Friday, August 05, 2016

Think of It As a Tipping Point

Here's something to think about during a quiet moment this weekend. Monday, August 8, is Earth Overshoot Day for 2016.

In case you're not familiar with the term, Earth Overshoot Day, it's not some sort of holiday. There'll be no celebration. It's an observance, nothing more. What it is is the date on which it's calculated mankind has consumed a full year's worth of Earth's renewable resources.

This year, we'll be in "overshoot" from August 9th until December 31st. During that nearly five month period we will be dipping into our planet's resource reserves. We'll be "eating our seed corn."

Overshoot manifests in two main ways - the drawdown of the planet's reserves and the increased accumulation of waste and pollution. This is the easiest form to observe. As we exhaust farmland through intensive agriculture or over-grazin  it can result in desertification, a big problem in China and a few other countries. Our over exploitation of forests results in deforestation. Desertification and deforestation are often visible to the naked eye from the International Space Station.

Another critical form of over-exploitation is the draining of our groundwater resources, our aquifers. This is recorded by NASA's Grace satellite system, a pair of satellites that, together, provide accurate data on surface subsidence. California's San Joaquin valley provides what is perhaps the most dramatic example. This first picture shows land subsidence from 1925 to 1977,

This next photograph shows the subsidence from 1988 to 2013. That's Overshoot.

Another way to visualize Overshoot is to imagine you're taking home a net salary of $700 a month but you're spending $1200, using your dwindling savings account to cover the $500 monthly shortfall.

The other variety of Overshoot is waste and pollution. Since the dawn of man, Mother Nature has been emptying our collective bedpan. Natural systems have a capacity to absorb and cleanse our leavings. However it's a finite capacity and when we exceed it, the pipes back up. That's what is happening today. Around the world we're contaminating our dwindling freshwater resources. This is a huge problem in China but it's also evident in the algae blooms in North American lakes and coastlines and in the oceanic dead zones. We're literally killing the water. Our excessive consumption of fossil fuels is also overburdening the atmosphere with CO2 and other greenhouse gases. No point here following the chain of knock-on effects. Not before the weekend.

Overall, what does Overshoot look like? Here's a handy graph:

Notice how the Overshoot curve climbs, then levels out and then plunges as the Carrying Capacity begins to collapse. Is our Carrying Capacity degrading and, if so, by how much? Here's a way to figure that out.

When I first became aware of the Global Footprint Network about 9 or 10 years ago, Overshoot Day fell in October.  By 2014 it had moved up to August 19th. In 2015 it fell on August 13th. This year it's August 8th. Here's another way to visualize it. To meet mankind's demands for Earth's resources we would need 1.7 planet Earths. Not long ago we were at a factor of 1.5. That's grown to 1.7. Now unless you can find another planet Earth that we can relentlessly pillage we've got a problem.

It all comes down to our very finite biosphere, Spaceship Earth, our one and only habitat. It is in that context that we have to consider the three existential threats man poses - climate change, overpopulation, over-consumption. Common threads run through them all. They're all tied together and, because of the powerful bonds among them, you have almost no chance of solving any of them without solving them all.

If we're looking for solutions the easiest way to find them is to imagine that we are indeed aboard a spaceship hurtling through space at 67,000 miles an hour. It's a giant container, like the hull of a submarine only bigger. You can only fit so many people in it and that number depends on how much stuff each person needs - or gets. You've also got a limited number of toilets and they can only handle so many bums.

So now you've taken inventory and roll call and you discover - damn! we're in Overshoot. Okay, so what are you going to do about it? Do you think adding more people will help? Maybe if they only consumed a bit more, year by year. Perhaps we should sweep all the excess waste under the cots - out of sight/out of mind.

The best answer is to work out our planet's actual carrying capacity and translate that into how many humans our resources can actually sustain.  That will depend in part on acting like responsible human beings instead of 21st century mega-consumers who accept a disposable world in which major appliances wear out in 7 years.

Everything - production, consumption, the population itself must be adjusted to become a subset of the environment. That, however, is a discussion for another day.


Lorne said...

What you have posted here is very sobering, Mound, and an indictment not only of our self-indulgent, wasteful and willful ways, but also of the MSM who, I think, are largely uninterested in bringing this sort of attention to light. In our short-sighted world, too much depends on us forging ahead with no course corrections lest we upset that hallowed passion for continuous growth. When that growth stops, it will have nothing to do with choices we have made, but rather what the Earth will have forced upon us.

Owen Gray said...

We need so much less than what we consume, Mound. Other peoples -- we think of them as "poor" -- have understood this much better than us.

The Mound of Sound said...

Lorne, I too am astonished that our MSM avoids any mention of this. I suppose it stands as an indictment of our consumer society, market fundamentalism and neoliberalism which demand perpetual growth and obsolescence. There must be some fear of letting the genie out of the bottle.

It's almost impossible to imagine how a properly informed populace would respond to this. We have already tested our capacity for denialism and don't we do that well? What awaits us in a post-consumer society? Two immediate problems the transition would necessitate would be some form of rationing coupled with more equitable distribution. These are matters we angrily denounce as theft by socialism. There are not many willing to delve more deeply than that. We might actually choose collapse as our default option.

The Mound of Sound said...

Owen, a critical part of the "steady state" economic theory deals with growth. It sees replacing growth in production and consumption with growth in quality and enjoyment of life. Growth is focused on knowledge. Production is geared to quality, durability and upgradeability and resources are allocated accordingly. If you're producing the sort of junk we receive today you simply won't get resources. I'm greatly oversimplifying the theory and I'm probably not stating it as well as it deserves.

Galbraith, in "The Predator State," has some interesting thoughts on wealth in the post consumer society.