Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Our Unshakable Habits.

A report in The Guardian yesterday reminds us that the world enters overshoot this year on August 1.  As the article points out that means that next year we'll be in overshoot in July.

The head of the Global Footprint Network explains "overshoot."
 “Our current economies are running a Ponzi scheme with our planet,” he said. “We are borrowing the Earth’s future resources to operate our economies in the present. Like any Ponzi scheme, this works for some time. But as nations, companies, or households dig themselves deeper and deeper into debt, they eventually fall apart.”
I have been following the Global Footprint Network and their overshoot reports for a good many years. I have written a load of posts/essays on the subject over those years. It took me several years to see the writing on the wall - that we are confronted with a matrix of existential threats that can all be traced back to one problem, mankind's inability to live in harmony with our biosphere. The impacts fall within three categories - climate change, over-consumption and overpopulation. It was true in August, 2011 when I wrote the following post and it's even truer now. 

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.

...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.


Toby said...

While the West is surely guilty of over-consumption and over-contamination, it has managed to somehow stabilize its population. This is most likely the result of empowering women. Overpopulation, on the other hand, is more of a Third World problem particularly where men dominate and priests promote large families. Is there a bargaining chip here? (We'll control our over-consumption and over-contamination if you control your birth rate.) I doubt it.

I have never understood why those who can't afford to feed their children have so many. Can't they count? Does poverty lead to large families or do large families lead to poverty? Probably a bit of both plus other factors such as lack of education.

The world's population has tripled during my lifetime and, if my doctor is correct, could be be a factor of 4 by the time I die. There's definitely something wrong with that picture.

The Mound of Sound said...

I did a couple of classes in Latin American studies with a Jesuit professor who had spent some 20 years there. He talked about poor families having more children than they could possibly afford to support.

He cited an intricate matrix of causes for this problem. A big one was custom. It was their custom to have large families. This was tied into "machismo." More children is taken to indicate you're a virile, man's man. Children, at least those who survive, are also considered the parents' security for their retirement.

Finally he explained that both the state and the Church supported these huge families. There's no better way to keep a peasant a peasant than to keep him impoverished and the Church, of course, saw it as a fulfillment of Christian duty.

This Jesuit priest, by the way, was expelled from South America for publicly campaigning for the use of birth control. He told us that one time he was beaten up while trying to distribute condoms on a city bus. Ultimately the authorities and the Church moved to have him kicked out and spread the word so that he wouldn't be welcome elsewhere.

Toby said...

Yes, I had similar courses, also taught by Jesuits. The problem I always had/have is with simple arithmetic. You have often discussed on a world wide scale the limits of renewable resources. The same caps exist at the family level. If a man has just enough land to provide for a wife and two children, every additional child means that the food will be divided into smaller and smaller portions. He has to get an additional supply of food, either from more land or alternate sources or he has to practice birth control.

The Mound of Sound said...

You're right, Toby. It's a lethal problem that will probably get far deadlier in the coming decades.