An important question about sustainability, Part II


In my last post, I shared the following diagram and asked the question, “Where do you believe humans are with respect to the carrying capacity of the planet Earth?”  In other words, how many of us do you think our planet can support indefinitely?  If you haven’t read that post, please do so before continuing as I think it is an important question to reflect on.


In the hundreds of times I’ve asked this question, I’ve heard responses that span the gamut from “We have plenty of room to grow; it’s just a problem of redistribution” to “We\’re crashing and burning!”  One student even replied he “didn’t believe in lines.”  Okaaay….

The range of responses to this question is in itself fascinating.  I mean, when you get down to it, isn’t this something we should know?  Isn’t this kind of basic information?  Where are we in terms of the carrying capacity of the planet?

As a side note, while people are all over the map in terms of where they think we are, I have yet to find a single person (except perhaps that guy who doesn’t believe in lines) who thinks we are moving from right to left on this diagram (i.e. things are getting better). Of the thousands of people I’ve asked, everyone agrees that if we continue on the trajectory we are heading, we will eventually top out and crash. That’s an amazing consensus!  The question then is not whether we need to change, but rather how we need to change and when.

But back to the original question….  When people ask me to show them one image that expresses the magnitude of our global crisis, I often show the following graph from the Living Planet Report:


This graph displays our global ecological footprint, which is the amount of bio-productive land and water humanity has appropriated to support our collective lifestyles.  This is shown from 1961 to 2007 in relation to world biocapacity, which they represent as 1.0 Earths (go figure :-)).

In 1961, humanity was using a little over 60% of world biocapacity, but recognize this was not very long ago – a mere blink in planetary time.  For most of our evolutionary history we were likely using less than 1%.  From 1961, our footprint continued to rise and best estimates are that we reached global carrying capacity sometime in the late ‘70s.  But, of course, we didn’t stop there.  We kept on growing and consuming and today we are using the resources of about 1.5 planets.

1.5 planets?!  How is that even possible given we have only 1.0 planets?  I\’ll give you a hint.  It’s not because of social inequities and it is not because of improving technology, although both are contributing factors.  Remember, this is the whole population and the whole planet, we’re talking about.

The reason we are able to live so far beyond our means is because we have been digging into the planet’s natural capital, primarily fossil fuels.

Imagine every time you go to the store, in addition to your weekly groceries, you also buy a can of soup that you store away.  In several years, you have a well-stocked cupboard.  When the first modern oil wells were drilled one hundred fifty years ago, that\’s the situation we were in.  The problem is, we’ve been eating into our reserves ever since and the cupboard is running dry.  We\’re rummaging around, trying to find the few remaining soup cans hidden behind the cereal.

Fossil fuels were created millions of years ago from the anaerobic decomposition of buried organic matter.  This is why they are called fossil fuels.  They really represent land that once existed, but is now in a different form.  Recognizing this fact, some have begun referring to these resources as “ghost acreage.”  Think about that the next time you fill up your gas tank.

So, the evidence is strong that we are now in overshoot.  It’s hard to tell how close we are to the top of the roller coaster, but we haven\’t topped out yet as our global consumption and population continue to rise.

But let’s reflect again on that moment, sometime in the late ‘70s, when we crossed this threshold.  It didn’t shake us out of bed, and it is difficult to even know exactly when it happened, but this was an amazing moment, not just in human history, but in planetary history.  Never before in the Earth’s 4.5 billion years has one species exceeded the entire planet\’s carrying capacity.  Not only have we done it, we’re living in this time!

I try to understand this as best I can.  I read and have seen movies about it.  I think about it and talk about it a lot.  Yet I still don’t feel I really get it.  Not viscerally; not in my bones.  And I wonder, I worry really, whether evolutionarily, we are equipped to understand a change of this magnitude.

We evolved to understand changes in our environment that are quick and local.  A lion chasing me?  I get that.  Issues like climate change and peak oil are slow and global and thus quite difficult to grasp fully.

Unfortunately, as a species, we have been slow on the uptake.  Look around and what do you see?  Businesses, by and large, are going on as usual.  Governments, at best, are thinking ahead to the next election, when they really need to be thinking seven generations ahead.  Even our educational systems, with some notable exceptions, are still stuck in the industrial age and we are still training leaders with the skills, the aptitudes, even the rationales and “stories” necessary to dig deeper and faster into the world\’s resources.

So, we need to pause; we need to slow down and consider how we can train leaders for the 21st century; for a post carrying-capacity world; for a post-oil world.  This is the very real situation we find ourselves in and is the core reason I founded Living Routes, which partners with the University of Massachusetts – Amherst to run college-level programs based in ecovillages around the world.  While not utopias, I believe these communities are the best campuses we have for sustainability education.  But more on that will have to wait for future blog entries.

Thank you for your attention and please share your thoughts and questions in the comments.