An end to our means

BarebonesChildren dig pits for water on Kerala’s Bharatapuzha riverbed.K.K. MustafahK.K. Mustafah

BarebonesChildren dig pits for water on Kerala’s Bharatapuzha riverbed.K.K. MustafahK.K. Mustafah  

Humanity never fails to pride itself on its smartness and accomplishments. Smug in our sense of superiority, we have in recent times indulged in an orgy of consumption in the name of bringing prosperity and well being to all. Along the way, we have given little thought to the fact that resources of our plant are finite and need to be replenished if we are to sustain our pursuit of a good life.

Scientists and environmentalists have been, for many years, warning us that this mindless chase cannot continue and we’ll have to, sooner or later, face a time of reckoning. That day has been creeping up on us, particularly since the 1970s, when nations across the world began an extraordinary march towards economic growth that in many ways transformed our lives.

Unaccountable debt

Humanity has been piling on ecological debt by consuming more than nature’s capacity to regenerate every year since 1970, when rising populations and increasing demand for goods and services shoved consumption beyond what was sustainable. How do we account for this? In 2006, driven by notions of ecological debt by British economist Andrew Simms, an initiative was started by the Global Footprint Network to measure the ecological deficit on an annual basis.

By then, the world was already consuming its annual quota of natural resources by September. This horrid rate of consumption became starker when the network found that in 1970, we were consuming at a rate that the planet was barely able to replenish. We have busted our annual planetary budget every year since then. The Earth Overshoot Day — the point at which our plant is unable to regenerate any further in a year — has been accelerating steadily, from October 15 thirty years ago to September 30 two decades back to August 15 in 2008. A few days ago, the network declared that the overshoot day arrives on August 1 this year. If we were to freeze consumption at current levels, which essentially means that we halt economic growth completely, we would still need the resources of 1.7 earths to meet our demands. Unfortunately, all we have is just this one planet.

This ecological overspending results in irretrievable loss in biodiversity, rampant deforestation, scarcity of fresh water, massive soil erosion that crimps our ability to grow food, collapse of fisheries, and the disastrous accumulation of carbon dioxide in the plant’s atmosphere that leads to a vicious cycle more severe droughts, cyclones and wildfires raging across the plant.

How did we get here? Mathis Wackernagel, co-founder of the Global Footprint Network, says the world’s economies are running a Ponzi scheme with the earth’s future as stake. Like any Ponzi scheme, he says, it works for a while, but eventually, as we dig ourselves deeper into ecological debt, the entire structure we have built will eventually fall apart.

Cause for concern

Before Wackernagel is denounced as an alarmist, we should hear what many others are saying. In 2012, the economist-philosopher duo Robert and Edward Skidelsky called for a moral approach to economics in their book How Much is Enough? In the book, subtitled ‘Money and the Good Life’, they showed how much we have deviated in the past half century from our long-held concepts of a worthy life that encompasses health, security, respect, personality, harmony with nature, friendship, and leisure.

They argued that in order to lead a saner life in a more stable world, the economic thinking that drives much of our reckless consumption needs to make a moral distinction between wants and needs. There is more to life than gross domestic product and the growth that has become the unquestioned god of economic policy. In such a scenario, is it possible to make a difference at the individual and household levels? The experts behind the Footprint Network do not dismiss it entirely but hold strongly that government policies would be far more effective in countering the rot. For instance, if every other individual decides to become vegetarian — because meat production is ecologically destructive, we would push back the overshoot day by a mere five days.

In contrast, cutting carbon emissions by half, which only government and private industry can achieve, would give humanity elbowroom of nearly three months every year.

Since more and more people are gravitating towards cities, how well we manage them would also tell on our ecological footprint. Besides cities, energy food and population are the three key components that could yield planetary dividends if we get the balance right.

There’s one clear picture that emerges from this worldview of restrained consumption. We need to stop savaging the bounty that planet bestows so freely, and we need to do it now.

Humanity piled on ecological debt by consuming more than nature’s capacity to regenerate

Recommended for you