Sunday, November 10, 2013

Here's One Way of Looking At It

Each year mankind consumes our planet's renewable resources at a quickening pace.  The earth only provides so much fresh water and so much biomass each year.   To maintain the ever increasing demands of the global civilization, however, we've had to go into overdraft.

This year we exhausted a full year's supply of renewables on August 20th.   That meant four months of our consumption had to be accommodated by tapping into earth's reserves.   For example, not enough precipitation and surface water?  Drain the aquifers.  Our wanton, excess consumption manifests in such things as deforestation, the collapse of global fisheries, and desertification - the exhaustion of once arable farmland and its transformation into barren desert. 

Actual numbers vary, country to country.   Canada is one of just a handful of nations not yet into ecological overdraft.   But what of the others and how are we to make sense of this overconsumption.
Here's a graphic that depicts certain countries by how many more times their consumption exceeds their nation's production of renewables.

China consumes two and a half times more natural resources than the country produces.   That means it has to take resources from somewhere else.  And, given that the countries with biosurplus can actually be counted on one hand,  that means China is buying up resources in countries already in deficit.  Japan uses a staggering seven times more resources than the country furnishes.

Now, just how long do you think this can go on?   Well here's one way to answer that.   About six years ago, World Overshoot Day fell in October.   This year it was August 20th.  Just a handful of years ago, we were dependent on the planet's reserves to cover two months of overconsumption.  Now we're dependent on those steadily diminishing reserves to cover four months of overconsumption.

It's magical thinking to assume this can go on all that much longer especially as our overconsumption is compounded by rapidly increasing overpopulation, increasing per capita consumption and the impacts of climate change.

There's a lot we can do to ameliorate this looming crisis, to enable at least a somewhat soft landing for many (but not all) but that has to begin with an adult conversation.  Yet we can't even have an adult conversation about climate change and the urgent need to decarbonize our civilization.  That is a critical failure that leaves us incapable of doing anything except to sit around and wait to be overtaken by inevitable events.


Purple library guy said...

You know, there's a lot of demonization of Malthus. On the right they hate him because they want to say resources are INFINITE when you add the fairy dust of market-driven human ingenuity, and so there's no need for restraint of any kind, ever.
On the left those who think about him much tend to hate him because he was a right winger and his ideas were to a fair extent meant to imply that you had to control the teeming masses for their own good. Also because the idea of population control nowadays implies, or is taken to imply, that the main adjustment there would fall on third world countries with big growing populations, rather than first world countries with massive consumption per capita, and this is unfair given whose mess it mostly is.

And of course there was no such thing as birth control in Malthus' day. Nonetheless, despite all this, his basic insight remains and you can see it in all over the place in nature: When things outbreed the nutrient supply, they die back big time. Happens in petri dishes every day.

We need to use resources less wastefully. This is partly but not mostly at the level of consumerism; much of it is at the industrial level, whether manufacturing or industrial agribusiness. And there are lots of other structural issues, urban design etc.
But the same people who think using resources less wastefully (and going renewable for energy) will be sufficient would be the first to point out that "intensity targets" in places like the tar sands do not ultimately help; they get overwhelmed by increases in production. Reducing the intensity and increasing the efficiency of resource use per person will not be enough if there's 8 billion people. That side is necessary but not sufficient.

We either reduce the population via birth control and public policies (not necessarily coercive public policies; educating women drops third world birth rates considerably all by itself, for instance) or the population will be reduced by war, famine, pestilence and death.

The Mound of Sound said...

I agree, PLG, but why can't we have that adult conversation? Some research suggests mankind began exceeding the planet's resource carrying-capacity when we hit around 3.5-billion. That does take into account waste, spoilage, etc. That said, we've blown straight through 7-billion headed toward 9 or more and we're stuck in the growth model as global economic orthodoxy.

Many years ago Lovelock said there's no longer any such thing as sustainable growth. From here on in it must be sustainable retreat. As societies and as individuals, we have to grow smaller.

The neo-classical notion of substitutional resources is a cheap parlour trick that falls flat once you have arrived at the inevitable natural limits.

I'm beginning to think that we are indeed all Easter Islanders now.