and replaced. We must do this because we have no other choice to save our civilization.
What that means, in part, is an end to the 18th century economics, 19th century industrialism and 20th century geopolitics that steered us straight into our perilous predicament. Those were all shaped in times of much different circumstances when mankind hadn't yet overpopulated the biosphere, when our consumption was still within our planet's means and when our contamination was not yet existential. It was a time when economic growth was the great elixir, a solution to our every social ill. Those days are gone and they're not coming back.
Although the wealthiest parts of the planet have not truly sensed it yet, we're running out of stuff. We have exceeded our biosphere's carrying capacity. The evidence of this is tangible. It is unquestionable in our collapsed global fisheries. It is visible from space in vast tracts of deforestation and desertification, the disappearance of polar ice and the retreat of glaciers on every continent.
The Global Footprint Network evaluates "nature's supply in the form of biocapacity, the amount of resources the planet generates, and compares that to human demand: the amount it takes to produce all the living resources we consume and absorb our carbon dioxide emissions." In 1976 mankind began exceeding our planet's biocapacity, falling into biocapacity deficit, eating our seedcorn. At the dawn of this century, World Overshoot Day fell in early October, leaving us with a three month overconsumption of natural resources. Last year that had advanced to August 21. This year it will be earlier still. It's a global conjuring act. We're fouling our atmosphere, emptying our oceans, felling our forests and overworking once productive farmland, turning it into useless desert in our furious efforts to satisfy unsustainable consumption - and every year it gets that much worse than the year before. Any guesses as to how this must end if we don't change course?
Overshoot itself demonstrates the fallacy of the self-regulating free market. Unregulated free market capitalism pays no heed to excess. It operates to maximize production and consumption and profits through constant growth. It ignores the vital distinction between needs and wants. It feeds off over-consumption, overpopulation and fuels over-contamination. Free market capitalism offends every guiding consideration we need to accept to get out of this predicament.
When growth becomes impossible, then traditional growth-based economics must yield to allocation-based policy where needs prevail over wants. People are willing to tolerate inequality and excess when growth is available to "lift all boats" but expect much more frugal and egalitarian outcomes when supply is allocation-based, that is to say rationed.
If we do not accept the principle of needs over wants we have no hope of regulating consumption back within our planet's renewable biological capacity. And if we reject that choice then someone, a great many someones will have to die. We either all eat small, measured portions from the same pie or the privileged get the pie and the remainder get none and die in any one of several resulting ways. It really is as simple as that. We have used clever conjuring acts, like the Green Revolution, to create the illusion of sufficiency but, in the process, used unsustainable quantities of groundwater for irrigation and ruinous amounts of fertilizer that exhaust the soil. Today in India, for example, the soil has become so degraded that crops now require twice as much fertilizer as was needed two decades ago. Pretending that the next grand solution is just around the corner is nihilistic denial.
We in the West, the earth's unrivaled consumers, will have to sacrifice most. In part that would mean living within our means as defined by our national borders. The GFN calculations show the United States currently consuming double its natural biocapacity. By eliminating needless waste and rolling back excess, the American people could still live sustainably in a genuinely comfortable standard of living.
While we in the West indulge in the sin of gluttony, much of the emerging nations and the Third World need to atone for their destructive overpopulation. Asia, south and east, comprise nearly half the world's population and their numbers are burgeoning with Africa now in pursuit. We're already at 7-billion in 2011 and that number is predicted to reach 9 to 10-billion by mid-century and possibly up to 15-billion by 2100. Those are civilization-destroying figures. In a finite world, numbers matter and numerical inequality through profligate procreation is as cardinal a sin as the gluttony of the West. These nations likewise need to live within the natural biocapacity of their national borders. Their biocapacity must set the limit of their population, consumption and waste.
For assets that do not fall within our national boundaries, essential assets such as the atmosphere and the oceans we have to treat them as "commons." No one owns them and, hence, everyone has an equal right to them. The atmosphere's remaining CO2 carrying capacity has to be apportioned out on a per capita basis. We in the industrialized West have no more right to the atmosphere than any other region, nation or individual. The same holds true for our oceans. We in the West have no natural right to claim the lion's share of our planet's fisheries. Unless we accept the principle of equality, these essential assets will be utterly ruined.
Does this mean that capitalism is dead? No, of course not. It means, however, that capitalism's more predatory instincts will have to be curbed and it will have to be brought into support of our guiding considerations. That may sound radical but there's nothing truly radical in necessity.
Can we do this? Yes, of course. We can because we must. Plan B is too horrible to comprehend. Will we do it? Not until we recognize the absolutely essential need for it, accept the guiding considerations and use them to shape our future, and then persuade, cajole and coerce our species to implement a new order, one that answers to needs, not wants. We have a great deal to do and a very limited amount of time in which to do it.